To be a person of color in America is to always be tangled between dueling worlds. What was different in 2017, more so than any other year in recent memory, was how those polarities were laid bare for everyone else to see.
It was the year American streets were crowded with both pussy hats and neo-Nazis. It was the year Confederate monuments were torn from their bases and irate NFL fans cursed at their TVs as black players kneeled en masse. Both “complicit” and “feminism” were designated “words of the year” (the first by Dictionary.com, the second by Merriam-Webster’s) in 2017.
It was a year that saw the careers of dozens of the world’s most powerful men crash and burn while a man accused of multiple instances of sexual abuse continued to tweet from the Oval Office. It was the year a Democrat won a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. It was the year an alleged pedophile was endorsed by the most powerful man in the free world.
Looking back on the year, no one work sums up the horrors and polarities of the year more than Get Out. It was undoubtedly the movie of 2017: a genre-bending film that managed to feel both timely and overdue. But what makes it not just the film of 2017, but emblematic of it, is best captured in audiences’ divergent reactions to it.
In a recent interview with Seth Meyers on his late-night show, Allison Williams, who plays the film’s surprise villain, Rose Armitage, describes the reaction she received from white people who had trouble believing that her character, a woman who preyed upon black people, was actually evil:
They’d say, “She was hypnotized, right?” And I’m like, “No! She’s just evil!” How hard is that to accept? She’s bad! We gave you so many ways to know that she’s bad! She has photos of people whose lives she ended behind her! The minute she can, she hangs them back up on the wall behind her. That’s so crazy! And they’re still like, “But maybe she’s also a victim?” And I’m like, “NO! No!” And I will say, that is one-hundred percent white people who say that to me.”
The anecdote has stuck with me for weeks. It stuck with me as I watched the New York Times’ election needle tremble back and forth during Alabama’s special election, in which an alleged pedophile, Roy Moore, was nearly sent to the U.S. Senate. It dug in when I saw a statistic that echoed to a similar one regarding Donald Trump voters from November of last year: Sixty-three percent of white women voted for Moore. And when pundits began their near-instant erasure of that fact, Williams’ anecdote, relayed with wide-eyed disbelief by the actress, rose up like detritus stirred up by a current.
The truly radical thing about Get Out, the horror it captures with precision and clarity, is less about the violence white people can and have exacted on black bodies. What’s truly terrifying about the film, about Rose’s character, is the assumption of white innocence—an innocence that is reflected in white audiences’ insistent belief that Rose is, deep down, good. Chris, the film’s main character, is just as guilty of this as the white audience that approaches Williams. It’s as if the delusion of innocence is itself a kind of hypnosis, even as the evidence of villainy is literally written on the wall (“She has photos of people whose lives she ended behind her”).
In 2017, I learned that the fulcrum of white supremacy isn’t violence, as I had always thought. It was virtue.
I understand that, to many, this isn’t a particularly new or bold revelation, but I had gotten used to thinking of white supremacy in terms of violence: of physical violence, but also emotional trauma, the plunder of one’s body as well as one’s mind and one’s wealth. It wasn’t until talking to Joe Feagin, a professor at Texas A&M University who is credited with coining the term “systemic racism,” that I was introduced to the concept of white virtue—and how it was the axis on which white supremacy turns.
In his theory of the “white racial frame”—a pro-white worldview that many white and nonwhite people aren’t consciously aware they’ve absorbed—whiteness is seen as inherently good.
“We whites are trained into seeing ourselves as virtuous. We have the most virtuous history. We have the most advanced civilization,” Feagin explained. “We speak the best-quality English. We have the best beauty images, especially for women. All of those things ... civilization, history, values, religion, virtues, work ethic.”
And, Feagin adds, it’s the hardest element of socialized racism for white people to dismantle.
It was hard for me, a biracial Filipina, to wrap my head around this at first. Aren’t all people, all tribes, convinced of their goodness? Doesn’t that need for self-preservation, to guard the image of yourself as virtuous, sit deep within everyone?
But the difference is one of scale and cost: This nation codified the value of whiteness into its earliest laws: laying out who exactly was and wasn’t white. Detailing and revising exactly what that whiteness earned you. Whiteness (along with maleness, along with money) was a virtue. And from those who did not meet its qualifications, this country extracted a steep price.
The evidence of this inclination to insist on white virtue is everywhere. There’s the obvious: the white supremacists and white nationalists who refuse to cede any political or cultural ground to people of color; the neo-Nazis and the Holocaust deniers. Fringe groups who assumed center stage in American discourse in 2017.
But it’s evident in smaller offenses. Rhetorically, it’s in the way Ryan Lochte, a 33-year-old Olympic swimmer, can be called a “boy” when he engages in criminal behavior. It’s evident in the way white people’s racist performances—the nigger jokes, the blackface—can be excused as “just jokes.” It’s the ease with which white people (and lots of nonblack people) can slip into caricatures of African Americans that paint them as lazy, incompetent or immoral. It’s evident in the quick and ready defenses some white people provide when faced with uncomfortable conversations about systemic racism: Yeah, but I had nothing to do with that. That was a long time ago. It’s not like I owned slaves. I wasn’t there.
This, despite the fact that we can’t count the number of black and brown lives this country has plundered and broken in the name of white virtue: to preserve white neighborhoods and white voting booths, to keep women and bloodlines “pure” and politics “clean.”
A comfortable delusion. A self-serving hypnosis. An insistence on innocence that delays a reckoning.
I’m not shocked that there are white audiences who see Rose and still insist on seeing a victim, on drawing some strand of virtue from a character who is clearly aware of what she is doing and delights in it. If we consider white virtue to be the fulcrum of white supremacy, nobody symbolizes this virtue more than white women.
In this way, you see Rose everywhere.
You see it when Betsy DeVos is looked at as an incompetent stooge rather than an active, knowledgeable participant in dismantling our public education system. You see it in the false feminism and performative innocence of Ivanka Trump, a woman credited with helping push the GOP’s tax bill—an enormous wealth transfer for the rich—through Congress. You see it in the silence of white Hollywood when their black peers are attacked or exploited (this pattern, of course, extends to other industries). In 2017, Rose was just as likely to wear a pussy hat as a “Make America Great Again” shirt.
The cruelty that extends the cut? Even as we’re surrounded by the evidence of Rose’s crimes (look no further than the White House), many are reluctant to reckon with the woman in the mirror. To part with their innocence. To break the hypnosis that continues to bind and betray us all.