Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Black Panther and Black Power

Sorry for the sparse posting. It's basketball season and I publish 2,000 words a week from November to March on D3hoops.com; if I had no other responsibilities in life, I could probably also bang out another 2,000 words here, but, sadly, that is not the case.

I do want to write this, though, because I think it's important. Black Panther is coming out this week and what the world needs most is another anonymous white guy's opinion of it. I'm excited to see this movie. I've been excited to see this movie since the director was announced and even moreso as the casting came to light. This is a big time movie with a higher level of talent than any superhero movie before it. Robert Downey, Jr is a fantastic actor, but that's not why he was cast in Ironman.* I've been excited for this movie because I like movies.

TIME has a great piece by Jamil Smith on the movie and it's place in history. It's short and by no means exhaustive, but it does juxtapose the movie with Stokley Carmichael and the Black Power movement. As a white person, I'd been blissfully unaware of the connotations this movie presents of an un-colonized African nation with both the power and technology to take over the world.

It's a radical idea and a scary one for most white people - even those who recognize that it's a bit shameful to be scared. White people don't want black people to have real power because we're afraid black people will use that power in the same way white people have used it for the last 4,000+ years.

That's the long and short of it.

I won't claim to be "woke" or even entirely sure what that means, but I do think I'm more in tune with the sad realities of race than most white people (not that this is a high bar). I've been race-issue-adjacent on occasion, which feels embarrassing to even say - and I only do so to point out that I've at least spent some considerable time thinking about issues of race, even though I'll never be able to even approach the barest glimpse of what it means to be black in this world and I often entirely miss the point.

I see the joys expressed that Black Panther represents black people as heroes in ways that young black kids rarely get to see in society. I can recognize the truth of that statement and the ubiquitousness of people who look like me in pop culture, but I'll never get it. I can't. You just can't experience something you can't experience. The very fact that there's an experience we can't have is enough to make white people angry and expose our entitlement.

This is supposed to be an introduction, but it's already too long. I meant to simply say people with power tend to use it badly and when we use our power badly, it tends to work out better for people who look like us than for people who don't. This is the crux of what I want to say. Ceding power to people who look different from you is rightfully scary - not because people who look different are, in fact different, but precisely because they're the same.

The biggest privilege that comes with white privilege in the privilege to be human. Robert Downey Jr turned his life around and he got the opportunity to do that largely because he's part of the privileged class - he gets to make mistakes and be forgiven. Chadwick Boseman, titular star of Black Panther, also played Jackie Robinson in a movie, a guy who was picked to break baseball's color barrier because he was deemed least human - that is, most able to endure punishing, racist abuse without reacting in completely justified anger.

I prefer the philosophy of Martin Luther King to the philosophy of Stokley Carmichael largely for theological reasons. King was a minister of the gospel and preached an idealized version of humanity because he believed that it is the inevitable future of humanity and our best course of action is to live into that coming future reality as best and as soon as possible. Regardless of race, justice, or equality, this is the concept to which I've dedicated my life.

Carmichael saw the world as it is - a massive power game - and advocating playing that game by the established rules. If skin color were removed from this argument, we'd call it a civil war, memorialize the combatants on both sides and erect nostalgic statues to the losers out of respect for their commitment to their ideals. Why? Because we expect humans to make mistakes. We expect human beings to be wrong. We have grace when people mess up, because we're also people and we also mess up.

We have grace if they look like us or think like us or have some connection to us, anyway. If they don't, we make them a villain, removing their humanity, and raising the bar of acceptable behavior inhumanly high.

The "rights" and the "wrongs" of the black power movement are no different in kind than the "rights" and the "wrongs" of the US response to 9/11; the one difference is that one of them is an "us" and the other is a "them." Tribal identification makes all the difference.

We like to say that we're all the same, that we're all human - that all lives matter, perhaps - but as correct and self-congratulatory as those statements are in theory, they're just not true in practice. We like having good guys and bad guys and it's pretty easy to write off the flaws of one and the positive traits of the other simply because we've got more affinity for the former than the latter.

I do believe that white critique of whatever we describe as "black empowerment" today is largely valid, but what makes it unfair is that those same critics refuse to hold "white empowerment" (or maybe better named "continued white entrenchment") to the same standards of critique. This hypocrisy simply cannot recognize whatever part of "black empowerment"** is actually valid without revealing said hypocrisy. It's a Catch-22 that has almost no repercussions for those in power and far too many for those without.

I genuinely don't believe we need another white voice chiming in on Black Panther or Black Power, but I also feel some obligation as a white person to say what so many white people simply won't. Theory is all that matters to those in power, because we've got reality locked down. Theory matters very little for the unempowered, because reality is all they've got.

So there's a movie coming out, with a largely black cast and a black director that represents real progress on a lot of fronts. It's worthy of support, even if it's not Citizen Kane or The Dark Knight or even all that good. It doesn't have to be the perfect statement on black power or identity or experience to be a valid celebration of those things.

Some white people are afraid of this movie, I guess because it's symbolic of the societal power we're increasingly being asked to give up? We're understandably nervous because we'd like to be sure the "new" world is better than the old one, before we really commit to it. Guess what, white people? A world in which we're not entirely in charge will not feel "better" than one where we run the show. Here is where we have to take our own advice and trust the theory to come through for us, even if reality seems a bit uncertain.

Equality on our own terms is not equality. We've had thousands of years to learn that lesson. We learned it the hard way and other people paid the price. I believe every person has a right to their fear, but I also believe we have a responsibility to reject acting out of fear. That costs us something; it has to. But I don't think any world worth having comes without sacrifice and we've not yet done our fair share.

I don't particularly like that reality any more than anyone else, but I also can't ignore it.^

*We forget this now because he's pretty respectable and super rich, but, at the time, Robert Downey Jr was coming off yet another sobriety slip and literally could not be insured on a movie set. He basically had no other options, but, fortunately, he was talented and white, so second chances abound.

**I recognize that this looks (and feels) a bit condescending as a term, but I don't know any other way to name what I'm trying to name that will be apparent to everyone reading this. It's too easy to get sidetracked by arguments over terminology that we miss the larger point. I do apologize if it's offensive and fully admit my white privilege is primarily why I can get away with it.

^Apologies to anyone who feels like this post is condescending or inappropriate. I feel like just about anything I have to say about race is probably both of those things - I just don't know how else to process and progress without communicating actual thoughts and ideas.

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