Sobering: White People Don’t See Much

A couple of days ago I read a review of the Bollywood movie Fanaa on the blog Kashmir. I started thinking about how much “information” I accumulate from films and television, especially with popular entertainment from other countries where I don’t have any context for those narratives.

If I had caught Fanaa when it screened in Austin, I would have come away with images of the political situation in Kashmir that may or may not be accurate. (I haven’t researched beyond that blog post, I don’t really know whether the film is anywhere near reality.) I don’t think I would have started applying to history departments to teach the history of Kashmir, but I can’t imagine that these images wouldn’t influence me – especially if I never gave them any thought. I don’t have any information that would lead me to notice discrepancies, so I might have just carried those images around for a while.

With that in mind, I was concerned to read a blog post on the Carribbean Amerindian Centrelink Review about the new Pirates of the Carribbean movie. It calls for a boycott due to the film’s portrayal of the people indigenous to the area where the movie is set, whom the CAC blog identifies as Caribs:

Let us keep in mind that such depictions were used to enslave and murder the ancestors of today’s Caribs, there was never anything innocent or “fun” about these portrayals. In addition, generations of Carib descended school children in the Caribbean have been taught that their ancestors were savage cannibals. Shame over ancestry was inculcated as a matter of routine. In my own field research experience, I have encountered individuals in their forties and fifties who told me very directly that the main reason they did not wish to self-identify as Caribs is that people in the wider world see Caribs as cannibals, as inhuman man eaters, and they found the stigma unbearable.

This portrayal of a fictional event set against a historical backdrop should have been easier for me to identify as a problem. As a resident of North America, I should be very familiar with cultural images of people of African descent that portray them as “less than civilized.” But honestly, I don’t know if I would have picked up on it without reading this blog post. I did notice it in King Kong, but would I have caught this one? Or would I have been swept along in a story I enjoyed, with actors I enjoy?

That, my friends, is one of the ugly privileges of being white. You don’t have to think about race.

You have to make the choice whether to hold yourself and your culture accountable for racism.