Blindness: White Critics and Ethnic Films

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While researching for a previous piece, I learned something that led me to this one. That’s the way it is sometimes — one creation leaves a trail to the next. Pieces flow, “one to the other” (Monsters…Maple Street) as if they’re forming themselves. The not-so-simple question of this piece is: How can a white person review an ethnic film, when their minds hinder them from actually seeing a film? How can they properly nominate films for prestigious awards if they themselves are unable to connect to the story/characters being presented on screen? How reliable are their reviews and nominations when ethnic groups are always at a disadvantage based upon white biases, privilege and emotional/mental connections that the white critic fails to achieve when viewing films that are not white?

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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

In “Can Racial Trauma/Racism Be Inherited?” we explored whether something other than nurture plays a role in both our physical and mental predispositions regarding racial trauma and racism. One interesting study from the University of Toronto Scarborough showed white people may indeed lack empathy. They hooked white people up to an EEG to monitor how their brains fired when presented with videos of individuals performing mundane tasks. Typically, when you see a video of someone performing something simple (ex: washing dishes) the motor cortex region of the brain fires as though you yourself are performing the task; thereby, “mirroring” what you see.

However, when they saw a non-white individual perform the task there was little to no activity as though they “watched a blank screen”. The neuroscientists further stated that for the white people who “scored high on a test measuring subtle racism” this result was “more pronounced”. So, in a white society with subtle to overt forms of racism, such as the United States, this result would significantly increase.

So white people who say they “don’t see color”, could very well be right. Because, unless the person is white, you don’t see a person. You don’t see anything but “a blank screen”. So you are in fact blind to people of color.

They believe the mirror neuron system is distinctly linked to empathy because of the ability to “mirror” other people’s emotions and actions. The reason we feel empathy for another person is because we can see ourselves going through their experience, so we are able to relate to what they feel. However, if this study is correct that fundamental building block toward empathy is lacking in white people when it comes to minorities. Knowing that, how can they give an “honest” review as to the “quality” of a film?

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

“We’re not biased, you are.” “Everyone is biased so…” These are just some of the responses you hear when white critics and their supporters are questioned for their glowing review of a white film and lackluster response to an ethnic film. The first is essentially passing the blame elsewhere; it’s a rendition of “racism exists because you people won’t stop talking about it”. The second doesn’t avoid blame so much as evenly distribute it to all individuals to avoid being singled out. There needs to be personal accountability and change because, without it, ethnic films will, as a whole, continue to be overlooked not because they lack depth and beauty, but because the critic lacks the ability to perceive it.

A USC study of the critics of Rotten Tomatoes who wrote reviews for the top 100 highest grossing films of 2017 shows that around 82% of film critics are white (that number is for overall critics: for top critics 88% are white). How can they give a heartfelt review of a minority film, when they can’t even connect with it on an empathetic level?

Even some of the positive reviews of films with a mixed cast, such as Get Out receive backhanded compliments of “despite obvious flaws” or claims of “racial paranoia” ( it can only be paranoia if it’s solely in your delusional mind) along with their high scores.

Other ethnic film successes, such as Black Panther, get criticized for being too good; being accused of hurting other films box office gross because of their longevity. The impetus is always put on ethnic films. The characters/plot are to blame when they don’t succeed, and the characters/plot is to blame when other films don’t succeed. The white critic looks from their whiteness/white society outward and points to problems according to this vantage point without any consideration of what that whiteness brings to their position and how it hinders their viewing.

Reviews from white critics should be taken with the biggest helping of salt possible before digesting. If they can’t see the basic human connection between themselves and a minority, it’s not possible for them to accurately critique a film’s plot and characters with minorities at the forefront of the film.

Also keep in mind there are nuances to this. There are white critics who, in order to not appear “racist”, will give a positive review. There are minority critics raised in white society who, in order to avoid being accused of “favoritism”, will give a minority film a bad review.

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Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

This problem doesn’t just occur on the silver screen, but wherever the video medium is used. When videos are circulated online of minorities being brutalized and gunned down by law enforcement, the response “they should’ve listened to the cops” or “what happened before the recording started?” solidifies that, whether fictionalized cinema or real life, the connection between white people and minorities are, oftentimes, nonexistent.

On the contrary, white people are likely relating, connecting and feeling empathy with the oppressor in the video instead of the victim. This is where all the “he/she made a mistake and shouldn’t lose their job or home” defenses come from.

In order to change any issue, the first step is to identify the possible sources of the problem. Further studies of the mirror neuron system with various races and age groups would be a start (particularly whether minorities raised in a white society “mirror” minorities and/or white people).

A study as to whether children’s brains fire when presented with a variety of ethnicities would also be beneficial. As well as continued studies of those same kids over time to see if there are any positive/negative changes that develop would also give some insight into both the individual, and familial, societal effects on the individual.

These questions need to be asked because, at the most basic level, white people don’t see anyone else. If you don’t see a person’s basic humanity when they are non-white, atrocities against them or any non-white group are not just possible — they’re inevitable.

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Multi-ethnic creative non-binary. Spouts nonsense that occasionally makes sense. she/her/they/them

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