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By Timantha Norman, Executive Editor of the New Tulsa Star
To wrap up my active lecturing and instruction over literary analysis and reflective writing as it relates to nonfiction for one of my 12th grade English classes, I spent two days having my students view and dissect the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Throughout the film, through the narration of Samuel L. Jackson, Baldwin viciously yet eloquently and pointedly tears down the institutions of Hollywood that helped promote and sustain the mythical status of white exceptionalism and heroism in the American psyche.
In one particularly powerful example, Baldwin analyzes the dynamic of blacks having to accommodate white fragility at the cost of stepping into their own agency through the lens of the 1958 film The Defiant Ones, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. In an article pinned by Elahe Izadi of The Washington Post, she describes the pivotal moment in the film between the main black character (Poitier) and the main white character (Curtis) and the bigger racial implications of it:
For instance, there’s the climactic scene in which [the] pair of prison escapees chase a runaway train. The black convict makes it on, but he jumps off the train after the white convict can’t catch up. While white liberals may have been relieved, Baldwin says in the documentary, black audiences were yelling, “Get back on that train, you fool!”
He continues: “The black man jumps off the train in order to reassure white people, to make them know that they’re not hated.”
Little did I know that this dynamic would play out in my personal sphere only days after showing this documentary in that class. After some initial hesitation due to not knowing if there would be any fellow women of color in attendance, I decided to attend the Women’s March. The promise of being able to connect with like-minded political candidates and community organizations at the Activist Fair was the most appealing aspect in deciding to attend. However, as I scanned the audience of mostly white female faces with some black, brown, and Native faces peppered through the crowd and stage, I did wonder where these same people were at the Charlottesville vigil, the Terrence Crutcher rallies, or any other events involving injustices happening to folks that didn’t look like themselves or their offspring.
After my dissatisfaction with the way in which I felt the women of color were used as props by the older white female leadership of the march, I turned to my friend and said that I wasn’t interested in marching at that point. We went to connect with a few additional organizations at Living Arts, called a Lyft, and retired to our respective dwellings. I tried to convince myself internally that it had been a great day of sisterhood and comradery, especially as white female friends and acquaintances seemed so happy and fulfilled about the outcome of the march. However, I have never been a person that liked to live in denial no matter how painful it would be to live in the truth.
This self-destructive dynamic where the victims, in this case black Americans, are perpetually having to carefully navigate the delicate sensibilities of white Americans in their quest to just be given their basic humanity and dignity in all aspects of their existence has only continued to leave black Americans in a white fragility minefield where our best interests are always left behind.
I say all of this not to discredit true white feminist allies who stand ready to check their own privileges and play their roles for women of color correctly. However, I do want these same women to think about how truly inclusive they are to women of color in all aspects of their own lives, how their own internal white fragility may be getting in the way of bringing about real progress, and how willing they are to hold their fellow white feminists accountable for intolerant behavior towards women of color in the movement.
Timantha Norman is the Executive Editor of the New Tulsa Star. She is an educator who fervently believes in the power of culturally responsive, critical thinking-focused pedagogy in transforming the lives and future prospects of children. She also believes in journalism’s power to give agency and power to historically oppressed populations. Through her activism in the community and as a student of public policy, she understands the importance of harnessing collective, political power in the service of promoting truth and eliminating injustice. She looks forward to harnessing her personal and professional skills in the service of her community.