My husband Bruce and I went to 12 Years A Slave on opening night, too early in its life to have heard much about it. I hadn’t read the book, not even a review. I went in without expectation. Two hours later, I’d been shaken to my core. When the lights came up, the room was silent, somber.
Within minutes of leaving the theater, Bruce and I ran into a friend. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?” she asked, reaching out to touch my arm.
“We just saw 12 Years A Slave,” I managed, not wanting to be touched. Or even seen, really.
“Oh my God, this is why I’m not seeing it,” she said.
“Oh yes you are,” Bruce said, kind of aggressively, okay, really aggressively. “Everyone needs to see it.”
I cringed. This wasn’t the first time Bruce had chided a friend for their aversion to film violence. We’d argued over this dozens of times — Bruce alluding to sensitivity as a weakness, me advocating for people knowing their own limits in the name of self-care. I wanted to remind Bruce how lucky he was to have married me, a Quentin Tarantino, Coen Brothers fan. Instead, I withdrew further into myself, knowing we would dig into the film and its aftermath the next day.
Over coffee the next morning, Bruce spoke about the rage the film had stirred in him. He called our friend to explain and apologize for his outburst. Then he turned to me.
“Debby, I can’t believe you think it’s okay for comfortable white people to opt out of seeing this film, just because it’s ‘too hard to watch.’ ” He made little quotation marks in the air with his fingers. “You of all people.” He looked at me as if I should be getting something that I clearly wasn’t. “Too hard to watch? Are you kidding me?”
He was right. This wasn’t Pulp Fiction or Fargo, fictional films that use violence to play their audiences and punctuate their stories. This was history, raw and real; exactly what I’ve been saying I regret having been ‘protected’ from for most of my life.
In the month since the film opened, I’ve heard several white friends and family say, “I can’t go. It would be too hard to watch.” Though there are some for whom the film really would be too traumatic – including young children – most grown people can and should see the film. The reflex to choose comfort is, believe it or not, one of racism’s most powerful tools.
I now think of 12 Years A Slave as an offering, an antidote to the whitewashed history and Walt Disney distractions that created my former state of extreme ignorance and denial. It’s one thing to learn history. It’s another thing to feel history. 12 Years A Slave delivers both. This is not ‘black’ history or ‘slavery’ history, this is unvarnished American history, a vivid exposure of the white supremacist roots that continue to entangle all Americans in racially coded social roles today. And yes, that is hard to feel.
What I’m learning is that even the best-intentioned white people, myself included, can obstruct racial healing and justice simply by staying within the white social role, which includes choosing comfort. No one wants to deal with racism. No one alive today created it. Yet all of us inherited it. People of color are choiceless when it comes to feeling racism day in and day out. What motivates me to get in the game and stay in the game is that sharing the burden of racism is every white person’s first best step towards creating racial healing. Being willing to step outside of white comfort zones is a prerequisite.
And who knows what the experience will actually be like. Unlike my silent theater group, I’ve heard reports of cheering, crying, holding hands, and embracing at the film’s end. Whatever the group vibe may be at any given theater on any given night, there’s no way to experience this film and not feel a shared history with the strangers in your midst.
My feelings centered on profound love for humanity, including the strangers around me, and shock at the extent to which we can inflict pain on one another. It also forced the question: When and how was America supposed to recover from such pathology? When were those who were enslaved provided with the PTSD services they surely required? When were white people given consequences and opportunities to restore their humanity? And if neither of those healing measures ever happened, how are white supremacist cultural beliefs and patterns showing up today?
One belief I inherited was that avoiding conflict and tension was my right, not a privilege. I also believed racism was a problem belonging to black and brown people, not to the white people who created it — that part of history went missing from my textbooks, TV shows, and family history.
White people have a huge role to play in racial healing and justice. It starts with the simplest of steps: just an agreement with yourself to examine your limits and a willingness to get uncomfortable in the name of changing them. For instance, why did it take Bruce to point out to me the racial implications of white people’s choice to avoid the film? I’m supposedly the racial justice educator in the family.
The truth is, my own socialization still haunts me, keeps me tied to my social role as a nice white girl taught not to rock the boat. Not only could I not challenge my friend that night to go see 12 Years A Slave, I couldn’t make the connection that it mattered. A lifetime of avoiding conflict and choosing comfort over growth has dumbed me down in ways I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to overcome.
So thank you John Ridley, Steve McQueen, and everyone else who brought 12 Years A Slave to life. It’s the kick in the pants I needed to continue freeing myself from my own, inherited, white social role.