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Dear White Man, I Don't Need You to Explain Diversity to Me9/17/2015
by Leah C.K. Lewis Some time ago, I was pondering this question: Do people of color unknowingly ...
Some time ago, I was pondering this question: Do people of color unknowingly support entertainers who are bigots? We must, right? Unless an actor reveals his or her political views explicitly, we do not have a clue where they stand on racial issues.
Now we have the curious case of Matt Damon. Prior to his adamant defense of the racist exclusion of people of color (POC) in behind-the-camera jobs in Hollywood during a recent episode of HBO’s Project Greenlight, there was the perception that he too was a “liberal lion” from Massachusetts. You know, like the late Senator Ted Kennedy or Senator Elizabeth Warren. I had seen videos of his progressive protestations about educators and the environment. But, as we now know, liberalism has its limits among some European Americans. White privilege, the myth of white supremacy, and attendant manifestations are too enticing to resist for the average white citizen.
Damon, who is married to a woman of color, revealed his arrogance, ignorance, and indifference to the lived realities of African Americans in his condescending exchange with seasoned producer Effie Brown on the issue of diversity in the film industry. His remarks were telling—telling of his personal views, and those, which seemingly remain entrenched in Hollywood. It is fair to say that this industry, like every other U.S. institution, supports the perpetuation of white supremacy. Consequently, empowerment and uplifting images of POCs are far and few in between on the big and small screens.
With respect to Damon’s remarks and posture, let me be clear: It is extremely audacious—indeed inappropriate—for any white person to lecture a person of color on diversity, even if your knowledge rises to the level of Tim Wise. Four hundred plus years of xenophobia and oppression disqualify Damon and his ilk from the right to speak on the issue, especially with any “authority” to people who experience disenfranchisement within our society. If you are white, here is what you may do: Listen, listen closely, process what is conveyed by people who have first-hand experience with systemic and interpersonal oppression and the silencing and nullification that it brings, and internalize their truths. This humble posture is the only one that is proper for white folk. You may ask questions (dumb ones included) but be prepared for an earnest response from your POC instructor-interlocutor.
Damon operated as a blatant oppressor in his exchange with Ms. Brown. He was wrong in terms of his behavior, spirit, and position. As one of the showrunners of Project Greenlight, Damon has every right to convey his views and have the final word on the creative tone and tenor of the program, its staff, and its awards. Yet, civility, thoughtful consideration, and professional courtesy are to be given. Damon did not yield such graces toward Ms. Brown.
Her points were so valid and critical. Ms. Brown’s recommendations could have enriched the project entitled “Not Another Pretty Woman” about a Black prostitute who marries a white man jilted by his bride. The proposed title is heinous and seems to have a double negative connotation, which I deem derogatory of the Black female lead. Sadly, some Black woman will take this role, which seems to play out white male fantasies about "Jezebel."
Ms. Brown’s presence in the discussion, as the sole African American, exhibits why diversity is important. Without diversity, characters of color will continue to be tired, one-dimensional, stereotypical, and used to further the sociopathic, sadistic fantasies of white supremacists, the privileged class.
It would be easy to label Ms. Brown a “token Black.” Yet, she is accomplished. Having worked on nearly twenty films including Dear White People (how ironic), she earned her spot at the table. Damon’s world is so white that there was not even a proverbial second person of color in the discussion.
The homogeneous opaqueness of his worldview was demonstrated when he articulated a long cherished supremacist microaggression, that the spoils go to the ones with the “merit,” who tend to be white men. For so long the imagined inadequacy of people of color has been used as justification for exclusion ad nauseum. Honest dialogue warranted consideration of Ms. Brown’s recommendations, which were creative, professional, social, and legitimate. Honesty, however, was not Damon’s driving force. Fostering white male dominance undergirds his compulsion as expressed in his whitesplaining (or as @theblerdgurl on Black Twitter crowned it #Damonsplaining).
More #Damonsplaining occurred in what was erroneously labeled an “apology.” Damon stated in part, “I am sorry that [my comments] offended some people….” That, my friends, is not an apology. An apology requires the offender to be contrite about his actions, not the offense taken by others.
Brown's input would have benefitted the production by giving it a life and texture heretofore rarely seen on screen. Recent box office successes of films helmed by African Americans indicate that our films, our producers, our directors, our writers, and our actors have merit and make money too.
With respect to Hollywood, African American talent must persist against the prevailing challenges and African American consumers must continue to support projects that honor our personhood and must do more to bypass those that do not. In Hollywood, clout is based upon the box office. May our money speak volumes so that we may elevate executives who can greenlight more of our own projects. In the spirit of an age old children’s game, greenlight, go!
Photo: Angela Weiss / Getty Images North America - Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com
Leah C.K. Lewis, J.D., M.Div., D.Min. (ABD), is among other good and wonderful things, a graduate of Howard University School of Law where she was trained to be a social engineer for righteous causes. A frequent contributor to ForHarriet.com, follow her on Twitter @HumanStriving. #Damonsplaining