Race, White Privilege & Fruitvale Station

I had a feeling that Fruitvale Station was going to disturb me, but I felt obligated to see it. The film opens with what appears to be cell-phone video footage of the incident where a young, unarmed Oscar Grant was shot in the back by police at a train station in the Bay Area during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day in 2009. The rest of the film recounts his last 24 hours in vivid detail. I appreciated the very human characterization of Oscar. The filmmakers didn’t cast him as a model citizen – but they also didn’t cast him as a criminal. He was flawed and beautiful, just like the rest of us. 

I just started reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, in which she describes America’s modern caste system, otherwise known as mass incarceration. The problem is that numbers, statistics, research and theories can never transport us into another perspective as well as a film. But while I sat in the theatre this afternoon, in my mind The New Jim Crow was having a dialogue with Fruitvale Station. I am not surprised the theatre was half empty, or predominately black, or that the previews were marketed towards a black audience. The harsh truth is that most white Americans are not willing to take a close look at the injustices that people of color experience on a regular basis. I am not immune. There are times I wish we didn’t have to discuss this – that it wasn’t a reality – that America, a country that I love deeply, actually represented the equality and democracy that it claims. 

Using Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as examples to suggest that racism no longer exists is highly problematic. Alexander makes the case that our new system of oppression actually depends on black exceptionalism. These examples of success are valuable in their own right – and may, in fact, suggest a degree of progress. But when used to avert our glare from systemic disadvantages, we must challenge them. At one point, I thought that claiming “colorblindness” was honorable and progressive. I don’t think I interrogated this position sufficiently – probably because so many liberals were waving their colorless flags. I admit that I too thought we lived in post-racial America. My ignorance is largely a result of my white privilege. I can choose to ignore race and that is exactly why I’m privileged. However, If I choose to ignore it, my dignity as an American is in jeopardy because I cannot be at peace with myself in a society that awards me privileges at the cost of others. Instead, even though painful, I choose to confront my whiteness and the attitudes, ideas and beliefs that come in the same package. 

When the film ended, I turned to exit the aisle and saw a young black boy, maybe seven or eight years old, sitting behind us. I am not colorblind and I will not pretend that his blackness was invisible to me. I saw a young black boy and there was so much I wanted to say to him. But I didn’t want to speak from a place of sympathy. Not from a place of concern. Not from a place of sorrow. I just wanted him to know that he is loved and appreciated – and that not all white people are too scared to look at the truth – and that I go to work every day hoping that doing my little part will make a tiny difference for us all.

I don’t harbor white guilt. There is no room for it amongst all this love. I’m busy trying to educate myself to the experience of those who have been silenced. Toni Morrison, if I’m not mistaken, says something like, “If you find yourself in a position of power – this is not a game of take it and run. You are obligated to help others empower themselves.” I don’t see myself as white savior – the great educator to save all the black children. To adopt a stance like this would be to insult the dignity of those who are fighting for freedom and justice. I only wish to work alongside and build and learn with those who our society keeps down. I want the actual (and symbolic) violence to stop. We are all suffering because of it. And like an undetected illness, those who don’t even know they’re suffering are even sicker than the rest.

I was glad that I saw the movie with my brother today. We sat in silence for a few minutes once we got into the car. Then we had a brief, honest discussion about race and equality in America. He brought up Trayvon and I told him about the book I’m reading. He was genuinely interested and moved by the film. We were both disturbed – in a good way – in a way that powerful art should disturb you – and move you out of your familiar comfortability. I let myself be upset. I let myself be angry. Then I told my brother, “You know what – the hope is that we’re talking about this right now – and that tomorrow hasn’t come yet.”

I wish more conversations like this were happening outside movie theaters all over the world. Sometimes classrooms appear in the strangest of places.

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