One afternoon I was finishing watching a documentary called "I Am Not Your Negro." It had been nominated for an Academy Award, so I thought it would be worth my time to watch and learn something about race. In summary, the documentary connected the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter Movement of the 2010s. I did learn something indeed, but it was not exclusively from watching the film.
I had begun watching the film one afternoon but had to stop halfway through, as I had a closing shift at my summer job. I resumed it the next day, a family joined me in watching the film about halfway through, and the narrator began speaking. She asked me who was supposed to be speaking and I said it is someone portraying James Baldwin. They said they had never heard of Mr. Baldwin, and I explained to them that he was an author, literary and cultural critic with deep ties to the Civil Rights Movement. They nodded and continued watching the film with me, but not long before taking out their iPad.
In one graphic sequence, "I Am Not Your Negro" shows a series of lynchings from America in the 1920s and 1930s. It was at this point that I temporarily stopped watching the film because I noticed something quite worrisome. As the lynching sequence continued, I looked over at my family member who was still deeply entranced with their iPad. They had no idea that grizzly images of death and suffering were displayed on the 70” television standing less than ten feet from them, and if they did, they were doing well to ignore it. That, I soon realized, was whiteness. Slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement, lynching, and police brutality, are all things that have little to no concern to white people in the U.S., as they have rarely been victims of those phenomena. I continued watching the film and soon enough the documentary came to a conclusion.
As the credits began to roll, my family member and I learned that the narrator of the film, the voice of James Baldwin, was Samuel L. Jackson. This surprised both my family member and myself, as we had no idea the solemn, reflective, and sometimes sorrowful voice on the television was the same voice that recited Ezekiel 25:17 from Pulp Fiction. I jokingly said, “You would have never known it was him because he didn't say ‘motherf***er’ at the end of each sentence.” My family member laughed in amusement, but then I soon discovered that I am white too.
In short, by watching and not watching this documentary, I learned that whiteness means allowing oneself to be unaware of the atrocities and injustices suffered by countless members of minority communities, particularly in the United States. This is not to accuse the white community of willful ignorance, but rather to urge them to educate themselves on the inconvenient history of slavery, expropriating native land, and the impact of segregation.