As mortified as some white people may be at the suggestion that we’ve enjoyed career advancement at someone else’s expense, we need to acknowledge that one can benefit from privilege even if it isn’t explicitly claimed. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate marker of privilege is not having to be conscious of it.
Thanks to other people’s positive projections and expectations, I’ve often been able to view the world as a welcoming, or at least benignly neutral, meritocracy. I’ve never been followed in a department store by anyone other than an aggressive perfume lady with a spritzer. I haven’t had to pay an “anxiety tax,” expending untold physical and psychic energy managing other people’s reflexive fears.
Obviously, gender, geography, economic and social class, and temperament play a part in my outlook as well. No one’s experience, positive or negative, can be reduced to just one characteristic. But it didn’t always occur to me, nor was I ever taught, to consider race as part of my personal bundle of x-factors.
This is where popular culture can be particularly helpful. Granted, the 1947 film “Gentleman’s Agreement” didn’t eradicate anti-Semitism. Nor did “Tootsie” stamp out sexism or “Philadelphia” erase homophobia. But each of those films reframed its subject matter in ways that galvanized audiences into reaching “aha” moments about prejudice.
Perhaps it’s time to make a modern-day “Black Like Me,” the 1964 film based on John Howard Griffin’s memoir of impersonating a black man in the Jim Crow South, this time for the 21st century: a story that throws the condition of whiteness, with its myriad unseen, unspoken advantages, into clarifying relief.
The challenge is creating characters that can transcend polarized and entrenched perceptions of race. This past week, a Washington Post poll found that a sobering 86 percent of African Americans say blacks and other minorities do not get equal treatment under the law, whereas a majority of whites — 54 percent — say there is equal treatment for minority groups. In a recent interview about their book “Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites,” political scientists Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley described a “gulf” between African Americans, who largely lack faith in the criminal justice system, and white citizens, who consider it essentially color-blind.
Just as the roots of blacks’ mistrust of the system lie in their unfair treatment over generations, the roots of whites’ optimism can be found in our own history. Like compounded interest from an investment we never made, the advantages white people enjoy derive from past racist practices and present-day unconscious behaviors that create channels no less wide, deep and real for being largely invisible.
If movies are equipped to do anything, it’s to make those channels visible. And the best films can show viewers how to navigate them. “Fruitvale Station” does that, in just one brief encounter. The San Francisco street scene may begin with an acute observation of separate realities, but it ends by suggesting a possible bridge, in the simple act of a black character taking the business card of a white man he’s just met.
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