The Magic of Whitewashing
Written By Caleb Flachman
My psychiatrist calls the need to leave a crowded room “social anxiety.” Leaning back in his desk chair, he folds his hands in front of his face and looks at me over rimless glasses. He tells me I think too much. Calls it “being ruminative.” Says that most people who get caught in this kind of obsessive introspection think it’s in their best interest.
Social anxiety causes people to distance themselves, to separate from anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable. It is a fear of being exposed for everything that you are: perfections, imperfections, and all. In a very real way, my personal social struggle is not unlike the public one which engulfs and paralyzes many white American people. We separate, divide, and one-up anyone unlike ourselves; there are crowds of people by whom we do not want to be seen.
Given my context, I tried to deal with my anxiety with methods recommended by my faith tradition: increased prayer, meditation, scripture reading. Trust the Lord more. Ask Him to help you. Never confess your problems as truths about yourself. A veritable witch’s brew of all the typical things that the Charismatic Movement would prescribe from its magical cauldron. I have heard sermons upon sermons espousing the miraculous benefits of these methods—how God saved such-and-such or so-and-so via remarkable supernatural encounters. “And now they are completely free from their mental struggles.” As if the problem is not within you, not a deep brokenness or wound, but caused by some outside enemy. Only prayer can exorcise these outside stresses and influences with a quick fix. Likewise, it has been my experience that too often white Charismatic Christians tie their social politics to a similar solution: pointing the finger. Sticking to our guns. Social anxiety. Fear of the other. But I’m tired of being afraid to see myself as I am: a part of the problem instead of just an innocent bystander.
D.W. Griffith, the filmmaker responsible for creating the film that reignited the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century, wanted white people to be bystanders too. He promoted social anxiety, told us what we wanted to hear: I’m not the problem. The people stolen, enslaved, and brutalized by white people are the problem. In a now infamous scene in Griffith’s most famous film The Birth of a Nation, a former slave hounds a young white virgin in an attempt to rape her. There is madness in his eyes and scrawny hunched frame. When they reach a clifftop, the virgin jumps to her death, rather than be brutalized by the black man.
But the black man wasn’t actually black; he was a painted up white actor named Walter Long. Isn’t it ironic that, in order to accurately portray white anxiety, the filmmakers had to put a white man in front of the camera? That they felt they could not trust a black actor with this important role? That underneath all my worst fears is a twisted masquerade of pasty flesh? What if we are truly just afraid of the exposure of ourselves? Our enemy is not the other; it is a white man in black face.
As a white evangelical, I have often seen my white moral, intellectual, economic, and cultural perspective and power forced on others. I have long felt the burden to infiltrate and fix the experience of the other—whoever, whenever and wherever that might be. We have long been conditioned to see ourselves—not Jesus—as the saviors of those upon whom we have exercised power. Could this be the foundation upon which the modern Evangelical missions movement has been based upon? Perhaps our desire to fulfill the great commission and reach the world for the gospel is actually far more about rearranging the world to suit our purpose, not God’s. We are terrified of the inevitable: if we embrace the other in all their perfections and imperfections we would also be forced to embrace ourselves.
This is the reason I loved the genre-subverting 2017 horror film Get Out so much: the villains are a seemingly wholesome white family. Director Jordan Peele turns upside down common horror tropes by making the lead character, the hero, a black man named Chris. At the beginning of the film, Chris tells his best friend Rod that he is going to meet his white girlfriend’s family. Rod immediately advises against it. Chris ignores him, believing that even if her family ends up being racist, they can’t be worse than the constant racial micro-aggressions he has learned to endure his entire life. At his girlfriend’s home, Chris is subjected to racial slights which slowly build in intensity as the film progresses. Something is deeply wrong. Something nefarious is being planned for Chris: the white family intends to replace part of Chris’s brain with the brain of an old white man who is dying. The result will be a white man who lives on indefinitely, a white man who never has to face his own fragility, who hijacks minorities for his own ends. For the white family, brutalizing others is far better than facing their own mortality.
In her memoir Waking Up White, Debby Irving describes the process of coming to understand her own white identity. After several years of trying to rearrange her white worldview, she looks into a mirror and is overcome with a sudden feeling of intense nausea. For a brief moment, she sees herself as a ghoulish demon who had removed Africans from their native shores and decimated the Native American population:
One cold, dark winter morning, as I moved though my predawn routine, I stumbled downstairs, put on the teakettle, and went to the bathroom near the kitchen. Only half awake, I flicked on the light and caught sight of myself in the mirror. I jumped back in horror. There in the mirror were two bright blue eyes set against dead-fish white skin and unkempt hair the color of the sun. As quickly as the bathroom light had hit my eyes, a narrative of imposing white power had knocked the wind out of me. A montage of scary white faces streamed opaquely over my own (Irving 181).
For most of my life, groups of white people made me feel safe. But how must those groups appear to those who recognize whiteness as its own entity and white people as distinctly other? The magic of the whitewashing is that we purvey our social anxiety in our films, music, businesses, and politics. This process has enabled whites to believe that we are just “normal.”
Recently, while watching First Man, a film about Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, I could not help but notice, as I would not have before, how the narrative had been whitewashed. Despite the success of Hidden Figures, which documents the integral role women of color played as mathematicians in the early space programs, and the fact that the space race took place at the height of the civil rights movement, First Man ignores all that to reinforce white men—not Jesus—as saviors. It moves little beyond the exploration of a stoic white man’s obsessive desire to reach the moon, no matter what the cost to himself. As such, it is emblematic of much of the history of white evangelical culture. But then, shortly before the launch of Apollo 11, a few stanzas of poet Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon,” are read at a protest held in the shadow of the great white rocket:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(With Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(And Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(But Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.
(While Whitey’s on the moon)
The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(‘Cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(But Whitey’s on the moon)
In the middle of the film, I left the theater to use the restroom and grab some food. I had hardly eaten anything that day and I was desperately hungry. As I washed my hands in the white sink, I looked up at myself in the mirror and saw a face that was hauntingly, vacantly white. I appeared translucent, opaque with huge rings about my eyes. Gripping the sink to support myself, I watched the water run meaninglessly into the drain. My skin was crawling and my head spinning. I stumbled out of the restroom, taking halting steps past the other theaters and up to the neon glow of the food counter, not half the man I thought I was, but on the way to becoming the man I want to be.