The Post-colonial Dialect: A Battle Between Licence And Liberation

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The virtue of privilege is fundamentally palpable. The deed is that it is not a virtue at all. When an individual, or a group of individuals carry a granted immunity which prevents them from facing institutional discernment, political prejudice and societal discrimination and misrepresentation, they practice privilege. What really separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude, not heroism (Maurantonio, 2017).

I find it intriguing to think about the evolving ways in which white supremacy and white privilege can be emanated through movies and social media to this day. During the 90s white supremacy was blatantly obvious in television through villainising or clowning the ‘Other,’ whether this be perpetuating a ‘diva’ stereotype of African-American women or the Jim Crow persona or even something as simple as allocating a particular look or accent to the Other for comic effect (Maurantonio, 2017). For example, the character of Apu in the Simpsons is a misrepresentation of Indian-American peoples and perpetuates a particular negative stereotype of eccentricity which contrasts from the other orthodox American characters. The implication of this emanation reveals unequal power dynamics between people of different races, religions, cultures, genders and sexualities which encourages, instead of condemning, direct or indirect political, social and economic prejudices (Garcia et al. 2018).

Diversity is not a movement that aims to rectify homogeneity, it’s not a movement at all. Diversity is our global reality. So then, why should we, the People of Colour (POC) be granted a licence from Western media forms, to practice the virtue of liberty? Is this virtue not inherent? When a group of people have to consistently fight against stereotypes, it reveals an unequal power dynamic (Garcia et al. 2018). This essay will discuss this power dynamic through the criticisms put forward by Teju Cole in 2016 in response to the viral Kony 2012 Youtube video. The focus will specifically be on the ‘White Savior Industrial Complex’ (WSIC) which is evident throughout innumerable social media forms, but specifically contemporary movies (Cole, 2016, pp.340-349).

Today, racial prejudices are disguised through a narrative of westerners having to ‘save’ people from the ‘global south,’ because they simply do not have the ability to save themselves (Blight, 2019). Empowerment and humility are virtues that are completely disregarded when it comes to providing aid. Hollywood specifically carries white supremacy through a White Saviour Industrial Complex (WSIC).

Sociologist Vera and film critic Gordon define the White Savior Complex as a narrative in which the White Savior is ‘the redeemer of the weak, the great leader who saves blacks from slavery or oppression [and] rescues people of color from poverty and disease' (Rodesiler & Garland, 2018, p.39). It is a theme prevalent in popular culture which occurred earlier than 1960. In movies and television specifically, it was most prevalent post the American civil-rights movement (Blight, 2019). In this environment African-Americans were emancipated and seen to be free in front of the law, practicing the same rights as non-African-Americans and thus expected to face no discrimination by White people. In the same environment, non-African-Americans were anticipated to be colour-blind, in which they chose to not see the existing institutional and social discrimination post-emancipation (Garcia et al. 2018).

A second theoretical approach of Media and Consumption will be employed to analyse the media forms in which this complex is most evident in – Hollywood films. Marshall McLuhan distinguished the terms ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media; hot media constitutes of movies, photographs, print and radio. Whereas cool media consists of cartoons, television and telephone (McLuhan, 1994). The media forms then determine audience participation based on the provision of sensory data. For example; hot media, such as movies, require minimum audience participation as they provide an immersive experience for its audience (McLuhan, 1994). As McLuhan published this media theory in 1994 and media forms have evolved greatly since then, I will modernise this theory to adjust to today’s world. Because cool media is argued to encourage cognitive participation by McLuhan, in today’s world it can be distinguished as social media platforms. Therefore, this theory is relevant to my analysis as it as it provides an explanation of why the WSIC is most prominent in films and contested in other media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. Furthermore, cool media platforms, such as social media, workshops and talk shows, allow people to voice their opinions and react to data in real-time, resulting in flexibility of thought and open dialogue.

Colonial narratives are easier to perpetuate on hot mediums such as movies, because this is a rigid form of media (McLuhan, 1994, p.22). As such movies become ‘prisons without walls for their human users’ (McLuhan 1994, p. 20). The constant overproduction of images within movies, with no audience participation furthers colonial dialects, distancing the POC audience to a great extent from entering the world of a multi-billionaire, western industry; Hollywood. This exclusion is encoded as visual representations evident within particular scenes. Though not all movies emit the WSIC and some even criticise it today, such as any film directed by Jordan Peele, it is important to note that there has been a high velocity of films which normalise white privilege in the contemporary society (Blight, 2019).

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The white saviour, in Hollywood films, is where the actor is depicted as a hero who fights in opposition of their ‘dark and ominous adversaries’ (Cole, 2016, pp.340-349). Pop stars can further change themselves into ‘exotic’ characters. And according to Cole, the ordinary white folk or famous people can ‘perform real-life hero roles as philanthropists for social causes around the so-called developing world’ (Cole, 2016, pp.340-349). Through this the ‘Other’ is consistently distanced from the mainstream society and media in which on-stage personas establish a White Saviour. The implication of this is that the saviour becomes a ‘powerful brand of cultural authority’ (Rodesiler & Garland, 2018, p.43). After reading McLuhan’s theory, it can be fathomed that the implication of this is creating distance between the content (which emulates White Supremacy) and the viewer (POC).

I critique that the White Saviour Industrial Complex is a regressive but contemporary brand which emanates racist, post-colonial dialect by creating this distance between the content and its viewers (Yang, 2014, pp.247-250). The platform of movies allows white privilege to be validated in a way that becomes complexed to detest – as there is no given opportunity to do so. It further depicts essentialism of Western strength and Eastern weakness within a faux ‘hero’ campaign which fundamentally reinforces colonial narratives (Cole, 2016, pp.340-349). These narratives, as Edward Said analyses, frame the diverse people of colour as submissive and powerless, polishing the status of celebrities (Maurantonio, 2017). This is a contemporary cultural issue as it affects the misrepresentation of people of colour on media platforms and reinscribes Hollywood as an overarching, superior and powerful platform despite it emitting racial stereotypes (Yang, 2014, pp.247-250). In addition to this, movie stars become untouchable entities who are mythicized into real-life ‘heroes’ because of the WSIC and are morally praised for playing fictional characters in a fictional world.

Just think about Atticus Finch, he was a hero in our eyes because he fought for the rights of a Black man despite losing the case and though To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) certainly raised important systematic issues of racism, it is vital to notice who was being portrayed as the well-educated hero - Atticus Finch, and who needed the validation from the Finch family to finally appear as an ordinary and nice man – Boo Radley.

In movies, images of white saviours are indirectly frontloaded onto us (as it is a hot medium) through a comic or sentimental way which makes us consume the overproduction of this idea. We then ignore the deeper political messages of the movie. A study that was conducted by Katherine M. Bell (2013) in which teachers frontload their students with screenshots from white saviour movies to assist them to establish an understanding of this contemporary issue, explored how hot media can imprison their viewers. Some contemporary films that were studied are; The Blind Side (2009), Avatar (2009), La La Land (2016), The Help (2011), and Hidden Figures (2016). These movies are specifically in the point of view of non-POC, excluding diversity. The characters usually go through a journey of attaining a moral high ground by saving people of colour by advocating for their rights. The study outlined how students had missed the underlying racial prejudices in their first viewing of the film, without the screenshots. When asked why, students responded that it was due to other film aspects (such as sound) overshadowing subtle negative political messages, or their own unawareness of the historical accuracy of particular scenes (Walsh, 2020).

A particular example where the WSIC is evident is in ‘The Blind Side’ (2009). The movie is about an elitist white woman, Sandra Bullock, saving Michael Oher, played by an African-American actor, Quinton Aaron. She helps him (by adopting him) to become a professional athlete from a previous homeless and uneducated boy (Bell, 2013). She teaches him to read and write and advocates for racial equality despite facing condemnation from her upper-class social circles. As Michael is able to completely reshape his identity from his socio-economic background to a more eloquent and successful man, all the credit is given to his non-biological mother (Bell, 2013). There are many problems with this movie, however, by showcasing that the only way a person of colour can get out of an adverse situation is through a complete assimilation into a white family is completely unrealistic (Walsh, 2020). Again, this reinscribes colonial narratives of people of colour not having their own ways of life and order, needing saviour from their primitive and backward lives. It additionally perpetuates stereotypes of African-American peoples coming from ghettos, being uneducated and having parents who are addicted to drugs due to psychological issues. Personally, I think film narratives should be shifted into showcasing the existing disparities between two races; whether this be the undoubtedly exceeding number of POC being incarcerated compared to non-POC for minor offences, police brutality or policies in place which let certain states stay in power over other states; such as the power of VETO and IMF. In this way people can learn the difference between empowerment and saviour (Cole, 2016, pp.340-349).

Another, more contemporary movie which showcases the WSC is ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016) (Jones, 2020). A sketch directed by Late Night with Seth Myers heavily criticised and satirised a particular scene in the movie where Kevin Costner, who played the director, Harrison, of a Space Task group in NASA, aggressively removed a segregated sign above the bathroom as an African-American female member had to walk more to get to her allocated bathroom. He then announced that the closer bathroom will be used by everyone, without any prejudice. Seth Myers stated how problematic this scene is as it showcases how “racism is only made to matter once the racist rules are happening to Black people the white protagonists like or admire” (Jones, 2020). Further, it implies how white people are the ones who realise racial disparities and fix them, disregarding how they create and ignore them in the first place. He continued on to say that the scene was historically inaccurate as the character Harrison does not exist in real life; “In reality, the task force was led by Robert Gilruth, and it would appear he and the rest of NASA desegregated at a more gradual pace than the film suggests. As CNET reports, desegregation at NASA happened throughout the 1950s, with the West Computing Unit, made up of Black women mathematicians like Johnson, which was desegregated in 1958” (Jones, 2020). The scepticism of this movie through a ‘cool’ medium; a talk show, allows for the live audience to participate and react to what is being presented, and as this clip is available on YouTube people can similarly comment their thoughts. Therefore, it assists to break rigid narratives that are showcased in movies.

It is necessary to realise that the White Saviour Industrial Complex is indeed a thing in today’s world, a thing which consistently recurs in movies, a thing we tend to ignore or perhaps not even realise due to the ways in which this idea is presented to us.


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