The monsters among (and within) us

29 Nov

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron shares a theory about the human tendency to distance ourselves from very human acts of evil:

“People are so concerned that if you look at a monster, you might find a human being. There was this great story that I came across when I did research for [the film about serial killer Aileen Wuornos] Monster about the guy who originally came up with profiling serial killers. His name is John Douglas, and he had a chapter in his book about writing. He believes that fables and werewolves and Dracula and all these scary characters were created because people don’t want to believe human beings are capable of bad things. But we are definitely are capable of some shit that will scare you, given the right circumstances. The quintessential character is Hitler. You have to be brave enough to say he’s a human being. And on that level, we’re all like him. It doesn’t mean that you’re saying what he did was right, but you’ve got to admit that he’s from the same breed as all of us. It has to make you aware that, given the right circumstances, there are things you might do that you don’t want to believe you’re capable of doing” (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/charlize-theron-michelle-williams-the-help-oscars-roundtable-258936?page=4).

Let me switch to a more personal pronoun for that final thought: Douglas and then Theron are suggesting there are things I might do that I don’t want to believe I’m capable of. What things, exactly?

I’m not so worried about drinking blood or turning into a wolf and ripping someone limb from limb, but when Theron invokes Hitler, she is asking me if I think I might actually be capable of…

No way. Not me. Only a monster could do the things Hitler did.

Douglas’ point exactly. Granted, committing genocide is inconceivable for most of us. However, we’re trying to disown more than that when we cast Hitler as a monster: we’re trying to say that we can’t even imagine—let alone relate to—the racism that motivated him.

This is what I call The Secret Life of Bees/The Help syndrome. These novels are “racist–who, me?” books (and now movies): stories in which clearly, extremely and uncomplicatedly bad white supporting characters are (of course) racist, and an equally uncomplicatedly good, innocent, preferably young and necessarily white protagonist is (of course) not racist. Her goodness is demonstrated in her colorblind embrace of older black women (these supporting “proof-that-she’s-not-racist” characters are always women, presumably to avoid any untoward implications of a young white girl-older black man friendship). Unable to fathom or tolerate the bad white folks’ racism, our heroine foils their evil plotting and triumphs over hate like a lotus rising from the mud to personify racial harmony and all-around goodness for readers and fellow characters alike.

I may not be representing these novels entirely fairly or accurately.

In fact, that’s very likely because the truth is that I couldn’t finish The Secret Life of Bees or even bring myself to pick up The Help, despite bountiful praise for both books. I got a sense of where they were going, thought I recognized the storyline and had to walk away.

What I couldn’t get past was the screaming denial of racism: the need to deposit it in the least human, most monstrous caricature the authors could create, in order to pretend that perfectly nice, ordinary and decent people are not, in fact, “capable of some shit that will scare you, given the right circumstances.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that authors Sue Monk Kidd and Kathryn Stockett are both (to my knowledge) white women. These novels are anthems of self-goodness: declarations to the world that these women, to borrow a cliché, don’t have a racist bone between them.

Now, I don’t know Kidd or Stockett, and I’m certainly not calling them racist: my beef here is not with the authors specifically but rather with their perpetuation of the myth that only cartoonishly bad people are racist, when the truth is that racism–like any other -ism–flourishes precisely because normal, good and moral people accept, permit and yes, even perpetrate it.

If we actually intend to end racism (instead of just trying to look not racist ourselves), we need to acknowledge that the problem is us, not a fictionalized and hyperbolized Them, lurking in fantastical shadows. We need to stop defining racism solely as the atrocious, exceptional, unfathomable acts of atrocious, exceptional and unfathomable people, and examine how our own choices and actions–exposing our students to one-dimensional representations of Native Americans, blacks, and other racial groups; not speaking up when a friend claims that a colleague of color got hired “because of diversity”; and even writing a novel that makes racism seem like an outlier’s affliction–enable everyday racism to persist and flourish.

 

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