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Is Captain America Supposed to Make Scared White Men Less Scared?

30 July, 2011

[There are small spoilers.]

One of the things I’ve done since Leeds is catch up a little with friends I haven’t seen for a month or more. So the other day, a few of us went to see Captain America. As a superhero film, I have to say, it was one of the better ones I’ve seen — at least for a Marvel-based film. It was exciting, the script and acting were really good, the casting was great… and it was surprisingly not jingoistic. I think it escaped it by being mostly set during the Second World War, and by having a villain who was a breakaway from Hitler’s special arcane & tech forces unit. I loved the odd sort of nostalgia, and the way that Captain America was clearly part of the war effort, but in a ‘real guy embodying an emblem’ sort of way.

There were really weird moments, though. Weird because, while the evocations of the period often felt real (inasmuch as comics can evoke historical feelings), there was just stuff that was wrong. Once Cap is in Europe, united with the 107th, he’s got a multicultural band of brothers. I realize that there are lots of things in the film that aren’t real, duh — secret powers of the Aesir? References to Raiders of the Lost Ark? But when I saw the African-American GI, my initial thought was, “but aren’t you supposed to be in a segregated unit? or a cook?” And when the Asian (presumably Japanese) guy says,”Hey, I’m from Fresno!” How could I not think, “Dude, then you’d be in Manzanar or the 442nd!” Better writers on race in America have already commented on this, and how it helps to erase the Civil Rights Movement, so I’m not going there. Yet?

Then last night, I was watching Luther, a BBC crime drama with the amazing Idris Elba. It’s good, gritty, and dark. And one of the episodes I watched concerned a white guy who may or may not have been racially motivated. There was a scene where the killer, a skinny white man who was clearly into RPG stuff, went into a shop run by a South Asian man. He blatantly stuffed his bag from the shelves, watching the shopkeeper watch him and do nothing. And it made me think of all the astoundingly offensive and insane commentary surrounding Breivik, the mass murderer in Norway (short roundup here, because I will not link to assholes at Fox), whose ideas of jihad-by-migration have also been defended (although not linked to Breivik there at all) on an academic listserv I read and in fact more directly on that scholar’s own blog. No, I’m not linking there, either. This came at a time where yet again, a bunch of misogynist comments were made, and then dismissed by senior male scholars when women complained about them.

The one thing that comes to mind over and over again is how scared and threatened a very large segment of the population must be. Where does this phenomenon of the scared white guy come from? Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? Beck, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and all the people who buy into their fear and hatred, and want to channel it back into attacking women and people of other races (and I don’t really believe Islamophobia is as much about religion as it is about race — Sharia law supports a lot of the sorts of positions Michelle Bachman does, after all…) — how does that work? How is it that, when we look at who truly has power in Western society, we can see that it’s mostly plutocratic power, and those who hold it are primarily white and primarily male. Actually, that should be reversed. Male and white. Male is still the biggest conveyer of privilege. In the West, white and straight and Christian are also up there. And yes, there are going to be trade-offs, and within certain communities, the balance will be different. A senior colleague and friend pointed out to me that one of the people who irritates me most on the list serv because he seems so entirely unable to recognize his male privilege, or even his academic privilege, probably can’t see it that way because his self-perception is based on being a Jew and being held back by those with white privilege.

But back to the fear: why is it that we live in a world where there is a perception that power is a zero-sum game, and if it is shared, i.e., if we actually live in a world where people of color, people of other religions, people with other sexualities — and, by the way, women — share in the running of that world, it means something bad for white guys who think of themselves as Christian? And why is it that the people who fear (because I think we need to include the partners and families of these scared white men — there are lots of women in the Tea Party, after all) cannot see that they have far more in common with the rest of us folks who live from paycheck to paycheck in multicultural land than they do with the people running things and asking us to pay the bills?

I expect in some ways it all comes down to entitlement, and not the good sort provided by the NHS, or Social Security. If you’re used to privilege, and that privilege seems threatened, then all you have to fall back on is a feeling of entitlement. And if power is not a zero-sum game, then privilege kind of is. At least, once privilege — something that is grounded only by means of historically having power without thinking about where it comes from — is challenged, then people have to compete for the same jobs, places at university, etc. In fact, a level playing field doesn’t feel all that level when it means you don’t have the up-hill advantage. When you’ve never had to share, even giving away a small portion can feel like a huge loss. Being accustomed to privilege, especially the unrecognized kind, leads to feelings of entitlement that don’t hold water for me. And I guess entitlement means not having to be scared, or think about one’s own responsibilities to others. So a world in which a token African-American or Nisei soldier helps to show that, hey, we’ve always got along together just fine is a world that says, “see? you don’t have to think about reality or question your privilege.” It’s a world where you don’t have to be scared white men.

Of course, lots of us already live in a world where you don’t have to be scared white men. It’s full of interesting people with different ideas about life and nature and how the world works, and conversations that include bits of different languages, and really, a lot better food. And you know? the doors aren’t always wide open, because sometimes assholes with guns show up. But if you are willing to live here with the rest of us, it’s a pretty nice place.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 July, 2011 5:11 pm

    Very nicely put, and interesting. It reminded me of a comment in one of the early Kay Scarpetta novels about Scarpetta's unreconstructed police contact, which said something like 'he had nothing going for him other than being big and white, so he made himself as big and white as possible'. Sorry I don't have anything more intelligent to say than that – but it made me think yet more about how ideas and arguments about history have to be phrased as responsibly as possible.

  2. 30 July, 2011 6:00 pm

    I haven't seen the film, but it sounds like you're right on the mark about how the representation of token people of color erases the need for the civil rights movement.I think power, etc, IS a zero sum game. And as a white person, I can see that my privilege often comes at the expense of others. That's all the more reason to work hard for justice and equitable access to power, etc. But a LOT of people are very scared of that.

  3. 30 July, 2011 6:50 pm

    Can I ask if the black guy and the asian guy in the film were playing a black guy and an asian guy as such? Or was it just that the actors were people of color?I ask this because I wonder if American casting directors are starting to do the kind of color-blind casting that UK ones do. Luther, coincidentally, is a good example. I haven't seen Series 2 yet, but in Series 1, the fact that *Idris Alba* is black didn't seem to be paralleled in the story in any overt way — that is, *Luther's* blackness was incidental, not thematic.Now, I realize that it creates problems on the symbolic/representational level of the very kind you point out. OTOH, color-blind casting gives actors of color many, many more opportunities, which makes a real, material difference in their professional lives. If I were a casting director and asked to choose between the material and the symbolic consequences, I think I'd go with the material.I'm a little bit sensitive to this right now because a friend railed at me a few nights ago about our "racist" medieval play because we cast a black man as the devil and a white guy as Jesus. Actually, *we* cast the best performers for the parts, but she just saw a black guy and a white guy. Of course, she didn't even see the goddamn play — just one publicity shot — so she failed to see the fact that all of creation, heavenly and earthly, those who sinned and those who didn't, was multicultural (and also cross-gendered — God the "Father" was a woman), and everyone played multiple parts, good and bad. The director cast the best ensemble of 12 from the actors who auditioned and then distributed the parts during the first few weeks of rehearsal as he saw what they could do.Anyway, a lot of UK tv shows, movies, and stage productions seem to be doing this more and more where the race of the character isn't a matter of the story, and I'm just wondering if Americans are following suit. It would be interesting and, I would argue, beneficial to actors of color, if they did.Then again, they could have just been stupidly erasing the history of race relations in America as you suggest.

  4. 30 July, 2011 8:58 pm

    QS — The Asian was absolutely cast as an Asian (and I assume Japanese) — the joke was in the context of "the enemy." The African-American? not sure. My feeling was that there was the intention of being color-blind without thinking about how sometimes, color-blind casting isn't a good idea.I think for your play, it's not a big deal, because it is set in the long-ago past and so far removed and in translation, etc. Which reminds me of something sort of non-related but funny: When I was in the UK, I saw a production of Pirates of Penzance and it took me a minute to get over the fact that everybody had a UK accent! As did everybody around me, obviously. But the plays I'd seen over the academic year all had characters with various English accents, some of which were very good. It took a moment to click on the fact that the characters didn't "have English accents" — the actors did!

  5. 30 July, 2011 9:07 pm

    HEdge — Thanks. I have to say that the recent stuff in our field has definitely made me more aware of such things, even if I weren't already thinking about them. I'm in a weird position, because my family is multi-racial and multi-ethnic, and so there is a lot taken for granted and a lot of automatic negotiation of race and privilege all the time. When we went walking in Bucks a couple of weeks before Leeds, though, just days after getting into an argument with another American (but longtime UK resident) about immigration to the UK (thin edge of the wedge, opening the way for Sharia law, 'why cant They adapt to Our culture?', etc., my sister-in-law pointed out that she and my niece and nephew were the only non-whites we'd seen all day. It was weird. And weirder for me because I'd clicked on how different it felt to most of the places I go in the UK, but I couldn't quite figure out why. Kind of Midsomer white, if you get me!Bardiac — I wasn't the person to note the writing out the Civil Rights movement, although I noted the historical inaccuracies. Others get the credit for that 🙂

  6. 31 July, 2011 6:12 am

    I agree with your observations about scared white men and their mistaken idea that respect is a zero-sum game. However, whoever it was who thought that Captain America's racially integrated commando team erases the Civil Rights movement is in error. In fact, the design of that specific group of characters was itself *part* of the Civil Rights movement. They are the Howling Commandos, written and designed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, and the racially and ethnically diverse team composition was a milestone for the appearance of African American (and Jewish) characters in the pages of comic books.

  7. 31 July, 2011 4:18 pm

    Bbs — That's cool to know, and I was aware that Marvel and Lee did a lot to show an integrated society specifically because they thought it important. Captain Marvel's incarnation as a black woman was one of the things that always stood out for me there. But in this incarnation, it's unlikely that the majority of the audience will be aware of that. There's a post there….

  8. 1 August, 2011 11:34 am

    One of the reasons I think it's extremely hard to talk about privilege, especially in modern societies, is because what we're almost always talking about is relative privilege. As a white male you (probably) have an easier life than a non-white male or a white female from a similar socio-economic background, but you don't have an easier life than all non-whites or all women.If you are a white man from the working class or the lower middle class and you live in a country where there are high-level politicians who are black or female, where there are black and female (and black female) celebrities who earn more money in a week than you can do in a year, it's not easy to see yourself as the privileged one. I don't in any way want to deny the advantages white men have (or the advantages that I have as middle-class and white and straight and able-bodied), but it's often very hard to see them as important when you're in a crappy job, or an insecure job and worried about your future. It's much easier to end up inadvertently comparing apples with oranges.

  9. 1 August, 2011 4:12 pm

    I think that's true, to a point. But privilege doesn't preclude exceptions. Overall, in modern western society, privilege is white and male. There is no white equivalent to driving while black (or in my neighborhood, Hispanic). But because white people never have to deal with such things, most only see cases such as the ones you mention. And, in fact, they don't tend to see that the superstars that make that sort of money are *all* making that sort of money – not just the ones who aren't white! And of course that's one of the insidious things about privilege — so much of it is the little stuff that people assume is normal, and it never occurs to the people who have privilege that there are large portions of the population who never experience that normality. One of the best things I've read on it is this piece by John Scalzi. I guess one of the difficulties for me with the situations you describe is that there are so many people who are willing to blame any disadvantage they experience to some sort of "unfair advantage" given to a person of color. If there are people of color in a given society, then they should be represented in industry and government, shouldn't they? If the complaint is not, "look at how inequitably wealth is shared in our society: I deserve a bigger share," but rather, "Look at how successful that person of color is! Society sucks when even a person of color/woman/other traditionally disadvantaged person can be more successful than I can," then that's some unchecked privilege and entitlement speaking. I do understand that that's not what it feels like to the person saying it. But that is what I meant — the feelings just don't match up to the reality.

  10. 2 August, 2011 4:09 am

    Just wanted to de-lurk and say that I really enjoyed reading your comments on the conspicuous bowdlerization of racial tensions in the movie. I noticed this too, and couldn't quite figure out how I thought it should have been handled. I did link to you in the blog I just started. Hope that's okay.

  11. 3 August, 2011 11:51 pm

    Given the way the hubub around Marvel's decision to make their Ultimate universe Spider-Man half-black/half-Latino, I think we can add to the markers of white privilege, "Ability to wear a Spider-Man outfit without people asking if it's some sort of political statement or insisting it's political correctness gone awry."

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