Boots Riley

I have now seen “Sorry to Bother You” (see previous post, “When Do I Use My White Voice?“), a film that in my judgment is a powerful commentary on white supremacy and capitalism—and a superb creative achievement.

There are so many powerful, often disturbing moments in the film that is hard to know where to begin. 

So I will begin with something that happened to me as I sat in the theater watching. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, while the screen images dominated the room, I also saw, in mind’s eye, faces of African American friends and colleagues in ministry (clergy and lay people). I felt a sense of awe at how they navigated the white dominant world we share. These are people of considerable achievement and strong personal character, wise people, clear-headed people, who have made a difference in my life. 

At the time, I did not know what to make of this moment. Then, in a conversation with one of those people about the film, I shared that experience. They said, “Oh yes, we, people of color, and not just Black people, are used to “commuting” between the worlds of our own lives and the white social system that insists that we find ways to conform if we want to both survive and thrive.”

Commuting.

In linguistics, this also is known as “code switching.” Check out this video, “Is ‘Talking White’ Actually a Thing?” to learn more.

I teared up, realizing I had never thought about the price this dear friend and colleague as well as so many others in my life, and everywhere, have to pay. White supremacy is revealed by that necessity. But it also is confirmed in its power by the very fact I, with some real background in studies of racism and whiteness, had never had to think about what they go through. 

Talking WhiteHere are some parts of the commuting map: white voice, white mannerisms, paying attention not only to using the best English but also body language, and tone of voice and even volume. That does not even begin to deal with subject matter—how this friend and others are aware of just how far they can go in describing the pain and anger they have to carry, not only for themselves but also for all the other people in their family, social or religious group, neighborhood, professional orbit, and the world. 

All this is revealed in this film through the experience of Cassius Green (powerfully performed by Lakeith Stanfield–certainly deserving of Oscar consideration). This young African American man needs a job. He finds it working for a telemarketing company. His job interview was very odd because it seemed the company would hire anyone. Later, I realized that this signifies how little they think of their employees. Cassius was just another cog in their master profit wheel. 

He fits into their money-making system because he needs money. They need him to make them money and he needs them to make his. The filmmaker, Boots Riley, has, in interviews, made it clear that he wrote and directed a film to focus on both racism and the ways it is linked to capitalism. 

The title of the film reflects how Cassius begins every call, but it is at the same time an evocation of the system of whiteness that insists that “we” not be bothered to hear the cries and anger of people of color. Over the years, I have heard people say to me, and others, “You may not want to hear this, but . . . “ then going on to describe something I, or another, did or said that was insensitive or worse. Sorry to bother you. 

But the power of whiteness is much bigger than denial and refusal to hear or see. It also involves setting the rules for how people of color are to not only speak but also act. There are codes, and they have power. Cassius shows us at a party, thrown by the owner of the company he works for, that there are times when Black people are called upon by white people to perform their blackness (he is taunted until he does rap for the assembled white people, something he really doesn’t do well).

He also discovers through his seat mate in the office (played by Danny Glover) that his white voice on the phone is not exactly how white people sound, but “what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” In other words, it is a caricature designed to avoid causing discomfort for white customers. And Cassius learns to do that so well (in the film it is a voiceover by actor David Cross) he becomes highly successful, and thus a favorite of the corporate hierarchy. 

PerformingBlackness performing whitenessWhat this says to me is that whiteness is a performance, not only by people of color but also by white people. This is especially so in the worlds of finance and various professional and public environments. And of course, there are always class distinctions. The brilliance of this film is that it shows us all of that.

In that sense, this is a film that unsettles us, white people, both because of racism and capitalism. Indeed, historians, especially Edward E. Baptist, show us that from the very beginning of our national experiment, capitalism and white supremacy/racism are inseparable (see his The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism).  

What we see in the film are the high costs that people incur as they seek to rise financially—not only Cassius, but so many others. I won’t give away the many creative plot twists that make this film so distinctive, but I can say that we are shown how the alliance between corporate greed and personal need is disastrous for real people. There is violence in the film, although not the sensationalized violence we so often see of shootings, car chases ending in gruesome death, and the like. Indeed, it shows us how easy it is to become more beast than human as the pressure to succeed accelerates. In that sense, most everyone is a victim of a system designed to squeeze humanity out of the willing and the unwilling.  

I urge every white person to see this film—it will challenge you as it seems to go over the top at times but if you stay with it you will find deep wisdom. 

A final note: I have entitled this post “Sorry to Bother You,” because of the film and because I realize, given how few people in my intended audience for this series of posts that began with “Unlock the Trap – Part 1“ on May 4 seem to notice and how even fewer ever respond. Many of the white people in that audience probably wish I did not bring any of this up. Sorry to bother you. 

Actually, I am not sorry. 

Frankly, if we, “the relatively conscious whites” James Baldwin wrote about, do not let ourselves be bothered and challenged, things will never get better. Indeed, the power of white supremacy and capitalism, working together, just becomes more sophisticated, more lethal, and seemingly more hidden all at the same time. There are winners, of course, folks at the top seemingly, but even they pay a price. I for one want to stop paying it. 

I hope you will join me on the journey. Feel free to write me at RevDrRobin@comcast.net if you would like to share more dialogue, or post your thoughts on this page. 

cropped-cropped-robin-head-crop-from-j-wayne-higgs.jpgI have been reading about a new film, “Sorry to Bother You,” and I intend to see it as soon as I can.

I was drawn to it by an article in The Washington Post, “With an Accent on Whiteness: The Tricky Art of Code-switching or Changing Your Dialect to Fit Your Audience.”   It is not that I, a born and bred WASP, have not added a drawl (though still definitely revealing my Midwestern white upper-middle class, highly educated roots) to try to charm church members in Richmond, VA on Sunday mornings or other audiences as I traveled the length and breadth of that state seeking to build support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. I suspect many do versions of that at one time or another.

Sorry to bother youHowever, the article, and this film, are examining and demonstrating something outside my experience, namely the pressure Black people experience, especially in business and professional settings where white people predominate (and are the customers), to adopt a “white voice.” The film focuses on how this works in telemarketing.

In another article in The Post, it is revealed that the filmmaker, Boots Riley, drawing on his own experience in telemarketing, sees the film as a serious indictment of capitalism—how the Western economic system uses the need and desire for money to shape (and warp) people, at least on the surface, into people they are not.

Our economic system and white supremacy are deeply entwined, and have been so for centuries, certainly beginning with slavery as well as genocide towards Native peoples.

This all fits rather neatly with a book I am reading, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, by the distinguished social theorist, sociologist, and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos. It is a very dense book, and I am only a small way into it, and will undoubtedly write more about it later. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. E. Francisco Danielsen-Morales, for leading me to it.

The book is about undermining Northern/Western ways of thinking and speaking and theorizing (hence his use of “epistemology,” the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope), and allowing Southern/Eastern voices to be heard, and to shape and change and even overcome and displace, Western methodologies of thinking, speaking and theorizing. However, I am already finding it helpful in thinking about internal social conflict in the United States.

Epistemologies of the SouthAs  I read the two Post articles about the film, I was reminded, so very clearly, of three basic ideas the author of the book says are key. I quote from the first paragraph of the Preface:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammar and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

In other words, as I read Santos, the virtual exclusion, in most (overwhelmingly I think) social systems and ways of thinking in the United States, and in the one-third world of mostly the north, of non-Western experience and wisdom leads to a paucity of real-world life, knowledge, and wisdom. In other words, we, most of us, live in a dream world constructed by powers, economic and political to be sure, designed to keep us in line.

I feel as if my eyes are being opened by this film and by this book, and I will not, I hope, ever again be the same. That is a big claim, especially when I have not even yet seen the film or finished more than the first pages which lead to the introduction! But, I already sense a shift in me.

use your white voiceFor one thing, despite years of study of and writing about white supremacy, I never had thought seriously until now that I speak in a white voice. Of course I do; I don’t know any other, I was not exposed to any other as I gained language skills as a child and an adolescent.  By the time I was a college student  and seminarian I certainly had heard other speech patterns belonging to other people and groups, but by this time I was firmly ensconced in my white roots.

This language regime is, it seems to me, one of the great powers of white supremacy and colonialism because it affects not only my/our speaking and writing but even more deeply our thinking and acting in many ways.  If I, we, as white people can’t (and refuse to) hear it or see it, it is hard to think it especially if you are rewarded, as we are, for our ignorance and limitations.  In the film, the Black protagonist, Cassius Green (portrayed by Lakeith Stanfield), is well rewarded for using his white voice.

As the film and book claim, capitalism, so deeply ingrained in the Western economic and social, indeed political, epistemology, rewards us, those like me who do not realize we have choices as well as those who know there are other choices but who seek to gain by adhering to the norm through social acceptance and potential mobility, and just cold, hard cash (or at least the promise of it).

I also realize that something as basic as grammar is a form of social regulation, setting standards for what is acceptable writing and speech. Grammar is not neutral, in that we, at least many of us and certainly me in my formative years, were taught that saying some words or using certain language patterns marked us as uneducated or uncouth or ignorant or all of the above. There are patterns of social class indoctrination in all this.

The neighbor boy
from a poor family talked a lot,
always violating at least one rule.
My mother said it was sad
that he will grow up being devalued.
Such a nice boy, she said.
(from a draft poem, White Voice)

However, until reading about the film and opening Santos’ book I had not thought much, if anything, about racialized grammar. I don’t remember any of the very few Black people in my growing up who spoke like that white neighbor boy, or even some other way. They all used good grammar.

I remember Mrs. Kendrick, our cleaning lady, responding to offers of a second helping at lunch with words I still cherish and sometimes use, “No thank you, I’ve had a  great plenty!” Her number and case of nouns and verbs always matched. Her son, who worked a time for my father, spoke quite eloquently.

James Baldwin 1And then there are James Baldwin and Dr. King and Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X, too, who said hard things but always used “good English” (and the first two, at least, more eloquently than most white people).

But would most of us have listened if they had not?

Perhaps that is the nub of this. If you, Black person (or LatinX, too) want us to take you seriously, you’d better use proper white English. Save your other voice, your more authentic voice, for talking to your nonwhite friends.

To be sure, we white folks inherited this system, but we still enforce it—by any means necessary, Malcolm might say.

It’s time to change, to undermine the racist, class-bound, and gender enforcing power of language.

More in future posts about some options.