dear white people
This weekend, I caught up with Justin Simien’s new film DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. I dug it, and I think everyone should see it. That’s the only declarative statement I will make today.

As I soaked up the film, I was acutely aware of a feeling growing bigger and bigger inside of me. Some of it was inspired by what I was seeing on-screen, some of it was inspired by what was happening in the world around me, some of it was inspired by my own thoughts of guilt and stupidity. By the time the film got ready for its final act, I realized what that feeling was, and really, I should be getting more used to this feeling if I haven’t become used to it already.

What I understood in that moment was this: My opinion about DEAR WHITE PEOPLE doesn’t matter.

They don’t matter because moments like this have far too often prompted people like me (read: white men) to speak. They have spoken – excuse me, we have spoken – about what films like this “mean”, what they “say about us”, what it “reflects in our society”. We wrestle with guilt, perhaps feel more aware, and lower our speaking voice a bit to discuss their importance. In doing so, we miss the point. While films like DEAR WHITE PEOPLE want to open (or re-open, or re-re-open) a dialogue about racial relations, that dialogue is not a place for people like me (white men, remember?) to speak up. It’s a place for us to listen – to listen close and listen well. At best, we should only be asking questions…and not questions we believe we know the answers to.

The reasons for this should be obvious. For starters, as much as anyone would like to fool themselves into believing that we live in a post-racial society, that’s absolutely not the case. Racism is alive and well (here in Canada too, dear countrymen), it’s just most-often taking on different forms. Furthermore, if we ever do hope to see a post-racial society in our lifetime, the best way to get there will be to listen to the needs and wants of those repressed…to listen and to learn. So where film is concerned, that listening needs to happen with people like me (say it with me, white men) sitting firmly on the sidelines and only offering up the occasional “Okay”.

Right around now, there’s the smallest chance that you might be asking yourself why this is. For starters, as mentioned, we aren’t as evolved as we like to think we are. We look at shows like Mad Men and think of our parents and grandparents as Cro-Magnon…so far behind us that they might as well be scratching on cave walls. The truth is that we really only recently started walking upright, and we’re still prone to scratching on the cave walls every now and then – scratching some pretty stupid and hateful things it would seem. So the only way we will evolve is to be taught to evolve, and what better way to be taught than to shut-up and listen.

That’s not to suggest that films like DEAR WHITE PEOPLE shouldn’t be discussed – they absolutely should. The film actually seems to understand that and takes a break mid-film to discuss its own place within the spectrum of black film. However, that discussion seems to have more to do with the shaping and establishing of a racial voice in the landscape of film. The most insightful opinions are the ones we should be listening to, not contributing to (unless asked, but don’t hold your breath).

Basically, the last thing we should be doing, is walking up to our black friends (you know, the ones we have to prove we aren’t racist) and asking what they think. It could well come up in the natural flow of conversation – or if we’re lucky, they might even point us towards this film – but starting our emails with “Tell me, as a black person…” probably isn’t helping.

So today I say very little. I say that I have seen a film I believe is entertaining, unbelievably timely, and deeply provocative of the world around us. I say that I have been inspired to seek out more films by black artists and hope that the generation that follows this one won’t have to search as I do to find such things. I say that this position of wanting to listen more than I speak goes for any percentage of the population that is not – you guessed it – white men. And I say that I want to listen more than I speak on such things…listen to all the well-written and well-spoken film lovers I know whose story is being told with such films.

Hopefully that will encourage others to do more listening too.