When someone tells me I’m race-baiting, that signals something worse than racism.
There’s something that runs even deeper than our racist attitudes and feeds those very views, an underlying coiled root that unless exposed and extracted, will continually provoke such overreactions that arrest innocent children suspected of terrorism. It’s not as simple as blaming Texas or “white folk” or buzzwords like micro-aggression and oppression. It is more subtle and sinister than outright violence and just as dangerous as the fanaticism that we claim to be afraid of.
A certain thread of socialized narrative has been bombarding us for a long time:
– That we are each the Main Character of our own particular story,
– with each person around us as plot-resolving props to support our catharsis,
– and that both The Enemy is plotting against us and The Endangered are in need of rescue.
Every act of the Main Character is considered an honorable sacrifice, while The Enemy remains a faceless, disembodied, unpredictable element that only thinks of “my” destruction.
This arc of the Hero-Savior story has silently fueled our approach to politics, religion, gender, race relations, charity, and just about every Hollywood blockbuster – and it perpetuates both a self-idolization and an other-demonization. It is both a megalomania and xenophobia. It’s why we say things like “race-baiting,” because we make someone else’s racial pain about “me.”
The most difficult part is that it acts as genuine benevolence, even believing in its own good motives, but continues to operate on a subconscious superiority of “doing the right thing.” It’s not as obvious as armed warfare but kills us over a lifetime of dehumanizing anyone outside the familiar. No one wants to think they’re the bad guy, and will find every rationalization to uphold their behavior. This runs under racially motivated crime, through power-plays or sexual conquest or the pressure for success. It’s largely our sociological need to be identified with the “victor,” the winning side, and for the “loser” to be morally wrong and the source of our ills, who must be subjugated under our feet and obliterated.
Everyone wants to be the Hero at the expense of making the “other” a Villain. This is the crux of the problem. A Hero must destroy an Enemy and “save” the Endangered. The Main Character falls into a romanticized, fetishized fantasy of being celebrated for their upstanding courage, which not only forfeits the necessary cooperation for real acts of heroism, but also trivializes the very real complexity of criminals and victims and justice, all which require a nuance far greater than our simplistic shorthand impulse.
The language of “the enemy” and “stranger” is not entirely our fault. Our brains have a shorthand schema to recognize patterns, so that we can make quick associations and fill the gaps of perception. It’s often a reflex to jump to conclusions or force-fit a memory or an explanation. This is why a movie will portray a crime-ridden city with “wet streets” and boarded doors and loud rap music, as a point of reference which works as a cheat-sheet for the viewer. Foley artists add sound effects in movies which we’re conditioned to hear, though so often they’re not the sound the thing makes, like rain and bowling balls. A clock can look suspiciously like a bomb because of Cartoon Time Bombs, but would be completely impractical since a modern bomb won’t call attention to itself with giant numbers. It only takes a moment to think through it: but our brains have gone Pavlov. We lock things into a habitual grid that relays consistent information, even when there’s contrary evidence to the schema at work.
These symbols and images and visual cues are more powerful and prevalent than we think. We’re taught that certain clothing, like a du-rag or sweater vest or hijab, conveys the entirety of that person, with moral implications and the “importance” to the plot. An Asian with glasses wearing a tie in a computer lab portrays a very specific range of information, as they’re only good for unlocking an encrypted file or discovering the missing clue in a forensics report. Or they’re used as a “foreigner punchline.” A Middle Eastern man bringing a briefcase on a bus is supposed to be a tense moment of paranoia, instantly engaging the viewer in questions we’ve been trained to ask – but not stopping to ask why we even ask these questions.
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