Melissa Harris-Perry’s response that is being discussed by everyone from Maddox to FOX is noteworthy in how it shows the racial Rorschach blots we look at.
This author (or the website click-baiting with a headline), of course, uses the term “traumatized” as a pejorative even though she said no such thing. It’s really great when they go on to excoriate MSNBC for journalistic integrity when they poisoned the well by misrepresenting their opposition.
What she said was more like this:
“I know why I have feelings — good, bad, and otherwise — about Star Wars. And I have a lot. I could spend the whole day talking about the whole Darth Vader situation. Like, the part where he was totally a black guy whose name basically was James Earl Jones, who, and we were all, but while he was black, he was terrible and bad and awful and used to cut off white men’s hands, and didn’t, you know, actually claim his son. But as soon as he claims his son and goes over to the good, he takes off his mask and he is white. Yes, I have many, many feelings about that, but I will try to put them over here.”
Please, anyone, cite me one false thing she said about Star Wars. (Lots of people are calling her a liar, even though she gets every detail right). Is anything she just said an inaccurate rendition of the film? No. It’s a literary analysis.
The point is, we as whites can watch Star Wars one way, and people of color can see a very different subtext, and Hispanics can see a very different subtext. Star Wars is very much a white cultural construct from the 70s: Hippie pseudo-Buddhist/Taoist spirituality (which is incredibly beautiful but is still very much a product of that time), recreating serial adventures that starred whites like Flash Gordon with very racist villains like Ming the Merciless, and with very little non-white presence (even by Empire we have Lando).
I don’t think Harris-Perry is saying Star Wars is objectively racist, and not one of the hysterical commentaries I’ve read actually quotes her as making that argument.
Rather, she is pointing to what she felt as a child and continues to feel as an adult. That is the message she is hearing, because she is more attuned to those kind of messages, because she has to be.
Fact is, people use “Jawa” as a racial epithet. People use Star Wars in racist ways. That doesn’t make Star Wars itself racist, any more than Huck Finn was racist because “nigger” appears in the book. But it does mean that there is a racial response that we all have.
Me, I view Vader as a badass villain with an authoritative voice. I didn’t see race there in specific, I saw an increasingly interesting character. But I have the luxury of viewing Star Wars as being a source of spiritual wisdom, as a story about knights. I could play Luke Skywalker on the playground and not have to qualify that I was playing someone outside of my racial group.
If you’re a girl playing Star Wars, you can be Leia (who is very cool) and that’s about it. If there’s two black kids and they both want to be good guys, they’re gonna have to fight over Lando. If you’re an Asian or Hispanic or Arab kid, you’re out of luck.
Does that mean Star Wars needs to have a Jedi of each human ethnicity? Absolutely not: That’s silly tokenism. But when will we have a host of awesome stories that are inherently mainstream about Asian heroes, played by Asian actors? About awesome Muslim or Arab heroes, played by those actors?
The issue is those who want to call Harris-Perry’s feelings, her response to watching a piece of art, objectively wrong. No, it’s not, it’s just a different reaction.
Just like an asthmatic may cough if the air is slightly bad but everyone else is fine, so too can a person of color react very differently to a piece of art due to a subtext in the air.
And no sane person says “Stop saying that you’re coughing because of your ‘asthma’, jerk! You’re just whining! You’re playing the ‘asthma’ card!”
But to be white, to be male, to be straight, means to be able to think that your experience, your perspective, your vantage point, is the only objective one. It’s to be able to say that others are just being specious or disingenuous when they bring a different viewpoint. But they’re not. You have a viewpoint too: You just get to pretend you don’t, when you’re privileged.
And for every person criticizing Harris-Perry for making a mountain of a molehill, let me point to the fact that #blackliesmatter and racial accusations are going to be made because Harris-Perry said her opinion about Star Wars. Either Star Wars matters or it doesn’t, but white conservatives want to have it both ways. Either this is a mountain, and then Harris-Perry’s view actually has to be debated by its merits, or it’s a molehill, and y’all need to calm down.
When we can accept that different human beings have as a result of their social position different issues that they are sensitive to, and that we should discuss that with respect instead of derision, we’ll be able to make forward progress.