When White People Co-opt the Black Experience

I have recently read an interview with several A-list Hollywood actors from The Hollywood Reporters Annual Actor Roundtable. Amongst the men involved were Michael Caine, Will Smith and Samuel L Jackson. Topics covered in the interview included career paths, racism and aging. Michael Caine has made some comments on race in the interview which are being presented as progressive in some areas of the media, but I feel the need to point out that they are exactly the opposite of that. When the topic of prejudice and racism comes up Michael describes his struggles with oppression as a working class actor and compares this to the black experience in acting saying when he first started out he was “the ‘black’ actor” and that “Cockneys were the first ‘blacks’ in England”.

While I appreciate Michael is trying in his own way to show support, such comments are extremely problematic. Experiencing one form of oppression does not mean we know what it’s like to experience oppression of another kind. I recently wrote an article which made some reference to how my identity as a mixed race woman helped me to empathise with those who are transgender because I know what it’s like to experience misrecognition when it comes to my identity. I was very mindful in the piece to make it clear I was not saying that I knew what it was like however to live the transgender experience. It was my aim to try to facilitate understanding of transgender issues, not to make the piece all about me and my own experiences of oppression.

I made a distinction between my experience and the transgender experience for two reasons. The first is that it’s insulting and offensive to tell someone or a group that we know what their experience is like when we do not belong to the same marginalized group. The second reason, which explains the first, is that the simple truth is we don’t know what it’s like to belong to marginalized groups we are not actually part of. All social inequalities are unique in the ways they operate. We can use our own experiences to empathise with others who face oppression but there is no situation where it is ok for us to say we literally have had the same experience.

Michael’s comments on the panel ignore the fact some black actors now and in the past will struggle with, not only racial oppression, but class oppression at the same time. In addition his comments ignore his white privilege which even as an oppressed working class young actor he still had access to.

It worries me that this piece is being used to show Michael’s open-mindedness on the topic of racism. The only comment he made which was of value was when he said there was no reason why Idris Elba, as a black actor, could not be cast as James Bond. It’s disappointing that no black or white members at the panel challenged his comments and even more disappointing that no-one questioned them before publication of the interview.

White people co-opting the black experience to discuss or legitimize their own experiences of oppression is nothing new. Rachel Dolezal, whose childhood was clearly oppressive and abusive, co-opted a black identity for many years to seek refuge from her difficult past and perhaps have a sense of understanding. While I empathise with Rachel’s need for belonging and escape, when white people feel entitled to claim the black experience it only highlights their own racism because it just demonstrates how their white privilege knows no limits.

I’ve also noticed in many feminist groups that I’ve joined that some white women will reference one example of being in a racial minority (usually whilst travelling) and say this means they understand what the experience is like for people of colour in Western countries. Hearing this kind of thing as a person of colour does not make me feel understood, it angers me. There are obvious differences between feeling oppressed or marginalized when you are in your own country and when you are abroad. When I hear this kind of thing I’m just thinking to myself,  this white person feels so entitled they think they should be able to go anywhere in the world and still benefit from white supremacy, in any circumstances, without fail. ALL people will feel marginalized and oppressed at some point when they travel. It goes with the territory. I also feel in literally any situation for a white person to say they understand what it is like to be a person of colour is simply absurd given the history between white people and people of colour and the fact that white supremacy is a global problem due to colonization throughout the world.

I think the only way to really show empathy to people in marginalized groups is to listen to them, be quiet about our own oppressions and make sure if we do start talking about ourselves and our experiences that we make a distinction between our experiences of oppression and theirs, otherwise we risk minimizing and belittling the issues they face. This has the potential to create more distance and tension and that is exactly what genuine empathy and understanding seeks to avoid.


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