Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Past is Now: How Whitewashing History Upholds Racism Today

Last year, I started drafting a snarky takedown of that hideously awful, whitewashed nonsense that was Exodus: Gods and Kings. I never finished it (nor did I sully my brain or wallet with paying to watch the whole thing - trailers and reviews were plenty) until now. It’s not really about a terrible movie and Hollywood’s habit of casting white people where they do not belong. It’s much, much bigger than that.

Many people only interact with history via representations in TV and movies. Such media has a unique responsibility to show the facts of a diverse, global past, in which people of color were architects of great civilizations.

This movie did look really, really bad, though. Exodus: Gods and Kings was the latest film in a trend of turning fire-and-brimstone Old Testament stories into All-Out Action Ragers. (See also: Noah). The other awful thing about these movies, besides the fact that they’re so gung-ho you almost expect Noah and Moses to be out there with Uzis, is that they are populated entirely by white people.

Rupert Murdoch weighed in with the full force of his cobwebby racism. He claimed that “[Egyptians] were Middle-Eastern, but far from black. They treated blacks as slaves.” Unsurprisingly, Murdoch, one of the primary creators of the current right-wing misinformation mill, believes some totally wrong things about history.

Let’s check that claim. We’re to assume that ancient Egypt’s ruling class, as well as the oppressed Israelites, were composed of light-skinned people, indistinguishable from white actor Joel Edgerton. This guy is supposed to be Ramses.

Gross. [Image: Actor Joel Edgerton squints in a manly fashion in a production photo from Exodus: Gods and Kings. He is very white.]

Here is one of the many statues of Ramses III himself.
Yeah, I don’t think so. [Image: A massive statue of Pharaoh Ramses III sitting regally. His features appear to be much closer to those we associate with black people than with white people.]

What an ancient world this movie is imagining! When Middle Eastern and North African people are all white! What world is that again? DNA evidence proves that Ramses III was black. See also this incredible essay on black hair in ancient Egypt, complete with fantastic images of clearly black Egyptians.

Like this one! [Image: Three men harvest grapes. All have brown skin and the man on the right has afro-textured hair.]

When you talk about representations of history, alllll these white people pop up who are EXTREMELY concerned about “historical accuracy.”

Somehow, this always boils down to: But why should people of color (and, to a lesser extent, women) exist and do things in my TV show/movie/video game? They totally could never have existed then/done that/lived there! Much-mythologized but little-understood settings, like “medieval Europe,” are strongly assumed to only consist of white people. Bafflingly, this extends to fantasy settings loosely based on Europe - i.e., Game of Thrones - where dragons and magic and sexualizing underage girls is totally fine, but a black person existing is a bridge too far. I continually wonder if these passionate defenders of “historical accuracy” know exactly how goofy they sound.

“Historical accuracy,” as used as a bludgeon by white people who are angry about people of color existing in the past, is built on a foundation of extremely poor historical understanding.
They are operating on three thoroughly false assumptions:
  1. Black people did not contribute to culture or history in the way that white people did
  2. People of different races stayed in one place forever and always, and never traveled, settled elsewhere, or encountered one another
  3. Black people have always been treated as lesser or as slaves

Whitewashing great African civilizations like Egypt (and ignoring the existence of many others- see also the Malian Empire and Mansa Musa for a start) is necessary to uphold white supremacy. Denying great cultural contributions of black people in the past makes it easier to ignore black art and philosophy and poetry today. The bigot’s thought process goes like this: It never existed, so it can’t exist now. Rupert Murdoch’s absurd claim clearly rests on assumptions 1 and 2: black people didn’t contribute to culture, and they have always been treated as slaves. In his assertion, placing white supremacy as a historical constant legitimizes whiteness and erases black history.  
When you deny people their history, it’s harder for them to push back against harmful myths or stereotypes.

Ultimately, today’s historical media has a duty to address today’s conditions. Our representations of history, the way we tell our stories, have a responsibility to know that they don’t represent history in a vacuum. People of color were rulers, inventors, writers, and lovers at the center of epic poems. They represented themselves as gods and goddesses, and were priests and philosophers and artists. Many writers have addressed the issue of representation better than I, but at the center of it all is this: Can you be what you never saw yourself being? What they said you never were?

History is both a lesson and a map. When we imagine a whites-only history, an upward march of progress based on capitalism and colonialism, we harm the people of today. History instruction in K-12 American schools is superficial at best and actively oppressive at worst - mostly because “history” is neither static nor past. We are living history right now - terrifying, scary, rise-of-fascism-in-America history. Racism never died, and hate groups have had a massive resurgence since President Obama’s election in 2008. Violent denial of black dignity, of black history and humanity, is central to white supremacy - and it’s all supported by falsely perceiving history as white.

We have always had a global world. Immigrants from southern Portugal and North Africa were buried in Ireland over 1,500 years ago.. The Islamic world traded with the Vikings.. People of color have always, always been everywhere, and people have always traveled and traded and immigrated. To imagine otherwise is simply wrong.

I never want to hear white people, in the depth of our entitlement and ignorance, demanding that their historical media be all-white. If they do, link them here. Maybe they’ll learn something.

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