'Whitelash' After "Get Out" Hits the Screen

Senior justice studies major Nicole McKenna argues that the backlash to Jordan Peele’s movie “Get Out,” released earlier this year, demonstrates  maintenance of white power through “science” and so-called “reverse racism.” (Photo couresty Universal Pictures)

Senior justice studies major Nicole McKenna argues that the backlash to Jordan Peele’s movie “Get Out,” released earlier this year, demonstrates  maintenance of white power through “science” and so-called “reverse racism.” (Photo couresty Universal Pictures)

Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” captures a satirical view of what it means to be black in today’s America — but it’s received plenty of backlash from (white) folks who criticize it for disrupting the status quo.

Though it scored a 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, some comments on the review site, an article in Ethics Alarm and others by Debbie Schlussel and Christine Stoddard demonstrate the pushback the film received and the ways its critics maintain white power through “science” and so-called “reverse racism.”

Here’s what happened

Chris, a black man, is dating Rose, a white woman. He joins her on a trip to meet her family members, who try to be “progressive” and “supportive” of African American rights. But soon enough, their family secret is unveiled — they run a business in which Rose seeks out black men to date and bring back to her family’s house.

The family hosts a gathering with their aging white, wealthy friends to “analyze the product” — in this case, Chris — before they buy. The group considers fitness, sex drive, artistic ability, etc. in a process eerily reminiscent of the slave trade.

Once a white buyer purchases the black man, Rose’s father inserts pieces of the white buyer’s brain into the black individual’s body. With an “intellectually superior” white brain and “physically superior” black body, whites can live on forever.

Several white viewers of the film were enraged. They thought white people “looked bad” and were portrayed as evil. Plus, the black character killed the white ones. “[White people] aren’t all like that,” several commenters argued.

Challenging conceptions of “normal”     

The film’s purpose was to create a metaphor for the black individual’s experience in modern-day America. Obviously, neurosurgeons are not inserting white brains into black bodies, but whites did sell black individuals during the slave trade. Today, whites unfairly convict black individuals and discriminate against them in schools, with policies and in the job market.

 Ultimately, the film seeks to challenge normal discourse in America, where whites are usually not depicted as “evil” unless they are the villain against other white people. Unless the film is about some form of racism in the distant past, like slavery or discrimination in the pre-Civil Rights Movement, whites are not allowed to be the “bad guys.”

“Slavery was a long time ago,” many commenters said. “This is not how white people act today.” However, black individuals are still seen as “less than” compared to white people — an ideology these commenters perpetuate when seeking to silence black voices speaking out about their struggles.

“Get Out” challenges this by showing the experiences of black individuals who are afraid to walk at night in a suburban neighborhood, who are asked by white people whether they play basketball, who receive odd looks and excessive questions when part of a multi-racial couple, who are placed in the role of “the help” and who are excessively questioned by cops about their citizenship and felony records.

This enraged white people. And they fought back by trying to reinforce the normal discourse they had created, evident in the comments denying the existence of racism and claiming that whites are the ones who are exploited and discriminated.

But white people are not a marginalized group, so racism against them is impossible. In reality, the angry commenters are just upset that another narrative is being told  — one that challenges the normal discourse they’ve practiced for so many years.

But “science…”

In the film, whites desire black bodies because of their stereotypical athletic ability and increased sex drive. The film also plays on the stereotype that white people are intellectually superior (hence why their brains are harvested to live on eternally).

These assumptions demonstrate a belief that race is naturalized and tied to science. So long as race is grounded in biological theory, it cannot be a social construct. But “Get Out” challenges these beliefs and stereotypes in its satirical horror plot line.

The Ethics Alarm article demonstrates this problematic belief via the white buyers in the film, “making inappropriate comments about ‘his [Chris] kinds’ sexual prowess, or striking up conversations about black athletes.”

Because society assumes sexual urges and athletic abilities are biological, racist comments about Chris’s qualities can be chalked up to “biology and science” rather than being called overtly racist. The phrase “his kind” also creates an assumption that black individuals are of a different species than white individuals. This brings us back to a time when this was thought to be true and shows how that belief is still perpetuated in our society.

One of the most appalling comments on Rotten Tomatoes also demonstrates this ideology.

“Like white people would choose to use black people’s supposedly superior bodies (racist-not all black people have great bodies-look around), and that neuroscience has progressed to a point that a single evil (white) neurosurgeon in a few hours can transplant a part of a person’s brain-you know-the part that contains their personality and soul-that part! into someone else’s brain, and the brain and body continue to function perfectly with the host body’s soul/consciousness buried and repressed,” it says.

This comment points out the “scientific” nature of strategic whiteness. The commenter calls attention to the “supposedly superior body” — acknowledging the racial stereotype about black bodies. The post also mentions that if white people had the choice, they would choose to stay in their white bodies — but I guarantee it has more to do with white privilege than physical fitness.  

Furthermore, rather than acknowledging the dangerous (and racist) idea of transplanting white brains into black (unattractive) bodies, the commenter argues that we shouldn’t even bother with the idea, since this isn’t part of our current scientific paradigm.

This commenter perpetuates whiteness by both addressing the so-called scientific nature of race, and refusing to acknowledge the racial issue of considering whites to be intellectually superior and worth saving their “personality and soul” over a black person’s.

But “reverse racism…”

The refusal to label whiteness and the decision to live in a world of so-called color blindness exacerbates the issue of racism. In “Get Out,” Chris expresses his worries about meeting Rose’s all-white family. Rose dismisses his concerns and says, “My dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have.”

By claiming to be progressive and supportive of black lives, Rose is denying that there are any real differences between her black boyfriend and white father. By doing so, Chris is put in a position where he is expected to trust that the white people love him and are on his side. This is one of the most important ways whites remain in power. If race isn’t acknowledged, how can it be a problem?

In both Schlussel and Stoddard’s articles, as well as the Rotten Tomatoes page, there is an obvious refusal to label whiteness. The only time they mention it is when discussing the “anti-white” agenda Peele is supposedly pushing. Some commenters ignore the racist plot line altogether, reducing it to a “basic plot line” or a “bad horror film.”

By refusing to address racism in the film, these people perpetuate white power strategies. One commenter shoves off the plot, saying, “White people are evil bla bla bla… black people are persecuted bla bla bla...” to dismiss the racism and act as though it was just a common complaint we should pay no attention to.

When whiteness is mentioned in the backlash against this film, it is always in a way that casts white people as the victims of reverse racism (a term white people use when minority groups call them out for their role in systemic racism).

“I don’t think reverse racism is acceptable any more than racism… All white people were treated in a negative stereotypical view. It’s blatantly pushing a racial stereotype agenda against white people. But you can’t be racist against white people, we’re ‘too privileged’ I’ve heard as an excuse,” they complain.

But by using privilege discourse and reverse racism as tools, white individuals can fight back against the war on white power, dismissing narratives and arguments of marginalized individuals and maintaining a white place at the top of the power structure.

By refusing to name the white power and arguing the “scientific” basis of race, white commentators reinforced the very power structure they attempted to deny. This reinforcement further oppresses minority groups and leaves them without power to change the cultural narrative that defines their place in society.

That’s why films like “Get Out,” and the discussions and analyses that follow, are crucial to challenging white power and magnifying the historical acts of oppression and racism, as well as understanding the current ways our society perpetuates these patterns.