Metal 'n Bone

ODENDAAL ESTERHUYSE

White Ignorance. Black Fixation

According to Du Bois, African American history created a double-consciousness in the psyches of black Americans. This double consciousness exists in the way they perceive themselves as well as their awareness of the way the white public perceives them, as niggers (Allen, 1992). According to him this double consciousness causes self-doubt, which creates a process of self-alienation and a lack of confidence. Since African Americans were very much aware of the hatred and fear projected onto them, they struggled to create a positive identity as both an American and a Negro. The American in them must surely be racist towards the Negro in them, because that was the social reality of their time. This double consciousness is explored with the way African American characters react to their environment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). Do you react with love or with hate? Although similar in core concept, Flory’s presentation of the double-consciousness of white viewers is done in a different context (2006). This essay will discuss this white double consciousness and Flory’s perception of white viewers within the context of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). I will argue that Flory is fixated on racial issues within the narrative and thus unable to consider contributing social elements that add to the tension in the film.

Flory addresses a white double consciousness in the character, Sal. He perceives Sal as a sympathetic racist, which is epitomized in the duality of Sal’s behaviour towards the different black characters. He claims that white viewers will be unable to perceive Sal as a racist, since they will experience sympathy for his character. Flory’s discussion of the cognitive disability of white viewers (of Do the Right Thing) can be countered with his fixation on the racial elements of the narrative. In the same way most white viewers are unable to perceive the racial elements of social conflicts because of their history, some black viewers are unable to see past racial issues because of their history. Flory argues that, because of their privileged history, white viewers cannot truly empathize with black characters in films. He writes that the issue of race is not considered as a current sociological problem by white people because they are unaffected by it. So, he believes that it is mostly black people who are capable of understanding racial issues in the fiction. White people are generally ignorant to the racial influences on these social tensions. Although I agree with this observation, I believe that there is another side to the argument that goes unnoticed by Flory. I believe that, like Flory, some black viewers can become fixated on the racial element in fictional social issues, and hence ignore contributing factors outside the scope of race. I will demonstrate my point using the conflict presented in Do the Right Thing between Sal and Buggin Out. A conflict that starts out relatively subtly compared to the climax it reaches at the end of the film.

Flory describes Sal as a sympathetic racist. This means that he is a character who is presented in a morally good light, but who is still evil in his racial prejudices. It is evident in the contrast of Sal’s behaviour towards different black characters. In certain scenes, Sal is presented as caring towards black characters like Da Mayor (00:12:06) and Jade (01:06:23). Lee contradicts this loving representation of Sal with a racist and violent personality when he is confronted with characters like Buggin Out (00:19:07) and Radio Raheem (00:52:09). With his analysis of Sal, Flory concludes that Sal is a racist who occasionally acts morally towards the black people he favors. Flory argues that Lee deliberately constructs Sal’s character in this ambiguous way to provoke thought and self-reflection in white viewers. He calls it white double consciousness, and consequently parallels it with Du Bois’ concept of black double consciousness (2006, p. 67). White double consciousness exists in the awareness of racism as bad, and the morally sincere desire to not be a racist, while still harboring racial prejudices and behaving in racist ways. White double consciousness is therefore created in a bad light, while black double consciousness is perceived as unavoidable result of one’s socio-economic environment. But is there no space for sympathy for white double consciousness as it is also the result of an environmental affect? Sal was not, as far as we know, the creator of any institution that initiated or supported racist ideologies. Sal is a racist, because he is ignorant to the racial elements that contribute to the unhealthy state of the society he is a part of. How can a white person ever act badly towards a black person without facing the authoritarian justice of being labeled a racist? In any social environment, there is potential for conflict. Conflict between individuals and between groups is therefore, to an extent, inevitable in society. In a society that consists of mixed social groups, like different races, conflict is no less predictable. If, therefore, the one race’s guilt in these unavoidable conflicts is pre-determined, where is the equality?

Why is Sal’s racism the only crime under investigation by Flory? Is it because it is the sole contributor to the death of Radio Raheem? I believe that would be incorrect. Radio Raheem did not die because Sal and the policemen are white, and he is black. It can’t be that simple. I believe that there are other elements contributing to the conflict between these characters besides race. I believe that Lee is also exploring public and private space, as well as the masculine dispute over territory (Haupt, 2012). Sal plays the dominant role in his space, and Buggin Out and Radio Raheem openly questions his authority in what he views as his territory, thereby provoking racial prejudices in Sal’s attempt to return the disrespect. If we look at the first confrontation between Sal and Buggin Out, we find that both are guilty of a lack in compassion (00:18:54). Buggin Out has a strong sense of entitlement in his attitude. Not just here, but also with other characters. Mooki and Jade continuously address this attitude, but Buggin Out simply resumes his arrogant ways. When Buggin Out orders the slice of pizza from Sal he slaps the counter in a demanding gesture. He follows the gesture with an accusing look and questioning hand movements like Sal is cheating him. Sal responds (annoyed) by asking him when he is going to pay. The conversation remains confrontational. Sal seems annoyed with Buggin Out’s attitude and Buggin Out feels cheated by Sal’s business ethics. This is the origin of the conflict between them. By framing them on opposite sides of the screen, Lee portrays this territorial dispute cinematically. Sal is the dominant male and Buggin Out is challenging his authority in his space.

The space, however, is contradicting, as it is both public and private. It is Sal’s pizzeria, his business that he built himself. He is very proud of this space as his creation. In this way it is private. But at the same time, he also prides himself in his pizzeria being an important part of the community, and in this way it is public. He emphasizes this when he tells Pino that the neighborhood kids grew up on his pizza (00:58:31). So Sal is contradicting in his perception and his use of his space as private or public. The type of space it is seems to be determined by his mood in the various scenes. It therefore gives Sal merit in protecting his private space while giving Buggin Out justice in defending his right to exist in public space, as Sal’s Pizzeria is both. It is a contradicting situation that leads to tension between male egos because both have some weight in their argument. The conflict develops from there into a racially fueled argument. Race is not the core contributor to the conflict, but rather the catalyst that allows tempers to grow out of control as it is fixated on by the neighborhood.

It cannot be ignored that Buggin Out possesses an aggressive attitude towards white characters. And like Sal, he also has ambiguous ways of perceiving space as either private or public. Later in the film, Buggin Out demonstrates this aggressive behaviour when the white guy with his bike accidentally dirties Buggin Out’s shoes. He repetitively uses phrases like “My block”, “My side of the street” and “My neighborhood” to emphasize his pseudo territorial ownership, and to demonstrate his lack of patience with the white “intruders”. Once again, there is a dispute over public and private space, as Buggin Out views the space as his, while the white guy believes in the legal considerations regarding space. Flory has nothing to say about this particular white character, as he is not presented in a racist light. The context of the dispute between Buggin Out and this other white character is, however, built on similar social issues regarding public and private space and the egotistical fight over territory.

Flory uses Du Bois’ concept of black double consciousness as an entry point to his ideas surrounding white double consciousness and the sympathetic racist. He argues that white viewers are incapable of understanding the degree to which racial elements contribute to social conflicts in fictions such as Do the Right Thing. This essay has explored Flory’s concept of white double consciousness and used the same character, Sal, to demonstrate the idea of a sympathetic racist. It continued by using the conflict between Sal and Buggin Out to demonstrate additional social elements that contributes in the tragic climax of Do the Right Thing, to reveal Flory’s fixation on racial issues in the text and thereby counter his generalized accusation of white viewers.

References

Do the Right Thing. (1989). [Film] Spike Lee. USA. Universal

Ernest, A. Jr. (1992). Ever Feeling One's Twoness: "Double Ideals" and "Double Consciousness" in the Souls of Black Folk. Contributions in Black Studies A Journal of African and Afro-American Studies. 9 (5), 55 - 69.

Flory, D. (2006). Spike Lee and the Sympathetic Racist. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 64 (1), 67 - 79.

Haupt, A. (2012). Conversation in Seminar.