Thursday, December 6, 2007

American Blackout - questions of identity

The film showing event on campus provided numerous examples in which issues of identity, were present in the center point of the issue of discussion and concern in both the documentary film American Blackout itself and in the organization and presentation of the event as a whole.

The film highlighted numerous concerns regarding race, gender and class in its presentation of the manner in which questions concerning patterns of voter disenfranchisement were treated in both the DC political sphere and in the media. The word “blackout” in the film’s title comments on race and contemporary American culture. It can first suggest an attempt to keep blacks out of the American political process. Further, the cultural association of black and darkness with something less deserving of our attention suggests individuals of this racial identity to be culturally labeled as if lacking value. “Blackout” can mean literally to black-out, a media term meaning to cut to a black (empty) screen so as to not show certain scenes or information. It suggests a kind of mass controlled censorship carried out with intention. The film comments on the cultural belief that race, as well as other forms of identity, function in opposition to a norm from which to measure it. Cynthia McKinney was a black, female member of Congress, forced to be defined by race and gender identifiers, particularly by the media. When bringing up concerns of voter disenfranchisement against the African American community, she was chastised for “playing the race card” by a fellow member of congress, a suggestion she would not have encountered were she not of color. The film emphasized patterns in media representation of black people as always “playing” the victim, who’s only role in society is to passively take (welfare, etc) and selfishly attack (the government, the community through theft, violence and murder.) They are viewed, en masse, as parasitic versus concerned or constructive. The film attempts to counter that suggestion by showing the black female political figure as powerful, strong, concerned, capable, educated, and active.

This brings up further questions of identity concerning a cultural divided perception of the citizen versus the outsider. The outsider is seen as a threat, both of physical and ideological nature. Although ethnic features may be a simple, though often inaccurate, path to labeling someone as a foreigner, to be labeled a terrorist or to be labeled as being involved in “anti-American activities” requires only an act of questioning. In the film, McKinney proclaimed “I may be an agitator, but I’m not an outsider.” In doing so, she is bringing attention to the manner in which we have come to associate the “good citizen” with complacency and the dissenter with terrorism.

Gender is also an issue of identity touched in the film. McKinney was herself female and presented to the public through the media as a conniving, at times bickering, young woman, someone to deal with and pacify, rather than someone with research-backed questions and concerns deserving of honest attention. In reference to her questions concerning the Ohio 2004 election, one Florida congressman claimed she was “wasting our time on silly Hollywood-inspired conspiracy theories,” suggesting she was only concerned with emotion versus evidence as women are stereotypically believed to always be. Such a comment suggests her being in the incorrect acceptable realm for her gender. She was somehow lost in a space for “serious men work” as opposed to her place at home, watching soap-operas. She was deprived of respect and the public space to speak so as to be heard. It was made clear that the time she was “wasting” was owned and regulated by the congressional majority, older white men.

Space does not allow for discussion of other complications concerning identity issues that the film and its presentation suggested which I have found particularly interesting to ponder. For example, what happens when white individuals are in support of black struggles, or men are in support of women’s struggles? What does it mean for individuals in positions of privileged power to stand up in support of the oppressed group to enable them more power? Does that act only highlight a reliance of the oppressed upon the privileged? Can those in privilege ever be seen as anything but? White people can help but they can’t understand. The presentation of the film by Celeste Taylor shows an example of a black female activist presenting a film about a black female activist. She is trying to reach people in the audience, but there is the sense of difference and division. A sense of “you don’t understand.” At the same time, if it were to be presented by white individuals, how would black students in ABC feel? The fact that the presentation and film showing happened at all was due to support (financially, publicity, “good name” legitimacy) from the Center for Political Participation with the help of two white women in charge of it within a majority white upper/upper middle class institution. Taylor was able to speak because she was allotted space.

[october 2007]

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