A YOUNG man walks along a residential neighbourhood in America. He’s uncomfortable, talking on his phone. A car goes past, turns and heads slowly toward him. He turns and heads the other way. The car stops, a figure in a helmet comes up behind him, whacks him over the head and drags him back to the car. Fade to black….
Here’s the twist. The young man is black. The neighbourhood is a leafy, middle-class suburb, mostly white as we gather from the black man’s conversation on the phone. The opening sequence in the film “Get Out” sets the tone. Every seemingly innocuous gesture or snippets of conversation become sinister when examined through the filter of race.
“He would have voted for Obama a third time if he could….”
“I love Tiger Woods….”
When a young black man meets his white girlfriend’s family and friends for the first time, he’s anxious about his race. Because a black boyfriend will, of course, be looked upon more suspiciously. Then we meet the epitome of white, middle-class liberal America. As they smile and make conversation, it becomes increasingly more awkward against a background of black staff members silently doing their menial jobs.
And when the full horror is revealed, it’s doubly terrifying because the gentle, smiling black man has been forced to turn to violence. Even the non-white police officers laugh hysterically at the suggestion that white liberals might have menacing intentions towards black people. And until the very end, there’s disbelief that the all-American, milk-drinking, sweet girlfriend is in fact part of the conspiracy.
I don’t watch horror. The genre doesn’t appeal, not even the bloodless allegorical kind. But here’s why I watched “Get Out”, why it struck a chord. Because every casual comment alluding to a person’s race or culture, every ‘harmless’ action, contains a wealth of meaning. Unconscious bias is an excuse for deeply ingrained bigotry. And fighting back against it, sometimes merely talking about it, can lead to isolation and exclusion.
When a woman of colour is told by her superiors that she should consider herself lucky to have gotten so far so quickly when she’s trying to negotiate equal pay for equal work.
When a young black man is deemed not “African” enough because he speaks Arabic.When a young mixed-race woman is told to not report her sexual harassment by an older colleague because it could adversely affect her career.
When a single woman of colour, the most vulnerable person in a white male-dominated professional organisation, is ostracised for repeatedly standing up to authority.
When a woman of colour is made to feel guilty for taking time off work for depression…
This isn’t overt racism, something one can point to and complain about. Talking about it makes people uncomfortable, because the perpetrators are white, middle-class liberals. They’re not racist. In fact, they’re working to promote greater diversity in the workplace. So the “victim” must be making it up – or exaggerating, or must have misunderstood.
This is discrimination of the “Get Out” kind – so subtle you barely notice and laugh it off awkwardly until it starts to increase in proportion and affect your life and mental health. “Get Out” is comedy and horror all rolled into one Hollywood film. But the parallels in real life are no less dramatic. As a person of colour you realise that there are limitations – unspoken professional boundaries to what you can achieve that appear nebulous to start with, but become frustratingly clearer as you get closer. Conversation about diversity involves ticking boxes, abilities and experience are meaningless.
“We’re here to help you” is a toxic refrain. And in the end, it is easier to simply accept defeat and plod along rather than speak out and rock the boat. Because that can lead to a career-ending bloodbath.
Follow @NishaLahiri on Twitter, BBC World Service journalist.
Get Out (2017) co-produced and directed by Jordan Peele.
Image: CASUAL RACISM “so subtle you barely notice and laugh it off awkwardly until it starts to
increase in proportion”. Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in “Get Out”. Photograph: Justin