Why I Chose Not to Be Involved in Whitelandia
By Walidah Imarisha
I’ve recently had folks contacting me from across the country, even all around the world, about the upcoming documentary Whitelandia: Black Oregon/White Homeland (a play on the popular show Portlandia), which purports to explore the history of racism and white supremacy in Oregon. It currently is in the production stage, having publicly put out a trailer and launching a successful kickstarter program to fund it.
People having reached out to me about this film for several reasons. One is that I present a public program called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History,” which features an interactive timeline I developed looking at the history of race, identity and power in Oregon.
But people also reached out to me because up until just a few weeks ago, the Whitelandia trailer featured clips of me speaking on this topic. Folks assume the footage of me means I have signed off and given my support for this project. It’s a good assumption to make - unfortunately in this case it’s dead wrong.
The truth is, Whitelandia’s producers (who are both white) used the footage of me without my knowledge or permission. They took it from a program of mine that is available for viewing on youtube. I also learned recently I am not the only one who has had this unfortunate experience. At least two local organizations th have said Whitelandia used footage from their projects without consent, credit, or notification. In addition, the Whitelandia creators told several media sources I was involved in the project, telling one I was an advisor to their project, before I had ever met with them.
More than just really bad filmmaking practices, these incidents speak to deeper issues of white privilege, appropriation and domination.
And more than just using a clip of my program without permission, the producers stated several times, in our one face-to-face meeting as well as in various emails, that my timeline, my research and my analytical framework I put forward in my public scholarship form the spine of their film. Again, without my input or even knowledge. This situation, where my work as a Black female scholar has been used by two white filmmakers without conversation, credit, compensation or control reeks of intellectual colonialism.
When I addressed these concerns with them, their response was to say it would be impossible for a film like this to exist without my scholarship and research, and that, moreover I was the “primary historian” on this subject. This alone shows how very little research the producers have done on their own. My name may come up when you type “Oregon Black History” into google (which feels like is the extent of their research), but I have only been presenting about this for three years. My scholarship itself rests on the backs of and beside dozens of historians, community leaders, cultural workers - the vast majority of whom are from Black communities in Oregon, who have taken on the monumental task, some of them for decades, of preserving, caring for and sharing this history.
To say my work is the only work out there is indicative of the problems with this film, the lack of connection with, and knowledge of, the Black community, evident in their preparation and approach. When we met, the producers only mentioned a couple connections they had sought to establish to the Black community. They had no concrete plans about relationship building or accountability processes, and beyond saying “Folks will get to tell their story in our film,” they had no ideas about compensation or support for the individuals and organizations who would be giving their time and energy for these filmmakers to use. I expressed my concerns to them about all of this. I talked to them about what steps they had put into place to build relationships with the Black community. I asked them how they would support work being led by the Black community now, about accountability to the community, about control, credit and compensation for individual community members featured in the film, and the people like me they were asking to be advisers and conduits to the community. Their answers were vague and didn’t feel thought-out to me. Their actions since have confirmed this, and have led me to request they remove me from the trailer, as well as not use my framework for their film.
To me, this means the making of Whitelandia replicates the same oppressive dynamics they are seeking to explore in their film. This is the historic relationship the Black community has had with the larger white power structure – one where individuals, organizations and institutions come into the community and take what they want - without conversation, without dialogue, without recompense.
The framing of the original Whitelandia trailer (which has since been taken down) felt to me like it portrayed Black communities as passive victims. My entire program and scholarship aims to show that while Oregon was created as a white homeland, enacting many laws, including Black exclusion laws, to further that aim, there have always been Black communities in this state. That is due entirely to the resilience, creativity, determination and community building of Black people. The fact that Black communities exist at all in Oregon – where Black peoples’ very presence was a criminal act written into the Constitution – is an incredible thing. I believe anyone who had done the real research into this history would see this work through that lens.
My other concern is that this film raised a significant amount of money on a kickstarter using the faces, voices and stories of people who were not asked, and did not agree to it. I did not agree to be part of this project, and certainly not a part of a kickstarter campaign. It seems the majority of their money came from small donations, funded by everyday people who believe this is a vital topic that needs to be explored and shown on a larger level. People who thought they were funding a film rooted in and deeply connected to communities of color in Oregon, which unfortunately is not the case.
Do I think the two Whitelandia filmmakers are “bad” people? No. I believe they are white people who had good intentions. Unfortunately, intentions alone, without work, education and accountability, will not stop exploitative dynamics from happening. In fact, they often ensure systems of oppression will be perpetuated, especially in a place like Portland, which prides itself on espousing a liberal politic that actually serves to perpetuate institutional racism. The very existence of Portland as this white playground – as it is portrayed inPortlandia – is predicated on the exclusion, containment, and exploitation of all communities of color. The excess resources that allow Portland to be such a “liberal livable city” – as long as you are middle class and white – are available because Oregon never intended to serve the needs of anyone but its white population. Without a deep commitment to antiracism, not just vague platitudes about diversity, I believe all this state, this nation, and this film will do is further entrench the inequalities that communities of color have resisted for hundreds of years.
Shifting paradigms of power requires more than just good intentions from those who are privileged – it requires constant reflection, humility, accountability and, especially, recognition of and responsiveness to, the leadership of those directly affected. I believe that as it stands now, Whitelandia’s production practices (and ultimately the film itself) will do nothing but replicate the systems of oppression they are purporting to critique in the film.
Signal boost and spread this shit like wildfire.
The term “PoC” (people/person of color) is thrown around loose and fast on Tumblr, and many times quite inappropriately as well. This can lead to the erasure of lived experiences, neo-imperialistic projections onto non-Western contexts and ultimately can reinforce white supremacy in turn. I find the rampant abuse of this term on and off of Tumblr (but especially on this platform) to be exasperating to say the least. It’s one of many reasons that I’ve grown increasingly tired of even engaging with conversations on here, but a recent conversation I had with another friend, who has already left tumblr, prompted me to write this short list for one of my Tumblr major pet-peeves.
So with that let us begin, HOW NOT TO USE THE TERM PoC (in 2 steps):
1. Non-Western Contexts
As a Nigerian I find this to be especially irritating. I have seen people throw race into the #BringBackOurGirls conversation, even as Nigeria is a more than 99% “black” country where we do not even consciously identify as black ourselves because (ding ding) basically EVERYONE is black! We do not see ourselves as black in the context of Nigeria, but now we are suddenly “persons of color”? I can hear my Nigerian aunties hissing at the thought even as I write this.
I also once saw someone on tumblr call Ghana a “majority PoC” nation and I was absolutely floored. In yet another country where people don’t even identify as black, suddenly they are now “PoC” as well? This is Western centrism and cavalier neo-imperialistic projections of Western racial politics onto the wider world in action. Race is a social construct which varies tremendously from place to place, and taking a flat view of race on a global scale is myopic to say the least. Calling Nigeria and Ghana nations of “PoC” is not only flat out wrong, but it is an erasure that reinforces Western hegemony in turn. We want nothing to do with your word “PoC” in our countries, as it has no meaning in the context of our lives there.
At this point it’s important to remember that the term “PoC” is a Western political term for organizing in Western contexts against white supremacy. Again, it has no use in a country like Nigeria or Ghana where basically everyone is “black” (by our definition, even though, again we must note that people from these countries don’t even consciously identify with a racial marker like “black” until coming to the West). It also has no use in other “majority PoC” nations. For example, how useful is a term like “PoC” in a country like Saudi Arabia, where there is brutal, local Arab supremacy rooted in a largely independent history as well? How useful is it in any east Asian country where not even “Asian solidarity” exists given the history and tremendous animus between various peoples in the region? The answer is short- it doesn’t apply. Context is critical. Please stop abusing the term “PoC” in non-Western contexts. When you do so, you’re talking over people from these countries, being Western-centric and erasing their lived experiences in turn. Stop.
2. When antiblackness and other specific forms of racialized oppression occur
As a community, many of us black people are still mourning the loss of our murdered son, Trayvon Martin, killed by antiblackness and failed by a virulently white supremacist and antiblack justice system. Yes, other PoC are victims of racial violence and hate crimes all of the time, but this specific tragedy was a black tragedy. Trayvon Martin was killed in that neighborhood because he was a black boy whose black body was immediately interpreted by George Zimmerman as a security threat that needed to be tracked, followed, and ultimately extinguished and destroyed. Again this is antiblackness in action.
But to my great surprise, in the midst of our grief, we find other PoC waxing long about this being a “PoC tragedy.” No, it’s not a PoC tragedy, it’s a black tragedy as he was killed for being black. Stating blandly that this is just about some general struggle that all “PoC” go through is a form of violence against black people and an erasure of the particularities of our struggle as well. People love to do this with black tragedies in particular, piggy-backing on our pain, but similarly, if someone told me that the murder of Vincent Chin, who was killed for being east Asian-American, was a “PoC tragedy” I would also be horrified and disgusted.
In short, stop it. SPECIFY the form of oppression at play, because without doing so you are simply erasing lived experiences and perpetuating white supremacy and the violence against the community in question. Stop it.
And there you have it. It sounds simple doesn’t it? Don’t apply the term “PoC” to non-Western contexts and specify forms of oppression when you can in Western contexts. But people regularly fail to do these two simple things- perpetuating violence, white supremacy and Western dominance against marginalized communities across the globe. Please do use the term “PoC” as a political organizing tool in the West— I understand its use and importance there and do use it myself in specific ways to encourage solidarity. But I simply have no time for any of the above and hope that one day the abuse of this ostensibly useful term will finally stop.
Once again, I feel compelled to thank Tumblr.
In response to a general post about Captain America/Steve Rogers, someone posted about Isaiah Bradley. Since I never heard of this character before, I looked him up … and immediately discovered references to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Apparently, Marvel intended his origin story to directly reference the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (aka Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment) instead of an accident akin to that of Bruce Banner. [Reference: Truth Be Told: Authorship and the Creation of the Black Captain America]
Between 1932 and 1972, The U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study on the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American sharecroppers in Alabama. They never told the men that they had syphilis and the men were never treated for syphilis. Meanwhile, penicillin was readily available and accepted as a medical treatment for the deadly disease. The significance of this infamous study, besides its inhumanity, is that it led to the creation of federally-mandated Institutional Review Boards to oversee experiments involving human subjects and the Belmont Report. [Reference: Tuskegee Syphilis Study]
I’m no expert on Marvel, so I can’t comment on the significance of the fact that they insisted on referencing this unpleasant side of American history in their “black Captain America”. I would rather see more recognition of the character himself so his story would actually be well-known (go Google it). The fact that he exists, however, is encouraging.
So, thank you Tumblr for reminding me that even though we use this blogging platform for funny gifs …we can also use it as a basis for education and expanding our understanding of history, law, politics, racism, and classism. By the way, the Belmont Report and its history were required reading for my university’s introduction to the study of history. The department chair wanted to impress upon us the importance of Institutional Review Boards if we decided to interview people for our history papers.
Isaiah was all things considered a very recent character, but he stands as very important because he’s a testament to a dark side of American history that most of pop culture, but especially comic books (which are largely built on nostalgia) rarely touch upon.
He was a pretty big deal because both Marvel and DC have a really strict reverence for the Golden Age (the first big comics boom during the late 30’s-40’s), so the fact that they were not only willing to insert a character like that into the Captain America mythos, but also in a way that directly references heinous shit the U.S. actually did, was very controversial and important.
I hope to god this character eventually makes his way to the MCU.
GENERAL TRIGGER WARNING
Whedon has repeatedly infantized female characters, and when he’s not doing that, he’s punishing them for being sexy, or punishing them for being women. It’s an audacity that he gets so much praise for being a feminist, when he hurts women just as much as the next man.
Whedon is dangerous because he uses hurts women and is worshipped by many as women’s savior in entertainment.
(for more information on whedon’s general shittiness, go here)
PSA: Joss Whedon is a piece of shit
I side-eye folks who don’t capitalize Black.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I use both black and Black. I capitalize Black only when I’m talking about US diaspora folks. It’s my way of marking ethnicity because we have never been Americans. We live here but they don’t want us, wouldn’t let us assimilate if we wanted to, and fuck these white folks anyways.
I use the lower case black when referencing all people who get labeled black. I used to say Africans, but I had some folks tell me not to because my people were forcibly taken from there (I think it was Terrell who said ‘the slave ship is my home’).
I can see why a lot of people would side eye when they see that shit though, and I can still see some people side eyeing even after knowing part of my whys considering Asian is capitalize, Latin@ is capitalized, but these are all, again, white designations connected to land masks or colonial shit. And I’m again pointing out how everyone keeps dislocating Black people from land, and culture, and an ethnicity so that we’re incapable of ownership and this is longer than I meant it to be, and I’m probably not making the sense I thought I would be when I started.
I’m just saying I have my reasons.
This is actually beautiful and lovely and thank you for taking time out of your day to write and share. I think you more explicitly mention the nuance that I was too frustrated to clarify tbh. Cause I do the same more or less in trying to make distinctions.
I am radically against service trips where people go to “build schools” (or other facilities) in a developing countries, and I find them to be incredibly disempowering and paternalistic at their core. It all boils down to stroking the (usually white) egos of the volunteers to make them feel like “good people” and does NO longterm good for the community.
I just wish people thought more critically about international development and saw through the smoke screen of “aid” that many of these “development” organizations put up as part of the white savior industrial complex. Like it just seems so obvious to me that an organization that goes through all of the logistical and human effort needed to bring “volunteers” to build schools in ~*aFriCa*~ has values that are fundamentally not aligned with those of their communities. They do not have the best interest of locals at heart, at all.
If they cared about the community, they would be building out local capabilities and talents rather than trying to make a quick buck from western volunteers. They wouldn’t be bringing in untrained (usually) white people from the West without any language skills or understanding of local cultural intricacies to a community that is most at need. Rather than siphoning resources toward making white people “feel good” about themselves and aligning their values with white supremacy and white savior-dom, instead they would be working to give that exact same business to local carpenters and construction workers. Or, worst case, they would bring in people using those same dollars to train community members so that they develop these critical skillsets for themselves and their community at large. Why not actually work in solidarity with a community and build together to improve and develop local capabilities in the longterm? Why must we instead center the white gaze and destructive paternalism, which is disempowering and harmful and only has one longterm impact: making the Western volunteers “feel good” about themselves for “saving the Africans”
It makes me sick.
I also think it’s just so indicative of the deepset narcissism that lies in white supremacy and Western global hegemony that somehow we think that we can “build a school” better than people who are actually from that community. You know the ones who intimately know their needs and those of their communities, far better than the volunteers swooping in for 2 weeks to “save” them. How sick is it that we presume that “expanding our global horizons” can come at any cost, including undermining the fabric of a community, breeding dependency, and pulling resources away from actually building out the longterm capabilities of the people in these communities? I discussed these topics at length with someone who worked in international NGOs for 7 years in Africa and who left incredibly jaded because she saw how the values of so many of these organization was focused on “more NGO, now” rather than doing the more important work of creating communities where the presence of NGOs fades progressively with time as these communities are empowered.
The structure of the white savior industrial complex is one of disempowerment, damage and harm. Participating in it furthers this destruction and hurts these communities in the long run.
The vast majority of these international aid and development NGOs do not have our best interests at heart, and are simply there to make white people (and other Westerners) feel better for the “good deed” they did once in ~the third world~
This post is very important, and while it mentions this, it needs to be stressed that in many cases these charity construction projects are harmful to local economies. Many countries which are destitute are destitute because they are labor-rich and capital-poor, often times because local and national political structures horde capital at the top (and no, this is nothing like WIRD countries having income inequality, and the equation of the two is disguising.)
When you come in and build a school for free, what you’re doing is depriving the people’s largest resource, labor, from being able to turn a profit, and thus, you’re preventing poor people from getting work. If you really care about people AND build schools (where they cannot afford to build their own), then organize a community locally and provide the capital to build that school AND THEN MAINTAIN IT, rather than doing it yourself. That way they can tailor their institutions to their needs, provide work for their workers, and you provide a constant source of employment for teachers, education for children, and a healthier economy. There are also movements to help develop local technologies that can then be produced locally to free up the time of women, who usually bear the brunt of time-intensive tasks which pay poorly.