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Spike Lee and the SympatheticRacist
Knowthyself. on of Inscription theTemple ApolloatDelphi' In his recent book White,RichardDyer argues that racial whiteness has operated in Western film and photographyas an idealized standard against which other races have been judged. Making his case inductively using instruction manuals, historical theories of race, and traditional lighting and make-up practices, as well as the dominant ideals for human beauty utilized in developing film stocks and camera equipment over the last 150 years and more, Dyer maintainsthat Western visual culture has presented whites as the norm for what it is to be "just human" or "just people," whereas other human beings have been presented as raced, as different from the norm.2 This manner of depicting whiteness has invested the category itself with the power to represent the commonality of humanity. Furthermore, Dyer argues that this historical function of whiteness's normativity continues to be profoundly influential in current practices and instruction.3 Dyer's argumentis in accord with what philosophers such as Charles W. Mills and Lewis R. Gordonhave advancedin broadertheoretical terms regardingthe operationof whiteness as a norm against which nonwhites-and particularly blacks-have been negatively judged.4 Like Dyer, Mills and Gordon argue that presumptions of whiteness institutionalize racial beliefs at the level of backgroundassumptions that most would not even think to examine. Based on this claim, these philosophersreason that whiteness functions not only as a social norm, but also at the epistemological level as a form of learned ignorance that may only with
considerable effort be brought forward for explicit criticalinspection.5 Similarly, many of Spike Lee's films place into question presumptionsabout the normativity of whiteness. A crucial aim in his ongoing cinematic oeuvre has been to make the experience of racism understandableto white audience members who "cross-over"and view his films. Because seeing matters of race from a nonwhite perspective is typically a standpoint unfamiliarto white viewers, Lee has sought to make more accessible such an outlook through the construction and use of specific character types. One way he achieves this goal is by offering depictions of characterswho function as what I will call "sympathetic racists":characters with whom mainstreamaudiences readily ally themselves but who embraceracist beliefs and commit racist acts. By self-consciously presenting white viewers with the fact that they may form positive allegiances with characters whose racist bigotry is revealed as the story unfolds, Lee provokes his viewers to consider a far more complex view of what it means to think of one's self as "white"and how that may affect one's overall sense of humanity. Lee thus probes white audiences' investment in what might be...