“Can everyone in the world just watch this movie, please?”
I don’t remember who said it, it was just words floating in the air as we stumbled out of the movie theater, changed people relearning the ways of an old world.
It was the Thursday night before Trump won the presidential election, and we had just seen Moonlight for the first time. The film, which is still in theaters, had already amassed a groundswell of critical acclaim that let us know we were in for something special. I was still unprepared.
In just under two hours, Moonlight had utterly leveled my heart and rebuilt it at least twice its original size — stronger, more capable of hope and intimacy. As a White woman, watching a film in which people of color fill every speaking role felt both life-changing and timely. Looking back on that night now that we live in a world where, barring a historically unprecedented demonstration of the people’s will, Donald Trump will be our next president, it’s clear to me that art-fueled growth of this nature is more important than ever before.
Moonlight is part of an invigorating trend across genres in 2016: art created by people of color that both has a mainstream (or comparable) platform and is made, first and foremost, for people of color. From Beyonce’s album, Lemonade, to Issa Rae’s new HBO series, Insecure, back through the films Queen of Katwe and Moonlight and beyond, American media is awash in complex, thoughtful, brilliantly executed art from Black and Brown artists speaking to and for their own communities.
Genius creators of color have been changing the game for as long as humans have walked the Earth, but the intention is still unique. Whether it’s subtle or explicit, artists of color have historically been forced to limit their work for the sake of White consumers’ comfort in order to gain access to broader distribution in Western culture.
This year, it seems there are more artists than ever in a position to refuse that toxic compromise. What they are producing celebrates a complex, loveable humanity worthy of unapologetic celebration — not just tolerance.
People of color (artists, activists, and audience members alike) have heralded this burgeoning movement in part by warning White folks against attempting to define or control these projects. I agree that dismantling White supremacy requires White people like me learning to listen to others instead of trying to speak for them. I also believe that, as a White person, there is something essential to deliberately engaging art that is not interested in maintaining my comfort.
We need our minds and hearts reshaped in this way to build strategic responses that allow us to truly stand with those most vulnerable in a United States led by Trump. As White folks, we need to do more than just give these artists space — we need to honor the ways they invite us to grow by doing the hard work of meeting them beyond our trained assumptions.
Whether you’re experienced with engaging art from a perspective unlike your own or are new to it, give these steps a shot. You may find there is more to learn than you realized.
PLEASE NOTE: These are tools for White folks and other people with lived experience of privilege to use when witnessing work by people with lived experience of oppression. Please do not assume people of color need to reciprocate when engaging with White artists, as they are expected to empathize with and prioritize us at literally all times.
1. Commit to having a personal experience.
This is as much about consideration for people of color as it is about allowing this to be a slow and messy learning experience. It’ll be easier for everyone if you don’t document it on Twitter or Facebook at first.
2. Ask Google.
Is there something you don’t understand, like a phrase, a cultural practice, a shared experience, or a historical reference? Research it to deepen your understanding. Vet your sources carefully for anti-racist values, and read more than a few.
3. Notice your resistances and commit to feeling through them.
You may find yourself feeling defensive, like you would never do half of the awful things White people are depicted doing. You may realize that you are numb or unable to connect with a character or a theme. When these feelings come up, stop and breathe. Try and focus on the fact that we live in a world where the creators could imagine and build what they made from their lived experience. Make room for the idea that they are telling the truth, no matter what you’ve seen. It’s likely this process will be painful. It’s natural and healthy for the return of empathy to work like that.
4. Apply it to the real world.
Now that you’ve seen our world from another perspective, see if you can spot microaggressions you previously would not have noticed. Try to use that knowledge to avoid or interrupt patterns of behavior you might have relied on in the past. See if you can extend the ways you listen and work through your discomfort in your day-to-day life.
5. Mind your language.
As White people, we are trained to express our opinions as though our perspective is the most important and all others are “alternatives.” When talking about art by and for people of color, respect the work by naming the impact it had on you specifically instead of saying what it means to the world. Look at how I described Moonlight above. Did I tell you what the movie is about or how anyone else should interpret it? Did I even say whether or not it was a good movie? Or did I instead say that it changed me and express gratitude for what it gave me the opportunity to feel?
There is a difference between being a fan and acting like you’re an expert.
6. Invite others to the work (and take responsibility for how they engage it).
One of the only things any of us can say for certain is that we need more White people in the United States to be committed to honoring the humanity of people of color. Art, and the struggle to relate to it beyond our biases, may be the best tool we have to that end. Once you’re intimately connected to a specific work, share it with other White folks — and do so responsibly. Help them do their research and be patient with them, so people of color don’t have to expend energy — energy they often need just to survive — on White people’s education. Keep other White people in the conversation. Lives depend on it.
Tatyana Brown is a poet and educator based in the Bay Area. She teaches writing and communication workshops as a member of both Restorative Writers and the New Ground Project. Follow her on Twitter at @TatyanaBrown.