Microaggressions, Subtlety, and the Progression of Liberal Racism

By Judy Fisher


The dangers of liberals who deny and perpetuate racism have been a popular topic of discussion recently, in part due to Jordan Peele’s new horror film Get Out. The film focuses on the widely-believed, modern myth of the elimination of racism, which can be attributed to, among other things, the rise of implicit, subtle racism, coupled with the idea of “progress” being defined in a linear, forward-moving framework. As described by Rosalind Delmar, “The present is treated as the culmination of the past and as relatively ‘advanced’ compared to that past.” (28) This construction of progress is exemplified in the perspectives of white people who consider the racism of 100 years ago as decidedly ‘worse’ than today’s manifestations of racism.

Interestingly enough, Peele was partially influenced by Bryan Forbes’ 1975 film The Stepford Wives, based on a novel by Ira Levin, which has been critiqued for its narrow focus on white suburbia without acknowledging aspects of race, sexuality, class, and so on. In The Stepford Wives there is mention of a black family moving into their suburban neighborhood and how that is natural because of how “liberal” they are despite the lack of diversity. There is also a short depiction of this normative heterosexual black couple in the grocery store at the end of the film. From the perspective of marginalized people this is a sad attempt at including black people to seem more progressive. As described by Charlotte Bunch on the lesbian experience within heterosexual spaces, “Since unity and coalition seem necessary, the question for me is unity on what terms? To unify… requires more than token reference to queers” (222). Here Bunch advocates for the hearty inclusion of marginalized voices in dialogues about liberation, without which, she warns, everyday bigotry is more easily perpetuated.

This dialogue is one that Jordan Peele emphasizes in his film. During an interview with the New York Times, Peele stated:

The liberal elite who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgment that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.

This acknowledgement is specifically directed towards a liberal, white audience because they don’t see the way racism thrives in everyday life, for example in micro-aggressions, and because they benefit from white supremacy. Charlotte Bunch explains this through a parallel experience with heterosexuality: “Since lesbians are materially oppressed by heterosexuality daily, it is not surprising that we have seen and understood its impact first—not because we are more moral, but because our reality is different” (223). We need to acknowledge that violence and oppression can result from good intentions in the same way they do from bad intentions.

It is important that allies and liberal elites acknowledge their role in perpetuating violence, as acknowledged in Jordan Peele’s film. It is arguably even more important that marginalized people hold themselves and those within their communities accountable. As written by the Combahee River Collective, “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us” (269). It is important for us to acknowledge the incredibly liberating things that we can do when we hold each other accountable. Simultaneously, we must be aware of the devastating things that humans can do to each other in a society. When asked what scared him the most in his interview with the New York Times, Peele stated, “Human beings. What people can do in conjunction with other people is exponentially worse than what they can do alone. Society is the scariest monster.”

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