In a few moments we’re going to be using two scenes from Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ to explore some of the concepts and ideological structures that surround American racial politics, paying special attention to how those structures affect Black Americans in particular. Before that, though, I wanted to point out that I am neither Black nor an American, which means that I’ve never had any first-hand experience with American racism and in fact, as a white British guy, I have never really been the victim of racism at all. Everything that we’re about to talk about is based only on my observations and not my lived experiences. If you’re trying to find a real dialogue on the impact of race, power and national identity then I’d recommend following and engaging with Black artists, writers and content creators.
Sometimes I find it hard to have productive conversations about racism. I’ve talked about it with my friends, most of whom are either anti-racist or at least people who accept that racism both exists and is bad, but I live with the constant fear that someone I know, someone I love, may one day reveal that they hold views that I consider to be racially problematic. Then I start to panic. What if this person refuses to address those beliefs? What if they reject reasonable arguments and evidence? Could I continue to be friends with someone who I believe to be a racist? Am I prepared to cut this person out of my life completely?
This is a hard conversation to have, even hypothetically, and inevitably our communication problems started long before this single imagined interaction. In fact, one of the most common issues I’ve discovered when talking to my majority white, majority working-class social groups about race is that we often start with a fundamentally different understanding of what racism is.
See, if you Google ‘the definition of racism’ the first search result you’ll find is as follows:
prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.
My friend, the one who holds all the problematic beliefs, loves this definition. It’s short, it’s simple and, best of all, it’s so vague that they can now choose whether or not they ‘count’ as a racist. Like how if my friend believed the statement that ‘England should be a whites-only country’ then they get to use Google’s definition to prove that they aren’t racist. This definition, they realise, specifies that racism is based on an individual’s ‘[inclusion in] a particular racial or ethnic group’ not their ‘exclusion from a country’s racial majority’. In other words, my friend could use this definition to argue that they are not racist because they’re discriminating against all non-whites and they would be technically correct. Congratulations, you have just successfully nit-picked your way out of being called a racist online.
This is an extreme example, but this type of hair-splitting is a common and frustrating bad-faith argument used to shield people’s egos from any perceived criticism, and one that you’re probably familiar with if you’ve ever argued with racists on the internet.
So then how should we define racism?
Well, there are plenty of academics, artists, thinkers and writers who are much better equipped to answer that than I am (if you’d like a reference, Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton provide a great explanation of the difficulty of defining racism in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation), so I’m not going to try and give a definitive answer. But in terms of how that definition is shaped, I’d argue that we need to address racism not just as a prejudice held by an individual or group of individuals but also as a complex series of semi-autonomous self-perpetuating social structures founded on the privileging of one racial or ethnic group over others. This would acknowledge that racism is a socially-learned behaviour that will continue to spread if the underlying structures that shape society remain unchanged, while also explaining how someone who doesn’t hold racist views themselves may not challenge those views in others due to societal pressure. Racism is about people, for sure, but it’s also about structures of power and how they inform hierarchies on the basis of race.
Get Out is the perfect film to explore this perspective. Not only is it a beautifully haunting reminder that racism is alive and, ahem, booming in the USA, it also investigates the specific mechanisms of racial prejudices in its institutions.
For anyone who hasn’t watched Get Out (and there are going to be spoilers from this point on), the film follows Chris Washington, a Black art photographer, as he visits his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. The Armitages seem friendly in the beginning, but this façade soon slips to reveal a disturbing reality – Chris’s ‘new family’ is a secret cabal of liberal elites who steal and sell Black Americans to its ultra-wealthy members so that they may live forever while appropriating the perceived benefits of being Black in America today. At the climax of the film, Chris manages to escape the cabal, kill the entire Armitage family and flee into the night to be rescued by his TSA agent buddy, Rod.
This part is important; as a film, Get Out is divided geographically into two sections, Chris’s horror in the suburbs and Rod’s ongoing struggle to support him from the inner city. This duality serves the plot in a few different ways, but for the purpose of this essay we’re focusing on the ways power and authority work differently in these environments.
Let’s start by observing Chris’s descent into America’s dark suburban underbelly. This act of travelling from city to suburbia is interesting for a few different reasons. First, of course, is the comparison we can draw between Chris’s journey and the dawning of the international slave trade – Chris is transported from the city, his home, to a hostile environment where his body becomes a simple commodity. This is reasonably obvious, since Peele is actively using Get Out to discuss the long-term social impact of the slave trade on modern America, a point that is reinforced through the Armitage’s two Black housekeepers as well as when Chris learns that the Armitages plan to surgically remove his personality and replace it with a white consciousness. The desire to remove Black consciousness to impose white desire mirrors the age-old colonialist belief that Black people are beasts who need white guidance or, in the most extreme cases, that Black people are monsters who do not possess a soul at all.
This isn’t a perfect answer, though. One important distinction between Chris’s journey and the transportation of Black slaves lies in the fact that Chris agreed to this trip. This decision was absolutely made under false pretences, but it still doesn’t feel entirely fair to compare Chris’s countryside drive to the to capture, shackling and months-long imprisonment of the slaves stolen from Africa.
But this, too, can be read clearly. While Get Out is undeniably an allegory for the slave trade, Chris is also retracing the historic steps of the first ‘White Flight’ of the 1950’s and 60s’, when middle-class white Americans migrated away from large cities towards more exclusive suburban areas. This migration, when combined with a tacit agreement amongst developers, banks and other institutions to deny Black Americans the support and even the ability to buy suburban homes (practices known today as Redlining and Mortgage Discrimination) effectively abandoned Black Americans to struggle in the densely-populated cities while white Americans were busy building white picket fences and inventing lawn flamingos. So here we have a clear distinction: two worlds, Black vs White, cities vs suburbs, a system designed to make one race feel safe by forcing the other out.
When Chris attempts to cross this racial and geographic divide, obstacles begin appearing to keep him in his place. The first hurdle is a deer that leaps in front of the car that his girlfriend, Rose, is driving. The deer is an important symbol in and of itself (and one that we’ll probably revisit in a later essay), but it’s the interaction immediately after this that I find most interesting. A policeman arrives and, after explaining that this is an animal control issue, asks Chris to provide identification despite the fact that it was Rose driving the car. When Chris begins to comply, Rose gets angry, resists and takes back the ID before an identity check can be radioed in.
This is a beautifully nuanced scene. On our first watch, we recognise the police’s racism and believe that Rose is acting as a racial ally, successfully using her white privilege to defend Chris against a prejudicial institution. But upon repeat watching, already knowing the horrific conclusion, we can speculate that Rose was secretly ensuring that there is no official record linking her to Chris, making it harder to track him down when he disappears.
If we regard racism as being a foundational element to some social structures instead of an individual prejudice, then this scene opens up even further. Watching from this perspective, we understand that the police exist to enforce these social structures through the implicit threat of their authority. This makes the police, at the absolute minimum, complicit in racism on an institutional level and therefore racist in of itself. In the scene Chris, as a young Black man, is well aware that the police will bully, harass and threaten him for no real reason but appreciates that it’s quicker to submit and hand his ID over than it is to challenge authority and risk a harsher punishment. As a white woman, however, Rose exists outside the clear lines of this authority; the reason why white women exist outside this structure is complicated by itself (and, let’s be honest, is at least partly related to the patriarchal shame of being incapable of controlling a woman without resorting to violence), but because Rose’s level of authority is unclear here she can work to achieve her desired outcome. This shows that Rose is not only acutely aware of how social authority works but is so confident in this knowledge that she’s comfortable taking a huge gamble with it, risking her family’s entire body-snatching enterprise on her ability to redirect the cop’s attention. This interaction also underlines how the power structures inherent to racism are not always passive; the structures themselves can be manipulated to enshrine the ultimate goals of white supremacy, even though any individual change may seem positive by itself.
We see a dark reflection of this scene later on, when Rod reports Chris’s disappearance to the police. Although the reporting Detective is initially respectful, this attitude disintegrates quickly as Rod explains his belief that white people are kidnapping Black citizens. Not only does the Detective fail to take Rod seriously, even though he’s actually pretty close to the truth, but she actively invites her colleagues in to laugh at him.
Now this is a very different scene and, before anyone comments, yes it’s clearly played for laughs. But it’s fascinating to compare this with the scene we discussed earlier and specifically the role of police authority. The easiest way to compare and contrast the two is like this; the police officer technically did have the right to check Chris’s ID but chose not to because Rose, a white woman, managed to confuse his supposed authority. The Detective, however, did not have the right to belittle Rod but they were able to do so because the structure of power actively and clearly disenfranchises Rod, a Black man. In addition to this, it’s interesting that the Detective taking the report is herself a Black woman and her colleagues are two men, one Black and one Latino. This, I would argue, is a very deliberate casting choice on Peele’s part, designed to highlight how systems that are foundationally racist (the police, in this case) will often welcome a diverse group of non-white people into positions of power, happily sacrificing the appearance of white authority in order to maintain fundamentally prejudicial systems.
This reading works particularly well when contrasted with the scene we broke down earlier. The difference here being that Rose is confident in utilising this system of white authority because it privileges her as a white woman. Rod, on the other hand, does not have the same ability to traverse spaces of white power, even when this power is temporarily wielded by a Black woman, and as a result does not have the language or experience necessary to be taken seriously. In this way Peele shows us that even if the agents of an authority are not individual white people, like the Detective taking Rod’s statement, then the authority itself is still structurally biased against non-white people. Even in the city, their home, both Rod and Chris are unable to seek the help of authority because their power was founded in white supremacy and will continue to act as such until they are forced to change from without.
Another point to consider is Get Out’s original ending. Although Chris escapes in the final cut, fleeing the scene with Rod, the film originally ends with Rod visiting Chris in prison, arrested and charged for murdering the entire Armitage family. The first ending reflects a powerful, bleak reality, an idea that individual action will never be enough to inform institutional power but, to me, this honest response is preferable to the idealised escapism we received. In changing the ending to be more optimistic, Peele was forced to de-claw his arguments and speculate that there may in fact be hope in a hopeless system, reaffirming the ideology of reforms over reparation. Ironic, then, that even Black artists cannot become free of structurally white influences, even Black empowerment is the larger goal.
This is a uniquely complex film and a single essay could never do it justice. We haven’t even talked about how some structures of power, like the police, are highly formalised where others, like the family unit, develop more organically and how Peele presents this difference. Nor have we discussed the symbolism, the use of brainwashing, the link that Peele draws between modern liberalism and Nazi fascism, all of which are fascinating topics to explore. But just by taking two scenes and comparing them, we can see that Peele has created a heart-breaking critique of modern America, from the institutions to the individuals, that has little hope of reforming itself from within.
But what does all this mean for my friend?
Well, it’s complicated. If a person is capable of recognising and admitting their complicity in a broken system, even accidentally, then they can work to improve it. The difficulties lie with the people who insist on pretending that racism is not a problem. If you’re a white person discussing race and your first reaction is ‘Well I don’t see race’, then allow me to be clear: you are a part of the problem. White people do not get to define racism, for the same reason that men cannot define misogyny and heterosexuals don’t get to define homophobia. Western cultural systems privilege whiteness in so many ways that, as a white person, you become blind to them. It is only by consciously recognising that white people are on the inside looking out that the doors may be opened to everyone. And sometimes, maybe, your friend will reject this reality. Some people can’t be shown, they cannot be argued or reasoned with because yielding even an inch of ideological ground would mean looking inside themselves and admitting there was a problem. You cannot take responsibility for another person’s views, no matter how wrong they might be. The only way to stay safe is to take a step back and hope that, one day, they can start being honest with themselves.