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Rev. Meg Riley Headshot

For White People Who Can't Bear to See '12 Years a Slave'

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Yet another white person said to me yesterday, "I'm not sure I can go see 12 Years a Slave. It just sounds too painful to watch, and I wonder, why would I want to pay a babysitter so I can be in agony for two hours?"

I've been having these conversations, and watching white friends say this on Facebook, since the movie came out. And here's what I say in response, sometimes out loud and sometimes just in my mind. (I try not to give long speeches on facebook.)

First of all: I hate violent movies, too. My system is very sensitive, too. I already believe that slavery sucks, too.

Second: Like you, I've read blogs and comments from African-Americans who are sick of movies re-telling the story of victimization and brutality against them. I don't know if I would have seen, or liked, the movie if I were African-American. I'm speaking as a white person here, the only voice I've got.

Third: I went with dread, and with a friend whose hand I gripped so hard that she finally withdrew it. I went with the intention to close my eyes during the most violent scenes. And I carried out that intention.

But I went. And I am, in my deepest self, glad that I went. The movie profoundly touched something in me that needed to be touched.

Two weeks after seeing the film, I still wake up in the morning and check out reality carefully, as I would touch a sore tooth with my tongue, as I have woken up after someone has died or I've needed to incorporate some other piece of shocking news. In times of integrating something big and awful into my whole being, I often wake up thinking, "Something's wrong. What is it?" And in this case, what has gotten into my system in a new, visceral, cellular level, is that racism is wrong. Is that racism and unconscious white privilege are radically, red level blinking light, call 911, wrong. Hold the presses, stop business as usual, put down your remote control and listen wrong. Not just before the Emancipation Proclamation, but now.

I've been "thinking about" racism my whole life; giving it serious and sustained thought for almost thirty years now. Twenty-some years ago, interning in a predominantly black church in Roxbury, Mass., I even figured out that I am white! By that I mean, I learned that the faith I named universal, the cultural markers I presumed without reflection, were all grounded in whiteness. That was a time of disintegration and re-formation for me, and some part of me said, "Now I've got it!" But truth be told, my awareness of my whiteness is kind of like what the child-development specialist, Jean Piaget, discovered about object impermanence with infants: When they see their mom, their mom exists. When they don't see her, she exists no longer. On a daily basis, on an hourly basis, on a moment to moment basis, I forget that I am white.

12 Years a Slave brought into my body, into those same tiny cells that each replicate Piaget's object impermanence, a visceral, nauseated, horrified remembering of how American history unfolded, of how it will continue to unfold until we face it head on. Until white people are willing to bear it.

Since watching 12 Years a Slave, when I see yet another story of an African-American man jailed mistakenly and needing to fight for years or decades to get back out of prison, I find myself thinking, "12 Years a Prisoner." When I read about immigrant parents torn from their children and deported, images of a keening slave mother come to me. And it's not just a thought in my head; I now feel that place of nausea and rage and profound grief that the movie took me to -- these stories have a new place in my body, and in my soul, to sink in. And with that sinking in comes new energy for struggle and resistance.

12 Years A Slave shows slavery's brutality through the full humanity of those who endured it. The beauty of Spanish moss and sunsets, the complexity of human faces, the endurance of caring hearts, the joy of work well done, slave kids playing and adults singing, all co-exist with slavery. The generosity of the film is staggering -- it even lifts up the pain and suffering of the privileged people as well as the enslaved ones. The cinematography, the acting, the story itself, the soundtrack -- this is art at its finest. I am grateful that movie producers finally believed the story was worthy of the resources needed to tell it well.

Many have said that the purpose of religion is to grow a soul. What I long for most as a white person is a bold movement of white people who grow souls deep enough to feel the brutality that was and is inflicted in our names, who stand in solidarity with people of color and resist, who know that our humanity resides elsewhere besides privilege. It felt good to sit in a theatre with people who were willing to hold that brutality with me, all of us mute through the credits. Now, may the millions of Americans who have seen this movie use our grief and anger to stop the very real slaveries that dominate our national and global landscape today.