THE BLOG
12/05/2013 08:51 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

Why Are White People Afraid to Watch 12 Years A Slave ?

Since I wrote my blog last week, "For White People Who Can't Bear to See 12 Years a Slave", I've been talking to many white people, friends and strangers alike, about the movie. Hundreds of white people, actually, along with quite a few African Americans and other people of color. (While I am enlightened by and grateful for the conversations with people of color, it's the conversations with my white kindred that I want to reflect on again today.)

When I talk with white people who have seen the movie, it's as if we are part of a new covenant, as if we've gone to an intense family intervention together and are now moving towards recovery. People say things like, "I want to see it again," even as we describe the scenes that haunt us most. People say, "I thought I'd be devastated, but weirdly I feel stronger," in voices of surprise and relief.

One white woman said to me, "Avoiding the pain was so much more exhausting than facing it. I feel as if a load has lifted."

These are conversations full of thoughtfulness and life, new awareness and interest. But most of the conversations fall into two other categories:

Some are short. People just say, "All right, I was on the fence, you've persuaded me to see it." (I'll get back with those folks later, I suspect.)

But many, probably the majority of white people, say, "I read your blog, but I'm still not going to see the movie. Say what you want, I know I can't bear the violence. You say the movie gave you energy, but it won't do that for me. It will immobilize me and I will feel awful."

This second response brings up a variety of feelings in me. My pastor self wants to say, I'm concerned about the stories you're telling yourself about your lack of resilience. (One of the respondents to my blog told me I needed therapy for my pain about events I wasn't even alive for, so I guess concern for each other runs in all directions.)

But, really? African Americans could survive the Middle Passage and slavery, and white people are afraid we can't survive two hours in a chair in a warm room watching a movie about it? I don't say this out loud because it sounds shaming, but I said it to myself as I wrestled with my own resistance and fear about seeing the movie. Of course, what I said back to myself as I wrestled, is that the African Americans had no choice in the matter. The definition of privilege of any kind is that it is entirely optional for the privileged to know or care about the suffering our privilege causes.

And that, I think, gets to the crux of what white people aren't saying about our fear of witnessing violence at this movie. I mean, people -- OK, not me but an awful lot of people -- flock to movies like Silence of the Lambs or The Dark Knight precisely to watch cruelty and violence. But there, we have the distancing reassurance of knowing that these were just stories.

When my kid Jie was 9, and begging to see The Return of the Sith, I said that, given that the cartoon-like Lemony Snickets had recently caused Jie horrific nightmares, I thought it was a bad idea to witness a movie that contained, among other things, a beheading. Jie looked at me as if I were stupid: "But Lemony Snickets was realistic and Return of the Sith is not! I will never be a Jedi warrior! It won't scare me!" If you saw Lemony Snickets, you know that 'realistic' was not a word any movie reviewer would ever have put to it. It was a fantastical story of kids outsmarting evil adults in bizarre and dramatic ways. But what was realistic, and what caused Jie's nightmares, I discovered with more conversations, was a young child's fear that parents could die and be replaced with cruel and evil care-givers, deep fears suddenly played out in technicolor on a large screen.

And that, I think, begins to point to exactly what white people are afraid will cause nightmares about 12 Years a Slave. Not the movie itself, but the fears that we walk in with. Here's part of a school paper that Jie, now 17, and by the way, an Asian-American adoptee, wrote after we saw the movie:

The movie crosses the distance many white Americans keep in their minds between themselves and those bad slave owners. It shows Platt's suffering in a way that is believable as an ordinary life... The master is you, your friends, your colleagues and the people you are surrounded by every day. 12 Years a Slave gives white people some capacity to think about how close they are to being an enslaver.

I think Jie has nailed it, the crux of what white people don't want to see. That's the center of our fear. Not the whippings, not the brutality in ways that are now outlawed, but our own complicity in the racism which is still rampant in our nation. Not the faces of strangers we can't relate to, but those of ourselves, our colleagues, our friends. Not horrors we can't imagine, but horrors we are actively shielding ourselves from each day.

What kind of healing might be unleashed if we decided, as white people, that together we could bear to experience, even for a few hours, slavery's complicated and painful legacy? What if we used this movie as a chance to support one another, hold each others' hands through our profound grief and anguish? What if we channeled our energy towards healing our still ravaged country, towards reclaiming the full humanity of all this nations' people, even our own? What might we still yet imagine and create?