By David J. Leonard |with thanks to NewBlackMan
Wednesday, May 30, 2012.
There is an epidemic of white love in America. From The Blind Side and The Help to Kony 2012, George Clooney saving Africa and countless white celebrities liberating black children via adoption, white love has become the antidote to the race problem of the twentieth century. Whereas “the race problem” defined the last years, the next 100 years are purportedly to be one of white love. While racial profiling and the prison industrial complex, persistent discrimination and poverty, education and health disparities continue to plague the nation amid a climate of heightened anti-black racism, immigrant scapegoating, and a rising tide of white nationalists movements, white love offers a ray of sunshine. Better than Barack Obama’s “hope we can believe in,” in the face of so much injustice “white love” is hope (white) society can believe in each and every day.
While watching The Blindside Elon James White highlighted the power of white love within the much celebrated film and society at large:
I DID NOT KNOW WHITE WOMEN COULD CREATE FOOTBALL STARS WITH 16 WORDS. THEY ARE MAGIC. THEY SHOULD BE TAUGHT AT HOGWARTZ!
See--poor Black dude is actually full of talent and wisdom--he just needs a healthy dose of White love to open his eyes. #WHITELOVE
What #TheBlindside teaches us is if White people find poor homeless Black dudes they can create highly sought after football stars.
Awww snap. Kathy Bates and Sandra Bullock are doing a Awesome White Lady TAG TEAM. Hitting him with #WhiteLove left & right...
Dear White People: Please bottle #WhiteLove & sell it. Then we could throw it out of car windows in the ghetto like malatov cocktails...
#WhiteLove is so magical the child of awesomely White Sandra Bullock is smarter & more savy than the poor black dude 10 yrs his senior.
Every White person in this family is AMAZING. The Dad who wasn't even paying attention to poor black dude is now INSPIRING him.
I don't want to watch this movie anymore. I HAVE DEADLINES--but #WhiteLove is drawing me in... I WANT SANDRA BULLOCK SAVE ME.
The power of white love isn’t unique to Hollywood fantasy but is commonplace within sport culture. This particular fantasy was on full display during a recently re-aired episode of ESPN’s E:60. Documenting the trials and tribulations of the 49ers Patrick Willis, whose life took him from a Trailer Park in rural Tennessee to the fame and fortune of the NFL; from poverty and abuse to the American Dream.
The “rags-to-riches” and pulling oneself up by shoelaces is nothing new to sports culture given the centrality of the American Dream and sports as economic escalator within sports media. Yet, the presented story of Willis is one less about the Protestant work ethic and more of white love. The story isn’t so much of his talent, hard work, intelligence, but the transformative power of whiteness, whereupon Willis life changed when he became part of a white family.
The story given on ESPN and elsewhere is rather simple: Willis and his siblings grew up poor in Tennessee. As a result of their mother leaving them and their father’s drug and alcohol problems, a difficult childhood became one of great pain and suffering because of physical abuse. Ultimately standing up to his father by first responding to the abuse and then telling school officials, the children faced the prospects of being split apart. This would never come to fruition as Willis’s coach, Mr. Findley, after a request from the school superintendant, agreed to take all 4 children into their home.
No longer subjected to violence and poverty, yet together as a family, Willis began to thrive on and off the field. According to E:60, he no longer needed to focus on “basic needs” because of his father’s addiction or fending him beatings but instead could be a “normal child.” He was now able concentrate on himself on and off the field. Allowing Willis for the first time to experience love and a true childhood, Willis blossomed into an exceptional football player and even better story. The narrative frame that imagines blackness as pollutant and danger, as problem, juxtapose to whiteness as savior, as help, as goodness, and love is wrought with history and meaning. The only better than Hollywood’s vision of white love is the purported real thing.
Yet, at the same time it celebrates the power of whiteness, the narrative offered celebrates poverty and injustice as the basis of his drive, the foundation of his work ethic, and the impetus for his success. “Boss [Patrick Willis] has never been one to cry, at least not in front of Orey, his 8-year-old brother. Folks around tiny Bruceton, Tenn., say he's 10 going on 25. The kid plays tackle football against men and does all the cooking for his motherless family,” wrote Bruce Feldman a few years back. “During the summer he's out of the house by 6 a.m., gone to chop cotton on the other side of the county in sticky 95° heat. For that, he gets blisters the size of bottle caps on his hands and $110 a week. Orey, baby brother Detris and little sister Ernicka don't call him Boss without good reason.”
In “Patrick Willis: 49ers Star Overcomes Mind-Blowing Adversity on Road to Glory,” Ryan Rudnansky furthers this celebration of injustice as part of his ultimate success: “Given the circumstances of his youth, Willis could have easily quit early. He could have easily slipped down the wrong slope. Instead, Willis used it as motivation to not repeat the same mistakes his father made. Now he has a mansion and a place for his family to visit.” In other words, the poverty the family experienced, the pain he experienced because his mother deserted him and because of his father’s abuse, and the responsibilities that led him to cook and work in the cotton fields at an early age is the reason why he is so successful as athlete and person. His drive and passion comes from these terrible circumstances.
The fetishizing of poverty and the implicit celebration of social ills and injustice as the necessary path to the American Dream is a telling reframing of privilege and opportunity. The absence of opportunities and adversity in the end provides the requisite discipline and work ethic needed to succeed. That plus a little help from benevolent white saviors are the tickets to the promise land. Poverty plus white love are the requisite tools for the American Dream. The hegemony of a narrative of white saviors and romanticized adversity should be of little surprise given its cultural power evidence by The Blindside.
The opening moments of The Blindside establishes it’s overtly racial narrative with amazing clarity. Michael Oher is traveling with a friend, who is hoping for admission into an upscale catholic school; they are leaving a world of poverty and violence within Memphis heading right for an upper-class suburb. As Oher moves from world to the next, the film juxtaposes images of black poverty and despair in opposition to those of white fathers playing ball with their kids. Opportunity exists elsewhere and Oher nearly needed to leave a world of pain and suffering behind. Whereas other black youth would likely be subjected to scrutiny from security and profiling from police responsible for protecting and serving the white middle-class, Oher easily moves into the white world because he is lovable and different.
Michael is acceptable and even desirable because he isn’t threatening (unlike his peers); he is helpless and hopeless – someone in need of saving by white love. He is welcome to enter the white world because not only does he need to be saved and because he is a validation of the superiority of whiteness but because he is safe, lovable, and just not like the others. He is “mute, docile, and ever-grateful to the white folks who took him in.” As noted by Thaddeus Russell, Oher is imagined as a black saint who protects his white family and his white quarterback from danger. More importantly, he is a saint because he is different. “Though raised in Memphis housing projects, he uses no slang and dislikes the taste of malt liquor. Instead of Ecko and Sean John, he wears Charlie Brown-style polo shirts,” writes Russell. “His table manners are impeccable. He exhibits virtually no sexual desire. He is never angry and shuns violence except when necessary to protect the white family that adopted him or the white quarterback he was taught to think of as his brother. In other words, Michael Oher is the perfect black man.”
While still needing white help, Michael, like Patrick Willis, deserves this help because unlike the OTHER they are “the perfect black men.” His perfection will in the end redeem white America, from the Touhys' to the millions of white Americans celebrating this film, from Patrick Willis adopted family to the millions of fans who celebrate his story.
Central to each of these representations is their inscription of sport (and whiteness) as an instrument of values, as a vehicle for opportunity, and as a source of white love. As C. Richard King and I argued in Visual Economies of/In Motion, sports films, including those spots on ESPN, “hails citizen-subjects: at once, they can, with ease and almost complete transparency, inspire audiences, champion individualism and the American dream, reinscribes common sense ideas about race, gender, and sexuality, comment on social issues, and rework the past” (p. 3).
The spot on Patrick Willis and The Blindside highlight the imagined place of sports (football) as a bridge between the black and white world, as a source of unification between these disparate worlds, and as ultimately the source of the American Dream. While some may scoff or deny this analysis, noting the truthfulness of these stories, yet the question remains why are these stories told and not others, one not bound together by white love and white saviors. In the end, what’s white love got to do with?
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness was just published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.