The other day, I went to the city with a friend and ended up at a Bubba Gump’s Shrimp. My friend is from out of the country, so she didn’t get all the references and photographs hanging around the area. I explained the story of Forrest Gump as best as I could and when I told her how Forrest ends up involved in some of the most defining moments of modern/contemporary United States history, it hit me that Forrest Gump is one of many examples of a white man shaping culture, changing history, or otherwise influencing the world’s social and political movements.
Now, Forrest Gump is a great movie. I always enjoy watching it whenever I happen to catch it on TV. It’s funny, heartwarming, and it’s really cool to see about 30 years of major events in the United States presented through Forrest’s perspective. Much of the rewriting is meant to be comical, especially since Forrest himself has no clue that his actions are changing the face of the United States.
However, on a subconscious level, I think the movie shows how white people tell history. The versions that we tell place us as the focal point for progressive movements and downplays the ways in which we created and perpetuated systematic oppression. Taking the Civil Rights Movement or slavery, for example, many white people will make themselves feel better by saying that if they were alive back then, they would be for equal rights and anti-slavery.
But would they really? I used to believe that about myself as well–long before I actually knew what white privilege was and just how much racism I had inadvertently inherited from society. Privilege is blinding and the more you have of it, the harder it is to see what’s going on. Yet white people, in retrospect, tend to look back at history’s atrocities and align ourselves with those white people who stood against the status quo because we always need to be the hero. I think Forrest Gump, in some ways, is a reflection of that desire. He’s unassuming, kind-hearted, and has a hand in the course of history for the betterment of all people, except he is mostly focused on his personal goals (i.e., Jenny). He even explains how he was named after a man who started the KKK, but has no deeper understanding of his namesake.
Similarly, to avoid confronting our own privilege and racism, we tell ourselves simple stories that help separate us from the racism we inherit. We convince ourselves that we would always be on “the right side of history” if we were alive “back then” and that placates us enough to not think about what we gain from the wrong side of history and how, by not confronting the racism we’ve learned, we continue to stand on/perpetuate the wrong side of history.
This doesn’t mean that Forrest Gump is a bad character or that Forrest Gump is a bad movie. I just find it a more obvious portrayal of how white people relate to history.
James Cameron’s Avatar, tells the very, very, very, very old tale of a white man being accepted by an indigenous culture and then becoming said culture’s savior when the white man’s fellow white people want to exploit the indigenous people’s land and resources. The film’s visuals and effects are cool, but that’s all it has going for it. Not only is the plot cliche (and has had much better tellings), but it also rehashes another white narrative that separates us from needing to confront our privilege: white people can blend into any culture, become one of them, and then be the saviors of that culture.
Before I started becoming more aware of these issues, I used to think that, if I lived back in Colonial America, I would be a white person who was friends with the Native Americans. Part of that came from the books I had to read in school, but this sort of narrative exists well beyond the classroom. It’s a story that makes us feel good about ourselves and protects our egos from the genocide that white people, as a collective system, have committed. When presented with a story like Cameron’s Avatar, white audiences can project themselves into the main character and, consciously or subconsciously, start to believe that they, too, can blend themselves into any culture and become its hero.
The problem with this is that it uses the indigenous culture as a catalyst for the white person’s own self-fulfillment while erasing the agency of the entire culture and making said culture dependent on a white savior.
The white savior narrative runs deep and has a long, long history. Part of its strength, in my opinion, stems from its religious roots.
Some of the most venerated Christian iconography portrays the most important Biblical figures as white. Jesus is white. God is white. Mary is white. The disciples are white. When generations upon generations of white people grow up seeing divine beings look like them, it’s really not surprising that this complex spreads into everything else. Jesus especially is made a literal white savior. Christians aspire to be like Jesus. White Christians may not recognize the white savior narrative in media or think it’s a problem because they could easily fit a Jesus narrative into it–a narrative of a Jesus who is their own reflection.
Existing in and benefiting from a paradigm where God is white assures individual white people that they can always think of themselves as being the revolutionaries, the peacemakers, the ones on the right side of history, and the ones who stand against their own kind to save other races and cultures. Narratives like those in Forrest Gump and Cameron’s Avatar fuel that notion, making it very easy to subconsciously accept the idea that we are gods. With that sort of message given to audiences in millions of different forms over the course of generations, it becomes difficult to even recognize this as something that’s happening.
The thing is that white people aren’t gods, but in our history, we have acted as gods and with devastating consequences. Soaking in white savior narratives without question asserts that white people are the solution to PoC problems rather than the cause. Though some white people may be able to use their privilege in a way that benefits PoC without talking over them or making the plight all about them, it’s still very, very easy to slip into white savior mode because we see so many white saviors both in the stories we tell and the religion that many people in the United States are exposed to.
White innocence, white heroism, white saviors, and white gods–all of these concepts work together to dominate other narratives and tell others how to view their own history. They manifest in a million different ways and convey a message that white people have every kind of power imaginable, whether it’s personal, social, political, or divine. Additionally, these messages of power are given to us in such a way that we think of them more as self-sacrifice or justice messages or simply messages of being a good person. However, understanding that media contains messages with more potentially negative consequences can help people recognize and unlearn them.