This essay contains spoilers for the movie “Get Out.”
I’ve watched white churches attempt to confront racism in ways their members can digest, whether it be with campaigns or curriculums. So I’d like to add a suggestion. Predominantly white churches who want to confront their racism should watch Get Out.
In Jordan Peele’s horror/thriller, a young black photographer named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams from Girls) for the first time. The audience travels with Chris and Rose to the secluded and expansive home of the rest of the Armitages: Rose’s neurosurgeon father, Dean (Bradley Whitford); Rose’s psychiatrist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener); and Rose’s mixed-martial arts enthusiast brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones).
The Armitages appear to be the average “liberal” white family, but there is an eerie mixture of condescension and forced politeness molded into their kindness that makes Chris uncomfortable from the moment he arrives. When Chris meets the Black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson), who are subservient in a way reminiscent of slavery, it’s clear something isn’t right.
Chris eventually finds pictures of Rose with numerous Black men and a picture of Rose with a less hypnotized, more modernly dressed version of Georgina. The photos lead to the big reveal of the terrifying truth about Rose and her family. Rose lures Black men (and Georgina) to her family’s home so her mother can hypnotize them, and her father and brother can then transplant the brains of white people into the bodies of their new Black hosts. The process started with Rose’s grandparents, whose brains were transplanted into the bodies of Walter and Georgina. The brain transplants leave their victims in the “sunken place”: a place in their consciousness where they are passive observers of everything they say or do.
Peele’s “Get Out” is a love letter to the Black community, validating our anxiety about the racism of all liberal white people—an anxiety that is no exception for Black people who work with or worship with liberal white people in predominantly white churches. White church folks invested in anti-racism work understand that unpacking their racism (and the work that comes with it) rests solely on them and not on Black folks.
If you’re a white liberal churchgoer watching “Get Out,” here are some takeaways from Get Out that you don’t want to miss:
- The Armitages perceive their close relationships with people of color as reasons they could not be complicit in racism and anti-blackness.Before Rose and Chris leave to meet her family, Rose dismisses Chris’s concern about her not telling her family that he’s Black by saying if her family were racist, she would have told him. The Armitages equate their close proximity to people of color with not being racist. They date Black people. They have an Asian man at their family party. They employ two Black people who live with them. And none of these relationships mean they don’t say racist things or contribute to racist institutions.When white people in the church put on their first #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt or start to write think pieces about white privilege, they often take on an us vs. them paradigm, presenting the false dichotomy that they are always aligned with people of color and never aligned with institutional racism. They’re so immersed in solidifying the credibility of their anti-racism work among other white people that they don’t stop to ask the Black people around them if their actions, including elements of their anti-racism work, contribute to institutional racism.Proximity to Blackness, working with or hiring Black people, having Black family members, and focusing on telling anti-racist narratives doesn’t mean you can’t ever be racist.
- Using the talents, bodies, and creative vision of Black folks without empowering them as leaders is exploitation and appropriation, not affirmation. What better way to illustrate cultural appropriation than literally allowing white people to choose a Black body to wear as a permanent costume? In “Get Out,” the Armitages sell Chris to a blind art dealer who is familiar with Chris’s work. Instead of choosing to empower Chris or invest in his work, the art dealer would rather be Chris. Instead of looking at Chris’s art as a combined result of his lived experience in the world and his raw talent, the art dealer assumes if he has Chris’s eyes and body, he can exist as a photographer in the world exactly as Chris has.When white leaders use the existence of Black bodies to suggest diversity within their churches yet have no Black leaders within their local churches or institutions, this is tokenism and not empowerment. When the innovation of historically Black music, worship, and preaching styles can infuse energy in your pews but the people behind the pulpit are rarely Black, you are showing the ability to appropriate, not affirm.
- Forced assimilation is spiritual assault. Thriving, thinking, authentic Black people aren’t allowed to exist in the world of the Armitages. Black people are mined for their brilliance or athletic abilities, and then once the Armitages evaluate how those skills can benefit white people, the Black person is victim to a brain transplant, with their free will forever trapped in the sunken place.Much of this film is a symbolic representation of the forced assimilation Black folks have to navigate for survival, and this phenomenon is no different in the church.Black folks in the church can only combat racism in ways that make white people comfortable, or else they will be seen as combative or aggressive. Yet white folks can co-opt that same language to call out other white people’s racism and be treated as revolutionary. When white people ask Black folks to use their talents, passion, or activism to center white feelings and culture and not their own authentic expressions, they are forcing spiritual assimilation.
- It is not okay for white people to support callouts of racism yet shut people down when their own racism is called out. Throughout most of “Get Out,” Rose apologizes for the microaggressions Chris experiences and seems to “get it” when he needs to leave. Yet, we find Rose to be part of her family’s racist experiments, and we realize that if she was going to call anyone out, she should have started with herself.Rose reminds me of white church folks who think they’ve been completely set free from their racism. They call out racism so much that they forget to call themselves out. Yet, when a Black person questions the racism intertwined with a decision they’ve made or challenges something they said or wrote, the person’s default reaction is to be offended, instead of listening. They get so used to calling out other white people’s racism that they can’t process a Black person calling them on theirs. Callouts of racism are like a truth-telling telephone. If you can make outgoing callouts of racism, you should understand you’ll also receive incoming callouts as well.When your predominantly white church is looking for its next anti-racism curriculum, I hope “Get Out” is On Demand. The movie’s unparalleled wit, metaphorical genius, and unapologetic callout of liberal racism is exactly what white Christians need to see in an America that touts the alternative fact of being “post-racial.”
“This essay originally appeared in Fidelia, a publication of Young Clergy Women International.”
Marchaé Grair is the editor of the United Church of Christ blog, New Sacred, and the UCC social media associate. Twitter: @MarchaeGrair