The Problem With White People Time

22 Jan

If Beale Street Could Talk
Tish and Fonny, If Beale Street Could Talk
(photo credit: The Atlantic)

We’ve heard it, right? People from various cultural groups talking about being on “black people’s time” or “Spanish people’s time.” In other words, the self-effacing joke that when they say they’ll arrive at that family function at 3:00 p.m. and show up at 5:00 p.m., they are not late, and every one already knows they are not showing up at 3:00 p.m.

Then, there’s the joke comedian Chris Tucker tells about the one thing he learned from dating white girls, was, to be “on time.”

There’s beauty in realizing we have different relationships to time. I remember my mother and aunts talking about trips to Spain to visit my grandmother, who had moved there when she retired. As a teenager, I loved imagining the dinners they spoke of, that started around nine o’clock and stretched to midnight with a languorous parade of tapas, wine, espresso, and conversation.

But time can become a problem when white people expect it to unfold in their real time. In all of my noticing, and consciousness-raising of my own whiteness, and whiteness as a whole, I have come to see how when we gauge an art form, or an event, or a social interaction through our white, European-centered lens, sense of etiquette, and what we’ve been indoctrined by white society to deem the way something should be done, we do a great disservice to black people, and of course to any other culture, ethnicity or race that is different from our own. To begin to break down our white-centered gaze, we must first remember how whiteness sees itself as the center, as the norm, and everyone else, as spokes streaming out from the center of the wheel of whiteness.

This whole matter of white people’s time came to my attention last week, when Joe Wilson, Jr., a main actor from the renowned Trinity Repertory Company here in Providence, Rhode Island, posted a social media note about a review in The Providence Journal. Joe, who is black, and who acts in and co-directs the currently running play, black odyssey, was incensed that theatre critic, Channing Grey, who is white, wrote the play “could use some trimming.”

The play, black odyssey, by acclaimed playwright, Marcus Gardley, is a retelling of Homer’s classic, The Odyssey. According to Trinity Rep, the play is how “one man’s journey home from war leads him on an adventure connecting him with his own ancestors and our shared humanity, before finally delivering him back to his wife and son.”

It is an epic tale–a layered journey of storytelling, with song, ritual, and time travel through ancient and current history of the African diaspora, including black American history and culture. The play is 2 hours and 50 minutes in length.

When I read the entire review, I was also bothered by other perspectives of the critic. Grey stated as if it was not enough for Gardley to not only show us “tortured slavery, …but also…police brutality,” it was as if he was saying, the nerve of the playwright to make me confront the ongoing history of black pain at the hands of whiteness. Another line about this being a play for “often forgotten audiences,” gave way to the reality of structural white-centered dominance in the arts, including who gets to say what is considered mainstream theatre.

But, back to white people’s time. When we say a play needs some trimming, we are saying that from our learned white-gaze, what a play should look like, how the story should be structured, how the art of storytelling should be expressed, how the actors should perform their lines, how the stage direction should go, and how tidily edited it should be. We are giving our white-centered critique of another group’s culture, which we do not know. Therefore, how can we critique it?

I can recall a time, of which I am ashamed of, when my own white people time showed itself. It was at a fundraiser several years back, highlighting the good works of local Black businesses. I remember catching myself thinking that the pacing of the event was slow in spots, and that the guests took too much time speaking at the podium. Then I caught myself, and said to myself: “wait a minute! When do white people ever give attention to black businesses, or host community events and notice who is included and who is excluded, or notice much else that black people do and accomplish, aside from our celebrity worship of black artists and athletes? And, so, while knowing black people don’t ever need my permission, or acknowledgment, I quickly jumped to the thought of, “go ahead! You should be taking all the time you want to stop and recognize yourself, and your peers, and to bask in the attention and praise you deserve. And, who am I to say how the pacing of an event should go, if I am only going to consider all the white-centered planning of events I have attended throughout my life?” I realized that my white people time was way off the mark, and I adjusted.

I almost had to slap myself when I caught myself using white people time again at If Beale Street Could Talk, a beautiful and deep film, inspired by James Baldwin’s story of the same name. The film was directed by Barry Jenkins, who also directed Moonlight. Stylistically, the film for me, with its use in places, of slow-motion cinematography, and time-suspended close-ups of its actors gazing into the camera, pulled me into another dimension of time, another dimension of being. The film asked me to slow down my i-phone, social media rush of a world, and simply be there in the moment with the young couple in love: Fonny, played by Stephan James, and Tish, played by Kiki Layne. The pacing of the film allowed me to get to know their families, their conversations full of weight, of gold, of lightness of being, their beauty, their love, their knowing determination to survive the reality of their lives living in their skin in 1970’s New York City.

There are a number of scenes where their love is shown through the actors’ suspended gazes at one another, and toward the end of the two-hour film in one of the scenes where Fonny is looking at Tish, my white people time kicked in. I wondered, could I do with a tiny bit less of the slowed moments, but then again, immediately after the thought came, I stopped my whiteness lens, and said, No! It is not for me to critique the movement of this film. Fonny’s loving gaze, the slowed moments that capture the love of these two main characters, and their families, is a love that white America rarely takes the time to see, to experience, to believe it exists.

The love of Tish’s family, the joy of living in all kinds of love–including family and friends–and the commitment to both, and also the deep knowing of the struggle to survive and thrive living as a black person in this country is something most of us white people don’t pay attention to. And so I acknowledged my white-centered lens had too thick of a filter on, and I flowed with Barry Jenkins’ flow. And, the flow was beautiful.

I realized, too, Beale Street’s storytelling wasn’t necessarily for me, or for white people to “get.”Some or all of it’s cultural signifiers and nuances, may skim over our heads, and hearts. But, it’s message of the reality of what it is like for black men to live and be wrongfully convicted–their lives “thrown away” in the unjust criminal justice system, and the impact that has on his families, is of course critical for white people to get. So is the portrayal and reflection of black people’s lives, humanity and narratives, when given dimension, and are seen in the world in a way so rarely seen in films telling white-centered stories, written by white writers, and filmed by white directors. Realizing all of this, I then had, and have, gratitude for being able to witness this story as told by its storytellers, Baldwin and Jenkins. I recalled Julie Dash’s film, Daughters of the Dust, and again remembered, time, and storytelling, is relative.

With all of this talk of white people time as it relates to black art forms and events centering the black experience, I am not saying white people don’t have the right to their own opinion about the quality of a piece of work, or can not share about how a piece of work made them think or feel, but knowing most of all of that is subjective anyway, what I am asking, is that as white people, we first take note of the lens we are looking through, and then, crush it.

Isn’t it about time we did so?

2 Responses to “The Problem With White People Time”

  1. Julie Weinstein January 22, 2019 at 9:18 am #

    Loved this, Wendy! I haven’t seen “Beale Streer” yet, but I plan to, and I’m glad I read this first. I started watching “Roma” yesterday, and I noticed that the camera would linger on scenes longer than I am used to. Once I thought that the tv had actually paused. But then I realized that it allows you time to take in details of the scene that you may have missed otherwise. Once I realized that, I changed the way I was watching it. It’s definitely a good idea to take a step back sometimes and try to see things from a perspective you’re not used to. As always, you make me think a lot! Thanks!

    • Wendy Jane January 22, 2019 at 4:40 pm #

      Hi Julie,

      Thanks so much for checking in and reading and responding on this piece. I have not seen Roma yet, but want to. That’s cool that you could notice that the slowing down of the camera work served a purpose and then could adjust your own lens to watching it. And, yes, we all bring our social, cultural perspectives with us wherever we go, so I think it’s good when we can pause and think about that and open ourselves up to working to unknow what we “know” and expect. Sometimes I think I think too much:)

      xo
      Wendy

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