Whitewashing History

Rachel Kelly, Student, FIMS. OPENWIDE Volume 16 Issue 2

Apparently, mainstream North American audiences are a very fragile bunch.

The Stonewall riots are a difficult part of recent history to revisit. They were a direct result of oppressive laws and public ignorance that forced LGBTQ+ individuals to form communities on the fringe of mainstream society. These riots are a cornerstone of LGBTQ+ history as they are the precursor to modern pride celebrations. On June 28th, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwhich Village of New York City. This raid included invasive physical exams of all the female-presenting patrons. Any man dressed as a woman was arrested. The exact timeline of the night is foggy, since queer history had been largely undocumented before the past decade or so. However, the general understanding is that angry crowds formed outside the bar as people were arrested. Most accounts mention the same characters over and over: Stormé DeLaverie, the popular drag king and butch lesbian who claims to have thrown the first punch; Sylvia Rivera, the teenage Puerto Rican trans-woman who is said to have thrown the first bottle; Marsha P. Johnson, the black trans-woman who led the violent push-back against the police and continued to push for LGBTQ+ liberation long after the riots. The riots lasted for three days.

The movie Stonewall pays gross disrespect to the women, people of colour, and drag queens like the three mentioned above by showing a cis, white man as the assumed leader of the riots. This white saviour erases the identity of the activists leading the riots. Roland Emmerich stands by his choice, insisting that the protagonist Danny is able to honour the struggles of these people. He misses the point; why do we always need a pretty vanilla cookie to chase the hard stories? The stories of minorities, especially people of colour, are only given the green light to go mainstream if they feature a privileged hero.

Apparently mainstream audiences have a really hard time dealing with a race that isn’t white or a gender that isn’t binary unless they have a pretty, white saviour to ease them through the story. Netflix’s show Orange is the New Black is referred to as a “shrine to white girl problems” by Bad Feminist author Roxanne Gay. The protagonist, Piper Chapman, is white, educated, and affluent; she represents a fraction of American female prisoners. The storylines featuring queer women, disabled women, and women of colour represent the majority of such prisoners, but they all appear as supporting characters for Piper’s drama.

In The Help, the lives of all the black women are told through Skeeter, the white woman they have spent their lives serving. Despite her approaching them and being embraced as their equal, they are expected to settle for less than her in the end and be grateful for it.

Erasure is important because it stops us from seeing the reality of issues. Queer people of colour are less likely to come out to their families or be out in their communities. They are also significantly more likely to be rejected by their community; as a result, the majority of homeless queer youth are racial minorities. Most surveys report anywhere between 70-80% of transgendered people have experienced violent or sexual assault, and nearly half have attempted suicide. All members of the queer community face different levels of discrimination but Emmerich’s choice, like the choices made in countless other stories, erases the significance of the demographics that need the awareness if their situation is to improve.

Our need for a white saviour is dangerous.


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