This is our truth, tell us yours
I intended to write a review of 12 years a slave, but after watching it a mere film review seems inadequate, and a liberal white response to the structural oppression of racism seems to dismiss the experiences of people of colour in the film . So instead I am going to write mainly about the white people in the film and what lessons there are for those of us who oppose racism. This post will contain spoilers. I am likely to draw sex work parallels since that is my particular axis of oppression, and hope this is not appropriate and is not intended to downplay the experience of those who endured slavery.
Content note, this post discusses racism, slavery, references rape and has one partial use of the N word.
12 years a slave should if there is any justice in the world win every Oscar going, including score and cinematography, it is the story of a white supremacist state which removed all humanity from black people, whilst at the same time punishing them for being human. Cruelty inflicted for the sake of cruelty, and like the bible verses quoted at the enslaved men, women and children, to keep them in their assigned place as beasts of the field, victims of rape, breeding stock and pampered pets.
There is a scene when the double-blind of being human and lesser is brought home near the start of the film. Solomon is told by another one of the men he is being transported with that the only way he will survive is if he keeps his head down and forget about his former life. It is frank, brutal and probably wise advice to the confused, tortured and suffering Solomon. Then they arrive dockside, his new-found friend spots his “owner” and is released to him. Literally capering he clings to the man who owns him, the white man who can take his life on a whim, the white man who can rape his daughters and sons without even considering the fact they could consent, sobbing he is taken away, safe in his Masters arms. The white master accepts this as normal, as right, the others will be sold as beasts, his n*gger is safe.
Which brings us to the first group of whites in the film I wish to discuss, those who see themselves as kind, benevolent, of loving slave owners, and their modern equivalents. This is still a myth many apologists for the south will use. They argue that slaves were part of the family, well treated by their owners, little different from servants. This whitewashing of the dehumanizing nature of slavery existed at the time. Benedict Cumberbatch represents it in the film. The scene at the slave sale is physically sickening, not for any brutality but in the way that the white people treat it as a social occasion, as black bodies are inspected and paraded as the whites shop. Complicity in this system is to uphold it. Master Ford (BC) attempts to stop a young girl of 6 or 7 being sold to a brothel by offering to buy her, reinforcing the system which sends her to be raped by white men.
The descendants of Master Ford today do not offer to buy a child to save her from being exploited by white men. (They call it adoption or rescue for one thing) Instead they argue that capitalism is the answer, that structural inequality only exists in so much as some people are poorer, and if they study hard and work hard that can be remedied. They oppose apologies and reparations whilst still claiming to be against racism, but the only racism they recognise is the forms they deem problematic. This group likes to blame PoC for their poverty as if history has no impact. This group believes that because there are laws against racism which they support then they are anti racists, while their actions uphold the racist underpinnings of society.When Madonna buys, sorry, adopts a black baby to *save* it from poverty in Africa she is no different from Ford.
His wife, Mistress Ford, is another sort of “concerned” white. Solomon has been bought along with another slave, Eliza,, who has been separated from her children. She is sobbing at the loss, and Mistress Ford expresses concern. She suggests rest, food, and walks away saying that Eliza will soon forget her children. It might seem that such behaviour is of its time, and has no parallels today, but of course it still happens, and is pernicious especially in feminism.
So much of what has come to be called white feminism is built on the idea of women of colour as children (food and rest will make Eliza better) and unintellectual.(She will soon forget) The modern Mistress Fords, like their ancestor are powerful voices who buy into to patriarchal system whilst still believing they are on the side of right. Anyone who has watched the attacks on @redlightvoices, and the appropriation of her work can not pretend Mistress Ford is not living and well in the UK and the US. Flavia has also written specifically of the racist claim there are no intellectual voices in feminism, a claim which would be amusing when Helen “Mistress Ford” Lewis attacked her for being too intellectual. Mistress Ford feminism wants to rescue women of colour who sell sex, but not treat them as equals or listen to their voices. Just as Mistress Ford insists Eliza is sold, for expressing her sorrow, so her daughters want women of colour to behave in certain ways, and dismiss their experiences and voices if they disturb her equilibrium. Sam Ambreen is another woman of colour who has, one could say, been “sold on” by the modern day Mistress Fords when her voice became too loud to ignore.
We cannot of course discuss Mistress Ford without discussing Mistress Epps. There is a brilliant post here on her collusion with the system and modern feminism. As @BlackAmazon says, white women fighting their battles over the bodies of black women continues today. The fact Lilly Allen did not even accept their was anything wrong with her whorephobic and racist video, because she was supposedly making a point about her own powerlessness is perfectly made. It is not the only example. Again I see the sex work parallels. Supporters of the Swedish Model know it harms the most vulnerable women, migrant women, trans women and women of colour, but just as Mistress Epps is willing to destroy Patsy in her battle with her husband, so antis are willing to destroy lesser women in their crusade against sex work. No matter how many times women like me (white, cis, educated) point out we will be the ones least harmed by criminalization, the Mistress Epps feminists insist we only oppose criminalization out of selfishness and self-interest. They want to battle us, and their battle ground will be the bodies of women of colour.
Both Mistress Epps and Mistress Ford give a lie to the idea of sisterhood which so dominates the complaints of white feminism at the moment. They attack *lesser* women, and particularly WoC and trans women for being divisive. They argue that if we (and I use we in the lesser woman sense here) got behind their concerns, then when there is time, they will sort out transphobia, whorephobia, racism. This white feminism has always put the wives of the slave owners as unwilling victims, little better than slaves themselves, powerless and suffering or powerless and morally good. Just as today their minor inconveniences are seen as equal to the suffering of lesser women. They sit at the Masters table, sharing in his prosperity whilst demanding those who are denied even crumbs from it do not even challenge the system that puts them there. There is a great analysis of the historical representation of these supposed powerless women here. They want us to be their sisters, while they refuse to accept we are equal, Mistress Epps blames Patsy for her rapes, and punishes her. This is their sisterhood, offered on their terms.
Which brings me to the title. What can we as white people, and in particular white feminists/fighters for social justice to if we are not to be Mistress Epps, Mistress Ford or the benevolent slave owners upholding the system? We must challenge it, we must not be complicit in it, we must accept our own benefits and privileges rather than trying to pretend we are oppressed in equal degree. The system is built on the bodies of the oppressed dead, we are all stained with it, the only answer is to smash the edifice of white power and privilege down.