Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

A white man’s bizarre racist dream

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As a white man, I am starting to think I must have this great urge to leave ‘my people’ and be one with some exotic, primitive folk. Of course, it will be a struggle to be accepted, but, through trial and initiation rites, I shall become one with my exotics. It seems also highly likely that the big chief’s daughter will fall for me — one just can’t help it! Naturally, the marauding, plundering, modernising, globalising white folk will eventually turn up to wreak havoc on my new-found paradise. But heroic I shall stand fast with my exotic brethren and become their mighty war leader in this time of trial. I shall overcome my own… I hope all reading this can spot irony when they see it.

Recently I wished to render myself dull before the goggle-box, but could find nothing better than the irredeemably bad film Pathfinder (2007) to watch. It is the story of early Viking contact with North America, in which the renowned horned ones seem to like to do nothing better than axe up a few Americans. One day the Vikings leave one of their baby boys behind during an American-axing raid. The Viking boy grows up to be our hero Karl Urban, raised by the Americans as one of their own. I can’t recall if there was much more of a plot to it than that, apart from our Viking boy having to go through supposed American initiation rituals, getting the ‘come on’ from the chief’s daughter and having lead his foster-clan into battle against his birth-people. The two tribes are über-stereotyped: on the one hand we have frolicking, nature- and peace-loving Americans, and on the other we have hulking warrior-beasts of blood-encrusted metal and fur, topped with those infamous horns. Piffle…

As my mind froze over with disbelief that anyone thought this film a good idea, I realised that it was a mindless rejigging of Dances with Wolves (1990), where the white hero leaves his bellicose brethren to find solace amongst the Sioux, gets the ‘come on’ from a local woman (who happens to be white too… to stop any miscegenation?), undergoes initiation rites and is accepted as a member of the tribe and ends up supporting his new friends in a struggle against his own people.

Admittedly, Dances with Wolves is a far better film than Pathfinder, but there is that underlying white myth. Somehow this white myth seems to be based on guilt. Perhaps, in accepting the guilt of the genocidal conquest of the Americas, the white man dismayed by the modern strip-mall desolation of what he’s wrought seeks solace in the mythical rejection of his ‘destroyer’ folk and glad acceptance into the fellowship of the downtrodden, albeit by Herculean feats of courage.

There is a general trend of thinking of white culture (language, food, religion) as dull and boring, even oppressive, in contrast to non-white culture being exotic and colourful. Of course, the exoticisation of other cultures is thinly veiled racism in its attempt to objectify and possess it. That is why these white myths end up with the white hero possessing the total friendship, loyalty and obedience of the exotic people he admires. It is still a form of colonisation.

When the exotic folk are Native Americans, it’s not too hard to understand the cultural background of ‘settlement’ from which it arises. However, what if the exotic folk our white hero idolizes are somewhat removed from such a historical context? What if they’re blue-skinned people on a distant planet? It’s pretty obvious that Avatar (2009) is another rehash of the same white myth. In terms of the quality of the art, it is closer in the spectrum to Dances with Wolves than Pathfinder, but all three share that same central myth of the white hero who, fascinated by an exotic tribe, joins them through trials of initiation and sides with them against his birth-people. Taking the myth and making the people blue and moving them to a distant planet and spicing with sci-fi, does little to hide that here too is the guilt-fuelled response to whiteness that ends up becoming yet another form of objectifying the foreign.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

5 thoughts on “A white man’s bizarre racist dream

  1. This is really interesting. But I expect now that people are wondering how colonialist-thinking is possibly reproduced in this day and age. The similarities in the films mentioned above are just uncanny. There is no room to argue that older colonial conquests (the Chinese, Arabs, and even Mongols for that matter) have the same present-day effect on global pop culture, so this must be specifically a White supremacist fantasy.

    My other thoughts on how “nice” White people develop these subconscious longing to fit in with non-White (in Avatar’s case, non-human) people and from inwards out, are somehow made leaders of the group?

  2. I know what your trials of initiation will be. Cepat buat kuih budak! Kalau lambat, awak kuih hari ini. Muwahahah!

  3. Pretty insightful post. Never thought that it was this simple after all. I had spent a good deal of my time looking for someone to explain this subject clearly and you’re the only one that ever did that. Kudos to you! Keep it up

  4. Pingback: Immigration immunity « expat+HAREM, the global niche

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