When I watch a film like “Mississippi Burning” or “12 Years A Slave”, sometimes, to my shame, I completely flatter myself, by identifying with the one or two white people in the film who are different to all the other white people in the film, that rare white person who is trying to help the oppressed person in the story achieve freedom and justice. I think, “yeah, if I was white in the segregated South, I’d be on the right side of that struggle.”
I don’t think these films are designed to make white people think, “I guess, statistically, it’s more likely I’d have been part of the vast majority of people upholding the racism of this time and place. It was culturally normal and common to be racist, after all.”
We look at how the racist characters in films behave – their rage, their brutality – and our consciences are pricked at how humans and their institutions could’ve ever been this barbaric. Slavery, for Christ’s sake! Separate but equal, for the love of God! We shake our heads. How was society ever like that?
But then you look at the racist settler colonial project that is taking place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
You see how it’s being justified by the most privileged people and institutions in the world. You see how the oppressed who non-violently fight back (and get killed doing it) are called terrorists, and the people who stand in solidarity with them are called terrorist sympathisers.
You see how this racist settler colonial project strictly limits the number of calories coming in through their blockade of the people it is deliberately malnourishing (largely children) – and calls it “putting the people of Gaza on a diet”.
You see how this settler colonial project, right in front of our so-called enlightened consciences, goes on killing sprees among the people it is occupying, and the army that conducts these massacres calls it “mowing the lawn” and gets referred to as “the most moral army in the world.”
You see how the oppressors and their enablers are even trying to curtail mere speech against their project.
When you take all that in, I think it’s possible to know exactly how institutionalised racism happens.