“Racism, Get Out of My Head!”
At Harvard University, Project Implicit is attempting to use social science testing to get people to confront the fact that their reactions to difference are not in their conscious control. For too long, the citizens of this country have ignored the obviousness of the privilege of certain identity positions over others. Drawing on a false belief in individuality, we want to claim that because we don’t want to be racist or sexist, we are clearly not so.
Project Implicit delivers so-called Implicit Association Tests that have you press a button on your keyboard with your left or right hand. The test begins with normative pairings, linking “warm” (loving, tender, affectionate) or “cold” (distant, apathetic, detached) feelings with various identity positions (race, gender, age, weight). At first, one goes quickly through the test, easily remembering which button to push for which face we are presented. However, then the test reverses the pairings, forcing us to detach the normative association of whiteness with purity, for example. No matter what, I failed to match my original speed, every single time.
Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Get Out is a cinematic Implicit Association Test. I knew from the trailer that the film harnessed the basic premises of American small-town horror to the legacy of racial discrimination in the United States. And yet, repeatedly, I found myself shocked that I was not emotionally prepared for its inversions.
The most obvious example is the way the film manipulates us into trusting the central female protagonist, Rose. She and her African-American boyfriend, Chris prepare for a trip to the country to visit her parents. Chris is worried about the fact that Rose has not even informed her parents that he is Black. Don’t worry, she re-assures him: her father would vote for Barack Obama a third time, if he was allowed. Indeed, when Rose and Chris arrive at the family homestead, Rose’s father, Dean tells Chris right away that he considers Obama to have been the best president in his lifetime, “hands down.”
Chris discovers the all-white townsfolk are lobotomizing Black people, using their consciousness to prolong the lives of their elderly loved ones. Despite knowing from the first few minutes that the townies were up to no good, I simply did not see it coming that Rose was not their innocent victim, but indeed the ringleader of the operation. Even when Rose fumbles to pretend to struggle to find her car keys, delaying Chris’ escape, I was genuinely shocked to discover her perfidy.
But that’s nothing compared to the image the film has in store for us. Unbeknownst to Rose, Chris has escaped from the surgical suite and is desperately fighting her other family members for his life. Rose sits in her bedroom, scouring the Internet for her next victim, a basketball player. She sits cross-legged on her childhood bed, listening to the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing (“I’ve Had the Time of My Life”) while eating Froot Loops and sipping hyper-white milk from a straw in a tall glass. The shocking image is as powerful as any result in the Implicit Attitudes Tests: Rose’s abject evil is derived from, not the opposite of, the whiteness of the milk. Indeed, the incongruity of a vile murderer drinking milk in such a demure fashion lies at the core of Project Implicit’s psychological methods.
And yet, the film is still not done undoing the racist imagination. Early on, Rose causes us to trust her implicitly when she angrily rebukes a white police officer for asking to see Chris’ driver’s license, despite the fact that he was not even driving her car. After she stands down the racist cop, Rose tells Chris with great passion that she will not allow anyone to mess with her man. At the film’s climax, the earlier scene is inverted. Rose’s family members have caused Chris to crash his speeding car. He struggles with Rose over her shotgun, strangling her.
As a police car arrives, and Rose whimpers for help, we assume the White police officer has returned, to finish Chris off. However, riding to the rescue is Chris’ African-American best friend, Rod Williams, a TSA agent in his airport security vehicle. In an inversion of our trust of Rose’s purity, we assume that, in a post-Ferguson world, the police will misread the racial violence and cause Chris’ ironic demise. Instead, Rod reminds Chris that TSA will always get the job done, an inversion so preposterous that it stands as the film’s funniest moment. But Get Out is no joke: it is as serious as the heart attack produced by the results of my Implicit Attitudes Tests.