Is It Racist to Acknowledge That Blacks and Whites Have Different Experiences?

Last week, I offered what I imagined would be an uncontroversial post about the potential casting of Idris Elba – a black actor – to play James Bond. I said that we don’t need a black Bond right now. The character currently being played by Daniel Craig remains fresh and interesting. That character’s racial identity has been established, and shouldn’t be thoughtlessly discarded. I wrote:

While a color-blind society remains a noble goal, the truth of living as a black man remains some distance from that ideal. Craig’s Bond has not had the experience that an Elba Bond would. Recasting the role without rebooting the character would trivialize the black experience.

That comment elicited some pointed responses from readers. BronxZionist wrote:

[Walter’s notion], that there was some “black experience” that would be degraded by a black man taking over a role from a white man, ultimately devolved to a concept that was inherently racist.

Racist how? He characterized it thus:

So . . .
“It’s a black thing; we wouldn’t understand”?
Just like say,
“It’s a white character; you wouldn’t understand”?

Or, you know, racism.

We may need to define our terms. I’m not sure how acknowledging the difference in social experience among racial groups makes one racist. Generally speaking, the experience of a black man is not the same as the experience of a white man. It just isn’t. That’s not a value judgement one way or the other. It’s simply an observation of the way things are.

A black James Bond would have a different set of experiences than a white James Bond, because black men generally have different experiences than white men. Is this really a controversial statement? Are we to pretend that black people don’t have a unique experience in our society?

Look, I get it. We live in a world with a lot of petty racial grievances. It gets extremely frustrating. But that doesn’t mean every acknowledgment of racial disparity is a petty racial grievance.

We remain some distance from Martin Luther King’s dream of a world where people are not judged by the color of their skin. We’re a hell of a lot closer than we were in his time. For that, we should celebrate and self-congratulate. That said, we haven’t reached a point where you can plausibly recast a character as another race without acknowledging how race defines that character’s experience.

Next: Examples of racial re-casting that work…

Look at Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Nick Fury in the Marvel films. In past iterations, Fury was an Irish-American. He was re-imagined as African-American, first in the comics, then in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jackson didn’t try to play Fury as an Irish-American. That would have been absurd. He played him as an African-American who experienced life from birth as a black male. If you were going to cast Idris Elba to play Bond, it would have to work the same way. He couldn’t just take over Craig’s Bond. He would have to be something new.

A more relevant example presents itself in Moneypenny, portrayed in the current iteration by black actress Naomie Harris. This Moneypenny has always been black. It’s not a black actress trying to portray a white character. It’s a completely new iteration of the character who happens to be black. That’s why it works.

It’s worth noting that certain characters could not plausibly be re-imagined as another race, because their racial identity proves essential to who the character is. Reader, Indiana Mike, jokes:

Let’s get REAL edgy and have a White Kunta Kinte.

Bulgaricus adds:

Would you want a Caucasian Shaft? This is just stupid pc garbage.

Kunta Kinte and Shaft are defined by their racial identity. If they were not black, they would not have the experience which makes them who they are. The same does not necessarily apply to characters like James Bond, Moneypenny, or Nick Fury. Some roles call for the casting of a certain race. Most do not. Either way, once you cast a character as a particular race, if you care about portraying something that rings true, the uniqueness of that character’s racial experience should be acknowledged.

To BronxZionist’s point, this isn’t about the capacity of a white man to understand the black experience or vice versa. The human mind is capable of abstract thinking and empathy. We can understand experiences which we have not had. Indeed, my point rests upon people’s capacity to understand the differences in their respective experiences. We each have different stories. Acknowledging as much is hardly racist.