Lakeview Terrace : When the Definition of Racism is Racist

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

Can you judge a movie by its trailer?

Opening this Friday, this is Lakeview Terrace’s premise according to the LA Times: “Jackson plays a law-and-order racist who doesn’t like the interracial couple next door.”

The racial relationships appear to be secondary to the film’s central, upper case question: What do you do when you can’t call the police??? (Gasp! Can you imagine such a topsy turvy universe? Oh, right.)

But I couldn’t help but chafe at the way the Lakeview Terrace trailer presents racism and interracial relationships. What kind of harassment do interracial couples face today? While a few years ago interracial relationships were met with hostility and violence – and still are – today there’s also the possibility that you’ll get a whole other type of gross response. Like maybe a high five (Way to bag a Asian/Latina/Black chick!) or cooing (Do you think you’ll have little chocolate babies?).

This is the mind-blowing contortion of contemporary racism: racism no longer simply outlaws interracial relationships, it also encourages them.

This is because racism these days often takes an inclusive form. Living in an urban, liberal city, the kind of racism I see most often takes the form of cultural appropriation: going to a restaurant and seeing our cultural foods co-opted into some sort of mayonnaise hybrid; hearing non-Black hipsters calling each other N***** to show how “down” they are; attending a yoga class and seeing statues of sacred deities being used as coat racks; and of course, the exoticisation of women of colour, and the asexualisation (sorry, making up words) of many men of colour. See Esther Ku – or Samurai Girl! – if you want proof.

As a culture we seem to define racism solely as an act that involves burning crosses or violence. Sometimes it seems like mainstream North American culture will only agree it’s racism when physical suffering is involved – and even then it can be a tough sell. But I see that there are two kinds of racism: hostile racism, and benevolent racism. The first kind involves burning crosses, the second kind involves people wanting to befriend you because they think you can teach them kung fu. If we privilege one kind of racism over an other, we are less equipped to spot, call out, name, validate our experience of, and stamp out the other kind.

But the way Lakeview Terrace highlights hostile racism isn’t it’s only problem. At least from the trailer, the movie seems allergic to the idea that benevolent racism exists.

From that LA Times article:

Turner [played by Samuel L. Jackson], a single father of two, also can’t stand that the skin color of his neighbors isn’t the same. “You can listen to that noise all night long,” Turner at one point says to Chris as he listens to rap music, “but when you wake up in the morning, you’ll still be white.”

In my world, it’s not so unusual for people to have genuine beef with white folks who listen to rap music – when it’s perceived that they’re doing so just so that they can seem like they have “cred.” I don’t think POCs or anti-racist folks should hate on any white person who likes rap. However, there’s a justifiable context to that unjustifiable bias: white folks have been hijacking elements of black culture for their own use since white and black folks began to co-exist in America. But this statement, which in another setting could be form some sort of anti-racist protest, is a threat in the movie, is irrational – as in how dare those uppity black people say we can’t listen to their music – rather than a real issue that anti-racist people tussle with.

[The article also mentions that Turner hates hybrid cars, because that's right, the only people in America who are racist are crazed right-wingers who have an irrational hatred of espresso-based coffee and pilates. Just so you have a nice little dose of liberal dogmatism to go with your racism.]

Going by the trailer of Lakeview Terrace, this is the movie’s logic: Turner has a problem with the mashing of cultures. Turner is also an unreasonable, illogical bully. Does Lakeview Terrace equate discomfort with culture mashing, based on history and racial context – in other words, someone objecting to benevolent racism – with a bigot who is off their rocker?

And what do you think about the fact that the character who has a problem with someone’s race, is not white? In my view it plunges this movie even further into that postracial nonsense; where often benevolent racism is ok because we’re postracial, ergo anyone has the right to anyone else’s cultural goods; and where affirmative action has created an explosion of “reverse racism”: Wow, American society is so advanced that not only can black people be homeowners and cops, they can even be racist!!!

It’s not ok to harass your neighbours. It’s not ok to hate on random interracial couples. But the idea that racism comes in many forms, and so some anti-racist people may have trouble with interracial relationships, and some may struggle when they see cultural goods being consumed by people from outside the ethnic group, doesn’t fly in Lakeview Terrace.

We who may struggle with representations of interracial relationships do so not because we’re full of prejudice and hatred, like Abel Turner, but because we’re for racial equity – and it’s hard to see celluloid POCs dating white folks rather than us all loving each other. But the Lakeview Terrace trailer (and possibly the whole movie) presents a person who is wary of interracial relationships as a hysterical racist.

You want to know the most obscene thing about that Lakeview Terrace trailer? Lakeview Terrace is the name of the neighbourhood where Rodney King was attacked. What kind of sick parallel are they trying to draw here – that when a black cop harasses his white neighbour and black spouse, it’s the same thing as four white police officers beating an unarmed black man half to death?

Or will we find out in the last act of the movie that Turner is Rodney King’s cousin, and that’s why he doesn’t like white people? And even if that does happen, will that really redeem the rest of the movie?

I’m not so sure I’m gonna tune in to find out.

* The only other time I can remember seeing a Hollywood character object to a mixed race pairing was when the sister from Save the Last Dance freaked out on Julia Stiles’ character for dating her (black) brother. Can anyone remember a Hollywood character who objected to an interracial relationship? Were they an unreasonable person of colour?