The critically acclaimed film and Best Picture Academy Award winner, Green Book, tells the story of a real-life tour of the Deep South in the 1960s by Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley and New York bouncer Tony Lip, who served as Shirley's driver and security. Set in 1962, they use The Negro Motorist Green Book to guide them to establishments safe for Blacks as they travel through the Deep South. It is a feel-good movie that touts the power of friendship in closing the racial divide and leaves its viewers with the assumptions that these challenges do not persist today for establishing cross-racial friendships.
Having cross-racial friends is far more complicated than most people imagine. As with the friendship of Don and Tony, friendships across racial lines take work to secure, are challenging to nurture, and are difficult to maintain in a self-segregated society.
“In all things purely social, we can be as separate as fingers,” Booker T. Washington proposed to his mixed-race audience during the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Address, “yet one as the hand essential to mutual progress.” Being “separate as fingers” socially and only coming together when we need to, particularly for economic advantage, has persisted as a friendship model across the racial divide since 1895. Many people still hold the belief that the only reason to socialize across races is because of its economic benefits. Socializing with whites provides racial minorities with the right connections that help to advance their careers. They learn inside-baseball tips for improving job performance to get promotions and often get buy-in from senior leaders for sponsorship of ideas and projects. Most importantly, socializing allows them to collect information, and, as a result, gain greater understanding of the attitudes and behaviors of whites which in turn helps them to alter and monitor their behavior in the professional world. Like Booker T. Washington, the agenda is clear regarding economic freedom. Socializing with whites is a business necessity, being friends with them is not.
For whites, the benefit of socializing with people of color is conceptualized as a learning experience, one that is nice-to-have but not considered a necessity. It is a form of cognitive cross-training that provides greater ease in multicultural living or helps you to be more of an expert, similar to seasoned traveler.
These contrasting positions by people of color and whites highlight that whites often view cross-racial friends as a life bonus and people of color experience white friends as a life necessity. Such is the case with the friendship forged in the Green Book. A white man, harboring racist beliefs, draws his financial livelihood from a Black man who exemplifies exceptionality by any racial standards; yet he is the one in need of protection. It’s the basis of the rationale for why so many Blacks experienced the film as yet just another white savior movie where race is showcased through a white lens and racism is spoon-fed to whites.
Adding to his identity resolution, Shirley’s sexual orientation as a gay man is revealed in one scene in the movie were Vallelonga rescues Shirley from a cop who had handcuffed Shirley to the shower at the YMCA after he caught him having sex with a white man. Surprisingly, there is no expressed homophobia but just a reprimand by Vallelonga to Shirley to be more careful and more transparent about his whereabouts. Vallelonga ends the discussion by telling Shirley that it is a complicated world. Indeed, it is.
As depicted in the film, it is not being gay, but the complicated nature of cross-racial friendships that is most prominent in how whites and people of color achieve racial identity resolution. Tony Lip enjoys the luxury of a stable, consistent racial identity as a white man at work, with his family and in social settings. Whiteness is fixed, privileged social status. However, in protecting Don, he must deconstruct that white identity.
Don Shirley, despite his professional achievements, deeply struggles with not being Black enough in a racially-conscious, discriminatory society. This struggle still rings true for many Black Americans who have achieved professional success. During my predominately white high school and college years, I was perceived as too Black for my white friends and too white for my black friends. In my search for an academic position, a department chair once told me that although I was indeed the best candidate for the position and had interviewed extremely well, the department members were “hoping to get a true diversity candidate and did not feel that I was Black enough since I came from a such a charmed background.” Apparently, a stable family background was not associated with being Black.
Improving US race relations requires more than a feel-good movie or a financial solution or leveling the playing field toward job creation, better educational systems for those who are disadvantaged, health equity, and prison reform. The root causes of bias, prejudice, and discrimination can still thrive even despite these advancements. Real progress will be made when we own and manage our biases and are accountable for our learned tendencies. That is the truth I take away from this movie. Tony became more human as a result of knowing Don. Don, through his friendship with Tony, found a little more grounding in the complex intersection of his identity that made him unique, yet like other people. In this depiction, Green Book, despite its many controversies, demonstrates that cross-racial friendships, however daunting their challenges, can provide us with a laboratory for creating a better path toward becoming “one as the hand” and making progress toward a fuller democracy.
About the Author
Deborah L. Plummer, PhD, is a practicing psychologist, university professor, chief diversity officer, and speaker on topics central to racial equality, inclusion, and mutual respect. She currently serves as vice chancellor and chief diversity officer at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care, and she has written for Diversity Executive and the Boston Globe Magazine. Her books include Handbook of Diversity Management, Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendships, and Some of My Friends Are. . .: The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships. Follow her on Twitter at @DebbiePlummer and visit her website.