Editor’s note: There are spoilers for the film “Get Out” in this essay.
My extraordinary mother taught me many things. Always be kind to people. Walk this earth carrying both sympathy and empathy for others. Gain as much knowledge as you possibly can. ALWAYS watch your manners. And . . . watch out for white women. Yet, there was a time I pursued white women exclusively. Growing up in Mississippi, I went to a majority white catholic school from 1st grade through high school, yet even on graduation day, I still felt I was an outcast. My Blackness was neglected and put aside in this institution I visited 8 hours a day. And so, for 12 years of my life, I wished I was white. Not literally, but in the sense that I sought acceptance from the white community. White was right and so I pursued white women both as a method of gaining acceptance from a community I felt left out of, and as a way of rebelling against my mother. Her “watch out for white women” warning only made me want to taste the forbidden fruit even more. And so I waged my conformist resistance, one Starbucks double espresso at a time.
My mother was born in 1947 in Greenville, Mississippi. She vividly remembers the 1955 murder of young Emmett Till. Till, only 14 years old when he made a harmless gesture toward a white woman, was ignorant to Mississippi mores because of his Chicago upbringing. Mississippi “tradition” programmed black men not to even acknowledge the existence of a white woman walking past them. The tradition was foreign to young Till and because of this, he lost the rest of his life. Though she has not admitted it, I truly believe the memory of a young, black boy being brutally murdered for daring to perceive a white woman haunts my mother’s beautiful black soul. She cannot escape it. And although it has besieged her, she came to make use of it and transformed her haunting into a corporeal object lesson for her three black sons—something very real, something very dangerous. Because we, like Till, were—are—vulnerable in her eyes to the same tradition that robbed Mammie Till of her only child.
After they discovered Till’s unrecognizable body in the Tallahatchie River, Carolyn Bryant, the woman Till made a slight gesture toward, testified in court that Till grabbed and verbally harassed her in a grocery store, stating, “I was just scared to death.” It was not until recently that Bryant would admit that these things never happened, that Till never physically or verbally assaulted her, that it was all simply untrue. In telling this lie, Bryant used the “switch up” which I would define as: the act of a white woman deceiving a black man, either purposefully or by accident, in the form of false loyalty, only to betray the black man in order to protect her virtue, her honor, and, in a manner of speaking . . . her whiteness.
This deception—perjury, in Bryant’s example—is part and parcel of the Mississippi “tradition” that terrifies Black people to this day. My mother’s advice was not created in isolation, nor does it function in a vacuum. Instead, it is a rather basic corollary of the switch up: white women will switch it up on you, so you have to watch out for them. Her warning informed my viewing of the movie Get Out. I understand now that my mother, like many mothers before her, was trying to protect her son from living and dying the Hollywood horror of the switch up.
Get Out, like Till’s non-threatening gesture toward Bryant, starts off innocent. In the movie, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), have reached a dating milestone as he is preparing to finally meet her parents. Chris is anxious about the meet-up, particularly after Rose informs him that her parents don’t know he’s black. His best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) even warns him not to make the trip. Nevertheless, he treks upstate to meet the parents. When the couple first arrives, Chris discounts the family’s strange behavior as merely an awkward attempt to hide their shock, especially when Rose’s father goes out of his way to say, “I would’ve voted Obama for a third term.”
However, as the weekend progresses, a series of increasingly disturbing events convinces Chris that “polite” racism isn’t the only thing he needs to worry about. After he sees a black person he recognizes acting very strangely around Rose’s parents and their friends, Chris tells Rose he is ready to leave and requests the car keys. What ensues is pure terror, including Chris falling victim to Rose’s own version of the switch up.
Indeed, the brilliance of writer/director Jordan Peele’s film is that he fully realizes the switch up as a basis for a horror film, which is now the largest grossing film by a Black writer/director in American history. The suspense of the film hinges on the reveal by Rose that after fervently searching for the car keys, she had in fact possessed them all along, switching it up on her Black boyfriend who has been unable to escape her sociopathic family.
Even though I never personally experienced the type of flagrant “switch up” Chris dealt with in the movie or that Till encountered 60 years ago, I have been a victim to a less overt version. Unlike Chris, after dating a white woman for a few months I thought it would be a great idea to meet her parents. However, when I brought up the subject she was lukewarm to the idea, at best. I never got around to finding out the exact reason why she hesitated, but I believe skin color was a factor. She either felt uncomfortable because of her own prejudice or feared the assumed prejudices of her parents would rear their ugly head. Or maybe a combination of both. Who knows if that’s really what happened.
What I do know is that when she wasn’t receptive to introducing me to her parents, it brought me back to a reality I admittedly had been trying to avoid by dating her. For her, a Black boyfriend was different from a white one that she might have agreed to bring home. Had I not grown up in Mississippi I might have given her the benefit of the doubt. But Mississippi taught me this would be irrational. No, her hesitance was rooted in something that was hard for me to accept then and hard for me to accept now, years later.
After this wakeup call, a sense of paranoia set in. Before “slight hesitation-gate”, I admittedly viewed my mother’s warning through a narrow lens. Back then, I chalked up the staring as a form of jealousy toward me and me alone, not realizing the disdain was rooted in something so much deeper. I assumed my mother’s lesson was based on some unwarranted feelings she held whenever witnessing a black man holding the hand of a white woman. In my eyes, her disapproval was birthed by prejudice, jealousy, or both. It wasn’t until I lived through my own version of the switch up that I realized her advice stemmed from the same paranoia building in me at that moment. When I shared my sudden epiphany with my mother, she simply replied with the old saying her father would always tell her, “You can’t buy good sense.” In other words, I had to live and learn.
After my “switch up” experience, my dating habits didn’t change much. I am still open to dating anyone I feel a connection with. But what has changed, what haunts me now, is a “reasonable” paranoia (much like what Rod tried to create in Chris) that didn’t exist before. I haven’t suddenly become opposed to interracial dating, but…you can’t buy good sense. You live and learn. Jordan Peele helped me understand why Black America’s best friend Rod Williams was right when he told Chris at the end of Get Out, “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”