In a recent post, I looked at the illusion of whiteness in the opening scene of Atlanta’s “Three Slaps.” I delved into how the white character on the lake talks about the inaccessibility and accessibility of whiteness, and discussed Michael Collins’ feelings of comfort in the illusion of his closeness to whiteness in Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan’s Deathlok. Today, I want to continue looking at “Three Slaps,” specifically at the ways that the episode interrogates how whiteness works as a power structure, a protective structure, and a debilitating structure that harms everyone.
Multiple moments throughout the episode show whiteness at work, and I’m not going to focus on all of these. Instead, I want to focus on three to four moments in the episode where we see whiteness in action. Within this context, whiteness means more than just phenotype. It means a system constructed around race that benefits whites, specifically, while oppressing other individuals. However, whiteness also works as a system where individuals, no matter their phenotype, can access certain aspects of whiteness. In this manner, whiteness serves as a power structure that allows access to phenotypically white individuals and grants access to others who adhere to whiteness, through assimilation or adapting whiteness. This is Michael Collins in Deathlok.
“Three Slaps” focuses on the ways that whiteness exists as a phenotypical marker and how it allows individuals to oppress others and how it protects individuals. One of the moments where we see this is near the beginning of the episode when Loquareeous is in the principal’s office, after his white teacher sends him to her because he “disrupts” the class. Loquareeous’s mother and grandfather sit in front of the Black female principal and the white female guidance counselor as Loquareeous sits outside the office door.
The principal begins the meeting, talking to Loquareeous’s mother and grandfather; however, when she begins to say, “As you know there was a disruption with Loquareeous in . . .” the white guidance counselor interrupts the principle and takes the meeting over. she oversteps her bounds, using her whiteness to counter the principal’s handling of the situation. The guidance counselor praises Loquareeous then suggests that he be placed in remedial classes. Loquareeous’s mother tells her, “No. My son is not dumb. He’s an idiot. . . . He is not the first kid to act up in class and you wanna push him back some grades? . . . Don’t you move my son. Tell his teachers to give him detention.”
Loquareeous’s mother diffuses the guidance counselor’s whiteness in the principal’s office; however, the guidance counselor follows them into the hallway where she sees Loquareeous’s mother get on to him and tells him, “If you don’t start using your common sense and acting right, these white people are gonna kill you.” The guidance counselor tries to interject, but Loquareeous’s mother continues. When she finishes, Loquareeous’s grandfather slaps him three times. The guidance counselor sees this, and as she walks Loquareeous back to the classroom, she tells him, “Don’t worry, I’m gonna get you out of there.”
The guidance counselor does the grandfather strike Loquareeous, and she sees Loquareeous’s mother’s speech to him, and she takes these moments as Loquareeous being in danger at home. However, as Loquareeous’s mother points out, the danger is whiteness and the ways it policies Loquareeous, his family, and others. The guidance counselor takes it upon herself to “save” Loquareeous, and she calls social services to visit the home and ultimately place Loquareeous in foster care with two white women, Amber and Gayle.
When social services arrive at Loquareeous’s house, the social worker mispronounces Loquareeous’s name and tells her she’s there for a wellness check. Loquareeou’ss mother calls him to the door and asks if he called the police on her, and the social worker interjects stating that the police behind her are there for a “precaution.” Loquareeous’s mother tells him to go with the woman if he wants to leave so bad and Loquareeous leaves with them, going to Amber and Gayle’s house.
During class, when we got to this point, I asked students about what they had watched so far. Some of the them stated that they felt like Loquareeous’s mother had an attitude and was harming Loquareeous. They did not pick up on the ways whiteness operates within the episode from the white guidance counselor interrupting the Black principal to the police arriving with the social worker to Loquareeous’ house to the speech that Loquareeous’s mother gives him in the hall. Instead, they focused on Loquareeous’s mother and perceived her as a domineering, abusive mother, placing their own preconceived notions of parenting onto her actions. While she may be brash, Loquareeous’s mother works to protect her son as best she can, helping him learn how to navigate whiteness. That is not to say that her tone and the grandfather’s actions are perfect or don’t deserve scrutiny. The point is that she does what she can to watch out for her son because she knows how whiteness works.
Thinking about Michael Collins and Deathlok again, Loquareeous’s mother’s comments point to the ways that whiteness uses violence to maintain power. Once Collins finds out about the Deathlok project, he goes to Harlan Ryker and tries to persuade him to stop the project. Ryker tranquilizes Collins, places his brain in the Deathlok machine, and hides Collins’s body. His attempts to access whiteness do not save Collins. He still succumbs to its need to maintain power and position. As Collins tells Misty Knight, he lived with the illusion of safety and prestige, but as a Black man, those who allowed him access to whiteness also took that access away from him. Similarly, Loquareeous’s mom lets him know that the white kids who laughed with him as he “disrupted” the class would just as much allow him to die or kill him themselves because they don’t care about him.
My students’ comments about Loquareeous’s mother highlight this as well because they did not initially question the guidance counselor or the police with the social worker. Instead, they went immediately to Loquareeous’s mother. Their focus highlights the ways that whiteness blinds individuals, much like the white man in the boat at the opening of the episode, to reality. They don’t notice it because they have never been required to notice it. Rather, they only notice the “disruption” of whiteness with Loquareeous dancing on his desk or the ways that Loquareeous’s mother speaks to him because these moments, and more, disrupt what they consider norms, and by this I mean white norms.
There is more to say, and in the next post, I’ll finish up looking at whiteness in “Three Slaps,” specifically the ways that it functions when Loquareeous goes to live with Amber and Gayle. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.