Paul R. Lehman, Spinning into Butter, A Lesson in Bigotry

April 23, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Posted in American Bigotry | Leave a comment
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The movie Spinning into Butter 2007) is both simple and complicated depending on how one views it. The simple approach is to take the movie’s story on face value and follow the development of the newly hired Dean of Students, Sarah Daniels, a European American, at the elite Belmont College. Daniels left an ethnically diverse college in favor of a predominately European American one because of the biases she developed at the former school. Unfortunately, she becomes challenged at her new place of employment when an African American student starts to receive hate messages. In essence, the simple story follows Daniels as she moves from one stage of prejudice to another.

            The complicated view comes in a number of approaches. We can looks at the entire story through its theme, bigotry. If we follow this approach we will have to consider the five major areas of concern: the European Americans Dean of Students, the European American faculty and administration, the defiant African American student, the African American news reporter, and the student body with representatives from different ethnic groups. When we take this approach we discover that biases exist in all the groups. Each group has its own challenges of bigotry to confront.

            Another complicated approach to understanding the story is to look at it as an expression of American society and its approach to dealing with the nature of bigotry. This approach seems to provide more food for thought. For example, the movie’s title comes from the story of Little Black Sambo. Although this story was initially about a young African boy, a series of cartoons were created featuring an African American boy. The cartoons represented a negative stereotype of African Americans symbolized in the character of Sambo. American society found the dehumanizing and belittling of African Americans quite entertaining. Why? Because seeing in full view the demeaning and negative qualities created in the cartoons and exhibited by a little stereotyped character gave the European Americans a sense of self pride and importance, even a feeling of superiority based simply on their skin color. The fact that America enjoyed the negative stereotype of African Americans underscores the lack of value placed on being African American. The movie captures European American attitudes and the variety of expression they takes in society.

            Bigotry, biases, prejudice, discrimination and ethnic hate are common practices by European Americans toward African Americans even though they were not always outward and obvious. All are included in the movie with the exception of racism. Sure, the words race and racism are used, but they do not fit because most intelligent and rational people know that racism is an illusion created to divide and conquer ignorant people. The human race is composed of many ethnic and cultural groups, but only one race. Therefore, racism cannot exist in isolation; bigotry, biases, prejudice, discrimination and hate can be confined to individuals.

            Bigotry knows not color, gender, religion, culture, because it belongs to the individual. In the movie we observe the characters from the five areas aforementioned expressing and exposing their form of bigotry. Daniels does not understand that what she is experiencing and reacting to is not caused by the students, but by her own ignorance. We see this clearly when she tries to talk a Hispanic student into being identified as one groups rather than the one he embraces in an effort to give him a scholarship. The scholarship will make the college look good, but at the student’s loss of identity. He finally rejects the scholarship; his identity is too high a price for him to pay. The Dean never really understands this.

            The militant African American student reacts to what he believes is a lack of acceptance as a human being by the school and the students, by posting the ethnically sensitive comments and creating the other acts that call attention to the bigotry he knows exists, but the school and students are hiding. He wants to bring out the bigotry in full view. He sees his challenge as a contest in which one wins or loses. He loses.

            The African American news reporter is an opportunist. He understands the situation of bigotry at the college and wants to capitalize on it. He would have enjoyed the publicity he and the college would have received if the claims of bigotry had been forth coming. When his chances for national television, and a possible move up, are destroyed, he loses interest in the story and moves on.

            The school’s administration and faculty as represented through several characters show a total ineptness in not only recognizing the problems of bigotry, but also in knowing how to address it. Although they are supposed to represent the educational and intellectual elite, they are exposed for their arrogance and ignorance. The epitome of their ignorance and ineptness is shown when the Daniels is told to come up with a ten point plan to solve prejudice on campus. They are so ignorant that they fail to perceive their own ignorance.

            Finally, the students expose their bigotry in an open forum, but otherwise hide behind the mask the militant student tried to expose. They are products and representatives of American society. In attending an educationally elite college they are encouraged to feel more than special and privileged; they are elitists with feelings of passive bigotry. A quote at the beginning of the movie mentions that one never forgets how he or she is made to feel, that sentiment is underscored in the movie through a number of students.

            Although the movie presents the many sides of bigotry, it never comes close to addressing avenues of approach to understanding it. What becomes apparent throughout the movie is an unwillingness of any of the symbolic characters to address their bigotry. Why? Because they are stuck in their cultural box of race and fail to see that the box is the major problem.

             The college via the administration shows the least intelligence regarding ethnic bigotry by suggesting that it could be resolved with a number of rules and student interaction. As the intellectual leaders they should be the ones addressing the problems for themselves. However, they never realize that they are ignorant of the problem and their superior attitudes will not allow them to listen to anyone they feel is beneath them.

            Spinning into Butter is an excellent teaching tool for educators who operate outside of the “race box.” The problem of bigotry cannot be honestly or accurately addressed using the language of race, black and white or any stereotypical or generalized language. Seeing the problem of bigotry fully while in the “race box” is not possible, so the perspective must change in order to fully appreciate the opportunity to learn teach and learn.

            At the movie’s conclusion, Daniels is seen going back to Chicago and the ethnically diverse school she left for Belmont. The suggestion is that she now understands her bigotry and what it means to be an ethnic American of color. Unfortunately, she does not get it–bigotry is not addressed from the outside in, but from the inside out. The movie does not address or resolve anything relating to bigotry. Each major symbolic character stays in his/hers/their corner of the “race box”—they are so at a loss to try and get out because they all accept the status quo.


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