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Why the ‘Sunken Place’ in Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ Reminds Me of the Public Education System

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris in “Get Out,” which is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut. (Universal)

*Contains “Get Out” Spoilers

For those who have yet to see Jordan Peele’s physiological thriller “Get Out,” it is very much worth seeing. The movie uses horror to brilliantly critique and illustrate the covert white supremacy of liberal white America.

When a white woman (Rose Armitage) brings her Black boyfriend (Chris Washington) to her parents’ house in suburban Alabama, a strange set of circumstances sets in that leads our Black protagonist fighting to escape. Chris discovers that Black people are being hypnotized by Mrs. Armitage and forced to become the servants of white families. Georgina, Walter and Logan, the three Black people who have been hypnotized in the movie, live in a perpetual state of social death. Georgina and Walter work for Rose’s family as personal servants. Logan, who we see being kidnapped at the start of the film, is later shown to be the personal companion of one white woman in attendance at the Armitage family party.

The lives of these three Black people are held in bondage, constantly performing physical and emotional labor to accommodate whiteness. They perform their tasks with a forced joyfulness, the way slaves were expected to be happy when serving their slave masters and the way Black people are still expected to be happy living under oppression.

But, Georgina, Logan and Walter weren’t always like this. They each went through a process that altered their minds and permanently damaged their psyches. Mrs. Armitage puts her victims under hypnosis and banishes their consciousness to the “sunken place,” a realm deep in the mind where a person’s body is paralyzed and crushed by the weight of psychological trauma. We will return to the second part of this process (the surgery) later, but, for now, let’s talk about the sunken place.

Mrs. Armitage takes her victims to the sunken place by exploiting the person’s psychological trauma. Armed with a tea cup and spoon, she leads Chris into reliving when his mother died. She softly asks questions like, “Where were you?” and “What did you do?” The sound of the spoon hitting the tea cup brings Chris into a trance. When Armitage learns of Chris’ feelings of regret and guilt for failing to look for his mother, she presses further. Chris, who is emotionally distraught and fearful, his fingernails clawing at arms of the leather chair, is suddenly unable to move. Armitage, satisfied with Chris’ vulnerable state, then tells Chris to “sink through the floor.” Chris is pulled into a paralyzing vertigo, only able to observe his life though a grainy screen as Armitage leans forward: “Now, you are in the sunken place.”

The sunken place is real. I spent 12 years in the public education system in New York. Most of the schools I went to were underfunded. Zoning laws made it difficult to go to schools outside of my district. Standardized testing drove school curriculum. And, it just so happens that white women just like Mrs. Armitage’s character taught me for most of my school career.

The emotional manipulation and psychological abuse of poor Black and brown children by white schoolteachers is a part of classroom politics. I and many other kids were told that we would not succeed or amount to anything. We were made to feel embarrassed of our inabilities. We were ashamed of our teachers’ fear of us, and, therefore, ashamed of our Blackness. We were violently gendered. We were triggered to relive the trauma of our ancestors. We were criminalized and labeled as having behavioral issues. Some of us were medicated for having these issues. We learned that whiteness was associated with power and authority. Nonwhite students respond to emotional abuse in different ways. Some, like me, completely shut down. Others completely check out. In our vulnerability, we submit to white supremacist power and sink through the floor into the sunken place.

This brings us to the second part of this process. In the movie, Chris’ mental enslavement is not complete until he undergoes a surgical procedure that would essentially transplant a portion of the white man’s brain into the victim’s skull. Chris is strapped to a chair and prepared for the procedure, while the white man who “bought” him at an auction awaits on a surgical table in the next room. The brain surgery will give the white man control of Chris’ motor functions, while Chris is doomed to live in the sunken place forever.

The U.S. classroom is the site of colonization, where the sole purpose is to transplant the consciousness of the colonizer (the logic of whiteness) into the minds of the colonized. Paulo Freire said it best in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”: “Worse yet, it turns them (the students) into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be filed by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.” The contents of what is deposited in us are all the Eurocentric revisionist histories, enlightenment-based philosophies and ideologies of empire. We are made to internalize racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and anti-Blackness. Since we have been thrown into the sunken place, we are often desensitized to the conditioning, unable to question or challenge its contents. To internalize our oppressor is to internalize self-hatred.

Like in the movie, the purpose of putting us in the sunken place is so that whiteness can use our labor. The white art dealer who failed as an artist plans to capitalize on Chris’ “eye” for photography and profit from his creative labor. Georgina is used by the Armitages for her domestic labor in the same way house slaves were used during slavery. Walter is used for his manual labor. Logan, who is partnered with a white woman twice his age, is used for his emotional labor.

In poor nonwhite communities, the classroom prepares students for jobs as wage laborers in the service industry. Teacher-student dynamics in the classroom are a precursor for employer-employee relationships later on. Students are drilled mainly on following directions, recognizing authority, taking orders and submitting to power. We are taught to be gears in the engine of capitalism by first churning out standardize testing scores that secure more funding money for schools.

When students resist, reject what is being taught, “act out” or otherwise deviate from what is expected, they are institutionally disciplined. It is reported that 40 percent of students expelled from school each year are Black. In the same study, it was found that Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students. School suspensions, expulsions and drop-outs funnel nonwhite people into the school-to-prison pipeline. Once in prison, nonwhite people are indeed used for their labor, being paid next to nothing to manufacture products for private companies and the federal government.

In many ways, the sunken place is a tool already used by white supremacy to socialize nonwhite people. Through the education system, Black people are colonized and institutionally prepared to labor for white supremacist capitalism. One way or the other, we are used for our labor, either as wage laborers or prisoners in the prison industrial complex.

Chris discovers that the flash from his photography camera can bring a person back from the sunken place. The illumination of art, protest, critical inquiry is what helped me slowly undo the years of conditioning that had placed me in the “sunken place.” When we see the light, we are threats to the established white supremacist order. Like Logan, we are repressed and put into the sunken place again. A decolonized education is the only way we can retrieve ourselves from the sunken place.

Dubian Ade is an artist, writer and activist from Bronx, N.Y. Ade also is the editor of The Decolonizer magazine.

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