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Imprisoning a White Woman and Making Her Watch ‘Roots’ Is Probably Not the Best Way to Teach Anti-Racism

Do not be like Robert Lee Noye — no matter how much a prejudiced white person in your life might need it

It can be frustrating when your white friend, neighbor, coworker or roommate is racially ignorant or insensitive. It can drive you to wish that you could force that person to change their ways. Which is why, sometimes, you might be tempted by a fantasy in which you lock that person in a room, strap them to a chair Clockwork Orange-style and proceed to educate them on all the ways they’re being racially ignorant and insensitive.

But like I said, that’s just a fantasy. It’s not something you’re legally allowed to do — no matter how much a prejudiced white person in your life might need it.

Robert Lee Noye, however, missed that memo or maybe he was just super-drunk.

Either way, on February 17th, the 52-year-old imprisoned a 37-year-old white woman in their shared Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home and forced her to watch Roots, the nine-hour miniseries from 1977 based on Alex Haley’s best-selling book

Robert Lee Noye

According to the criminal affidavit filed by the victim, Noye “forced her to sit with him to watch Roots so she could better understand her racism.” And in order to get her to sit there and absorb the masterpiece, to get her to comply with his racist re-education campaign, Noye backed his plan with an ugly threat to his victim’s life. He told his housemate, “He would kill her and spread her body parts across Interstate 380 on the way to Chicago,” if she didn’t sit still and watch all nine hours of the miniseries

Luckily, at some point during their marathon viewing, the victim managed to sneak away from Noye and dial 911 on a cellphone. She then left the phone line “open.” The 911 dispatcher never spoke with the victim, but they did hear “lots of screaming” in the background. Police were alerted and officers, using GPS on the victim’s phone, were able to locate Noye’s house. 

According to local news reports, both the victim and her 12-year-old daughter were at the scene when the police arrived and an intoxicated Noye opened the front door. The victim and her daughter were then freed from the Roots marathon by the police, while Noye was arrested. 

Noye’s home in Cedar Rapids

If you’re not familiar with Roots and you’re wondering why an intoxicated, self-appointed, anti-racism coach would force a white woman to watch it against her will, the plantation era miniseries remains a phenomenal resource to start a discussion about the effects of slavery on Black America. Like, for instance, there’s the infamous whipping scene that features the kind of iconic brutality that demands the viewer confront the dehumanizing realities of slavery. In it, LeVar Burton’s character defiantly insists to be called by his African name, thus denying his master’s will that he accept his new slave name of Toby. 

His defiance isn’t rebellious. It’s life-affirming. It’s the height of humanity’s ache to be free. Twisted by racial intensity, the scene portrays the sort of extinguished morality that allows one person to steal another person’s humanity and enforce that theft with limitless cruelty and bodily pain.

Moreover, Roots wasn’t only searing in its depiction of slavery, but by extension, it called up America’s plantation ghosts — the ones that the nation prefers to leave in the past. The miniseries serves as an excellent lesson plan on how American racism functioned historically, and how it remains a force in the Land of the Free. 

At this point in the culture, however, Roots is probably best known as a point of reference. Such as when Dave Chappelle played the infamous whipping scene for laughs on his Comedy Central show. Chappelle toyed with the idea of what the outtakes from Roots might have been. In his inimitable way, Chappelle undercut all the raw seriousness of the miniseries to find ways to laugh at its pain. And it’s still hilarious when he goes after the white actor playing the whip-bearing overseer because the man’s been whipping him too hard in the scene. 

As for Noye, who is now out of jail and awaiting his next court appearance, if he still wants to help his white roommate grapple with her alleged racism, he should understand that it’s a process. First, she must become aware of her racism. Then she must want to change it. She must come to this awareness on her own and for her own reasons. At that point, if she does become curious, if she does reach that teachable moment, if she does want to know how she can take the necessary steps to become less racist, he could pick her up a copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist

Because denying any person their freedom so they can learn about slavery is like pretending to drown a person so they can learn about the importance of swimming. There are better ways.