The 10 Kinds of Trolls You Will Encounter When Talking About Mike Brown

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If you’re paying attention to the events unfolding in Ferguson—and by God, you better be—then you probably already know there is a group of people in this country of ours who are determined to change the focus of the conversation about the murder of Mike Brown and the subsequent protests, attempting to shift the lens away from the Constitutional rights of US citizens and the murder of a black teenager. If you’re reading this, you probably already know the folks I’m talking about. But here they are. #Staywoke.

The Full-Blown Racist Troll (trigger warning)

Block on sight. Some of them are friends of your Facebook friends—block them. Some of them are your Facebook friends. Many of them are accounts like the one I have screenshotted below: anonymous and relying on blatantly racist language, such as blackface imagery, monkey references, use of the N-word, etc. These have exploded over the last week. We’re talking hundreds. I’ve been using Twitter avidly for years and I can’t recall ever seeing quite this much racist bile taking over an event-related hashtag (#Ferguson) as I have this week. Block them and report them for spam immediately.

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The “Wait for Evidence” Troll

This troll may or may not be anonymous and pretends to be focused on respecting and upholding the law. “We don’t know what happened yet,” they say, “wait for evidence before you lambast an officer of the law.” They pretend that things like racism, police brutality, police corruption, etc. don’t exist and insist that if concrete evidence is released, they will be swayed to feel “sympathy” for Mike Brown. But they won’t. When evidence arises, they find objection to its relevance or veracity. They then transform into The “Mike Brown Shouldn’t Have [insert human action here]” Troll, to follow.

The “Mike Brown Shouldn’t Have [insert human action here]” Troll

This troll (and the others as well) will go great lengths to justify the taking of black life. “He shouldn’t have run,” “he shouldn’t have been sagging,” “he shouldn’t have been walking down the middle of the street,” “he shouldn’t have stolen something.” These trolls come in all races and will insist that when a police officer (or a homeowner, or a security guard) assaults a person of color, that person must have done something to deserve it. The fact that Mike Brown was shot at least 6 times doesn’t register as overkill, even when two of those shots were in the head. They will also extend effort to paint Ferguson as a ghetto, where this kind of thing happens all the time. Nope. Ferguson, Missouri had zero murders until Officer Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown.

The “Police Are the Good Guys” Troll

These folks have a blissfully naïve version of police in their heads, the one fed to them since they were children that says police are the good guys and that no matter what they do, they must have had a reason. These people have no concept—or pretend to have no concept—of the depth of white supremacy and the way it is ingrained in every facet of our culture…even our police. Because they believe the police are always right—and usually because they also believe that groups of black people are inherently violent—they have no qualms about police dressed in military gear, sitting on tanks and tear-gassing American citizens. ‘Murica. You may also hear these trolls say, “What about due process?” Well…we would proceed with due process. If they would actually arrest Darren Wilson. Which they haven’t. So…

The “Violence Just Begets More Violence” Troll

These people are the riot-shamers. They roll out the word “looters!” at every chance and are not interested in the fact that only a small number of people at the protests have actively looted, or that Ferguson protestors actually locked arms to prevent said looting. These trolls hide behind anonymous accounts, they masquerade as sane coworkers, and they work for CNN and other major media outlets. They focus on the “unrest” in Ferguson and talk about it out of context in an attempt to 1) divert attention away from the killing of an unarmed black teenager and/or 2) disguise their lack of critical thought. As Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous said so well in this post:

“a community pushing back against a murderous police force that is terrorizing them is not a ‘riot’. It’s an uprising. It’s a rebellion. It’s a community saying We can’t take this anymore. We won’t take it. It’s people who have been dehumanized to the point of rightful rage. And it happens all over the world. Uprisings and rebellions are necessary and inevitable, locally and globally. This is not to say that actual riots don’t happen. White folks riot at sporting events, for example. Riots happen. But people rising up in righteous anger and rage in the face of oppression should not be dismissed as simply a ‘riot’.”

The Concern Troll

These are among the more passive aggressive trolls you will encounter. They not only target victims like Mike Brown with statements like “I wish he hadn’t stolen those cigars: he might be alive,” but target the community as well, saying things like “Should they really be out there protesting with little kids? I worry about that kind of parenting.”
Let me make one thing clear in case you weren’t sure: these people aren’t worried about the children of Ferguson. They’re not actually “concerned” at all,” despite their title. These people employ words like “worry” and “I wish” and “concern” to communicate their disapproval of black people doing anything besides playing the Martin Baker role. If they were actually concerned, they would see the images of police with hidden badge numbers, tear-gassing eight-year old girls, and be concerned about the escalation of violence police in Ferguson are responsible for.

The “But What About Black on Black Crime!” Troll

Yes, 85% of violent crime against black people is perpetuated by other black people. But guess what? The exact same is true for violent crime committed against white people: the vast majority of those crimes are committed by other white people. People who use the term “black on black crime” either 1) work for Fox News, 2) are seeking to portray black people as violent and out of control, and/or 3) seek to portray black people as only caring about black lives when there is a way to blame white people. Let’s run that back: 1) If they work for Fox News…you already know. 2) If we’re going to make sweeping statements about people being violent and out of control, perhaps we should focus on young white males. 3) Anyone who would fit with #3 is not interested in facts, otherwise they would be aware of the vast number of organizations and movements to end gun violence in black neighborhoods…spearheaded by black people. The real motivation behind this troll (and all of them really) is to distract from the matter at hand, and that’s that an unarmed black teen is dead.

The “Don’t Make This A Racial Issue!” Troll

These are the pearl-clutchers. “This could have happened to anyone! Let’s not make this a racial issue and instead focus on getting this cop off the street!” Yes, we should focus on getting this cop off the street, but we must also focus on the conditions that made this murder possible, and that is one of racism, white supremacy, and police violence that has been being built and rebuilt since the birth of this country. No, this wouldn’t have just happened to anyone. A black male is killed by police every 28 hours in America. This is a racial issue.
These trolls will also accuse you of being racist for talking about racism and start quoting to you all the times black people perpetuated “reverse racism” against white people. Suggested action? Block and keep it moving.

The Misinformation Bots

These are particularly dangerous and I have seen a lot of them in the past week. I won’t speculate on where they come from—although I have a fairly good idea—but their sole purpose is to spread misinformation about Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, targeting people tweeting under the #Ferguson and #MikeBrown hashtags and sending them to false articles on homemade websites about alternate eyewitnesses that saw Brown attack Wilson, etc. Don’t engage with these people: they likely get paid for it. Report them as spam and, you guessed it: keep it moving.

The “I Wish We Could All Just Get Along” Troll

These trolls might mean well. They might. But that doesn’t mean they’re not trolls. You post/tweet an article and they tweet back, “This is all really bad, but I wish this wasn’t happening. Can’t we all just get along?” They’re trolling you. We all wish we could get along. But right now a boy is dead and is receiving no justice by the system that supposedly exists to protect him. Injecting Pollyanna-isms aren’t helping anyone. If you really want to help and the frontlines aren’t for you, just donate to the Michael Brown Memorial Fund. And stay out of the way.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. When a black person is killed in America, trolls come out of the woodwork in an attempt to justify or distract from the taking of that life. After finishing this post, I’m not even sure “troll” is the right word, but I’m not sure if I have a better one either. Weights, perhaps. Cinder blocks shackled to the rising tide of Americans who want better, believe in better; who see the murder of another black kid in America and say “enough.” These people are not merely trolls. “Troll” implies something harmless, a faceless entity in the underbelly of the Internet. These people are not harmless. They are part of the problem. Unfortunately I don’t have a solution for the problem they pose: they are not interested in self-education. They are not interested in empathy. They are not interested in challenging the worldview that has tucked them in at night and told them the police are here for our protection and that black people deserve what they get. They are interested only in standing very still, while the rest of us move forward. All I can say is this: move on without them. Block, report, and move on without them. Even when they’re friends.

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10 Things White Privilege Has Done for Me in 10 Days

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Some of the things I write most about are racism, sexism, misogynoir, and inequality in American media and pop culture, specifically the underrepresentation of women of color in the aforementioned. The reasons why are many and complicated. Almost all of my closest friendships throughout my life have been and continue to be with black and brown women, and I have been a sounding board for their pain and disenfranchisement since I was very young. I went to Columbia College Chicago, my friends struggled to find art (literature and film) where they were not only represented, but represented in nuanced and thoughtful ways that went deeper than tokenism. As a white woman, I often stood by feeling helpless, attempting to educate white people (family, classmates, Facebook) about white privilege and the consequences of underrepresentation, both for the self-esteem of children of color and for the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies. I’m a writer, so awhile back I took to blogging as a means of communicating some of these ideas, hoping to use my white privilege to reach people and change some minds.

But something has been bugging me lately, and I haven’t been quite sure what it is, until last week when a blog I wrote about the movie Lucy reached something like 230k people and the emails started pouring in. Not all of it was “hate mail” (although some of it certainly was): a lot of it was people of color writing to say, “Cool blog. I’ve been saying this for years and no one listens.”

That’s when it hit me, and it should have hit me a lot sooner, but this white privilege shit can really make you an idiot sometimes: by talking about these issues and finding an audience, I am exercising white privilege, and while I do believe that writing about the lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood and media can have a positive effect, it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time talking about the problems with the white supremacist system we live in, but not as much time talking about the ways in which I operate in that system. I try to keep my privilege in check—I’m not always successful—but since last week, I have been actively monitoring my daily life and watching the ways in which that privilege has benefited me when it comes to the blogging and writing that I do. So here it is, 10 ways in 10 days. (Note: There are definitely more than 10, and they obviously extend beyond my writing. See Peggy MctIntosh’s work for a better and more extensive list.)

1. People read my blog about Lucy.

Re-stating this one for all the folks who skipped the intro. I wrote a blog about being tired of seeing white faces on the big screen, dissecting the movie Lucy, and (white) people actually read it. I am not saying anything new in this blog that people of color haven’t already said a thousand times, since before I was born. And this is not to say that white people never read work by non-white people. But the emails I received from white folks saying “Wow, you really opened my eyes!” is telling.

2. Even though I take issue with the underrepresentation of people of color, representation of myself is not a problem.

Despite my anger about Hollywood, media, and popular fiction (including young adult fiction) erasing black and brown protagonists, it doesn’t mean that I am not still represented everywhere. This is one I have found I need to be really careful with, as being a guest in a community isn’t the same as being part of that community. The fact that I write about underrepresentation of people of color doesn’t mean that I am underrepresented: I turn on the TV and I see white women with skin and hair like mine. I go the movie theater and I am bombarded with men and women who look like me, not relegated to the role of servant, slave, or token. (I’m looking at you, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and well, pretty much every movie ever. See this great infographic by Lee and Low Publishers about the diversity gap in sci-fi and fantasy films.)

3. Some white people think I’m brave and cool.

I have gotten emails from white folks telling me that they admire me, etc. and that what I’m doing is important. Although I appreciate these emails, I can’t help but wonder if they are sending the same emails to women like @TheTrudz and @FeministaJones, black women who daily do far more important work than I and receive 100x as much hate mail. They are brave and brilliant. And so, so cool.

4. White people don’t see me as an outsider.

Granted, I’ve gotten quite a bit of nasty email and I have not even bothered to read the comments on the last several blogs I’ve written. (Sorry, folks: self-care.) But my criticism of Hollywood (and white people) does not hurt me on a grand scale, nor does anyone assume I speak for the entire white race. No one is reading my blogs and saying, “She’s just angry because she’s a [insert marginalized group here]. That’s how they all think.” I’m given the benefit of validity because I’m white.

5. No one thinks I’m selfish.

When people of color write about issues (in whatever arena or industry) that affect people of color, they are often labeled as self-seeking or only interested in causes that affect them, rather than being seen as valid providers of lived experience. So while people may read my blogs and say I’m a dick or that I’m missing major aspects of the way racism operates—both of which might be true—it generally doesn’t include the idea that I’m only in it for myself.

6. I can make punctuation and grammatical mistakes without people chalking it up to my race.

Hey, I make typos. We all do. But when people who are reading work by people of color and looking for a reason to discredit them, punctuation and grammar are often attacked as a way of undermining the argument. I can spell “platypus” like “plattapuss,” and people will say, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb.” Not, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb because she’s [insert marginalized group here].”

7. I can reply angrily to nasty comments without people chalking it up to my race.

This is an extension of #6 but it deserves its own, because it’s something that I see women of color struggle with a lot, both in life and online/in social media. A troll leaves a nasty comment or sends a viciously racist tweet, and the woman in question will respond with something snappy, and the troll will then go on to say, “See, angry black woman. What do you expect?” I, on the other hand, can reply with all the nastiness in the world, and while my womanhood will likely be attacked (“bitch,” “cunt,” etc.), my race will not.

8. People buy my book.

I wrote a sci-fi novel for my two best friends (Hi Hope! Hi Tasha!) and so the heroine is a woman of color kicking ass in the apocalypse. People are buying it, excited about the prospect of a non-white character in this scenario. But many of them have never heard of Octavia Butler. Many of them have never heard of Nnedi Okorafor. My white privilege has made me and my work visible, and some folks wrongly think I am the first to do what I’ve done. I am not. I am not. Don’t get me wrong, I want people to buy my book. But what I cannot let happen is the erasure of women of color who have done what I’m doing first. (Note: this is not to say that I have sold even close to as many books as Nnedi Okorafor, and especially not Octavia Butler. But when we’re talking about literary traditions, the fact that some of my white readers have read my book but not theirs is telling and problematic.)

9. My writing isn’t limited by the market to tales of slavery and servitude.

Although a lot of my subject matter confronts issues of race, my white privilege is a bubble around me when it comes to my future in writing and publishing. Too many of my author and poet friends have expressed frustration about approaching agents and publishers with their books, only to be told, “Well, maybe if you centered the story around slavery or racism.” My writing isn’t required to focus on aspects of my race and cultural experience, where people of color are often asked to act as a spokesperson or historian with their work. I pitched a young adult fantasy series, and all I was told is “Cool.”

10. I can stop writing/thinking about racism and my life will not change much.

One of the things about white privilege is that it’s like a steam bath. If you get tired of fighting or exhausted from battling against racist institutions, you can sink down into the bath, relax, and let the steam cloud your vision. I can sit down and watch a movie with a whitewashed cast, turn off my brain, and enjoy images of myself reflected back to me. If I stopped thinking and writing about racism, my life wouldn’t change, aside from a few less emails in my inbox calling me a “race traitor bitch,” my life would continue unaffected. Such is white privilege. The ability to not think, to not be constantly aware of your race, its presence and absence.

This article itself is a manifestation of white privilege. I will post it online and people will probably read it, and this list will start all over again. But I think I need to keep talking about this stuff, because writing a blog about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. Writing 100 blogs about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. I hope this time that the emails I get from white readers are more than “You’re right, there is an overrepresentation of white people in Hollywood!” and venture into “You’re right, our own whiteness is at work in intricate ways.” Change starts at home, and the real place I live is in my body.

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Lucy: Why I’m Tired of Seeing White People on the Big Screen

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I’m tired of seeing white people on the silver screen.

First, let me note that I am white. I am a white woman who goes to the theater to see probably a dozen films (if not more) in a given year, a white woman who readily consumes TV shows and series and often blogs/tweets about them. I love film. I love what Hollywood could be, but I must say that I don’t love what it is, and that is a machine generating story after story in which the audience is asked to root for a white (usually male) hero over and over and over (and over) again. I’m tired. I’m tired of directors pretending that white actors are the default and that people of color are a distraction when it comes to filmmaking. I’m tired of black women in Hollywood being relegated to roles of slaves and “the help” over and over again. I’m tired of films convincing themselves that they are taking on something fresh and new, the likes of which the world has never seen, but in actuality adhering to tired tropes and stereotypes.

One example that comes to mind is Avatar, a “groundbreaking” film about aliens and humanity, which, underneath it all, is the same old White Savior story. But more recently is Lucy, the film starring Scarlett Johansson in which a woman named Lucy evolves and is able to use 100% of her brain’s capacity after she unwittingly ingests a massive amount of drugs.

Lucy is about what humankind could be: it’s about possibilities. As Lucy’s brainpower grows stronger and the volume of knowledge she is able to access increases, she delivers monologues about how little humans understand about death, existence, and the universe, mediating on time and history. The film likes to think of itself as reimagining everything that we think we know about humanity, and presents to us their vision of what the most evolved woman on earth looks like:

A blonde white woman.

See, I just can’t get right with that.

You see, I was an anthropology major in high school and by the time I was 16 I’d learned all about Lucy (Australopithecus), the collection of bones found in Hadar and thought to have lived 3.2 million years ago, one of the oldest hominids we know of. Lucy the film doesn’t try to hide how cute they thought they were being by naming the supreme evolved being in their film “Lucy:” they show an ape-like creature crouched by a stream to illustrate just how far human beings have come, and say as much in the opening lines, depicting vast cities built up to show our progress. The original Lucy was not really an ape, though: she had small skull capacity like apes, but her skeleton shows she was bipedal and walked upright like humans. Hadar, by the way, is in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia.

So I guess what’s sticking in my craw is the assertion that while human life originated in Africa—a detail the film neatly skims over, placing the ape-like Lucy that Johansson sees in North America—somehow the way we imagine the most evolved human being is blonde and white. Even more, when Lucy gets surges of knowledge in the film, her eyes flash brightly blue. Because blue eyes, we all know, are the universal symbol of superiority, right?

How is it that in a film whose premise rests on the idea of reimagining the past, present, and future, we still end up with a blonde white woman with flashing blue eyes as the stand-in for what personifies evolution and supremely fulfilled human potential? At one point the Ape-like Lucy and Evolved Lucy meet face-to-face as Evolved Lucy does a bit of time-traveling. Their fingers touch, and we see them deliberately posed to mimic the famous Creation of Adam painting, and in that moment I saw what I suppose we were supposed to see: humanity at its beginning, and then humanity at its end, at its most perfect. Blonde, white, and blue-eyed.

I can’t accept that. I can’t accept that there was only one black woman in the entire film, who delivered one line and who we never saw again. I can’t accept that the bad guys were Asian and that although in China, Lucy’s roommate says, “I mean, who speaks Chinese? I don’t speak Chinese!” I can’t accept that in Hercules, which I also saw this weekend, there were no people of color except for Dwayne Johnson himself and his mixed-race wife, whose skin was almost alabaster. I can’t accept that she got maybe two lines and was then murdered. I can’t accept that the “primitive tribe” in Hercules consisted of dark-haired men painted heavily, blackish green, to give their skin (head-to-toe) a darker appearance, so the audience could easily differentiate between good and bad guys by the white vs. dark skin. I can’t accept that during the previews, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a story about Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, where not a single person of color is represented, casts Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton to play Egyptians. I can’t accept that in the preview for Kingsman: The Secret Service, which takes place in London, features a cast of white boys and not a single person of Indian descent, which make up the largest non-white ethnic group in London. I can’t accept that in stories about the end of the world and the apocalypse, that somehow only white people survive. I can’t accept that while my daily life is filled with black and brown women, they are completely absent, erased, when I look at a TV or movie screen.

I can’t accept that. And I can’t accept that when we think about the potential of humankind and what our brains are capable of doing and thinking and feeling, that people of color would be absent from that imagining. I can’t accept that. And I won’t. I’m tired of seeing people that look like me crowding screens both big and small: I am not what the world looks like. Hollywood, stop whitewashing characters. Give us more films like this year’s Annie. I’m no Lucy: like everyone else I’m only using a tiny amount of my brain’s capacity. But you don’t need to be a superhuman logic-machine to see that Hollywood has a major problem with depicting people of color, and it’s time to actually reimagine what the world can and should be. 

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Ranting, Process, and White Girls in Dystopia: 4 Questions with Olivia A. Cole

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The amazing and talented Jenn Jackson (who recently interviewed Janet Mock) passed a blog tour baton to me, an exercise that is linking writers and bloggers together and provides their readers with a way to learn more about the people whose work they enjoy. This is timely, as I field a lot of emails from readers who want to know more about what I’m working on and why I write what I write. So here you have it: four questions, and four answers. Enjoy.

1) What are you working on?

The thing that takes up most of my writing time these days is the sequel to my novel, Panther in the Hive, which is currently untitled. I’ve had a lot of people ask when it will be finished, but that’s not a question that I can easily answer at this time. But I can say this: Panther took three years, and the sequel will take nowhere near that long. The storyline is mapped out through to the end and I’m about halfway finished writing the book itself. It’s coming!

Besides that, I do continue to write poems when inspiration strikes. In fact, a poem of mine is currently a semifinalist in the 21st Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards. (If you’re in Chicago and want to attend the reading, it’s on July 23rd at the Chopin Theatre. Click the link for more information. I’d love to see you there.) Then, of course, there are my blogs. I try to do a blog a week but that’s not always possible. However, I love blogging and try to give it time and energy whenever I can.

Finally, I am working on a young adult series starring a female protagonist as well. That book has barely been born, but it stays at the front of my mind because I think it’s an important one to write. More on that soon.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Well, for starters, my characters are people of color, and generally that is hard to come by in the science-fiction/post-apocalyptic genre. There are, of course, geniuses working in that genre such as Nnedi Okorafor. But overall, non-white characters in apocalyptic settings are annoyingly rare.

I’d also venture to say that my writing takes itself far less seriously than a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. While I explore themes of humanity, racism, and violence, at the heart of my work is a thread of fun and excitement. Writing is fun. The worlds I create are exciting. I think the sense of humor that works its way into Panther in the Hive, for example, is somewhat rare in its genre.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Oh, this question always makes me a little crazy because I never know how to answer it. I don’t set out to write the things I do, I just…do. It’s always been this way. That question needs to be more specific anyhow. Why do I write books that feature characters of color? Because almost all of my friends, heroes, and influencers are people of color. Besides, does the dystopian genre really need one more love-crazed white girl running around in it? Nah. Why do I write fiction that takes place in the future? Because the present depresses the hell out of me. Why do I write fiction that is strangely funny and references a lot of pop culture? Because I love comedy and pop culture.

Or, if we’re talking about the ranty blogs that I write, well, that’s even easier to answer. I write ranty blogs about movies, people, etc. because when something infuriates me—and so many things do—I have to write about it. It’s a compulsion, one I’ve had since a child. I’ve stopped trying to tell it no.

4) How does your writing process work?

If we’re talking about fiction, then usually ideas strike me like lightning. One minute they don’t exist, and the next minute they do. From there, I just….begin. I just have to begin. By the time the idea strikes me, it already has something of a body, so I write in its legs and arms and eyes and so on until it can walk a little on its own and then I see where it leads me. Then I keep writing. I force myself to write every day, otherwise it may not get done and then the thing sits on my back and guilts me until I return to it.

Once an entire draft is finished, editing begins. That takes a long time. Usually there is a lot of cutting because I’ve written a bunch of things that suck and need to be removed. Panther in the Hive went through about 100 different drafts. If not more. I’m sure its sequel will be close, although I’m a better writer now then I was then (I hope) so maybe it will be less.

As for blogs, they’re a lot easier. After I see a film like Transformers or Single Moms Club, the problems are very apparent and hang in my head like light bulbs until I switch them off one by one. This “switching off” can only be accomplished by writing the blog, addressing the issues point by point. I usually don’t have to edit much for blogs. Rants tend to enter my mind in a very complete form. That makes it a lot easier.

There you have it. Stay tuned later this week or next for another rant from yours truly. Until then, if you have questions about my process or work, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll answer as many as I can.

Finally, I will now pass the baton to two other writers who I respect. Danielle Koon is the first, a writer based out of DC who is working on her first novel, The Docks. The second, Maggie Gray, blogs over at Colorful Adventures of a Gray Girl, exploring themes of womanhood, sexism, and life. Looking forward to reading their responses to these questions.

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5 Reasons People With Brains Shouldn’t See Transformers: Age of Extinction

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If you’re one of the people I refer to in the title of this blog—that is, people with brains—then you are probably already aware of the things that make Michael Bay one of the most vile and overrated directors in Hollywood. Explosions substituting for character development. General cinematic bloatedness. You know these things. But in case your instincts need a little sharpening, I will save you your money—and a precious three hours of your precious life—by providing five handy reasons you shouldn’t go see the new Transformers movie. You’re welcome.

#1 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That His Understanding of Women is Mere Millimeters Deep

With every movie that Michael Bay makes, he further proves that he not only hates women, but possesses the qualities of a panting 14-year old boy with acne and a public erection. His understanding of women is disjointed and stumbles between the two sexist binaries of Madonna and whore: the female lead in Transformers 4—I won’t say heroine because then I’d be a liar—reels between half-naked party girl whose skin provides 25% of the film’s panning shots and nagging wife-figure who is pure and cares only for the welfare of her helpless daddy. As the film goes on and real action starts to take place, the girl gets fewer and fewer lines. In fact, I believe an entire hour passed in which she didn’t say a word: just screamed, gasped, and moaned in fear. The last half of the movie was full of close-ups on her sweating, crying face. When she finally did get a moment of action in the last ten minutes of the film, it was 30 seconds long and completely underwhelming, seeming to exist grudgingly, added in as an afterthought so that her character does something other than hide and weep.

But creepier still is the fact that Bay chooses to make her young age a focus point of the film. He smugly references Romeo and Juliet clauses, as if to cover his pedophilic tracks. “See guys, the fact that I’m forcing you as an audience to spend almost 3 hours ogling a 17-year old girl is legal. Romeo and Juliet clause, baby!” Michael Bay is rich enough for therapy. I wish he’d go.

#2 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That He Believes Explosions Are the Key to Good Filmmaking

Guys, I’m not kidding. Explosions. This movie is almost 3 hours long and I’d wager that 50% of it is just shit blowing up. It’s an action movie…I get it. Explosions and chases and crashes are part of the game and ordinarily I love it. But a five-minute shot of a car overturning and smashing other cars is overkill. Ask yourself, is it possible that explosions can be boring? Michael Bay makes it possible. Trust me. In the lifetime I spent in that movie theater watching Transformers 4, I looked at my phone four different times to check the clock. Is it over yet? The explosions washed over me in waves of monotony. Never have I felt so apathetic about things catching on fire and being launched into the air. I literally yawned as a car flipped through the sky during a ten-minute motorcycle chase in which no real stunts were performed. I yawned. This is a problem.

#3 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That He Has No Problem With Racist Stereotypes

Remember the Transformer twins in Revenge of the Fallen? You remember…the jive-talking, illiterate, violent autobots that were criticized widely? Well, Bay didn’t learn his lesson. Age of Extinction features a samurai Transformer with a heavy Japanese accent who calls Optimus Prime “sensei.” Oh, and his face is made of yellow metal. Need I say more? Also, another fun racist fact, my fiancé, who has done karate for over twenty years, pointed out that samurais are Japanese but when the samurai autobot bowed, it was the traditional clasped-fist bow, which is Chinese. Bay doesn’t even do his research, apparently. An Asian autobot is an Asian autobot, right? (And made to have a yellow face? I mean, come on.)

#4 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That He’s Got Issues With Masculinity

Casting Mark Wahlberg to play a nerdy inventor is kind of a funny choice. Wahlberg’s character is supposed to be a tinkerer, a guy who builds little robots and hopes to invent the”next big thing.” But in the mind of someone like Michael Bay, that kind of guy isn’t masculine enough on his own: he needs to be someone muscular who can also punch people in the face and shoot guns and ride spaceships. At one point, Wahlberg crashes a spaceship in downtown Chicago, wrecking a car. A nerdy man with glasses and average biceps gets out and delivers a “funny” line about hoping Wahlberg has insurance. What does Wahlberg do? He makes a big macho declaration, cracks open a beer, and threatens to shoot the guy. No, not kidding. That’s what he does. Because BIG TOUGH GUY IS COOLER THAN SMALLER NERDY GUY WHO CARES ABOUT WIMPY THINGS LIKE INSURANCE. Guns! Beer! <scratches armpit>

#5 The Writing is So, So Bad. So Bad.

I actually stayed in the theater even longer than necessary so that I could glimpse who was responsible for writing this script. His name is Ehren Kruger. Ehren, wherever you are…stop. Please. For the good of mankind. The Transformers call people “bitch” (because aliens are familiar with misogynist epithets) and deliver the most pathetically limp one-liners I’ve ever heard. Optimus Prime, known for his speeches, delivers monologues more likely found in a badly-translated anime film than in a Hollywood feature. The plot holes…well, the entire film is a plot hole. The narrative coherence…well, there is no narrative coherence. Ehren, give me a call if you need a consultant for next time. (God forbid there is a next time.) I’d be happy to brush you up on creating female characters who exist outside of a misogynist binary, and we can discuss these one-liners too, because right now they’ve got about as much zing as a can of SPAM.

There you have it, folks. I hope I saved you some time and money. But hey, if you’re a masochist, knock yourself out. If you can stay awake.

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Why Is the Villain in Dragon 2 the Only Non-White Character?

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I’ll keep this short.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 could have been great. It could have been an exciting, funny tale of a boy overcoming both a life-altering injury and his close-minded society to become a hero to his people once again. But one detail holds it back from greatness, and that’s the decision of writer and director Dean DeBlois to make the only non-white character in the film the super-evil mega-villain.

Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar fans are used to mostly- and all-white casts (which is part of what makes this fall’s Home so exciting), so the first Dragon was no different in that regard: the film is about Vikings, and Norse Vikings (as far as I know) tended to be white folks. And true to that, Dragon was a jumble of blonde and red-haired characters with Scottish—and sometimes vaguely Australian?—accents, with little variation. The enemy in the first Dragon was not human: the enemy was dragons (or so it seemed) and the intolerance/fear of protagonist Hiccup’s kinsmen. The “big bad guy” was one dragon in particular—a big fat one who commanded all the little dragons to raid villages and bring him sheep to eat. When Hiccup (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen the first film) defeated him with the help of his adorable dragon-friend Toothless, it was easy to cheer for the win and walk away from the film feeling good about the characters and the story.

But not so with Dragon 2. They don’t show the villain at first, but the audience hears his voice from under his cloak. Hearing it, I was immediately suspicious. “That’s not a Scottish accent,” I thought. It sounded African, vaguely Middle Eastern. I nudged my friend and whispered, “They better not make the bad guy a brown dude.”

But they did.

Drago Bludvist is a darker-skinned, black haired, dreadlocked, nose-not-quite-like-anyone-else-in-the-film, non-white dude, voiced by Djimon Hounsou. I have spoken with a number of friends, some of which read him as an Eastern European character, given his name. Someone also mentioned that he had green eyes, but I’m not sure if I agree. The point, however–whether he was intended to be vaguely African or Middle Eastern– is his Otherness. Where the other characters are fair-skinned and red- and-blond-haired, Drago’s skin is decidedly darker, his accent distinctly foreign from the Scottish and American tongues of the rest of the cast.

Now, films and literature have historically relied on the light-dark dichotomy to differentiate between good and evil. So there is a long tradition of storytelling here that Dragon 2 is making use of. But you know what?

It’s lazy, and it’s racist.

“How can we make sure the audience (kids) know that this guy is bad?” a lazy director/writer might ponder. “Oh, I know! We’ll make him darker-skinned! That way the kiddies will know that he’s a bad guy.” Because….darker-skinned people are…bad? Interesting, too, that Drago Bludvist’s skin is just light enough to make him ethnically ambiguous, which leads me to believe that the “Make him black…but not too black” conversation was had at some point during production. As if an Eastern European name and not-quite-brown skin would be enough to deflect accusations of racism. But the fact remains: Dragon 2 effectively created an Othered character to act as the villain.

Do directors that perpetuate this sort of nonsense believe they’re somehow doing audiences of color a favor by making the villain a person of color? “Sure, you’re not represented anywhere else in this film, but what about the villain! We made him brown!” Not all representation is good representation, and in a film and TV culture already sorely lacking in black and brown faces, the last thing little kids of all colors need is another reinforcement of “white is good, black is bad.”

Sure, we’re talking Vikings here, and as mentioned above, the Norse were typically white, so having a black or brown Viking might not be historically accurate. But you know what else isn’t historically accurate? Motherf@*!ing dragons. So I think an animated film such as this has a little bit of room for creative license. My father agreed. After speaking with my dad about the film, he snorted and said, “I don’t understand why any director would continue to do this crap. If they really want to make the character look evil and scary, they should make him look like Dick Cheney. Now that’s terrifying.”

Good call, pop.

How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel are great films about friendship, family, courage, and overcoming disability to be who you are, and DeBlois showed how creative he can be with his writing and directing. So where is the creativity in having a villain who is dark-skinned and foreign, drawing on old stereotypes that are better laid to rest? You can do better, Mr. DeBlois. I know you can.

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Chicago Filmmakers Choose Substance Over Stereotypes

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When it comes to documenting the lives and stories of people of color, Hollywood is notorious for being more interested in the perpetuation of stereotypes than meaningful portrayals of marginalized communities with value and humanity. And often when those films are made and manage to find a spot in the mainstream, there exists another problem, this time on the audience’s end: studies show that Caucasians have what is called a racial empathy gap—they struggle to relate to the experiences (specifically pain) of people of color—and that extends into the way they respond to films featuring people of color. One example is last year’s Best Man Holiday, a film featuring an almost entirely black cast and exploring topics such as friendship, cancer, love, and faith. Despite the fact that its plot was based upon these universal themes, the film was referred to as “race-themed” by major media outlets such as USA Today, causing moviegoers of all colors to question whether mainstream media can only view non-white experiences as defined by their race, rather than by their humanity and the universal experiences that make us human.

Filmmakers who choose to focus on the stories of marginalized communities face unique challenges in finding funding and mainstream attention for their projects. Chicago filmmakers Cy Weisman and Josh MacNeal have certainly faced their share of those challenges. While discussing mainstream audiences’ reluctance to connect with plotlines that deviate from white, hetero-male perspectives, the brother and sister duo agree that the problem has multiple layers, including 1) mainstream audiences are unfamiliar with stories about black, brown or gay characters because they feel those narratives are specific to those communities; the only real exceptions are stories that have a white, male, or heterosexual character present in the lead i.e. The Kids Are Alright and Freedom Writers. And 2) films featuring black, brown, or gay characters that get mainstream attention pigeonhole those lives and experiences in a way that makes black, brown, and LGBT experience “niche,” as opposed to one part of a broad spectrum of humanity.

“Living in the inner city is only one aspect of the black experience,” says MacNeal. “And unfortunately audiences, especially youth, have become conditioned to the idea that these experiences shown on BET, for example, define black lives. The experiences being shown, however, are limited.”

MacNeal, who grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago, didn’t become conscious of racism and the way he was perceived as a black man until he was older, he says, and as a filmmaker has focused heavily on illustrating other aspects of black experience and identity than just the narrow version mainstream media chooses to portray. “It’s troubling,” says MacNeal, “that films that happen to feature black characters are automatically described as ‘black movies,’” rather than universal tales of friendship, adversity, love, etc.

“Movies about white people are never called ‘white stories,’” he says, and laments the fact that when “black stories” are told, they focus on drugs, violence, or thug life, usually without exploring the systems behind those realities.

On his part, his goal is to create work that reaches beyond the pigeonholed perspective and digs into the experiences that are universal, experienced by a variety of characters: black and white, straight and gay.

Weisman, on the other hand, who does the writing for the duo’s films, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and says her consciousness of racism—and also sexism—emerged at an early age, and recalls music as being one of the first mediums in which she really noticed negative messages by and about black and brown communities being perpetuated—usually by black and brown artists.

“White kids bought into ‘ratchet’ culture before it was ever called ratchet culture,” she says, “and the business of art and film has been built on those tropes ever since.” Interesting, she notes, that trends within black music have largely been dictated by the appropriative tastes of white suburban youth, and expresses disappointment in rap artists who no longer rap about lived experiences and life narratives, instead choosing to create music about wealth, possessions, and name brands—experiences that not even white suburban youth can relate to. “Most people aren’t rich,” she adds.

“It’s so rarely about art anymore,” she continues, “or being an artist. So many songs these rappers and singers perform are written by somebody else, and many movies being produced are remakes or drawn out sequels. The process of creating has been watered down.”

Not so with Weisman and MacNeal, who write and direct all of their films, and are currently seeking funding for their next major project, Urbs in Horto, a crime thriller set in Chicago. Urbs in Horto is focused around exactly the sort of exploration of identity that MacNeal and Weisman agree need fixing in filmmaking: three different stories about diverse characters of different backgrounds, and juxtaposing those characters’ lives—moving beyond the drug violence and white collar crime—in order to reveal the universal experiences.

Weisman criticizes the superficiality she sees in music and film today, which she insists are inextricably connected. That is why she uses them almost interchangeably in her critique of both mediums, and which is why their plans for Urbs in Horto involve working extensively with indie musicians and artists to create the soundtrack that they imagine for the film.

“Music is an integral part of any movie,” Weisman says, and expresses her excitement about the prospect of working with indie artists.

“That’s the great thing about film,” MacNeal says, echoing his sister’s excitement. “We’re tapping into Chicago’s creative community for actors and artists, but we’re also creating jobs in the city we grew up in for legal, real estate, food services, etc.”

“Anything we can do for Chicago is awesome,” Weisman adds.

And Chicago needs this discourse, they both agree: segregation, violence, and poverty are just a few of the challenges faced by Chicagoans, and that’s why the brother and sister team declare that audiences need stories that speak deeply to the community now more than ever.

The purpose of Urbs in Horto, MacNeal says, is to spark that conversation while still offering the action and exhilaration that comes from crime thrillers.

“Film is an art form, but primarily a form of entertainment,” says Weisman. “We need to encourage people to seek and expect more substance in what they consume.”

She insists that a film can be a thriller with action and excitement—and even violence—while still offering a depth of human experience. The task is changing audience’s standards for the films (and music) they consume. But how?

“Give other options,” MacNeal says simply.

He believes that audiences’ preference for stereotyped narratives is really just a case of consuming what’s available: eating junk food because it’s what’s in the fridge. His sister agrees, adding:

“If you give audiences other options—show them more multi-layered stories that feature marginalized peoples—then they will respond.” She describes what she perceived as a shift from positive to negative representations of minorities in the media—The Cosbys and The Martin Lawrence Show transitioned into countless scripted reality TV shows & uninspired sitcoms. She says emphatically,

“If we transitioned into this cultural low, then we can transition out of it.”

Her brother agrees. The key, he notes, is for directors and producers with a foot in the game already to support the next generation and have a dialogue about the importance of these depth-driven stories.

“That’s why I applaud the fashion industry, especially the CFDA, for how they mentor and propel their young designers. In film, Spike Lee is a great example of someone who’s doing it right,” MacNeal says. “He focuses on the issues and helps out who he can. He does a good job uplifting younger filmmakers.”

And the pair of them are young indeed. Weisman is 26 and MacNeal is a mere 20, one of the youngest filmmakers in the industry and already earning attention for his latest film, The 4th Meeting. The way they see it, making a difference is a matter of making the right film and making it reach a broad audience. And they might be right.

“There are people that need to hear these stories,” Weisman says, “and people who want better content. We’re not the only ones who feel this way.”

No, Ms. Weisman, you are not.

To contact or see their work, visit here: http://www.joshmacneal.com/urbsinhorto

Image credit: Rudy Lorejo Photography

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Dear Forbes: This Is Why Iggy Azalea Doesn’t “Run” Hip-Hop

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The Internet is currently on fire following a piece on Forbes that was initially titled “Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman” but was changed after the backlash forced Forbes to realize what an absurd claim they were making. The new title is “Hip Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.”

I’m annoyed for multiple reasons. Let’s discuss them, shall we?

First off, I wouldn’t go to an Iggy Azalea concert if it were happening on my front porch. While I understand (somewhat confusedly) that she does have something of a fan base, anyone who has any love for hip-hop is currently decrying the notion that this woman “runs” hip-hop. Or anything at all, really. But that’s why the article title was changed, right? Because it (as the update reads) “did not accurately reflect the content of the piece.” Nor does it affect, um, reality. So yeah, good choice, Forbes. But you’re not off the hook.

Let’s get into the article. Here is the author’s reasoning for what he calls Iggy Azalea’s “notable” “rise to prominence”:

Making a name for yourself as a woman and hip hop is laudable enough, forget the fact that she is a white, blonde, Australian woman. In a genre dominated almost exclusively by African American men she sticks out like a statuesque thumb.”

Yes, making a name for yourself in hip-hop as a woman is laudable. But lauding Iggy Azalea here is ludicrous. The author seems not to understand the fact that it is precisely because Iggy Azalea is white and blonde that she has “made a name for herself” in hip-hop. White privilege has successfully floated her to the top of a genre where black women have fought for decades to be represented: her presence (and success) in hip-hop isn’t a shining beacon for feminism, but for the power of whiteness and what it can accomplish.

The author goes on to say:

“While this is all happening very quickly for her in America, she has actually been honing her craft for a decade now, first rapping at the age of 14. In the ten years since, she has seen and been through all the trials and tribulations of the industry.”

Really? All the trials and tribulations of the industry? All of them? Black female rappers encounter a unique struggle in their journey to success in an industry bent on attacking (and exploiting) black female sexuality, not to mention the complex dichotomy of battling male rappers on their misogynist lyrics while also being pressured to support the genre of hip-hop as a whole. The experience of black women in hip-hop is nearly analogous to life outside of hip-hop: black women being asked to choose between supporting black men in the struggle against racism and supporting their own struggle against misogyny (and misogynoir.) Has Iggy Azalea had to make these choices? No. Rather, she is flippant about the subject of race, spitting this lyric in her song D.R.U.G.S:

 

“Tire marks, tire marks, finish line with the fire marks

When it really starts I’m a runaway slave…master

Shitting on the past gotta spit it like a pastor”

 

“Shitting on the past,” huh? Bye Iggy.

In the end, the idea that Iggy Azalea’s fame is “unlikely” is equally absurd. Of course it’s likely. A woman who represents every patriarchal and white supremacist ideal of beauty—tall, slim, undoubtedly white-featured, blonde—finding success in an industry that champions these qualities is entirely unsurprising, especially in a genre that is, as the author says, dominated almost exclusively by African-American men.” Iggy Azalea is not a success story I wish to celebrate. To me, she isn’t a success story at all: she is a novelty, a tiresome example of white female privilege and the delight white culture finds in white people appropriating any and everything.

Lastly, I would ask Hugh McIntyre if he has heard of FM Supreme. Awkwafina. Dominique Young Unique. Rapsody. Jean Grae. 3d Na’Tee. Women of color in hip-hop who are making a name for themselves against all odds. They run hip-hop. Next time you’re feeling all gushy about women in hip-hop…maybe write about them.

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Belle: A Lesson In the Timelessness of Racism and Misogyny Against Black Women

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It’s not often that audiences are exposed to a portrayal of racism that is viewed through the lens of black women. Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman in 1700’s England, was the daughter of an admiral and an enslaved African woman. The film Belle, which was released nationwide this weekend, follows Dido’s life in the household of William Murray, her great-uncle, who was the earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England. We watch Dido become a lady, educated and accomplished, while still forced to dine separately from her family in the company of strangers due to her lower status as a non-white person. We witness her experiences with romance and her complicated friendship with her white cousin, all during the infamous Zong case.

In the film, Dido becomes acquainted with an aspiring lawyer and abolitionist who advocates against the Zong slavers and, in turn, exposes Dido to the realities of slavery and racism that she had previously been sheltered from in the household of Chief Justice Mansfield. Meanwhile, as she comes of age and her cousin is introduced to society, she becomes painfully aware of what her race means outside the home of her great-uncle, becoming conscious of the unique prison she finds herself trapped within as both a non-white person and a woman. Her cousin, Elizabeth, is white, but poor; she doesn’t have the inheritance that Dido is privileged with. But the two young women discover how complicated both racism, sexism, and classism have made the world: Elizabeth can eat with her family and be introduced to society without burden; yet without an inheritance, her options for marriage are extremely limited, and the gentleman that she would marry will not have her, as his own pockets are empty, requiring a hefty dowry. On the other hand, Dido can afford to not marry if she wishes, or marry who she pleases, given her inheritance. Money gives her some independence, yet it seems she will not be able to marry at all, given her status as a non-white person: “too high to dine with the servants,” she says at one point, “but too low to dine with my own family.”

The intricacies of marriage and money and dowries in the 1700’s were complicated and seemed far different than what we experience in our world today, but what I saw in Belle—juxtaposed with the ancient-seeming idea of black bodies as property, cargo that can be thrown overboard as if drowning were not drowning but a mere spoiling of goods—was a startling sameness. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761 and died in 1804, yet the experiences this film projects in its illustration of the past bear shocking resemblance to the challenges black women (and black people) currently face in the United States today.

Dido’ fetishization by the two Ashford brothers, for one. While one brother sees her simply as an exotic Other who he can bed without forming attachments—very different than the attitude toward white women of the same time period, whose virtue was unequivocal and untouchable—the other is downright violent in his conception of Dido, calling her “repulsive,” but still expressing a desire to rape her. The scenes in which that older, more violent Ashford brother addresses Dido directly, giving voice to his unbridled racism and at one point assaulting her, are indisputably disturbing. Disturbing not just because they represent a disgusting and brutal history of humanity, but because I see remnants of those attitudes today in the way the world perceives the bodies of black and brown women: exotic, sexual, sensual, different, objects. We see it in the way Miley Cyrus and almost any given white pop star (Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke, for example) use black women’s bodies as props in music videos: something to be appropriated and used for one’s own pleasure, and then cast off in pursuit of the next trend. In addition, the rape of black women still does not seem to carry much horror in 2014: it was most recently the punchline on Saturday Night Live, and last year Russell Simmons was forced to apologize for his highly-offensive “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.” None of this is too different from the way the Ashford brothers perceive Dido’s body: an exotic Other not worthy of love or respect; merely lust, and lust framed in a particularly problematic racism.

The younger Ashford brother adds another layer to Dido’s complicated experience as a black woman: one night while he and Dido are sitting away from the crowd on their own, he confesses to being “taken with her,” and compliments her beauty in a strange way. Her mother’s blackness, he says, is undoubtedly ugly, but Dido’s “better half” (that is, her white half) won out in her features, which is what makes her so beautiful.

Shocking, isn’t it, that someone as beautiful as Dido would be struck down for her black half, and regarded as more beautiful simply because her white features are more prominent? Not so shocking when you consider it in the context of our beauty standards today, in which a quick Google search for “beautiful woman” returns almost entirely white faces. In American culture, the black women who do manage to be considered beautiful by mainstream societal standards are almost always mixed-race or possess white features: slim noses, light skin, straight hair. While the occasional darker skinned woman does manage to catch the public’s attention from time to time, she faces fetishization as well: look at Lupita Nyong’o. The public’s rabid consumption of her image often seems almost surprised with itself for finding a dark skinned woman so attractive, a feeling compensated for with adoration that borders on frantic.

Belle also examines the relationship between white and non-white women. Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth, speaks unhappily about the role of women in the world, noting that “we [women] are but their [men’s] property.” Her statement is almost comical: while bemoaning her own state of disadvantage as a [white] woman, she entirely ignores the disadvantage of black women, who were quite literally property. Where Dido and Elizabeth’s relationship was once intimate and carefree, tension grows between them as they become more aware (in different ways) of the power dynamics between them. Elizabeth’s ignorance and apathy—as well as her own racism—become roadblocks in their relationship, something we see often today when it comes to white feminists’ denial of their (our) own privilege and unwillingness to acknowledge intersectionality. Elizabeth is something of a feminist in her consciousness of the prison women are forced to live within in a sexist society, but her obliviousness to the plight of black people—and black women—blinds her to the ways that Dido’s identity impacts her life. That blindness is never actually remedied in the film—at one point she attacks Dido verbally about her “lower status,” but bites her tongue before saying something blatantly racist—and nor is it always remedied in our time, as white feminists so often attack women of color on decidedly racial ground, all the while claiming to be non-racist.

There was another moment in the film that paralleled our times so decidedly that it took my breath away. Toward the end, when Mr. Davinier—the young abolitionist lawyer that Dido encounters—is speaking passionately about the racist laws that made the Zong massacre possible, he says:

“Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are a framework for crime.”

Yes, they are, and this is our world, our country. We live in a country where:

  • African-Americans are 33% more likely to be detained awaiting felony trials than whites.
  • African-Americans are frequently (illegally) excluded from criminal jury service, according to a 2010 study released by the Equal Justice Initiative. For example in Houston County, Alabama, 8 out of 10 African-Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from serving on cases involving the death penalty.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crime.
  • The Sentencing Project reports African-Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
  • In New York, the infamous stop-and-frisk program continues to racially profile black and brown New Yorkers, even in the face of data that undermines its purpose.
  • Stand Your Ground laws continue to indicate racial bias in favor of white criminals who use it in their defense, meanwhile Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others receive no justice.

The list goes on and on. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761. It is now 2014, and the film about her life gives me very little comfort in the progress we have made as humans. In Belle, the courts rule against the slavers on the Zong, and Mr. Davinier rejoices, stating that the decision will reverberate throughout the world and will change the future. But the Chief Justice, Dido’s great-uncle, tempers the young man’s happiness: “History will judge whether your optimism is warranted,” he says, knowing there is much work to be done.

He was right. There is. And one of the greatest mistakes we can make in doing that work is acknowledging the ways in which we’ve come so far, while ignoring the ways in which we have not. Belle provides a view of an incredible life, a story not often told. We need these stories. We must keep hearing them. Mr. Davinier says at one point that a country that ignores the suffering of some and not others is “a country for whom hope is lost.” Let’s not be that country. Let’s not be that world.

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5 Ways Chicago Transit Authority Shows It Hates Chicagoans

If you live here, you have felt it. Perhaps you’ve thought, “I have been standing on this platform/bus stop for half of my life. Why? Someone must hate me.” The answer is…someone does hate you. It’s Chicago Transit Authority. If you live in Chicago and have felt the keen sting of CTA’s loathing, then read on and perhaps find some small comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

1. Ventra

Any true Chicagoan knows that this must be the first item on this list. If you need to see proof that CTA hates us, you need look no further than Ventra. CTA inflicting Ventra on us was, for all intents and purposes, an unprovoked attack. No one hated the old system: no one was tweeting @cta railing against the Chicago Card. No one was creating parody accounts mocking the absolutely absurd functionality of the Chicago Card. The old system worked…and then along came Ventra. From bank cards being charged in addition to the Ventra card, to inexplicably nonfunctional cards, to a completely and utterly mystifying account interface online, to fundamentally clueless Customer Care employees, to hour-long hotline waits, and oh, let’s not forget the fact that you are instructed to pay cash when your already-paid-for Ventra card doesn’t work on their worthless scanner…Ventra has been (and continues to be) a nightmare. Every single day the line to board the bus is at a standstill while each person must tap their card 3-4 times before it’s actually read. Meanwhile:

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Oh, of course. We’re being double-charged when we’re forced to double-tap. Of course.

Even worse: Ventra and CTA continue to pretend we’re all crazy for not liking the new system. See this lovely exchange on Twitter:

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“which is pretty rare?” <cue uproarious laughter>

Yeah. Right. You’re not fooling anyone.

2. Bus Bunching

Bus bunching is, to the CTA, like the common cold. It seems like such a simple thing, but the CTA cannot—I repeat, cannot—find a cure. Like most Chicagoans, I waste precious time every day of my mortal life waiting. Just waiting. Staring at potholes that will never be fixed, and waiting. I live on the near South Side and catch the 29 every day, a bus which is always full of people trying to get to work and kids trying to get to school. But at any given time while trying to catch the 29, there is a 20-30 minute wait. But it’s more than just a long, empty window. It’s the fact that at the end of that long, empty window…two or three buses come all at once.

I have many questions for CTA, but here’s one: what good does 3 buses all at once do anyone? Great, the thirty people now crowded on the bus stop can now get on multiple buses. But now there are three buses all in a row at every bus stop until Congress: traffic is congested, streets are blocked, people are pissed. Why not just have the buses come every 8 minutes? Like they’re supposed to? What is happening at your depots where every…single…day this occurs? It happened when I lived on the North Side too: the 147, the 151. North Siders, you hear me. Bus bunching is a blight. But CTA doesn’t care. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Abysmal Customer Service

I’m not even talking about Ventra, because everyone knows that the dunces they have working at Ventra are a bunch of salespeople trying to convince you to use your Ventra card as a credit card too—yay corporations interfering with civil life!—and maybe attempt (attempt) to troubleshoot your nonfunctional, worthless plastic Ventra card. I’m talking about CTA. Never have I encountered more apathetic, defensive, blame-shifting grunts in my entire life. Here’s the conversation I had this morning after calling to complain about bus bunching:

Me: “Is there a manager I can speak to?”

CTA: “No.”

Me: “Okay…well can I tell you my complaint?”

CTA: <silence>

Me: “Hello?”

CTA: “Go ahead.”

Me: “Well, the 29 has been really bad lately. There are old ladies waiting on a stop with no benches waiting for 30 minutes, and then a bus comes and they can’t even get on it because it’s so packed and—”

CTA: “Give me your phone number. I’ll have a manager call you back.”

Me: “Um…okay. Here’s my number.”

CTA: “I see in the system that you already complained about this.”

Me: “Yes, last week.”

CTA: “Oh, a manager called and left you a voicemail.”

Here’s a screenshot of my phone:

Image

Guess what, CTA? No, a manager never called me back. No, they didn’t leave a voicemail. See? My voicemail box is empty. So what are we supposed to do when we have a complaint or a grievance against CTA? Well, some people might take to social media, but CTA’s Twitter often seems to be run by what appears to be a petulant teenager. See, the Twitter account runs fine when they’re just reporting outages, service disruption, etc. But when they actually have to interact with customers who are complaining? They take the apathy you experience when you call them on the phone and add a pinch of defensiveness and a sprinkle of subtle sarcasm. Tweet at them. You’ll see. If you like being treated with contempt and thinly-veiled indifference, tweeting at @cta is the hobby for you.

4. Cattle Cars

I have been told a story by different people a few times in my lifetime: a story about public transportation in Japan and how there are guys that stand on the platforms with sticks to shove people into the subways to fit more people into the crowded cars. People always tell this story with a kind of amused awe: “can you believe they do that over there?” and no one ever really knows if that little tidbit is true or not. But this story always annoys me, for two reasons. 1) It’s racist. “Oooh look how weird and intense Japanese people are!” and 2) Do you really think that is not your life here? Okay, there are no people with sticks shoving people into train cars, but every day riding a bus or a train in Chicago during rush hour (and often outside of rush hour) is like transforming into a heifer for thirty minutes of my life. It might as well be a mosh pit. A combination of delayed trains/buses, route cuts, and not enough actual vehicles in the city creates the cattle car effect: people are smashed against one another. So forget riding CTA if you’re claustrophobic in any way, but cattle cars lead to other problems too.

Sexual harassment. Violence. Theft. I can’t tell you how many men I’ve witnessed/experienced taking advantage of the tight train situation in order to cop a feel. Same with people taking stuff from people’s purses, pockets, backpacks. And as for violence: well, people get pretty testy when they’re forced to be pressed against a stranger’s usually-odorous body for long periods of time. “Waiting for signal clearance”—those dreaded words— means you’re not even making any progress in your trip: you’re just cuddled (standing) with a stranger for no reason. Tempers flare. Fights erupt. It happens all the time.

But does CTA care? Who do you call when you’ve just been crammed into a train car for 45 minutes, had your ass groped, and your wallet stolen? CTA? Ha. You must have already forgotten #3 on this list. Go back and reread that. Short answer: They…don’t…care.

5. No Change

No, I don’t mean that they won’t make change if you’re paying cash. (Which, speaking of cash: you’re out of luck. Ventra wants to be credit card dependent. And your fare increases if you don’t use Ventra and continue to pay cash.) What I mean is that nothing has changed. Unlike anything else, where there are complaints, outcry, protests against a company and apologies are made, processes are tweaked, Ventra and CTA just dig in. One of the complaints about Ventra (mentioned above) is that, unlike the old system, you can’t tap your wallet in order to scan your Ventra card without your bank cards also being charged. This complaint has been made since the initial roll out, with Ventra reps promising to look into the problem. But now, this is what you get as response when you ask Ventra about it:

They have no intention of making a change: not about Ventra and not about anything else. The onus is on Chicagoans, like it is for everything else, and the ripples of CTA’s ineptitude extend beyond delays. The fact of the matter is, that CTA’s refusal to find solutions for the problems they are charged with creating every single day in Chicago leads to things more problematic than delays. Kids can’t get to school on time. Adults can’t get to work on time. The elderly and disabled are forced to wait (often at stops without benches, and often in bad weather) for up to 40 minutes in some parts of the city. Groping and sexual harassment increase. Theft increases. Anger increases.

You see, what CTA doesn’t realize is that their behavior doesn’t just mean a bad train ride. It means a bad start to the day. Take one look at the Twitter account @ctafails and you can see the negativity that begins from the moment Chicagoans step onto the bus stop in the morning, which is then reanimated when they’re trying to return home at night. The CTA website reports that on an average weekday, 1.6 million rides are taken on Chicago public transportation. When you fail even a fraction of those customers, interrupting their days, ruining their commute, making them late to work, what does it mean for the morale of a city? This makes me think of an article I read recently on Salon, “The Troubling Reasons Americans Are So Depressed.” In it, the author discusses “learned helplessness” and how Americans, due to corporations and call center hold times (among other things) are becoming depressed and angry because of the amount of our lives we spend waiting on hold, waiting in line, and (I add)…waiting for buses. The helplessness, the author says, is the helplessness of those who are resigned to the indifference of the institutions we depend on.

What else can we do? I’m not sure. Rant in blogs like this? Perhaps. I see the helplessness that the Salon author examines in his article. I feel it. What do you do when the buses won’t come and you’re late to work and you can’t afford a cab and you call customer service and if someone answers (if they answer) they don’t care and no one ever calls you back and nothing ever changes?

It’s funny…the CTA Twitter account recently tweeted this article: Public Transportation Shapes Where Millennials Decide to Live, where I found this stat: “54 percent of the participants said they would consider moving to another city if it had more and better options for getting around.”

Careful, Chicago. You might just be the city we’re moving from, not the one we’re moving to.

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