Monthly Archives: August 2013

Justin Bieber, Trayvon Martin, and Kittens

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Today Sharon Osbourne said this. Gather ‘round, children, and let me tell you why it’s bullshit.

Justin Bieber, to date, has spit on his fans, smoked marijuana, and urinated in buckets in public—on camera. You know who is to blame for these acts? Justin Bieber. You know who is not to blame for these acts? Black people.

Sharon Osbourne is an idiot for a multitude of reasons, but the glaring one here is this: implying that Justin Bieber’s bad behavior is somehow the result of black culture’s influence and not the result of, oh, I don’t know…unchecked white privilege, unchecked arrogance, poor parenting, limitless financial resources, armies of Yes Men, and well, a shitty personality, is not only deeply ignorant, but deeply racist.

Prepare yourself for a list of rhetorical questions:

  • Why is bad behavior associated with blackness?
  • Why are faceless, nameless black boys held accountable for the actions of a young, white, male celebrity?
  • Why does Sharon Osbourne “feel bad” for this asshole of a kid?
  • Why does Sharon Osbourne associate “bad boys” pissing in a bucket with blackness? Is this something that “bad black boys” do? Piss in buckets in public? Nah.

I can’t help but be reminded of the public’s reaction to the possibility that Trayvon Martin had been smoking marijuana on the night that he was killed. He was transformed into a dangerous, drug-running addict: a 17-year-old hurricane of chaos and violence. No one said he was lost. No one said he was a “little kid with a huge dream,” “cute,” trying to be a “mean boy” but “mean as a f*cking kitten.”

Why is Justin Bieber a kitten? Why was Trayvon Martin not?

Sharon Osbourne says Justin Bieber is lost. If he is, it’s not from following a map penned by black youth. If Justin Bieber is lost, it’s because he’s followed the path laid out for him by privilege, entitlement, and white supremacy.

Maybe he can be found. But I tell you what’s not going to bring him back to humanity: excusing his bullshit actions and blaming black boys. I can tell you that for sure.

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“Twerk” Doesn’t Need the Oxford Dictionary to Exist

twerk oxford dictionary

The word “twerk” has been added to the Oxford dictionary.

The word “twerk” is not new. The act of twerking is not new. But the dance that finds its origins deep in African culture has recently been snapped up by mainstream media; gobbled up by white suburban kids; paraded on morning talk shows as “the new hot craze”….and, of course, appropriated and mutilated by the infamous Miley Cyrus. The word “twerk” has been in non-white vocabularies for ages; the act of twerking has been in non-white communities for even longer. So why is it being reported as new?

Because in the mind of a white-dominated culture, nothing truly exists until it has been acknowledged by white people.

“Twerk” could have been added to the Oxford dictionary years ago: it’s been used enough—maybe not by white English speakers, but plenty by black English speakers. Yet it takes Miley Cyrus’s pale, boney, rhythmless gyrations to validate a word whose roots stretch extensively beyond the years she has even existed on this planet. Miley Cyrus did not invent twerking, contrary to morning talk show hosts’ beliefs. White suburban girls did not invent twerking. Yet black girls and women—the true progenitors—have not only been roundly criticized as whorish and scandalous for doing at clubs, parties, etc. what Miley Cyrus has done on a stage in front of millions, they have also been robbed: the true inventors of what has become a part of mainstream culture, obscured.

Just as America had not truly been discovered until Columbus set his chalky, aimless foot on it, nothing truly has been done until its been done by white people. No ass has truly twerked until that ass is a Caucasian one.

It is a matter of ownership, but also one of identity. The Oxford Dictionary defines twerking as follows:

 

verb

[no object] informal

  • dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance:

 just wait till they catch their daughters twerking to this song

twerk it girl, work it girl

origin:

1990s: probably an alteration of work

 

To say nothing of the sexist implications in the usage example, look at the origin. “1990s.” Not who, not how, not where. “Probably an alteration of work.” Probably?

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that mainstream exposure means just that: exposure. Of the truth, of history, of origins. Don’t be fooled. It can just as easily mean deletion—of truth, of history, of people.

Twerking exists whether the Oxford Dictionary acknowledges it or not, just as it existed before Miley Cyrus got her hands on it. A word does not need to be spoken by white lips before that word is real. Colonization is constantly mutating. I hope you’re paying attention.

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Mrs. Jones – Microfiction

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She considered briefly that the screen would reveal an extraterrestrial fetus napping somewhere in a bubble between her major organs, but decided that part of being an old woman was dismissing these thoughts. She chose to watch the clock instead. It seemed to be in a bit of a rush, she thought, ticking her life away. She thought of the Mad Hatter, the old cartoon, his buttering the clock and making a sandwich of it. Perhaps that was how you beat time. You ate it.

The nurse continued his slow rubbing across her stomach, the ultrasound gel warm and thick.

“Breathe normally,” the nurse said, stern. She must have been panting.

The question hiding in the holes where her wisdom teeth once lived hunkered deeper. It was both small and large, shrinking and swelling; trying, at once, to abort and be born.

“Do you see anything?”

There it was, an unshelled peanut falling from her mouth.

“What?” The nurse paused his rubbing and stared. Probably she sounded drunk, or like she was speaking an alien language. His eyebrows were impatient. He had other stomachs to rub with his eyeless, all-seeing machine; other livers to examine; other plagues to diagnose.

“Do you see anything?” She thought she sounded human but couldn’t be sure.

Silence.

She couldn’t see what the screen revealed: he had it tilted toward him, a secret. She realized watching his face might provide some clue, so she turned her attention from the clock to him. If only he was wearing glasses—she could peer into the reflection; spy on the shadowy masses he surely saw.

She imagined the dark terrain of her body, its geography of organ continents and the oceans of blood between them. Her blood. She could almost feel the rays or waves or whatever of the ultrasound piercing through her skin and fat, a dull slicing into the private world inside. Through the protective bars of her ribs. No defense. The invisible made visible; the hidden revealed.

The nurse spluttered, the gel smearing down his forearm as she rose, her shirt still tucked up in her beige bra.

“Ma’am, the procedure isn’t over—”

She was already gone, power-walking down the hall empty-handed, formalities being called down the corridor after her—ma’am and miss and Mrs. Jones. The door was in front of her, her palms against the cool metal bar, and she was pushing through into October, into a street that would lead her to safety.

The Mazda struck her body from the side. The sound was dull.

On the ground, little pieces of stone and glass made marbled indentations in her skin—she imagined it as a pattern like scales, the smooth perfection of a quick green snake. She turned her neck slowly, becoming, charting the path on which she would slither toward freedom, away from the crowd gathering. Beside her was a bird, longer dead. Its body was open, the terrain of its heart and spleen solved.

Mrs. Jones followed the map.

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Beyond the Token Black Guy: Isolationism in American Media

token black guy

Many of you have likely heard of the Bechdel test, but in case you haven’t, I’ll run it by you now. The Bechdel test is a feminist means of analysis, originally conceived for evaluating films. Virginia Woolf wrote long ago of the problem of women characters existing, almost without exception, only in relation to men or barely existing at all, and this test is a way of exposing that cinematic inequality. Introduced in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the test demands three requirements of a film in order for it to be deemed woman-friendly:

  1. It has to have at least two named female characters;
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides men.

In your spare time, go through this list of movies and check out all the films that have failed the test. There’s tons. But that’s not what this blog is about. Rather, I want us to consider applying the same rules to films, television, etc., but reframing them to consider the presence (and absence) of people of color in these mediums.

Clutch Magazine did a piece on this awhile back in which Tami Winfrey Harris crowdsourced some ideas for what that set of requirements would be. One suggestion offered the following demands for evaluating whether a film represented people of color as multi-faceted human beings:

  1. One or more named people of color,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. who don’t act in a service capacity
  4. who are reflective of their culture and history but don’t communicate through stereotyped action, such as an affected accent.

An interesting list. Somebody do me a favor and go ahead and apply this criteria to every movie made in the last fifty years and let’s watch the vast majority of them fail.

You see, these tests are interesting because they reflect the way Hollywood a) perceives the humanity of oppressed groups, and b) interprets America’s willingness to see women and people of color on their screens as more than fragmented stereotypes, fetishes, etc. (I will add that I think Hollywood often underestimates the greater American audience’s sensibilities, but when we see backlash like this over a character being cast as black, we can see why Hollywood would say “Fuck it” and stick to the white male hero over and over….and over and over and over again, in the interest of their profits.)

Anyone who knows me knows that my mantra is “Movies are never just movies. TV is never just TV. Nothing is ever just something.” In a culture of capitalism, oppression, patriarchy and white supremacy, every piece of media we consume, from our movies to our commercials to the packaging of our food, carries messages. And when it comes to women and people of color, the message being sent isn’t just “Women’s lives revolve around men,” or “Black people are servile,” although those messages are certainly present. The message is this:

You are alone.

That is, in my opinion, one of the most dangerous messages that Hollywood imparts. In the midst of the negative images of sluttiness, airheadedness, docility, thugification, propensity for violence, ignorance, and more, all of which are dangerous in the way they impress upon the audience a skewed and inhuman version of real people, the image of isolation is one that concerns me greatly.

The problem is twofold.

For the oppressed group being represented, being a “token” is more than just being the only black guy at the party, or the lone female officer on a starship. We are being fed the message that we exist alone in a white, male world. There is no one to help us. We exist solely as an opposite to a norm. We are allowed little flexibility in our identity and our future. We are a joke: our breasts are on display, our blackness, our way of speaking. We are a face that could be replaced with any other face, a life that could be replaced with any other life. We are not unique. We do not matter. Rising above this cookie cutter life isn’t worth attempting, because do you see how alone you are? In this film, in this commercial, you are not father, daughter, astronaut or engineer. You are your blackness. You are your femaleness. You are alone in your blackness and femaleness. And that is all you will ever be.

For white, male audiences, the problem is just as great and allows the white, male gaze to feel justified in its Othering. The message is, “You are not alone.” By (over and over) perpetuating a white world on every screen in America, white audiences’ belief that they are the core, they are what matters, they are the hero, they are the norm, is fed, and continues to grow. White male characters onscreen generally only have to deal with one black guy at a time. That isolated black male presence is manageable, governable. Dominatable. The message is, “You don’t have to worry about people of color. You don’t have to worry about women. See how few of them they are? And look how many of you there are! You are the majority! You are what matters!”

I’ve heard the “token black guy” stereotype referred to as “Affirmative Action for Hollywood.” Perhaps. Perhaps this long-running trend is half-brained directors wanting to appear diverse and inclusive. Perhaps someone, somewhere thinks this method of representation is accurate: “Well, I only know one black guy, so only one black guy needs to be in the film.” Perhaps it’s Hollywood covering their ass and not wanting to upset the never-sleeping giant of white self-righteousness. Perhaps. But either way the message is the same, and I urge you to consume media with great caution. Malcolm X once said something about newspapers which I will apply to all media in our generation: “If you’re not careful, the [media] will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Keep your eyes open and, when consuming mass media, keep your mind closed. You are not alone. You are not a joke. You do not exist solely as an extension of your blackness, femaleness, gayness. You are not an Other.

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