Monthly Archives: December 2013

Hollywood and the Shaping of Perceptions of Racism

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It is a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. Martin Gilens wrote a book some time ago, for example: Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty, which explores the role of media in the shaping of myth and misconception of welfare policy. And what about the shaping of misconception of racism? We all know Fox News has a nice handle on that, as far as “news” media goes. But what about pop culture? Hollywood? How do the films we flock to theaters to see shape our world? I can think of more than a few examples, as I’m sure any thinking person can. But one in particular comes to mind: films about slavery and the way they shape perceptions of racism in white audiences. Namely the idea that racism is a thing of the past and only existed on Southern plantations a long, long time ago.

Since the release of 12 Years a Slave I’ve had many conversations about films that are about slavery. The conversations that stand out to me the most are the ones where the consensus is, “Why do all the films in Hollywood that feature black people have to be about slavery?” and my own undying question about the underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, “Why does a film need to be about the subjugation of black people in order for it to have more than a one solitary black character?” And also, “Why did so many more white people go to see 12 Years than Best Man Holiday?”

While films like 12 Years a Slave are extremely important in understanding the past and the effect it has on the present, they have an interesting effect on white audiences whose ideas of racism are of the “post-racial” or “colorblind” variety: the effect is almost one of relief. When I left the theater of 12 Years a Slave, the kind of words I heard from the lips of the other white people leaving were things like, “God, it was just so bad back then.” And even things like, “Those people were horrible. Fuck those slave owners.” So, in a sense, relief. “It was so bad back then” translates as “Things are so much better now,” and “Those people were horrible” translates as “We don’t do that anymore.”

And they’re right. Things are better now. White people don’t own slaves in the United States. But this cousin of relief presents, to me, a sort of cognitive dissonance about the reality of racism in America. When white audiences see movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and indeed, when the vast majority of mainstream films featuring black people are movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and not films like Best Man Holiday, their perception of racism (and even blackness) is shaped in a way that lacks a wider context and an awareness of present-day racism. This is what racism looks like, white audiences come to believe: chains and lynchings and the American South. And while they’re not wrong, that understanding is stunted.

In a way, films like 12 Years a Slave, even with its horror and brutality, serve as a comfort to white people seeking to feel a distance between the monster that is racism and the life they lead in 2013. “Progress!” we congratulate ourselves, proud that America has overcome its brutishly violent history. “We used to be horrible people that owned other human beings and now we don’t! We’re a post-racial society now! Go America!” But if we’re talking about reality, the reality of racism in 2013, a reality that generally doesn’t make it to the silver screen, we have to talk about things like environmental racism and structural racism in our systems of education, employment, criminal justice, and more. We have to talk about Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and we have to talk about Oscar Grant and Renisha McBride. We have to talk about what racism looks like now and not let ourselves off the hook with the tired mantra of “But we’ve come so far!”

12 Years a Slave was an incredible film. I think everyone should see it. But I encourage people with skin like mine to not watch it with the idea that the work is done. The fact that white people no longer legally own, rape, and murder black bodies is not a sign of progress we should congratulate ourselves on: our standards should be higher. Widen your scope. Racism looks like this. And this. And this. And this. Don’t allow Hollywood’s narrow line of vision to trick you into believing that violent racism is just something that happened in the 1800’s and looks like the horrific lava of lashes on a black human being’s back while everyone stands around wearing corsets and smoking pipes. It looks like Charlotte police shooting Jonathan Ferrell to death after he was in a car accident and asked for help. It looks like Riley Incognito calling Warring Sapp the N-word. It looks like Trayon Christian being arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s because the NYPD didn’t think he could afford it on his own. It looks like celebrities and well-known magazines showcasing blackface in 2013 and every year before that.

In a nation where so many white people have their “one black friend” and little personal contact with people who don’t look like them—yes, segregation is still “a thing:” New York City had the same level of racial segregation in 2012 as it did in 1910.—it is easy for these audiences to consume movies like The Help and 12 Years (especially given the fact that there are so few alternatives when it comes to mainstream movies featuring black people and their lives) and think “This was racism. I don’t know any black people here in 2013, but I do know that slavery isn’t around anymore. So that’s that!” And—slam—close the book. But that’s not all. That’s not the end, fellow white folks. Why did you watch The Help but not Do the Right Thing? Why 12 Years a Slave and not Boyz in the Hood? Is it because one talks about racism in the past where you’re comfortable with it, and the other talks about issues affecting black people right here and right now? Spoiler alert: they’re the same thing. The racism you see in 12 Years has mutated and transformed and grown tentacles and developed camouflage, but it’s right here with us. Right here with you. We’d be foolish to ignore it; foolish to watch the story of Solomon Northup and think that his suffering was not inherited, that the ugliness of the system that enslaved him doesn’t still linger.

I wonder if white America as a whole will ever be able to empathize with present-day struggle. Looking back with sympathy and indignation is easier than looking around, isn’t it? I just wonder what are we looking toward.

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5 Bloggers Who Are Blogging Better Than You (And Me)

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This morning I’m getting on a plane for New York, where tonight I will join Beverly Bond, Jamilah Lemieux, and other incredibly talented and powerful women for a panel hosted by Black Girls Rock!, The Black Girls Rock! Think Tank: Checkin’ Our Fresh. I’m excited to sit amongst such inspiring company, where we will discuss media representations of black women, why some white people feel fear and discomfort about programs like BGR, and other topics. In honor of tonight—and in honor of every day—I wanted to hip you to five amazing women whose blogs you should be reading right now.

Michonne Micheaux: Anti-Oppression. Pro-Storytelling

@LexiScorsese

I knew Michonne as @LexiScorsese before anything else—one of the most hilarious and on-point Twitter accounts I follow to this day—but when I discovered her blog I was in love. Her tagline—Anti-Oppression. Pro-Storytelling.—says it all. She describes herself as “a film nerd who talks too much for microblogging & who loves humanity more than hegemony.” Can we say love at first read?

One of my favorite posts by Michonne Micheaux: The Myth of  “Fast Black Girls”

Trudy of Gradient Lair

@thetrudz

I first came upon Trudy on Twitter. She is brilliant, bold, and no-nonsense, writing about art, media, society, politics, and more. Trudy will blow your mind, every time. Womanism, black feminism, intersectional feminism…she covers it all.

One of my favorite posts by Trudy: General Misogyny vs. Anti-Black Misogyny (Misogynoir), Specifically

Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous

@BlackGirlDanger

Mia appeared on my radar via Facebook. Everyone was sharing her posts left and right, and I soon learned why. She is an incredibly insightful writer, leading Black Girl Dangerous with posts about race, racism, and the experiences of queer and trans people of color, while also amplifying the voices of other amazingly talented writers.

One of my favorite posts by Mia McKenzie: Easy Out There For A (White) Bitch: A Few Words On Lily Allen and the Continued Use of Black Women’s Bodies As Props

Asha French of MODERN MOM

@AFrenchWriter

Asha was actually a mentor of mine (and still is) when I was a young, dumb writer of 15. She’s a columnist at Ebony now for a column called MODERN MOM, where she writes about the wide world of parenting and family while also discussing race, queerness, and more. She’s also writing a book that I can’t wait to read, so stay tuned for that.

One of my favorite posts by Asha French: Dear Beautiful Daughters Who Happen to Be Light

Feminista Jones at FeministaJones.com

@FeministaJones

Here’s another woman that I regularly thank the Twitter gods for. Feminista is fearless, fun, and fierce. She writes about everything from racism to fitness, sex to domestic violence. She’s also HA-LARIOUS. She’s serious about research—trust me, this woman knows her stuff. In my head I call her the Queen of Stats, but really she is the queen of many things.

One of my favorite posts by Feminista Jones: Rape Culture 2.0

If you want to improve the contents of your brain, read these women. If you want to improve the brains of the people around you, share their blogs. And don’t stop there. If you read my blog and you like it…just wait until you read these bloggers who rock. They make me look like an amateur.

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Open Letter to the Three White Students That Filed A Discrimination Complaint Against Their Black Teacher

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Hi guys. Before you ask, I’m white too. Someone wise said social activism tastes better when the waiter is white, and while this is unfortunate, you clearly aren’t listening to your professor, Shannon Gibney, so I thought I’d take a moment to clear some things up, mano-a-mano. You know, Caucasian-a-Caucasian.

Let me make something clear right up front: you have no real idea what it’s like to be discriminated against on the basis of race. Neither do I. You know why? Because we’re white. We’re white people in America, and that means almost every aspect of the country we live in is geared toward us: 99% of books, television, film, magazines, and even porn is made for us and represents us. Maybe you read (though for some reason I deeply doubt it) my article on the absurdity of #WhiteGirlsRock. It’s absurd because white people don’t need an extra reminder of their value…because it’s reaffirmed for them (for us) every single day by the people we see in the media, by the people that run this country, and yes, even by the people that act as our educators. American education has long been under fire by people who use their brains over the continued teaching that Christopher Columbus was a great dude and a hero and someone we should all celebrate year after year. But you probably still think that, don’t you?

Probably before you got to college, most of your teachers taught the version of American history that high schools are wont to teach: Columbus was like Mr. Rogers with a (crappy) map, the Pilgrims sang Kumbaya with the Native Americans, and slavery just wasn’t that bad. I imagine college courses might have been a bit of a shock for you, with discussions that maybe didn’t valorize violent colonization and actually shone a light on the perspective of people who weren’t white.

Is this where things started to get uncomfortable for you? I imagine the first lecture on America’s legacy of brutality and oppression left you in shock. Maybe you thought that particular professor was just a wayward nut job. But then another class discussed institutional racism, and another. And you began to squirm in your seat because whoa this wasn’t just one time where your whiteness—the thing that you might have squeaked by on for the entirety of your short life; the thing you’ve unconsciously relied upon to get you out of trouble with the campus police, out of detention and on the honor roll in high school; the thing that might have gotten you your consecutive summer jobs—that thing, that whiteness, is being criticized, not just once by one random professor who your privilege enables you to ignore, but more than once. You see petitions and articles on the Internet talking about racism and bias and…gasp…white privilege. And you’re sick of it, right? Because who wants to sit in a room full of people, people who don’t all look and sound like you, and talk about the ways that you are flawed? That’s uncomfortable. That’s awkward. That doesn’t feel good. It feels like being singled out; it feels like being held accountable for things you don’t feel responsible for; it feels like being defined by the color of your skin; it feels like being blamed; it feels like being…discriminated against.

But it’s not discrimination, boys. And here’s why.

Because this is one classroom in your entire life. One speck of discomfort in an ocean that is your life of privilege. Because white supremacy dictates that your skin—and let’s not forget your maleness—will make things fundamentally easier for you than for a person (and especially a woman) of color. That feeling of being on the spot? Of being defined by the color of your skin? Of being blamed for things that other people of your color do, even if you have not done them yourself? That’s not a classroom for people of color. That’s life. There’s no walking out of class. There’s no transferring to a different professor. There is only more of the same, with the hope that dialogue, education, and activism will pull the collective ostrich head from the ground, bit by bit, until that structural racism that you don’t like talking about is eradicated.

Look, guys. I see why you’re uncomfortable. You have been taught your entire life that white is always right. Your formal education has revolved around the valorization of colonization, the championing of racist brutes, and the marginalization of people of color. You have grown up insulated from racism and discrimination and what those words truly mean. You have been trained to see your whiteness as the norm, the default, the center of the world: you think that Other people have a race, but you are just…you. Your whiteness has been an invisible tool that you have wielded your entire life, mostly without really realizing it, but now that people are criticizing the invisible tool, you are pissed, defensive, and maybe even afraid. I would say that’s normal. Everything you’ve been taught is being contradicted, so a little discomfort is expected.

That’s what you said, right? That the discussion of structural racism made you uncomfortable? That you felt the classroom was hostile? That you didn’t like that “we have to talk about this all the time”? I have a simple question for you: how do you think people of color feel? What if that classroom that you felt was hostile was your world, your life? You have now filed a formal discrimination complaint with your college against your professor, which I’m sure in your mind is some kind of activism, but by filing that complaint, you are attempting to silence a voice speaking out against discrimination. It’s odd, you see. It’s odd that you want your voice to be heard and your pain acknowledged, but you don’t want to acknowledge the suffering of people of color. You want to talk about discrimination against yourself—but you don’t want to talk about discrimination against people of color. Interesting. Maybe if you’d actually paid attention in that lecture on structural racism, you’d have learned that discrimination in the context of 21st century America has political, social, and economic ramifications. Your hurt feelings, your 90 minutes of discomfort, are just not included in that, fellas.

Bottom line: I want you to be uncomfortable. It means you’re being challenged. And that’s what college is for, isn’t it? I’m not a teacher, but I know that mental growth, like physical growth, comes with growing pains. It’s not always easy. It’s not always fun. It’s going to hurt and you’re going to come out the other side bumped and bruised…but better. Shannon Gibney is trying to make the world better. She’s trying to make you better. What have you done lately?

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