Monthly Archives: January 2014

Richard Sherman, Thugs, and Black Humanity

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Today I’m wondering what it takes for a black man to be regarded as human in America.

Today Richard Sherman is being lambasted for his animated post-game interview in which he dared to express emotion outside of the cubic centimeter men of color are allotted. A cornerback in one of the most physically demanding sports in the country—after a game in which bodies were injured and crushed; after a game that required players to be helped off the field—wins a critical game and has a microphone stuck in his face. He says what he says, and suddenly the nation is clutching its pearls, tutting and making pretend-concerned remarks about sportsmanship and graciousness. Today, Tom Brady criticizes Richard Sherman for his lack of “graciousness.” Today, Richard Sherman is being called a thug, and I’m wondering what that word really means.

Does it mean foul-mouthed? After all, Tom Brady was never called a thug. Not when he got in the ref’s face when losing to the Panthers and dropped the F-bomb on national television just two months ago. What about Richie Incognito, when he called Jonathan Martin the n-word on his voicemail? That’s a foul word, isn’t it? I didn’t hear Incognito referred to as a thug either. Or does “thug” mean violent? I’m not sure. Because, despite his animation, Sherman didn’t use a single curse word. He didn’t threaten anyone’s safety or injure anyone.

The truth is, I only ever hear “thug” applied to black people. And not just adult men. A black toddler made news recently when Omaha police posted a video on their website of the child cursing and holding up his middle finger. The child was described as a thug by Omaha police, who insisted they only shared the video to show “the cycle of thuggery.” The video was posted without the knowledge or consent of the child’s mother.

Another example comes to mind. A teenager walking home from the store after buying Skittles and tea, who was then stalked and murdered by a wannabe cop. A murderer whose main line of defense was that the victim “looked like a thug.” A seventeen-year old boy with his hood up—it was raining—looked like a “thug,” and so his life was ended.

So I’m wondering what “thug” really means.

White supremacist culture dictates who and who does not get to be human. In order for people of color to receive a Human Card, they must assimilate: they must not use slang. They must be quiet. They must not wear hoodies. They must not curse. They must be gracious at all times. They must enunciate. They must not talk about racism. They must not listen to rap music. They must not sag. They must not brag. They must not laugh in public. They must not take up more than one seat on the bus. They must not ever ask for more. In short, you must be perfect. Robotic. Even if you are a professional athlete who performs for millions of Americans, playing a game in which aggression, testosterone, and energy are rewarded (demanded)…you must be quiet, gracious, calm, unassuming. Unscary. To be black and also be regarded as human, you must never make a mistake in your entire life, ever—ever—or you are a thug. Ghetto. Other. Your Human Card is denied.

Richard Sherman was Salutatorian: second in his class in high school. Richard Sherman went to Stanford. Richard Sherman launched a charity organization called Blanket Coverage to help children in need receive school supplies and clothing. Richard Sherman makes more money than anyone I know. But with all the reaction, both on Twitter and on television, to Richard Sherman’s interview, I’m forced to call upon Kanye West’s famous lyric:

Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga in a coupe.

I think that’s what the word “thug” really means. The n-word, arguably the most dehumanizing word in history, has been decried. It is considered inappropriate to speak it in public, and while that doesn’t stop everyone, hate will find a way. “Thug” is that way. Lately, it is a word used when we want to revoke humanity. Trayvon Martin, murdered only a few blocks from his home, was called a thug during his murderer’s trial. The jury needed to be convinced that this boy’s humanity could not possibly exist if he was “a thug.” Police put a toddler’s “thuggery” on display as if to say, “This is why we police them.” And now Richard Sherman, an athlete wealthier than most of us can possibly imagine, dares to step outside the box that a racist culture demands he live inside…and he’s a thug too.

Despite the power of whiteness, as we live in a culture that still very much worships it, whiteness is fragile. In order for white supremacy to function, it requires people of color to adopt the characteristics mentioned above. Silence. Subservience. Graciousness. So when Richard Sherman’s “graciousness” is criticized, it’s more than his status as an athlete that’s being attacked: it’s his blackness. When the media (or the typical spineless, anonymous Twitter-user) calls him a “thug,” they are denying him his humanity. You can look like Richard Sherman and be in the public eye, this logic goes, as long as you stay within the lines white supremacy has drawn for you.

Today I’m wondering what it takes for a black man to be regarded as human. I still don’t know. By these rules, to be black in America and also be seen as human, you must be a robot. Emotionless. Expressionless. In order to be black and be regarded as human in America, you must shed all the things that make you human to begin with. Personality. Flaws. History. Anger. To be black and human in America you must be nothing. And that’s where I stop wondering and start to get angry.

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On Women, Friendship, and Ass-Kicking in Fiction

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Do you remember my piece about isolationism in American media? In it, I wrote about the way Hollywood takes characters of color and isolates them on screen and in the imagining of their character, effectively tokenizing them and driving home the message of solitary existence. Those characters are cut off from other characters of color, making them more easily dominated by the white characters onscreen. We know the same thing is happening with female characters. I wrote about the Bechdel test in that same post and the way women in Hollywood rarely interact with one another onscreen, making female bonding impossible.

Well, the same thing is being done in popular fiction, and I’m sick of it.

For one, I’m sick of the focus of relationship-building in books like The Hunger Games being on romance over friendship. At this point, the genre of Young Adult Fiction should just be called Young Adult Romance. Sure, Katniss kicks ass. But where are her bonds with female characters? Yes, there are her sister and Rue (briefly) but the majority of the series focuses on the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. And don’t even get me started on Twilight. Bella Swan kicks far less ass (far, far less ass) than Katniss, and the relationship between Bella and Edward’s sparkly behind is weird and unhealthy. Even in Harry Potter—which I hate to slander—the brilliant Hermione Granger doesn’t have any real girlfriends. Harry and Ron are it, and one of them is a love interest. And what about adult books? 50 Shades of Grey? Don’t even get me started.

What’s happening to female friendship in fiction? It scares me that it’s going the way of the dodo in the face of popular romantic plotlines, in which the only important relationships are the ones in which sex is involved. Hermione Granger was smart and no-nonsense, but she was alone. It is not enough to simply have one dynamic female character. There must be many. They must talk to each other. Otherwise, we are teaching young readers (and adult readers) that strong women exist alone, in competition and at odds with other women. “You can kick ass,” we tell them. “You can take on the world. But you’re gonna be kicking ass by yourself.” The books that have resonated with me throughout my life—and, indeed, the ones that have shaped the person I am—aren’t like that. They’re books like Sula, The Color Purple, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Bell Jar: books in which the relationships between women are strong and deep and complicated. The books in which women are not alone, even as we come apart and put ourselves back together again. Characters that, even as they set out on long journeys to discover themselves, do so with a tribe of women to support them along the way. I’m not seeing these relationships in mainstream books: I’ve been missing a book that explores the connections between women, the bonding we do that is separate from men and sex and romance.

So I wrote one.

I’m telling you this because there are over 2,000 of you that are subscribed to this blog, and if you’re still here by now, something tells me you might be missing this book too. So far you’ve only read my nonfiction: my ranting about #WhiteGirlsRock, my disgust for Miley Cyrus. Now I feel it’s time to share my fiction with you, with the hope that it might give you something you’ve been looking for.

I’m self-publishing it because….well, mainstream publishers want a love interest that takes up half the plot-line. They don’t believe in the power of a book that exists to highlight the bonds of women, especially in the context of the apocalypse, which is what my book takes place within. But I do. I do believe in it, and if you’re still here, you do too. In Panther in the Hive, as this book is titled, Tasha Lockett is a biracial former fashion-addict who fights for survival in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, all the while learning that it may not be only a blade that saves her life, but the friendship of other women as well.

I’ve started a campaign for the book here. I urge you to contribute. $3 from each of you could put this campaign at goal. And if you share this campaign? Who knows what will happen. Maybe we’ll finally have a mainstream book that tells the lives of women as whole human beings.

ps. Want a sneak peek into Chapter 1? You know you do. Peep it here.

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On the Oft-Repeated Lie That Racism on Social Media Isn’t “Real” Racism

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No one questions the power of social media when it’s used to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research and other causes. No one questions the power of social media when no-name YouTubers become famous overnight, borne along by the mighty Like button. No one questioned the power of social media when it was used to discuss Mitt Romney and his binders full of women, or to help elect President Obama. In general, it’s understood that social media is a powerful part of our lives today. We spend all day on social media: checking our Facebook, scrolling through our Twitter feeds, taking ridiculous-ass selfies on Instagram, sharing sappy inspirational videos. So why, when it comes to racism on social channels, does social media become “just social media”?

It’s a phenomenon I started checking for in late 2013 when I slowly realized that when I discussed the disgusting displays of privilege and racism that I witness daily on platforms like Facebook and Twitter with (white) people offline, there was a marked lack of interest and an air of dismissal. “Well, that’s just the Internet,” I have been told about a thousand times since I began noticing this. “Trolls love doing that stuff. They live for it.”

Ahh trolls. The bullies of the Internet. The Internet, while so often a joyous source of cat pictures and blogs so brilliant that they make your brain explode, is also a Petri dish of trolls and unchecked adolescent attitude. The dreaded Comment Section, where geniuses and bottom-feeders collide, is a no-man’s-land of insight and insult battling for control. In short, it’s terrifying. The Internet is terrifying and wonderful, but it’s also something else.

It’s real.

When are trolls not trolls? When do the people who pop up in my favorite follows’ mentions and demand to be walked through Racism 101 (and then disagree with every provided example) stop being dismissed as trolls and start being seen for what they truly are: real people who have racist and sexist opinions and are choosing to share them on social media. Because there’s a difference. There is. Trolls thrive on stirring up drama. They are generally anonymous or using a fake name, are sometimes paid, and spend their time spewing inflammatory, extreme garbage (whether they personally agree with it or not) in a deliberate attempt to piss the world off while delighting in the havoc they wreak. But what about the people who use their real names? People who tweet about football and politics and books they’re reading…and also derail critical discussions on racism with cluelessness, self-centeredness, deliberate obliviousness, and bigotry. What about them? I’ve got a name for them: regulars. Because the stuff they do on social media—the derailing; the pretend-curiosity where they ask people of color basic questions about racism that could’ve been answered with their own research and then dismiss all points made; the “but I don’t see race: I can’t be racist” stuff; the “but my boyfriend is black: I can’t be racist” stuff—is just that: regular. It’s the stuff so many white people do in the real world, on the regular. Not trolls. People. In real life.

@BeccaRum, for example, was not a troll. I say “was” because, after she dropped some truly classic white privilege nonsense onto Twitter bemoaning the restraints of her whiteness and how the reverse racism of Black Twitter kept her from being “included,” she deleted her Twitter account. Becca was not a troll. Becca, however misguided and ridiculous, was just a young woman with a severe case of white privilege and a deep lack of education on racism and intersectionality. When she tweeted about how unfair it was that Black Twitter excluded her from their conversations, she wasn’t stirring the pot and waiting gleefully for outraged replies to fill her mentions. She was just tweeting the regular stuff that I’ve heard many white people who are uneducated about racism and privilege say: “I have something I want to say about the way I think racism works, but because I’m white, black people don’t listen to me! It’s not fair. That’s reverse racism.” Never mind the fact that much discussion, research and writing has already taken place on the topic. Becca wanted to be heard, and her unchecked white privilege couldn’t handle not being heard. So…regular.

Or what about @GreenLiberation? Last week she took to Twitter to tell everyone that she was teaching the kindergartners she’s responsible for to believe that they are “beyond their race,” and that one simply has to claim to be “green” or “blue,” or whatever color they choose in order to transcend their race. Every notion of “colorblindness” that has been established as privileged and damaging, she employed. When she was criticized, she proceeded to tweet for days (in fact, she was still tweeting about it last time I looked) about how the people asking her to check her privilege were “a lynch mob.” (Really.) By claiming not to “identify with” white people, she says she therefore does not benefit from white privilege. [Insert guffaw.] She is not a troll in the way that “troll” is generally defined. She wasn’t actively trying to make anyone mad: she was just doing what a lot of regular, oblivious white people do. She has almost 10,000 followers, not a shady 51-follower profile with an egg avatar. She’s a real person.

I write a lot about white privilege, race, and racism, and I—like everyone else who writes about these issues—get a lot of hate mail, although certainly less than writers of color who write about the same topics. Daily I receive ignorant tweet after ignorant tweet, book-length emails telling me what an idiot I am, comments on my blog calling me a race traitor (yawn) and an ugly bitch (sigh), and messages to my fan page on Facebook calling me names that would make a pirate blush. It used to bother me. It doesn’t anymore. My block hand is strong (pow!) and my “Report As Spam” reflex is cat-like. But something else does bother me, and it’s that vast number of people who dismiss this online racist behavior with slightly exasperated statements such as “It’s the Internet,” or (the most common, given my favorite social platform), “It’s just Twitter.”

No, it’s not. This is the world.

When we say racist behavior on the Internet is “just the Internet”—“that’s the way it is”—we are not only justifying that behavior, but we are erasing the experiences of those who are on the receiving end of it. Why should racism be treated with any less seriousness because it’s in the form of a 140-character microaggression as opposed to an epithet hurled from a car window? Is racism not racism, no matter what form it takes? When this question is posed, the answer is inevitably: “Well…why can’t people just ignore it? Again, it’s just the Internet.”

Oh? How often do you have your Twitter feed flooded with people who think they aren’t racist but demand to be educated on the proof of racism’s existence, meanwhile becoming more and more irate and emotionally abusive with every tweet they send? I’m not even talking about my own lived experience, although I’ve experienced some of this. I’m talking about the stuff I see tweeters of color (ToC) experience regularly, experiences that are regarded with neutrality from offline observers and even the perpetrators: “I’m just asking questions! I’m asking you to educate me, what’s the big deal! How am I being racist when I’m just telling you that I disagree with everything you believe and don’t think your lived experiences are valid? That’s what the Internet is for! Discussion!” The anxiety (and annoyance) this kind of microaggression is as real online as it is in reality, so why the reluctance to relate these modes?

By dismissing online racism as “the way it is” on the Internet, by sweeping racist social media behavior under the rug, we are saying that ToC have to accept what they get on Twitter. ToC must be ready to accept abuse, this logic says, if they want to be part of the Internet that white Twitter users enjoy racism-free. We are allowing the “regulars” of the Internet to proceed unchecked in behavior that is demonstrably harmful and offensive to ToC, meanwhile mythologizing their hurt and normalizing racism.

You know who else I call “regulars” though? The people who do this dismissing. Because Internet or not, this is the same kind of excuse-making behavior I see in the “real world” when white people who are unaffected by racism and choose to remain unaware of white privilege are confronted with conversations about harmful behavior of white people. Dismissal. Excuse-making. Blame-shifting. The unwillingness to drop the r-word. The reluctance to hold other white people accountable. But racism on social media isn’t less real because it takes place on social media. Racist words aren’t any less racist because they are shared in the form of a tweet. What’s unreal about the Internet anyway? We use it to reconnect with old friends and new ones; get in touch with college professors; share our life announcements such as engagements and pregnancies; ask for help; look for jobs. I’m using it to fund my novel. Many of my friends use it to meet dates. It’s real. Our lives are wrapped up in it. We can’t acknowledge the successes that occur because of it while dismissing the failures—especially the harm that those failures cause.

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