Tag Archives: race

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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Why The Best Man Holiday Isn’t “Race-Themed”

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I wasn’t even going to blog about The Best Man Holiday. I was going to go in and watch the glorious reunion of Nia Long, Taye Diggs and company and just enjoy it. But after what USAToday tweeted about the film’s success at the box office, I realized I had to. Here’s the tweet in case you missed it:

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Race-themed. When I think of race as a theme in film, I think of it as the way theme is defined. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it.

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“The main subject that is being discussed in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.” Themes are what a film is about. If a film is race-themed, then it is about race. So imagine my surprise when I saw USAToday describe The Best Man Holiday as race-themed. Forget “race-themed”: I struggle to see how the film is about race at all.

Like its predecessor, Holiday focuses on the intertwining lives of  a group of men and women: authors, football players, mothers, fathers. It’s about the bond of friendship and the tests of its strength. Financial worry. Parenthood. Marriage. Grief. Forgiveness. But what exactly does race have to do with grief aside from the fact that, in this instance, the people struggling with grief are black?

Well, nothing.

What USAToday’s tweet reveals is that white audiences are unable to see black people as beings separate from their blackness. A movie featuring a black cast surely can’t be about universal themes that any audience can relate to, this line of thinking goes: the subject matter must be about mysterious black things that only black viewers can comprehend; it must be black inside-jokes; black references; black experiences. Black movies are for black people—not for everyone. Black people are defined by their blackness and so are their films, and USAToday’s tweet tells us that explicitly.

Every day we are bombarded with movies and television shows in which white faces, white families, white marriages are plugged as the “default” experience…and no one would say that these films are about race. No one would say, “Oh, that’s an all-white cast. It must be about what it means to be white in America.” No one. Black audiences go see these films, despite their almost entirely white casts, because if black audiences only went to see films in which the cast looked like them, they’d see maybe five movies a year in mainstream theaters. Tops. Why not the same for white folks? Why was I the only white person in the theater for Best Man Holiday today? What is it about a black cast that is off-putting to white audiences? Do we really need to see ourselves reflected endlessly back at us to enjoy a film? Why did white audiences flock to see Django and 12 Years but not Holiday? Why can you relate more to a film about chattel slavery than you can about nine affluent people and their families? These are questions that need answers.

This is not to say that films with black casts are never race-themed. Of course they are. If a film is about race, then it’s about race. But Best Man Holiday is not. A film’s themes do not become about race simply because its cast is not white. Not only does this notion bind black actors to their blackness, it Others non-white experiences, casting white films as default, and everything else as “everything else.” Films with white casts are then provided with the benefit of universality: free to be any genre, take on any subject matter or theme. A film with a black cast, no matter its story, is “race-themed,” tied to the race of its actors simply by virtue of their blackness.

If we describe Best Man Holiday as “race-themed” we must ask ourselves the following questions.

Is football race-themed?

Is pregnancy race-themed?

Is marriage race-themed?

Is trust?

Is cancer?

Is friendship?

Is God?

Because these are the things that Holiday is truly about. Universal lessons of brotherhood and faith, the tests of love and the frailty of the human heart: these things are no more about race than love itself. To say this film is about race tells black actors—and black audiences—that no matter their experiences, their heartbreaks, their vows, their tribulations…at the end of the day, before they are human, they are black. This violent oversimplification of black roles not only dehumanizes black lives, but it perpetuates in white people the idea of their Defaultness and the lie that all experiences are relatable through whiteness.

We’ve all had our hearts broken. We’ve all been in love. We’ve all had a best friend at some point in their lives. How stunted is your imagination, how crippled is your notion of life, if the people on screen with broken hearts, the people in love, the people mending their friendships, have to look like you in order for you to feel a connection with their humanity?

Oh, and by the way…in case you didn’t know…

This blog actually is race-themed.

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Beyond the Token Black Guy: Isolationism in American Media

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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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poem for Trayvon Martin and other dead brown boys

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George Zimmerman’s trial begins today. I thought it appropriate to post the poem that I wrote last year after Trayvon’s murder. I am praying for justice.

poem for Trayvon Martin and other dead brown boys

The delight of the airplane

is what sticks in my eye:

 

ground-bound, but the sky

is a butterfly you’re cupping

in your palms.

 

Just a few more beats

of heart and wing

and you could have been

in the blue, arms or engine

pumping.

 

I want us all to live

in your eyes:

 

to see how

in one breath

a boy can be

dreaming

and in the next

be a leaf

 

fluttering

carried away

 

red,

then gray,

then gone.

 

 

.

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Black Children and After Earth

ImageI saw After Earth yesterday. In an interview, Will Smith acknowledged that it was very much a metaphor for the way he felt about raising a son in Hollywood, sending him out into a vicious world to fend for himself. After seeing the film, I couldn’t help but also see it as a metaphor for raising a black child in America.

In the movie, Will Smith’s character warns his son as he sends him on a mission that will risk his child’s life: “Everything on Earth has evolved to kill human beings.” Yes, and the same could be said about institutions in America that more and more are revealed to be designed to destroy black children. The Ursa—the alien weapon-creature that the humans dread most in After Earth—was bred to destroy humans. The prison pipeline and the War on Drugs were designed with a similar goal when it comes to black humans. As George Zimmerman’s trial looms near, we are reminded—did we ever forget?—that being black in America is a risk. Like Jaden Smith on the terrifying future planet, black children are in constant danger in a hostile world.

As I left the theater for the film, my boyfriend and I witnessed a man roll his eyes and say to his friend, “Will Smith only made that movie for his son.”

To that I say, “So?” There is a startling lack of black faces in American film—it seems one must be a black father for a movie to be made in which black sons (and daughters) can see themselves represented onscreen…especially if the roles are to reflect something other than stereotypical caricatures about blackness and its meaning. And more so…what is so wrong about a man with the ability and resources to do so making a film that will uplift his own child? White folks do it all the time. If a black father wants to use his clout to make a movie that represents the tragically unrepresented–especially in a film as fresh as After Earth–why the hell not?

So I say bring it on, Will Smith. Bring us After Earth. Bring us Annie. I am so here for that.

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