The Truth Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

It’s true that the Oxford dictionary added the word post fact his year, and of course, our current administration acts like that is a goal rather than a problem, but that doesn’t mean that facts and evidence cease to exist.  Post-truthers are more than liars–they are propagandists that carefully craft narratives, leaving out facts in evidence for their own gain.  This is dangerous behavior whether you are the president or a professor.  Maybe even more so for a professor–aren’t we supposed to be professing the truth as best we know it?

So it goes with two colleagues of mine who are again peddling a concerning tale of antisemitism at Wheelock College, an institution I love–and work at.  These celebrated Professors craft a narrative so egregious it’s almost unbelievable–a single email asking for a seat at the table unleashed a storm of antisemitism that destroyed their careers and reputations.  As a lover of justice, this should alarm you, right?

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But like Donald Trump and his post fact inauguration, there is some information that throws this narrative into question.   Their story claims their email about Jewish life is what triggered retaliation from the administration, not the complaints from black students about racism in the classroom.  Oh, shit, there isn’t even the mention of the accusations of anti-black racism in my colleague’s post–strange. The pair maintains that student complaints were manufactured by an antisemitic (black) president and that black students, faculty, and administrators somehow colluded to use fake complaints in an antisemitic plot to ouster just these two Jewish professors (and not other Jewish faculty).

This tale ignores a funny part of this story–I have met real students who have complained repeatedly about the professors’ approach to teaching race and gender studies–and not just one or two. More than a handful.  Over years.  Students have posted a screen shot where one professor wrote the “word he does not utter”.

So you don’t say it but you write it.  You ask students to explore if it’s okay to say the word–so it is part of writing assignments, but like Voldemort, it’s cool as long as you don’t say it out loud.  Okay, cool, so how did you create a classroom environment where this activity allowed students to engage and learn, where students felt heard and could themselves express oppositional views? This activity is not unheard of, but in the era of black lives matter, concurrent with days where these same students laid on the hard grass in the snow in a die in to bring attention to “racial divides many refuse to acknowledge exist”, it’s time to update your pedagogy. We’re way beyond the N word. Students need real tools for the very-real-and-not-at-all-theoretical revolution.

I want to be clear–this is not a defense of snowflakes.  I believe strongly in academic freedom and the importance of tenure to protect this freedom.  I push students to think and grapple with difficult ideas and these same colleagues of mine also have.  These are not easy times for good liberal professors, and so I do not lightly enter this conversation. Exploring complex, controversial and unpopular ideas is a key part of a good education. This isn’t about over-sensitivity to hearing the N-word, or a single incident.  It is that these students had a right to have a functioning relationship with the professors they pay thousands of dollars to teach them.  It is that when there are complaints they can and should be handled with conversation that helps learning happen, not lawsuits that shut down discussion and make everybody–even me, right now–afraid to speak publicly. It is that for hard ideas to take hold they need to be fertilized by faculty inside classrooms crafted from respect, current pedagogy, and historical context.  Structural analysis is key, and as structures and the communities they structure change, we need to update what we say and how we say it.

While student complaints will need to be adjudicated as part of the pairs’ upcoming multimillion dollar lawsuit, I can tell you I have heard multiple complaints from multiple students, multiple semesters in public forums.  I have to ask, are they all lying?  I witnessed students bring forth these complaints in many town halls and open discussions with clear voices and weeping eyes.  Were they all faking it?  Students were not trying to burn down the school.  They were asking for professors to update and adapt their pedagogy in a rapidly changing world.  They were asking to be prepared to work in the social justice field with the most current understanding of critical race and gender theory. These last few years have seen a seismic shift in race and gender studies, something that shouldn’t be ignored by the top race and gender scholars.  Dickering about nigga vs nigger when police brutality was the top story in the news is not just tone-deaf, it’s irresponsible for good liberal professors.

Students spoke out in class, a class where they were allegedly reminded–theoretically of course–that tenure would protect a professor who graded all the students of color unfairly. Undeterred, students elevated their complaints through available formal channels. As scholars of race, both professors are well aware of the importance of conversation and reconciliation, but instead of participating in dialog directly with students protesting their actions they used their position to avoid engaging, and then their power as successful academics to sue the school and amplify their narrative in blog posts like this latest one and in public lectures at other institutions, flaming the school and harming the school’s good reputation. All this without a legal judgment to support their narrative and free from the voices of the students involved.

Over the past year and a half, I have witnessed students of color and allies try bravely to hold these individuals to account, asking for dialogue, and when that failed, holding town halls that the two professors didn’t attend, except for one after the lawsuit was filed where they took notes on students statements(for the lawsuit?). Students protested. They wrote demands.  For some, their studies suffered as they grappled to succeed in an institution whose commitment to racial justice was shaken.  Many staff and faculty of color faced the same emotional pain as students, and a number left at the end of last academic year. The incident had the potential to be the worst kind of oppression Olympics, lining up complaints of antisemitism against complaints of racism–dividing the very groups who were working together to create a culturally adept community. All of us worked hard to try to keep the incident and its fallout from pulling our beloved community apart.

For those of us that remained, we have worked hard to be a part of a healing institution. The two professors so wrongly aggrieved have had a full year off of work with full pay– a move made by a new President to help settle the waters while the lawsuit was filed. And it’s working.  The new administration and faculty and student groups have supported and created events, activities, committees and community days to help us grow as an institution.  This is the way forward.  It feels good to go to work again, and I trust the people I work with to prepare our future social justice warriors.  Students, faculty, staff and the new administration know it’s not easy because we’re doing the hard work to walk our talk.  We’re in a better place.  The courts will have the final say, deciding once and for all who was right and who was wronged. In the meantime, I’m more afraid of injustice than shade–I’m going to focus on strengthening students and an institution trying to make the world better.  We’re not post fact–but you can act like it if you want to.

 

 

 

 

Gentrifying Shampoo

This week Pantene rolled out a beautiful ode to black women to artfully showcase what they present here as a line of products for natural hair.

So this is the part of the post where you think I’m going to praise Pantene for dope visuals, a rainbow of brown skinned lovelies, and a little finger-snapping slam-lite–wrong.  Sure this video brings the love of natural hair to the mainstream, making visible the black women who have been so ignored by the hair care industry.  Sure the video chants a little manifesto singing the praises of black beauty and power.  But don’t sleep, Pantene didn’t wake up one day with visions of Angela Davis for the masses.  Pantene is just gentrifying the natural hair product neighborhood and throwing some shade in the process.

If You Build It, They Will Come (And Take It From You)

Natural hair care products are a $946 million dollar industry, a sector of hair care that has seen explosive growth over the last few years.  Long before Pantene Gold started growing dreads, hair care for natural hair was nowhere to be seen on the mainstream scene.   Even the brands that did cater to unprocessed hair were few and far between.  As the natural hair movement grew, there were attempts to grab a share of the market with products like an early attempt for women of color called Pantene Naturals.  The problem was that these products were more about marketing, with formulations that were not markedly different from the rest of the brand’s lines.  The product packaging targets women of color but sulfates and dyes destroy their hair if they use it. Now that the natural hair care market can’t be ignored, Pantene is back for another slice of the African (hair)pie.

 

Meanwhile natural brands like Miss Jessie’s, Shea Mountain, As I Am and others did the real work finding ways to truly care for black hair–working directly with the women who used their product, learning from the ancestors secret recipes, and redesigning the natural hair care regimen with modern formulations that actually work for a diverse group of often ignored customers.  These companies, many owned by women of color, did the hard work to build a cottage industry into the natural hair juggernaut that it is today.

And then here comes Pantene.  Like a Starbucks in Brooklyn.  Sure, it seems nice at first until you can’t afford to live in your own apartment. Or until you can’t, as a small business owner, compete with a huge corporate entity like Pantene and you get knocked out of your own market. The natural hair movement is democratic with hundreds of bloggers, businesswomen and home product developers following in the steps of Madame CJ Walker, but it looks like this nation is about to be attacked by shamPutin Pantene.

By the Way, We Still Think Your Hair Sucks

I couldn’t help but notice when I looked at the actual product that is celebrating black women that nowhere on the product packaging does Pantene Gold say that is its designed for natural hair, or black hair beautiful in that many ways the commercial described it.  The line is aimed at “dry, damaged hair”.  That’s right, you snapping-your-fingers-as-you-snap-up-Pantene-queens–they just called your crown dry and damaged.  All that lovely poetry isn’t on the package.  Instead, just a reminder that the world still sees your hair as fundamentally flawed.

As_I_Am_Coconut_Cleansing_Conditioner_-_16_oz___TargetOther natural haircare lines use language that celebrates natural hair on the product line itself, not just pays lip service to it in ads.  Without the ad above, you wouldn’t know that Pantene was even trying to connect with the black community–and frankly, that wouldn’t be anything new.   I’m going to skip the hype on this one and keep supporting the business that cared about me and my hair, not just my wallet.

 

Get Out: What it Really is (and Why it Really Matters)

(warning: major spoilers) Get Out, Jordan Peele’s hugely successful directorial debut is killing it–box office bonanza, critics’ favorite, thinkpiece heaven and somewhere, I promise you, some doctoral student is burning out an iMac writing a thesis about it. Main character Chris, ensnared in a modern day coon hunt with a twist, has stumbled on a mini market of black zombies.  That’s right. This is a zombie movie.

Get Out trades on all sorts of movie tropes and motifs, as good filmmaking does, connecting us not only to a new story but also a new way of looking at ourselves.  At its heart lies a surprisingly familiar undead corpse–the zombie.  While the word zombie may give you visions of decomposing walkers or World War Z‘s running meat bags, Get Out returns us to the original body of the zombie story. The keys to the zombie story are mind control and bodily manipulation, a focus not on head shots but on enslavement. What’s more, looking at Get Out as a zombie movie helps audiences regain an empathetic lens to see black pain.

Like all good monsters, zombies, and zombie stories, are outsiders. They come from somewhere else–in the case of the zombie story, Africa.  The origins of the idea of the zombie come from West and Central Africa.  In West African spirituality, Orishas may ride devotees: possession not like the exorcist but more like catching the holy spirit, so one individual controlling another has spiritual precident. Possesion and control are also potential outcomes of rituals and spells. Powerful spiritual practitioners may control both living creatures and also unliving entities using the practices that are a small part of the religion  of Vodun.  The idea of using spiritual methods to control others’ bodies manifests in a complex and quite different way in Benin than the brain eaters clogging up the streets of Atlanta in the Walking Dead.  Of course, the original story was dragged onto ships and enslaved along with millions of Africans, landing in Haiti. Like the Africans themselves, the story of what a zombie was and how we should feel about it was transformed under the crushing pressure of whiteness.

Imagine you are newly enslaved, shocked by the brutal middle passage and blistering in the sun of the new world being worked to death to grow sugar for the tables of the European elite.  Thes people are going to beat you to work until you die as you have seen happen to so many around you .  You are exhausted, malnourished, tortured, traumatized and caught between fighting to live and wanting to die.  But you cannot die. Your body now belongs to the master, and death seems to be exclusivley controlled by the evil who weild power. It’s not a far leap to invoke the story of possession from home to create the Haitian zombie: this is no brain craving corpse, but a sentient being, enslaved and brutalized that needs to be freed, not stabbed in the head.

Enter Clarvius Narcissus.  Poor Clarvius was just minding his own business when he was turned into a zombie using a powder of plant-based toxins and made to work on a sugar plantation for decades before eventually getting away and returning home, ragged and brain damaged but still Clarvius.  His was not the only documented case of real life zombies, and there was even some evidence of a market for people drugged into compliance who could be forced to work for free. Again, the three keys are mind control, bodily manipulation and enslavement–in both real and imagined places.

Shifting to America’s silver screen, we find at first that the origins persist.  White Zombie, a Bela Lugosi classic horror tale features a sugar plantation of enslaved blacks–and one white woman who of course does not belong there and must be saved.  Even George A Romero, the father to the modern American zombie craze originally featured a black lead in Night of the Living Dead, maintaining the black gaze–the story was his.

The scary thing in these kinds of zombie movies was that it could happen to you. The empathy in the story lay not with the person who enslaved the zombie, or even those that may fear the zombie.  The empathy in zombie stories is supposed to lay with the zombie. The enslaved Africans were the victim, not the monster, The trafficked laborers, like Clarvius, were the victim.  Zombie movies were about seeing and sharing black pain. Until the Walking Dead.

The modern obsession with zombies in this century started with the cultural explosion that is the Walking Dead.   The show is excellent has been excellent, and I count myself a fan. But unlike the zombie story which asks us to throw our lot in with the oppressed, The Walking Dead returns white people, free people and zombie haters to the center of the story.  Rick, our flawed hero, reminds everyone that they need to stick together–so nice.  But early seasons of the show find him repeatedly refusing to entertain any lasting interest in curing the walkers or even caring about them.  Zombie myth reformed.

Get Out, though, reclaims the zombie genre.  I know, I know- you probably didn’t think it was a zombie movie when you saw it.  No wandering corpses, no hoards chasing down brains.  But in the sweet sunshine of the Armitage plantation, the whites are commodifying black bodies, enslaving them using neurological means–toxic powders replaced with a scalpel.  Catherine sends Chris to the Sunken Place, and like poor Narcissus, he is still conscious, but cannot overcome the spell he is under to take agency and get free.  We see those that steal the brains are the real villains– different than Georgina, Andrew or Walter: the victims, their bodies ground up in a system that wants only their skills and not their souls. Mind control, bodily manipulation, enslavement to the extreme: zombies.

Understanding the creatures that we have been taught to fear is an important function of monster movies, especially when they are monster mash ups.  Anne Rice and True Blood’s vampires, Penny Dreadfuls Frankenstein’s monster, even Twilight’s teams give us alternative readings of monster life, helping us to care about creatures living at the edges, to see that those that are hurt and broken are still deserving of love, perhaps even moreso.  Returning the zombie to its rightful place as sympathetic victim, and reconnecting the zombie with its critique of whiteness makes Get Out not just a good movie, but an important movie.  Diversifying Hollywood has to include pushing and challenging narratives to help us see what is too often rendered invisible.

Eyes play a major role in the film, from the key shot of Chris’s face seen in the movie to Chris’s photography to the planned transplant to “get your eyes, man”.  The film asks us to see out through the eyes of the ensnared, to feel the terror of being trapped.  Where the Walking Dead teaches us a thousand ways to kill a zombie,  Get Out brings us to the sunken place where the zombies get stuck.  We see Chris stabbed with the pain of his lost mother, falling, silenced.  This is black pain separated from any of the usual stereotypical symbols of black pain like a crack pipe, gang flag or welfare check.  This is a place where Chis suffers with his humanity intact, wanting not brains (he has plenty of those) but freedom.

What is it to fall into a zombie state and witness your own brutalization?  Like having them love your body, but not you. Like watching others being rewarded for what you are penalized for. Like working yourself to death for minimum wage while being blocked from having any of the accouterments of your own labor and being blamed for wanting Jordans. Like having to choose when to speak up because you are just. so. fucking. tired. Like police videos. Like when there are so many police videos that you stop seeing them. Like protesters being pepper sprayed. Like watching the Clan take the White House.

Get Out makes black pain, as conceived of and acted by black people, visible.  Far from the sunken place, the film gives voice here in the real world to the complex nuanced nature of racism in2017.  It gives viewers of every race a story that requires them to empathize with black pain–which is too often abstracted to sell records, clothes or policies.  The vast majority of movies and TV shows frame blackness as a problem to be quashed by white supremacy.  The few films that cast blacks as innocent victims frequently require that whites still be the heroes. This film gives us neither slaves nor gangbangers and in their absence, we get a lens into a more authentic, relatable and human understanding of race and racism.  If we are ever to evolve past systems of privilege we must first make them visible.

In the end, Chirs’s woke friend Rod is the only hero that can save him, and he’s got plenty of lessons for us to remember. If you wait on the state to save you, you’re in trouble but when the ensnared work together, they can get free.   Rod’s concerns at first seem overblown, but he trusted his own understanding of racism even when others denied it. You’ve got to refuse to ignore evidence that supports what you know to be true.  Rod gave a shit, and not just because he was dogsitting.  Commitment to your brothers and sisters is key.   We too, have to keep looking.  It’s too easy to hear the clink of white supremacy and feel ourselves falling into the sunken place. Stay woke.

 

 

The City a Safe Space

Boston has a reputation: cold, unfriendly, racist and hard–not all undeserved.  But in case everything you know about Boston you learned from a Matt Damon movie, rest assured that there is something else here.

As home to over 70 Colleges and Universities, including some of the world’s best, Boston is a place that has a close relationship with reason–eve if it doesn’t alway win.  We love freedom and liberty–we created it here, no matter what Philly says.  We love a good protest and most importantly–we don’t like to take shit from anyone, especially someone that hasn’t read a book lately, Cheeto boy.  This doesn’t look like a Whitey Bulger movie.  It looks like this:

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is doing the most to be an ideal sanctuary city.  He makes a safe space for all kinds of people attacked, targeted and affected by the Trump administration’s solution to Make America a Police State Again. He not just paying lip service either. He’s going to tuck you in, dude. So when Marty says he’s got you, he does.

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This city may still bear challenges–we’re a rough bunch, just ask Roger Goodell. Still no matter what Ben Affleck tells you, you should know that this is my Boston.

T(rump) Minus 6

We landed in Washington D.C. yesterday, a gaggle of activist students, their queer polis-sci professor and me, afro flying my flag of blackness above my airplane seat.  The airports, the streets are awash with pink pussy hats and red white and blue patriotic chic.  The air contains just a hint of pep rally. The grim reality gives off a scent more like that Aztec ballgame where the losers are decapitated.

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In just six hours, a few miles from here Donald J Trump and his creep squad cabinet will take over the country that I have lived in and loved my whole life.  He has promised to enact policies that will hurt the people I love and care about, including each of the students with us on this trip.  The pink hats are so cute (thanks, Aunt Kathie!) but make no mistake this is a fight.

Scene: Interior, day before the inauguration, hotel lobby. Beneath the altar of CNN on the big screen a bunch of liberals from Boston–identifiable by our Boston swag and the girls’ Olivia Pope outfits, and in that corner three women painted in stars and stripes.  The hotel staff watch the action like tourists on safari.

Hotel manager:  Ha ha, hope there’s not going to be a rumble!

Trumpette: grumbling loud enough for all to hear. I wouldn’t mind seeing that.

Me: Ha, ha…You don’t want to catch these hands.

Trumpette: Let’s be peaceful….(to her cronies.)  I hope they remember to be peaceful on Saturday [for the anticipated Women’s March]

Me: (to students) Saturday you’ll get to see the amazing tradition of nonviolent protest that is such an important part of our country.

End scene.

Would I have rumbled with an older lady in the hotel lobby?  In the rarefied air of the inauguration, the hate and division are real and palpable as my anger hurt and fear over this election and the 4 years to come. yesterday evening I replayed the scene in my mind–how easy it was for me and a stranger to escalate to threats lightly veiled in laughter in just seconds. These past few years have required me to swallow more than a little anger and hurt. I had to admit that it is too easy to slide into the playground taunting.  But in a quiet moment, I remembered that I’m not about that, no matter how much they spoil for a fight. In the land of the walking dead, its is key to remember that you are not them.

So, old lady, you may not catch these hands, but I am coming for you with the full force of resistance and that really packs a punch.  And the fight is just about to start.

This Is Why We Fight

In trying to make sense like so many of you today, I looked into this moment for an opportunity–and I found one. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia are no longer the monster under the bed or hidden beneath napkins and polite conversation at dinner.  These insidious beasts that  have stalked our nation are now out in the open.  This past year’s contentious election has shown us all who wants to stand with us, and who doesn’t.  Maybe this isn’t a moment we can’t imagine.  Tonight I saw mass protests of women and men and trans people and whites and blacks and Latino and disabled people and people that love all those people unified together with clear and common purpose. Maybe this is the moment we find our common purpose and rise to meet it.

This moment is not about Donald Trump or 2016 or the Republican Party.  No, this moment is a long time coming, the moment when the immovable object of white supremacy comes face to face  with the unstoppable force of the demographic shifts that will make American a minority-majority country.  This moment isn’t the first  battle but could very well the last stand of white supremacy against the truth of the multicultural coutry we already are.

Is: the present tense. Not was, the word of the past.  Not will be, a magical future that is always the day after tomorrow and never the now.  Is. Present . Right now. If you weren’t an ally before, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve been fighting and you’re tired and you want to give up, that was before.   If you think it will be better in two four or eight years, so what? This is now. Focus on the present.

Why is more important that what or how. What justice looks like and how it arrives requires a multitude of views, a flock of answers, a riot of solutions, more ways up the mountain.  But the why is steadfast, unchanged and still the goal even extending into the future.  To form a more perfect union.  That was why  in the past  and will be why in the future but most importantly is the why now.  In a world that makes you feel like you are drowning this why is your life raft.

We feel new feelings. We have never in our lives felt more threatened, or been more ready to fight.  We have spent these last years mobilizing activating, networking an connecting.  You were the left hand.  You were the right foot.  Parts of the giant of the electorate have shaken themselves from slumber. We were woke separately by issues specific to important aspects of our identity. We are awake together now.  We have been building the will and skill to organize, maybe in preparation for this very moment.

Fight: that is what comes next.  Fight is what ancestors who lived and died in slavery did even with no end in sight.   Fight is what women did who secured the vote and the right to choice. Fight is what we did when police shot our brothers and sisters in the streets. Fight is what they are doing tonight at Standing Rock.We don’t play, guess, plead or wish. We fight.  We fight hard and clean and often and together and separate in big and small ways.  We raise our fists and our signs and our voices and our children to fight.

When you want to know how this could be, when you cry tears to make room in you to keep going, when you ask what we should tell the children I offer you my unconditional love, and a mantra.  This is why we fight.

image credit: Samuel Mitchell, from the Boston Trump protest march 11.9.16

The Fame Monster

note: some strong language is contained in this article

In our super saturated ocean of media, there are lots of celebrities floating around. Musicians and entertainers, famous politicians or notorious bad boys, and even a ton of people famous for…well…being famous. Is seems as though everyone is famous for something. You can get famous in just a few hours just by writing a tweet, posting a video, even just being captured in an image.

 

Ken Bone listens to Democratic presidential nominee Clinton debate Republican nominee Trump during their presidential debate in St. Louis
Ken Bone became an overnight sensation after his appearance in a presidential debate town hall

 

In a 24-7 media environment, fame seems to be almost as important as money, power, and status. In days gone by children dreamed of growing up to be doctors, lawyers, firefighters or ballerinas. Studied in 2007 by Uhls and Greenfield, the number one thing children wanted to be was famous.

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So what is fame? How do you get it and who gets to keep it? And once you have it, is it worth it? In this article, we’re going to look at the price of celebrity, not only for people who rocket their way to stardom but for our whole culture: how does fame change the world you live in?

In just a minute we’re going to look back in history to see how fame is different now than it was before. To start off, though, we’re going to hear from this guy.

Andy Warhol, artist, portrait, himself, white background

This is Andy Warhol an American artist. If you’ve ever seen these paintings of a soup can

or these of Marilyn Monroe,

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then you’re familiar with his work. Warhol was really interested in breaking down the line between high art—classical paintings and work important in the world of art—and low art, like soup cans and Hollywood actresses. Warhol was instrumental in the pop culture world. His work and his fascination with popular culture made the mundane seem special, where before only the great works of literature and art were worth studying. To Warhol, though, even the basic items of people’s everyday life were worth examining.

Warhol made art, went to parties, and, through his public activities and an art house nee club called The Factory, Warhol was also interested in making celebrities. He famously discovered British model Twiggy  and helped to catapult her to stardom, making one of the first supermodels.

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Perhaps Warhol’s most famous quote is this:in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.

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Look, he didn’t mean that everybody should be famous, or that this was like a squad goal. He was predicting that as the tools to become famous are more available, more people would use those media tools to achieve fame. Was he right? You better believe it.

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Sweet Brown, famous for saying, “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” in a local news report.

As we’ve learned, media messages have an impact on our perception of the world. Remember Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory that states that the more we watch TV the more likely we are to replace our own perception of reality with ideas from media. Media messages tell us what is important, what is worth doing, and who matters. Celebrities are like super-peers, acting as an image that we are to aspire to, so who are celebrities are will impact the norms beliefs and values of that culture.

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In the early days of movies and TV, there were only three television channels, and programming only lasted part of the day. That meant that being on TV was a more unique experience than it is now, something affording to a very small number of people. Now, with over 1000 TV channels, billions of YouTube videos and a camera in every pocket, we have a lot more channels than we used to have, and we have to fill up those channels with something. Simply put, the space for fame has changed dramatically, so the number of people in our culture that fill that space is larger than ever. Consider for a moment how fame has changed over time with these pairings of famous celebs from then and now.

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So how did fame become so easily available? The process hinted at by Warhol decades ago is something that media theorist Graeme Turner calls the demotic turn. Not demonic—though sometimes fame is a little devilish—demotic, as in everybody gets a turn. Here is Turners definition:

slide06You’ll notice that Turner isn’t talking about how important or amazing individuals are. He’s talking about getting people to fill the space that we have for fame—who is the it girl actress of the day, who’s everybody’s favorite hero or villain, who it the bad boy of the moment: these are all roles in our media culture.

Any person who has the chance to occupy one of these rolls becomes famous—usually not for long, not because of any great accomplishment, but because they are fulfilling a role, playing a stereotype in the culture that gains lots of attention. We think what makes a celebrity a celebrity is some special and magical quality, but more likely, they are an individual that fits a role in our media culture, they’re cast in that role and rocketed to stardom, whether they wanted it—or deserved it—or not. Turner calls them celetoids.

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Notoriety, name recognition, relevance: these are the keys to fame. It’s not about being the best, the most or the only, but about being the most widely known. Being a celebrity these days is about nothing so much as it is about being popular. The more followers, likes and fans one has, the more you can make the case that you are a valuable commodity in our media environment. Remember in a capitalist media structure, the main goal is to sell product—so anyone that’s going to get lots of attention becomes a valuable commodity media companies can use to improve their bottom line.

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Whether you’re trying to save all the puppies and kitties, or if you are a horrible human through and through, if everyone’s talking about you then you can be the star. But just like the most popular kid in your graduating high school class—not everyone that’s popular has earned all the respect they get. Reality TV stars are especially controlled by their relevance factor. Shows may shoot a variety of people for a season, but only those most interesting to fans will get big story lines on the show.

So it’s not the nicest, smartest, or most generous, but the most divisive, most engaging, most attention-seeking characters will get the biggest story lines, therefore the most popularity, setting up a cycle that privileges explosive and outrageous behavior over behavior we may find more acceptable in our own personal relationships.

Drink throwing, tuna catching fights, father-son bike-remodeling arguments, circling sharks in the Shark Tank: conflict drives reality TV, more than other scripted shows even. Why and how is reality TV so important? We’ve got to get into our time machine and go waaaaaay back to the not so groovy days of the 2007-2008 Television season.

Reality TV is certainly very tightly controlled in the process of production to shape stories and creating interesting plots out of people’s everyday activities.   While I am sure that your life is full of drama, there’s probably not enough for a 16-episode season. Producers ramp up fights, gossip, conflict and disagreement all to build more exciting stories. Yes they make up stories, and even tell people what to say and how to act, but one thing reality shows don’t have is union writers. The media industry has very strong labor unions—the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America in Hollywood to name just a couple. Every TV show that has a script has to use a union writer.

But in 2007-2008 TV season, there was writer’s strike. The Writers’ Guild of America went on strike and that meant that no shows that used a script could be made. What were the TV networks to do? Instead, TV networks turned to reality TV—free from union writers—to fill airtime. Instead of new dramas, TV was awash in reality shows. The networks learned something interesting—first, viewers watched the reality programming instead of totally turning off TV altogether, and second, reality TV was much cheaper to produce. There were no expensive actors, no scripts to pay for or costumes. Instead, regular people stepped up for their chance to be a celetoid.   So enough viewers + cheaper production costs=more profit. What looked to be a losing TV season turned out to be a very profitable one, and the proliferation of reality TV continued.

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Whether we’re talking about A-list celebrities or just the hero of the day from the latest viral video our media culture is absolutely obsessed with fame. Media technologies have made it easier than ever for someone to be known to millions, sometimes billions of people. That kind of power just wasn’t available to anyone in centuries past. Now that this era is here, analysis of who is famous can help shed light on the values of our culture.

The people that we make famous are a reflection of the cultural values that are most relevant at a given time. Remember, it’s not about what is right, good, just or best, but about what is popular—the lowest common denominator.

In media studies, the Uses and Gratifications Theory  says that we use media to help satisfy our urges, needs and desire. But how does media decide what people need? Using psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can look at the needs that are most basic, and therefore most common versus those that needs that require basic needs to be met before we pursue them, thereby being less common concerns in the viewing audience.

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Those needs that are most common are likely to draw the biggest viewing audience for a media production. For example, think of the old adage that sex sells. Sex is a basic human drive, along with food, shelter, and so on. That means that media representations that feature messages about sex are going to appeal to anyone who has sex, wants to have sex, has had sex, or is interested in sex: that’s pretty huge audience. By contrast, the need for self-actualization—a deep and complex understanding of yourself and your life’s purpose—is a higher level need. Sure it may be great to sell yoga classes with ideas about self-actualization, but for many people, this idea may not be as relevant to their life at a particular time. Needs that are higher level, like self-actualization or belonging are sure to attract people, but it will be a more narrow audience than those basic human needs.

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Now it’s time to leave you with some questions to keep in mind while you navigate our fame-obsessed culture.   Think about some of the most famous people in our media universe and think about why they’re famous. What does their fame tell us about what we think is important or worth watching? Are we encouraged to focus on people who are doing what is right or just relevant? Are celebrities and celetoids truly powerful, or are they media product? And if they are products, do they really deserve our time, attention and hard earned money? There won’t be one answer—there isn’t just one kind of famous person. The next time you decide to be a fan of a celebrity, take a second to think about fame, and make sure they’ve earned your attention.

The Divided States of Play

Man, we love our guns–and why shouldn’t we?  We have a right to love our guns up like new puppies.  Guns are everywhere in our culture, and since we want our kids to grow up with the full American experience, we love guns for kids.  We even love kids with guns!  Unless they’re black…then, no gun for you.

This week, 13-year-old Tyre King was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio after police chased him following a report of an armed robbery.  Cornered in an alley, police report King leveled a pistol at them, prompting them to shoot him dead [though another boy arrested in the case contradicts the police story].  Turns out, the pistol was a replica BB gun, no more dangerous to the cops than an easy bake oven.

But toy guns have proven to be dangerous to toy-gun-toting black boys.  Tamir Rice was committing no crime when Chicago police rolled up on him and killed him in a matter of seconds, even though dispatch had passed on that the gun Rice head may not be real.  John Crawford didn’t even have a chance to pay for the toy gun that got him killed: police shot him in Dayton Ohio while he was still shopping in Wal-mart with the toy after a fellow shopper called 911.  The pattern was so disturbing that California Governor Jerry Brown pushed legislation to address such fatalities following the shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.  The law aimed at manufacturers to halt the sale of toy guns unless the entire exterior was white of a color–but in a world of pink pistols(yes that’s a real Hello Kitty gun) and 3D printed guns this measure is likely to face future problems.

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http://www.calguns.net/calgunforum/showthread.php?t=656998&page=3

If a toy could be just cause for police to kill your child, then why have these toys at all? Outside city streets where cops are engaged in urban warfare is a whole world where kids with guns are good clean fun. According to an article in the Injury Prevention Journal, 3.2 million BB and pellet guns are sold in the US each year. BB guns are available for purchase without a licence or age restriction in most states. They may well show up at a Christmas party or wrapped in birthday finery in a home you care about.  In this parallel place of play, children pine for tons of guns.  Adults concern over supplying these toys revolves primarily around the danger of putting someone’s eye out, as famously captured by the movie A Christmas Story.

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I had the great pleasure of spending some family time up in the lovely White Mountains of New Hampshire.  We had campfires and barbeques, went to the lake and of course the local attractions–Zeb’s Candy store and the army navy store.  As long as I can remember, from the mountains to the Cape, a trip the Army Navy store was always on my brother’s agenda.  Now with three kids of his own, they too can’t wait to get there.   This year they wanted their favorite Aunt to come too.

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So off we went to the war store.  Now, I love me a good post-apocalyptic smack down series, but in real life, I’m a lover, not a fighter. I’m not naive to the ways of the world, but I also believe that nearly all problems can be solved nonviolently.  I was struck first that this is America–we glorify war, death, and violence even as we play cop to those worldwide who would use violence for their own ends.  Here at home, we have stores full of fake guns, then use those same fake guns to justify the death of young black and brown boys. Our heroes are all drenched in blood and stores like this are their preschools.  Let’s shop!

Does your baby coo for law and order?  How about this fabulous onesie, complete with a fake truncheon.  Don’t worry about outgrowing those  blues–you can just size up to the full toy kit so they can keep toddling at their local protests.  PS Get Parent of the Year for wearing the matching full body riot suit!

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Game of Thrones play more your style?  Strap on these knuckle knives for a fun time.  I’m sure these sharpened brass knifeckles are super safe and not for violence of any kind.  The same goes for this wall of swords and battle axes.  Strictly decorative.  For people who want to decorate their home with lethal weapons.  It’s a look.

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Ahh, the heart of the fun–the Airsoft BB gun wall.  Here is a shot of the long guns of fun–just a part of the 30-foot wall covered with toy guns, all looking completely real except for a small (removable for the resourceful) orange tip.   Not only do they look real, they are also real expensive$150 to $250+.  These are no five dollar cap gun–they look like the real deal and they shoot little plastic balls that don’t worry are no problem for the environment.

Truncheons and knifeckles and guns, oh my, what a toy store!  In case you have trouble reading the room, you can read a few books to help you have even more fun doing things like surviving a societal meltdown or building bombs with butane lighters.

So if the Army Navy store, which that day was doing brisk business full of sunburned vacationers out looking for a souvenir of summer family time, is considered a family friendly activity, full of games and toys to bring your family together, then why do young boys keep getting shot by the police for playing with these toys?

Why are guns and weapons good clean fun for my white nieces and nephews, but deadly play for my students of color? What could possibly be the difference between the patrons of the gun aisle and Tamir Rice, or John Crawford?

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Play is the work of children, Piaget said.  Play is how they learn about the way the world works, what the limits are and what their place within it is.  Some children in our country are privileged to play with weapons and wield violence with no consequences.  Parents stand by proudly as children learn to shoot with no sense of the fear parents of color face preparing their boys to face a culture too often cocked and loaded. Some children get killed for playing the same games their white counterparts play with impunity. Some children think a toy gun will look like a toy to cops, thinking it will keep them safe from lethal trouble at least. They don’t realize that in their small black hand cops will see only a deadly weapon with a criminal attached.

If a child is a child, and a toy is a toy, then we are left with race-again-as the factor determining who lives and plays versus who dies at the hands of the state.  It’s time for common-sense gun legislation to extend to the guns we buy for kids:  it’s common sense to keep all our kids safe.

 

 

 

 

Is This Sand Sculpture Racist?

Can you make a sandcastle racist? I didn’t think so, but then I went to the beach to see the amazing sand sculptures at Revere beach and I saw this one:

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Titled The Color’s In the Mind,Red Orange Green Blue Shiny Yellow Purple Too, it depicts an artist pallet of colors with an object for each color.  So cute, look at the frog and the–wait, what is that?

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Tucked between the fruit is the head of a policeman.  Okay, pretty odd to have a policeman’s head representing blue instead of fruit. And next to the cop’s head is an eggplant, sometimes used to symbolize black people in not so nice ways.

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A cop’s head and an eggplant.  Color’s in the mind.  I see a backhanded comment on BLM.  Is it me? Leave it in the comments!

New Times Call for New Stereotypes

In case you haven’t noticed, black people are really slaying these days.  From music to art to literature knowledge and activism and of course fashion.  There’s even new language to describe the fabulosity of black people: lit, melanin poppin’ and now, TNS.

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TNS stand for the new stereotype, and it is an intentional move by artists to create new ways of seeing– and therefore thinking–about black people.  It all started with this photo shoot by artist Marqulle Turner showing black men far from the brutes who populate the evening newsreel.  These black men are diverse, sophisticated, cosmopolitan and fresh.

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Marqulle Turner

Not to be left behind these womyn showed how to get into formation.

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photos from MArqulleturner.com/tns

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TNS seeks to challenge and provide an alternative to the stereotypes of black people that we look at all the time here at smntks.  TNS reminds me a bit of the Sapeurs, the elegantly dressed members of this Congolese fashion club.

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Guinness: Sapeurs in their finery walk among the cattle

Stereotypes are formed in the machine of culture, rarely owned by one person, so can you create a new one on your own? My answer would typically be a no, but these images of TNS come at a time when they are reinforced by amazing images of blacks as thoughtful, creative complex and conscious, from the Sapeurs, to Lemonade to black twitter.  Taken together there is a widespread pattern of a new image of blacks in our culture.

photo by Washington Ave Styles,  www.washingtonavestyles.etsy.com
photo by Washington Ave Styles, http://www.washingtonavestyles.etsy.com

So get your crew, get your melanin poppin’ and add your images to the new stereotype.

Sapeur+Congo++kid+chair

media, race, and pop culture explained