All posts by Susan X Jane

Susan Jane thinks a lot about media and race…a lot. She teaches Communications at Wheelock College, writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way media shapes their sense of self and their ideas and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

When Not To Tweet

Social media–we love it, we live on it, we can’t do without it. With tweets clocking in under 140 characters, Twitter is the quickest high out there, with regular users sending dozens of tweets daily.  But like all fun things, you really have to have some limits.  Too much ice cream? Diarrhea.  Too much tweeting? Same result.  So even the most “expert” tweeter in chief should remember when not to tweet. Here are four tips for anybody, really, but especially anybody ruining this country with his tweets:

In the Midst of Tragedy

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When crisis strikes in our too fragile world, Twitter can be an important tool to get out information quickly, check in to find people in harm’s way and to offer prayer and solidarity to bolster hearts and minds in the moments after a catastrophe.  Tweeting in these times requires all the gravitas and sensitivity you can muster–to tweet otherwise can be disastrous for careers and reputations (of nations, even). This is not the moment to drop a flaming tweet to stir people up.  That is irresponsible and uncaring, showing your weakness as a leader.

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Protip: be like Obama–he knew how to send a tweet that calmed and uplifted in dark times.  Bonus protip: that’s what leaders are supposed to do.

Late at night

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Bae acting up and you can’t sleep, all in your feelings? Do not tweet about them.  You are vulnerable.  It’s dark out.  Maybe you’re listening to Lil Uzi Vert walking around the White House in your bathrobe alone with only your wounds and some ice cream.  Do not pour out your pain on Twitter.  Some pain is supposed to be private, some anger is not righteous and only reveals the small minded self-pity that humans tend to in these late nights weeping sessions.

Protip: Put the phone–and the ice cream–away and go the fuck to bed.  Better yet, leave your phone at the office and switch up your playlist until you can be trusted after hours.

When you don’t know what you’re talking about

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Look, if you tweet some ignorant shit, you most definitely will be in good company–a solid portion of tweets are ignorant, tweeted by people who are beyond ignorant. Some make a living at it.  There are even robotweeters programmed to tweet out ignorant shit all day long. But, as your mom used to always say, just because all your friends are destroying the internet with a bunch of fuckery and false facts that doesn’t mean you have to, too. In fact, if you are a professional of any kind—any kind, Don–you recognize your Twitter feed as an extension of your professional reputation.   Tweet stupid, look stupid.

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Protip: If you’re about to tweet, run a quick fact check, just a little google action.  Level up–Breitbart, Info Wars and Fox Commentary are not independent fact checkers.  Please do better.

When your friends and family (and country) are concerned

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We have friends and family so someone will tell us the truth when we get out of line. Unlike vodka bottles under the couch or pill bottles hidden in a purse, your Twitter habit is out there for all to see.  I mean everyone can see you up saying crazy talk late at night (and can totally picture aforementioned bathrobe and ice cream). We noticed that you have to tweet foolishness just to get out of bed in the morning.  Even when you’re away on a great trip you can’t help tweeting bullshit. Everyone knows your tweeting is out of control.  You doubling down and saying tweeting is cool because all your friends like it when you tweet just sounds like the last defense before they load you onto a plane for rehab.  When Kellyanne Conway, whose tie to reality is tenuous at best, tells you to chill, chill.  But when her husband has to get in on it along with all your advisors and a few friends?  Time to put the phone down.  Don’t listen to Don Jr.  He’s enabling.

Protip: Listen to the people that care about.  The love you like crazy and they feel like they’re losing you.  The rest of us hear your cry for help and a good 65% percent support you packing up today and going away till you–and this country–recover.

There you have it: four good times not to tweet, whether you’re a Twitter newbie, or whether you are the leader of the free world President of the United States and should be running the country and fighting your impending impeachment instead of tweeting like a petulant teenager. Now go tweet responsibly, or, maybe, 45, not at all!

 

When White People Should Say N–

Once and for all I want to settle the controversy of White people using the n-word.  There actually is a rule and it’s very, very simple:

Never.

NEVER.

Say it with me….white people should never say N*gga, n*gger, or any permutation of the word.

No, Bill, I mean you too:

This woman running for local office who called police about “N– outside drinking Hennessy?  Heeeeelllllllllllllllllllll no, no matter what Eddie Murphy said.

How about stars who act like they’re cool with Black people? Nope.

But, wait, what about if you’re a teacher and you’re just trying to teach the youth about the N word with your old ass ideas saying the word over and over until you get checked? That’s on you, teach.

What if you have really good intentions, and you’re woke as fuck and you care about black people like you really love them and deeply care about black empowerment and you are committed to supporting black people in the struggle for justice?  Like you dedicate your life to ending racism and you work hard every day to make the world more just and every once in a while in love and solidarity you want to refer to your black friends as my n–?

Trick question–if you’re really woke af, you know white people shouldn’t say the n-word.

So no matter what you’ve heard, no matter how extensive you think your hood pass is, no matter how noble your intentions or how great your cultural knowledge, if you are white the rule stands.

Never.

 

How Covfefe Hurts

I love to laugh so you may be surprised that the whole covfefe kerfuffle isn’t making me chuckle.  For sure, when President Trump (that still makes me shudder to type) sent out this nonsensical tweet Tuesday night…

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Here I come to ruin your fun: Covfefegate is a perfect example of the danger of the Trump administration.   We laugh our way to the gallows while Trump again redefines reality.

1.The obvious: This man is an idiot and he runs the country

We all misspell stuff.  Dear reader, you know that I am the queen of the typo.  But I don’t have staff who would be more than happy to moderate one’s tweeting in order to keep the POTUS from sending out something crazy.  Sidenote, we may assume he was tweeting about press coverage.  How are you going to critique writers if you can’t handle 140 characters? This is not his first or last crazy tweet. This is how your elected President communicates with you, the same way your drunken ex did in college, misspelled nonsensical night tweets.

2. The Underhanded: While we were laughing, the Paris Accord

Trump has a showman’s sense of timing–while we were all laughing the world laughed at us as our country prepared to pull out of the Paris Accord.  China is in and talking about the importance of taking responsibility to address climate change.  Only Syria, Nicaragua and now the US stand alone in refusing to acknowledge and address the single biggest challenge facing humanity.  How could we let this happen in a country with so much freedom? We’re busy laughing at covfefe, lulled into a surreal world where our voices, so loud at the women’s march, must battle a daily war against the nonsense Trump creates that dominates the news cycle.  Yes, you can pay attention to more than one thing at a time, but scroll yesterday’s news feed–which story dominated memes, tweets, and attention? How many posts did you see mobilizing our political protest machine to address other issues? The craziness is just too crazy to pass up.

3. The Insidious–These Fools Really Doubled Down

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While we were meming it up with covfefe , some joked that Spicer would be out to defend the word.  It was a joke until Spicer made a cryptic response at the daily press briefing.

“Do you think people should be concerned that the president posted a somewhat incoherent tweet last night, and then it stayed up for hours?” the reporter asked.

“Uh, no,” Spicer replied.

“Why did it stay up so long after? Is no one watching this?” the reporter wondered.

“No, I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” Spicer said

Your man Spicer was dead serious when he responded and refused to come back to it to answer any more questions. Why play it so seriously with something as benign as a typo? The White House has a habit of redefining reality instead of taking responsibility for mistakes.  We can’t forget the flap over inauguration attendance because Trump keeps reminding us.  Rather than admit mistakes that are in plain sight, Trump and his lackeys deny what we all witness.  Funny when it’s covfefe, but what about when it really matters?  To Quote Paulie from Law and Order, “Tell a little lie, tell a big lie.” We have seen them tell little lies. We have learned, if nothing else, that this administration will lie boldly and unrepentantly.

There it is, a wet pile of covfefe that I have rained all over.  Sorry about your covfefe parade. My bad for ruining your fun. I just haven’t had my covfefe this morning.

More than Miley: Disney Stars Ride Black Bodies to Adulthood

Miley Cyrus, trap queen, and twerk team champ released a new album this week along with a new persona: country Miley is back! Gone are the gold chains, grills and booty shorts.  Instead, Miley is rocking country ruffles, cornsilk skin and white supremacy–guess White is in for summer!

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To be clear, Miley has made several statements about this radical brand realignment, saying that she doesn’t listen to hip-hop because, basically, of people like her.

Wait, this is Miley, right?

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Cue the outrage and the twitter dragging–well deserved.  After copulating with hip hop to birth herself a new career, Miley was public-shaming her fling and claiming her roots didn’t include them-over-there black people.  The think pieces started to look more closely at Miley, who she is and why she as an individual decided to ditch hip Hop for the white right.  But like Dead Prez sang, it’s bigger than Hip Hop–or just Miley.

Young white pop stars have been using black culture and black bodies as a PR rite of passage into an adult career for years.  It goes like this–say you’re a producer looking for the next big pop star.  You want someone as palatable as possible so you can reach the widest audience.  You want that squeaky clean all-American look, like a Mouseketeer look.  You audition hundreds and hundreds of kids to find those magic ones that fit the image of American teen idol.  They sing and dance their little feet off for you.  For years. But they’re getting older, and their fans are getting older too.  Hanah Montana’s fans now are wearing makeup,  now dating.  How can Miley be their idol if they are growing faster than her?  How can Justin still be sexy if he’s just so wholesome? If you want that star you invested all that time and money in to keep paying dividends you have to shake them clear of their childhood image, sever them from their innocence and make them seem edgy enough to appeal to twenty-somethings who often love risk and seek danger.  So you black them up, even the ones that are already brown or black–change their friends, change their look, change their sound, sometimes even darken their skin.

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Now look at your favorite pop star, fans. They smoke weed, they sag their look, they hang out with those boys your racist dad told you not to hang out with.  They’re getting wild. They’re growing up faster than you. They’re doing all the dangerous shit parents warn you about. You, fan, pay attention to ads or articles they appear in again. Their songs go back in your rotation.

But you, fan are maturing too.  After a few years, that pop star making bad decisions is like a lot of your friends who aren’t doing too great–getting too high, acting stupid in public.  You start to lose interest, again.  Luckily the PR machine is here to remind you that that pop star is just like you. Ethnically cleansed and fresh from rehab with a mea culpa in hand, they’ready to be a mature star now, earning again for investors, and paying dividends to companies that have been banking on them since their Mouseketeer days.

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It wasn’t that Miley, or Justin or Brittany or Christina were brilliant brand strategists–they were just the star shining on stage.  The puppet master lurks above, pulling strings in a shadowy world driven by profit, data, and research as much as ideology.  What many of theses stars have in common is their parent company: Disney.  This PR path over black and brown bodies to the bank is part of the Magic Kingdom.  Think about that–the company that so many parents trust their children’s hearts too has repeatedly used a calculated racist process to drive profit into their pockets and ideology into the hearts and minds of their customers.

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Disney has long had a reputation for being racist.  Walt Disney himself was a racist and many early Disney movies and cartoons were also racist.  Song of the South and Dumbo have never been rereleased unlike many other titles in Disney’s catalog because they are so racist.  Even Disney’s greatest hits are packed with stereotypical characters, and reinforce dominant ideology about race.

Look, I know you love Disney and here I come to shit all over your mouse parade.  But the fact is that this is important.  Disney has a mainline into American children, pumping not just Frozen song lyrics, but ideas about what–and who–is right and wrong.  Disney shows, movies, and stars are vehicles for communicating ideas about how to be a good friend, good person, how to be a good girl or boy (how binary). Disney media shows us how to fall in love, how to fight for what’s right, and who the bad guys are.

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It’s more than Miley.  It’s that Walt Disney Company, one of America’s largest purveyor of ideology, has a long-standing widespread practice of using black bodies as the stand in for wildness, incivility, hypersexuality and violence.  With America’s–and some of the world’s–children fed at the tit of Disney since birth, this equates to a silent symbolic war where one side has all the weapons.  How can black people, already underrepresented in front of and behind the camera, battle a Kingdom complete with land, legal protection as a corporation and a legion of children ready to scream “Acuna Matata”?

The Miley Cyrus story has raised cries of cultural appropriation.  Miley’s use of blackness, now discarded and demonized is a clear case for how cultural appropriation winds up hurting black people.  But I believe when we move up the food chain, there is no personal fetishization of blackness, as much of the analysis suggests with Cyrus. Instead, blackness functions as a code to indicate a pop star experiencing a wild awakening.  Blackness is there merely to represent the dark, seedy, undesirable side of America that is valuable only as a rumspringa for white American youth.  They aren’t stealing your beauty or your swag–they grant you neither.  Instead, they are stealing only their vision of you: raw animal aggression and untethered sexuality that they project onto black bodies so they can touch it, sell it, without taking any ownership of their own dark side.

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For decades, from Annette and Frankie to Miley and Justin, Disney has used black bodies to flip child stars into adults.  If you think they couldn’t have meant to–the old argument that their intentions were not racist–that still means that Disney has perpetrated years of cultural war on blackness without any concern for those represented or hurt.  If you like your theory with a healthy dose of paranoia reality, maybe you believe Disney is intentionally vilifying blackness in the representational binary with their innocent white stars, then we agree on nothing less than symbolic genocide and ideologically armed racism delivered in brightly colored costumes.

Either way, Miley is just the tip of the cultural appropriation iceberg.  Disney’s pattern of using blackness as a code shows that the ultimate result of cultural appropriation isn’t the inappropriate use of cornrows or coochie shorts but symbolic annihilation. Remember that the next time someone tells you to let cultural appropriation go.

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Shea Moisture: They’re Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes, Pt 2

Shea Moisture put out an ad this week called Hair Hate and then sat back and enjoyed their own Pepsi moment.  Here’s the ad below:

For a company that is built by, for and literally on black women, expanding their customer base by equating the hair challenges of naturals with the bad hair days of gingers and blondes wasn’t an overreach, it was a betrayal.   Shortly after Shea Moisture’s dragging began, so did the comparisons to the Pepsi ad.  Both seemed tone deaf, trivializing important aspect of black culture to sell product.  But I said it about Pepsi and now I’ll say it about Shea Moisture–they’re not tone deaf, they’re assholes; they’re not silly, they’re sell outs.

Shea Moisture’s built its brand on black women and their hard earned cash.  Even the label tells the homey story of the brand’s founder’s grandmother Sofi Tucker selling product in Sierra Leon.  Last year the brand shouted its allegiance to ethnic hair by proudly proclaiming it was going to desegregate the beauty isle–the implication being that Shea Moisture’s move to shelf space in the non-ethinc hair care section (called the regular hair section by most people) was about making hair care inclusive of black beauty, not leaving it behind. This ad clearly positions Shea Moisture as here for black women. Turns outs they were just getting ready to sell out in the rush to gentrify haircare and expand their own customer base and bottom line.

This is not a tone deaf company.  This is a company that has carefully–and with great success–made it big by catering to black women.  Looking back, it seems the brand, like an NBA player, wasn’t trying to rock with the sisters once it started making it big time (please don’t write me letters, my woke NBA brothers).  The move to the regular hair isle is now followed up with an ad that is shifting the brand to one that serves “regular hair”  The new ad is the shampoo equivalent of all hair matters, compete with Becky with the good hair. (Did they not listen to Lemonade?!)

Hair is an important marker of identity, especially for women, and especially for black women.  The natural hair movement has grown along with the movement for black lives.  Like the rallying cry, ‘Black is Beautiful’ in the 70’s, the natural hair movement cannot be separated from the politics and social change of our time.

Shea Moisture seeks to equate the hate of different kinds of hair without acknowledging that some hair hate comes with real consequences.  The hate towards natural hair in schools, business, and social situations is about more than hair, it is reinforcing white supremacy.  To act like hair hate is about hair and not hate means that Shea Moisture just doesn’t understand us anymore.  Maybe they never really loved us, they just loved our hair style.  Something tells me they’re about to find out if Becky with the good hair can love them like we did.

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.

 

 

 

 

Pepsi’s Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes

Last week in the can opening heard round the world, Kendell Jenner solved racism in Pepsi’s crap ad posted below–please watch at your own discretion and preferably not while you are eating.

The ad takes the markers of recent civil resistance and boils it down to some musical hipster millennials that conveniently come in a one-of-each variety pack.  As you can imagine, the internet, led by the beacon of black twitter, lost its mind and Pepsi pulled the ad off the air within 24 hours.  A flurry of news coverage and talk show segments roundly condemned the ad as tone deaf, as brilliantly portrayed in this skit on SNL (below).  The week ends with a bunch of high fives as we congratulate ourselves on a moment of shared outrage across racial lines.  We can all agree here–tone deaf.

But you know your girl here has a different opinion.  I disagree that Pepsi was tone deaf. And SNL’s skewering of the ad? It seems to portray the ad’s producers as hapless creatives who didn’t listen to their black friends–of course, they couldn’t be expected to see the problem on their own, and of course, there was no ill intention.  That’s not a skewering, that’s an excuse.

Pepsi has a long history off co-opting outsider youth culture and dragging it into the mainstream, redefining it for the masses in the process.  More than mere celebrity endorsements, Pepsi’s slogan of Pepsi Generation, and later Generation Next specifically seeks to align itself with and define youth culture. Ads like those starring Brittany Spears or Michael Jackson intentionally seeks to mirror a more mainstream, palatable and- profitable–version of whatever that year’s young people like.

Whether it is the hippies of the 70’s, the magic of Michael Jackson in the 80’s or even the girl power of the Spice Girls in the 2000’s Pepsi’s brand is all about creating a reductionist version of youth culture to sell to sugar water to the masses. Decade after decade, Pepsi has traded on what young people think is cool, targeting products at various youth subcultures–like Mountain Dew for motor-bikers.

What’s more, Pepsi also has a long history of targeting black consumers.  In the 1940’s Pepsi even had a negro marketing department, according to this fascinating article about how soda is racist af.   So no, Pepsi is not tone deaf, they are crafty, capitalizing on the very cultures they misrepresent and have been for decades.

And that brings us back to this latest disaster of social-justice-y porn.  In the Kendall Jenner ad, Pepsi hits every corner of a very diverse youth demographic–every race, a good mash up of random instruments and dance steps, a Muslim woman–enamored of course with Kendell’s stunning display of white feminism–hipsters with and without beards, gentrifiers with and without signs, and activism decidedly without any ideology. Pepsi sucked the life, passion and meaning out of the very real revolution happening in this moment of time and turned it into a moving stock photography image.  But taking the depth, meaning, and messiness out of life to sell product isn’t going to stop with this one ad getting taken down.  Look around you.  Everywhere advertisers are cashing in on our deepest feelings and most fervent hopes.  As altruism, connection, activism, and awareness have become trending ways of being, advertisers are increasingly using these most meaningful qualities to sell shit.

This State Farm ad is touching and heartwarming, and like the Pepsi ad features a diverse cast of characters starring a white savior with the power to transform the life of the poor, downtrodden, and brown.  While this ad is moving and inspiring as opposed to Pepsi’s abomination, both ads seek to use your positive feelings towards creating a better world to sell you product.  Both ads ignore any structural analysis of what social movements are seeking to disrupt.  Both ads put the power of individual white people as the simple answer that can eradicate widespread social injustice. Pepsi’s ad went too far and was condemned, but the State Farm ad was embraced

Ads selling us back the very essence of who we are are everywhere. When ads with social themes are done poorly, it’s good to see that consumer pushback can force advertiser accountability.  When they are done carefully, they make us smile, feel nice–and buy more.  In order to have broad appeal, the complex and controversial edges of life are sanded off in favor of a lighter, happier look at our world–one where products can often solve the worst problems in 30-60 seconds. Staying woke means making sure that you don’t allow capitalism to sell you back your fight against capitalism and other unfair systems.  Now that Pepsi has your twitter fingers warmed up, stay on the look out for capitalists in activists’ clothing.

 

 

 

 

 

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.