How to Make Not-Racist Fashion (And Why You Should)

The latest trend in fashion seems to be apologizing for your overtly racist design that you just didn’t notice was racist af.  Sporting the trend this week is Burberry who sent this hoodie with a noose attached down the runway at London Fashion Week.

2718

Hot on the heels of the Virginia Governer’s moonwalking defense of the blackface pictures in his yearbook, Gucci showcased their blackface sweater just in time to contribute to one of shittiest Black History Months in recent memory.  Prada was an early adopter, releasing their blackface space monkey keychain last year.  They are also first to move to address the controversy that embroiled them, recently moving to create a diversity council to address internal issues of racism in the brand headed by the always justice minded Ava duVernay.  Let’s hope the trend of a turn around catches on too.

What is it with these fashion brands–major design houses that have stood for decades, filtering the zeitgeist of a hundred year through their fabric?  Shouldn’t they, the arbiters of the resonant images at any given moment, be most attuned to the long-standing tropes of anti-black racism?  Are their claims of ignorance and innocence to be taken at face value? When racism is top of mind, showing up everywhere in news, entertainment and even fashion with active discussions of cultural appropriation, that’s hard to believe.  Times are changing and it’s time fashion catches up.

18- to 29-year-olds are least likely among whites to see blackface as acceptable

My mother used to say that ignorance of the law is no defense.  Perhaps if this was 1619 when humans were trafficked to Jamestown, terrified to discover they were property in this strange land, then we might believe that the ideas and symbols that mark white supremacy had yet to take hold.   If it was 1719, before lynching became the terrorist weapon of choice in slavery and then during Jim Crow we could claim that the noose was a tool disconnected from ideas of race, and a sweatshirt had yet to mean anything; Maybe if this was 1819, when the Transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed, with European and American abolitionists pushing back against the continued expansion of colonial powers, and the rise of America’s the minstrel shows still a few years away  we could believe they were unfamiliar with the significance of red lips in black skin.  But it’s 2019.

TASTY-Trayvon-Martin

It’s 2019, seven years after Trayvon Martin was killed in cold blood by George Zimmerman and a jury of adults blamed a boy in a hoodie instead of a man with a gun.  There was lots of public debate about the lowly hoodie as gateway clothing to criminality: Geraldo Rivera said Trayvon Martin’s hoodie was as much responsible for his death as George Zimmerman. one of a hundred talking heads debating whether a hoodie was probable cause for execution in urban areas.  Spoiler alert we decided it was.  Just two years after Trayvon Martin was killed, 21-year old Ricardo Sans was shot for wearing a hoodie and ‘looking suspicious.” Trayvon Martins hoodie stands as a powerful symbol of the complex and problematic demonization of black people in America.  It’s hard to deny the contemporary power of the hoodie or the ubiquity of its representation in relation to race.

It’s six years after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement when black people took to the streets to demand justice and then took to the voting booth, electing hundreds of people of color to local, state and federal office, passing laws to protect the rights of black people and to curtail extrajudicial police killing.

It’s been five years since the fashion world acknowledged the shifting landscape of race.  As early as 2014 the conflict over racial violence was showing up on runways. Pieces like this protest sign inspired Chanel bag, or Pyer Moss’s in your face runway show were all over the Spring shows. Other brands incorporated the signs of BLM resistance into their work, inspiring trends, slogans on shirts, and whole collections and emerging fashion movements that appropriate ever-evolving black style.

Related image

It’s been four years since the start of #Oscars so White,  a soul-cry calling for more- and more accurate representation of people of color in the entertainment industry.  It’s been four years of some of the best movies and TV shows made for and by black people, from Get Out to Moonlight. In the last year alone we’ve been treated to Black Panther and Wrinkle In Time, Blackklansman,  Widows and on the small screen Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Blackish, Insecure, Dear White People, The Chi, and a dozen other shows. Black artists filmmakers and writers are reshaping the image of Blackness in a glorious renaissance.  There is plenty to inspire designers far removed from the boring tropes of the past four hundred years.

IMG_3972

It is a year after the Equal Justice Institute opened The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, commemorating America’s history lynching.  There have been no less than 175,000 news articles about lynching in the last year alone, not including articles about three different actual lynchings of black people perpetrated in 2018.

Its been long enough for major brands to get staff, training, and resources to make sure they understand how to navigate the shifting culture their artistry seeks to affect and reflect.

While brands are quick to apologize, and some like Prada are putting resources to moving their understanding forward, brands watch from the sideline don’t have to take these hits.  Companies of all sizes and industries need to do their work to find the intersections between their work and an increasingly diverse world. For content creators that means familiarizing yourself and your team with racist tropes.  The good news is that this information is not hidden for those that seek it.  Cultural critics (like me!) been writing and teaching about racist images for many years.  Informing yourself is one part history, one part media literacy and one part acting like a frigging human.  If you are ready to go beyond googling “racism”, here are some tips for keeping your fashion house on the right side of racial justice.

Classic Racism GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Get that it matters. The time has come to stop using racist imagery. It’s not clear from what we know that all of these fashion accidents are truly accidents.  The most generous read assumes that people just didn’t know, and frankly, in this day and age that is pretty hard to swallow.  For the designers who try to subtly slip less-than-political-correct imagery into their content, a warning: the cost for cheeky racism is steep.  After the row over H & M’s King of the jungle shirt, the company stock dropped 62% in one quarter. Boycotts are common and effective in the age of social media, not to mention the canceling power of Black Twitter is best avoided if you want your brand to flourish.  If someone on your content team thinks a subtle nod to racist tropes is edgy and will help drive traffic, its time to either drop a dime to management or dump your stock options before the boycotts start.

Related image

Know your history. Racist stereotypes develop in cultural context, reflecting the ideas and values of their place and time.  Understanding where racist stereotypes come from and how those stereotypes supported the oppression of marginalized people can help you better understand why it’s totally not cool to use imagery like blackface or nooses in your fashion.  Stereotypes are not constructed from real common characteristics of a group of people so much as they are made of the mainstream’s beliefs about a group, a collage of assumptions and projections, not facts, that help to support the narrative that those in power want to thrive.  Blackface is a set of visual codes–black skin, red lips, wide eyes–and each part of that code was designed to communicate the marginalization and dehumanization of black people.

Understand how stereotypes function. Stereotypes are shorthand codes that communicate not only identity but also ideology.  You cannot separate the negative ideology that is the flesh beneath the stereotype’s skin. Stereotypes teach us what people deserve, and racist stereotypes effectively communicate that racial hierarchies reflect natural truths, ensuring their enduring power to define and oppress minorities. The ignorance and animalism encoded in blackface cannot be separated out from those codes.  Even if in the course of artistic examination an artist is inclined to use these images to challenge the conventions of the code, the audience is unlikely to be able to receive the code in this new way without being primed or prepared in advance to see something other than what they have always seen.   A powerful example of the enduring nature of stereotypes happened with a Swedish artist commissioned to make a provocative piece of art for a show about provocative art created a work he called Ni***r Cake, an interactive blackface cake to draw attention to female genital mutilation in recent African immigrant populations in Sweden.  At the reception, the sobering and difficult recasting of blackface was lost on the laughing Cultural minister and guests in the image below that went viral, resulting in widespread criticism of the artist and the firing of the cultural minister.  Individual design decisions are not enough to reshape the powerful coded communication of stereotypes.

Hire diverse teams. A lack of diversity in the room can lead to bad decisions, as we have seen over and over again.  Each of us has our own filter and our own blind spots.  Having a diverse team ensures a wider perspective, allowing your team a broader filter for capturing problematic content.    Hiring diverse creative talent is one way to ensure that the right ideas get through and the wrong ones get caught early on.  Diverse teams mean more than having an intern pipeline, it means diversity up and down the org chart. Hiring diverse teams at all layers of an organization creates a stronger network of fail-safes, and empowers members of your team to speak up.  This is a must–you cannot accurately and authentically represent a population without having that perspective represented in a strong way in your team and throughout your process.  And if you don’t want to reflect and connect with racially diverse populations you are shutting out a growing 40% of the American population who identifies as a minority.

Image result for white people protest racism

Diversity is not inclusion (and you need both).  Diversity is the mix in the room and inclusion is getting everybody active in achieving and maintaining a healthy equitable culture. You cannot hire your way to an inclusive organization without providing the training and resources to make sure all of your employees are responsible for maintaining inclusivity.  Put plainly–the white people in your company need to be as responsible for creating an inclusive environment as the employees of color.   Organizations often hire people of different races thinking their mere presence will change the ideas and thinking of other people in the room, and usually without any extra compensation for the task.  This is a set up for people of color brought into culturally ignorant organizations and prevents employees less comfortable with race from growing the skills they will need to stay relevant in an increasingly diverse environment. Instead, organizations need to provide training, coaching, and resources to support teams in doing their part to make sure every member of your organization represents your values around inclusion.

The truth is culture is complex, more so now than at any point in the last 50 years. The stakes are higher for brands who have to work hard to connect in our cluttered media environment, and the costs are steep for companies that refuse to acknowledge consumers’ increasing desire for culturally competent companies.  But the days of disregarding people of color, claiming ignorance and laughing at white supremacy’s lame jokes are gone. I hereby declare the moment for mea culpas over.  No more oh-so-sorry apologies for overt racism a simple google search could have averted.  Fashion brands, do you work to wake up or bear the righteous wrath of the Twitter police and the pain of the boycotts that follow.

We’re More Than Mermaids and Murderers

The New England Patriots won the Superbowl (again!) in the lowest scoring game in Superbowl history.  I don’t know if it was a good game because the NFL is racist and I can’t fuck with that, but I still enjoyed the other big game–Superbowl ads! For decades now the Superbowl has hosted some of the most expensive TV ad time; this year costS ran at 5 million for a 30-second spot.  That means Cardi B has to make 4,201,681 Pepsis skruuuttt off the shelves to pay for ad time–and that doesn’t even include paying the celebrity endorsers or the manicurist who did that to Cardi’s nails.

Image result for cardi b's nails in pepsi ad

There’s no room here for boring old My Pillow ads or long pharma lists of side effects.  Instead, advertisers bring their A game to the big game.   Critics Monday morning quarterbacking the ads this year said the ads, on the whole, failed to inspire much beyond the same yawn the game did but buried in the boring ads is a glimmer of America’s shifting gender landscape.

Related image  Related image

Taken together, the ads of the Superbowl serve as a snapshot of mainstream American culture, a night when Madison Ave translates the life of the Friday Night lights crowd and sells it back to them with the celebrities du jour.  The tone of the ads is an echo of the mood of the nation, and the best ads push our imagination towards our brighter future. For much of the Superbowl’s 52-year history, the ads revolved around the man’s world–razor ads and beer ads full of “manly men’, women draped across their shoulders like scarves, mere accessories, or crave-worthy objects.  As times changed, ads gave a wink and nod to the ladies who were expected to be at SuperBowl parties, but more interested in the snacks than the sacks.

Image result for old super bowl ads sexist carls jr.

Women make up an increasing share of the fan base of the NFL.  Just like women are getting shit done in Congress, handling business in business, and pushing social change forward, they are also watching football.  The big game means big chances for advertisers to not only speak to women viewers, but to position themselves as a brand able to address women as full humans.  So how did advertisers do ditching the stereotypes and including women in the big game? Here are the big plays:

Same Ladies, New Era

Image result for superbowl ads 2019 mermaids bon and viv

Several of the ads that featured women could claim that they are catering to women viewers, but the ad is really just the same old same old.  Anheuser Bush pitched a new sparkling beverage targeted at women (because real liquor would mess up our little lady minds!) with mermaids twirling beneath the sea.  Mermaids are a hot trend and a cold stereotype.  Sure undulating under the wave is sexy but you can’t run shit if you have no legs.

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Stella Artois went for a land version of a mermaid featuring the demure damsel in a dress Carrie Bradshaw.  Sex in the City aired from 1998 to 2004, just a year after the invasion of Iraq and three years before social media, and Carrie Bradshaw was a woman of her time kissing frogs and holding out for Mr. Big, a guy we would call problematic by today’s standards.  Is this the best they could do for a poster woman to bring beer ads into the 21st century? And then there was Zoe Kravitz with the organic, gluten-free bedroom eyes.  Sure ASRM is science, but its arousal factor is that same old sex-sells storyline.  A beer ad with ear porn isn’t speaking to women, just whispering to the boys.

The call: fumble. Sticking a woman in an ad during a football game doesn’t automatically mean you’re shattering any stereotypes. Recycling the same old themes or celebs, breathless and prettily sipping their drinks misses the moment and the movement that women are in.

Fearless Women With Fight

Image result for handmaid's tale season 3 super bowl

Unlike undulating fish girls, several of the ads spoke to the power that women are taking on as we push towards gender equity.  Two ads promoted upcoming streaming shows: a promo for The Handmaid’s Tale third season on Hulu and one for a new show on Amazon prime called Hanna.  Both show women who are uninterested in being anybody’s sexy mermaid.  Handmaid’s tale is a pointed critique of contemporary gender politics, pulling no punches for the Superbowl crowd, calling on America to wake up.

Image result for hanna amazon prime Hanna also paints a dark world for women, where a young girl is turned into a weapon and must fight to be free.  While this certainly seems different from centuries of submissive and subjugated women, she is still a tool, shaped by a man to have only one strategy–violence. I don’t think this is what Helen Ready meant when she sang ‘hear me roar.’

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Sarah Michelle Geller revises her role as potential home invasion victim as a masked intruder stalks her and her man.  Hiding in the bedroom, her Olay smooth face is too lovely to open her facial recognition phone, but also disarming enough to charm a psychopath.  No kung fu or social resistance here, just a beauty made more beautiful by Olay slaying and staying alive.

The call: false start. Whatever troubled world these three women live in, they have what they need to stay alive without needing to call on a sailor for rescue, but it would be nice if women could do something other than fight off sexual predators.

The New Power Brokers

Image result for super bowl ad female football player toni harris toyota ad

Toyota chronicles the inspiring story of football phenom Toni Harris, East Los Angeles College defensive back–no kicker avoiding the ruffing here. As one of the first female athletes to place college football, her story is certain to motivate a generation of future football stars.  Toyotas and features game footage and off the field shots standard for any up and coming football star a-la-ESPN. She is presented as powerful, positive, and inspiring without pandering or paternalizing.  Here’s hoping we’ll see her on the field in the big game soon.

Image result for superbowl ads 2019

Serena Williams starred in an ad for social app Bumble and served as co-creative director off camera for the campaign as well.  Neither mermaid or murderer,  Serena plays a real authentic version of a contemporary woman in the ad, doing real things like working and spending time with family and friends.  She is not a magical creature, or a fictional femme fatal, just a person looking to succeed and thrive, using a connecting app to connect all the parts of her life, not just dating. The ad speaks to real women’s needs: the need to get shit done without waiting for Mr. Big, the need for empowerment that relies on fresh, decolonized ways of being powerful. Of all the women we see featured in their own Superbowl ads–including the lovely and underutilized Cardi B–Serena seems the most authentically human, and the one that many women who work hard and want to watch the game with her girls are likely to recognize themselves in.  The ad speaks to women in a way that is free from typical patriarchial narratives, and one that doesn’t center sex as a selling point.  The ad really does speak to women as if they are full humans, though I wonder if the NFL would have given Serena a 3/5ths instead.

The call: touchdown! The push to topple patriarchy means women are moving to take their rightful place in our culture; advertisers must keep working to write the new narratives that reflect our changing gender landscape in America.  If the Superbowl ads are any indication, we still have a ways to go to shed the centuries-old stories dotted with damsels and doll-eyed beauties. One thing I know is that when we have women behind the camera and in leadership roles on creative teams we stand a good chance of getting more authentic images, the kind that will woo consumers and inspire girls looking for images that fell like them

Semantics: When a Wall is a Fence

Word are houses built by the speaker, explored by the listener, and decorated with both their ideas, experiences cultural beliefs and ideologies.  Words matter tremendously.  Like lots of social constructs, they are not real things and yet they have massive real-world consequences.   

What is the difference between a wall and a fence?  These days the answer is party affiliation.  In the fight over security at the southern US border, both parties seem deadlocked with no solution in sight.  But recent political shows have been debating the meaning of the word wall–is it concrete like Trump first promised his base in campaign speech after speech, or is a fence with steel slats also a wall? This undercurrent to the debate is strong, though when pressed, both sides dismiss tinkering with the definition of the wall as semantics.  What better place than here at Smntks (pronounced semantics ) to demystify this semantic battle?

Semantics is the study of language and the way that we construct meaning from it, so when Trump says the difference between a wall and a fence is just semantics, he says in effect, “the difference between the words will be how I make sense out of each word, and the meanings I construct with them.” This is one of Trump’s favorite weapons. His manipulation of language endears him to his base and makes it hard for his opponents to nail down an argument with his ever-shifting lexicon.

Semantics helps us unpack the connections between objects or referents, words, and the thoughts, ideas, and concepts we attach to them. Words themselves are actually disconnected from the things they describe–that’s why different languages can refer to the same object with different words: cup, taza, and kikombe all refer to the same object. semantic triangle.004

We can use the same diagram (a semantic triangle) to see how Trump connects the word wall to racist and nationalist ideas.  It’s not about the bricks–it is about the narrative that others are invading our country, connecting the object to Trump’s nationalist ideology.

semantic triangle.001

Now Trump is swapping out words that are similar, and allowing for a change in the object, but he is doubling down on his racist rhetoric. If a fence can be defined as a wall, the symbol at the heart of his nationalist approach can stand intact, the meaning unchallenged even if the fence is steel instead of brick.

semantic triangle.002

On the other side of the aisle, if a fence can be a wall, the reverse is also true:  a wall can be a fence.  So when the Democrats agree to an outlay of cash for ‘border security’ instead of a ‘wall’, even knowing that Trump’s argument for the need is based on his demagoguery, they can still claim victory.  We didn’t give in to a wall but we do agree to a fence and sometimes a fence isn’t a wall, so our fence isn’t his wall.

The problem is there is not enough energy directed at challenging Trumps racist and xenophobic rhetoric.  Studies about where terrorists and drugs are really entering the US–hint: legal ports of entry and airports–show that a barrier at the southern border is not a priority.  A compromise bill will mean Democrats cave to Trump’s racist conception of Mexico. Trump has hammered this point from the moment he descended into the race for president on his golden escalator and is likely to keep crowing about the wall/fence victory straight through 2020.

semantic-triangle.003-e1547052860433.jpeg

We may seem to just be playing word games, but the important thing that gets lost when we dismiss semantics is that what words mean matters tremendously. Both groups are using semantics to manipulate their bases into believing they have won a nonsensical battle in which all taxpayers will be the losers, paying for an unnecessary wall, and caving to imagined emergencies.  Instead, both teams will have fresh fodder to fling at dazed and confused voters meandering through the fog of words from both sides.

Communication is the way we construct reality, so the person who holds the power to define the words gets to define reality. This is the power of semantics–use wordplay to cement your power, use your power to redefine words–a vicious cycle that supercharges demagogues.  The further down the rabbit hole we go the more meaningless everything becomes, the more difficult for us to return to a normal that is daily redefined.

The technology we use also helps shape our words and the way we talk.  The brevity that came with the rise of the internet also leaves little room for specificity or complex definitions and long elocutions.  Our shorthand discursive environment has led to snippets of communication that leave lots of room for interpretation, letting audiences fill in our own ideas, making rhetoric a weapon that we sharpen on ourselves. Trump’s phrases “somethings going on”, or “we all know what will happen, folks” are examples of how he uses vagueries to fire up the base.  Supporters fill in his abstractions with their own fear, experiences, and prejudices.  Our shorthand culture helps people manipulate language and then hide behind misinterpretation.

170421105703-trump-favorite-phrases-large-169.jpg

It may just be semantics, but in a culture that is obsessed with the semantic houses we build, words and the meaning we ascribe to them are everything.  Think about the words of late that have tilted our culture into the future:  me too, black lives matter, make America great again, yes we can.  These simple phrases now carry deep complex and layers meaning history and evocations.  Semantics helps us understand the way that a tear-filled victim statement or a die-in shivering in the snow become attached to these words. Moments in history that evoke strong emotion in us are triggered by phrases, like a pavlovian ding that molds us and into an ideological stance charged with emotion.  In some cases, we can scarcely articulate what these things mean to us as they are so broad, a few words that mark a destination far at the bottom of the iceberg of culture, where our deepest beliefs and values lurk beyond the parlance of the common man.

Image result for iceberg of culture

Word are houses built by the speaker, explored by the listener, and decorated with both their ideas, experiences cultural beliefs and ideologies.  Words matter tremendously.  Like lots of social constructs, they are not real things and yet they have massive real-world consequences.  We move in a material world based on the words we use, and the meaning we assign them. Be careful how you move through the house of cards built of politicians’ words.  Don’t be fooled that you live in a meaningless world.  Be clear that semantics matter. Stay woke to the ways of words and the walls they build.

Surviving Patriarchy’s Soundtrack

Surviving R Kelly, a docuseries on the victims of the R and B singer, has laid out six grueling hours of salacious stories of Robert Kelly, accused child molester, intercut with people gushing– sometimes reluctantly–about how genius, how amazing, how visionary R Kelly was as an artist. Sadly, this tale lit anew by the #MeToo movement sparked less empathy that internet debate about whether he is canceled or not.  Guess not since downloads of Kelly are up a whopping 16% on Spotify following the special.  Still, one of pop culture’s favorite games is whose fault is it? The Twitterverse is alight with alternative theories of who is to blame as if that title can only belong to one person in this sordid story.  Sure enough, there is blame to go around–and around and around.

Let me be clear, Robert Kelly is wholly responsible for his pedophiliac behavior. Though he was molested as a child, he was still responsible for not working to heal his childhood trauma, and instead of inflicting it on someone else, knowing how painful and confusing it could be for the victim. Fame does not make predatory sexual behavior okay. His behavior, his fault.

04-surviving-r-kelly-clarys.w700.h700

Kelly is the star of this blame game, but there were many other playing supporting roles to his behavior, each of them to blame for their contribution to the situation. I think a better question to capture the nuance and complexity is what role did ___ play? Plenty of characters in the R Kelly story played a part in letting what happened happen, from the handlers that turned a blind eye to his mall trips, to the coworkers that knew what was going on, to the fans that keep his financial empire afloat and fund his legal defense. Let’s not forget the soup that all the characters were swimming in: culture, the stage that we live on, the constant backdrop of every life, informing our beliefs and values, giving rise to our norms.

In a culture that places children over powerful pedophiles, R Kelly would have been ostracized when he married an underage Aaliyah.  Instead, they turned their ‘love’ story into hits.  Why not? Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis had burned up the charts with a child bride by their side so the wedding of a music star to a child barely registered a complaint.

maxresdefault.jpg

These performers were stars both to fans and to the shareholders looking for profit. Capitalism has one end goal and that is to earn money.  Men who are part of this machine are protected by it as long as they continue to feed the beast. In the music industry, a hot track could melt any moral opposition to child marriage or sexual abuse.

In a culture that prioritizes the safety and sovereignty of all individuals, especially the most vulnerable, we would not weigh Kelly’s singing skills in the balance of this case.  We would not mitigate his behavior by talking about the value he could add to a young girls career.  A man’s success at any given talent would not carry more weight than the dignity of another human, an certainly not more than a child.  But we live in a culture where the rule is powerful men are allowed to engage in taboo sexual behavior.  And the more powerful the man, the more taboo the behavior can be: teachers and teens, priests and altar boys, cigars and biting and urine.

methode_times_prod_web_bin_9d9659fa-a083-11e8-8dd0-114e457a16b3

Coincidentally this week I am reading Pat Barkers the Silence of the Girls, an excellent novel about the sacking of Rome told from the perspective of a woman captured in combat and awarded to Achilles, a world where the women traded like trophies.  Like R Kelly, men on the battlefield expected to be rewarded with women to use, sex slaves, body slaves, subservient to every whim.  Between Troy and  Trapped in the Closet is a continuous line, year after year in Western history where power came with a side of women. Medieval kings? Check.  Conquistadors? Si. Plantation owners? Yessir.

first-night

Powerful men reward themselves with the power to sexually control others without consequence: it is an unspoken rule enforced for centuries, dealing violence to those who dare challenge their right to the spoils of power. In every era of patriarchy powerful men have engaged in sexual terrorism to cement and celebrate their dominance. In our own modern day, we have celebrities instead of royalty–or perhaps they even are royalty.  Jaquee notwithstanding, you could easily argue R Kelly was the king of R and B, and maybe still, despite years of accusations.

surviving-r-kelly-sparkle-on-the-lifetime-series-1672573

Why did so many people stay silent?  Why is he still popular after decades of accusations, stories that clearly implicate Kelly, not to mention the video evidence of him urinating on a young girl?  Why do we keep seeing this happening?  The unwritten rule is powerfully silencing.  Though unspoken, it is acted out in all our grand stories–first, you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the girls.  The end of the story–where powerful men face no consequences for their actions–is often repeated, letting victims know that coming forward won’t end well for them.

With so many men accused, so much of the art and accomplishment that is central to our culture is being removed from the cannon.  For god sake, we can’t even sing Baby Its Cold Outside.  But this is what it is: in a patriarchal culture, our very songs and stories reinforce the ideas of women as property, chattel.  Yeah, almost all of them.  Even the great ‘classics’ such as the Iliad, Beauty and the Beast and Blurred Lines, the content at the very center of our culture, are stories about powerful men using their power to trade women like so many cows.  Make enough money, conquer enough territory, rule enough men, and you can do what you want to women.

surviving-r-kelly-sparkle-isn-t-the-only-person-to-make-allegations-against-r-kelly-1672577

When we try to tear down the patriarchy we find it is made, brick by brick, of the stories and songs we have come to love.  To usher in a new world, we have to dismantle the old.  We can never live in a new world based on the stories and songs of men whose greatness is sung to the tune of the degradation of others.  We can’t keep believing that the bodies of young black women are the raw material of the harmony of life.

We’ve seen 6 hours of trauma drenched stories:  we don’t need the law to tell us when to turn our backs on Robert Kelly. We need is the moral sense to say we’ve stepped in the name of love for the last time.  So I’ll ask you–is he still in your library? Stay woke, this won’t be the last artist you have to delete.

2019: Resolve To Stay Awake All Year

I’m a big fan of new beginnings.  The more jaded among you may say that January 1 is just another day—random if we were to be honest.  The sun and stars don’t recognize the new year.  Not even every human culture celebrates the new year on January 1.  But right here, we do.  We are cyclical creatures: birth, life, death; spring, summer, fall, winter; eggnog, more eggnog, never drink eggnog again. So the new year finds us making promises, buying new gym shoes and tidying up our life for the new year to come. The number one resolution is to become healthier.  If you’re like most people, you have indulged a bit in all the culinary joys of the holiday season.  Maybe you’re looking more like Santa than a snack.  Perhaps you’ve raised too many glasses.  So it’s gym time, veggie trays instead of lasagna.

Cs7S71bVIAAYS1v

Healthy living is hard to do in a world marked by injustice.  Looking back on the biggest challenges of the last year, racism has to be near the top of the list.  From the ridiculousness of BBQ Becky and Permit Patty to the sublime white nationalism coming from the White House, America’s struggles with racism were front and center.

trump-nationalist-4

The daily drip of terrible stories felt overwhelming and unstoppable. ‘Stay woke’ isn’t just a catch phrase, it is a real challenge to remain conscious under such an onslaught of daily micro and macro inequities.  It is easier to limit our focus to ourselves, to stop paying attention to the ongoing injustice around us and retreat into a narrower consciousness. It is not hard to turn your self-care routine into a self-segregating wall, tuning out too long to stay awake, settling back into the comfortable routine of focusing on getting the bag, treating yo’ self, and ignoring the dumpster fire that rages across cable news every day.  This not-normal world is becoming the new normal.  We’re settling in to watch our country burn like it’s a Netflix special—put on your comfy pants and pass the popcorn.

its-really-cool-to-be-alive-in-the-west-at-29205678

Just like too much eggnog, tuning out of the resistance will leave you foggy and full of shit.  Turns out, lactose and systemic inequality are not natural or healthy for humans to consume. So a new year is just what we need to clear out the fog and recommit ourselves to creating a better America.  Just two years ago at this time, we were measuring our heads for pussy hats and painting signs for the Women’s march.  We’ve come a long way since then with active and difficult conversations about racism and transphobia both in the women’s march and our country, and we still have so very long to go.  Time to fire up the knitting needles and stab them into the white supremacist patriarchy. Like your health goals for 2019, it’s good to start with truth beyond the myths of conventional wisdom and a few tips to get you started.

Myth #1 Racism has always been around and will always exist

False.  Racism is a man-made social construct, and as such can be dismantled by humans.  Race as we know it—black, white, Asian, latino—is a modern construction.  In fact, the printing press, fireworks, and Christmas are all older than racism.  We didn’t always have race; it is not inevitable that racism continues forever. We can dismantle the system of racism in America.

Myth #2 Racism is the fault of bad racist people

False.  Racism is a system that is used to structure power dynamics and is maintained in our culture by laws, rules, cultural norms, and interpersonal dynamics.  Each of us in America lives in this system. There are many behaviors of well-intentioned people that perpetuate this system. We all have the responsibility for working to change rules norms and practices that confer power in ways that are unjust:  we can educate ourselves, vote, speak out, listen, support, lead, confront, and collaborate with others to change the social structures that perpetuate racism.

Myth #3 Racism is perpetuated by old people; when they die so will racism

False: People of all ages can and are racist.  This picture alone from Charlottesville reminds us of that.  Proud boys, white nationalist groups, white terrorists all count young people among their members. Racism is not generational.  The heated battles over race take place on many campuses across America; racially motivated violence plagues schools across the country; white nationalist organizations continue targeting youth for recruitment. Racism is not going to die out unless we kill it.   

Myth #4 Racism is a problem for people of color

False.  Racism in America negatively affects all Americans.  People of color are the primary victims of racism in America, and white people are systemically advantaged. But the impact of racism extends to all the people who live within its system.  Unfair systems of advantage keep our nation divided, hurt people in marginalized groups, and prevent all people from experiencing the benefits of a unified population. We cannot know what we could have become if we chose the best leaders, and rewarded the brightest minds, not just the whitest minds.  With massive challenges ahead like climate change, we will need to be a country united to battle challenges, striving to make America the country it said it wanted to be. 

StructuralRacismTRoseGraphic.png

Like dieting, there is not a shortcut to ending racism.  Even if we all decided today that we would like to end racism, the laws, policies, norms, and practices all need to change.  That takes effort. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try—we can see from the daily news headlines that we have to try or surely the new normal will become future terror. We need to build a system that is fair and equal, one where each person is truly free to pursue the life they choose.  Ending racism is a life-long pursuit, and like any healthy lifestyle change, it can have long-lasting positive effects on us and on those we love.

So let’s pledge to work with dismantle racism right where we live.  You don’t have to be a professional organizer to take on the job of tackling racism. You don’t need superhero skills to make a difference. Whatever your skill level you can take regular action where you are with what you have.  Let’s start slow:

Research—ideas about race are shifting as our knowledge about history, culture, and science expand.  Pick a book, article or even a video to help you learn more about what race really is and how it operates in the US.  Educating yourself is a good action to start with, especially if you haven’t learned about race in a while. Got a great read? Share it along with this article or in the comments.

Do your own personal survey—how inclusive is your world? Studies show the majority of Americans spend time with people of their same racial group.  Be aware this week of the kinds of people that you surround yourself with:  who is in your home? your town? your workplace?  Examine the vertical relationships you have—who are your peers, and who are people with less and more power than you? Journal out your own environmental scan and look for places where you can grow.

Set your intentions—It’s not enough to dislike racism.  We have to be clear with ourselves about what it means to be anti-racist.  Do we want to just send hopes and prayers, or do we want to take an active role this year to address the issues of race in our own community?  The new year is a good time to affirm our commitment to justice.  If you’ve been unplugged, tune in.  If you were drifting into the new normal, wake up? Add antiracism to your list of 2019 resolutions.

Experts say the average New Years resolution lasts until about January 17, but not us baby.  I’ll be here with ideas and inspiration to keep you working to build a more inclusive world all year long, so be sure to follow me here and across my social at #inclusive2019.  I hope you will keep thinking, learning and acting to end racism in your own life, so we can meet here same time next year to usher in 2020 with clear vision and loving communities.  Stay woke.

Mom, Me and Question 3

Three women sat in the descending gloom of the first day of daylight savings time. The hour was early but leafless trees scratched the windows to say how very late it was. Three generations sat in a circle in the sewing room, mom, daughter, granddaughter. Mom grew up in the 50’s in the mythical America of winged cars and sock hops where my dad, voted class wolf, wore greased back hair and cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve. The daughter, me, was born in the years between the high of civil rights and the low of bussing in Boston. The granddaughter, my brother Andrew’s daughter Seba, was born in days of cacophonous change when homosexual became gay and lesbian and queer and trans and became a fight for equality we thought we’d nearly won.

The sewing is done and we have finished stitching out the news–how is school, and what will we do for Thanksgiving, and aren’t little brothers just the worst. Three women sat in a room: a white woman who had the great joy of a life full with family, of middle-class dreams paid for with sweat equity and houses painted with her own hands, an American experience that spawned a million MAGA fantasies; a black woman born biracial and living half a century in predominantly white spaces, dancing along the heartbreaking ridge of America’s color line; a young woman, a girl still, brave and bold, president of her school’s gays straight alliance that she helped to found, trick or treating as the gay superhero for Halloween, trailing a rainbow and trans flag behind her.

“So,” my mother begins, calling to order this unplanned meeting in her sewing room. “how are you voting on the questions,” she says in reference to Massachusetts’ three ballot questions.  Question one is hard to decide, and we talk about the arguments being put up by both sides while Seba, the granddaughter watches us ping-pong back and forth.  “I’m too young to vote,” she reminds us, free from having to figure out the complexities of mandated nurse minimums.

“And three? ” my mother asks, like a host who has finally gotten to the juicy part of the interview. We three exchange glances, pausing to see who takes sides. Question three is about recent protections the state put in place for trans people, allowing them, among other things, to use the bathroom of their choice without fear of consequence. A “no” vote would roll back protection while a “yes” vote would ensure that protections stay in place. Sometimes similar bills are dubbed bathroom bills, but the stakes for trans people aren’t contained in the stall alone.

We talk about the incidents of sexual assault resulting from someone taking advantage of gender misidentification.  There are none.  My mother seems skeptical at first but agrees that she has seen the reporting.  We talk about what a gender-neutral bathroom looks like.

We talk about sexual assault. Do you really think that sexual assault will be curtailed by this bill?  One in four women are sexually assaulted, and no one seems to care about all the places where that happens.

We talk about the false narrative of people “claiming” trans to get some mysterious benefit–what? bathroom privileges? the joy of trans discrimination?  Seba tells about her trans friends who worry about violence at school and violence at home.

“How do they know they are trans?” my mother asks. I ask her when she knew she was straight. We talk about decades of changing ideas about what “makes” someone something.

We talk about suicide rates and school bullies and trans men and trans women.  We talk about trans people we know, trans people we love and the struggles we hate to see them go through. We talk about history and the not so distant past. “We didn’t use to have trans people,” my mother says.

“Because they died.  Or they hid. It wasn’t safe, but they were always there,” I say.  We sit for a moment with the heaviness.

Seba turns our mind to ancient history and cultures that had three-four-five genders. I talk about the forties and fifties when sexual orientation and pedophilia were lumped together in the deviant sex category by a psychology field in its infancy, and how much we have learned since then about the human body and mind in our evolutionary times. This is a good debate.  We talk calmly. We work to inform each other with solid information.

Seba, with the prescience of children, sees first the rising tide of my tears.  My mother can smell my emotions, suddenly surging, threatening to flood our most civil debate.  I see myself wound tight reflected in the concern in their faces.  I did not plan to have this conversation. I can feel myself mount the bull of all the anger and sadness about racism I cage.

“You know,” I begin.  I don’t want to go on because I feel the tears and I’m fighting them because I don’t want to. I don’t want to cry and I don’t want to make this personal but it is personal and it’s too late and fuck it so with love I remind her.

“You know how hard it was.”  I don’t have to finish.  I don’t have to remind her how hard it was to grow up the only person of color in my community, my class, in my family. “And her, ” I motion to Seba. My mother sees in real time her beautiful brave rainbow butterfly emerging from her cocoon in a world that is not quite ready to love her yet.

And my mother knows.  She is a white woman who wore gloves, and saddle shoes, a Hancock girl in a tony Back Bay dorm waiting for marriage to sweep her up into her life of raising a family.  She is also a woman who whispered to me of a great grandmother’s kitchen table abortion and quest for a college degree, who loved my father–a second generation American who’s Irish father emigrated when “No Irish” signs dotted Boston’s streets, who adopted a biracial child even when others whispered about her black baby, who knit, just this month, a rainbow-colored scarf for Seba ringed with a neon green as bright as her cherished granddaughter. My mother has soothed too many tears caused by discrimination to be unfamiliar with a world of pain she may not frequent.

“And you’re a woman,” Seba reminded her.  For all my mothers many happy years, she too has never lived in a country that granted her full equality.

“In the end, there is only one question–do you believe everyone deserves the same rights?” Arguing for the rights of trans kids, I find myself arguing for my own liberation, feeling like that awkward second grader, my afro floating like a balloon amongst my all-white classmates.  I see my mother recognize the girl in me, a little girl that she would do anything to protect from discrimination.

We had exhausted the talking points, finished arguing with our heads. The argument of the heart simply and sweetly settled the debate. If you love me, you want the best for me.  If I deserve it, everyone else’s child deserves it. There is no debate.

“I know.”  My mother is unequivocal. Her answer was a vote not just for a ballot measure for trans children, but also for her own daughter and the racism she faced, and her gay granddaughter, and for herself.  Empathy is not easily compartmentalized: enough of it will spill into all areas of life,  a rising tide that lifts all boats.

“This is very different from what it used to be like,” my mother says, no nostalgia, merely observation.  We balance the weight of change between us. It is hard, we agree, to sometime wrap your mind around ideas that are different from what you have always heard. But life is this, listening, learning, shifting. It takes time, like growing the loveliest flower, to let new ways of thinking take the place of outdated dogma. Seba and I watched my mother bloom, opening up to see clearly her daughter and her granddaughter and her own self stretching towards the light,  towards justice.

So we sat, three women in a room, three generations, three different identity groups, bound together by a mix of blood and love and time.  Bound now by a renewed commitment to each other’s freedom.  Three women who loved each other dearly bound by an explicit commitment that we would none of us be free until everybody ‘s child was free, seeing each other clearly in the rapidly darkening night.

Why Blackface is Wrong (Annual Installment)

your intentions do not change the meaning of culturally established stereotypes; you alone don’t get to decide to wash history clean and declare post-racial victory. When you put on the costume found in the toolbox of white supremacy, you do the work it takes to keep the narratives of antiblackness alive.

It’s almost Halloween and that means it’s blackface season–that special time of year when white celebrities declare their love for black people by dressing as their favorite racist stereotype.  This year Megyn Kelly declared it open blackface season in a segment on her show that laments when she was a child–probably back when America was great again the first time–blackface costumes were okay.  And besides, what’s the harm?

By afternoon, Kelly had issued an apology citing a difficult political history to blackface that she must have momentarily forgotten in her dream dress as her favorite Supreme.  Blackface season closed.  But with a week left to Halloween and so many dope black people to stereotype, it will be hard for the masses of asses to resist the siren song of sweet, sweet blackface.  Twitter, and thankfully Padma, are here to remind the Megyn Kellys of the world that blackface is deeply offensive and finds its roots in America’s dark early days.

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 10.47.45 PM.png

In Kelly’s not-so-surprise apology, she says that we need to be more sensitive these days and that the wounds around blackface were “too deep”.  Her apology positions blackface as offensive to individuals because of past representations during minstrelsy.  She’s basically saying too soon for Jim Crow jokes with the snowflakes.  Blackface is deeply offensive–it always hurt my soul to show students the hurtful and racist origins of blackface–but feelings aren’t the only important reason to refuse to black it up for Halloween.

Blackface is skin blackening, and it is also a host of small symbolic elements that combined make up the projection of blackness through the white gaze.  Physical features like darkened skin, engorged or red lips, “nappy” hair, big white eyes, hypersexualized bodies, and big hands and feet.  Blackface also includes character traits like lazy, stupid, horny, animalistic, and backward, as well as status markers like class, education (always lack thereof) or citizenship.  Blackface characters are poor or pretending to be wealthy, criminal or threatening, here to steal your chickens, your girl, or your country.  Even today’s celebrity-wanna-look-alike blackface costumes often emphasize the stereotypical aspect of black stars.

In short, blackface isn’t a black person, it is a stereotype of blackness, a symbolic construction, a representation of blackness weaponized by white supremacy and used to perpetuate antiblackness in political, economic and social spheres. These negative portrayals of black people constructed out of white supremacist talking points are rhetorical weapons used to teach audiences what black people are like and what they deserve.  The ubiquity of blackface-based portrayals reinforces the normalcy of antiblackness and anti-black policy. The purpose of blackface is to stoke support for the oppression of blacks.

Early minstrel shows traveled the country reinforcing the idea that blacks were wild and terrible. Black characters were stupid and brutish, criminal and childlike.  These depictions encouraged audiences to support the system of slavery.  In the time before movies and TV, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America. Anyone with a penny to pay to see the show would know that enslaving those animal-like black people was what any good, Christian would do to protect our budding country.

Blackface imagery during Jim Crow encouraged white audiences to see blacks as the enemy, ape-y tricksters that had to be kept in line.  White audiences would see blackface all around them, from their darkie toothpaste to their little Sambo children’s books to early movies depicting barely-human blackface characters.  These characters were whistling at white women, stealing from the white man, and making America not-so-great. In a world of racist representations like this, lynching seems like a natural and logical response to protect whiteness.

A hundred years on from Birth of a Nation and negative stereotypes of black people have barely changed. Despite the New Black Renaissance flooding our timelines and televisions with Black magic, negative stereotyping of black people remains remarkably consistent: the Jezebel, the brute, the uppity negro, the magical negro.  Still today negative stereotypes of black people support dominant cultural narratives around what black people deserve.  And still today those stereotypes are cited as fact by racists: the alphabet soup of white women calling 911 on black people,  Colin Kaepernick haters, the thin blue-liners.

With very little substantive and reflective dialogue between black and white people, media portrayals of black people serve to teach white audiences who black people are and what they deserve.  White audiences too often see new versions of the same of old step and fetchit stereotypes with no black people to provide a real-world counter-narrative. A white person’s blackface costume may be the closest some people get to talking to a black person all year and the story that blackface costume will tell is a lie.

C’mon, killjoy, Megan asks, what if you just looooove Diana Ross?! If you didn’t know blackface was racist then I’m going to guess you don’t love black people as much as you claim you do.  Drunk white people dressed in Afro wigs are generally not talking about the recent spike in black women earning Ph.D.’s or the rise in black homeownership. Besides, your intentions do not change the meaning of culturally established stereotypes; you alone don’t get to decide to wash history clean and declare post-racial victory. When you put on the costume found in the toolbox of white supremacy, you are doing the work it takes to keep the narratives of antiblackness alive.

Blackface was born in the stories told by white people to other white people to make sense out of the barbaric economic system they relied on.  Like Hitler’s depiction of Jewish people and Trump’s depiction of Mexican people, Blackface’s stereotypical (mis)characterization is used to justify and encourage the violent and oppressive treatment of black people. Blackface is problematic because is it a cultural tool that encourages people to ACT: vote to support slavery, fight for the south, enforce Jim Crow, lynch, fight desegregation, vote against civil rights, hate Obama, support stop and frisk, support police brutality, gerrymander, call 911, regentrify, disregard BLM.  There are real consequences from the continued use of blackface representations.

So yes, its too soon for Jim Crow jokes, and no you can’t wear blackface now or ever. Ever. There is too much at stake for us to have to have the blackface argument anymore.  We can’t afford you ghouls out here this year trying to scare up votes based on fear. We won’t tolerate your costumeized cultural assassinations. We see under your mask. And hood.