Free to be Bad Part 2: Dear Congress, Love, Zombies

Just in time to fill the hole in our life left by the death of Walter White, AMC premieres season 4 of The Walking Dead.  If you’ve never seen it, the Walking Dead, based on the graphic novel of the same name, is an action drama set in the zombie-infested near future.  Like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead has us riding shotgun next to an antihero navigating a world made of bad choices and worse situations.

Rick, former cop, zombie killer extraordinaire, wears the badge of the classic western sheriff when we first meet him.  He takes on the noble task of shepherding a group of people, a newly formed family collected on the road, through an America destroyed by a zombie virus.  Where once the hero in the white hat stood, The Walking Dead  places a man, fallible and frightened.  Rick does his best, and then decides there is no best in a world where right and wrong have been devoured.

What is most fascinating about Rick, Walter, and AMC’s other bad boy Don Draper is that these men are complex and flawed, even as they put a brave face to dealing with a new reality.  What is not new is that each of them is all too willing to throw everyone around them under the bus as they search for the new world.

Whether it is Peggy toiling under Don Draper’s tutelage on Mad Men or Glenn running interference for Rick in the Walking Dead, our new anti heroes have fresh faced side kicks.  Diversity is blooming across some of televisions great scripted dramas.  While it’s great to see new kinds of characters representing the struggles of women and people of color too often absent from the scene, the characters too often end up as chattel, red-shirt wearing secondary character who are ground up to serve in our antiheroes wild plans.

The challenge facing the group in the Walking Dead is the same challenge we face in a world of increasing diversity–how can we all live together and share this fragile planet?  The Walking Dead shows us the problems of hammering out new leadership.  In order to avoid the pitfalls of the past, leaders have to run on something other than ego and hubris.  Leaders need to embrace diversity not just for show but for the valuable ideas and important vision diverse voices can bring to the table.

 

So some advice for Rick in this season’s Walking Dead?  Take some time to listen to the people you are working to lead– their voice matters.  Surviving in any crisis takes teamwork, collaborative problem solving and critical thinking.  Even in a world of bad choices, people together can make the world a livable place whether that’s a prison surrounded by zombies, or, say…..congress.

Free to Be Bad, Part 1

Tonight we mark the finale of one of televisions great characters:  Walter White, chemistry teacher, cancer patient, meth kingpin.  For five seasons fans have watched the slow demonic slide into the heart of evil that is Breaking Bad.  One of AMC’s breakout hits, Breaking Bad is driven by its central character. He is neither a hero, nor a protagonist.  His fantastic character arc points sharply down.  Fans come back week after week not to watch him triumph over evil, but to watch him descend into it.

Different from many crime dramas, the show doesn’t exploit the drug trade, wrap it up in cool and try to convince us of its wonderful music video like world, but it also doesn’t serve as a simple cautionary tale.  There are moments, especially early on in the show’s seasons that you root for Walt and Jesse to win, no matter how dirty a game they are playing.  What is genius about Breaking Bad is the way it takes the drug trade trope and allows us to look with fresh eyes at the complex moral choices involved.

The hood homies that typically sling on the TV block tend to be flat characters.  Full of machismo, these new-school scarface-wanna-be’s aren’t deep.  Born and bred in the hood, there is no reason given–or needed–for their behavior.  Instead, movies and TV rely on audiences being familiar with the stereotype that all black men are criminals to fill in the blanks. But not so with Walter White.

Free from the stereotypical characteristics that limit the way black and brown drug dealers are portrayed, Walter White swings from sympathetic to satanic, often within the same episode.  Now in his death throes, have no doubt that Walter White is a study in evil.  From the very first episodes to his ill-fated return to the world in tonight‘s last episode, Walt is motivated by nothing more than his ego at every step.  While he works to hide it from him family, from us–and of course himself–his selfishness and manipulative nature drive him at every turn.

 

His story provides an important outlet in the culture to talk more deeply about the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men.  In the rapids of TV news, crimes and the people that commit them are often defined by their race or their neighborhood.  Gang involved shooters, mass murders, even convenience store robbers lack back story.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland and the Sopranos give us the opportunity to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of immorality.  They provide us a chance to meet the monstrous in therapy, at home, in the classroom or over dinner, to consider their charming and warm sides.

Hopefully you are less evil than meth maven Walter White, but like him, we all struggle with our lesser angels.  In our 140 character world, we need more time and space to think about who we are, and who we do and don’t want to be.

We Ain’t What We Ought to Be

Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.  The 50 years since that famous speech stand today as a measuring stick to place blackness in America against.  To paraphrase MLK himself, it’s 50 years later and the negro is still not free.  Now I can hear you shouting “Black President !” from here, and I’ve seen Obama hanging around, so I know lots has changed. Even with all the change, the needle for black people–and poor people– that the civil rights activists fought so hard to move seems to point to the same old numbers.

By every metric of social well being , blacks lag behind their white counterparts.  While civil rights gave legal rights to blacks that were long overdue, the last 50 years has witnessed the slow erosion of these gains.  Stop and Frisk, Stand Your Ground, and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights act all remind us that racism lives on in the heart of the American justice system, while discriminatory financial and educational policies bring the fight to our homes and schools.

What about in the fantastical world of mainstream media?   Surely the media does a much better job of representation now, right?  Well……
In 1963 there was not one network show–and there were only major networks and no cable, young ones– that starred or featured a character of color.  Films, much the same.  This is not to say that people of color were excluded from media.  Of course westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke filled screens with feathered savages,  and there were more than a couple of black entertainers popular that year.  The racist show Amos and Andy, cancelled years earlier still ran in syndication in over 50 markets.  Whatever popular representations of race there were by and large were would not be acceptable by today’s standards….right?
Fast forward 50 years.  We have handfuls of big blacks filling up our screens, and incidentally draining our pockets.  Beyonce and Jay Z are the reigning king and queen of a kingdom full of rappers, runners and ratchet weave wearers.  We even have some young white ladies who I refuse to name here doing their best to play out their own tilted image of what it is to be black.
There’s no doubt that there are hundreds more black characters in media today, but just as in 1963, media representations show blacks as lazy and crazy, violent and vixenish.  When we fight mainstream media for representation, we can’t stop with appropriate quantity.  Quality matters.  High visibility celebs who push a self-centered materialistic life, and images that reinforce the worst of classic stereotypes aren’t progress.
MLK’s I have a dream speech resonates so strongly all these years later because still we strive to be a better more perfect union.  Until the words that echo off the water of the mall are the same that make up the stories on our screens, we still have the fight in front of us. As the old saying goes, we ain’t what we used to be, but we ain’t what we ought to be.  Lets not take another 50 years to get there.

Stop and Risk: Trading in Safety for Stereotypes

Everywhere you turn this summer is talk about black crime.  More than mere talk, pushing propaganda to support laws like Stop and Frisk and Stand Your Ground mean that real rights are at stake for millions of Americans.  With so much chatter about black crime and urban crime, you might be surprised to find out that the vast majority of crimes in the US are committed by whites--nearly 70 %— which makes sense when you think that the majority of the US population is White.   We all want to be safe, so who’s to blame: is crime a white problem, a black problem or something else entirely?

This week a federal court struck down NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy, citing racially discriminatory enforcement.  The policy’s defenders are crying foul, and are warning  an explosion of crime will happen when the people’s fourth amendment rights are respected.  It’s true crime in New York is at historic lows.  Before you stop and rest on your laurels, crime is down to historic lows not just New York City, but around the country, including many cities that do not have a stop and frisk policy in place, so attributing the drop to Stop and Frisk is misplacing whatever “credit” there is.  For decades scientists, sociologists, psychologists and politicians have tried to nail down that combination of factors that result in peaceful communities with no crime.  But the causes of crime are many, a complicated mash up of environment and systems, politics and people.  There is one thing the scientists do agree on: what does not cause crime is a secret gene carried only by black and brown people.

Between Stop and Frisk and the Zimmerman travesty trial earlier this summer, there’s lots of focus in the news on the connection between blacks and crime.  While no mention of race was allowed into the Zimmerman trial, defense attorneys argued that Trayvon Martin was perceived as a threat by their client.  The unspoken reason he was viewed as a threat was that he was young, black and hooded.  Because he fought his stalker and did not live to tell the tale he is painted as a brute who got what he deserved.  Back in New York, 88% of those people stopped and frisked were found to be unarmed, and innocent of any crime.    Between the two cases we literally have hundreds of thousands of African Americans who have been deprived of their constitutional rights, including their right to life in the case of Trayvon Martin.  That their rights have been trampled not by feet but by laws is the very definition of racism.

Despite, and perhaps because of, the exposure of institutional racism in our justice system, a flock of “experts” have taken to the airwaves to assure us of the link between blacks and crime that justify these discriminatory legal practices.   News programs spend an enormous amount of time scaring us out of our wits with twisted stats, while scripted shows keep playing on age old stereotypes of a dark and terrifying other crawling through our windows at night.  These stereotypes offer easy boogymen to blame but fail to reflect reality.  The all too sad truth of violent crime is that the majority of violent offenders are known to their victims, most often share the same race, and sadly sometimes share a home.Painted large in American media is the hooded thug, tattooed, pants sagging, middle finger to the world he is marked by his trappings of blackness as a threat to society.  He slinks through rap videos into the evening news.  From video games to scripted dramas, blacks are over represented as criminals in American media.  Before you cry Breaking Bad on me, consider that not only are blacks more often represented as criminal offenders, when they are they are rarely given the depth of examination afforded a Heisenberg or Tony Soprano.  Besides, when was the last time that a week of shooting sprees by white men has spurred a Fox debate on the White on White crime problem?  White criminal are often represented as having some underlying reason for their crimes.  By contrast, the black thug in news is cruel for the sake of it, killing his own boys ruthlessly while in scripted shows he kills for sport, stalking his white prey through sound stages full of darkened streets.

Just as decades of super thin models have warped our perception of the normal sized female body, so have the misrepresentations of black men manipulated public perception of the black man.  Constant characterization of blacks as thugs and gangsters leave the average media viewers with the perception that all black men are violent and out of control.  Repetitive imagry showing blacks as thugs draws a false connection between race and crime.  Add that to the number of whites reporting that they have friends of color--nearly half of whites according to one recent survey–and this leaves many white viewers without the real world reference that they need to have an informed perspective on their African American counterparts.What’s missing from the flashy crime labs and mean streets of TV crime drama are the many systemic and environmental factors that influence crime and the criminals that commit them.  There are many theories on what causes crimes as cities where they are committed, but one thing that rises to the top of the studies is the importance of social economic and environmental factors guiding communities.  In fact, research has shown that similarly situated urban environments of whites and blacks would likely result in similar rates of victimization and offense.  Factors driving the health of the community like family structure, employment and educational opportunities are the same factors that seem to govern crime.
Movie, television and news depict streets full of heartless black thugs, creating an unfair and unwarranted connection between race and crime. When we create a false perception that race and crime are linked, we not only make villains out of millions of innocent americans, we also hide the real factors that make our communities–all communities–unsafe.   As viewers we have to take responsibility for educating ourselves about the world we really live in, and untangle media stereotypes from the diverse array of black men that roam the earth among us.  Rather than supporting policies to continue discriminatory police enforcement, its time to take a real look at what we can do to make our world safer.

Oprah’s Hairy Contradiction

The September issue of O magazine tackles hair as its topic.  Gracing the cover is the perennial powerhouse    herself, killing them in a bright orange wrap dress with an Afro that would make foxy jump back.  Oprah smiles out like a radiant sun complete with waving black rays of hair.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a resident of that fabulous country Afromania, just so my bias is clear from the outset.  Bias aside, Oprah can be commended for putting natural hair in front of her legion of readers, showcasing the growing trend of women of color rocking (gasp) their own natural hair.

And as nods to naturals go, you can’t deny she looks fantastic and makes the Afro ultra appealing.
Afros have come in and out of favor as a hairstyle with its heyday in America arguably centered in the black power days of the ’70s.  After the struggle for civil rights , a new image of blacks rose up, a revolution of the fried died and laid to the side world of the mid century. The Afro was an embrace of black beauty, a rejection of hot combs, burning lye, and a story that says your real hair is ugly.  The afro was not only a return to African hair, but also to African heritage.  It came to symbolize the wider ideas of black power and black consciousness.

Search for Afro now,a days and what you’re likely to find are a host of pictures of people rocking Fake ‘fros.  Peppered in among stars and their fantasy wigs are a rainbow of Afrowigs, mostly cheap costume versions nestled in between pimp and funky disco costumes.  Far from the majesty of Angela Davis’s mane these Afros are clearly for play, for rocking in the stands of your favorite college team, or when you want to show the world just how cra-azy you are.  This once powerful symbol of black pride is relegated to the category of costume, fun and always laughable.
For those unfamiliar with the travails of black hair in a Eurocentric culture, lets just say that curls and kink are not the default image of beauty in America.  Our culture glorifies long flowing tresses, sometimes a bit wavy, more recently fish bone straight. If what happens to grow out of your head is curly, god forbid kinky, you are to go post hast to the nearest salon and get relaxed.  Black women spend half a TRILLION a year on chemical relaxers, weave, and a handful of other methods to tame their unacceptable hair. As late as, well, yesterday braids, dread, and yes, Afros grown pasta few inches were not acceptable hairstyle in the business world, the political world, or in short, the real world.  This process-ha ha- leads lots of women of color to spend many dollars and hours trying to change their hair into something more acceptable, something that fits the common definition of beauty.
Even our superstar artists and celebrities celebrate Eurocentric hairstyles.  Beyonce is glorified for her hair, even appearing in hair ads for loreal, but its not a stretch to guess this isn’t really her hair.  Most stars, like their real world counterparts kowtow to the cultur’s straight hairstyles of the runway, weaving in thousands of dollars of someone else’s hair onto their heads to ply the style.
The natural hair movement is made up of women of color who have gotten off the tresses treadmill to embrace the tuff growing out of their own scalp.  Emphasizing acceptance and appreciation of the many shades of black hair, natural hair girls provided much needed addition to th e choices for black women’s hair.  The natural hair movement has been creating a space where the Afro can be restored to its former glory.  And thank god we have Oprah to champion the beauty of black hair.
But, typical of today’s media and certainly not limited to O. Magazine, the cover has Oprah not rocking natural hair, but a wig that looks like natural hair.  Forgive me for being a bit behind on this– if the idea is to celebrate natural hair, would it not be a nice change if we saw, oh, say, some real hair?  Oprah has enough length to blow out a pretty fantastic fro, especially given that its just for a photo shoot, and doesn’t have to stand up to a day at the beach.  Instead she pops to rock a glorious but fake fog of hair.  Like her buddies at your local Halloween party, she relegates the Afro to fantasy land.
Sure the fantasy of Afros is fun and funky, but the reality of the Afro is something worth celebrating.  Like my black power sisters of the seventies, my Afro is about loving myself as I am, and realizing that beauty, far from narrow, is in each of us just as we are.  It’s also about embracing the beauty of diversity.  I don’t want to live in a colorblind world.  I want to live somewhere where culture makes our world a vibrant, and exciting to live and explore.  For that to happen, we need to begin to feed on a wider diet of images, one that shows different people not as costumed creeps, but as real people living lives as real and reasonable as any other

And a Little Cheerio Shall Lead Us…

Earlier this summer, Cheerios released a commercial touting the heart healthy benefits of its cereal.  The ad featured a little girl, a mom and a dad.  No problem.  The family was an interracial family, which you’d know if you just watched it.

 
Cute, right?  Well what was not so cute was the response to the ad. On YouTube, hundreds of people ranted that the ad heralded the apocalypse and coming race war and all the rest, all because of the depiction of what is for millions of Americans is simply what we call family.
First to the ad.  The first step in figuring out if a piece of media is racist is to see if race is a significant part of the ad.  Does the story tell us something about race?  In the Cheerios ad, we see a white mommy, a black daddy and a mixed race child, so we do see people of various races represented together.  But does it tell us something about race?
Lots of people thought it did from haters who thought it an abomination to the many more who were happy to see a family like their represented.  But first let’s look just at the story with a simple technique: some might call it the commutation test, but were going to keep things simple and call it sign switching.
Just like this web page is a bunch of coded symbols that the computer makes meaning of, media messages are strings of codes and signs that we, the human computer makes sense of. in the Cheerios ad we have three actors playing roles we can identify– without Cheerios saying outright– as a family.  How?  The setting is in the home, the child refers to the woman’s character as mom, the male is lying on a couch sleeping, presumably not a home invasion.  See, codes that you interpreted as an indication that this is a family at home.
Race often acts as a code, sending us sign to help us fill in the story.  For instance, if I show you images of characters of different races, will it help you to fill in the story?  Lets see…
          One of these guys is really good at basketball and one is really good at martial arts.  Codes       that we are familiar with make it seem natural that blacks are better at ball and asians are all good at martial arts.
Stereotypes use these codes to reproduce the same old stories about race that are shaped by long history and social influences.  If we are looking to see if a code is communicating about race we can try to imagine how we would read the story of the races were switched.  Ever see trading places?  ( clip) here we see a movie about what it would be like.
Back to our Cheerios ad.  Lets switch the actors around and see if the story changes.  If we had three white actors, or three black actors the story of a family scene at home remains the same, and the basic meaning of the ad is not different.  What Cheerios has achieved is quite rare– and ad free of racial stereotypes.  There are no messages about how these characters will act that we can interpret solely from their race–inside the ad itself. But outside the ad in the real world is another story.
 Our Cheerios ad isn’t hanging out at home.  The ad ran widely on television and on the web.  The ad ran in a world where people haven’t yet packed away their attachment to Jim Crow, where people are ignorant of the fact that interracial families are not only legal–as they have been since 196x, but are a growing part of US, with over xx people identifying as multiracial in the last census.  While the ad itself is free of stereotypes, the audience, unfortunately is not.
Any given audience will have multiple perspectives.  The reaction of audience members, especially this case, can tell us something about race.  The reaction to the Cheerios ad points out that while more members than not were happy to see our beloved post racial country represented in this lovely family tableaux, the racism that we’d like to leave behind isn’t gone from the rear view mirror yet.
So the Verdict on the Cheerios ad:  not racist.  And Cheerios, bonus points for showing us a family from our race-no-longer-matters-future. I hope we see you in that post racial utopian someday.
As for the brouhaha, the racism here lies not in the ads stars, but in the throwback trolls selves.

media, race, and pop culture explained