Black History, Black Present

I.

I am in the New South in a building that was once used as the cotton warehouse for the local plantations.  The host tells us that in the 1840s farmers brought cotton here to be sold and shipped.  I wonder what the enslaved who farmed the cotton would have thought of this benign title–farmers.  I wonder where in this town they were brought to be sold and shipped.

There is healing happening.  Young and old people are coming together to face the racism that persists in the schools.  They are swapping stories, trying to piece together a picture of the place they live in. Verbal violence and exclusion, rules about which door you could use and texts in the group chat about killing niggers. They struggle with making meaning of the broken things, of the silences and the southern hospitality.

What is this? Are the jagged edges of my world racist? Is my suspicion correct? Is my pain justified?

“Sure we had segregation, but that doesn’t mean it was racism.” That’s a quote.

We are a circle of black folk asking if the violence and oppression we experience is racism in a room where they stored cotton picked by our enslaved ancestors. 

That night I see a story on the local news.  A white boy uses an iPhone app to make whipping noises at a black classmate. They are not friends.

The year is 2020.

II.

The lesson Black History has to teach an America trembling on the edge of dictatorship is that history is not over.  The same white supremacy battled by all the heroes and sheroes of black history still burns hot at the heart of America.

It is both original sin and existential threat.

The last person who toiled in antebellum slavery died in my lifetime.  The last person likely to be caught in the school to prison pipeline hasn’t been born yet.

Not past, but a continuous line that leads to me, to you, and to our current state of affairs.

III.

Trump rolls out a line of hats and t-shirts for Black Trump supporters.  The word WOKE is stitched in huge black letters across the front of a white hat.  The man who rode a wave of racism into office and installed known white supremacists as his close advisors is taking the word used to describe the increased consciousness of racism and the need to fight for black liberation as his slogan to attract black people to support his election.

I used to end my blog posts with stay woke.  It was a whisper, a call to action, a reminder to look closely at the levers of power working around you.

He took my words.

IV.

Power never rests. Black history can attest to the kind of work needed to change systemic racism. Pull the chain of Black history and you will find a long line of people who remained unbowed under the behemoth system of racism designed to break them.  Those people still live today amongst us.  Malcolm’s fire burns in Alicia Garza.  Rosa sat, Colin knelt, and the conversation has changed little in the meantime. Those people are us. On the streets of Ferguson and dozens of other cities, hundreds of young people picked up history’s chain to move it forward into political office and sustained action.  Pick a day and hit twitter to see still people calling out the Oscars, the Democratic leadership and all the Karens of the world. Resistance takes sustained coordinated effort in the big and small places, hammering at the levers of power. And time. Like, glacial time.

V.

I am in the liberal north, black and free and buying expensive dog food on a Sunday.  A large black Ford F450 has parked next to me, the kind of truck that makes me feel like a rabbit seeing a hound.  He has backed into this spot and we come face to face as I get in my little truck.  I call my mini-SUV Panther because it is black and small and fierce and fast. His window is open and I can hear LL Cool J bumping out of his stereo.  I relax a little, I make eye contact and smile, laughing at my own stereotyping of him.

He scowls and winds up his window.

Disengage.  Don’t act nervous. Is he getting out? Don’t turn around. He’s behind me. I put my dog food in the back next to my big dog. He is waiting for me.  The dog, and the man.

I have to close my door to let him pass. For a moment we stand next to each other.

We appraise each other.

He is wearing a camo Baseball cap and a sweatshirt emblazoned with Trump 2020 The Sequel Make Liberals Cry Again.  I am wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt and a Dashiki jacket with a pair of shiny white Adidas. Wrapped in ideology ordered from online t-shirt shops we don’t have to say a word. We exchange a million ideas in a single glare. 

Fuck your LL Cool J listening Trump-supporting self.

If I had to guess he probably only thought one word. And it ended with an er.

We go our separate ways; it is dinnertime and we have hungry dogs to feed.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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.

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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.

Privilege: Kavanaugh’s Cloak of Invisibility

America is gripped this week by the Supreme Court hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, a salacious episode of reality TV involving sex, power, and privilege. Tomorrow, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will testify that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when the pair were in high school in 1982.  Even as more accusers come forward–two three five as of this writing–tomorrow’s testimony is set up to be a battle of the he-said-she-said–but there is a third element to this story we can’t ignore: the power of privilege.

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Watch any crime show and you will see the weight we put on the world of the perpetrator to mold their criminal ways.  Shoot up a school? Let’s see what video games you played.  Black criminal? a product of the streets.   It’s not unusual–and in fact is too often standard to replace evidence with character and culture when adjudicating criminals. That is until it comes to those prep school boys and their boys-will-be-boys antics. The prep school of Kavanaugh’s narrative is a virginal version of academic heaven; surely no harm can happen there? The violence of power and control that is shaped by a competitive environment where privilege protects bad behavior could not possibly have any bearing on a man 30 years after, right?

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The world of frat boys gone bad is a familiar trope in American culture. Movies like Skull and Bones, Animal House, and Private School (released in 1983 during Kavanaugh’s school days) and TV shows feature a world where boyish behavior crimes are common but consequences and parents are absent.  Hidden behind the Ivies, violence becomes tradition and assault becomes kidding around.  This rapey frat boy thing is not mere fiction: a long litany of actual news events feature young men who used their power and privilege to get out of the consequences of sexual assault, their lives deemed more important to not disrupt than that of victims, forever disrupted by a justice system that refuses to let their wounds heal.  We are surrounded with a long tradition of tales that stage whisper to us that sexual assault is a normal, if not a traditional part of private school that frat boys believe are part of their rites of passage into toxic masculinity–also know as the old boy’s network.

Neither the overreliance on environmental factors–like the Marilyn Manson theory of school shooters–nor the erasure of anything from the past as some would like to see in Kavanaugh’s hearing provides for the complex factors that make any person who they are. When we examine someone’s integrity, the past is a part of who they are.  When we are validating accusations, circumstances matter. Brett Kavanaugh’s environment in addition to Ford’s testimony should factor into verifying–or denying–her claim. We should hear from others who were there and who say they are familiar with the incident.  Hmm, we need some way to gather all this information.  Wish we had an FBI–oh we do!  A full investigation will make sure that all voices are heard and we have a tapestry of voices, not just two.

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One trait of this trope that you may notice is that this is a long list of white men.  While the GOP is bending over backward to avoid investigating old accusations about Kavanaugh, Bill Cosby is sentenced to 3-10 years in prison and is labeled a sexual predator.  As powerful as Bill Cosby once was, it was not impossible for the court and the court of public opinion to see past years of Cosby’s family-friendly work and find him guilty:  he was after all a black man, and America has a long legal tradition of finding black men guilty of being sexual predators.  Cosby lacked a prep school to blame his behavior on.  Black fame without white privilege gave his accusers a chance to be heard, and, after enormous effort, justice will finally be done as Cosby enters jail.

There is no such legal legacy when it comes to white men.  Too often white men win in the court of public opinion long before they are held to legal account. Before a word of testimony regarding the Kavanaugh’s situation is heard under oath Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is promising to “get through this.” Kavanaugh’s accusers are denied an FBI investigation that would examine evidence related to their claims.  The best they can hope for is that the man that perpetrated their alleged assaults doesn’t also decide their healthcare rights. The cloak of whiteness protects the old boy’s network from scrutiny; crime is redefined as horseplay, jokes, hazing. It’s easy to bend the rules in favor of the old boys’ network because the old boys are by and large the ones who get to make and interpret the laws.

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Neither the age of the allegations nor Cosby’s massive fame and fortune stopped the accusations from negatively affecting his life–as justice would require.  To be clear, this is not a defense of Cosby. He is now a convicted sex offender, while Kavanaugh will not have any judgment rendered regarding the allegations themselves.  Instead, this is a chance to point out the often invisible way that privilege works to advantage those in power.  Even as Cosby was being labeled a sexual predator for drugging women and sexually assaulting them, Trump told the media that Ramirez’s accusations of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault are not to be believed because she was inebriated. The difference between the narratives surrounding one case and another highlights the privilege protecting wealthy white men accused of sexual assault that prevents them from the scrutiny–and just process–of a trial.

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Look carefully not at the sordid details themselves, but the falling action, where boys lives are deemed relics of a past to be forgotten, where their behavior becomes an inconsequential drop in an ocean of what-boys-do.  Not only are these acts normalized by their sheer frequency, but they are excused with weak slaps, or condoned, simply a nod to tradition that remains unquestioned and un-consequenced.  We can and must do better.

America is designed to be a nation of laws, not (white) men. What’s good for the comedian is good for the supreme court judge who will make decisions that will affect women for years to come. Let Cosby’s conviction be tomorrow’s lesson: ignore the privileges that come with power. Believe the women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BlacKkKlansman: White Mask, Black Skin

How is it you don’t feel like you have any skin in the game? The question, asked by undercover police officer Ron Stallworth to his Jewish counterpart Flip Zimmerman as they prepare to infiltrate the KKK, rests at the center of Spike Lee’s masterful film BlacKkKlansman, released Friday on the 1 year anniversary of the Nazi rally and subsequent riots in Charlottesville. The film explores the true story of a black police officer leading an investigation into terrorist activity at the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in Colorado Springs.

Here is a black man who is pretending to be a white man. Here is a Jewish man, who only sees himself as a white man, pretending to be the black man who is pretending to be a white man. Here are a group of white men pretending to be brave and powerful when they are cowards too stupid and blinded by their own beliefs to get it right.  Here is a room full of activists who refuse to pretend to be anything but black and proud. All this is set in a country built on racism pretending to be a multicultural pluralistic democracy. The brilliant interplay of masks and layers in the film reminds us of the complex dance between who we are and how we are seen by others in our racialized society.  Master the dance, and you can navigate our treacherous landscape, but make a misstep and the consequences can be lethal.

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Set in the 70s the film’s commentary on racism is uncomplicated by social media or tech tracking tools and hackers. Free from technology that so often frames our current debates about race, the essential arguments for and against racial justice stand out plainly against the backdrop of the plot. There is no quick escape for racists trolling in the real world. There is no surveillance tape or citizen video. Instead, there is slow action as the cops build a case against the klan.

Lee gives us long scenes with big blocks of dialogue—a speech from Kwame Ture (the Black Panther formerly known as Stokley Carmichael), a speech by David Duke and long sequences that bring us into the reasoning of various characters.  Most powerfully is the recounting of the lynching of Jesse Washington by Harry Belafonte to a rapt black student union. We hear people in their own words,  a broad range of points of view, complex, messy, sometimes conflicting ideas in the same mind. There is time here to reflect, to listen to the thought process behind the sound bites of ideology.

Ron and his gang must think carefully about what white supremacists want, what they fear, what they talk about when no one is listening, in order to make the klan think they are one of them, and we get to listen in on the wire. Even as we hear various points of view the film itself leaves no room for false equivalencies or the bias of both sides having “good people.” The film makes clear to us that racism is untenable both personally and politically.

This is also the second movie this summer along with Boots Riley’s brilliant Sorry To Bother You that hosts “the white voice” as an important device advancing the plot–Sorry’s voice is fantastical while Blackk’s white voice is more functional–the character’s own daily code-switching. Ron Stallworth, played by the gorgeously talented John David Washington, pulls off his brazen plan using a voice described in Boots Riley‘s film Sorry To Bother You as the white voice.

To be black in America requires you to familiarize yourself with white people who make up the vast majority of this country–about 70% currently.  Often positions of consequence–teacher, police officer, banker, politician–are more likely to be occupied by a white person. In order to navigate the world, replete with racists among the population, black people are often hyper-aware of the ways that white culture moves, thinks, and feels; as for any prey, understanding your predator is the key to survival. In Sorry to Bother You the white voice is the key to the Lakeith Stanfield’s character Cassius Green rising through the ranks to telemarketing superstardom. Being able to speak the King’s English opens doors for Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, but it is his intimate knowledge of how to speak to the soul of the Klan members that gains him access to David Duke.

Both films share the understanding that voice is not just diction but culture, beliefs, and values. Both Stallworth and Green leverage this ideological disguise to move in white cultures with such success, invisible to White people as they reflect back to whites their own cultural image. Here is where diversity behind the camera is so important: unpacking the concept of the white voice and the power it has beyond words is something that can be done best when fueled with the lived experience of a creator that has navigated this voice his whole life. This is a delicate and complex cultural process unfolding often outside the view of mainstream white America. To have this dance dragged out into the light to show the benefits and consequences of strategically navigating whiteness as a black man in this country is a gift to our dialogue about race and an opportunity for moviegoers to understand a way of being that is rarely

Image result for spike lee blackklansmanA view of whiteness through the eyes of black artists and authors is too often excluded from our media, but integral to understanding the many ways of thinking and seeing race in America.  The conversation about race in America often centers around othering people of color. In both films, the exploration of the white voice and the power it wields is an exploration of whiteness itself. In Blackklansman we have an opportunity to explore the ideology of white supremacy while listening and watching through a black lens.

Most explorations of whiteness come from white directors writers and producers.  Their lived experiences, implicit biases and beliefs infuse their work, often with a sympathetic eye. Well known movies about the klan range from the fawning–Birth of a Nation to the cautionary tale–American History X, framing the klan as heroes, antiheroes, or at worst misled youth and exaggerated nazis.  From behind the camera, Spike Lee refuses to give the klan credit for being clever monsters or pure-blooded gentry. In Lee’s film, The klansmen are farcical. They are equal parts keystone cops, 4chan losers, and townies. While watching the movie in a theater of mixed moviegoers, a single white woman guffawed at the klan’s clunky shenanigans, but her laugh echoed in the silence of the theater. The shit is not funny. The film disses klansmen but is sure to remind us the mess these fools create has material consequences like the threats hovering over the black activist throughout the film.

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We know how the story ends: Ron Stallworth, after all, lived to tell the tale and the Klan lost no one but their own members in the incident detailed in the movie. There is no such neat and tidy ending for our own time though, as Lee reminds us in a powerful coda. David Duke survived too, and now claims a friend in the President of the United States. Conversations throughout the movie that highlight different points of view on race are completely familiar, ripped from your social media feed and stuffed into the mouths of the characters. The pending Unite the Right rally coming up in DC Sunday is set to repeat the public display of vitriol from Charlottesville just a year after Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist terrorist. Police are still shooting people in the back. We are haunted years after Stallworth’s success by manifestations of racism that too many thought was long gone.

No nation can be great when part of the population is bent on genocide of the rest. The violence of oppression has a wide-ranging impact that touches every life in this country, whether people acknowledge it or not. BlacKkKlansman reminds us there is no simple mathematic formula delineating who is harmed by racism. Stallworth’s partner   Zimmerman, played by Adam driver tells him it is his [Zimmerman’s] business why he doesn’t’ think he has skin in the game and Stallworth reminds him, “No, it’s our business.” Whatever complex factors affect your own experience of race, this is your fight to win or your loss to bear.  There is no being colorblind to the dynamics of oppression. We all have skin in this game.

 

Prelude to a Lynching: Crying Black in Colonized Spaces

In the Black Lives Matter era, knowing that black people are frequently suffering violence at the hands of the police, these women play executioner for their own petty whims. Like the lynchings of the past, these police calls cannot be dismissed as a misunderstandings or misspoken accusations. These women call fully expecting that the police will be on their side

BBQ Beckie, Depressed Debbie, and Permit Patty rocketed to internet fame when they called the police on unsuspecting black people just trying to live their best Obama life. We’ve seen a disturbing trend of white people calling the police on black people in public spaces: BBQ Becky stayed on the phone over an hour to try to get a police response on what she thought was a park permit issue.  Depressed Debbie called the police on black people at a pool who refused to talk to her.  While their police-calling behavior is meme gold, the real-life trend of using police to enforce dominance is a dangerous game where black people have a history of being the loser.

This weekend Permit Patty called the police on a young girl selling water to baseball fans.  When pressed, she admitted that she wasn’t really on the phone with the police and she was not concerned about the permit: she wanted the little girl to be quiet. So there it is.  This white woman, like others before her, consciously purposefully used the threat of police–arrest and potential violence–against an 8-year-old little black girl in order to control a public space to her liking.

Permit Patty, outed as being Alison Ettel, who makes a living making medical marijuana for dogs without a permit–I shit you not, claims that race had nothing to do with her threat. But she lives in Oakland, the city of Oscar Grant and the Black Panthers and ground zero of Black Lives Matter.  It’s certain that she knew the kind of threat calling the police on black people is and used that threat against a girl with a water stand. That’s the reason why she did it: to play terrorist to an 8-year-old she knew would be afraid of the police.

A Documented History Of the Massacre which occured at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923.

Permit Patty is the last in a continuous line of white people, who have used police to control black bodies–from slave catchers through Jim Crow to today’s police state. Sure we’ve come a long way from the bad old days of lynchings, right?  Times were when False Accusation Fanny called rape on a black man the whole town of Rosewood went up in flames.  Or the dozens of white women rendered nameless and blameless in history whose interactions with black people–from an exchange of letters to and exchange of look–resulted in one of the thousands of lynchings during Jim Crow.

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But lynching–extrajudicial killing, or killing of one outside the law, especially based on group identity– continues.  It continues in a variety of forms . Old school lynchings still pop up like unwanted blemishes across the south.  A recent study of interracial crime confirms black people are more likely to be killed by white people than white people are likely to be killed by a black person.  On top of that, the terror of extrajudicial police killing continues in the era of cell phone video. We find ourselves in 2018 with the boundaries between black and white as fraught as ever.

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In the Black Lives Matter era, knowing that black people are frequently suffering violence at the hands of the police, these women play executioner for their own petty whims. Like the lynchings of the past, these police calls cannot be dismissed as misunderstandings or misspoken accusations. These women call fully expecting that the police will be on their side–literally relying on their white privilege for the situation to go their way even as they water the streets and later the airwaves with their tears.

If race is not a factor in these stories, then why are we not seeing a large number of videotaped events where white people inform on other white people?  Since white people are the majority of the American population, it stands to reason that these incidents should overwhelmingly involve white people.  But they don’t by and large involve white people informing on other white people at all.  Hmmmm.  Though to be sure, the police did show up in force to this young white boy’s permit-less lemonade stand

In 2013, George Zimmerman played both Permit Patty and the PD when he killed Trayvon Martin. Stephon Clark was seconds from safety when he was killed in his grandmother’s backyard.  In the space in between lies hundreds of names of people killed because of a casual encounter with police.  Think about that–calling black can result in death. All of these names, this pattern that infects our country’s soul all hangs in the balance when white people call the police on black people.  Cars and cops with guns come, just like they did when black people sought to desegregate private businesses during the civil rights movement of the 60’s.

White people, I argue, know that interactions between black people and the police can be deadly and they call the police anyways.  Afterward, full of apologies and sheepish excuses, they retreat behind their own ignorance, safe from consequences–and sometimes receiving coddling and forgiveness, ignoring their complicity in creating a potentially deadly encounter.

Let’s call these 911 calls what they are: preludes to a lynching. It’s time to hold people accountable for their racism.  It’s time to admit that if you are calling the police because a person of color is making you nervous, being too quiet, being loud, or otherwise occupying public spaces then you may be okay with the death of that person by your word.  Like the women who’s interactions and accusations led to lynchings under Jim Crow, refusal to acknowledge your privilege to activate state violence to protect you does not leave you innocent of a hate crime.  Think about that before you call the police, or don’t be surprised when you get dragged by Twitter.