“Racists React To [thing]” posts are just passive white supremacy

September 17th, 2013 by | Tags:

Over on tumblr, franzferdinand2 asked:

Just wanted to say your crack earlier about people using racists on twitter as some kind of weird “I’m not racist” barometer really got me thinking. Journalism has managed to make gawking at obvious racism something to be consumed.

Franz is referring to stories like this, or this, or this, which I tweeted about a bit the other day. Today, I’m expanding on those tweets. I’ve got a lot of moving parts here, but bear with me. The tweets:

Those stories actually really make me frustrated with the people who put them up and the people who share them. I think these types of stories are actually a kind of passive white supremacy. I call it passive because it’s not the result of a conscious choice to prop up white supremacy. It’s actually coming from what I think is a good place on the part of the website or anyone involved, a desire to spotlight someone overcoming not just personal adversity, but specifically racial adversity too. There’s an extra oomph in that story. It’s nice when people do things and racists can only sit there impotently.

Which I understand, and empathize with. But nine times out of ten, more column inches are devoted to how racists react to them, and then occasionally how they react to the racist, instead of their actual accomplishments. The accomplishments have always been considerable, whether she’s Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American Miss America, Gabby Douglas doing super well in the Olympics, or Amandla Stenberg playing Rue in the Hunger Games.

Stenberg has the best first name ever, was the best part of Colombiana, and is a promising young actress. I don’t know anything about Miss America except that it’s weird we still do that kind of thing, but I assume they don’t just hand out that crown to anyone. You have to have some merit, and you have to have more merit than the next woman to go home with the crown. Sports stories are always interesting, and I bet the eventual ESPN 30 for 30 on Douglas in ten years is gonna be great.

All of these people have stories that are pretty interesting, and that’s without the outside input of people who quite literally would have never mattered in any even vaguely meaningful way to the people they are insulting. With that input, their story shifts from “really talented in their field” to “really talented in their field, also hated by racists.” Which is true, racists hate a lot of people, but a lot of things are true that aren’t regularly and consistently reinforced through the media.

These types of stories elevate the racist feedback above the only real issue at hand: some people did a cool thing and deserve press for it. They privilege the voice of the racist above the accomplishments of the actual person who is being attacked. Here’s a search on Jezebel for “Amandla Stenberg.” There are three posts about the racist tweets. There is one about her being cast in the role. There is nothing in-between. There is nothing of substance about this actress on that site, but there are three posts about racists reacting to her, her reaction to racists, and racists reacting to some other actor who dared be something other than white. They haven’t mentioned Nina Davuluri once without mentioning racism.

I most commonly see these stories with non-whites, and it’s usually a pretty even mix of men and women, maybe tilted a little toward women due to selection bias. The effect of tagging brown faces with hate narratives a dozen times a month all over the place online—and occasionally super often depending on what you choose to follow, in terms of blog subjects—causes a connection in your head with that negative stigma. It’s why when I say Somalia you think Black Hawk Down and starving children, the Middle East and constant warfare, China and disgusting smokestacks. It’s why black-on-black violence is a problem, a real tragedy, and white-on-white violence isn’t even a concept in your head.

We get a limited number of stories by and about non-whites, and women too, in comparison to white dudes. Think of how often those stories are about conflict or hate or death, the unbelievable burden of being brown. Think how many major movies starring black people are action vehicles and how many deal in black misery like it’s pornography. These stories are almost always othered—The Fast & The Furious being a notable, and rare, exception. It’s not about us over here. It’s about things that happen over there, to them, instead of here, to us, whether over there is Detroit or Beijing. The hate narrative becomes part of your definition of that group, and that affects how you treat people of that group.

So he’s articulate, she’s such a strong black lady. They’ve overcome so much adversity, like… racism! Which, again, positions them apart from you. You’re not racist, but you’re not them, either. People aren’t doing racist things to you. That happens to other people. Or maybe you’re a victim of racism, too, but what do you get out of seeing people say racist things?

No, these lists and posts are a chance for people who believe they aren’t racist to confirm their own internal assessment of themselves, and also how racism works. The story being “hated by racists” instead of “incredibly accomplished” gives people a chance to react against it. They share it with an affirmation that they, the sharer, are not anything like the racist. They scorn the racist. In fact, sharing this is yet more proof that they are not, in fact, racist, because racists should be scorned on sight. Which is cool, A+ for motivation but more or less a C- in execution in terms of being useful or helpful or anything but self-serving.

The racism this story depicts is binary. It’s on or off, is you is or is you ain’t this racist, and that encourages the idea that racism isn’t something you personally do or are. It’s something other people do. You don’t do that, right? So you aren’t racist!

But any colored folk can tell you that’s not how racism works. Everybody is a little racist. There are hundreds of learned reactions to different groups of people to unlearn, not to mention the areas of society where racist sentiment is implicit instead of explicit, like zoning laws or the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. It’s in all of us. We’re gonna have to live with that racism until we fix it and our selves, and viewing racism as a binary personality choice doesn’t allow for that.

That’s why people react so strongly to being called “racist” when they say something totally racist or suspect, or their work being called “racist,” or occasionally even just hearing the word “racist” in like a fifteen meter radius or something and their “I’m Not A Racist!” alarm goes off. They aren’t like those people, no, not at all. Their personal definition doesn’t allow for internalized racism. Which is adorable.

So, in that sense, these posts help prop up white supremacy. But there’s more.

This stuff trickles down, just like everything else has trickled down over the years. It’s how culture works. We tell ourselves stories so that we might combat the stories that are thrust upon us. People talk about sexy Asian girls, black dudes with big dicks, black chicks with big butts—those aren’t positive stereotypes. They’re stereotypes that reduce a people to objects of desire, and animalistic desire in the case of black people in particular. Black men having big dicks isn’t a compliment. It’s a sign that they were closer to animals than humans, filled with uncontrollable desire thanks to their firehose of a penis. (Consider the tenor of a lot interracial porn if you don’t believe me. That didn’t come out of nowhere. There’s a long history that you don’t even need a book to understand. Or read this, which looks like a great resource.)

So: “Black is beautiful” battles “black is disgusting.” “I am somebody” served to convince children that they were, in fact, somebody, when every little thing in their life told them different. Black men became kings and black women became queens because the narrative was that they were lower than trash. It’s counter-programming.

These posts are programming, too. When you consider that we get precious few stories about us in comparison to white men, the impact of every single story is elevated. If you most often see stories about young black girls reacting to racists, then you’re going to associate young black girls with the struggle. If you only ever hear about Iraq when it’s wartime, you’re going to associate Iraq with that. If the only story you hear about Islam is violent jihad, you’re going to feel a spike of fear when you see a woman in a veil in the TSA security line. It’s why I see a cop and think about what I’m doing that might get me shot, and a cop sees me and thinks about what I’m doing that’ll get me shot.

And that, at its heart, is what white supremacy does.

White supremacy is a self-sustaining enterprise, a system, but that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in that enterprise believes in white supremacy. When white is established as the default, then the default story is a white story. That positions all other stories as Other, Alternative, and you think of the people in those stories that way, too. White supremacy is nothing but “White first, y’all second” and it’s not as easy as just deciding you aren’t racist.

White supremacy infests everything. That’s why Obama is still our “first black president,” instead of the first word being wrong and the second word being meaningless. Black sits apart from white, for reasons both intentional (for a long time they couldn’t be president because all that cotton needed picking I guess, I’m fuzzy on the rationale) and completely incidental (no black person had a chance of getting elected because they didn’t have access to the same resources whites did).

Things go around online occasionally that make people go “This is what racism looks like.” Sometimes it’s a young black male being shot down by an old white man, sometimes it’s a burning cross. It’s true: those are often indicative of racism. But by that level of racism is seen as the only level of racism. “Hey, this dialogue you wrote–that’s kinda racially suspect, isn’t it?” isn’t a personal attack, but every time I say it, no matter how hard I try and soften the blow (and I spent years pulling punches and getting blown up at anyway), somebody gets mad because their personal definition doesn’t allow for any type of racism, even accidental or incidental or institutional.

Racism is intentional and unintentional, and that’s why looking at race like a binary proposition sets up ideas that end up hurting everybody in the end. You have to be willing to accept that a little of the poison is in you, too, if you want to understand why these ideas persist after all this time and in so many different areas of our life.

So yeah, I’m not a fan of those stories. I don’t like the way they distort the reality of life. It makes black life seem like a burden, instead of a life with ups and downs. It messes up the way we view other peoples, and that trickles down to how we interact with them on a personal and foreign policy level.

I want fewer stories about racists and more stories about the people the racists hate. But that won’t happen, because those posts do gangbusters in terms of hits. You get to point and set yourself apart from them, people get to be sure that they’re on the right side of history, and you get to show support for a brown face by attacking a white face.

But it’d be better if you just supported the brown face in the first place and thought harder about why you’re sharing what you’re sharing.

Read the commentary on this post to see how racism manifests itself in subtle ways, in the absence of malice, hoods, and dead bodies.

This is real life. This is how it works. Everything we take in has a point and an effect. Think twice. Dig past the surface-level and try to understand that if it’s bigger than whatever makes you feel good for not being them, whether they’re racists or colored folks who are the victim of racism. Try harder.

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29 comments to ““Racists React To [thing]” posts are just passive white supremacy”

  1. This was great. Thank you for writing it.

  2. This is interesting and made me think, because I do so enjoy ridiculing racism.

  3. That was really well said. Made me think about what stories I allow to rent space in my head.

  4. Thank you.

  5. I want to double down that a lot of this is passive, and gets by because it’s unconscious, and that the binary gets everywhere. Problematic posts can come from aware individuals–two of those Jezebel posts are from their black editor–and I hope it’s not just colored folk that can learn that racism isn’t so simple. Even that said, I know I expect/feel some camaraderie with other minority folks when caught up in what always feels like someone else’s first conversation about race, and god if that isn’t the binary again, to be forced to deal issues framed by white and non-white…it’s not as if groups lumped in non-white don’t have their own issues with one another… It looks like there’s a similar response under the Gawker banner, if not the Jezebel one.

    Anyway, I know this will only be a tangent, but I wondering myself about how else to react to this stream of stories of this type since, well, it really is going to be someone’s first conversation about race, every time.

  6. David, this is brilliant. As always. I’m sure I’ve shared posts like the ones you talk about, but more often recently they make me uncomfortable, for various reasons.

    Mostly, I see the moving parts of this exactly the way you do. I don’t necessarily see the same hopeful endgame that you do – I think we need to handle intolerance and inequity, but think 360 degree social and cultural mutual respect and understanding are more useful as an aspiration than an ultimate expectation – but this piece is smart as fuck, and I’m going to share it.

  7. Thanks for this. It’s an age old plea for focusing on the positive and not elevating the negative, but it needs to be repeated often and although you will almost certainly catch flak from certain quarters for this article, you are right to call attention to the polarizing effect of such public shaming. Certainly the half wits deserve their public shaming, but the targets of their ire deserve the spotlight much more.

  8. What you’re saying is more nuanced than “publicly pointing out overt racism is a sign of internalized white supremacy,” but there will be some people who will only take that away from the above. They are the kind of people who will use posts like this to justify both refusing to call out any racism and conversely to label people who do call out any racism as white supremacists. Of course, that’s on them, not you, but it still gives me some pause in agreeing without caveat.

    With that said, you’re certainly right insofar as the articles you mention do wrongly focus on racist reactions to people of color rather than the people of color themselves. Also, I agree that focusing only on overt racism makes it too easy to overlook subtle or systemic racism.

    Truth: “So yeah, I’m not a fan of those stories. I don’t like the way they distort the reality of life. It makes black life seem like a burden, instead of a life with ups and downs.

  9. Thank you for writing this. I was so furious that the New Ms. America’s stunning win was immediately over shadowed by concern troll head nodding over ignorant assholes. We do not need to give MORE ATTENTION to ignorant assholes.

  10. Thanks, David, for articulating a creeping but largely unvoiced concern I’ve had. With the economies of online publishing today, there’s a real commoditization of moral outrage that’s taking place. Despite a writer’s genuine intentions, and despite what I’m sure they’d describe as a separation between business and editorial, places like Jezebel/Slate/Salon/et al are still in it to make money for themselves or their parent companies. “Look at this racist asshole” is attention-getting, so you get more clicks and retweets, which means you can increase your advertising rates, which means you can throw more parties in your cool Brooklyn office. The advertisers don’t really care, of course, because they’re just trying to capture the eyeballs of educated white people in their 20’s and 30’s. It’s insidious, but I guess institutions co-opting and neutering dissent isn’t exactly a new song.

    I don’t want to write a huge thing here, but this this this: “You have to be willing to accept that a little of the poison is in you, too.” Self-reflection isn’t as exciting as privilege-checking Twitter strangers can be, but it’s definitely the more constructive approach.

  11. Yep. Totally agreed — so many people were blowing up about the racism in Miley’s twerking stunt at the VMAs when there was a far more interesting and compelling story going on just down the street at AfroPunkFest — I took a stab at explaining why I won’t even bother talking about Miley but will spend hours telling you about Big Freedia.

  12. I think you may be confused, because franzferdinand2 didn’t *ask* you anything. He posed a statement, not a question.

    I find that Millennials are often confused about what constitutes a question, so I hope this helps. Have a great day.

  13. I know there’s not really much point engaging, but:

    @ti dave: “Asked” is the syntax Tumblr uses whenever anyone responds to something you’ve posted. I’ve no idea why, but it is what it is, and what happened here was David lazily left it intact, assuming anyone who could be arsed to comment would be arsed to parse.

    I find that internet commenters are sometimes confused about what constitutes an appropriate opportunity for sarcasm, so I hope this helps.

  14. @gus andrews: I dig what you’re saying, but I actually think that Miley is an interesting and vital story, in terms of understanding where we’re at in the US today. I understand why people want to avoid it—it definitely looks exactly like hot record label garbage, I agree—but at the same time, there’s definitely a conversation in there I want to have. I don’t know enough to start the conversation, but I would like to experience it.

    @Sam: This was a really good point, thank you. These things happen for a reason. “Racists hate” is more marketable, more clickable than “Miss America is Indian-American for the first time ever.” I just wish that the hits from stories like that were used to offset the cost of doing the stories that are more accomplishment or person-oriented. I got away with a lot of exceedingly unmarketable stuff at ComicsAlliance because Chris Sims is a juggernaut of a writer. So if I wrote something that got eight views, it would be okay, because his stuff always did well. It obviously wasn’t a direct comparison, but in terms of gauging the performance of the site, I’m sure that was part of the calculations. “We can do X posts that aren’t blockbusters but are still worth saying.” We should get both!

    @Phil: Yeah, I’ve been reading comments threads online (a couple Twitter convos, this MetaFilter thread) specifically to see how people are reacting to what I said, so that when I have to say it again, I can be more on-target. I know my words are going to be taken out of context (or misread!) and seeing how that happens is actually good for me, as a writer. Also ego-shattering but them’s the breaks.

    @His Shadow: I would say that my point is a little more nuanced than focus on the positive. It’s more that if you’re going to do this in support of X people, then it’s only right that you also talk about those people outside of the context of racism, or racists reacting to them. The racism definitely deserves to be hit with a hammer, but it’s the imbalance that frustrates me, rather than the existence of these posts. It paints a picture that’s racism first, people second, and that’s just not true!

    @hcd: Yeah, I probably should’ve emphasized a little harder that it’s unconscious and passive, and that sharing these posts doesn’t make you a crypto-racist. It’s just that everything has an effect past the most immediate and obvious thing, and sometimes those effects may be the exact opposite of what the people who wrote or shared it intended. And that snowballs into everything else, because everything matters, everything’s connected.

    I think that if this is someone’s first conversation about race, the posts need to do more than just mention that people are being racist. Maybe talk about the how or why of the racism—90% of the insults have their roots in history and specific prejudice, and looking at the reasoning behind them is often a great way to explode that prejudice. I think of the Mandingo thing a lot. People go “But big dicks are a compliment!” until you explain why, then they kinda get it. Context kills!

  15. […] David Brothers writing “Racists React To [thing]” posts are just passive white […]

  16. “People talk about sexy Asian girls, black dudes with big dicks, black chicks with big butts—those aren’t positive stereotypes.”

    David, the only reason I know of the stereotype of black men having big dicks is from black men telling me about it (and then perhaps experiencing some, but that’s not the point of this story). In all seriousness, what are your thoughts on these men putting a positive spin on what you’re referring to as a negative stereotype? I’m genuinely curious. Also, couldn’t this be one of the reasons why people don’t see it as a negative stereotype (because it is widely stated by said men and something they’re clearly proud of thereby leading to confusion)? The same could be said about “black chicks with big butts” as you put it. Within the culture, it’s not seen as a negative by all people. I have heard more than once that a white girl with a big butt is just “trying to be be black,” and not just by white people. It seems like there’s a mixed message going on.

  17. @Jennifer LeBlanc: Yeah, this is sort of why this stuff gets complicated. On a societal level, a lot of negative stereotypes derive from methods used to illustrate why They aren’t like Us. But on a personal level, like me talking to you, things are different.

    It’s a little bit reclamation, a little bit reappropriation. A lot of black dudes are hung, a lot of Asian women are sexy, and when they claim that for themselves (“I’m ___” vs “They’re ___”) it’s something they’ve embraced for whatever reason. You can see it in “75 Bars” from The Roots, like when Black Thought says “I’m in the field with a shield and a spear?” He’s making a reference to the fact that “spearchucker” used to be a common way to denigrate blacks and Africans. It was meant to conjure images of primitive dudes who don’t know nothing about society or civilization, but know violence. Thought’s flipping it and using it for his own purposes, so in the context of the song, him throwing a spear isn’t a sign of his savage nature so much as the fact that he’ll put a spear through the middle of your chest if you test him.

    So it’s different when you claim it, even if it’s toxic on a societal level. If you’re claiming it, odds are good that you’ve found some strength in it, and that removes a tool someone could use to hold you down. I really like Trina’s song “Baddest Bitch,” because the whole point is like, if you’re gonna call her a bitch for going about her business and doing her thing, then she’s gonna be the baddest bitch you ever saw and take whatever she wants because she deserves it. I love Thought’s use of spearchucker imagery and rapid-fire deployment of “nigga” in that song for similar reasons. He owns it, and in owning it, changes what it means for a small bubble around him.

    There’s definitely mixed messaging going on, but that’s a little unavoidable. I was at a wedding a while back and a friend said that a woman attending was “basically the baddest bitch ever.” I’m not really in the habit of calling women bitches because my mother would jump on a plane and murder me, but in that context? I couldn’t help but agree, because she was such an incredible boss, and I knew she claimed that label for herself. It worked for her, even if, on a different level or in a wider context, “bitch” was something that had been used to abuse her and hold her back.

    It’s one thing if someone’s applying a label or stereotype to themselves, but it gets even more complicated when you’re talking about people applying labels or stereotypes, like you say about white girls with big butts. That’s a lot of internalized stuff seeping out, and your example of a white girl with a big butt being seen as trying to be black is pretty great—it shows that we, as a people not just you and me or whatever, associate big butts with black women, whether we’re white or black or whatever. That’s how our society programmed us to think. But if you look around, there’s plenty of white girls with great butts, black girls with no butts, black guys with tiny dicks, white guys with huge dicks, whatever. There are so many exceptions that the rule can’t be true, but because the rule exists, it feels more real than the exceptions. We think of the rule first, and then the rest of it.

    That’s why I feel like there’s no hard and fast rule that applies to anything, near as I can tell, and I think if it gives somebody some confidence or strength, that’s cool. It should still be examined so we understand why, if not how, but I wouldn’t bust on a guy for bragging on his dick.

    I mean, I would poke fun at the dude, but not because of the race thing, but because I think that’s pretty funny in general.

    Hopefully all of this made sense and wasn’t just a ramble. I should’ve been more clear that when I said “those aren’t positive stereotypes” that I was referring to how the stereotypes were used in society, instead of on a personal level.

  18. @david brothers: Just to pop in a bit, my favorite description of what a stereotype is from a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where she said that “problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

    A person can be the one thing another person says: have a big dick, be a sexy asian lady, good at math, whatever, but when the rest of the person is filled out with one statement, that’s when it’s a stereotype. Black men are savage, Asian women are submissive (except when they’re dragon ladies, as long they’re sexual) and so on.

  19. I only just found out about this article, but it seems like a step in the right direction with regard to what you’re talking about: apparently the new Miss America is something of a nerd.

    Which is not to say that it invalidates your point, but I felt like it seemed relevant.

  20. […] “Racists React to [Thing]” Posts are Just Passive White Supremacy. […]

  21. I agree fully that it is Other-ing. I agree that it is sad that conflict = hits, and that is all the Internet cares about.

    But when you call it “White Supremacy”, which it logically is but the term has other connotations, and then complain that your words will be taken out of context? You are simply Other-ing “them”, just the same.

    Worse yet, *you* are the one that are playing to the controversy that *you* have to face all these horrible Internet Trolls, rather than some third party trying to make a profit for their employer. I want to hear about the accomplishments of David Brothers, not the fact that he has to put up with jerks calling him out in the comments. (But my guess is, those blog entries never get cross-posted, do they?)

  22. […] of colour who has South Asian roots, this hits close to home: David Brothers of 4thletter! explains why the public shaming of extreme racists is problematic. I saw a lot of my friends exchanging articles that collected the most ridiculously racist […]

  23. @David Oakes: -Your regular routine of trying to get me to prove how racist and craven and hypocritical I am is getting old.

    -You’re disingenuous and need to try harder if you’re going to take a shot at me.

    -I do this because I want to do this, because there’s definitely no money in it.

    -Dream bigger.

    @hcd: Yeah, that whole talk, and I think an interview with either NPR.org or Hazlitt, was very eye-opening, in terms of looking at how things have an effect on people and the most efficient way to refer to those things. I like the idea of “stories” being a baseline for that—the story of Gabby Douglas is an empowering and aspirational one, but the addition of racists react turn it into a defensive one, where she succeeded in spite of, instead of parallel to, something else. Thanks for the reminder.

  24. David – I love what you’ve written here and really appreciate your perspective. You’re absolutely right about the connection between these stories and white supremacy. There’s a lot to think about here, and I thank you for writing it.

    I will say that apart from their click-bait nature, I do think there’s still a place for these “racists react” articles. I know a lot of unbelievably naïve and privileged people who think that racism is something that 12 white guys did in Alabama 30 years ago (and I can see how the othering you describe plays into this perception). Stuff like this is great for forcing folks to confront how widespread and open racism still is in America. As a white guy I can’t talk racism as a part of my lived experience, but I still want to educate these folks, and hateful assholes on the internet make a pretty good target.

    Thanks again.

  25. […] React To [thing]‘ posts are just passive white supremacy” by David Brothers – link. “Is Geek America Ignoring Miss America” by Arturo R Garcia – link. Feminist […]

  26. Great post, and an excellent point.

  27. […] “Racists React To [thing]” posts are just passive white supremacy In this post of the above title, David Brothers talks about recent trends of articles talking about all the racist reactions online […]

  28. I’ve never thought about it that way — thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    There was however an incident just yesterday where I had related embryonic thoughts. It was when I saw the recent story of the PA school officials fired for using their phones to send incredibly racist SMSes. When I read the original post that linked to more details about the messages themselves, I realised the extent to which there is voyeurism in stories where details of very racist comments are given. It then becomes easy for people to almost gleefully start to hate-read the details of the Very Racist Thing — which is obviously a yucky place to be, whether or not there’s a self-congratulatory element in the reading.

  29. […] David Brothers have also pointed out how such articles simply serve to perpetuate dehumanising “white as default” culture that makes life for minorities “seem like a burden”, and in turn simply feeds […]