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.