Monday, 28 October 2013

Ain’t I a Woman? Representations of Sistadom in the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m not afraid to admit that I am a huge zombie genre fan. There, I said it. But I’m also a bit of a zombie snob; I’m not a huge fan of some of the older, cornier zombie films made by few popular genre directors, I’m not fond of badly dubbed films or those featuring zombies wrestling sharks, or other such nonsense. Regardless, I’ve watched (and read) a lot of zombie entertainment over my lifetime.

As a young girl I was first introduced to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead by my mother decades after its original theatrical release. To my 12-year-old delight, not only did this film represent everything that was vintage and horror, two of the best qualities a modern film could offer my blossoming sensibilities, but also the protagonist was a commanding, eloquent black American man. Though I was a child, Romero’s progressive manoeuvres weren’t lost on me. To daringly cast Duane Jones as Ben, the protagonist charged with the care of the near-catatonic, Barbara (Judith O’dea), in 1968 seemed tantamount to tipping everything typical about everyday American life over on its head. One would be hard pressed in Romero’s day or even my childhood, to find a handful of protagonists, or real black American heroes represented in American media; in films, black men weren’t heroes, weren’t eloquent, and didn’t go toe to toe with ignorant bullies. At the time I didn’t need cultural theorist, Adorno, or terms like hegemony to recognise the phenomenon by observing the deficit: so few Duane Joneses in a sea of leading men. But Night of the Living Dead pronounced the power of film to express cultural anxieties and offer, as far as my 12-year-old sensibilities were concerned, alternatives to reinforcing the status quo. Add to that the fact that this film had, in its time, burst upon the film scene and ushered in a type of cinéma vérité-marries-horror style which showed in sharp relief against an arguably more stylized and staged mainstream backdrop of the horror genre, and I got hooked on zombie films for life.

Ben, Night of the Living Dead

While recently working on a dissertation on the popularity of zombie apocalypse entertainment, I came across interesting internal questions, some of which challenged some of my long-held perspectives on what I deemed to be some of the progressive qualities inherent in classics like Night of the Living Dead. While writing, after covering how zombie entertainment often expresses Western cultural anxieties over issues like urban crowding , disease, and government authority, I turned to the subject of how zombie apocalypse films represent different types of identity. I asked myself rudimentary questions like Who are the surviving characters? How do they see themselves and organize themselves? Who’s in charge in the absence of the government? What is this director or writer getting at and is it intentional? Apocalypse films are special in that they generally represent the breakdown of the usual, dominant social order. Film critical theorist, Robin Wood, is famous for broaching the redemptive possibilities in imagining the apocalyptic on film. You can learn a lot about how we Westerners see different kinds of people, and how we wish to represent ourselves and others given societal breakdown scenarios like those found in zombie films.  One of the big questions is, do these films tend to reinforce dominant social order or resist it? And what is the dominant social order?

Having viewed and wracked my brain over so much of this idea of identity in contemporary zombie lore, as I call it, one of the issues I came across concerns the representation of women in these films. Aside from the strong female lead in Romero's 1985 film, Day of the Dead, most mainstream female characters; white female characters, have not developed very much over the years. They range from the freaked out, useless Barbra (Judith O’Dea) in Night of the Living Dead, to a later Barbra (Patricia Tallman) in Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, who spends most of the film being shaken and told to snap out of it by Ben (Tony Todd), until she finally grows a backbone.

Decades later, we find Ana (Sarah Polley), in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead who exhibits very little character transformation when compared to her fellow survivors, including a drifter who becomes a leader, a cop who learns to balance his care of others with his own needs, a young thug who wants to start over to become a father, and a petty, mall security guard who becomes a selfless hero. Ana goes from being a caring, married nurse before the apocalypse, to a caring nurse and girlfriend of the group leader during the apocalypse. Ana possesses the same gentle nature as the overtly vulnerable, pregnant Francine (Gaylen Ross) in Romero’s 1978 original version of the film, who has to beg to be taught to use a firearm and fly a chopper. Overall, it seems that the contemporary norm is to represent women as eager to learn but still lacking leadership qualities. But there are exceptions.

More than noteworthy is that the two biggest exceptions to this rule enter through characters Selena (Naomie Harris) in Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and Michonne (Danai Gurira) in The Walking Dead TV series. Both characters are badass. Both wield sword-like weapons at undead zombie assailants; both can survive in the wild (one in the urban jungle of London; the other in the backwoods of Georgia); both are people you’d pick to have your back during the zombie apocalypse. But most notably, while one is British and the other is American, both women share a key commonality: they’re both black.

Selena, 28 Days Later 

Michonne, The Walking Dead

 While I adore 28 Days Later, religiously watch The Walking Dead while hiding behind a pillow, enjoy both these characters and the lovely actresses who play them, I have been hesitant to wholly embrace these characters. Why? Because of one of the ways that black womanhood is represented and measured against the backdrop of whiteness.  

Follow me on this, and see if it makes sense: one element that film critical theorist, Richard Dyer, tackles is how whiteness in Western culture exists as a non-issue because it represents normality. What does that even mean? Well, Dyer asserts in his essay, White, that an established ‘white identity’ and ‘white culture’ elude definition and representation. Why is this relevant and what exactly does this mean? It means that cultural products like film help establish a passive normalization framework for whiteness, so that anything associated with whiteness, like white film and TV characters and their microcosms, is normalized. In film, white is normal: white neighborhoods, white neighbors and families, and white people in general represent averageness, and this is unspoken but ever-present in entertainment. Consequently, in entertainment, any character falling outside of that established normality like, say, a Latino corporate businessman, a quirky Asian buddy, or a black heroine get framed as unusual or abnormal.

This sense of abnormality of characters of color is something Dyer discusses in relation to the black protagonist, Ben (Jones), in Night of the Living Dead, who is super industrious, possesses ingenuity, but seems to come from nowhere, having no family ties, even when compared with human antagonists in the film. Elements like family ties and personal history make characters seem more average and normal and allow viewers to sympathize with them. In this way, Ben stands out uncomfortably in the film which, according to Romero, was never an intentional move (according to my interview with international film critic, Alan Jones; also see One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead). Romero believed that simply casting Duane Jones was a progressive move, and for 1968 it was. But times have changed. It’s important to move beyond the conventions that writer, Paul Waldman champions; the era of diversity representation by having people of color simply show up to be counted. Taking a close look at postmodern characters like Selena and Michonne, it seems that they have been crafted in similar ways to Romero’s character, but include extra cultural baggage as well.

In the case of Selena in 28 Days Later, unlike her fellow survivors Jim (Cilian Murphy), Hannah (Betty Curse), and Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and even Mark (Noah Huntley), who occupies about five minutes of screen time before he bites the dust, Selena neither possesses, nor describes any family history. She’s also featured as aggressively against any possibility of romance with Jim until the very end of the film, only after she faces real peril against a pack of rogue military men. In an apocalypse film it’s rare to find a female ‘companion’ character with no mention of personal or family history and no establishment of romance with the male lead early in the film.
Michonne in The Walking Dead TV show is also a character lacking family history and romantic capacity, but to a more extreme degree. Michonne is introduced into the series carrying a sword and leading two zombies on neck collars and chains, but unlike the graphic novel version, the TV show so far has omitted the original back-story that her zombie ‘pets’ are actually what remains of her boyfriend and his best friend. The TV show also features Michonne juxtaposed against the conventional, blond beauty Andrea (Laurie Holden), a woman with whom we’re supposed to sympathize because she had to shoot her younger sister who was bitten and infected by a zombie early on in the series. In fact, we get plenty of back-story and family history for Andrea though, in general, Andrea as a character is problematic in a different way.  She’s represented on the show as being thirsty to exert muscle, secure perimeters, and shoot zombies to secure the camp, while actually proving to be a terrible markswoman and a stubborn-but-gullible character.

Michonne and Andrea become friends because Michonne helps Andrea survive in the woods (though we never see this enacted). The friendship, however, goes sour when Andrea uses her feminine wiles to become romantically involved with the rival leader and villain of the show, Governor Blake (David Morrissey), whom Michonne doesn’t trust. The fact that Andrea’s stats point towards her uselessness as a team member within the original group of survivors and her penchant for using her physical appearance to elevate her status in a new survivors’ camp, combined with the fact that a mainstream segment of the show’s viewing audience seems to empathize with and like Andrea reads as bad news; a stink bomb for the pro-womanist camp. The Los Angeles Times actually called Andrea "tough as nails". Does this point towards mainstream America’s value and normalization of the combined qualities of weakness and conventional attractiveness where white women are concerned?

While it’s arguable that Andrea is accepted in The Governor’s terrible camp because she’s weak and Michonne is rejected in that same camp because she’s strong, that doesn’t explain the viewing audience’s sympathy for a character like Andrea, or the fact that Michonne as a character, audience sympathy or not, seems estranged beyond the walls of The Governor’s camp.

In one or two awkward episodes, the parting of Michonne and Andrea is almost reminiscent of a heterosexual romantic breakup, with Andrea having to decide on whether to stay with The Governor or go with Michonne, who becomes primarily framed as a masculine figure competing for Andrea’s affections. The tone of this is punctuated by the fact that Michonne isn’t presented as a feminine figure at least, since she has no romantic interests or connections, and at most by the fact that the TV show skips a terrible episode from the graphic novel where The Governor rapes Michonne. While I hardly condone scenes of rape, to omit this sort of inherent female peril adds to the effect of magically erasing the reality of Michonne’s vulnerability; a vulnerability that a normal female character would automatically carry in the midst of an apocalyptic scenario.

So what makes mainstream entertainment like The Walking Dead so hesitant to paint black female characters as possessing normative female vulnerability? Cultural theorist Bell Hooks contends that America’s feminist movement which sought to ally itself with the black equality movement created an unfortunate by-product in the process. According to Hooks, a framework was established in the white female-black person alliance, wherein one is either a woman or black, so that those who are both black and female end up occupying an isolated cultural space in between womanhood and blackness, and get supported by neither movement.

Considering both Dyer and Hooks, it’s easy to understand why black female film and TV characters like Selena and Michonne are crafted in odd ways, and are permitted to function in ways usually reserved for male characters; their vulnerability is sacrificed, and they go beyond just resisting normal representations of womanhood in entertainment like a white ‘feminist’ character might. These black female characters aren’t considered to be members of traditional or normal womanhood or feminist womanhood, as they exist outside of each of these. It is implicit that writers and directors most often simply reflect whatever exists within the dominant social structure of a given culture. So, these sort of representations make me uncomfortable when I consider the real, historical implications of estranging black women from normative womanhood; what this has rationalized and left black Western women vulnerable to: being worked as physically hard as men while bearing the burden of all that misogyny and patriarchy entail under enslavement, being racially profiled like men and physically abused by those in authority in ways, and beyond ways in which men can be abused, and suffering every crime against women that can be committed, while being viewed as less valuable, or less worthy of saving than their white female counterparts. In this light, and against an historical backdrop where it was once considered impossible to rape a black woman because of slave status or 'scientifically' acceptable to experiment on black female patients without anesthesia, the omission of problematics implicit in normative womanhood for a black female character in a popular series like The Walking Dead just doesn’t sit right with me.

As a black woman, it isn’t that I don’t want to be represented as strong; I am strong, but being represented as having no family history, no grace, no femininity, no sexuality, no chivalry applied, and no need for rescuing; the kind of which so many white Western women have had the luxury of butting against, isn’t acceptable to me. I want to be represented with versatile, connected, vulnerably human black female characters. That’s all.

References (in order of mention)

Night of the Living Dead, directed by George A. Romero (1968; Beverly Hills: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004). DVD.

[Image] Ben, Night of the Living Dead, source:

Robin Wood, ‘An Introduction to the American Horror’, p. 195-220 in Bill Nichols (ed), Movies and Methods, Revised for Volume II (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California, 1985).

Day of the Dead, directed by George A. Romero (1985; Beverly Hills: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004). DVD.

Night of the Living Dead, directed by Tom Savini (1990; Los Angeles: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 2000). DVD.

Dawn of the Dead, directed by Zack Snyder (2004; Universal City: Universal Home Entertainment 2007). DVD.

Dawn of the Dead, directed by George A. Romero (1978; Beverly Hills: Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2004). DVD.

28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle (2002; Century City: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2008). DVD.

The Walking Dead, Various directors, 2010-Present, adapted from Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel, The Walking Dead, Vol. 1-17, Seventh Printing 2008 (Berkeley: Image Comics, 2003).

[Image] Selena, 28 Days Later, source: www.tumblr.comtagged28-days-later.

[Image] Michonne, The Walking Dead, source:

Richard Dyer, ‘White’, p. 44-65 in Screen, Vol. 29, Issue 4, 1988.

One for the Fire: The Legacy of Night of the Living Dead, Robert Lucas and Chris Roe (2008; Burbank: Dimension Home Entertainment, 2008).

Paul Waldman, 'The Left and the Living Dead',, June 16, 2009.

Facebook fan page:

Gina McIntyre, ''The Walking Dead': 10 characters we'll miss, 5 in danger (spoilers)', Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2013.

Bell Hooks, Ain’t I a Woman (London, Winchester, MA: Pluto, 1982).

Barron H. Lerner, 'Scholars Argue Over Legacy of Surgeon Who Was Lionized, Then Vilified', New York Times, October 8, 2003.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Subjectivities in Life Experience

Dear Gentle Reader(s),

I've finally come up for air after the lonnnng sloggg of working on my dissertation. I noticed that a friend of mine on a social media site posted a link to a published essay detailing the transformative experience of the writer at Burning Man.

Given what happened in my life last year; losing my baby boy, and two years before that, losing my sister, my dear friend, and my grandmother all within a three month period, I've thought a lot about perspective and life knowledge. I've struggled to stay connected with people whose problems seem vastly pale by comparison. I've struggled with the estrangement inherent in losing my 'life innocence' in this way. Particularly, because of losing my son, I've struggled with the 'knowing' which comes as a result of seeing that 'everything' isn't always going to be all right and not 'everyone' just 'gets pregnant and has a baby'. I've often found myself thinking, these people have no fucking clue and very much not enjoying my new knowledge. A person can really get bogged down by knowing what others don't; it's not a smug sort of feeling, it's a longing for a return to innocence combined with a longing for other people to catch up in experience, so that you're not totally alone in it. It's not about wishing bad things on other people; it's about sometimes feeling a lack of enthusiasm for things that others are enthusiastic about, or lack of enthusiasm for things others think they understand in their innocence. But reality dictates, as it should, that people learn things in their own time and in their own way.

I was drawn to think again about this subjective wealth of personal knowledge, as I read through the comments section below that person's Burning Man essay, and was dismayed by the number of posts slamming and disqualifying this person's experience: Burning Man was better in the 90s; A person has to 'do' things, not 'watch others' doing things to experience joy and other such comments. This bitterness disturbed me, and I thought, Well, how many of these sage life experts have lost a baby? What do they know about life? And then my real answer came; to them, and for myself:

So what, Burning Man was better in the 90s? Really, a person has to 'do' things, not 'watch others' doing things to experience joy? Watching others, or maybe the act of finally 'seeing' others beyond yourself could, in fact, be 'doing' something in another person's experience. This is all subjective. What if I told you that the majority of people here don't have a clue about reaching deep, feeling deeply, knowing true love, touching creation, or surviving until they birth, then grieve the loss of a baby they birthed? That is what I did, and it doesn't mean that other peoples' experiences don't count for shit all of a sudden. At the end of the day, you can only know what you know through your own experiences, in your own way, in your own time. The experiences of one don't necessarily negate or invalidate the experiences of others. How someone draws upon, gleans, and finds lessons in experiences (experiences which may very well be contextually passé or superficial to another person) is personal, may be experienced as transformative for that person, and therefore valid. Can folks stop pissing on other people's experiences, please? Live in your own truth and let others live in theirs, please. Give them a chance to find their own way, not your way.

That is all.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Trayvon Martin And The Myth Of The "Acceptable Negro": A Personal Anecdote

Dear Gentle Reader(s),

I have to say something. I have to. I don't know whether anyone is reading this or not. But I know that if there's even a remote chance that anyone who has anonymously enjoyed my quirky blogs about "cute" things, or sexism, horror films, or late pregnancy loss, dating faux pas, or toxic people, or the awesomeness of Foo Fighters, then I know that I need to share this, and in a moment it will be clear why.

There's a guy I know from the film industry here in London. He seems a gentle soul, intelligent, humorous, and unmistakably upper middle class in that quirky, weird vintage sweater-wearing British sort of way. Since working with each other years ago, we've been Facebook friends. He once made it clear that he enjoyed vintage clips of the TV show Soul Train, which I found to be such a charming trait that for one of his birthdays, I posted one of these clips on his page - of course, he loved it.

Living in London has afforded me the luxury of getting to know people whom I might otherwise not have had the opportunity to even meet - and I don't just mean that in a literal way; I mean it in a sociopolitical way. Because I know something about my home country of America that others like me, from Josephine Baker in the 30s to your average modern day African American US military person, know: Europe treats us better. And just when I think I'm descending into mental dramatics, I remind myself of how socially segregated my life was in America, even though I'm the product of an ethnically and religiously mixed family.

Here's the reality check: I am brown skinned, so in America I am "just black". Beyond my own high school social group, I can count on one hand the times I witnessed multicultural groups of adults socializing together, and beyond my own family, I can count on that same hand the number of white people I was actually close to or called friends when I lived in America. My life in the UK is completely different. Sure, here I can complain that I don't get nearly as much film work as an English Rose with the same credentials because I don't fit the standard, BBC-mentored, middle class white girl mould. And yes, that certainly hurts my pocketbook, but I can say that I have a generally pleasant life here where my social pool is very diverse, and much more importantly I don't fear for my safety like I did back home. Even in the face of the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011, I know that in London my class status and gender, the fact that I'm articulate and pretty by British standards protects me, unlike in America.

There is a certain emotional discomfort in the knowledge that my British contemporaries, with their predominant acceptance of me and belief in my in right to experience social dignity in daily life, have no idea why I have so much in common with someone like Trayvon Martin. I know this because I've had countless discussions with British contemporaries who scoffed at the idea that I might identify with a disenfranchised underclass, or the possibility that I know anything about being racially profiled. This place, where average men become impatient with me for bashfully trying to cover myself in my bra and underpants when faced with another early waking visitor at a friend's house because I "obviously know [I'm] beautiful" is a place full of people who have no idea what it means to be black in America, much less a fat black woman in America.

After the George Zimmerman acquittal I posted a link to the Southern Poverty Law Center's press statement on my facebook feed. Shortly after posting this link the British friend I mentioned earlier posted a link to a video which he clearly thought pertained to me. In it, radio talk show host Stefan Molyneux of Freedomain Radio (which calls itself the largest and most popular philosophy show on the web) proceeds to break down the Zimmerman case quite subjectively. Molyneux reconstructs, and even reimagines facts of the incident, cites the worst comparative social statistics concerning African Americans I've ever heard barring Neo-Nazi sites, then closes with (and I'm paraphrasing here) urging presumably intellectual, middle class people to focus on things other than "race"  and "race baiters" because "we" have bigger fish to fry. Without saying anything more about how this pertains to the first portion of my thoughts here, I would like to take this moment to present my response to the poster of this video on Monday, July 15, 2013:

"Sorry, [name withheld], but this is essentially hegemonically constructed hogwash and I can’t allow it to go unaddressed in my presence. In fact, I’m just going to put it out there and let the chips fall where they may. This is the only time I’m going to address this issue and I’m going to make it count so everyone knows where I stand. I warn you, it’s going to be lengthy, but this is important. This is my contribution to fighting the good fight so I’m not going to skimp. A hegemonic, white supremacist framework and its institutional apparatuses are, as far as I’m concerned, not to be trusted when it comes to fair and balanced collection and reporting of all of these *amazing* statistics which your buddy above is using to essentially rationalize the murder of an unarmed boy and absolve society of any further concern for its lowest rungs. This sort of thing has been going on for a very long time, and I’m frankly surprised that you seem to be advocating this sort of thinking. It has actually been a very long time since anyone has not known better than to approach me with such a load of drivel – I’m being quite serious. Watching this man reduce (one of) my ethnic group(s) down to savagery in order to rationalize or contextualize this Zimmerman crime... God, it’s as if Critical Race Theory never existed at all, and someone has travelled back through time to find this rationalizing, pathologizing, asshole.

Part of the very meta-discourse being had in cultural and critical studies and theory (and this is technically aside from critical race theory, though there are clearly overlaps) since the late 20th century covers how cultural and social data have historically been, and continue to be collected in alignment with, and through the agents of hegemonic frameworks. So thank you for posting a shining example of that above (not the meta-discourse, but the hegemonically aligned data) which, by the way, is particularly ironic since he speaks at the end about people who are selling off “our” future, starting and sending “us” to wars, putting massive numbers of “people” in prison for having the wrong “vegetation” on them. So it just escapes this man that in my country, the majority of people who were actually sent to Vietnam, the majority of people encouraged to join the military rather than going to university today, and the majority of people who are sent to prison for having the wrong “vegetation” on them are working class and poor people of colour... specifically, black people, who were/are sent up the river because they were profiled, targeted, slated for mediocrity, and processed with more zeal, harshness, and at greater rates than their white counterparts, thanks to dehumanizing rationalizations shakily formed by the dodgy collection of *exactly* the sort of hogwash data that he peddles throughout most of his video? Seriously, I didn’t think anyone outside of backwoods, poorly educated, middle America was into pathologizing the oppressed with such a straight face anymore.

On a personal level I understand, as a person who did not grow up in an environment of poverty and lack of education, that if someone like me can be affected and profoundly traumatized by the realities of institutional racism, and if I know that, via institutional apparatuses, the odds are stacked against minorities, particularly poor minorities, then I should be wary of the message of the gatekeeper any time he wants to drag out the trumped up carcass of black savagery to rationalize a terrible act like shooting an unarmed boy. This is an old song. You should read some Tim Wise, Stuart Hall, and perhaps some Homi K. Bhabha, since the endorsement of such a video as the one above happens to denote a terribly archaic perspective.

Speaking of Tim Wise, amongst so many other reality checks, he mentioned a few years back that according to a US study released in 2004 “black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their cars stopped and searched for drugs –even though white males are four and half times more likely to actually have drugs on us on the occasion when we are stopped.” That small statistic is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racial profiling, stopping and searching, and the greater goals of maintaining the prison industrial complex which is overwhelmingly full of black people. The prison industrial complex generates everything from free labour to manufacture goods, to prison-based gerrymandering – which, by the way is structured pretty similarly to counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of using them as constituents while denying them any political voice. This is a business, my friend, and every business needs personnel to keep running. Why not fast track potential personnel by sending them straight to prison? Of course if you do it the way Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. did, you might get done for selling thousands of kids straight to the prison system, which actually isn’t shocking when you consider how much more likely black people in the US are to be given the straight to jail ticket. 

In the decades following slavery, multiple generations of us have been treated as second class citizens, been firebombed (someone planted a bomb outside a beach house my family was renting one Thanksgiving in the 90s – the police had to actually disarm it), chased, intimidated, grandfather-claused, used for medical experimentation without anaesthesia, disenfranchised, marginalized, shot, beaten to death, and pathologized all by the same system and its agents which supposedly impartially collect data on us. Yeah, okay, single black mothers are the *real* problem with “the blacks”. In fact, it’s their problem. I don’t understand why those “blacks” are such savages, but this obviously has nothing to do with US. Racism is just... over. Not. The game is rigged and has been for a long time. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier the academic sphere has cottoned onto this reality (if you’ll pardon the pun), though I won’t hold my breath for any of this to filter into the mainstream consciousness.

But because you saw fit to share this video with me thereby implying my inclusion as member of the group your boy Molyneux seems to feel has bigger fish to fry, I’m compelled to share some personal observations and anecdotes here. Perhaps Molyneux and his contemporaries have bigger fish to fry because his children won’t EVER be at risk at the hands of fascist police and crazy nutcases like Zimmerman. Mine will, which is one of the reasons why I live here rather than the US. Yes in Britain black and Asian men are 30 times more likely than whites to get stopped and searched, but at least I probably won’t have to worry as much about some neighbour PROFILING, STALKING, SHOOTING and MURDERING my future son one day. Only people who will never have to worry about such a fate for their children are loath to admit that this is a serious problem. It actually speaks to a degree of acceptance within in your culture, [name withheld], that you would even consider sharing this video with me and believe that it applies.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s break down Racial Identity in America 101: George Zimmerman’s ethnic background holds little to no significance to how he is identified and self-identifies in daily life. In a society where skin colour has traditionally represented, and been legislated as currency and rights to social privileges, and is the predominant means of identifying and categorizing people, having very light skin makes a person essentially “white” in the eyes of a majority of citizens, including those charged with the responsibility of upholding and enforcing laws. Conversely, having dark skin makes a person essentially “black” to said majority. The social signifiers attached to colour in my country are deeply ingrained and very negative for those who fall along the darker lines of the spectrum. Note the confusion and hurt experienced by many dark immigrants who arrive into America and suddenly realize that they’re being called, and treated as black when they’re not from Africa and don’t consider themselves to be black – surprise! Colorism is a bitch and it is very real. Racial profiling wouldn’t be such a huge problem if this weren’t the case. Even as a person who grew up upper middle class, presumably with all the hallmarks of class privilege, I have had the opportunity to experience first-hand how racial profiling works in America. One of the major reasons I moved out of my country was because I got tired of suffering through racism and racial profiling as part of my pedestrian life. Let me share a few anecdotes.

My maternal grandmother used to take me everywhere with her when I was a little girl. My grand was European and very pale, and I am brown, which amounted to stares and comments (often nasty) when we went out. For many, it was an impossibility that we should, or could be related simply based upon our skin colours, though in all other physical features I very much resemble the women on her side of the family – in the eyes of many strangers it was okay to stare at and ostracize a grandmother and her little granddaughter. This may not seem like much to others, but for a small child, it’s terrifying and demoralizing overall. In fact, the first time in my life when my grandmother and I were not stared at or commented on was when she came to visit me here in London in 2005.

My father, who is African American, a consultant level physician with his own practice, and a past president of a state medical association was stopped by police in his BMW while on his way back from seeing patients at a hospital one night. He was wearing a shirt and tie, had a stethoscope around his neck and his lab coat in the back seat. He was stopped for no apparent reason and repeatedly questioned about where he got his car. Eventually, they reduced themselves to repeatedly asking if he had STOLEN his car, even though it had to have been clear that he was a doctor. In the end, they were forced to let him go, but he was lucky to have made it away from there without getting his skull bashed in or run into jail on some sort of trumped up charges, considering the reputation of the county he was driving through. From my father to men like Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and actor LeVar Burton, this sort of harassment happens routinely and most consider themselves lucky if they escape these incidents unharmed. Imagine your own father having to deal with living this way his whole life no matter what his class, how successful, what his credentials were, or how much money he had. Imagine yourself having to live this way. Imagine your son having to live this way. Really, try to imagine it.

In another experience, I once watched as my ex-husband was taken out of our flat in his pajamas AT GUN POINT, handcuffed, and held at gun point as a “suspect” in a robbery, because the police arrived at the wrong address. What robber have you ever heard of who would be willing to answer someone else’s door in striped Polo pajamas? We were truly in fear for his life because these police looked positively poised to use their guns at a moment’s notice, and had a reputation in that city for having used deadly force on hundreds of unarmed, innocent people. In this same city, my ex and I were repeatedly stopped by police without explanation while driving through neighbourhoods, including our own, where we apparently didn’t ‘seem’ to belong. Racial profiling isn’t just something that police do in ‘drug ridden ghettos’. And obviously, it isn’t just police.

In another incident, my ex and I once had a volatile, noisy, alcoholic neighbour whom the management couldn’t manage to legally evict. We pleaded with our building management to move us to a different apartment, which they agreed to when one became available. Later, the executive building manager, in an attempt to distract from promises to move us, started talking about not feeling she could trust us because of “that black guy down the hall who does drugs and doesn’t pay his rent on time”. She was actually attempting, based upon skin colour, to link us with the poor behaviour of a total stranger with whom we had nothing in common. We were at this person’s mercy and her extreme prejudice. Never mind that we’d lived in that building for over two years, never mind their promises to move us; suddenly, we had simply become like that black drug user who never pays rent because it was more convenient to intimidate us and let us move away than to prepare a new flat. Incredibly demoralizing. This same woman’s associate also offered us another apartment in another building at one point. Imagine our shock and dismay when our “viewing” amounted to being shown a flat in a dilapidated building all the way across town in a ghetto.

I have had two incidents where I sat with a group of friends in restaurants and literally been ignored by the staff as other patrons arrived, were served, and went. Once we waited to be served for nearly two hours in a restaurant which actually had a reputation for refusing service to African Americans, but we were young uni students on a road trip, were hungry, and there was nowhere else in the area open after 9:30 pm, so we just waited. And waited, and waited. And after the 100th attempt to flag down a waiter or waitress, a waitress stopped at our table with a sour look and simply asked, “What?”

I can’t count the number of times I have been followed around high end department stores and shops (sometimes by black or Hispanic security guards, by the way) as if I were going to steal something – never mind that I was always well dressed, well spoken and that I could afford to shop at these establishments – I was still automatically a potential thief because of my colour.

I can’t count the number of very well qualified people I know who have had to shorten or change their names for their CVs just to be granted job interviews because their names sounded “too African American”. I’ve had friends and family walk through my parents’ neighbourhood and not long after, we’d get neighbours calling to “make sure” those people were associated with us, otherwise the police might be called. In fact, I was almost abducted by a strange man in a car at dusk in my parents’ neighbourhood while walking one of our dogs, and I knocked on a neighbour’s door to get to safety and the gentleman wouldn’t open the door, speak with me, or even call the police. Later, at a neighbourhood association meeting this neighbour claimed not to know who I was and therefore didn’t feel “safe” helping me. To him I was just some ‘suspicious black’ knocking on his door at dusk, even though I clearly identified myself, my address, my name, and my parents’ names, asked him to phone the police, and explained the situation at hand –I’d been in tears, as a strange man first tried to blind me with his headlights, then cut off his lights totally and slowly followed me down the road before quickly speeding away. None of that mattered to the man behind the door. All he saw was that someone black was at his door and he had no intention of helping. The reality is that the majority of the (very few) crimes in that neighbourhood have been committed by white criminals, but for this gentleman, my skin colour meant that I was suspicious, and my skin colour even trumped my gender (which was presumably why I was targeted by the man in the car).

I have an African American friend who was hit in a head-on collision by a pair of drunk drivers (who happened to be white) and was asked by the police repeatedly what SHE was doing, driving around that neighbourhood at 8 at night. The drunks weren’t even taken to jail, though they were deeply intoxicated. I have hundreds of these stories not from the trenches of “the ghetto” but from middle class life. This is life in America, where a person like me has to be concerned with personal safety in an environment where I am automatically assumed to be the suspect. And I’m not even male.

The situation becomes even further complicated by intra-racism and colourism. Not unlike India, where dark skin is bad, ugly, and automatically takes on a signifier of low class and criminal potential, people of colour in America don’t exist in a bubble where we haven’t internalized institutionalized racism and colourism. Hegemonic victims can and do become its agents very often. There are self hating minorities all over the place. And why shouldn’t there be, when they’re given a pretty consistent message that they’re nothing in society? It’s no more difficult to understand than the case of people in Britain who move up in class, then reign hatred down on lower class people because they’re trying to escape being painted with the same brush. But what about those who don’t ever escape? What do we supposed happens to their internalized racism? This might be a bit complicated and inconvenient to those who enjoy reducing racism to the use of offensive words and KKK hoods, but it’s a real phenomenon, is employed in pedestrian life, and is an extension of a larger hegemonic framework.

Consequently, anyone who believes that the average person like George Zimmerman, regardless of his controlled dealings with black people, or even his own ancestry wasn’t making assumptions about Trayvon Martin based upon skin colour is living in a fantasy land influenced by the greater hegemonic framework. At the end of the day, people are complex and internalize racism in all sorts of ways. George Zimmerman’s alleged volunteer work with ‘young blacks’ doesn’t negate his aggressive and racist Myspace messages in 2006 slamming random Mexicans he saw crossing the road for potentially being “gangsters” or “gangbangers” –yes, he’s technically Hispanic and this is how he views Mexicans. That explains a lot for those who wish to excuse a racist motive from Zimmerman’s actions. Trayvon Martin’s alleged 3.7 grade point average or his drug use is irrelevant. Sensational statistics about how terribly black people treat their children are irrelevant. What is relevant, when a citizen – a minor no less - is not investigated, known, or observed engaging in clear criminal activity but profiled automatically as a suspect by another citizen, is raising questions on how the person doing the profiling came to such a conclusion, and if we should continue to give creative license for citizens to act as judge, jury and executioner with other citizens based upon skin colour. Given how common racial profiling is, it isn’t whining or race baiting to admit that if Trayvon Martin had been white – given all the same background and history - George Zimmerman likely wouldn’t have profiled him at all and he might still be alive. 

Dragging Trayvon Martin’s character through a fine strainer and finding dubious activities does not negate the fact that Zimmerman had no idea who Trayvon Martin was. Given Zimmerman’s qualifier for sighting a ‘suspicious’ individual, he could easily have been profiling one of my younger cousins – any one of my incredibly bright and gifted male cousins who happens to inhabit a tall, brown body. Even though my cousins, being nerds, aren’t known for being particularly tough I can imagine that any one of them would have attempted to defend themselves against a stranger who took it upon himself to follow and aggressively interact with them. One of the many ways a hegemonic, white supremacist framework succeeds at crazy-making is by denying that being young, black, and male is a cultural signifier or code for potential criminal, and putting the onus on its victims to prove it so in an environment where all the odds of believability are automatically stacked against them because they’re not respected members of society to begin with. Rendering subjugated people crazy by pathologizing them; calling them delusional and paranoid in the face of what is actually real makes it easy for hegemony to propagate and carry on, business as usual. The fact that the President of the United States made an acknowledgement of widespread problems of racial profiling, racially motivated aggression and violence by coded language; that had he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin, should tell you something.

Whether or not it is legally binding, it is a bad idea and a clear act of aggression and of racial profiling to decide that someone you don’t think ‘belongs’ in your neighbourhood should be followed and questioned as you carry a your *gun* when dispatchers tell you that you don’t need to do such a thing. I don’t care how anybody wraps it up in twisting facts, presumed intentions, dodgy backgrounds, and what was within Zimmerman’s legal right to do – he thought he was going to take down a big, black, criminal but instead he got a scared kid who was willing to fight his way out of the situation, and so Zimmerman MURDERED him. And guess what? He got away with MURDER. They actually said that Trayvon Martin “weaponized” the sidewalk. That is amazing and really presents a new low. Zimmerman wasn’t the first in my country to kill a black boy in a murder which was the culmination of his personal suspicions, and I’m sure he won’t be the last.

This isn’t philosophical for me, this isn’t just theoretical for me, this is real. Me, my husband (who’s English and white, by the way) and our close friends, particularly in the US, who stand any chance of raising black boys have taken time to discuss and strategize on how to keep our children safe not just from bullies, or drugs, but from fascist police who are willing to use deadly force as an automatic measure, psychos like Zimmerman or Michael David Dunn, and a justice system which insures that men like them get to “stand [their] ground” against an unarmed, teenage boys with whom they pick fights and murder.

It’s obvious by his dismissive tone and use of insider/outsider language towards the end of his diatribe, Molyneux absolves himself of all responsibility after presenting a case for the perpetuation of internalized violence in the so-called black community and that is his prerogative, though again, it’s a cheap trick to inject this discussion of profiling and rights with the familiar ink of ‘black on black’ violence. But what I really have a problem with is the use of “I” then being transferred into “we” and “we” transferring into “society”.  The problem with the “I’m/we’re not responsible” argument is that it makes “I”  or “we” (one’s contemporaries) synonymous with “society” and then muffles legitimate discourses on institutional racism and the functional, practical apparatuses of hegemony to spotlight skirmishes over who is an individual racist and who isn’t. Consequently, the much needed discourse about how to reduce structural racism is ignored, the reality of white privilege is ignored, and economic and educational stratification are ignored. Molyneux, never having been on the receiving end of prolonged racial profiling and racist verbal abuse and experiencing racism’s psychologically debilitating effects (like I have), and being confident that society belongs to him and his, now positions himself into the privileged spot of basically claiming that the social failings of people of colour as a group aren’t society’s problem to solve, since “we” aren’t racist, and black people have created these terrible problems all on their own.

When Molyneux speaks about what “we” need to do, he isn’t speaking to me, because I have grave concerns about where structural and social racism are going and how people of colour have and may continue to internalize racism. I am a person of colour, so this affects me and goes way beyond whether I live in a mansion, a ghetto, or in the hipster central of East London. Maybe it’s because I have one foot in the subjugated camp and one in the privileged camp, but I say this IS society’s problem; society created these problems and helps to perpetuate these problems. It’s amazing how society gets drawn into it when it concerns young white men who freak out and suddenly shoot and kill dozens of innocent people, but somehow, a society which has had African Americans as slaves longer than it has had African Americans as free people, isn’t responsible for the creation and perpetuation of social ills playing out in the lowest economic rungs of society which happen to be mostly black (clearly by design, by the way). The double standard is staggering. Again, this affects me, people I care about a great deal, and lots people I don’t even know and will never meet, so please don’t post any more of this garbage on my Facebook posts. This man’s video clearly isn’t addressing me, no matter how acceptable and pleasant a black person you find me to be."

That was my response, friends, because I'll not sit idly by and allow anyone in my presence to endorse propaganda shamelessly debasing the direct descendants of the population responsible for physically building the United States brick-by-brick in chains for free; the population responsible for launching a civil rights movement so powerful that it has inspired the world community; the population which boasts intellectuals, professors, artists, musicians, doctors, attorneys, scientists, and business people produced with talent, brilliance, hard work, and tenacity with no white privilege or legacy privilege to rely upon. Emmit Till, Rosa Parks, MLK, and Malcolm X might be symbols of the fight, but countless other unnamed black Americans, in all their glory, fought and continue to fight this spectacular fight against stacked odds and against those who benefit from a hegemony which rationalizes the terrible treatment of blacks while allowing those who succeed as exceptions to their general view of black people as savages. I will double dog dare anyone to assume that it is okay to come to me with such nonsense. At the end of the day it isn't enough for me to be tolerated or accepted, live away from home in a place where my future children will be less likely to encounter crazies like Zimmerman and therefore avoid suffering great personal loss, like Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother, did. I need to know that wherever I go, wherever my future children go, wherever we all go, we will be afforded all the privileges of first class citizenry in any lands on which we set foot, but especially in the land we toiled over and bled on. Until that day comes, I will not be complacent, I will not be silent, I will fight for what is right.