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.

Friday, 5 July 2013

So Effing Cute

You know, Gentle Reader(s), I know I'm cute. Small and squishy and... well, cute. And since I'm so cute, I'm inclined to love other, even cuter things like Grumpy Cat and Bunny Shaming and Freddy Krueger. I also love coffee. I mean, I really love coffee. Really, I should have married coffee. Anyway,  I don't know about you, but I've often thought about what a shame it is that I couldn't combine cuteness with coffee. Well today I despair no-mo because someone has done it.

Check out Kotaku for the scoop (scoop of marshmallow, that is... mmm mmm good).

Also, while we're on the subject of cuteness, are you familiar with "George-ing"? You know the phenomenon of wanting to hug and squeeze something SO cute incredibly tightly? Well beyond Looney Tunes animation, Of Mice and Men, and what my large husband does to me when he comes home after work, there's a scientific name for it other than "George-ing". That name is "cute aggression". Check out the phenomenon of "cute aggression" as explored by Scientific American. Who knew?