Rules of Engagement

So one of the things I’ve been working through during the last couple days is trying to define and clarify the boundaries around when to speak up and when to be silent. Because, however-much I admire the determined stance voiced in Calderon’s and Wise’s “Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies“:

[W]e are committed to challenging the individual injustices and institutional inequities that exist as a result of racism, and to speaking out whenever and wherever it exists.

And however seriously I take the responsibility I articulated a couple days ago about speaking up again and again, I still can’t quite see myself as a wherever, whenever kind of testimony giver.

Continue reading “Rules of Engagement”

Broken Windows

So, in the words of Morris W. O’Kelley, it is “That Time in America” again.

Freddy Gray died in Baltimore on April 19th, one week after an arrest and police transport experience that somehow left him comatose, brain swollen, with three broken vertebrae and an 80% spinal cord severance. Involved officers were suspended. The Justice Department opened an investigation.

Peaceful protests took place for several days without much media attention. Then a small percentage of the protesters turned to violence and property destruction–with, by the way, the active collusion of baseball fans and poor police planning.

And then the finger-wagging commenced. Which brings me back to O’Kelley:

This is that time in America when we stand around and ask “why would ‘they’ burn down ‘their’ community?” This is that time in America when we simultaneously act as if the precipitating event or parallel history are neither relevant nor worthy of addressing. . . . This is that time in America when once again, African-Americans are expected to play by rules not followed by others while also having the original issues ignored.

Yup. It’s that time again. Not that “that time” ever really went away in the first place.

Continue reading “Broken Windows”

Echoes and Mirrors

Now that the weekend is here, I can catch up on my Blogging 101 assignments. A few of the  assignments I haven’t posted about are “under-the-hood” ones: find new blogs, connect with people in the discussion boards, play around with the visual theme of your blog. I’ve done the first two and at some point I’ll make time to play a bit with the visual design here on JALC. During that Baltic cruise, I actually took a lot of landscape-orientation “texture” photos (things like a lacquered wood floor in The Hermitage, or a ceiling mosaic from the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood) thinking precisely of their use-value for Facebook and blog headers. Now if only I would actually take the time to download those July photos from my camera’s memory card to actually sort through them and start using them…

But one of the assignments was a post topic: the suggestion to

publish a post for your dream reader, and include a new-to-you element in it.

Continue reading “Echoes and Mirrors”

Shake Your Booty

The MTV VMAs are tonight. (Actually, for all I know, the online streaming red carpet/pre-show thing is probably happening even as I type.)

I won’t be watching them live (True Blood finale!), but in some perverse attempt to pretend I’m still in touch with current entertainment trends, I will be DVRing it to watch in bits and pieces over the next few nights.

From one perspective, I’m not quite sure why I even continue this yearly VMA ritual. As I age further and further out of the MTV/culturally  relevant demographic, there’s more people I don’t recognize at all, more songs and bits I fast forward through, and more jokes and references that I just don’t get (and some, as I sometimes say, that I may get, but I don’t want — if you catch my drift).

But I keep watching, I guess for those moments when I do find a new artist or song to appreciate, and also because I’m naturally interested in seeing cultural trends unfold “live” before me on the TV screen. Assuming a high likelihood of at least one water cooler moment emerging from the brouhaha, I like being able to form my own opinion of that moment from having seen it and reflected upon it — rather than just basing my opinion on someone else’s condemnation.

Though it’s worth admitting that sometimes my view of that “water cooler” moment is based both on my own personal viewing and also on input from other cultural commentary. For example, during last year’s Mileygate, I was able to come up with plenty of opinions about the sexual politics of the performance, but it took a lunchtime conversation with some fresh-out-of-college co-workers to raise my awareness about the troubling elements of cultural appropriation that were embedded in the performance.

I’d never heard of twerking before, you see. And after that conversation, I did some research. Hadley Freeman in The Guardian helped me more clearly see the minstrel show undertone of the production:

a young wealthy woman from the south doing a garish imitation of black music and reducing black dancers to background fodder and black women to exaggerated sex objects.

Meanwhile, Anne Theriault (writing in HuffPo Canada, but who I also follow avidly on her own blog, The Belle Jar) expressed her outrage at white feminists silence over things I should have seen when watching the performance — the crass objectification of women of color in the stage show’s choreography and in Cyrus’ performance.

Even worse, in her performance last night Miley used black women as props — like,literal props — and barely anyone said anything. I saw very few people displaying any outrage over the fact that Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate. I saw barely anyone discussing the fact that Miley’s sexual empowerment, or whatever you want to call it, should not come at the cost of degrading black women.

All in all, it’s a small object lesson in the value I hold in seeing something with my own eyes before condemning or opining upon it, but also in the ways I need to keep listening and learning. I mean, seriously, looking back one year later at my level of blindness around the racist undertones (overtones, through-tones) there… I mean, it’s like, Hello, white privilege! There you are again!

gotham_twerk_by_arzeno-d6l2vl1And why am I rehashing all this one year later? Because we now have two twerking videos freshly released, sitting at the flashpoint of controversy, and with both performers scheduled to sing at tonight’s awards show.

In one corner, Taylor Swift, whose new video Shake It Off is earning critique for its own cultural appropriation of hip-hop culture and the sexualization/objectification of twerking and women of color — most especially the moment where, to quote Hillary Crosley in Jezebel, “she celebrates her true self by crawling through a bridge of brown and black women’s butts.”

In the other, there’s Nicki Minaj, whose Anaconda video is a hyper-sexualized invocation (celebration?) of tweaking and black women’s booties.

So how does one rate which is most troubling? Does Swift get a pass because her video is tamer in its sexual content, or because she now asserts that she’s coming at her work and life from a feminist perspective? Or is Minaj’s video the less offensive one because Minaj is speaking from within her own culture and cultural experience, and because the video, as Lindsay Zoladz suggests in Vulture, is not about pandering to the male gaze:

One thing I find striking about the video is the complete lack of men in its surreal, bubblegum-Amazon world (except, of course, for Drake, who I’ll get to in a minute). The song itself describes — and, arguably, objectifies — a series of male characters, but we don’t see them in the video. Instead, it’s just Nicki and her dancers, going about their day — you know, just making some fruit salad, doing some cardio — in this hallucinatory all-female universe. At one point she eyes the camera seductively like she’s about to eat a banana, but instead chops it in half and chucks the peel away away with a diabolical smirk. . . . The staying power of “Anaconda” might not outlast its viral moment, but while it’s trending let’s at least acknowledge its slyly confrontational power.

I’m far from the only one making this triangle of comparison between Cyrus, Swift and Minaj. It all comes up in this Washington Post point-counterpoint that’s ostensibly focused just on the Taylor Swift single/video.Instead, the conversation weaves among all three singers and their twerking, as well as name-checking a bunch of other current artists whose cultural appropriation is, shall we say, a bit suspect.

But rather than playing the competition game — choosing to raise one singer in my estimation at the cost of the other — and rather than giving either woman a pass for the troubling elements of their discourse, I’m instead going to use this moment to bring in something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: how to both enjoy and critique artistic and cultural expression.

Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups. (Social Justice League)

And then, on the flip side of my own flip side is my desire not to blame either woman too harshly for the problematic pieces of their discourse. Because we all live in this kyriarchic, misogynist miasma. It infects our lives, our thought patterns — how could it not infect our artistic and creative expressions, too?

So ultimately — at least in these last pre-show minutes — I’m with Michelle Lhooq in The Guardian, seeing these various performances as more a symptom of our diseased culture than a root cause:

Slapping a parental advisory warning on Nicki Minaj’s bum will not change the way black women are exoticised. Banning videos by Robin Thicke, DJ Snake, and Calvin Harris, who use female bodies as trophies hard won of their overpowering masculinity, will not deflect the male gaze. Calling out Miley Cyrus’ career-advancing performance of racial drag, or Lily Allen’s casual racism is important, but what we really need is a broader spectrum of depictions of female sexuality – especially when it comes to women of colour – in mainstream culture. . . . Because the real problem is not that women of colour are over-sexualised in music videos, but rather how absent they usually are in the dominant culture as well as in discussions of cultural issues. Music videos shouldn’t be the only ways that mainstream society gets a glimpse of “otherness” but all too often, they are.

We’ll see if I’ve changed my mind after watching the DVR recording from tonight. Because if one or the other performance turns out to spectacularly offensive, culturally tone-deaf, or otherwise problematic, well then that’s new data. And new data sometimes changes the equation.


Image credit: “Gotham Twerk” by Arzeno, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from )

Raising My Hand

Last night when I was writing about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I toyed with the notion of posting links to some of my favorite videos of celebrities doing the challenge. I decided against it for a number of reasons — my favorite celebrity may not be yours, and besides, anyone interested in looking up their own favorite celeb’s enactment of the challenge can do so with their own visit to Professor Google’s office hours (24/7, don’tcha know!).

But there was one video that stopped me in my tracks and that I had to share.

Orlando Jones explains in more detail on his Tumblr page:

I am, of course, talking about the disease of apathy.  If (and hopefully when) Michael Brown’s killer is brought to justice and convicted of 1st degree murder, it still won’t prevent this from happening again. We cannot accept this as the status quo. We MUST continue the fight at the ballot box, in the media and by working to create systemic change. I’m not naive to the dirty politics (redistricting, voter ID requirements, etc) that will try to prevent us from our goal. But I refuse to give up hope. My “bullet bucket challenge” is not about pointing fingers and it’s not about being angry. Every shell casing in that bucket represents the life of someone who fought and died in the goal for civil rights and human dignity. As a member of law enforcement (yes I really am a reserve sheriff) I will not stand idly by while others violate civil and human rights under the cover of authority and I will insist that other good cops rise to the same standard as well. As a black man I will demand more from myself and my community. I will not allow outsiders to co-opt our struggle in order to commit violence in our name. I’m channeling my outrage into action so I no longer feel powerless. It’s not about black or white. It’s not about rich or poor. It’s about us vs. them. There are more of us — from all races, genders and identities — then there will ever be of them. And we will be victorious.

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality”

And no, I’m not so entirely vapid that it took one of the stars of Sleepy Hollow to get me thinking about events in Ferguson, MO.  I even made a small post about the topic, a week or so ago.  However, I very much focused on one Pollyanna bright spot in the midst of everything — and events have certainly moved on apace since that moment of hope.

And I stayed silent. Not because I was completely oblivious to the unfolding events. Since multiple news sources — including Digiday, TechTimes and the Washington Post — have explored why there is such a sharp differential between what shows up on Facebook (ice buckets) and Twitter (police violence in Ferguson), and since I am about 20,000 times more active on Facebook than I am on Twitter, you might think that my silence was caused by obliviousness.

But no. Whether it’s the political progressiveness of most of my Facebook friends, or my own habit of posting/liking/commenting on politically progressive content and articles, or some combination of the two, Ferguson has never been entirely off my Facebook feed. And since I am also one of those old geezers who still uses traditional news channels (TV news, magazines, etc.), there’s been that avenue for continued awareness, too.

But I stayed silent. I didn’t know what I had to say that would be insightful or of value. I was painfully aware of the depth of my white privilege, and deeply afraid that I might say something ignorant, embarrassingly naive, or just generally bone-headed in its/my privilege-blinders. And so I stayed silent.

ferguson-or-baghdadBut I cannot be silent any more.

I can’t tell you exactly what pushed me over the line. Orlando Jones’ challenge/invitation. The infuriating news that, at least as of the time this article was published, the amount of donations for Officer Darren Wilson surpass those for the Michael Brown Memorial Fund. Perhaps it was the stark reminders of how appalling strong the strands of racism run in society: a society where people will misattribute the fraternity handshake of a uniformed officer (none other than the same Capt. Ron Johnson I wrote about last week) as “gang signs,” and where a CNN anchor wonders, on-screen and completely unironically, why police aren’t using “water cannons” to subdue protesters in Ferguson. (Because that was so appropriate and worked so well back in the 60’s.)

Perhaps most tragic and infuriating of all was Tuesday’s shooting of Kajieme Powell, as well as the release of cell-phone video documenting the event. As cogently analyzed by Ezra Klein for Vox:

But there is still something wrong with that video. There is something wrong that the video seems obviously exculpatory to the police and obviously damning to so many who watch it. The dispute over the facts in the Michael Brown case offers the hope that there is a right answer — that Wilson either did clearly the right thing or clearly the wrong thing. The video of the Powell case delivers a harder reality: what the police believe to be the right thing and what the people they serve believe to be the right thing may be very different.

So: I cannot be silent any more. This much I take freely from Orlando Jones. #WeAreAllFerguson, and a core piece of standing up is (as he says both in the video and the accompanying Buzzfeed interview) to “listen without prejudice, love without limits, and reverse the hate.”

However, I know that I stand in the midst of my privilege, in the luxury of being able to “turn on” and “turn off” my awareness of systemic racism as it suits me. Ultimately, these are not my stories to tell. I am not the expert, and my voice should not be the loudest in this conversation.

But here, on JALC, my (white, female, privileged) voice is the only one. And I haven’t quite worked out how to speak authentically from my shoes without then going to that place where it’s all about me and not about the systemic evils of racism and militarization.

So for tonight, I’ll wrap up with a few last resources.

First, a detailed timeline from Josh Voorhees at Slate that presents

a day-by-day accounting of the specific law enforcement actions that exacerbated that pre-existing tension. . . . Here is our best attempt at a Ferguson timeline, with law enforcement behavior that ranges from the rational to the possibly justified to the highly questionable to the downright unconstitutional.

The timeline has links to other articles that drill into specific events or connected issues — if the timeline doesn’t bring you to a boil of outrage on its own, then the linked articles should certainly do the trick. (And if they don’t, then you and I see the world through very different lenses.)

Then two quick links — as much as for my own later reading and my own growth as for anyone else’s:

Listen without limits, love without prejudice, reverse the hate.

And speak upStand and be counted.


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A Little of that Human Touch

Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town
Ain’t no bread from heavenly skies
Ain’t nobody drawin’ wine from this blood
It’s just you and me tonight

Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much ?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch

~ Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch

While I’ve been under the weather* having a very individual-sort of challenging week, the rest of the country has been having its own sort of shitty week, what with the floods and the plagues and human decency going all to shit in Ferguson Missouri.

Because I’m still a bit ailing, I’m going to make this more of a link-fest than a work of original commentary — for the most part. Here’s a basic timeline that takes events up to President Obama’s statement Thursday afternoon.

And now a few scattered threads of what’s caught my attention since.

First, some basic pointers from Kate Harding on understanding these events from a lens of racial-cultural privilege.

2. Recognize that Michael Brown’s death was not an isolated incident.

In 2012, more than 300 black people were executed by police, security guards, or vigilantes. In the last month, three other unarmed African-American men—Eric Garner in New York, John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio, and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles—have been killed by police. Those are the ones we know about.

3. Stop saying “This can’t be happening in America.”

I understand the impulse, I really do. But that impulse only comes to those who are insulated and isolated from how America treats poor people and people of color every day. Langston Hughes wrote “America never was America to me” in 1935. If you didn’t quite understand that poem in your junior high or high-school lit classes, read it again, while you think about what’s happening in Ferguson. Let it sink in.

Then, two articles pondering the, um, “selective” ways that many mainstream media outlets choose to portray black victims of violent crime: one from NPR and one from HuffPo. The HuffPo piece particularly illustrates the discomfiting tension that exists between the portrayal of black victims of crime as compared to white (alleged) perpetrators of crimes. Yes, Virginia, race privilege is so fucked up that white criminals still get treated better than black crime victims:

This is by no means standard media protocol, but it happens frequently, deliberately or not. News reports often headline claims from police or other officials that appear unsympathetic or dismissive of black victims. Other times, the headlines seem to suggest that black victims are to blame for their own deaths, engaging in what critics sometimes allege is a form of character assassination. When contrasted with media portrayal of white suspects and accused murderers, the differences are more striking. News outlets often choose to run headlines that exhibit an air of disbelief at an alleged white killer’s supposed actions. Sometimes, they appear to go out of their way to boost the suspect’s character, carrying quotes from relatives or acquaintances that often paint even alleged murderers in a positive light.

Amidst the outrage and indignation over Mike Brown’s death, Feministing calls attention to an equally discomfiting tension — one around the way that black male victims of crime receive more media attention, public support, societal outrage/sympathy than do black female crime victims.

How are the deaths and beatings of women — cis and trans — at the hands of the police or with their complicity so much less compelling? I think the obvious answer here is misogyny and transmisogyny, not on one specific occasion or by one specific person, but at the systemic level: what tweets get tweeted and retweeted, what events seem newsworthy, and what bodies are deemed to hold value.

I want to mourn the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, and I want to question why the deaths of Renisha McBride and Islan Nettles and Kathryn Johnston haven’t gotten similar traction. Why the beating of Marlene Pinnock isn’t on all of our lips. Why the nation is not familiar with the names of Stephanie Maldonado, or of Ersula Ore. And how many women’s names do we not know because they don’t dare come forward? Because the violence they experience at the hands of the police is sexual, and the shame and stigma around sexual violence silences them?

The truth is that, in the predominantly male-led civil rights organizations who lead efforts to respond to police brutality, in the male-dominated media that covers them, and in the hearts and minds of many people in this country, women who are of color, who are sex workers, undocumented immigrants, transgender (or, god forbid, more than one of those at once) are rarely candidates for “innocence,” and are often blamed for their own deaths, forgotten, or hardly counted at all.

But finally, the piece that gives me small glimmer of hope is the contrast between Wednesday’s protest — and the militarized police response to them (text and images from Slate), and last night.

The man at the front of the march, was Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, a Ferguson native.

“I’m not afraid to be in this crowd,” Johnson declared to reporters.

Johnson, a towering African American man who wiped sweat from his brow as he pointed out neighborhood hangouts and restaurants he used to frequent, was put in charge of crowd control earlier in the day, replacing the St. Louis County police who had been overseeing the police response to the protests. . . .

Protesters said they were still angry, demanding justice for Brown and answers from local police about why he was shot and who the offending officer was.

But, they said, Johnson’s willingness to physically interact with them, rid the streets of heavy police equipment, and help them coordinate protests was a welcome change in tone.

“Thank you so much for being here,” said Karen Wood, who fought back tears as she held both of Johnson’s hands imploring him to bring answers to residents and maintain calm in the streets.

“This is about human rights, about human beings,” she cried. (Washington Post)

It’s about human rights. Human beings. Meeting one another in an open-hearted way, with that human touch.

ari-hug-it-outAnd no, it’s not a magic wand to make all the troubles and tensions magically go away. There’s still hard work to be done, hard conversations to be had.

But ain’t it something to see how that human touch at least makes the hard work possible?

* It’s been a lovely stomach bug/depression cocktail — I don’t recommend it.


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