Author Archives: melissahillman

Take a Knee, Puerto Rico, and Patriotic Hypocrisy

By now, everyone has heard of Donald Trump’s feuds with the NFL and the NBA. Donald chose to attack professional athletes this past weekend while displaying a total lack of concern about the utter devastation in Puerto Rico from the most catastrophic weather event that has ever occurred on US soil. Does Donald even know Puerto Rico is a US territory? Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa are all US territories– they all pay American taxes but do not have representation in Congress. Washington DC (which has a majority Black population) also has no actual representation in Congress; they have a non-voting representative, and Congress can overturn any law the people there pass. Washington DC and the US territories are suffering under taxation without representation.

Americans are extremely fond of performing their patriotism. “Taxation without representation,” the evil that sparked the American Revolution, is taught to every American schoolchild. This evil the British crown committed upon us caused us to take up arms and fight for our independence. 1776, BABY! PATRIOTISM! THESE COLORS DON’T RUN!

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One of the first images that popped up when I did a google image search for “patriotism”

White Americans love to make a big show about our patriotism. We valorize the protest action called the “Boston Tea Party,” in which the goods of a private business (The East India Company) were destroyed in the night by Americans disguised as Mohawk warriors as a protest against taxation without representation. Today, Americans hold up “taxation without representation” as the ultimate evil that gave birth to our “great American representational democracy.”

Yet we are content to be hypocritical in our treatment both of political protesters and of US territories. Taxation without representation was oppressive enough to go to war; it was considered “tyranny.” We all but worship that war while committing precisely the same “tyranny” today. Puerto Rico has twice voted (2012 and 2017) in favor of becoming a US State. Congress would have to ratify that vote to make Puerto Rico a state, and they have done nothing. Why do we see “taxation without representation” as a nearly holy cause, a cause that was worth fighting our own (at the time) government, but see the taxation without representation we impose on Washington DC and US territories as our right?

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In 1776,  there were an estimated 500,000 African slaves on our soil who were deliberately shut out of the rights Americans demanded for themselves. Those slaves then went on to build a massive portion of the wealth of this nation, enjoying exactly none of it. The slaves and their descendants were denied equal rights in the US for many generations to come. While white Americans saluted the flag and wept about the freedom it represented to them, our very laws denied Black Americans basic human rights well into the 20th century, and, long after (most of) those laws were struck from the books, are still denied equal treatment in application of our laws and in innumerable other ways for which there is a mountain of hard statistical evidence. It is undeniable that there is systemic racism in our country in 2017, although racists do, of course, deny it.

Colin Kaepernick, at the time playing for the San Francisco 49ers, first sat during the national anthem as a protest against racism and police brutality, which overwhelmingly targets people of color. Refusing to stand for the national anthem points specifically to American hypocrisy, to Americans who weep over freedoms they refuse to give to others– freedoms like “justice for all” or “freedom from taxation without representation.”

Despite Kaepernick’s justified grievance against that hypocrisy,  after speaking to former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer, Kaepernick decided to kneel instead, in order to show respect to the national anthem and veterans while still getting his point across. It was an elegant, quiet, peaceful, non-disruptive protest, precisely what white people always say they want.

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Colin Kaepernick and every other professional, college, and high school athlete taking a knee during the national anthem aren’t sneaking out in the night to destroy private property like the Boston Tea Party’s “Sons of Liberty.” The Sons of Liberty disguised themselves in order to destroy private property as a protest action, precisely like today’s antifa black bloc protesters who cover their faces and destroy property as a protest action. Black athletes and their allies (including many veterans of all races) are just kneeling quietly. Yet white people are furious.

That people are claiming to be upset about disrespecting the flag is preposterous. People violate the flag code regularly without controversy, so it’s just not possible that their furious anger can come from “disrespect for the flag.” Here are some items from the flag code, Article 176, “Respect for the Flag.”

(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.

(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.

(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.

Nor is their furious anger about the national anthem. The athletes aren’t booing it. They’re not blasting competing music. They are respectfully and quietly kneeling.

The Star-Spangled Banner has only been our national anthem since 1931. NFL players weren’t required to stand on the sidelines during the national anthem until the Obama Administration. If Tim Tebow knelt in prayer during the national anthem, no one would say a word. The problem is not “disrespecting the flag.” The problem is Black dissent. No matter what kind of peaceful protest Black people choose, white people are right there to tell them to get back in line.

The President of the United States claimed that white supremacist protesters marching under literal Nazi banners contained some “very fine people,” and then called NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem “sons of bitches.” This is obvious, open racism, and there are millions of Americans who applaud it.

Millions of Americans see no problem with demanding respect from Black people for a national anthem whose third verse mentions “no refuge for the slave” but “the gloom of the grave.” Millions of Americans see no problem with demanding respect for a national anthem that celebrates freedoms they routinely deny others. Millions of Americans see no problem with taxation without representation for majority non-white populations but hold as nearly holy the idea that taxation without representation was “tyranny” for white people.

What would this nation be like if we actually believed in the freedom, liberty, and justice for all that symbols like the flag are supposed to represent? What would this nation be like if we were as concerned about working towards justice for all  as we are about reverence for a re-written English drinking song and a brightly colored piece of cloth? What would this nation be like if white people were as furious about racism as we are about Black men quietly kneeling?

Click here to learn more about how you can support Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. Click here to learn more about Puerto Rico statehood. Click here to learn more about the Take a Knee protest. 

 

 

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Stop Telling Me to Watch Stranger Things

This post is full of spoilers, so be forewarned.
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I know I’m late to this party, but the ongoing cult status of the Netflix Original series Stranger Things  (written and directed by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer) inspires men to tell me, a D&D playing, scifi loving nerd, that I would LOVE IT OMG WHY HAVEN’T YOU WATCHED IT all the time. So I did. I watched the whole thing. I wanted to love it. I hoped I would love it. That hope ran aground on Stranger Things‘ predictable sexism.
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The male characters are lovingly crafted and fully detailed. The main hero is a paunchy small town cop whose life is a mess, and not a glamorous mess in the way this trope usually goes. He does save that particular day, but he’s morally suspect and almost certainly colluding with The Bad Guys in some way. His younger narrative counterpart, the teen hero, is an outcast with few social skills and a tendency to stalk pretty girls, yet is still framed as one of the most courageous people in the series. The meganerdy science teacher is one of the best-drawn characters in the whole thing, framed as bighearted, brilliant, and charmingly clueless.  The three main boys are all D&D nerds. One of the actors, Gaten Matarazzo, has a disability, and his character, Dustin, of course has the same disability. This is a massive step forward in casting and something that should be openly lauded, as the disability isn’t presented as “inspirational” disability porn but as just one aspect of his character. The male characters are all interesting and specific.
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Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin.

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The women, however, are generic sexist tropes yet they are continually held up as “strong women,” even “trope-busters.”
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The main female characters are the Distraught Mother (Joyce), the Pretty Young Girl (Nancy), the PYG’s Less Pretty Sidekick (Barb), and the Extraordinary Woman– in this case, an eleven-year-old girl with telekinetic powers, named, irritatingly, Eleven. Without describing anything else about them, and without having seen the series, you can predict how these characters are portrayed and what happens to all of them. The character that pushed me over the edge, however, was the Extraordinary Woman, a type I can no longer stomach.
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Young Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things. She did a fantastic job portraying this character, making her one of the most interesting characters in the series.

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The Extraordinary Woman is a character type who breaks rules and has some kind of extraordinary qualities or extraordinary power. When an Extraordinary Woman is introduced, the Narrative Sexism Clock beings its countdown to her destruction. She is either subsumed within a more ordinary role (she loses her powers, forgetting everything; her narrative is detoured into a romance; she regrets having powers because all she ever wanted was a baby) or she is removed from the narrative entirely, dying or disappearing. Very often, she sacrifices her powers to marry an ordinary man, or she sacrifices her life so that the ordinary male character(s) can live.
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I have watched and read precisely infinity narratives featuring the Extraordinary Woman. From Charlotte’s Web when I was 8 to Stranger Things a few months ago, I have been watching my culture tell me over and over that the best happy ending I can ever hope for is propping up a mediocre white man, and if I reach for extraordinary, I’ll be sacrificed. The most tedious response to this is “Eleven might still be alive.” It reminds me of a class I was in when Thelma and Louise first came out in 1991, wherein I made the very same critique I’m making here. A male classmate responded to me, “You don’t know what happened to them. The car could have gone up.”
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Eleven, kidnapped as a baby and raised in a lab, is the subject of torturous experiments, and is relentlessly pursued by a shadowy government agency when she escapes, yet after her disappearance, no one in the town seems interested in her well-being or current whereabouts, despite the fact that she has living family.

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Eleven sacrificed herself to save the boys whether the men who wrote her decide to bring her back to make more money killing her again or not. Everyone got a happy ending but Eleven. Even if she’s alive, where is she? How is she surviving? She’s a little girl with telekinetic powers, the use of which weaken her considerably (of course), not Bear Grylls. She’s treated like a stray dog. The cop leaves food for her out in the woods at the end as a narrative device to imply that she might yet be alive although we watched her sacrifice herself a few scenes earlier. If the cop thinks she might be alive out in the woods, why isn’t he launching an all-out search for her like they did for the lost little boy?
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Eleven exists solely as a plot device. She is almost entirely mute (because of course she is). She has no needs or desires that anyone cares about. Her safety is ignored at all times. When she disappears in her final burst of power, the entire town shrugs its shoulders. Oh well! Is she dead? Is she in the Upside Down? Who knows! We’ll leave some frozen waffles in a box in the woods just in case. A little boy goes missing and the entire area goes on a massive search for him, but Eleven (and Barb, for that matter) are treated as if their disappearances are about as serious as losing an earring.
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Barb is engagingly played by Shannon Purser, whose performance has inspired a cult following for a character that only appeared in a few scenes.

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Every woman in Stranger Things conforms to a specific sexist trope. Barb is the less pretty friend, so she dies simply to raise the stakes, her death treated as otherwise unimportant. Even her supposed best friend, Nancy, rarely mentions her after a certain point. Nancy herself is a box standard Pretty Girl Gets Tough in Dire Circumstances, immediately recuperated into her relationship with the douchey popular boy at the end. I will hand it to the writers for not pairing her with the antisocial stalker boy, although she forgives him with a smile for taking stalkery pictures of her because the writers are men. But the douchey popular boy is no better. Did it ever occur to the writers that she would be better off without either of these jerks? That she might be remembering Barb in her final onscreen moments? Probably not, because without that recuperation back into a relationship with a man, reflecting the only happy ending possible for women written by mediocre men, Nancy veers dangerously close to an Extraordinary Woman. For Pretty Girl Gets Tough in Dire Circumstances, she can either be shunted back into a “normal” female role (mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter) or die for becoming too extraordinary.
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The mother, who insists her missing son is still alive, is called “crazy” and portrayed as unrelentingly hysterical. When she’s finally proven right, it’s glancingly acknowledged while she’s immediately pushed into the narrative background. She’s literally behind the man when they go into the Upside Down to save her son. We’re at one of the most important climaxes of the series– a moment that vindicates everything the mother has been saying– and she is almost entirely ignored as the scene focuses on the cop’s experience, the cop’s memories, the cop’s heroism. The mother is terrified and nearly panicking, barely holding it together, instead of marching in there, buoyed by her vindication and determined to get her child. Instead she cowers behind a man while we see his memories of characters we’ve never met. It’s weak writing, but it apparently never occurred to the male writers that the emotional center of the scene should be the woman.
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Joyce, played by Winona Ryder, should have been the Big Damn Hero.

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There wasn’t a single plot point I couldn’t see coming from a mile away. That’s not always a bad thing, but in this case, the series was structured as if every plot point was a huge SURPRISING REVEAL and spent far too much time building and building and building to a PLOT TWIST that was already obvious. I was dreading the death of Eleven from the moment she was introduced. I KNEW. How could I not? This is always what mediocre men imagine for extraordinary women.
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I’m not mad that you like Stranger Things, even though we both know the women in the series deserve much better than the writers gave them. Many of you forgive Stranger Things its sexism and obviousness due to the nostalgia factor. And that’s truly fine. But I do not want to watch yet another show where women die to raise the stakes, where a box standard Pretty Girl Gets Tough is considered an achievement, where a woman who is right is called “crazy” and then when proven right, acknowledged with a few quick lines as she’s forced back in the narrative behind the man. I never want to watch another show where the extraordinary woman sacrifices herself at the end to save ordinary men. Never.

 

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The “Outrage Machine” and Calls for “Calm”

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Connie Lim (aka MILCK) photographed by Rachael Lee Stroud.  Source: milckmusic.com

A few days ago, I read an excellent article in Very Smart Brothas by editor-in-chief Damon Young entitled “Polite White People Are Useless.” Being a polite white person myself, my first reaction at seeing the title was that slight rise of defensiveness in the pit of my stomach– you know what I’m talking about, white people. That feeling of “BUT BUT BUT.” “But I don’t do this” “But I don’t mean it like that” “But I’m not racist” “But #notallwhitepeople” The feeling that immediately informs me: HERE LIES YOUR COMPLICITY IN WHITE SUPREMACY. Pursue this. Sit in your discomfort. Listen and learn.

Sometimes that feeling means it’s something I’m doing myself. Sometimes it means it’s something I’m letting pass unchallenged. So I used my discomfort as intuition and clicked on the article. In the article, Damon Young defines “polite white people” as “white people who call for decorum instead of disruption when attempting to battle and defeat bias and hate.” I let that slide at least half the time I see it on social media. “It’s just Facebook” is something I personally disagree with vehemently. Ideas put into the world do not wait for a particular venue to have their impact. Yet here I was, using “it’s just Facebook” as an excuse to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Ugh. Here lies your complicity in white supremacy.

While I was processing this, I encountered the inevitable calls for “calm” and calls against “constant outrage” in my various feeds, all from cishet white people with Christian heritage. I began to think deeply about this in the context of the VSB article. What do these people actually mean when they ask us to tone down the “outrage machine” or when they tell us an issue is “just a distraction?”

What are these issues about which we should be “calm”?

We’re battling literal Nazis. (“But they’re such a small group.”)

The Department of Homeland Security released a report in 2009 demonstrating that white supremacists were infiltrating law enforcement as a deliberate strategy and nothing was done about it due to conservative backlash. (“That doesn’t sound right.”)

And now several metropolitan police forces are quietly dismissing hundreds of thousands of cases (900,000 in New York alone), and paying out millions in settlement dollars due to police officers planting evidence (repeatedly in Baltimore) and arresting innocent people of color to meet quotas (“But they were caught, so, good, right?”)

The Trump Administration attempts to block police reform and coddles white supremacists. (“You can’t fight every little thing.”)

One of the worst natural disasters of our lifetimes has devastated Texas, causing an urgent humanitarian crisis. Thirty-one people have died and tens of thousands have lost everything and are living in packed shelters, yet now is the time Evangelical Christians (who make up a full quarter of our nation’s population) saw fit to release a document condemning all LGBTQ people and all Christians who support the human rights of LGBTQ people. By current estimates, there are about a million LGBTQ Texans, and LGBTQ people of color make up 55% of that. (“Evangelicals always hate LGBTQ people, so what does it matter?”)

I am barely scratching the surface.

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On July 19, these young women participated in Jolt’s “Quinceañera at the Capitol,” a protest against Texas’ anti-immigration bill SB4 that celebrated Latinx culture while protesting racism. Jolt is a Latinx-run nonprofit focusing on issues of importance to the Latinx community in Texas. More at jolttx.org. Photo: @blurandgrain on Instagram

 

Calls for “calm” and posts denouncing the “outrage machine” are difficult to hear when it’s your family on the line. White Christians overwhelmingly voted for a man who ran on hate and support him as he governs from a place of hate. Hate of journalists; hate of women; hate of Mexicans; hate of Black people; hate of the disabled; hate of Muslims. He has a long history of racism and of courting white supremacists. While bigotry and racism are not new in this nation by a long shot, what we are seeing is a cultural moment where it’s become fashionable among a certain group of people to express these views openly. Now racism is an open badge of honor for some, a winking disingenuous pretense for even more. From the right it’s “I’m not racist; I just think the Confederate flag and Confederate statues are our heritage”; from the left it’s “Identity politics are holding us back; economic justice will solve racism, so we don’t need to work on it directly unless it’s obvious racism. And of course by that I mean racism that is obvious to me as a white man.”

This upswing in white willingness to be either openly and actively racist or to cast an abdication of responsibility for white supremacy as a greater good has already resulted in violence. Violent racists are emboldened by everything from outright encouragement to a lack of resistance. This new willingness to either openly express active bigotry or support it winkingly while pretending to oppose it extends to sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, ableism, transphobia, homophobia– everything people mean when they decry “identity politics.”

Demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling gather near the headquarters of the police department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Pennsylvania nurse Ieshia Evans embodies grace and power as she faces riot police in Baton Rouge at a July 2016 protest against the police murder of Alton Sterling. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

With all that in mind, what does it mean when people with privilege call for “calm” or an end to “constant outrage”? What does it mean when people with privilege scold others for responding to “distractions”— a label used almost exclusively for issues of concern to marginalized populations? What does it mean when people with privilege tell others to stop reacting to bigotry? Specifically what are they asking for?

What could they be asking for but silence? Less vocal insistence that the human rights of targeted populations be achieved and protected? A respite from open resistance?

When you ask targeted populations “aren’t you tired of the constant outrage?” it’s like asking someone getting beaten in an alley if they’re tired of getting hit. OF COURSE we’re tired of constant outrage. But what choice do we have? And if you have the cultural privilege that gives you a choice, it means something specific when you choose “stop reacting to distractions” or “I’m sick of the outrage machine.”

Decrying “distractions” and “the outrage machine” is just another aspect of privilege fragility. “I cannot take the discomfort that comes with your struggle for human rights, and I want to be the gatekeeper who decides what’s important enough to fight and what we should let pass.” When people with privilege set themselves up as the gatekeepers who decide what merits outrage and what does not, we are actively preserving that privilege. Gatekeeping is a major function of cultural privilege.

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Image by Cheshire Isaacs created from the iconic Getty photo of Reno, CA resident Peter Cvjetanovic, among others, at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, VA in August. For more, see cheshiredave.com

Now more than ever we need to take breaks for self-care during the chaotic Trumpian news cycle. We each cannot personally react to every new horror that occurs, especially as tribalism has replaced patriotism, frustratingly making the usual tactic of raising awareness through education far less effective. On the right, tribalism takes the form of continuing to support a president who defends people marching under Nazi, KKK, and white supremacist banners as “very fine people” who just happened to show up to a march advertised with images of Confederate flags, Nazi eagles, and the names of several of the nation’s most prominent white supremacists. On the left, it takes the form of supporting people who claim that “identity politics” are destroying us, as if issues of concern to the liberal base– women and people of color– are a detour from “real” issues (i.e., the issues important to white men). This constant barrage of nonsense is exhausting. But taking a break for your own self-care is a world apart from telling others they should shut up (“stop reacting to distractions”; “stop feeding the outrage machine”).

When someone is reacting to bigotry, especially if it’s bigotry you do not personally experience, especially if that reaction makes you uncomfortable, stop and listen. Think: why is this important to this person? What experiences have they had to make this issue crucial to them? What do they need to see from me as a person with privilege? Is my voice even needed in this discussion?

Nothing positive is contributed to the discussion– or to the world–by calling for “calm” in the face of bigotry, by scoffing at the “outrage machine” when people speak out against hate, by calling bigotry “a distraction,” or by denouncing “identity politics” when people are fighting for their basic human rights. I’ve been in conversations where people have been called out for this and responded so beautifully it moved me to tears. And I’ve been in conversations where the exact opposite happened.

Discomfort sucks. Believe me, I know. But the discomfort that comes from confronting your own privilege and your complicity in systems of oppression is nothing compared to experiencing that oppression. Most of us have an intersectional identity that encompasses some of both, so let’s use that to draw on when we see others speaking out about issues important to them rather than tell them their issues are “a distraction” or “just part of the outrage machine.”

 

 

 

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Tikkun Olam: A Jewish Response to Charlottesville

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Jews have a concept called “Tikkun Olam,” which means “healing the world.” As a little Jewish kid, I was taught that if Jews have been “chosen” for anything, it’s that– the moral imperative that we work towards social justice. Tikkun Olam has resulted in a lot of liberal Jews, unsurprisingly, but there are still right wing Jews. There is nothing further from Tikkun Olam than racism, yet the acceptance of Ashkenazi Jews as “white” by most people in the US has resulted in some of us falling prey to the racist narratives of the right. For a Jew to believe that immigrants are a cancer and that anti-racist movements are “anti-white” requires a level of cognitive dissonance that boggles the mind, given that Nazis fueled their rise in Germany with claims that Jews were an “immigrant cancer” and that Jews were conspiring to take over the world and displace white people. The current white supremacist right believes that now.
The events this weekend in Charlottesville came as no surprise to me, as I have been following the antics of the racist right all my life, and the new(ish) “alt right” movement since proto-Gamergate. While the “alt right” are essentially just box standard far right white supremacists, their techniques and strategies through their online presence is what’s new, and what makes them, for lack of a better term, “alt” as compared to, for example, the KKK. The “alt right” will often claim they’re not racist, just fighting for “white rights” or “western values,” or fighting against “political correctness,” which of course means, in practice, the preservation of white (male) supremacy. Charlottesville is in many ways their coming out party, as all protestations that they’re not about white supremacy have clearly been left by the wayside like a discarded bathrobe at an orgy. We all knew it was coming off. It was just a matter of when.

With the rise of the internet, white supremacists are no longer isolated geographically, and are emboldened by finding each other scattered across the country, emboldened by the ability to organize and make successful inroads into cultural enclaves that have previously rejected them, emboldened by their ability to recruit, emboldened, after 8 years of a Black president, by a white supremacist White House.

Steve Bannon, one of Donald Trump’s chief advisors, was co-founder (with Andrew Breitbart) and (after Breitbart’s death) editor-in-chief of the extremist “news” site, Breitbart. (I will not link to it.) Bannon went on “temporary leave” from the site to join Trump in August 2016, and remains one of Trump’s most powerful advisors. Bannon has called Breitbart “the platform for the alt right,” and created an entire tab labeled “Black Crime” on the site to “prove” that Black people are more criminal than white people, which was taken down after Bannon left to join Trump and brought greater scrutiny to the site. Breitbart‘s extremism cost it the bulk of its ad revenue, as evidenced by stories like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Why Equality And Diversity Departments Should Only Hire Rich, Straight White Men.” (I will not link to those either.) An open white supremacist sits as one of the president’s chief advisors, and we wonder why Trump has to be goaded by national outcry to denounce white supremacy? Bannon’s not even the only open white supremacist in the White House. Trump can read out 100 statements Ivanka wrote for him, but his white supremacist advisors remain firmly in place, and policies that support white supremacy pour out of this White House like warm mayonnaise.

White supremacist violence is endemic as white supremacists sit in the White House and white people sit on their hands, deny anything is happening, blame “many sides,” pretend we’re “post-racial” or tacitly agree with the white supremacist lie that white people are somehow the true oppressed although white people control almost all the political, economic, and cultural power in the nation.
Over the past few years, the “alt right” has increasingly utilized Nazi symbols, salutes, and terminology (“lugenpresse,” “blood and soil“). They were everywhere in Charlottesville. We’ve all seen what the right is up to. We all know that Bannon is in the White House advising Trump. We all know the alt right-influenced White House has worked overtime to use Nazi techniques such as discrediting the press, demonizing immigrants, demonizing non-Christians for their supposed impending “takeover” (SHARIA LAW ZOMG!11!!1), and characterizing the people in power as the true victims. Other people might fall for this, but Jews– we know better. We know what this all means. Most of it isn’t pointing at us, and most of us benefit from white supremacy. But we are Jews and we know.
We know what this all means. And we are, no matter how secular you are, bound by Tikkun Olam. At its heart, Tikkun Olam isn’t about a responsibility to God; it’s about a responsibility to each other. To all people.
Whoever you are, you can do something to fight white supremacy. Protests, marches, and in-person actions are critical, but so are many other actions, and you can– YOU CAN– make a difference. Donate to social justice causes like Black Lives Matter and SPLC. Engage with racism wherever you see it. Yes, even at family dinners. Teach your kids and your students how to avoid alt right nonsense online, just as you would teach them to avoid any online predator. Educate them about white supremacist lies by giving them the truth. Call your Senators and Representative and ask them to support the removal of Bannon, Miller, and Gorka, the most open white supremacists in the White House. (Sessions, you’re next.) Read writers of color regularly. Educate yourself– there’s so much more.
Tikkun Olam. If not now, when?
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“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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Today is Lammas

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Today is Lammas (also known as “Lughnasadh”), the first of three traditional harvest festivals, what my mother’s people were doing this time of year in Britain while my father’s people were still in the Middle East working on the monotheism that would eventually give rise to a modified polytheism in the form of a male Trinity (triple deities until then having mostly been female) that would overrun the entirety of Europe, detaching this day from its traditional mooring. “Lughnasadh,” named after the Celtic God Lugh, is likely the older name; “Lammas,” from “loaf-mass,” is likely later, when people would bring their first loaves of bread from the harvest to church to be blessed, then break it into four pieces and bury it at the four corners of their fields to bless their fields. Burying offerings in fields is as old as agriculture, maybe older. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture women in hunter/gatherer groups making these offerings to stands of wild grain or fruit trees. Thank you, and please stay healthy. Have a fish. Before anyone understood the science of compost, generations of women were burying offerings in fields.
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Lammas is a good time to think about the old adage: You reap what you sow. What have you sown this year? Where have you put your heart, your mind, your energy, your time?
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Source: diversitytoday.co.uk

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I woke up suddenly at 5AM this morning and ended up going outside to watch the dawn and listen to the birds. It’s a rare treat these days, one of the many things I miss from mothering a wee one. By the time she was 5, she would entertain herself until we woke up, and her pre-dawn need for me was over, just like that. Nothing marks the passage of time quite so mercilessly as living with a child. You reap what you sow: In some cases, you can sow and sow and never reap, or reap a bitter crop. I have been very lucky in my family. I have been very lucky in my children. I know many people who have not been so lucky, despite having done everything I did and more. The gratitude I have for this family, for these children, is immense.
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Eat some grain today and thank the fields, the sun, the farmers, the earth, the Gods, your children, all children, our ancestors, our trancestors, the rain, the unimaginable luck that we have to live in a culture with such abundance; consider the unimaginable cruelty that we deny even small bits of that abundance to others because we selfishly believe we have the right to determine who deserves plenty and who does not, sad little kings of sad little hills that we are at times. Instead of burying a blessed loaf in your field, donate some money to a local food bank. There’s more than one way to give back, to make a Lammas offering to ensure the food safety of your community.
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Harvesting grain in ancient Egypt

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I baked my Lammas loaves last night and then sliced my finger open with the bread knife. Welcome, harvest. Please stay healthy. Have some bread and a few drops of unplanned blood. You reap what you sow: If you slice bread with a very sharp knife while looking at your husband, you will sow a cut finger. My husband is worth looking at, but perhaps not at that exact moment. Welcome, Lammas. Welcome, first glimmerings of fall, my favorite season.
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“Ceres, Goddess of Agriculture” by Emily Balivet. See more of her work and purchase prints here.

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Fire-Breathing Dragon

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This is on several wallpaper sites. I’d love to credit the original artist if anyone knows who it is.

Recently I took down a blog post due to some threatening messages I received that, in part, excoriated me for being an “SJW.” They were not the first threatening messages I had ever received in that vein– not the 100th. I am a woman who writes on the internet, after all, and men send us threatening messages every single day. But these were, for reasons I will not disclose, particularly disturbing. One post about Disney casting (of all things) was, I felt, not worth it. I took it down.
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Recently a local actor– a real life acquaintance– announced in a discussion of a racially-charged topic he was hosting on facebook that everyone should ignore my comments because I’m “one of those women who hates white men. If a white man cured cancer, she’d say it was oppressive to Black people.” And more foolishness. I skimmed it, rolled my eyes, and then blocked him, so I’m sure the quote is inexact.
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I am struggling with the fact that I blocked him. I am struggling with the fact that I took the post down.
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Ordinarily, I would delete and ignore random threats from lonely, angry men looking for someone to attack, someone to blame for their loneliness and anger. “Someone needs to rape some sense into you.” “You’re a stupid cunt who should keep her mouth shut.” “You will be crushed, like all SJWs will be crushed” something something glorious right-wing takeover goosestepping blah. If you are not ready for these, you are not ready to be a woman writing on the internet. These are the songs of the manbabies, sung into monitors lighting up otherwise dim rooms, dim minds, dim souls. They will sing songs of hate, anger, and loneliness until they die. Or until Mom comes downstairs and asks if they’ve done their Algebra II homework.
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And ordinarily, I would take “ignore her” as a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge to demolish foolery in a war of words that I would– perhaps too greatly– relish. My brother long ago described me as a “fire-breathing dragon” in debates, an accurate depiction. Debating is as close as I will ever come to dominating a sports field.
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Artist: Kekai Kotaki for Wizards of the Coast

Long ago I made a vow to engage with racism wherever I found it. That, I believe, is my duty as a white person, the basic entrance fee to “good person.” Yet twice in one week I walked away.
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To say– We, as white people, need to be better, need to listen more, need to work hard to dismantle the systems of oppression in our culture, about which we have literal mountains of data proving both their existence and their impact– to say this, according to far too many white people, is “hating white men.” I do not “hate white men.” I recognize the existence of systems of oppression in our culture and I want us all to do better. I very much include myself in that. Yet I did not respond with any of this. I walked away because I’m having a “stressful week.”
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I am a white woman and I can choose to recognize my privilege or ignore it as I go through my day. But I have seen the results of my privilege and the oppression of white supremacy and I can’t just walk away from that injustice. If the sacrifice I have to make is the good opinion of a handful of white people who refuse to look at this issue with sincerity and honesty, then so be it, because while we live under these systems of oppression, our brothers and sisters of color are being forced to sacrifice so much more.
And yet I walked away, twice in one week. I can’t decide whether to congratulate myself for my “excellent self-care” or kick my own ass for being a white feminist.
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I know that I can’t fight every white supremacist I come across. I know I must “exercise self-care” and “recharge my batteries” and “take time for myself” and whatever else you’ve seen plastered across a blurry image of a waterfall on your aunt’s facebook. I know these things. So why am I cringing at my own behavior?
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Fly, you fools

I’m not asking my readership to hand me cookies labeled “You Already Do So Much” and “Excellent White Person.” I am not excellent, at all, and I’m a writer, educator, and theatremaker, so I don’t know if “so much” describes what I do. I put words into the world and hope they find their way into someone’s brain. You can only fight with the weapons you’ve been given and these are mine. But I do not do enough. There is no such thing as “enough.”
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And I walked away. Twice.
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There is no answer you can give me. I did what I did, and it’s in the past. I have to live with my actions.
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But I will never take down another blog post as long as I live.
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The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

It’s always exasperating to see people scolding directors for “desecrating” a canonical play or a canonical playwright’s “intent” because they cast actors of color, cast a disabled actor, or removed something racist (or sexist, antisemitic, ableist, etc) from the work. It’s exasperating because it’s the smallest and least artistically viable point of view to have about modern stagings of canonical work.*
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Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.

Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”

When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”

There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.

It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.

We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.

When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.

What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?

The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.

This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it. 

We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.

*Of course I am only referring to interpretations that have received permission from the writer or estate, or stagings of work in the public domain. This is not– at all– an argument in favor of running roughshod over someone else’s IP.
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Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

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Phoebe Fico as Laura and Karen Aldridge as Amanda in Cal Shakes’ The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was an honor to be invited to view a rehearsal of California Shakespeare Theater’s upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie and write a piece for their blog. An excerpt:

“Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption…by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a ‘Laura’ that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.”

Read more here.

Tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing July 5 – 30, available here.

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Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

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Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

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Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

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A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

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Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

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Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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