No Longer Defensive

(Photo by Heather Mount, @heathermount)

By S. (June 2, 2020)

A number of thoughtful friends have reached out to ask me how I’m doing in the wake of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Christian Cooper and the riots that followed.

Short answer: I’m optimistic.

Longer answer: 20 years ago Amadou Diallo was murdered by the police and the conversations I had with many of my friends were very discouraging. Lots of blaming the victim. The discussions turned toward the circumstances. Oscar Grant was shot with the barrel of a gun pressed against his head 10 years ago. Many of my white friends just didn’t want to talk about it.

Six years ago was Michael Brown’s murder. He was no angel according to many people who didn’t know him.

When recounting the story of a family member’s brush with police, a close white friend wanted to know why he wasn’t faster in obeying the cop. This Becky blamed my family member for his brutal treatment, false arrest, and subsequent criminal record. Today, her posts are all fire. She gets it. In the past many of my white friends, possibly you too, dear reader, would go junior CSI on me and try to prove that every dead black person had it coming.

The majority of white people I know are waking up to the reality of being black and brown in America. They are no longer questioning the narratives of police brutality. Rather they are questioning the police.

I can finally talk to you all and not be on the defensive. I’m no longer having to bury my emotions so that we can have a rational conversations about the facts and circumstances. I’m no longer having to play defense attorney trying to prove the overwhelming and unbelievable story that a white cop might kill a black person without cause.

Do Black Lives Matter in The Joker?

By S. (October 8, 2019)

This article is spot on BUT Joker is also racist AF too. The more I thought about the movie after watching the more my blood started to boil. It’s the subtle racism of erasure, misdirection, and employment of poorly thought out visual tropes. I fully expect the filmmaker’s defense against a racism accusation to be one of gaslighting and denial. I don’t care though. Here’s my evidence:

a) Within the first five minutes Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, is the victim of a “gang” attack in which a group of teen boys steal his sign and beat up him. You probably saw it in the previews. The camerawork zooms in on the faces of these children so that we can see that they are children but we also see that they are beautiful shades of brown with afros that change color based on where the light is shining. I don’t think the filmmakers saw the beauty of these children. The narrative tone of the film is one of fear and the threat of violence. These children are not depicted as humans but as cruel animals toying with their prey. And they are all black.

b) At two different points in the movie, Fleck talks to two separate black, middle-aged, female social workers. I can’t even. The trope of the black woman social worker swallowed up by an indifferent bureaucracy who then becomes an uncaring face of that bureaucracy is so freaking dangerous and ugly. There is a grand history of black women in social work. And to see white filmmakers treat it is as a quickie signifier is gross. My maternal grandmother died of tuberculosis when my mother was 3. She contracted the disease from working with populations for whom TB was endemic. She literally gave her life for the cause. A generation of brave and kind black women, inspired by Jane Adams among others, became social workers in the 1930s to combat the extremes of inner city poverty and the lazy ass filmmaking of Joker treats it as more evidence of urban blight. Also the Joker kills one of those women, do black lives in films matter?

c) The love interest is a black, single mother and Fleck is white. I’m always for more diversity in casting but sometimes more thought needs to go into the choices. The love interest is a neighboring tenant in Fleck’s giant apartment building. The casting choice would have been interesting if the other tenants were predominately white, it would invoke the question of why Fleck singled out the sole black inhabitant. Or what if the love interest was white and the majority of tenants were black and brown. Yet race does not seem to be an issue in Gotham City in 1981.This leads us to the biggest problem I have with race in this movie.

d) the movie depicts the urban unrest and crime of the 1970s and 80s as if were the fault of income inequality, not racism. It whitewashes the history of our cities. It denies the history of urban black America and replaces it with a class analysis. There are no black people in this Gotham, there are just people with different skin tones. This movie goes out of its way not to see race and in doing so it replicates racist tropes. The movie doesn’t understand the danger of showing a group of black boys mugging people, it doesn’t understand the offensiveness of the black female bureaucrat, it doesn’t get that years of municipal neglect, economic shock, voter disenfranchisement, segregation, and demonization flavored urban environments from that era. White people and power structures that favor white people created the urban inequality of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The Joker replaced that history with a rich-versus-poor narrative.

I love a good comic book movie and the world of Batman is ripe for storytelling. Gotham has always been depicted as a corrupt city of haves and have nots. Presumably, the inspiration for many of Batman’s foes were the colorful mobsters of the Prohibition Era. Tim Burton’s Batman captures this well. Burton’s Gotham is so visually distinct that you can imagine a separate history in which racism is a less important factor in civil unrest than income inequality. I have no problem with an income-inequality storyline, I have a problem with the displacement of a real historic event in favor of a fictional one. Joker’s fetish for realism (even though Fleck’s mental illness is largely fictional) reminds us of the very real history. You can’t have it both ways. Gotham is a fictional city with a fictional history. We don’t even know where it’s located. Is it in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware. Maybe it really is Chicago. We don’t know. But when you throw in the visual language of 1981 inner-city urbanity, Gotham becomes part of our very real United States, with its very real history of urban disinvestment.

In 2019, I expect more from my filmmakers.

Do You Get it Now?

By S. (September 30, 2018)


Every time a black person is murdered and there’s a public debate I want to scream “do you get it now?”

Kavanaugh’ entire life is about generational wealth, white privilege, systematic oppression of black people, and control of women. He is a terrific embodiment of Republican values. Like Trump, he is but a symptom.

The larger picture is about a toxic ideology to some extent we all agree with: an ideology that says it’s okay for the strong to dominate the weak (through economic means), that governments are ineffective, that wealth is a blessing from God, that compassion is weakness and greed a virtue, that there is no consent only domination.

Do you get it now?

White America’s Communication Problem

By S. (April 23, 2018)

Dear White America,
We have a communication problem. You are getting better at listening. In the past you’ve blamed us for not communicating to you in a manner that would facilitate you listening. We were too angry, too quiet, too loud, politically inconvenient, self-centered, stuck in victim mindset.

Finally, thanks to cell phone footage, you can see for yourselves what us black people know too well. You had to see it for yourselves to believe it. And you had to see it not once but multiple times, over and over, to truly understand. Now you get it. Black people are in danger from cops. Thank you. I am sincerely grateful at how far you’ve come in the last 15 years. But there’s still so much more work. There’s all the stuff that you don’t see, that you’ll never see. So we need you to listen. We need you to step up and intervene.

I knew Holly Hylton, I complained to you about her. You brushed me off and got annoyed at my discomfort. You blamed me for not having a better attitude, for not trying harder, for being a victim. I came to you because you were my friend. I was asking for support for your help in allowing me to process the racist and ugly way Holly treated me when I: *worked with her
*went to school with her
*bought coffee from her
*heard her sermon
*read her newspaper op ed
*watched her Oscar acceptance speech.

You said Holly didn’t do anything wrong, she didn’t mean to, she has a good heart, I caught her on a bad day, she gives money to starving children every week, she has black friends, she grew up in a black neighborhood, she went to a BLM protest, she loves hip hop. You defended Holly against my claims of racism.

You interrogated me. You made me become a lawyer, a ballistics expert, a pathologist, an economist, a historian, a translator of cultures, and many more so that you could find the loophole in my feelings and prove that I’m wrong about Holly.

Holly’s reputation as a non-racist became more important to you than my emotional needs.

You denied me support and validation when I came to you vulnerable and needy. That’s not what friends do.

If you’re a true friend, you’ll listen, learn, and apply what you’ve learned. You’ll call Holly out before she calls the police on me. You’ll empathize with Holly so that you can better figure out how to communicate effectively with her. There will be social consequences to her actions based on what she and has not learned.

This is where the party ends, because I can’t stand here listening to you and your racist friend.

Black Panther is Popular, but Black People Still Marginalized

By S. (February 15, 2018)

I’m looking forward to the new Black Panther movie too, but first, let’s have a little talk about race.

Since being kidnapped from Africa, black people have been marginalized. Marginalized means we have been placed at the margins, we are never centered. Our rights, our voices, our experiences, our lives, our needs, our everything, are at the margins of American society (a society shared between black people and white people, and many other marginalized races and ethnicities). Historically black people went to black schools, had black doctors, and lived in black neighborhoods. Things are slowly changing and we are in some ways less marginalized physically but we are still marginalized socially. In mainstream movies we are in supporting roles but we are not the central characters, we are the marginal characters (i.e. the sassy black girlfriend, the wise old man who gives advice, the scary thug who threatens the main character). Things are changing, Moonlight won best film, Hidden Figures was a surprise hit, and we have Black Panther coming soon.

But the marginalization is embedded in every aspect of society, even our interpersonal relationships. In our friendships with non-black people, we often find our blackness marginalized. This is where things get sad, and this is what I want to talk about. In order to make my non-white friends comfortable, I am often the one who is marginalizing my blackness. Sometimes I am asked to do this, and sometimes I do it of my own volition. What I am saying is that I have to police my behavior around white people. Everyone should police their behavior around each other though (we call it having manners), but there is an aspect of myself, my life, and my experiences that is born out of my blackness, that has to be especially carefully managed around my white friends. I have to think carefully about how I say things, some topics I just don’t speak up on, and some of my great joys in life you don’t get to be a part of.

We look for common ground with our white friends. But for so long our culture, religion, society, and norms have been centered around whiteness, that our common ground with you is going to be white. We can’t ask you to understand and relate to our black experiences and black selves, because the lack of centering means you have an incomplete understanding, at best, of what it means to be black. So we, your black friends, come to you using our cultural understandings of whiteness. Now this is the easy setting, imagine what it is like when I have to find common ground with someone who is not as enlightened about race as you are.

First, I’d like to give a non-racial example of finding common ground between friends. I hate Twin Peaks. My friends B. and J. love Twin Peaks. They tell me that they love Twin Peaks because they want to share something they love with someone they love. Now, I like knowing that they love Twin Peaks because it means I have a little bit more information about who they are. Maybe I’ll send them both Valentine’s Days cards featuring the Log Lady. Knowing that a Twin Peaks card would put a smile on their faces makes smile too. But neither B. nor J. will spend much time talking to me about Twin Peaks, because they know I don’t like it. To an extent, they are policing their behavior around me. (Even though I called this example non-racial, it is racial simply because Twin Peaks is a TV show with few, if any, black characters that is written, directed, and produced by white people).

What about mainstream black people like Michael Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Snoop Dog, Mr. T, Li’l Wayne, et al.? In order for them to become mainstream (i.e. escape the margins) they had to think long and hard about their blackness—how to represent it and what to omit. Even if black figures and leaders are deciding to show our warts (i.e. gangsta rap) to the mainstream, it is still done with thought and consideration.

I’m talking about how we connect with each other. We are all looking for common ground. Our disagreements can be used to help us better pinpoint our commonalities. Though too often we use our disagreements as excuses not to get closer. When black people look for common ground, most of that common ground is centered around whiteness. What we share in common with you is based on tastes, norms, and ideas that are most likely centered around white perspectives, what do white people like, and what corporations controlled mainly by white people think will sell. Basically, when white and black people come together in friendship, chances are very good that the black person has done a lot more work, and has much more knowledge of white culture than the white person has of black culture.

Watching Black Panther does not make you a good ally. I’m not looking for allies; I want friends who get me. I want to be my authentic self around you. I want friends who get that that my experiences may not only differ from yours, but might seem scary and threatening to you because they are so far from our white-centered mainstream. You don’t have to agree with me, and you don’t have to like a lot of what I’m saying, but you should be open and willing to listen. And when it comes to creating the common ground between us, you should be willing and respectful enough to exclude elements that I may find racially insensitive, even if you don’t understand why. Yes, this is a secret pink pussy hat post.

Movements are built from relationships. If we want our movements to be strong, we need to strengthen our connections and relationships. Most of us are marginalized in many ways. And even though they are not marginalized, sometimes the needs of cishet white men are ignored (e.g. the damage caused by toxic masculinity, or the drastic decline in life expectancy of white men without college degrees). We strengthen our connections by listening, being present, and by not being resistant to each other’s perspectives. How can we create common ground? How can I push past my resistance and my limited perspectives to understand what my women friends are saying, what my trans friends are saying, what my friends with physically challenges are saying, or even what my cishet white male friends are saying? How can we use the experiences of our friends to change our behaviors for the better? This is my challenge, but it is your challenge. If we succeed we change the world. If we fail we crumble away in squabbling, yelling factions.

Our Movements Work Best When We Listen to the Discomfort

By S. (January 28, 2018)

I am not a woman but I am a queer POC of color. We face common enemies but sometimes we become the enemy. I try my best to listen to women so that my behavior is not harmful or at least less harmful to women. My gut instinct in the Grace and Aziz storywas to side with Aziz. This was based on my training to be a toxic male. All of us cis guys get it. I was literally told by an older boy in high school that if I wanted to get laid, that I had to keep pushing a girl past her boundaries, and that eventually she’d give in, and I’d get laid. I was also told that getting laid was the most important accomplishment for a boy and a man. I was given advice to behave how Aziz treated Grace.

My initial sympathies were with Aziz because of how society has trained both of us to treat women. Intellectually, I knew Aziz was wrong but emotionally it was difficult to see him be criticized. I had to stop and listen. I had to read the various opinion pieces and listen to my female friends to help me work past those initial feelings of sympathy. I still feel sympathy for Aziz, but I’m horrified at how much I discounted Grace’s feelings in my initial assessment.

I too love the pink pussy hats. I love the idea that so many women from around the country and the world got together to knit this hats. My Women’s March 2017 experience was beautiful and exhilarating. I see the hat and my heart soars, it takes me back to a magic special moment. Then I started listening to the discomfort and the pain that some women of color feel regarding the hat. This symbol that has personal power for me is hurtful for someone else. I need to take into account that tension. I need to understand that people with whom I am connected (through politics, race, personal connections, etc.) may see a symbol or an event very differently from me. I also need to consider the power differential in our connections, as the power imbalance may perpetuate harms. For example, as a man, my perspective may unconsciously be supporting a status quo that favors men.

I can’t speak for feminism, but I can speak as a gay man of color. I believe our movements (for me racial equality and advancement of LGBTQIA rights) work best when we stop and listen so that we can address the discomforts of our members and our allies. I think it is critical that we pay extra attention to the voices of those who come from the groups that are more marginalized and have less structural power than ourselves.

Be Wary of the Sunken King: Reflecting on the Humanity of Our Heroes

By S. (January 16, 2018)

If you’re a black person who was born after Dr. King died you were probably subjected to white people (possibly teachers, professors, mentors, role models, actors, friends, etc.) tell you how amazing Dr. King was and then have the same person turn around and engage in a racist behavior.

Since his death, Dr. King has been invoked by white people to gaslight and deny. Somehow the visage of Dr. King was pulled down into the Sunken Place and transformed into the ‘good negro’. The Sunken King tells us to play nice, not get all uppity, to be nice, and behave. The Sunken King demands this from all of us regardless of our race. We are taught to see Dr. King as a something bigger than human, something better than you, or I could ever hope to be. Dr. King was special, he was burn special with special gifts, gifts that you can’t access. You can try to be like him but you will never be as good as him. Of course it is not just Dr. King, Albert Einstein is better than you too. His genius is something that no matter how hard we work we can never attain. Mother Teresa was literally sainted because she’s so much better than you too (spoiler: she was actually quite monstrous in denying pain meds to sick and denying people because their suffering glorified Christ). There’s also Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela (the dangers of being placed on a pedestal perfectly embodied by one woman), Golda Meir, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Aung San Suu Kyi, and many many more.

The idealization of these people pisses me off. It’s a way that we control ourselves or our controlled by those who prefer the status quo. Dr. King is transformed from a defiant figure of resistance into a tool of the status quo. Einstein’s significant life challenges are erased with the conferral of genius status. Mother Teresa’s work with the poor goes underscrutinized be we’ve placed her on a pedestal.

These were human beings. They had some specific gifts that they were born with. They were all fortunate to end up in situations that nurtured their gifts. In addition to gifts, they gained skills. Somebody, possibly many bodies, invested time and money into each of them so that they could develop their skills and gifts. They then found themselves in situations in which they got to demonstrate those skills and gifts to the world.

Guess what?

You were born with gifts. You might be able to nurture them. You might not. You might not be able to gain the type of skills that thrust you into the global spotlight. You might not. Life can be challenging and capricious. The truth is none of these people are better than you (and most of them would be the first to tell you if they could). They may have had more impact than you. They may have done more than you but no one person is better than any other.

Let these people inspire you, but be inspired by their weaknesses and their failures as much as their successes. Be inspired by their real humanity, not their Sunken Place personas. If you need someone to look up to who is better than you, look up to who you will be tomorrow, and try to be that better person.