The Hateful Word (The Last Thing I’ll Ever Write on Quentin Tarantino and the Word Nigger)

 

I’ve watched a lot of movies that were explicitly interested in racism. Of these kinds of movies, films about athletes or sports teams overcoming racial prejudice in order to succeed (e.g., Remember The Titans, Hardball, Coach Carter, Ali, The Great Debaters) tend to be the most explicit. There’s a rhythm to “race movies” that sports stories tend to follow very closely and I think that that’s worth thinking about in the context of The Hateful Eight.

The plot of race movies is usually something to the tune of idealism (racial harmony, individuals unimpeded by prejudice) facing up against reality and being struck down repeatedly until reality bends and realizes that the ideal is the only way forward. The march is long and hard but the bridge is always crossed.

This is clearly a myth, especially in the context of sports, an arena where loss is literally designed into the game, but it persists. In order to sustain this myth, especially within movies that aim for realism, racism and other deadlocked issues have to be reconstructed within the movie. I know this is obvious, but let’s dwell on it. Racism, like any other element in fiction, be it gender roles, family ties, or setting, has to be built piece by piece. It has to be washed, prepared, cooked up. Racism is never microwave-ready.

So how does one go about building a racist world? In a (American) sports movie, you dwell on those moments where Racism – big, scary R, with fangs, Klan sheets, badges, police cruisers, old and crusty Southern white men with bullhorns, smiling Southern white women with poisoned sweet tea – discards all manners and speaks directly, forcefully. I hate you. You are less than me. You are nigger.

I tend to frown and sometimes laugh at these movies because racism is just so conspicuous. Note that I didn’t say it’s fake – I still recognize it as real, plausible. But it’s a bit too in-your-face, too hideously ugly, too confrontational. Maybe I’m just a product of my era, but outside of a few rare instances I rarely have prolonged personal encounters with racism. This is definitely privilege talking, but I tend to catch it in glimpses, flashbacks, moments. Racism’s tendency toward evanescence is why I think most robust anti-racism movements have focused on structures of oppression: institutions, policies, laws, nations, doctrines. Now these I come into contact with everyday.

That said, I’ve never seen a movie [that was explicitly] about structural racism. I won’t say that the nature of structures makes it impossible for them to be narratively compelling, but I’ve never seen it done. Ever. Our current way of making movies and maybe even of just telling stories just seems to be too tied to character and individuals and groups and consciousness to deal with the inhumanity of structural racism. This isn’t a bad thing, but that’s the rub.

That said, some filmmakers try really hard to reproduce those structures, to mobilize them even in movies about individuals. Higher Learning takes aim at college. Training Day takes aim at cops. The Pursuit of Happyness takes aim at the economy. The Hateful Eight takes aim at the Civil War.

In The Hateful Eight the aim is scattershot (that’s my wide-screen joke) and it doesn’t always hit (the movie is deeply sexist, I think), but I’m not convinced it isn’t effective. The word nigger gets volleyed around over and over and over and I don’t think it’s in vain. Of course there are other ways to build a racist world, but in a world of speechifying, pissy, loquacious strangers, I think that deeply violent language is an awfully reliable brick.

Sure, the story as it was told did not have to be told this way and yes highly privileged white man Quentin Tarantino seems to use the word pretty comfortably, but all of this righteous indignation regarding the word nigger is starting to strike me as goofy. Structural racism is hard to produce on screen – there are people who don’t believe in it in real life, after all. And for better or worse the word nigger hits. And when it comes in unrelenting flurries the way it does in The Hateful Eight, I think it hits hard.

Cameron Kunzelman once made a video game called “My Rage is a Cloud That Will Cover The Earth.” The game features a cloud (of rage) that hangs over an avatar’s head and expands as sexist and condescending quotes linger on the screen. The cloud is explicitly meant to represent the avatar’s rage and frustration, but I’ve always thought it could also represent the quotes themselves, and their ability to slowly engulf the world, the universe, life itself.

Major Warren in The Hateful Eight seems to live in such a world and I think that the frequency and vitriol of the word nigger makes that apparent. Each utterance of nigger is a virulent droplet of hate in an atmosphere that’s already impossibly humid.

This doesn’t mean that the word nigger is necessary to convey racism against black people on screen.* Black strife now, then, and forever will always be larger than slurs. It just means that one particular filmmaker’s choice worked. This time.

I don’t think it will work forever or in all contexts. In Django, for example, the humor of the film made the word nigger and other forms of racism somewhat ambiguous, especially since nigger was used in all directions, by all kinds of characters. And that ambiguity can definitely come across as carelessness or insensitivity.

But beyond whether it will always work, I think the ultimate question about Quentin Tarantino and the role of race in his movies is who carries the burden of his representations? Who has to deal with laughs at racist jokes during his films? Who has to be pushed to the margins to realize Tarantino’s vision of black masculinity and American racism? Who suffers when Tarantino goes for indulgence over concision? The answers to these questions vary between his movies, but I think they are much better ways of engaging with his body of work and with his representations of black people than tallying up the occurrence of a word that he tends to employ quite strategically (in his films; in his interviews, he isn’t always so tactful).

In short, if you want to find the troubling racial undertones in Quentin Tarantino’s work (they are there!) please look beyond the word nigger. Your rage, your argument, and my experience of your argument deserve it.

*The defense that it is historically accurate doesn’t fly either. The accents in the Hateful Eight are free-wheeling and I’m pretty sure that Negro was a more common word than black during the time period when the movie takes place. Likewise, since fictional worlds are artificial, the idea that the word adds realism to a movie is also questionable. I think that the real strength of the word in his films is affect, not realism.

Further Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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A List of Things I Wrote This Year

I pitched like crazy this year and for the most part, it turned out well. I got to work with some great editors at some great pubs and I got to publish a wide range of writing on a bunch of subjects and works of art. One thing that particularly stands out to me is that most of the editors I worked with were women. I think that’s really cool.

Here’s a compilation of that writing. This is a not a best-of list, but there’s a reason that some things aren’t listed and some things are, haha.

The Haircut

This is an essay on racism in the economy and seeking employment and how personal relationships (with myself and others) get affected by it.

You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Fuck The Police

This essay was in the works for a while. When I was in grad school, I would occasionally read selections from this book called That’s The Joint, an anthology of scholarship on rap. It’s a very versatile book, but throughout the book there’s a very narrow vision of political rap that just didn’t hold weight for me. So this essay responds to that by giving a more detailed, almost phenomenological definition of political rap.

Of course, I don’t dismiss all rap scholarship or rap writing (not all of the selections in the book are academic articles). From what I gather, it took a while for rap to even be considered a worthy academic subject, and you can feel the fight to show that it’s credible throughout the book. But even with that context, that doesn’t mean that  Common and Public Enemy get to be the only political rappers.

Review of Compton

This album has some nice performances and sharp production, but there’s a strong and cynical corporate aura hanging over it that really disturbs me, especially in lieu of this being the soundtrack to the N.W.A. biopic. I was surprised at how many people praised the album given its origins.

Review of To Pimp a Butterfly

I didn’t and don’t like this album. It’s a very good album in terms of production and affect – it really feels of the moment. 2015’s unique blend of anger, rage, disappointment, and shattered hope pulsate throughout the album. But politically I think it deeply misunderstands “the personal is the political.” Kendrick also has bad politics when it comes to women. (I recommend ignoring the review that is paired with mine. There’s not really an argument there)

The Labor Theory of Exercise

This essay is probably the most Protestant thing I’ll ever write. It’s essentially about how recognizing that exercise is work has helped me continue exercising. It’s also my paean to Dance Dance Revolution. Don’t judge.

Review of But You Caint Use My Phone

This album is barely a month old, but it’s really penetrated my psyche. A lot of folks seem to think that “Phone Down” is the heart of the album, but Erykah Badu isn’t just some luddite. She really digs into our relationship with phones beyond saying we should use them less. I really dig it.

Review of Summertime ’06

Album of the year. And it’s not because Vince Staples is dark and brooding and brutally honest like a lot of writers would have you believe. This is album of the year because Vince Staples has no interest in courting sympathy. He’s a black villain without a neat pathological story that ends with him being an antihero. That was definitely a shot at Kendrick, but seriously Vince Staples works because he doesn’t seek apologies, for himself or from others.

Byzantine Blues/I’m Feeling Lucky

I got a ticket in Virginia earlier this year because my tags were from Georgia. I wrote about the experience of interacting with a cop and how people reacted to me being stopped.

Shakey Dog, an Epic

“Shakey Dog” is a song from Ghostface’s album Fishscale. It’s the most detailed rap song I’ve ever heard, so detailed that it struck me as an opportunity to redeem the idea of epicness. Jeff Weiss helped me craft it into its current form, which I greatly appreciate.

Review of 55 5’s

I love reviewing instrumental albums. The lack of a clear narrative, a voice, really demands that you find those subtle hints of the person who made it and infer what compelled them. I especially like how hard it can be to avoid pure description. Everyone who writes about music should review instrumental albums. They’re always a challenge.

Still Timely: Book Review of Marvel Comics, The Untold Story

I read a lot of comics this year, new and old and mostly Marvel. This book really helped put Marvel Comics into perspective. There’a  lot of excitement about the cinematic universe expanding, but this book really tempers that. I don’t think I was ever fanatic about the happenings in the comic world, but this book absolutely shifted my perspective to unflinching cynicism. Considering Marvel’s history, I definitely think we should be wary of their long-term commitments to fans, characters, and creators.

Mystique Was Right: Review of All New Wolverine # 1 and 2

See previous paragraph.

Review of At.Long.Last.A$AP

This album is trash, but a lot of people said it was good. I’m still a little confused, but I think my argument holds up.

Priced Out: Why I Can No Longer Afford a Career in Writing

I started off this post praising editors because this year I’ve dealt with a lot of editors, in the music world and beyond, that have really blown me off. This essay gets at the violence of being collectively dismissed and the privilege of pubs regularly using writers that they know and who tend to look like them. I also talk about debt, which I have a lot of, and diversity, which I don’t see a lot of in the writing world.


There’s other writing of mine out there, but these were the highlights. Hopefully 2016 brings more opportunities to write and more things to think and write about it.

 

Please Return to Sender (Dear White People Review)

Racism’s greatest power is its ability to drastically simplify the world. Through racism, literally all things – clothing, behaviors, desires, needs, potentials, friendships –  become ordered and recognizable, “obvious” and apparent. Racism provides answers by making the world unquestionable.

Given this alarming power, the fundamental task of all anti-racist work is to deny this contrived simplicity and undermine it, exposing the unrelenting complexity of the world and refusing to accept anything less, anything simple. There are many ways to oppose racism – after all, it does impact everything – but no matter the anti-racist technique or strategy, the goal is always to re-complicate the world. Thus, the rudimentary starting point for any fight against racism is to not accept its simplified, basic terms.

Dear White People, a movie about racism on a fictional college campus, does not do this. It is basic. Despite its expansive cast and bold ambitions, Dear White People wholeheartedly accepts the readymade conventions of racism. Both the main cast and the secondary characters are developed into overwhelmingly lame, straightforward caricatures. Sam is a biracial black woman struggling between two lovers, one black, the other white (ugh). Troy, a preppy black guy, is a pawn in his black father’s multi-generational conflict with his school’s president, a white man. Coco is an upwardly mobile black woman from the south side of Chicago who wants to rise above her background. Lionel is a gay black man who is ostracized by both the black and white communities on campus.

None of these characters are necessarily predisposed towards flatness. In fact, they are all potentially interesting, especially Lionel (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cared about the college experiences of gay black dudes), but the film corrals each of them, and the secondary characters that they are connected to, onto either side of a very poorly-conceived racial divide: black vs white. There is nothing wrong with establishing factions and seeing how their ambitions collide, but the factions in Dear White People are never truly embroiled.

The characters each engage in their own racialized skirmish, but their actions are always predetermined by their position on the divide, their race. All the white characters are unrepentant or accidental racists; all of the black characters inevitably affirm their blackness. The only person who doesn’t get any resolution is Sam, but even her struggle is predictable: she is biracial so of course she cannot pick a side. (It was hard not to laugh when Sam decided to move off campus while the other black main characters all stayed at the black dorm)

The inevitability of all the characters’ outcomes and decisions is ultimately self-defeating. The film’s climax, a confrontation at a racist Halloween party, makes this most apparent. The white people are universally offensive and the black people are universally shocked and appalled. The outcome is so unsurprising that its narrative value is completely drained. Seeing the racist party after having already watched over an hour of dry conflict feels like walking around a haunted house with a copy of the floor plan. This isn’t to say that surprise is a necessary element of good filmmaking. Rather, it just felt strange for a movie that traffics in exploring inflexible racial destinies to treat an event it foresaw as something spectacular. It probably would have been more effective to highlight the banality of the party. For instance, I would have been much more horrified if I had seen two white students at the party using “nigger” in a conversation about Tolstoy.

The only particularly interesting thing about the scene is the presence of Asian and Latino students who allied with the black students to shut the party down. Their mere presence hints at more complex race relations on campus. Nevertheless, their presence also highlights their relative absence throughout the rest of the film. They appear only to advance the plot, which is kind of racist. Even within the film, it is not clear why they form this alliance. The film seems to imply that they ally with the black students simply because they are Asian and Latino. It was inevitable, I guess?

All in all, Dear White People is pretty weak. Though it is nice to see a movie that cares about black people and our experiences, mere care is a condescendingly weak threshold for a good movie or for a good perspective on race. Anybody can care, but what marginalized people need is people who care responsibly, intelligently, complexly. There are definitely sides in racial conflict, but they are absolutely not predetermined by race, and to think so is to buy directly into the simplifying logic of racism, no matter which side of the conflict you are on. Dear White People is clearly on the side of anti-racism, but it ultimately fails because it conflates allegiance, disposition, with action, decision. Anti-racism requires more than a sarcastically endearing address – “Dear White People.” More importantly, it requires acknowledging that those people and your relation to them, is much more complex than your sarcasm belies.

Classified – A Response to Sydette Harry

Robocop Classified

At the end of her razor-sharp article on the racialized, sexualized and gendered elements of contemporary surveillance, Sydette Harry asks a provocative question: “What is the solution to being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Tatyana Fazlalidadeh‘s Stop Telling Women to Smile offer an answer.

A History of Abuse

The backdrop for Harry’s question and her larger article is the inherently abusive nature of surveillance. As Harry writes, surveillance “is based on a presumption of entitlement to access, by right or by force.” As she goes on to argue, black bodies, particularly female black bodies, are understood as being especially accessible. This understanding is troubling in and of itself, but as Harry points out, it exacerbated by the fact that this accessibility often results in the paradoxical erasure of black women. Literally, the more visible black women become, the more they are rendered invisible.

For instance, though the recorded abuse of Janay Rice was the catalyst for a national conversation about domestic abuse, Rice’s voice was quickly muffled, splintering into discussions of the professional future of Ray Rice and whether Janay should have stayed with him to begin with, among other things. Harry’s point is that these peripheral conversations eclipsed Janay Rice’s voice: there were more stations looping the elevator footage of her being abused than there were looping her response to the situation.

Harry provides other strong examples – the discussion following the Knowles and Carter elevator incident, Vogue claiming that JLo made big butts acceptable – but her real interest is coming up with strategies for eliminating this paradox and rendering black women visible, as they are and as they want to be, not simply as silent objects of a CCTV screen or a WSHH video.

Toward this end, she expands then ultimately rejects Steven Mann’s concept of sousveillance, which seeks to counter surveillance by rerouting the collected information of surveillance to the ones being surveilled: users. This expansion of sousveillance is interesting, especially since Harry defines it as “all forms of using tech to jam surveillance.” (I really like the word “jamming”) The examples of “tech” that she uses are all technological – hashtags, phone recordings, photos – but towards the end of the article, she emphasizes that surveillance existed before these particular technologies, so I’m going to read sousveillance as all forms of using techniques to jam surveillance.

Harry acknowledges the potential strength of sousveillance, but she is wary of how much personal disclosure they involve. For example, she cites the Buzzfeed article that details the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the police officer that stalked and sexually abused black women. The article has pure intentions, but in order to make its case, the article must render the abuse of Holtzclaw’s victims in vivid detail, subsequently treading the troubling line between journalistic rigor and gonzo exploitation. I think that the article is ultimately rigorous, but Harry’s trepidation towards sousveillance still stands, especially when she cites very recent instances in which sousveillance proved ineffective, like the multiple accounts of police violence in Ferguson. Despite the ubiquity of recorded instances of police brutality, convictions are still rare. In other words, even when black people open up their raw wounds to public scrutiny, sympathy and justice are still delayed, if they ever even arrive.

Because sousveillance jams surveillance of black bodies by inundating those same bodies with sunlight, resulting in black people still getting burned, Harry rightfully rejects it. Thus, she is left with the opening question: “What is the solution to being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?”

Lessons From the Invisible Underground

Invisible Man is the story of a black man who is black in an America that has finite and constraining visions of what or who a black man can be. Throughout the novel, the Invisible Man is forced to serve multiple roles; he is variously a mouthpiece for a Communist organization, a symbol of racial betrayal for a Pan-Africanist organization, a source of entertainment for rich white men, a symbol of bestial sexual fulfillment for white women and a mindless drone for industrial capitalists, among many other things. In all of these instances, his personal goals, opinions, desires and needs are overlooked, ignored or dismissed. Through coercion, manipulation and even sheer force, he is continually made to serve the wills of others.

In regard to the matter at hand, the Invisible Man’s experiences highlight an interesting dimension of surveillance: for every will he must serve, for every force that accesses him without his permission, there is a corresponding form he must embody. In order for him to become a boxer, he must be given gloves; in order for him to become a speaker for The Brotherhood, he must be given lessons from the group’s appointed propagandist; in order to become The Invisible Man, he must give himself a story. In each instance, the Invisible Man is reshaped into the image that fits the designs for his body.

This reshaping transformation is a necessary condition of surveillance. Although surveillance is perhaps experienced as an all-seeing eye, it is actually an eye that sees all it wants, things that it deems worth seeing. This valuing of certain things over others transforms the object being seen. There is a reason that the TSA looks for bombs, knives, guns and hockey sticks, but doesn’t look for copies of Hitler’s autobiography. Likewise, there is a reason that the NSA monitors people with links to so-called terrorists and not people with links to My Little Pony fanfiction. Of course, what a surveilling body wants to see is always mutable, and thus potentially more invasive, more abusive, hence the inherent discomfort of surveillance. Yet, this potential for further abuse is also a liability because it necessitates more items to screen, more data to process, more bodies to transform. As the data accumulates, images become less intelligible, less discernible, so parsing it entails either increasingly sophisticated methods of looking or continued looking with increasing gaps in the image.

In the Invisible Man’s view, he created so many gaps in his oppressor’s images that he became invisible, hiding in plain sight. While I do think he was successful, I am not comforted by his course of action. After all, he had to conduct his own sousveillance: he had to relive his very painful and traumatic life story. Thus, even if it is on his own terms, invisibility still feels like a defeat. I want to be seen, I want to be felt, I want to be heard. Furthermore, who’s to say that his invisibility isn’t temporary? Who knows that, but on the lower frequencies, he isn’t being wiretapped?

That said, I think that the Invisible Man ultimately offers a useful answer to Harry’s question: the solution to constantly being watched is to make yourself unwatchable. The Invisible Man’s mistake was to think that becoming unwatchable meant becoming invisible, jamming through an absurd self-determination that was actually self-denial. Becoming unwatchable means becoming undetectable, becoming unintelligible as that which you are supposed to be perceived as. Invisibility can be a part of such a program, as well as anonymity, disguise, mask, or grotesqueness, but none of these tactics necessitates self-negation, absence. Quite the opposite, these tactics necessitate an increased presence. However, this presence is unrecognizable to the surveilling body: classified.

I do not know exactly what it means for black women in particular to render themselves unwatchable, especially on a collective level, but I think that there are already interesting developments out there. For instance, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh‘s series, Stop Telling Women to Smile, actively opposes the idea that women should be seen on others’, especially men’s, terms. What is particularly powerful about the series is that each screenprint features the unique words of the woman being pictured, so each woman is responding to her specific experiences of surveillance and rejecting surveillance in a distinct way. More importantly, unlike the Invisible Man, these women are not appearing as disembodied voices or phrases or having to gruesomely unveil their wounds. They are simultaneously rejecting surveillance and affirming their visibility. They are becoming seen and unseen, concurrently shunning a form that does not fit them and embodying a new one, one that they actually already have.

In the end, becoming unwatchable is ultimately about undermining the infrastructure of surveillance. Because the reigning infrastructure of surveillance is so well-integrated into our lives – technologically, socially, and culturally – it is difficult to imagine ways to jam it, especially ways that don’t involve opening wounds and risking further pain. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. Though there are literal and figurative cameras everywhere, there are also endless amounts of oppositional forms we can embody, from isolated invisible tunnel dweller, to militant, self-affirming screenprints, to rocks rocketing toward a closed circuit television. It is not fair that we have to embody these forms, but my point is that most of us are already in them. We are them. So becoming seen isn’t a matter of repairing the gazes of those who watch us, giving them further access through futile sousveillance. It’s a matter of constantly reminding them that their access is neither appropriate nor accurate. They cannot see because we refuse to be defined by their gaze, not because they need to see more (sousveillance). Also, we are jamming the shit out of their cameras.

The Wire Rock Being Thrown Opening Video

 

Inside the Sketch Factory

Sketch Factor 1

This essay is based on an interview with the makers of SketchFactor that was originally conducted for Paste Magazine. The transcript is available upon request. 

After our first year of college, a high school friend and I rendezvoused during the summer and gleefully exchanged notes, mostly about our new social environments. Though our experiences were different – he went to a large state school (University of Georgia) and I went to a much smaller private school (Mercer University) – they were also strikingly similar, especially in regard to race. Both of our schools had a significant white majority, a sharp contrast to our high school, which was overwhelmingly black. And both schools were directly adjacent to public housing, palpable urban decay and the relatively poor black people that lived under those circumstances. In other words, we both went to schools where black poverty was in the hinterlands.

One of the words that was commonly used to describe these hinterlands – which, I should note, were hinterlands only if you made our schools the center of the universe – was sketchy, sometimes just shortened to “sketch.” After a year of ambient exposure to this word, almost exclusively when in the company of white students, we both knew what it meant: ghetto, hood, poor, scary, black, us. The constellation of bigotry is never difficult to trace.

SketchFactor, a new app that aims to offer walkers an opportunity to traverse cities safely, without encountering “sketchy” areas, seems to want to distance itself from that constellation of bigotry, embracing the alleged openness of sketchiness. When asked why sketchiness deserves its own app, Allison McGuire, one of SketchFactor’s founders, says, “Sketchiness is universal in its appeal. People experience sketchy things all over, whether it’s totally weird and bizarre, to something that’s potentially dangerous, to consistent issues in a specific area, so the reason that we went with SketchFactor as opposed to ‘SafetyFactor’ or something like that is because it’s interesting, it’s universal, and people understand it and it applies to different things.”

McGuire is confident about the self-evidence of sketchiness and about what SketchFactor can do, but as the founder of a start-up, it is her job to be confident. What does SketchFactor actually do? How does it really work?

It begins with an exchange. To download the app, users share their email address, age, gender and name – standard app protocols. Users also must share their location, which is the app’s most crucial piece of information. Location data allows SketchFactor to suggest routes to users who want help navigating safely, and record and display “sketch points,” places where “sketchy” experiences were reported. These reports can be filed under four categories: weird, dangerous, protip and something else.

Sketch Factor screenshot categories

These features work in concert: each time a user submits a report in an area, future users in that area who use the app’s “suggested routes” feature will see more sketch points, which are color-coded according to the category they were filed under. Likewise, users who use these suggested routes will be able to upvote or downvote the sketch points, depending on their experiences of the area and the seeming authenticity of the report.

In addition to using its own crowdsourced data to suggest and display routes, the app also uses publicly available crime data, which is sourced from city and municipal databases (notably, not all municipalities provide or collect such data; so some SketchFactor users may be getting suggested routes based solely on user submissions). This publicly available data is not visually displayed in the app because, as SketchFactor co-founder, Daniel Herrington, reveals, “We were afraid we would overwhelm users with too much information.”

Considering the app’s visual interface, this is a strange statement. Because of the hyperlocalized nature of the app’s reporting mechanisms, a single block can be bursting with sketch points. And this surfeit makes the app stronger. McGuire makes this relationship between data and excess clear when she says, “The data gets stronger and the analytics gets stronger, the more information that we have.”

Given these contradictions, the real conflict seems to be between the app’s social intentions and its business intentions. Socially, the app is intended to be a tool to “empower users to decide what they want to see and what they want to avoid,” says Herrington. But if that were the case, why would the app inundate users with crowdsourced sketch points rather than publicly collected data? This data must be at least somewhat accountable if it is so fully integrated into the infrastructure of the app. McGuire even says, “When it comes to publicly available data, you can’t really vote on that.” So why not present such incontrovertible data by itself? Chicago, a city that Herrington and McGuire both praise for the availability of its data, released its data a few years ago and there is an entire civic group, Open City, that is dedicated to presenting that data in interesting ways, specifically through apps. Why is SketchFactor not so open?

McGuire offers a partial answer to this question when she repeatedly declines to reveal SketchFactor’s “community partners,” organizations that she cites throughout the interview as integral to shaping the app’s development. According to McGuire, these organizations represent a range of interests, “ from looking at LGBT violence on a city level, to looking at sexual harassment, to looking at…druggings in bars, to looking at racial profiling, to looking at decriminalization, to looking at community gardens.” This range is quite impressive, but it is quite suspect for community organizations, especially with such likeable interests, to be making partnerships in secret. McGuire suggests that this secrecy is a preemptive response to SketchFactor’s predictable negative press, explaining, “We went out to market deciding that it would be best to keep our partners under wraps because we knew that we were going to get some attention and we wanted to make sure that we worked out some of the kinks and communicated that to our partners.” Apparently, McGuire’s confidence in the app is not widely shared..

The real reason for the guardedness of SketchFactor’s partners emerges when McGuire discusses what happens to the data that’s collected by the app: “We want to continue to partner with community groups that are advocating on certain issues that reflect their priorities and we can give them hard data – ‘here’s how other people are experiencing this problem in your city or on your block.’ So that’s one way. The other way is providing that information to companies that can benefit from it, such as energy companies. People can benefit from whether or not an area is well-lit or poorly lit, even if the energy company says, well we have five lights on this block. We can say, well people keep saying it’s not a well-lit block. And they say well maybe we need seven lights.”

Though the street lights example is appealing, to put it bluntly, SketchFactor is in the business of data commerce: the app collects data and peddles it to interested and potentially interested parties. Its vague, “universal appeal” allows it to collect a range of data, a universe, if you will, and its use of public databases allows that data to be paired with already-corroborated data, subsequently increasing its value, expanding the universe.

This is not a novel business model or even a particularly upsetting one, especially in the tech world. Yet, there is a palpable irresponsibility in how cavalierly SketchFactor evades its accountability towards how it solicits its data. This attitude is on full-display when Herrington matter-of-factly says, “It’s the crowd, so the crowd’s gonna use it as they’re gonna use it.” This fatalism completely ignores the fact that the crowd is incited to speak in a certain way at the prompting of the app. Having categories like, “weird,” “dangerous,” and “protip” encourages particular kinds of responses, especially when these responses are all filed under the vague notion of sketchiness. In fact, “something else,” the fourth and most unspecified possible report category, is tellingly the least used.

Admittedly, McGuire and Herrington do highlight thoughtful features of the app such as downvoting and upvoting and a prompt that asks users using potentially offensive words, “Are you sure you want to post that? Some people might find it offensive.” The plucky pair also details their own backend tracking of words that are consistently flagged as offensive, categories that are used to post offensive content and users who receive frequent downvotes, all worthwhile features. Yet, they are also perfectly complacent with these features, as if an app that by definition leverages peoples’ vague and potentially unfounded feelings of uneasiness is morally neutral because the makers of the app simply intended it to be.

Defending these intentions, McGuire believes that SketchFactor is a step forward, comparing SketchFactor’s approach to approaches from the past. “What people have done time and time and time again before us, is that they have gone in and they have painted neighborhoods broad brushstroke as safe, unsafe, good, bad, and that has really harmed neighborhoods and helped neighborhoods. So what we’re looking to do is be really really specific about saying here’s where there’s a specific problem occurring, or hey here’s where something really funny keeps occurring or here’s where something we should look at continues to happen. And how can we better address these things?” McGuire’s comparison between broad brushstrokes and pointillist sketch points is almost convincing, but she seems to be forgetting that both techniques still produce full portraits.

Sketch Factor Washington DC

[Washington DC]

In other words, hyperlocalization is not a cure-all. When I was an undergraduate, the first “sketchy” place I was told about was a particular stoplight that was a few blocks from the edge of campus. According to campus lore, if a frightened student decided to run the light and was caught, the ticket would be forgiven. I’m pretty sure that this was untrue, but I mention it because the alleged sketchiness of that neighborhood was not contained at the stoplight. The lore was a parable for how to act at any place in the neighborhood. Sketch points emit sketchiness; they do not enclose it.

Above all, I wonder how these emissions affect the people who are adjacent to them. Herrington reminds me that SketchFactor is aimed at explorers and wanderers, but what about residents? What does it mean to live in a neighborhood that is marred with sketch points? To put it differently, what does it mean to live in the hinterlands? As someone who was always potentially a resident of hinterlands, just by virtue of being black, I can confidently say that it isn’t a positive development. In fact, I think it’s pretty racist.

This Excludes Me: On the Dangers of “I Can’t Relate”

I can't relate

(Via ryaneagle.com)

“I can’t relate” is a common response to artworks, ideas, people and other things that just didn’t feel quite relevant to one’s experiences or interests. On one hand, it’s an alternative and somewhat polite way of saying, “I don’t care.” If a close friend or co-worker passionately introduced you to something or someone that gets them off and it just didn’t do anything for you, “I can’t relate” is perfect for claiming your disinterest without risking insult. On the other hand, “I can’t relate” is a very literal statement. For some reason, a person or idea that you encountered was unable or unwilling to establish or maintain a compelling relationship, like a bad first date.

I’ve often seen “I can’t relate” used in response to narratives or pieces of art that felt either exclusionary or just non-inclusive, the former pushing one away and the latter just not acknowledging one’s existence. I think that these feelings and this particular way of articulating them – “I can’t relate” – are completely legitimate, but I also think that “I can’t relate” has some noteworthy limitations that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The first limitation is the kind of relationship that “I can’t relate” tends to refer to. In most cases, the relationship is one of direct correspondence. People “can’t relate” because the person or object in question doesn’t directly connect with them on the registers that they find important. Another way to put it is that the object doesn’t present itself in the way one prefers. The show Girls (Full disclosure: I’ve never watched it) has been attacked on these grounds on multiple occasions because of its absence of women of color. SNL was recently attacked on similar grounds for its absence of black women. I sympathize with these attacks in practice because they call attention to problems with our media landscape, but I wonder how well they articulate what plaintiffs really want. In other words, could people [of color] not relate to Girls and SNL because 1) they saw no people of color or 2) because they felt people of color were actively written out of these shows? Or perhaps there are other reasons entirely. Whatever the actual case, “I can’t relate” always frames grievances in terms of direct correspondence.

There is a distinction between these two options (1 & 2) that “I can’t relate” can’t really address. SNL’s subsequent hiring of more black women, for example, changes the presentation of the show, but it’s unclear how [or if!] it changes the experience of the show, the actual relationship one has with the show. If it does, how does this happen? What about the presence of a black woman on a tv show makes the show palatable to black viewers generally and black women specifically? “I can’t relate” answers this question by saying that the presence itself is the important factor because the absence was the original problem.

I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer, especially when you consider the second limitation of “I can’t relate,” which is that it doesn’t quite account for people who in fact do relate to the object in question despite not being directly represented. For example, my stepfather, my stepmother and my stepgrandfather, who are all black and from the South, are all very fond of Westerns. On one hand, I’m sure this is a product of them growing up in a time where Westerns had the same prestige and ubiquity that action movies have today. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, the three of them are simply intrigued by the genre. I know from speaking with them that they would have liked to have seen more Westerns with black characters, especially black characters who weren’t servants, sidekicks, prostitutes, cannon fodder or menial workers. In fact, they all seem to know who the black actors were by name, implying that they had an enhanced relationship with those particular actors, much like a young black kid (like me) being able to specifically name-check black superheroes. Given these enhanced relationships, I think it’s fair to say that the three of them would have liked to relate to Westerns in a different way. That said, they each managed to relate to the genre anyway, despite its lack of direct correspondence and despite their very concrete incentives to actively shun the genre (i.e. being black in the 60s and before). That is important to recognize.

“I can’t relate” wouldn’t be able to recognize that persisting relation” because it posits our relationships with media as being direct, solid, when they are in fact much more liquid or even gaseous, impossible to grasp. Even if it is useful for framing grievances and is sometimes true – there are definitely things I like just because of one black character or one female character, etc. – “I can’t relate” is a tactic that I would use very strategically because it reduces relationships with media down to checklists that don’t reflect real problems with the media landscape. This is dangerous because these checklists are readily co-opted into the service of statements like, “This show has no white men. This is racist” or “All the men die. This is sexist.” As silly and pigheaded and just plain wrong as those statements are, I think that their ability to be uttered is also a function of “I can’t relate.” As a frame, it simply can’t reliably relay the complexity of legitimate grievances against our distorted, dehumanizing and disrespectful universe of media. So instead of saying, “I can’t relate” sometimes it’s better to change it up and say, “This excludes me” and insist that “excludes” is a very, very active verb.

Homeboy Sandman Is Not My Homeboy

Though his choruses are mediocre at best, Homeboy Sandman is one of the most-talented rappers in hip-hop. I’ve never heard a verse of his that didn’t impress me technically, stylistically or conceptually. Even his videos are generally impressive. That being said, Homeboy Sandman is not my homeboy.

In an op-ed published by Gawker, Homeboy Sandman declared and then defended the notion that black people are cowards. It’s a nonsense argument in principle and even worse in action. Sandman uses his dissatisfaction with the LA Clippers’ response to Donald Sterling’s racism to then accuse an entire populace of cowardice. His accusation does nothing more than reignite old, frustrating, condescending, dehumanizing, ahistorical and unempirical debates about whether black people’s collective condition is attributable to black people ourselves. I’m not sure how anyone who knows anything about American history could make such disgusting claims. I’m especially not sure how any black person who is living through the very consequences of American history could make those claims. But I’m not here to speculate.

I’m here to debate. But I don’t want to debate on Sandman’s terms; they just plain aren’t tenable. “Black people are cowards” is a statement that isn’t even worth laughing at. It’s pure bullshit, like homeopathy or justified rape. I don’t even want to debate with Sandman because his argument has no connection to the real world.

I want to debate with the people who are telling me that Sandman’s op-ed is a “must-read.” Why should I read an article where a black person gives legitimacy to the idea that black people should not be welcome at certain places? Why should I read an article where a black person uses “coon” as a way of addressing me? Why should I read an article that says, “Our enemy isn’t white people” as if that’s breaking news? Why should I read an article where a musician presents an entire genre as corrupted and inferior just because it doesn’t always uphold his particular values?

The only answer I can come up with for all these questions is that I should read this article if I want to be homeboys with someone who is unable to think complexly about the issues facing black America. I agree that the LA Clippers’ protest was kind of lame, but calling all black people cowards is even lamer. Anyone can blame rap music, basketball players, TV shows, movies and black people. Hell, those 5 targets of blame might as well be the starting lineup for people who want to play the game  “Let’s Fix Black America’s Problems.”

It takes someone with a creative mind to tackle the realities of black America with actual nuance, not Gawker-style, reductive talking points. Before today, I would have thought that Homeboy Sandman was in possession of such a creative mind, but it turns out that I was wrong.

But I don’t care about Homeboy Sandman. I care about black people telling other black people that our destinies are in our own hands as if there aren’t other hands tightly gripped around our throats. I understand the inclination to ask if black people are self-oppressing – it’s always a question worth asking for any group. But answering that question involves confronting the complexity of oppression and resistance to it, and thinking deeply about history and possibility, not responding to that complexity with prepackaged solutions that have never worked.

I’m so tired of black people comparing the present moment to the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Unless you live in Mississippi, those eras are absolutely incommensurate. Boycotts don’t solve problems in 2014. They barely solved them in 1956. This cannot be emphasized enough. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a unique historical event that was enabled by demographic concentration, community autonomy , social infrastructure in the form of robust churches (and tithing members!) and support from communities outside of Montgomery. The fact that it succeeded is a true marvel and one that I am immensely grateful for, but it wasn’t just a matter of everyone holding hands and being strong. Black people have always been strong, but strength has never been enough. That boycott succeeded because strength was coupled with power and imagination. Circulating an article that actively drains black people of all three is absolutely a step in the wrong direction.