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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Against the Think Piece

Last week I was led to read Roxane Gay’s think piece on Halloween and blackface, which was published in 2013. The preface of the piece, provided by Gay herself on Twitter, was that the piece was “STILL RELEVANT” (her emphasis). After reading it, I didn’t feel that way. Though I am a fan of Gay and I think that she regularly says and writes interesting things, the article felt expired, like Halloween candy in July. The main points of the article – don’t wear blackface because it’s offensive, demeaning and unncessary – were paraded out ceremoniously and opaquely as if they are self-explanatory – which they clearly aren’t if the article is being written to explain them. Even as someone who does oppose race as costume, I really didn’t like this article.

My first impulse to this negative reaction was to question myself. Perhaps I had just read too much about blackface and Halloween and I now thought the argument was passé. After all, it really is a perennial conversation. If some sarcastic entrepreneur were to publish a calendar of annual American conversation topics, “Is Blackface Wrong?” would fit right in with other staples like, “What are we serving for Thanksgiving?” and “What are we doing for New Year’s Eve?”

I was pretty satisfied with this answer until I remembered that I regularly read rehashes of the same argument. For example, two of my favorite blogs, Native Appropriations and We Are Respectable Negroes, frequently make the same arguments as they encounter American racism in its infinitely varying guises. I have no issue with this because their arguments are routinely qualified, anchored to specific incidents and explicit ways of understanding those incidents. In fact, by repeating their arguments and accumulating more and more evidence to support them, these blogs make their arguments even stronger.

Gay’s piece and think pieces at large, I think, do not do this. Think pieces float in time, barely attached to their subject matter or to each other. They are timestamped by time, but not history. They have ambitions of old age, but they perish before they even learn to crawl. They are fated to be stillborn. In other words, they have no lasting value. Their expiration  date and their publication date are simultaneous. Think pieces are intellectual H&M.

Of course, many things on the internet and in publishing are immediately disposable and I’m okay with that, but think pieces draw my ire specifically because of their will to be discarded. They are frequently written without references, without establishing context and with a strange air of superiority, as if the writer is greatly inconvenienced by writing this, but it must be done because this opinion is just that pertinent. These traits upset me because they prevent writing from having any lasting life, resulting in pieces that are self-contained, insular and effectively unshareable. Think pieces are direct messages posing as tweets.

Academic knowledge and technical knowledge are also largely immobile and contained, but they differ from think pieces in that they don’t aim for wide circulation and they are invested in their readers’ time, so they [ideally] qualify their arguments. Think pieces aim for wide circulation, but they don’t value that potential readership enough to do even the minimum amount of baseline explanation. I’m tempted to call this practice of writing en media res sheer laziness on behalf of the writer, but I don’t think that calling these writers lazy quite captures what is happening here. Many think pieces are actually very sharply written, despite their opacity, so I think this opacity is an aesthetic feature of think pieces. In other words, think piece writers aren’t lazy: think pieces are a lazy way of presenting an argument. Think pieces traffic in alleged self-evidence, “obviousness,” which, in practice, allows writers to skirt over details, the most important part of any argument. Seriously,the entire point of writing at length is to use that additional space to build an argument. An old philosophy textbook I have actually defines an argument as an “inference made explicit.” Every argument starts with an inference, but it ends with an explanation. At best, think pieces are inferences never made explicit. At worst, they are explanations of nothing.

In the end, I think that think pieces are ultimately wastes of space and effort. I have no problem with watching people think out loud nor with watching people working themselves into a corner and giving up. In fact, I love those things because I see the thought happening, I see the process, the inference becoming explicit. I also realize that the time, space and knowledge to see an inference to its logical end are luxuries, especially in an age where many writers are writing for free and the writers who do actually get paid are constrained by deadlines, word counts and lack of resources. I get that.  That said, think pieces upset me because they presume that these things can’t be overcome or worked through and accordingly circumnavigate the entire process of making an argument, building a case. Think pieces are Law and Order with only the opening scene and the judge’s sentence. They inherently devalue the topic, the writer and the argument. And in a world where many kinds of topics, kinds of writers, and kinds of arguments are devalued just because (I’m talking about writers of color, women, LGBTQ folks and poor folks), it is piss-poor policy to accept that devaluation just for a few clicks.

Caveat: Despite different etymologies think pieces and op-eds are basically the same thing, so op-eds can die too.

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.

More Than Money: On the Atlanta Braves’ Plan to Leave Turner Field

Braves Ticket Sales 2012

Braves Tickets Sales 2012 (Source)

A friend of mine recently wrote an article about the Atlanta Braves’ plans to leave their current home of Turner Field and relocate to a suburban area north of Atlanta. The Braves’ management have strangely claimed that the move is necessary because of chronic transit issues. As Eric notes, these issues aren’t likely to be mitigated or fixed by this planned relocation. In addition to the pure truth that virtually nowhere in Atlanta is immune to transit issues, the site of relocation is not only near an especially traffic-ridden intersection, it is beyond the reach of MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit authority.

Rightfully so, I think, Eric calls our attention to the demographic affinities between the Braves’ fan base and the people living in the area around the site’s new location. The Braves management itself also calls our attention to this affinity, noting that, “The new stadium will be located near the geographic center of the Braves’ fan base.” After pointing to this affinity, Eric then highlights the implicit and historical antagonism between that fan base and the people living around Turner Field’s current location. The former is largely white and middle class while the latter are largely black and lower income. Thus, he concludes that the Braves’ move is fairly racist. Of course, things don’t actually line up so clearly along a racial divide. Cobb County is not some lily-white Pleasantville and Southeast Atlanta is not Harlem (Plus, even Harlem isn’t Harlem). But race definitely looms large in the Braves decision, which was Eric’s point.

The Braves and their defenders have downplayed race by claiming that the Braves’ decision is simply “all about money.” The Braves simply couldn’t afford to remain at Turner Field, so they had to move, claimed the team president. This logic of it being “simply about money” always bothers me because it’s not only naive and dismissive, but it often overestimates how “purely” businesses think. By “purely” I’m referring to the most rudimentary tenet of  any “good” business model: make more money than you spend, at whatever cost. The latter half of the statement is rarely upheld in an autonomous, independent sense, especially by sports teams, who are often heavily subsidized by the cities that house them, despite no real material benefits for the city. In other words, sports teams largely defer costs, risks, to others rather than taking them on for themselves. Stated bluntly, most good businesses put their risks in other people’s hands. In the case of Turner Field, those hands were the taxpayers of the city of Atlanta and the homes of the largely black communities flanking the stadium. How can this be simply about money when the stadium exists solely because money wasn’t enough? Before the ground was even broken, the money that paid for the hardhats and the shovels had to be explicitly bolstered to a very particular community and its members: Atlanta.

Atlanta Braves logo

Sports teams are actually notorious for getting subsidies, freeing their hands, through very sophisticated and questionable promises of development, jobs and prestige (note how the press release for the new location claims that the new stadium will be “world-class”) and then abandoning the cities once the cities either a) decline to continue to bear the load (i.e. pay for a new stadium, upgrade the stadium, allow more tax breaks,) and/or 2) get one-upped by a city with a more accommodating offer. In fact, I recently wrote about how this historical process played out in Brooklyn through a rather peculiar series of “hand transactions” that involved Jay Z.

Given this history of how sports teams routinely treat cities, I’m inclined to agree with Eric regarding the significance of race, but in a fairly different way. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to read this as the Braves caving into its fans’ subconscious racism. That logic can only lead to us pleading for them to stay at Turner Field. I think it’s more useful, perhaps even more accurate, to think of this as the Braves telling us that their allegiance to Atlanta was always contingent upon “who” Atlanta was. As indicated by their somewhat laughable desire to remain the “Atlanta Braves” despite planning to move beyond the mass transit system, the Atlanta Braves view “Atlanta” as a free-floating signifier, a removable sticker to be easily removed at will; even though this sticker adheres to literally concrete buildings and people, nothing stops them from peeling it and shunting it onto some new, more profitable surface.

Image

Eric draws our attention to the black people who currently live around Turner Field and their lack of affinity with the Braves’ beloved base, but I can’t help but think of the black people who had to standby when Turner Field was first built. I’m sure that they weren’t exactly happy when the ’96 Olympic committee forced all this development in their backyards. Even if they were, as they learned to accept the endless nights and days of increased traffic, increased noise pollution and crowded streets, for better or worse they could at least be assured the stadium would be around for awhile; at least the Braves had committed themselves to the city, to them, in some form.

Now that this form is scheduled to disintegrate and rematerialize eerily close to home, I think we should note how all sports teams generally treat cities and think deeply about what it means for them to bear the names of our cities without any rooted, accountable form of responsibility toward them (and us). If this is how teams want to treat us, perhaps they should pay for their “world-class” stadiums with their own money. I doubt Cobb County will learn from this lesson. Mother Jones reports that they’ve already laid down $300 million. But if somehow things don’t solidify in Cobb and Turner Field remains, maybe this time around we can turn off the Southern hospitality and turn on the Southern stubbornness. The Atlanta Braves have won one title in 17 years, they don’t care about their local community or the city and they promote that racist tomahawk chop. Sounds like a bad neighbor to me.

On My Yellow Hat

Image

Up until a week or so ago, I held various positions at a local bakery. “Various” is an important term because the initial arrangement when I was hired was for me to be a cashier and storekeeper. This arrangement was eventually upheld, but because I was hired before the storefront opened, I worked in the kitchen, mostly cleaning, washing dishes and making poison (egg salad).

Once the storefront opened I began cashiering. Because I worked around food, I had to wear a hat. I actually wanted to wear a hairnet (because I hate untangling my hair after stuffing my hair into a hat), but they were adamant about me wearing a hat, so I obliged.

The first hat I wore was my old navy blue Yankees cap, but because it was a tight fit, I eventually started wearing the hat pictured above, a goldenrod fitted baseball cap with the Pittsburgh Pirates Logo on it.  After 3 shifts of wearing this hat, I was told that the hat was unacceptable because it did not fit “the vibe” of the bakery. My boss, a Trinidadian immigrant dude, told me that my hat made the bakery look “like a Foot Locker.” I didn’t understand why my yellow hat was less compatible with the bakery’s “vibe” than my navy blue Yankees hat, which is the hat I would wear for the rest of my employment there, but I like having a job, so I followed directions.

At first I thought that the animosity toward the yellow hat was latest the arbitrary manifestation of my boss’ hate for me (he definitely hated me), but I think there was also some racism involved.

When he initially expressed his disdain for the hat, he did so at length: he walked into the store, summoned me to the back, then proceeded to speak to me about the hat for 70 minutes. The details of his reasoning are pretty troubling.

First, there’s his comment about Foot Locker. Aesthetics matter, especially when you’re trying to sell people stuff, but why is Foot Locker the aesthetic antithesis to the bakery? Most of the customers in our area were white; was he suggesting that Foot Locker is only for black people? Would he have made the same comment if I were white? Would he have made the same comment if I were a woman? Why was the yellow hat not a problem until I worked in the front? There’s no clear answer to these questions, but I found his example to be unsettling, especially when he repeated it.

Beyond the Foot Locker comment, he asked me why I would voluntarily wear hats. “Don’t you get stopped by the police?” For whatever reason, I’ve actually never been stopped and frisked by the police, but the implication he made is that if I wear hats, I deserve to be profiled and that’s it’s “only a matter of time before it happens” (Translation: It’s only a matter of time before I get what’s coming to me) .

Responding to my incredulous expression, he tried to back away from this harsh statement by mentioning how he once saw me walking late at night (2AM) – with a hat – and how if he were a woman, he would have been scared. I know that cities have never been particularly hospitable places for women, and I’d never argue that an unfamiliar woman or person has any particular reason to trust me, but he wasn’t telling me how to try to avoid aggravating people’s discomfort. He wasn’t advising me how to navigate the treacherous waters of troubling social realities like rape and sexual assault. He was telling me that as a black man, people have the right to be scared of me.

Backing him up were, “statistics,” the patron saint of bullshitters. According to the statistics, he argued, I am more likely to be a criminal because I’m black and male, thus I should be treated like a criminal. And conveniently, the only way to escape my inherent criminality is to not wear hats and be indoors by dusk.

Crime is real and crime by black males is really real, but this notion that someone can assess my propensity for crime on sight assumes that there’s a logic to criminality. It assumes that the criminal profile, a stable, reliable image of a criminal, actually exists. Most pressingly, this notion assumes that the people who “assess” my alleged criminality are purified of racial, generational, gendered, national, historical, regional and [insert more adjectives here] prejudices that might skew their assessments.

That’s just not true. And it misses the reality of how race plays out. To alter the words of Cameron Kunzelman, ideology doesn’t care about the clothes. If someone is scared of black males, that person is going to be scared whether I’m dressed like Bill Cosby or dressed like Lil’ Wayne. Neither my sartorial choices nor their “knowledge” of statistical probabilities are going to change the fact of that person’s racism.

Plain and simple, my former boss and  Don Lemon and Bill Cosby telling me that the key to being respected is “looking better” is nothing but intraracial racism masquerading as advice. Needless to say, it’s bad advice. Have you seen me in my yellow hat? Flawless.

Yellow hat

This is Why Trayvon Was Murdered

Last night, before going to bed to dream of spilled olive oil and socks that don’t fit, I signed into Facebook and read this:
“I Love Macon.
I love getting felt up every time I go dancing.
I love hearing police sirens every night.
I love stopping at red lights, and locking my doors because I’m afraid of getting carjacked.
I love being panhandled every time I go grocery shopping.
I love hearing gunshots.
I love having more pawn shops than clothing stores.
I love homophobic racist sexist old money rednecks.
I love it that “culture” is one theater.
I love disobeying my GPS when it tries to take me through the ghetto.
I love being scared of every black person I meet outside of campus.
I love the asinine way they handle rape victims.
I love hearing about Macon doctors laughing at AIDS victims.
I love the confederate flag.
I love when my air conditioning unit is stolen for copper.
I love it when my house is robbed.
I love it when my roommates are beaten.
I love it when the police do nothing.
I love it when the only safe place to survive is the “Mercer Bubble”

And what I love most of all is when idiotic “I Love Macon” pledges try to force me to speak positively about this city.”

The person who posted this is a friend/acquaintance/guy I know who goes to my school. Before proceeding, allow me to lay out some Important Preliminary Facts:  my school is 70-75%  white (mostly middle  or upper-middle class), my school has an open campus that is surrounded by poor black folk, the poster of this status is white and he was responding to this campaign.

If you didn’t read that article, go back and read it now. It’s important to read because it clearly demonstrates two important points: the people behind this campaign are aware that Macon’s problems are not necessarily unique and they are trying to confront those problems with positive energy. I don’t think the campaign is brilliant or anything, but considering how frequently I hear people shit on the city for no good reason, I think it’s in good spirit, especially since the campaign is aware of its silliness. The poster of this very offensive Facebook status, who I will now refer to as Sunbeam Guy, is understandably skeptical of the campaign. Honestly, amidst some of his racism and classism, there are some good points. No doubt, Macon can do better.

That being said, most of the problems he outlines are personal problems, like the problem of his racism. It depresses me when I hear about white folks at my school being scared of “ghetto” black folks. You know why? BECAUSE GHETTONESS IS ARBITRARY. The only criteria used to determined “ghettoness” are familiarity and black skin. This means two things: 1) at all times I am one step removed from being the ghetto, fear-inducing Other and 2) All of my social relationships [with these particular white folks] are solely predicated upon  my being familiar.  In other words, I am “safe” solely because I can be identified. I am one of the “good ones,” the trustworthy ones. Based on this type of racism I can be assured that if I encounter a white person who doesn’t know me or who doesn’t identify me as a member of the community, I am instantly transfigured from Stephen Kearse to Trayvon Martin. This is unacceptable.

In fact, this is why Trayvon Martin was murdered. This fear of black bodies, this need to identity them, to “confirm” their right to belong is exactly why he was murdered. You may think that you fear black people outside of campus, but the truth is that you fear the black folks on campus as well. Like I said earlier, the only difference between me and them is the fact that you know me. Literally, all it takes for you to fear me is a brief moment of misrecognition. That’s fucked up.

I don’t want you to fear me. In fact, I’d rather you feel indifferent to me than to subject me to this type of prejudicial surveillance. But my feelings don’t matter, apparently. You’ve independently decided how to deal with me and my “ilk.”

I’m not the spokesperson for black people (hint: there’s no such thing), but Guy, I have a message for you and people who think like you, specifically Mercerians: there’s no such thing as “The Mercer Bubble.” The Mercer Bubble is a racist, classist, provincial, insular, narrow-minded, stupid, deluded, arbitrary and ironically unsafe chimera generated by people like you who arrogantly believe that safety can somehow be guaranteed.

What’s truly funny to me is that until your retreat into the bubble, I hadn’t realized how unsafe I am. For 4 years, I’ve walked around campus thinking that I was among folks with the ability to think. Turns out I was wrong. At any given moment, without thought, you and your people (by this I mean the 50+ people who liked your Facebook and the dozens who would have liked it if they had read it) can resort to knee-jerk, parochial and bigoted views and indefinitely suspend my identity and self-determination as well as your own ability to think. How silly of me. I’ve been telling myself that I’m Stephen Kearse, but the truth is that I’m Trayvon Martin.

On The FP

The FP is an upcoming film that heavily derides DDR and the enthusiasts that love it. As a former DDR fanatic player, a film mocking DDR immediately feels like a good idea. As much as I enjoyed the game, I would be the last to argue that the game and the players aren’t alarmingly strange. In fact, I wouldn’t argue it all. DDR players are fucking weird.

The FP explodes this weirdness in a very intentional way, occasionally succeeding and frequently failing. I know this because I just finished watching the first 10 minutes of the film. Go ahead and watch it. Yes, that is a legal link. The filmmakers chose to advertise it that way.

As I hope you noticed, in that clip “nigga” gets tossed around quite frequently. Now, I’m not the nigga police (Is that an oxymoron?). I say it hesitantly and self-consciously, but I say it nonetheless. I also know that other people say it, sometimes non-black people. I’m not going to even attempt to lay out instances in which “nigga” and its relatives are “acceptable.” Not only do I not even know what “acceptable” really means, but I lack the authority, if such authority even exists (it probably doesn’t) and the time. What I want to talk about is how “nigga” works within the movie.

To start off, yes, I know that the movie is camp. This is very clear to me. The dialogue, the music, the characters, the clothing and the basic conceit of the film are all heavily campy. I get it. But camp doesn’t excuse racism. Again, I’ll say this explicitly: I know that in the absence of black people (and sometimes the presence), some non-black people say “nigga.” I’m neither disputing that or calling them racists.I would need a context for that.

All that being said, when I watched this film, every time someone said “nigga,” it didn’t feel subversive or transgressive. It felt racist. It’s supposed to be a joke, I’m sure, but it’s just plain distracting (read: racist). Literally every time it was uttered, I had a frisson. This didn’t happen because I’m uptight. I’ve seen the My Way Entertainment videos, I actually like Malibu’s Most Wanted and I like Tarantino films. In other words, I don’t cringe at the mere idea of “nigga” being used by non-black people for the sake of art. Some people (i.e. Spike Lee), do cringe and maybe I should too, but I don’t. In The FP, “nigga” isn’t being used to mock casual racism or achieve some artistic goal. It’s being used because “it’s funny,” which is ironic, because it isn’t. It’s just racist.

Addendum: I focused on race in this post, but everything I’ve said also applies to all the movie’s attempts to mock “bros” (click here for a distinction between bros and douches) and “bro humor.” In essence, the mocking ends up becoming the thing being mocked. There are multiple terms for this phenomenon. Baudrillard calls it simulation. The internet calls it Poe’s Law. I call it bad comedy.