Below are two examples of how this happens, and for different reasons. The first is due to an overly earnest activist mentality that sees oppression everywhere, whether it exists or not. The second is an example of the media looking to generate controversy and therefore revenue by creating scandals where none need exist.
Lorde's song "Royals" is "deeply racist"
At Feministing, blogger Veronica Bayetti Flores talks about how Royals, the hit from 16 year old New Zealander Lorde, is all about shitting on black people. Yes, really. Most people have interpreted the song as a critique of the culture of consumerism, hedonism and conspicuous wealth that pervades popular music, but Flores is able to find the racist angle.
While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.So not just a wee bit racist, or having a possible racist interpretation... but deeply racist. That's a pretty big call, particularly when just a few sentences later Flores acknowledges she is taking a guess. Here's my perspective: if you are going to potentially smear a public figure as racist, you have to do more than just guess. Except Flores says she is doing more than guessing; she knows what Lorde is thinking about (ie. black people), as do we all apparently.
Why doesn't Lorde write about Central Park East? Because she's from New Zealand and not New York, presumably, and is writing from her own experience with consumerist pop culture. To be sure, Lorde mentions three things that are stereotypically associated with hip-hop culture and black people; gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. Of course she also mentions a whole list of other things, such as tigers on a leash and trashing hotel rooms, which are not associated with hip-hop. It's also drawing a long bow to equate "rappers" with "black people". Since hip-hop has gone beyond being a strictly African-American art form, and given that only a tiny proportion of black people are actually rappers with recording contracts, critiquing what rappers say does not equal "shitting on black people".
Flores talks a lot about context, as you expect someone coming from a social science perspective to do. But she never thinks about context in terms of why Lorde would write that song. Her context is purely US-centric, assuming that a teenage girl from New Zealand automatically believes the same racial stereotypes that Flores would ascribe to Americans.
Too many of today's anti-racist and feminist activists are very quick to throw accusations around of sexism or racism, without a thought to the idea of giving someone the benefit of the doubt. If you are only guessing as to why someone writes something a certain way, shouldn't you be more certain of your facts before pronouncing them "deeply racist"?
Jack Wilshere the xenophobe
England and Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere sparked some kind of furore about nationality in football at a press conference this week. The context: Adnan Januzaj is an exciting 18 year old Manchester United winger who was born in Brussels, Belgium, of Kosovar-Albanian descent. He has been in England for 2 years, and under FIFA rules could potentially represent England if he lived there for 5 years.
Here's what Wilshere was asked about Januzaj and what he said:
Oliver Kay (The Times): "Jack, there has been lots of talk over the last few days about the lad Januzaj, who is at United, in terms of playing for England in the future … with players like you, Ross Barkley and Ravel Morrison all coming through what would your view be about playing with foreign players with England, or even watching them from the bench?"
Jack Wilshere: "No, for me if you are English you are English and you play for England. The only people who should play for England are English people. If you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play ... it doesn’t mean you can play for a country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years I am not going to play for Spain."
This sparked a Twitter war with Kevin Pietersen, a South African-born cricketer who represented England. It also made the back page of most major British newspapers, with lots of writers rushing to condemn him.
Thing is, many of them are putting words into Wilshere's mouth. Being an English person - what does that mean? Wilshere didn't say anything about having to be white, or to be born in England. In a later clarification via Twitter, Wilshere said he wasn't talking about people like Pietersen, or Somali-born runner Mo Farah, or Ivorian-born English football Wilfried Zaha. There is a huge distinction between being an immigrant who moves to a new country at an early age, and a professional athlete who moves to a country specifically to play professional sport and later wants to play for that country. This is not to say that athletes in the latter category should not be allowed to represent their new country, of course; but it has greater implications for the game.
Let's take Brazil, the powerhouse of world football that produces enormous numbers of professionals who play in leagues all around the world. So many decent players, most of whom will never be quite good enough to play for the national team, but could walk into many other national sides. Thus we have seen in recent years Brazilian-born players representing Croatia, Spain, Tunisia, Japan, Germany and Portugal. These are all players who have moved to their countries specifically to play professional sport. A similar situation occurs in long-distance running, with countries like Bahrain and Qatar being represented by Kenyan-born athletes. Does that start to become ridiculous at a certain point? Some would say yes - international sporting teams are ostensibly meant to represent something about each nation and its people. Yet you could also argue that professionals in a variety of fields migrate and transfer their expertise to their new country all the time. So why should sporting professionals be any different?
Wilshere was right to later tweet to Pietersen that he was talking about football, not cricket. Traditionally the only way to play at the highest level in cricket was in national teams; therefore it is understandable that someone like Pietersen might switch to England since he was not getting the opportunities he wanted in South Africa. (He's since become England's 4th highest ever run-scorer.) But in football, despite the glory of the World Cup, players can make incredibly lucrative careers playing in club sides. International football does not have the same incentive to change nationality as international cricket.
I don't know exactly where the line should be drawn between migrants representing their new country and what might seem like opportunistic citizenship; or indeed if one should be drawn at all. But it is a legitimate discussion. It's a discussion that is not served by news outlets whipping up controversy by creating straw-men arguments.
For example, how about these headline:Jack Wilshere is right about English-born players for England team
Jack Wilshere is wrong - Mo Farah is proof we should embrace Britain's diverse society
Midfielder is misguided to say only those born in England can play for England, London 2012 hero shows just why the FA should make the most of the available talent here
Except Wilshere didn't say anything about being born in England. He talked about "being English", which could mean any number of things but doesn't have to mean being born there. And Mo Farah is a completely different case to Adnan Januzaj. Farah was born in Somalia, but his father was born in Hounslow. He moved to England at age 8 and was a British citizen well before he was a professional athlete. Januzaj is a Belgian who moved to England to play professional football, and who the English FA are trying to convince to become English so he can play for them.
But this is all secondary to the need to generate a story through controversy.