Prosecutors charged a white man, Theodore Wafer, from suburban Detroit with second-degree murder on Friday, after he killed a young black woman with a shotgun blast to the face when she knocked on his door in the middle of the night seeking help after a car crash. Renisha McBride's death could easily be explained away as a tragic accident from a misunderstanding, but only if you were intent on overlooking what appear to be the two major factors at play: racism and gun culture.
It recalls the recent headline-making case of Trayvon Martin, but is also eerily similar to the case of Jonathan Ferrell earlier this year; Ferrell was also seeking help after being involved in a car wreck, but the woman in the house he went to for help called the police on him and they gunned him down. It's hard to fathom these situations unfolding as they did without a large segment of the population instinctively viewing black people as intrinsically threatening (and possibly viewing black lives as worth less than other human lives). And of course there are the guns. The US is far from the only country to have a high rate of gun ownership, but not all such countries have the same culture that celebrates guns but is also filled with paranoia of The Other coming to take your freedoms or possessions.
Richard Cohen's Gag Reflex
At the Washington Post this week, columnist Richard Cohen kicked off a shitstorm with a passing reference to interracial marriage which sounds a little bit racist as hell. Cohen writes, in the key paragraph (emphasis mine):
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn't look like their country at all.
Holy shit, did he really say that? No wonder there's been a petition to have him sacked, and that the article is the topic of finger-wagging all over the internets.
Thing is though, it's weird... if you read the rest of the article, that one line sticks out like a sore thumb. In it's entirety, it's about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and why he's too moderate to succeed in the Tea Party-dominated Republican race for POTUS in 2016. Cohen doesn't say that an interracial marriage provokes his own gag reflex - he is having a go at the Right, and alleging that they represent a segment of the country who can't keep up with the pace of social change. And in a sense you could argue that aside from the dodgy reference to Bill de Blasio's interracial family, he's also being highly prejudicial towards conservatives. There's plenty of racism in conservative circles (sometimes well hidden, often not), but to present the idea that a substantial proportion of the population, even the conservative population, would frown at the idea of race-mixing, is wide of the mark. Slate's Matthew Yglesias points out that approval of interracial marriage is at about 84% among white Americans. And while I'd consider anything under 99% to be highly worrying, it still doesn't equate to "conventional" thinking among conservatives.
And in truth the shitstorm over the article really comes down to that one word - "conventional". When Cohen writes about "people with conventional views", does he really mean it the way most people would interpret it? Frowning on interracial marriage was certainly conventional in the 1950s, not so much today, even in Tea Party circles. Most of us take "conventional" to mean "normal", or "commonplace", but Cohen seems to mean something else. With better editing over at the Post, this would have been picked up and changed to something less ambiguous that better captured what Cohen was seemingly trying to put across.
This is something to ponder when we get all in a tizzy about language in articles that seems racist. Sometimes it's down to careless writing or insufficient editorial scrutiny, rather than actual racist attitudes, and it may be that this one of those cases. Trust me, I've been there myself.
Featured in VICE this week. No shit. Amazing. Yet, if you know the ethno-political tensions that are rife in Malaysia, sort of not that surprising.
Lily Allen Hates Black Women
British singer Lily Allen released her first single in 4 years, Hard Out Here, which despite lacking the catchy charm of some of her earlier stuff, still generated some buzz for its pointed critique of how women are depicted in contemporary pop music. The video contains some not-so-veiled jabs at Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, who despite being obvious targets, certainly had it coming.
And then other people started noticing that Lily Allen is racist or something. For instance, Jezebel ran an article exclaiming about how brilliant the video was for its attack on sexism, then quickly ran another one condemning it for being racist. The accusation? "Using black women as props".
The article that seems to have been instrumental in kicking off this accusation is this one: Lily Allen's Racist New Video, which sums it up nicely:
in the end it just reduces itself down to elevating Lily Allen’s white female body and objectifying and utterly denigrating those of the black female dancers she deliberately surrounds herself with from start to finish.You can judge for yourself if you think that's true. For mine, I don't see her as denigrating the black dancers at all. I think what she and the director are going for is showing how the artist and everyone else involved are being exploited for the male gaze. It's not having a shot at twerking, per se, but at the way the dance style is commodified for the appreciation of men. All the women in the video are disempowered in some way. In regards to the video "elevating Lily Allen's white female body" at the expense of the black dancers... given that Lily Allen is the singer of the song in question, she is clearly going to be presented as different to everyone else in the video who is not the singer.
Another blogger takes it even further - because finding new ways to accuse people of various -isms is a sure-fire cred-earner in the far-left blogosphere - and declares the video sexist as well.
My other issue with this video is that it’s still obviously made for the male gaze. It’s unclear which parts are sarcastic and which parts aren’t. Keeping the man in the video and the “banana blowjob” lesson from him is not an empowering message because she doesn’t kick his butt by the end of it. She lets her anger out in the lyrics, but she doesn’t directly rebel on screen. There is no retribution, and the men who treated her so badly don’t face any consequences. That’s ironic sexism.
This sounds like someone who only wants to watch movies that have happy endings.
The aforementioned Jezebel article sums up one of the big problems with all this logic (emphasis mine):
Lily Allen has responded to controversy around her new video by saying that its imagery — a fully-clothed Allen surrounded by scantily clad mostly-nonwhite backup dancers twerking — "had nothing to do with race, at all." Unfortunately for Allen, extenuating circumstances surrounding its creation don't get to dictate how art is perceived, and artists don't get to decide what is and isn't about race — the audience does.In other words, it doesn't matter whether something is done completely free of racist intent. If it looks racist, or can be perceived as racist by the online community of people who spend their days looking for something to get angry about - then it's racist.
I'm not saying there's no room for critique of how race features in Allen's video. The problem is that there is so much sensationalism and lack of subtlety in these critiques. If someone wrote that the video (rather than Allen herself, since she didn't direct the video) veers into potentially problematic territory with its echoing of racial tropes that she doesn't explicitly challenge, then I could subscribe to that. But that's not the kind of critique we are getting. Something is painted as either racist or non-racist, and the determining factor is usually something that requires sociological degrees to work out. Regular people don't understand this shit and don't buy it, which means that when things they like are being labelled as racist for reasons they don't understand, it just seems like the race police of the intelligentsia are trying to spoil all the fun.
The end result is just greater division. An artist tries to make a positive statement that challenges the patriarchy, and people can't wait to take shots at her. This sort of thing makes many people in the mainstream go away thinking that racism is not really a problem, since so many stories about racism are really just agitators looking for drama where there needn't be. With the column inches devoted to this video, you'd think Allen was wearing a white hood and burning a cross, rather than merely imitating tropes from other videos (which are arguably racist and sexist) in order to satirise them.