Calling All White People, Part 25: On the subject of digital blackface

Calling All White People, Part 25

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Let us not attempt to be “black” when we aren’t  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

In recent days, we’ve seen a couple rather high-profile stories of famous Black men “falling” in the public eye. There was Kanye West on the one hand, tweeting a picture of himself in one of those signature Donald Trump red “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) caps and a slew of tweets that included praising Trump, calling him a brother and lauding his “dragon energy.” And then on the other hand, Bill Cosby being convicted on three counts of sexual assault.

The two stories don’t share much in common except for that aspect of iconic Black men being at the center—one is a story of a man showing what most Black people and a large number of non-Black ones feel is a highly misplaced allegiance with an open bigot and authoritarian and the other being the culmination of what many feel is a far-too-long delayed bit of justice for heinous acts against women.

But both bits of news got people talking. A lot. A lot of Black people. And a lot of white people. And it’s that second group I want to address (what a surprise, huh?).

First, let me say that I’m not about to say we white people don’t have valid things to comment on with regard to both stories. Shock, relief, regret, disgust, whatever. But I guess before I get into the meat of this post—about a little something called “digital blackface”—I should probably start with a cautionary note. It’s probably too late for some of you with regard to these two stories, but maybe it can help in the future.

And that would be scale and context. I feel like too many white people outraged by West’s supportive tweets of Trump and MAGA (which too often is, of course, really a call to “make America white again”) feel very comfortable calling out the musical artist but aren’t expending the same energy to call out their friends, family and other fellow white people about their own support of Trump. And frankly, even if these people are calling out white celebrities like Roseanne Barr for their Trumpishness, it’s not enough. When we start going in on Black people but don’t do the work with fellow white people in our lives, we fail. This is a case where it’s often better to let the Black people do the major analysis and sometimes chastisement of a person like West. Because we white people have too long a history of holding people of color (especially Black ones) accountable and letting our fellow white folk off the hook.

Same with Cosby. All well and good to cheer that he finally is being held legally accountable for his crimes after years of getting away with them and having them swept under the rug, but are the same white people cheering his fall as eager to hold white men for similar crimes accountable? Or, when it comes to the Matt Lauers and Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs of the world, are we satisfied with their public humiliation alone? Louis CK already seems to be recovering his career footing. Both he and Lauer are well younger enough than Cosby to go right back to elevated positions before they retire from the limelight or die of old age. And quite likely they may never face criminal charges for what they did. Weinstein might very well coast on his riches without facing the same late-life conviction Cosby has enjoyed. If we don’t acknowledge the inequities in how criminal justice goes after Black bodies compared to white ones, we fail. If we don’t push for and demand the same treatment across the board, we fail.

Sorry. As I so often do, I’ve gotten sidetracked. So many issues and layers to racism in this country that it’s hard to just not address them. But back to the intended point: digital blackface.

I’ve now provided two links for you to get familiar with the term, if you aren’t already. I encourage you to click on both. But if you’re in a “too long; didn’t read” mode (I might be judging you if you are), it’s basically the practice of using memes (pictures or videos) of Black people by white people online to react to various events, issues and happenings, usually with relation to those things happening to (or being done by) Black people. It can also involve using Black or brown emojis in texts or posts when you are a white person.

I know some of my fellow white people are still unclear on terms like “reaction memes” despite years of being online; that’s why I want you to use both of those links. Also, the whole concept of tying that to the blackface issue (“popularized” in old minstrel shows but still evident today with white people donning blackface for Halloween or just general fuckery in real life and in online photos) is a complicated and multi-layered one that many of us white people haven’t truly examined. Nor have many of us considered why it isn’t the same thing (nor really even comparable) when Black people use memes of white people in their reactions.

The ever-popular “eating popcorn” meme comes in different colors, as do almost all relevant memes

Not all—but too many—white people have used memes featuring Black people to react to the West and Cosby news and have done so with other issues and happenings in the past. And this rightly rankles a lot of people of color.

Bottom line: I don’t think digital blackface is a good idea. I understand that the intent isn’t always to appropriate blackness nor to be insensitive, but it’s that intent vs. impact thing. If you don’t mean harm, but you do it anyway (perpetuating racially insensitive outcomes), your lack of ill intent is irrelevant.

In the end, it has much the same effect as adopting AAVE (African-American vernacular English) in your speech when talking with Black people, or taking special effort (often convoluted and contextually inappropriate) to bring up your Black friends or past efforts on behalf of racial equity to let Black people you interact with know that you’re “one of the ‘good’ white people.” It’s forced. It’s awkward. It’s off-putting and often insulting.

Believe me, I’ve been guilty of such things in my younger days and I still every so often slip up and do that crap from time to time now. It’s a habit that we need to break. If we’re truly not “bad white people” let’s let our actual actions and treatment of non-white people around us show that. It’s like the old writing rule: show, don’t tell. Your behavior should illustrate where you stand more than the words coming out of your mouth. Or typed by your fingers. Or exhibited by pictures and video and other memes online.

Similarly with emojis.

It was great when recently (too recently; it should have been standard from the start) emojis finally offered varying shades from the yellow (which basically represented whiteness) to shades of tan and brown and black. That was important. But it was important to allow people of color to use emojis that more closely represented themselves rather than being forced to stick to a standard created by and reinforcing whiteness. They aren’t meant for us white people most of the time.

Now, there are exceptions. If I were to be congratulating a Black person in my life for finally finishing and defending their dissertation and posted an emoji of a Black person in a graduation cap with a heart emoji, I’m acknowledging them. But if I use a smiley emoji or frown emoji for my own reaction to something, and I choose a brown or black one, I’m doing digital blackface. My general guideline is that only “reaction” emojis I’ll do in brown or black are things like a thumbs-up or the “OK” symbol for example—and even then only with people of color who are particularly close to me. And even then I periodically shift between various shades. And then only because I’m acknowledging something and because that acknowledgement involves both of us. It isn’t just about me (and isn’t just representing me) and it is a very small way of making sure I don’t always center whiteness in our interactions via text. But for actual emotions/faces? I stick with the “white” versions. Because that’s what I am.

We’re white. Let’s own that. Let’s be white. We can do that and still interact with people of color in meaningful ways. We don’t need to don brown or black virtual skins nor do we need to use Black people as virtual props for our reactions. We don’t need to find another way to appropriate blackness or brownness. There’s a big, wide world of GIFs and videos and the like that express the exact same sentiments but represent our skin. Let’s go find them.

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Calling All White People, Part 24: Call them the terrorists that they are

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Whitewashing terrorism makes terrorism a racist word  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

Mark Anthony Conditt seems destined to join an esteemed list: White people who committed terrorists acts but will never be called terrorists by the U.S. president or, really, any governmental agency. Or, for that fact, by most white Americans.

We’ve seen mass shooters from Orlando (the Pulse nightclub shooting) to Las Vegas (the Harvest Festival country music concert). Which one did Donald Trump and the rather significant number of white Americans who support him use to launch into talk of brown-skinned immigrants and the so-called Islamic State and stoke fears of terrorism? Orlando, where the shooter was a guy named Omar Mateen. Sure, Mateen claimed to be doing it in solidarity with the extremists of the Islamic State, but that’s not the point. Whenever a Muslim or…well, anyone brown-skinned…does something like this, a whole slew of white Americans get into a tizzy about either terrorists flooding to our shores or Black people being degenerate or Mexicans being murderous drug dealers pouring across the border or some other nonsense.

Heck, if you’re white like Conditt (or like Dylann Roof, who shot dead nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015), especially if you’re young, you get sensitive treatment from the mainstream media about how you seemed like such a nice boy or came from such a nice family or must have suffered from mental illness—like Roof, you might even get not only gentle arrest treatment but a snack at Burger King. Meanwhile, Black and brown suspects and killers have every sordid little item in their past, no matter how irrelevant, trotted out. Hell, Trayvon Martin, who wasn’t a killer but a murder victim, got turned into a villain in the press for having smoked pot and being “no angel” so that murderer George Zimmerman could be lifted up as the victim instead.

And we keep demonizing brown-skinned people in general, and playing up the threat of terrorism from their ranks, despite the fact that domestic white far-right extremists are at least a comparable threat (and possible a bigger one when you consider how the attacks have risen since Trump was elected). Since Trump took office, more U.S. citizens have been killed by domestic white male terrorists than by immigrants, Muslims, refugees or any other groups that have been pointed to by Republicans as being the imminent danger.

And, just for the record, despite the fears stoked about undocumented immigrants in this country, the evidence leans heavily in support that they actually are less likely to commit crimes than are U.S. citizens.

I’m digressing a bit, but I felt I needed to set the stage.

So, back to Conditt and the Austin bombings in the news lately. Well, mostly since March 18, even though the bombings started earlier in the month. But I’ll address that little tidbit a bit later.

Conditt has been called a “serial bomber” but not a terrorist. While his motives appear to be unclear at this point, in part because he apparently didn’t have much a social media presence, he was using terror tactics and his initial targets were Black and brown people. In fact, the White House has made extra special sure to point out there is “no link” to terrorism in Conditt’s actions, even though they leap at the chances to restrict immigration and clamp down on brown-skinned people whenever someone from that end of skin-tone spectrum kills even one person, much less multiple people or masses of them.

The fact is, the Conditt story didn’t even make the mainstream news in any significant way until white people started getting hurt. When Conditt’s bomb with a trip wire set up on the roadside in an upscale Austin neighborhood injured two white men. And then ramped up more when a package blew up in a FedEx facility near San Antonio and then another one was intercepted before exploding in an Austin FedEx facility.

The only reason I knew about the story days before March 18 was because of people (mostly people of color) posting on Twitter about the first three bombings and wondering (a) why it wasn’t hardly being covered in the news and (b) why wasn’t it being treated as a hate crime, since the victims up until that point were all non-white—either Black or Hispanic.

Now, was it a hate crime? Was it driven by racism? I’ll admit that things are unclear on that front. The first three bombs killed or injured people of color. The fourth was in what is apparently a pretty white part of Austin. The subsequent bombs were in packages and there is no word yet on where (and to whom) they were going. I’m not willing to bow out on the hate crime angle yet, though. By the time Conditt planted that fourth bomb, people of color were talking about racism possibly being the cause, and nothing seems to offend racists more than being called racists, so I wouldn’t be shocked if Conditt planted that bomb in a more white area to make his acts look “not racist.”

Also, who knows? The trip wire for that fourth bomb was anchored to a “for sale” sign. Did Conditt see a Black person visiting the house to potentially buy it? Who knows? Unlikely, but we just don’t know. But I’m still pretty suspicious about how un-white the first three victims were and those were in packages that were left at homes—which seems pretty freaking targeted to me. Just like the two FedEx packages had to have been targeted to actual addresses—though we may never know what addresses. That trip-wire one by the side of the road? Again, seems very random, like a diversion from Conditt’s actual “mission.”

But let’s drop the potential hate-crime angle. Again, what he did was terrorism. Whether he did it just to terrorize Austin or whether he did it with some specific twisted social agenda in mind, it’s terrorism. Let’s call it what it is.

Part of the reason so much of America is so willing to look at immigrants and refugees and Muslims and brown skin as “terror material” is precisely because we, as a nation (mostly the white part of the population), are so reluctant to finger white people as terrorists.

Again, let’s go back to some of my earlier links in this post. Going back to the years following the 9/11 attacks, more lethal terror incidents were the result of white people on the far right. Granted, yes, slightly fewer people dead by white hands, but more attacks by white right-wing extremists. And since Trump? Definitely the right-wing extremists are the major threat—and they are pretty much…well, white guys. But while they may get tagged as domestic terrorists in certain statistic-gathering, officials and politicians and average citizens don’t really call attention to that, and more than that, they let whole bunches of other white people who should be labeled terrorists off the hook. That same reluctance—and sometimes completely disregard—does not get afforded to non-white terrorists.

In fact, it seems to me that America is as likely to brand non-terrorist brown people as terrorists as it is to refuse to label white terrorists as terrorists. So I’d argue that any stats showing comparability are likely skewed to favor whiteness anyway and thus are making a false equivalency.

But the bottom line is we need to start naming terrorism by white people as terrorism. Hate crimes in particular are a terror attack. They are part of a systematic—and systemic—form of terrorism that white people have inflicted on Black people in particular since the earliest days of this nation.

Time to stop letting white people off the hook because we’re afraid to call them “racists” or “terrorists.” Time to stop humanizing white killers while failing to humanize non-white ones. And time to stop turning—in some cases—white terrorists into victims or heroes while making their victims into the villains.

Because if we’re only going to really loudly use the word “terrorism” when a non-white person is the terrorist, then we simply turn the word into a useless—and racist—term.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Photo by Estefano on Pixabay

Calling all white people, part 23: No hostage-taking please

Calling All White People, Part 23

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Don’t hold people of color hostage to your oversensitivity  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

Has it long been your dream to hold a gun to someone’s head or a knife to their throat and force them to do something?

Have you longed to kidnap someone and then demand a ransom for their safe release?

Do you have a deep and burning desire to extort someone who has done you absolutely no harm?

If the answers to any of these questions is “yes” I cannot imagine you’ve cared what I’ve had to say in 22 previous “Calling all white people” columns here but hey, rhetorical questions for the snappy intro, right?

The impetus for these three stark questions comes from BGIM’s most recent post on this site, “A little bit of this, a little of that” (yes, I know, one of my columns recently was also inspired by one of her posts; I promise this won’t be a regular new trend). Around halfway through that post, she noted:

A few days ago, I shared a piece over on the BGIM Facebook page by a fellow blogger that admittedly had an inflammatory title but which I believed had the ability to stimulate a deeper discussion. Instead, the conversation was derailed by individuals who believed that I was issuing a call to kill old white people despite never saying such a thing. I lost a day to a slew of messages from individuals expressing their disappointment in me and in some cases threatening to pull their support. The most fascinating part of this was that I did not write the piece, It was written by a middle-aged white man who is on his own journey of grappling with white supremacy.

Being aware of the story she shared and its admittedly provocative headline (and the fact that the writer of the story she shared was a white man dealing with his own attempts to confront racism in himself and the world)—plus being both nosy and concerned—I of course asked BGIM if she would be willing to share a bit more about what the hell happened.

One of the most shocking things about BGIM’s response to me was to discover how one particular irritating and pesky complainer had essentially (to paraphrase) said the following:

Not only am I bothered by the headline of the article you shared (ignoring entirely the actual content and intent of the piece) but you have a strong voice and have power in the world to shape opinions, BGIM, and so you should be careful what you say. Because if you make white people uncomfortable, we might not want to be allies and we won’t give you money.

Wow. I hope that most of you can see that’s a form of extortion—a kind of holding hostage of BGIM. And it’s not just against BGIM, of course; it’s the kind of thing said often to many who fight against social inequities or are activists. Don’t be too harsh with those of us who are part of the group primarily oppressing you. Don’t be too blunt. Don’t make us feel bad. Don’t make us consider our own flaws. Don’t do anything that would make this social justice thing feel icky. Make us feel good that we are even listening to you and maybe sort of caring a little or we will abandon you—or maybe even go to the other side to spite you.

First off, folks, is there really any warm and fuzzy way to make people confront racism and other nasty -isms, especially when their friends, family and probably they themselves are doing racist and bigoted things both big and small—probably multiple times a day?

The very subject matter is uncomfortable. We need to feel uncomfortable. Who among us is generally willing to change our bad habits or obnoxious behaviors to which we have become accustomed unless we are made to question those actions and realize others find them alarming or objectionable?

I am deeply offended by the notion of people who think themselves allies of Black people or Native American people or women or LGBTQ people or whomever and then make demands that they be treated with special delicacy or extra affection. They want head-pats, they want “ally cookies,” they want to be told they’re different from the bigots, they want to be given permission to say things like the n-word, etc. etc. etc. That’s not allyship; that’s performance. It’s a sham.

I don’t (usually) treat people with decency so that they will thank me. To do so makes the entire act an illusion—it makes it a narcissistic, self-serving bit of theater. Handing someone a gift I know is made out of something toxic but smiling while I do it.

To tell people of color or any marginalized or abused group of people to make their allies feel good and also to present their wider message to the public more nicely so that they don’t turn off people who are on the fence or anger people who were never going to stand with them anyway is an act of social and personal terrorism. You are basically holding that person hostage with an implied (or not-so-subtle much of the time) threat that you will harm them if they don’t do things in a toned-down, whitewashed way that you prefer. To be honest, that makes you one of the enemies of social justice. You don’t really want equity or change. You want capitulation and assimilation. You want people on the margins to toe the line, know their place and do what you say.

You just don’t want to hurt them quite as badly as the outright evil people.

That doesn’t make you a hero. It doesn’t even make you a decent person.

It makes you a somewhat reluctant but still willing henchman to the big, bad villain.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.