Calling All White People, Part 32: Centering white mediocrity during Black History Month

Calling All White People, Part 32

(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: Did we really need an average white teen during Black History Month?  

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

You know, it was only three weeks ago I was here talking about white male teens at the center of racial controversy and dammit, here I am again with a new spin on the topic. Screw you, Esquire.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and you could be forgiven because it’s not the same kind of “in the media everywhere” kind of story like the MAGA-hat-wearing Covington teens were but instead more of social media (especially Twitter) backlash, you can go here, here and here for some context. Or just to learn more than you already knew.

But, basically, the March issue of Esquire has a cover story on what it’s like to be a middle-class white male teen growing up in America today, from the perspective of a single white male teen. A cover story on a young guy without much social or world awareness who’s not exactly doing anything special or has any great insight—in a country where being a young white guy who isn’t poor is already a foot in the door of opportunities galore that no other group enjoys. A cover story.

And during Black History Month.

More than that, during a Black History Month when Black people have already had to deal with a special level of whiteness screwing with their vibe, starting with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and then Liam Neeson tag-teaming the governor’s blackface issue with his personal admission of hate crime fantasies. And then Jennifer Lopez, who not only isn’t Black but also (or so it seems to me) often presents as white as possible in her career despite being Puerto Rican, was the person picked to do a Motown tribute during the Grammys. This has been more like the anti-Black History Month.

When BGIM is here or on social media or talking to audiences or whatever and she talks about the problem of centering whiteness, I’m not sure there is a more prefect and annoying example of it than this Esquire cover and the article attached to it. And not only centering whiteness but maleness and white mediocrity. One of the biggest complaints of Black people and a lot of other people of color is how mediocre white people so often rise to positions of power, and Ryan Morgan right there on the magazine cover might just end up being one more of those. And, to be fair, while white women have a lot more privilege and access than people of color, they have their own valid complaints about white male mediocrity often winning out over them even when they are far better than men who rise past and above them.

The Esquire debacle here is an act of such profound tone-deafness that it’s hard to tell if the editorial crew over there is just so drenched in their whiteness and privilege that they have tunnel vision, or if they were just doing a variation on click-bait to generate attention by doing something so in the face of Black people during Black History Month and lots of other people generally.

And lest we forget, we just recently passed (on Feb. 5) what should have been another birthday for Trayvon Martin, a Black teen murdered at 17 for walking to his dad’s house after going to the store to bring back some snacks and a drink—because he was Black.

And it doesn’t matter that Esquire apparently plans to profile non-white, non-male youth in future stories. Because the first one, right there on the cover getting the spotlight out of the starting gate, is a white male teenager. Will the other profiles even get cover treatment? Who cares, even if they do. The white guy got it first because that’s who always goes first.

And they did it during Black History Month!

The white male experience is exactly what the news media, movies and television shows, history books and daily life already pay the most attention to. I’m not sure this story made sense to spend roughly 7,000 words telling to begin with. And I’m really unclear as to why it’s cover-worthy. But above all, as the starting point for talking to America’s youth about their lives, and as a cover during Black History Month, it was an absolute failure and an insult to Black Americans. And an insult to our collective intelligence that this would be considered a thought piece. Maybe it’s not as bad as running humanizing profiles of the average daily lives of Nazis and white supremacists like the New York Times and others so love doing lately, but it’s bad enough.

I don’t expect every mainstream magazine to run Black-focused cover articles for Black History Month (though hell, it might be nice…). I don’t expect most mainstream magazines to get stories about Black people and Black lives and Black struggles right. Hell, I don’t know that I’d trust a magazine like Esquire not to screw something like that up. But I do expect editorial teams at national, glossy, big-name magazines not to trip over their own feet to worship a mediocre white male teenager who doesn’t have anything meaningful to add to a conversation about how hard it is to grow up in American and do so during Black History Month.

Seriously, we white people need to get the hell over ourselves already and how important we are. We have ill-informed, mediocre white people all over the television screens telling us how the world works when they don’t even know how much a damn loaf of bread costs or how you pay for it in the store. We don’t need a celebration of the very blandest that white America can offer.

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And for the last time, it’s Black History Month. Have some damn respect.

Calling All White People, Part 31: Those Covington teens are no angels

Calling All White People, Part 31

(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: Wearing MAGA hats should have been the end of the debate  

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

I don’t know how you could have missed the news, but in case you don’t know what I mean when I say I’m going to talk about the Covington teens and Nathan Phillips, here is a link to a Vox article that I feel may be among the more balanced/neutral of the bunch.

So, we started with a viral video that had people decrying the teens as racist and aggressive…then we had the release of a much longer video that shows a group of Black Hebrew Israelites having shouted unpleasant things at the teens and other occurrences that add a ton more context and nuance. The release of that longer video had conservatives shouting “fake news” and saying that the teens were rushed to judgment, though frankly a lot of people have noted that the longer video, while it may make the adults look less sympathetic, might make the teens look as bad as before, and maybe even worse.

Regardless, I’m going to focus on the teens. All indications are that their school is fine with racism (students in blackface taunting opposing Black athletes at games) and that their parents are largely racist as well, because that’s where kids tend to learn this stuff the most strongly.

And I am going to say this: Those teens, especially the smirking future Brett Kavanaugh we see in the face of lead Covington teen Nick Sandmann, are racist.

I said it. I’m not taking it back. They’re racist.

Whether or not the adults in question made the best choices, and whether the initial story was skewed, those teens are not victims here. They were heralds and foot soldiers for white supremacy, and in my mind they got what they deserved.

And no, don’t give me arguments about how they’re just kids when Black children and Black teens are so often killed or harmed by police and civilian white people and we’re told “they should have known better” or “if they had just complied better”…

More importantly, if you’re one of the people who initially thought “those teens were repugnant” and now, in the wake of the longer video and wider discussion, you are ready to defend them or cut them slack, let me break some things down for you:

Those teens were in DC to march against women’s bodily autonomy. Yeah, so what if that’s not related to racism? It sets the stage. The kids weren’t there on some random, innocent trip. They were there as religious foot soldiers. They were there to agitate and apparently did engage in taunting of women while there. Certainly, any pro-choice woman would have rightly seen them as aggressors and opponents, and rightly so. Sure, the teens have every right if they want to espouse extreme views that advance a religious and patriarchical agenda that takes away women’s autonomy. But it establishes that they weren’t innocent bystanders.

They were wearing MAGA hats. This is the most damning thing of all. The whole “Make America Great Again” motto, and especially with those red hats, is a rallying cry of the Trump regime. He has marketed and used it profusely. And the “great again” part of that clearly aims to elevate white people generally and white men in particular. If the teens’ purpose was to rally for the right to life on behalf of unborn children, why are they so prominently wearing what is essentially the modern-day equivalent of a KKK hood? Because they were there to proudly declare their allegiance to Trump’s agenda, to white supremacy and to intolerance, not simply to a “pro-life” stance.

They took that shit right to some Black people. Say what you will about whether the Black Hebrew Israelites were obnoxious or out of line. Perhaps they were. But those teens took those MAGA hats and their MAGA agenda to a spot where there were Black people. Bottom line: Wearing a MAGA hat and approaching any person of color, but most particularly Black or Indigenous people of color, is an act of aggression by its very nature. You might as well be wearing a Nazi patch or some white supremacy pin on your jacket.

They surrounded, blocked and mocked an Indigenous elder. Even if you argue that Phillips should not have intervened to try to head off potential trouble between the Covington teens and the Black Hebrew Israelites…even if you say that his chanting and drumming was “in the face” of Sandmann and therefore aggressive…that boy stood there defiantly with a smirk on his face and a MAGA hat on his head blocking Phillips, and his friends were all around that old man, and they taunted that Indigenous elder with “tomahawk chops” and “war whoops” which is about as classically anti-Native American racist as you can damn well get. And threatening, too. Multiple high-schoolers against a single old guy?

Those teens stuck their foot in it, and they got pushback. If you don’t want trouble, don’t start trouble. And they were there to start it. And when they got caught going too far, they suddenly cried “victim” and the mainstream media gave them all the airtime in the world to humanize themselves. The most peaceful person in the situation, Phillips, is made into a villain, as countless Black and Indigenous and Latinx and Arab and Muslim people have before him.

Whiteness is always allowed that chance to redeem and humanize itself in this country, while people of color rarely get that chance. And that is the ultimate “race card.” Sandmann and the other Covington teens and their parents are playing that card…that “Get out of jail free” card that most white people get in multiples while non-white people get few second chances…and that makes them racist. Out in the media crying “foul” when they were the foul ones to begin with.

Not just racist, but white supremacist. Trayvon Martin and other Black youth have been tagged as “they’re no angels” after they became victims, as a way to make them less sympathetic. Well, these white teens are no angels either, and they aren’t victims of anything but their own hubris and cockiness.

And so, while there may be blame to spread around, most of it lies at the feet of white people, yet again. Because they started the shit to begin with.

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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Calling All White People, Part 30: Roles to avoid

Calling All White People, Part 30

(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: Savior, profiteer and other things not to be  

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

White people are many things to Black people and other people of color (POC), but too often not a good thing. I mean, the outright racist among our ranks are bad enough, whether they are verbally or physically assaulting POC or enacting legislation and policy that assault the very core of their lives and ability to be even vaguely content, much less prosper.

But then there are the white people, too, who aren’t so deliberate in their intentions or overt about their racist feelings. They are plenty racist in terms of how they view Black people and perhaps other POC but it’s all in the micro-aggressions and subtle comments and behaviors. Maybe they keep their racism mostly bottled up because they don’t want to be seen as racist. Maybe they have long-held perceptions that they haven’t bothered to try to unpack because there is no impetus to get them to let go of their bigotry or privilege. Maybe they don’t have the slightest clue that what they are doing is racist or problematic in some other way.

And it’s that last group I want to talk about because it’s not just about the people who were raised with racist preconceptions. It’s not just about people who are ignorant about the depth and extent of racism in society, systems and themselves. It’s about people who think they know better—and probably should know better—but who don’t.

And they are often white people who adopt roles that they feel are positive and helpful toward Black people or other POC who tend to endure a lot of racism. Let’s address some of those roles that you or white people you know may have adopted—and that may need to be shed.

The Savior: Certainly, there is a need for white people to help in the fight against racism. After all, our ancestors created the systems and infrastructure to enforce it and to benefit from it and most of us do plenty to maintain its smooth and continued operation. POC need allies (but more than that they need accomplices). But what they don’t need are white saviors. This has been perhaps one of the single greatest failings of “well meaning” white people throughout the centuries when it comes to POC, particularly Black and Indigenous people. They want to rush in as heroes with some big dramatic show of help, or they want to do something “significant” or they want to do something big and specific. We have all too many movies and books about these kinds of white people, and too many examples in real life too. It’s not that white savior types don’t ever help people or do good; the problem is that they don’t do any lasting or broad good. It tends to be about some singular super-focused issue or some specific person. Saviors, when it comes to white people and racism, don’t tend to look at the big picture or really attack systemic problems. So, you do something dramatic for a Black person (buy them a car so they don’t have to walk to work, for example) or you do something that changes your own life overall (adopting only children of color). It’s not that those things are bad. But are they impactful in a good way? After you buy the Black person the car, do you change anything about your workplace that makes it difficult for a person like that Black one to make a living wage or do you put any pressure on the city to improve access to mass transit? If you adopt children of color, are you doing it because it makes you feel good or because it’s easier to get them—and what are you going to do to honor their racial/ethnic heritage and connect them with people who aren’t white? Except when it comes to someone like Jesus, saviors tend to do things that feel good or make them look good. The don’t think long-term in most cases and nothing they do fixes any of the structural problems of racism.

The Profiteer: Lots of white people make a living off anti-racism work, and I’m not criticizing that because there is a lot of work to do, and white privilege doesn’t mean that most white people can do anti-racism work or related kinds of work full time without getting paid. However, that said, there are white people who are making lots of money off of the work. And that isn’t necessarily bad either, depending on the person or the work. However, there seem to be increasing numbers of white people who are making money or building reputations as experts or pundits or activists who really don’t have deep knowledge or impact. It’s that whole thing about lifting up white mediocrity. While plenty of POC are doing hard work and good work, they often get ignored in favor of elevating white people who are merely doing the basic stuff they ought to be doing (if that). As white people, we should be reluctant to prosper heavily from any work related to fighting a system that already benefits us. When we do profit heavily from it we need to remember to give back to communities of color, particularly Black and Indigenous ones, whether in terms of monetary support or physical presence in the ground-level unpaid work (like protesting and disrupting), etc. But wherever possible, if there are POC who are doing the work better than us or who would be more appropriate to the well-paying gig in question, we should be pointing the people who are paying to those POC. Look, if this whole Average White Guy thing I’m doing here at BGIM Media took off and got a lot of attention, I’m not going to be taking speaking engagements and going on tour and publishing book after book showing off my “knowledge” and “wokeness.” I’m going to be referring people to POC, deferring entirely or partnering with POC.

The Journalist: Lots of white people these days are recording racist occurrences, and certainly that can be important. But, and I’m gonna keep this one short and sweet—for God’s sake put down the phone if you can help. If you can intervene, assist or whatever else, put your hands and heart to that first and foremost. And if you can record and intervene at the same time, great. But if you have to choose between the two, help the person rather than simply record their pain and make it go viral online.

Those are the three biggies in my mind where we white people are playing the wrong roles, or doing the roles in the wrong way. To quote the well-known aphorism: “Don’t be part of the problem; be part of the solution.”

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.