People so sensitive nowadays! Outrage culture! PC culture! Cancel culture! It’s all gone too far! Why is this happening now?
There is an answer to this question and like most things, it’s in the history books, but probably not where you think.
In 1690, the first newspaper was printed in what would eventually become the United States of America. The powerful few have always made decisions that affected the masses, but suddenly there was a means by which the masses could all learn about these decisions. The accounting of this information enabled the masses to hold the powerful accountable like never before.
For the following 230 years, the newspaper would be the sole public source of that information. Newspapers would eventually become ubiquitous. They were in every store. They were on every street corner. They’d be on your doorstep before you even woke up. As with most conveniences, this new flood of information developed a culture of expectation, prerogative, reliance and trust.
In 1920, the first American radio news program was broadcast. News radio amplified not only the ubiquitous nature of information—not only the expectation, prerogative, reliance and trust surrounding that information—but the convenience as well. You didn’t even have to bother to read anymore. Just turn the dial on the box and a voice will tell you all about it.
This all magnified once again after the invention of the television. Television became so commonplace—and the expectation, prerogative, reliance and trust became so great—that entire channels were created just to give you the news 24/7. And so, for hundreds of years, people in this country have grown to understand the means by which we attain social awareness essentially as a public utility. Of course, political and corporate interests often influence the legitimacy of this information, but we generally believe it is inclusive and useful to all in the same way.
None of this applies if you’re Black.
In 1690, Black people were considered property, not people. Newspapers were not written for a Black readership and they certainly did not have Black writers. During this era, it was actually a crime for a Black person to learn to read or write. It was also a crime to teach a Black person to read or write. So, as white people were developing a culture of expectation, prerogative, reliance and trust surrounding the given information that effected their lives, not only was there no pertinent information available for Black people, but the very means to convey or even understand any potential information was withheld. This continued on under the law for the next 175 years.
Even after abolition, Black people were not just given an education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1870—five years after abolition—11.5% of white people were illiterate. For Black people, illiteracy soared at 79.9%.
Instinctively, you might think that the invention of the radio would be some kind of equalizer at least insofar as Black access to information. In fact, all that did was complicate the situation. In 1920, at the time of the first American radio news broadcast, very few Black people lived where electricity was available. Those who did were often denied service. The option was then a battery-powered radio, but affording one was practically impossible and finding a white shop owner to sell one to a Black person was at least equally as difficult. But even if a Black person at the time was able to navigate all of that and somehow still obtain a radio, Black voices and information pertaining to Black life were still absent.
In terms of affordability, access and all manner of representation, the invention of television presented many of the same obstacles for Black people then as those of previous eras. Further, like radio and the newspaper before it, the lack of Black information, Black voices and Black creativity on television meant that whenever Blackness was featured, it was a creation of, or filtered through the white imagination. Black people in the news, on programs and in advertisements were buffoonish caricatures at best and manifestations of pure evil at worst. As white people had a culture of expectation, prerogative, reliance and trust for their media, and since segregation has always been a fact in this country, these antebellum fantasies of Black people continued on as a reality for many whites.
Of course, white exclusion did not stop Black people of those eras. They educated themselves. They relayed their own experiences to one another by creating their own newspapers, radio stations and television channels. They kept themselves informed, all the while white America believing their own sources, subjects and information to be the entirety of all possibility.
And then, the internet.
Faster than we realized, newspapers, radio stations and television channels were being reimagined as news sites, podcasts and YouTube. And they became constant. Just take your smartphone out of your pocket and get as much information as you want however you want whenever you want.
But as of right now, these spaces have not yet been segregated. There are no traditional gatekeepers and so the exclusive culture of expectation, prerogative, reliance and trust becomes threadbare. The Black Experience can now interrupt the exclusive white standard. Now white people occasionally have to hear us when we say our lives matter.
This means some white people are hearing this for the first time. Many react in shock and agreement and stand alongside us shouting Black Lives Matter. But some are resentful. The resentful prefer us to suffer in silence. They prefer their exclusive culture of expectation, prerogative, reliance and trust not only for their information, but for all of their other institutions as well.
And whiteness is not the only standard being interrupted by this sudden access. Patriarchal standards are being interrupted by women. Straight standards are being interrupted by gay people. Cis standards are being interrupted by trans people. On and on.
And so, we all hear the cries from privileged individuals and institutions, ignorant and disingenuous alike: People so sensitive nowadays! Outrage culture! PC culture! Cancel culture! It’s all gone too far!
For some of us it has not yet gone far enough.
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