Pop Culture as a Canary in the Coal Mine
When I started hearing about the Tryvon Martin murder case, I was interested as much as I usually am in things that the American media chooses to be temporarily important to us. I figured it would be an issue for a while until something else—some oil spill or corporate scandal—took our attention away. I read a few of the articles, watched some videos one afternoon and read some comments on facebook. My favorite piece by far was Obama’s extremely thoughtful 18 minute speech (I highly recommend watching the whole thing) during which he said,
“A lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given that there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent—using that as an excuse to see sons treated differently causes pain… folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel there is no context for it—or that that context is being denied.”
He’s saying don’t ignore American history. USE it to understand our present.
Just a month and a half after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, my facebook newsfeed exploded again with articles and blog posts spanning the insightful to the inciting about the implications about race and prejudice in a provocative dance performance performed by a 20 year old on MTV. Again, it seemed to me like the newest hot topic—one in a long line of provocative performances that have gotten press—both positive and negative—and have essentially just ended up promoting the allure of stardom and fame as well as the individual performers who happen to be taking their clothes off at the time. But then I started to realize what Tryvon Martin and Miley Cyrus had in common: they were symbols. They both represented a discontent with the denial of the history of race in America.
What I liked about what the President said last month was that he pointed out this denial. He specifically drew attention not just to the history of African Americans and how it has shaped current dynamics in black communities, but he drew attention to the fact that many people do not think that history is relevant anymore.
What don’t you understand about “Ouch”?
As a white man, I myself have often felt that the way to overcome racism is just for everyone to agree to stop being racist right now, and then to move forward as an egalitarian society. But what I fail to recognize is all of the unconscious things that I do and think that have been informed by prejudices and then passed down to me either purposefully or inadvertently by my ancestors and by my society. I’m not saying that there aren’t people that are explicitly and purposefully racist. Obviously those people exist—and I’ll leave the task of speaking to them to a better writer.
Earlier in my life, if I felt that I had gotten a bad deal on something that I bought, I would say that I had gotten “gypped”. A friend told me a couple of years ago, however, that the word “gypped” comes from “Gypsy”. The connotation is that Gypsies, or Roma, are untrustworthy and deceitful. If I was Roma and heard someone use a slur for my people as a way of explaining getting swindled, I would probably feel uncomfortable if not offended.
If I don’t admit that there might be things I do and in the way I live that make other people uncomfortable that I am not aware of, then I can’t stop doing them. And if I believe that other people can feel offended by the things that I do and say, then I should consider their arguments when they say “ouch”.
Tryvon Martin’s trial and Miley Cyrus’ performance are simply analogies for my friend overhearing my use of the word “gypped”. The popular reactions to the two events are manifestations of something bigger lying under the surface of our society. As my behavior and consciousness was corrected by my friend, so too can our collective attitude about race be corrected in America by people sharing their personal and authentic experiences with one another—not as accusations, but as revelations that reveal hidden prejudices.
This model of introspection and cross-fertilization is something we can all do at home, no matter where we go to do work or study abroad. It is also a mode of relating to our histories and societies that we can share with our friends and colleagues everywhere we go in the world. There isn’t a country without injustice in their past, or a citizen without a prejudice that couldn’t use some attention.