Thursday, February 21, 2013

Django, the Harlem Shake, and the right to be 'offended'

DISCLAIMER: This is not an anti-white people missive. This is not me saying white people don't have problems or have never faced adversity. This is me reaching out, asking for a little understanding. If you cannot read anything that critically examines whiteness or white privilege, or that asserts that racism does, in fact, exist in a country with a black-ish president without feeling personally attacked, having a complete meltdown and writing a strongly worded, poorly spelled, caps-lock infused tirade in the comments section, go ahead and turn back now.

I love Key & Peele. Love it. I watch that show and I laugh till my stomach hurts... and then I text my friends Emily & Jerry about it and we all share a good guffaw. One night I was over at their apartment and we started talking about the show and about how both comedians are multiracial and the implications of that. Emily said something about how she noticed Key and Peele using "we" when referring to black people, but not really when they talk about white people. She thought it was odd considering they're both part white. 

This has never come up with a white friend before, and I was happy to discuss it. I said something like this: It never feels right to use "we" when referring to white people because you feel self-conscious about it. It's like, you say it, and then you realize that probably no one else in the room considers you white. Having grown up in predominately white areas, the closest "we" I have is the white we. Still, I've said it in classrooms before and immediately caught the raised eyebrows from other people in the classroom. Like, "Wait, who is she talking about?" Sometimes I don't even mean white people. I mean Americans. We settled at Jamestown. We fought the Revolution. Still, it feels unnatural. And it's not that I think I have no claim to this we. It's that I'm worried YOU don't think I have claim to it. Why don't mixed race people use the white we? Well, I can't speak for everyone, but I have a feeling a lot of us just don't think we count. 

I was talking about Django Unchained and the n-word controversy with another friend, Tom, who knows me well enough to know I should prob'ly wait for the RedBox on that movie. I explained to him that it's not so much a matter of being offended as being horribly uncomfortable. 

With Django, people keep on trying to dismiss my reasons for not wanting to see it on the big screen. "But black people are totally into it!" they say. "And it makes white people look foolish, not blacks!" And that's fine. But, for one thing, black people as a group are never behind any one thing. We're not a monolithic entity. We don't have secret black people meetings where we're like, "Tarantino? Yeah, he's cool. The Help? No, no. Too much white savior complex. Blackcess denied." Secondly, there's an added dimension to being mixed race, especially when you didn't grow up in a predominately black community. It's hard to really feel like you OWN black identity, and that you should be cool with the n-word. You might feel like you're more or less white, but you're aware that, in general, nobody else thinks you are. I don't think mixed race people are confused about who they are. We're more self-conscious about everybody else's confusion. Plus, I'm not really super into making people of any race look foolish because of their race. I want the opposite of that.

It takes the politically incorrect redneck meme
to say what most of us are thinking.
I like having these conversations because I've grown up around and associated mostly with white people, or other minorities who grew up around white people. People generally just think of you as "the whitest (insert minority here) they know" or an honorary white person, since white is the default. They get so used to you that they forget that your experience is different from theirs. And that's not something I blame them for. Why should they be thinking about it, really? As I write this, I'm listening to Selena Gomez with my haul from the comic book store at my side, wearing a My Little Pony/Doctor Who crossover t-shirt. I'm not exactly the portrait of your token black girl from the hood, so my white friends forget that it's not just people from the hood who experience the world through a racism-colored lens. 

Sometimes I think using the word "offensive" weakens how people of color really feel about things. It's not the same thing for me to be offended by the n-word as it is for someone to be offended by the f-word. It's not the same thing for me to be offended by a racial stereotype on television as it is for someone to be offended by sex on TV. While morally one might take issue with f-bombs and TV love scenes, it's not an affront to who you are. You don't sit in your living room watching TV, see someone swear, and then think, "Well, now everyone in the world is looking at me or thinking about me and assuming I'm an immoral curse-word sayer." Nobody takes the actions of a small group of white people and applies it to ALL or the majority of white people. This is not to say groups of white people don't get stereotyped (see above redneck meme; see the cartoonish portrayal of any religious group on TV; see wealthy housewives; see... well, anyway.), but those groups are considered deviations from the norm, whereas with minorities, those of us who aren't stereotypes are considered the deviation.

In college, I was once brought to this guy's house to watch the movie Blazing Saddles. It was awkward enough that I was the only girl there, but when we went up to this guy's media room to watch the movie, there was also a Confederate flag spread across the ceiling. I remember my heart racing and stomach dropping. I don't know that I've ever felt so unsafe. Throughout the movie, several of the guys in the room kept making racist comments about the black character in the film. I wondered if they couldn't see me, if they didn't realize I was black, or if they did and they just didn't care. I know a lot of people who absolutely LOVE Blazing Saddles, and I don't fault them for that, but I hate it. I'm offended by it. I'm offended because watching it in that room full of white men genuinely scared me. All amped up on their hatred, I didn't know what they might do. And on top of it, I thought, my God, this is what people in Orange County think of me. 'Cause my friends might consider me the whitest black girl they know, but strangers don't know about my redeeming whiteness. 

In South Africa, Dr. Carrie Lane had our class read this article called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In it, the author makes a list of things she takes for granted every day being white. Most of my classmates had never considered that they receive the benefits of their race without being racist people. It caused a huge shift in their thinking. When you start to realize what the rest of us have to consider day in and day out, it suddenly doesn't seem so crazy that we feel uncomfortable in our daily lives. If I had a nickel for every time some able-bodied, heterosexual, white person said, "Ugh, I wish people weren't so sensitive and we didn't have to be so PC all the time," I'd be able to beat the next one over the head with a sizable bag of nickels. I'm thinking, "Yeah, gee, it must be SO hard for you to have to try not to say or do racist ish. I can't imagine what it's like being so constrained all the time."

Macklemore gets it. Don't get me started about his lack of understanding
of Irish culture, but on this one, he gets it.

White friends, you don't know what it's like to go to South Coast Plaza or Fashion Island and have people openly look at you with disdain because of your skin tone and your hair texture. You don't know what it's like to be told repeatedly by white peers, "Oh, you have a way better chance to get into that school than I do because of affirmative action," as if you didn't work your ass off for your GPA and to fill your CV, and as if, going by merit, they certainly would deserve it more. You don't know what it's like to be pulled over and have the cop lean in the window to ask your white passenger if she's okay. You don't know what it's like to have people pull their children closer when you walk by them; to have them glare at you if you smile at the kid after they just smiled contentedly at a white stranger; to have that kid go from smiling to looking horrified at the sight of you. Heck, even I feel uneasy around other black people because THAT'S. WHAT. I'VE. LEARNED. FROM. SOCIETY. You don't know what it's like to face racism every time you leave the house; to have to prove that you're not that kind of minority in every conversation you have with a stranger. You can't just look at me and say, "I reject your reality and substitute my own." You can't just say that you have never experienced my experience, and therefore my experience is invalid.

On my facebook, a discussion broke out over the Harlem Shake, and whether the residents of Harlem were just being too sensitive feeling hurt by it. It is very difficult to explain the significance of cultural art forms to people for whom art = entertainment; for whom art is just some beautiful thing to distract from the worries of the world. Art = political agency for marginalized people in this country, and when some white DJ comes along, completely distorts the art, and makes it suddenly a hugely popular phenomenon, that is a loss of political agency, a loss of cultural capital for its originators. To you it seems like being sensitive. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery right? But not when imitation has always meant silencing the voices that created the thing in the first place. And let's be clear: That's exactly what's happening here when people watch the video of people of Harlem reacting to the Harlem Shake and respond, "Oh, shut up. Diplo just used the name. It's not even the same dance." Right. So he took something black people made, changed it so that white people like it, and now white people want to pretend black people have no claim to it. Move along, folks. Nothing problematic to see here.

I can't be racist. Look at all my white friends!
White friends, I have grown up among you. Believe it or not, I'm technically one of you. I love you. You love me. This is not about me hating you or thinking you're all a bunch of racists. Not in the slightest. I understand where you're coming from. I understand that you've never had to walk in my shoes and therefore it's hard to see things how I see them. So this is me, asking you to try it. Now you know. Knowledge is power. So is whiteness, incidentally, and if you can come to grips with that, it'll be easier for you get why I feel violated when you touch my hair without asking, why I feel threatened when you casually use the n-word, and why I feel just as uneasy walking through Newport Beach at night as you do walking through the ghetto. When I say that I'm offended, I'm not talking about moral indignation. I'm not trying to be a buzzkill on your good time. I'm telling you that my life is precarious. I'm telling you that every episode of Dateline I've watched and every tweet I've seen saying that Rue from Hunger Games is less innocent because she's black has taught me that my life is not worth what your life is. Can you imagine what that feels like? What I look like makes me more disposable than you. If NOT making that racist joke or dressing as an Indian for Halloween or appropriating whatever culture you don't understand can make the people around you feel more like human beings, isn't that worth it? Freedom of speech is great and no one wants to take it from you, but a little decency goes a long way.


Ben Railton said...

This is a phenomenal post, Corrigan.

Corrigan Vaughan said...

Thank you so much, Ben!

tom said...

Good Job. Im famous now that you mentioned me in your blog. I can tell you have have been thinking about this for a long time and im glad you spoke your mind. I think one of the biggest problems is people not speaking up. How can I know what you strugle with you dont tell me. I think its intresting when you were talking about "we". I dont like that refrence because i think it seperates people and groups. how are we supposed to be one body or in unity if we always group ourselves apart?Also I feel like I have to always watch my words so people dont get offended and im not racist. As A white male I'm always on guard because I dont want someone to be offended and then cause problems.
Anyway if someone touches your hair and im around give me the heads up and ill knock them out for you :)

tom said...

dont judge me for misspelling words or leaving words out. I wrote this on my iphone

kelly ann mount said...

I've been sitting here thinking about and re-reading your post and the way you shared your heart is both thought-provoking and POWERFUL.

Something that really stuck out to me was when you talked about how being offended by the f-word and being offended by the n-word aren't the same thing. That whole paragraph was just... WHOA. It makes so much sense and you put it so simply but to be completely honest, I've never really thought it about that way. I'm so glad you shared that!

What really tugged at my heart, though, was how you wrote this entire thing in LOVE. It was honest, real, genuine, heartfelt, kind... and above all your love shines through this post and that is beautiful.

As a white female, I don't know what it's like. At all. But I am so grateful for individuals like you who let me see things through your eyes - it opens MY eyes and makes me think about things in a totally different light. And while I will never ever fully understand what it's like - it's because of people like you that I am always learning to be more aware and more compassionate and to really THINK about these things. So please, keep talking. I always love your posts and the fact that you are always YOU. You're the real deal, Cor, and I hope you keep sharing things like this because it's important. It matters.

carrie d. said...

I like you so much. I want to wear your shoes, I really do.

Katy Abraham said...

Thank you for writing this!

Karl Vaters said...

Nice work, Corri. You gave us a peak into your reality while helping us realize that no one can ever fully experience someone else's reality.

That's one of the hardest tasks for any communicator to pull off. And you did it both bluntly and graciously. I give you tens for both difficulty and execution.

This is the kind of writing that takes our dialog to a higher level.

Has your heart stopped pounding since you hit "publish" yet? If not, breathe deeply and smile. You did it.

pixelperfect3 said...

Phenomenal post. I wish everyone would read "unpacking the invisible knapsack" at a young age.

Shawn Mehrens said...

Good call all around. Well-written and very intelligent. Glad I read this.

Roxanne Ready said...

Amazing post, Corri. I'm proud to know you and call you a friend.

Melissa Grace Hoon said...

I just read your latest blog, and considering that I also fail as a 21st century technology girl due to my Internet-based ADHD with my 10+ tabs open right now, all I'm able to say in response to this blog I'm posting on is: you rock, you are the greatest, wittiest, most brilliantly awesome person ever (although I'd like to say much more intelligible, culturally analytical things), especially considering this line... "But, for one thing, black people as a group are never behind any one thing. We're not a monolithic entity. We don't have secret black people meetings where we're like, 'Tarantino? Yeah, he's cool. The Help? No, no. Too much white savior complex. Blackcess denied.'" Can't wait to read more!