Racism: Not So Black & White by James Gribble Jr.

April 26, 2012

After a series of strange events brought on by a tweet I tweeted about a stinky elephant, I asked James Gribble Jr. to write a guest blog about racism. He kindly obliged. Below are his thoughts…

Racism: Not So Black & White by James Gribble Jr.

“Racism is that big, ugly elephant in the room that many people would rather ignore, even though he’s stinking up the place.”

I have to disagree slightly with my brother, Ryan. But we’ll get to that later. When he posted that statement to several social networks a few weeks ago, he got a lot of responses–both positive and negative. Mostly positive, though.

But there was one particular comment that caught my eye. It was from an acquaintance of Ryan, whom we will call Chaz. Now, Chaz has since deleted his comments, which, in all honesty, was probably best. But his nightmare is not over because, alas, my memory is not quite as bad as I tell my wife it is.

Chaz’s first post read pretty much as follows: “Are poverty-stricken blacks really disadvantaged in any way that poverty-stricken whites are not?”

That question reeks of myopia. The stench is palpable. “Racism”, here, has been narrowed to “a disproportionate poverty-induced social disadvantage”. This is also the problem that I have with Ryan’s statement. It reduces racism to something that is clearly visible and either acknowledged or ignored.

And that’s why, though I responded to Chaz, I didn’t really answer his question. I replied:

“Chaz, there are answers to that question. We could run through some statistics, if you’d like. But I’m pretty sure Google’s way more informative than me.

But let’s ask some different questions. Why is the ratio of poverty-stricken blacks to other blacks so much greater than that of their white counterparts? Why is the black incarceration rate so much higher than that of whites? Why do so few blacks hold positions of prominence in the corporate, religious, political, and academic sectors? Why are blacks so underrepresented and stereotyped in popular media? Why do little black girls pretend that they have long, flowing, blond hair? Why is the president black and Zimmerman non-white?

How many of our parents watched with their naked eye or participated in one of Dr. King’s marches or rallies? How many of our great grandparents were slaves/slave-owners or children of slaves/slave-owners? How many of our grandparents were raised by Nazi Party or KKK members?

And that’s just black Americans. Don’t get me started on “American owned and operated” convenience stores, Indian reservations, Japanese concentration camps, illegal immigration of natives, the country of Africa, Indian/Arab/Persian/North-African, “Orientals”, “Mexicans”, and a load of other things.

As long as we’re asking questions.”

The first set of questions are about the social and political systems which apply limits on individuals’ rights (not limited to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness) on the basis of race. Systems is what this is about. But, again, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll get to that later.

The second set of questions was intended to highlight the nearness of the sort of racism that goes beyond those systems to the conscious, chosen bigotry and hatred of The KKK, Jim Crow, and even slavery. The sort of nearness brought to mind by the fact that two of John Tyler’s grandsons are alive today (http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/115058). John Tyler was the tenth president of the USA. Abraham Lincoln, if you know your history, was the sixteenth! John Tyler died during the Civil War as a Confederate congressman. His grandsons are alive right now.

As the poet, Shihan, said “I’m sick of people acting like slavery doesn’t affect the present state of blacks in this country when slavery was a race with a four hundred and fifty year head start for everyone else. Plus, truth be told, my grandmother’s grandmother was a slave, so it wasn’t that far back.” There’s no denying the existence of the sort of racism that is passed from parents to children, the sort of bigotry that have led the parents of several friends of mine to (surprisingly explicitly) forbid them to associate with black males. And there is no doubt that the children of the Jim Crow era, of the KKK, and of the Nazi Party–children who now run the world–are influenced by the not so distant past.

“But,” as Shihan goes on to say, “I’m sick of us still using it as an excuse.” Which takes us back to systems and, for a third time, to Ryan’s statement. The fact is, systematic racism does not only affect the thoughts and behavior of white people. Why do one-third of black men have criminal records? Could it have as much to do with the perception of an education as an unreachable pipedream as it does with the profiling of black men by police? I think so.

That is why Chaz’s next comment disturbed me even more. Rambling in what, he later admitted, was a sleeping-pill induced rant, he insinuated that the reason that blacks are not as well off as whites is because we simply have chosen to not work hard. He claimed that plenty of white people are born into poverty then work to bring themselves and their families out.

He also mentioned that black people do get great rolls in entertainment media. As an example, he cited Mr. T.

My response:

“So (and correct my summaries of your responses if I’m wrong), you feel that there is a great enough disparity in levels of effort and commitment between whites and blacks to produce the differences in economic levels and mobility? Would you say that such apathy and lack of vision is genetic (black people are inherently lazy) or learned (black people are shaped at an early age by a culture of laziness)?

As far as Mr. T., dude was a minstrel. He, along with Flava Flave, Steve Harvey, Mo’Nique, Lil’ Wayne, and a ton of other entertainers have been holding civil rights back like a 30mph headwind.

You thought “I pity da fool!” before you thought “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” (But, of course, Levar isn’t really black. He was the whitest black guy on public television. Amiright?)

Nothing against Mr. T. He seems like a fine guy. And he can play whatever roles he wants to play. But the question is “Why are blacks so underrepresented and stereotyped in popular media?” Mr. T isn’t the best actor. And he wasn’t the best role model. He was a stereotype. That was his role (granted, that was everyone’s role on that show). That was his job. That’s what he got paid to do every day. And that’s the first iconic black person you thought of. And that’s my point.”

He missed the whole point! Even if we removed all the outside barriers and pretended that it wasn’t a statistical fact that blacks are prosecuted and sentenced with prejudice, discriminated against in employment at all levels, and poorly represented in media, we would still be left with a self-perpetuating internal system which most black Americans do not even realize exists!

Who teaches the young black male in the inner city about the dangers of bankrolling one’s college education with student loans? Who tells them how to work the state/private/community college system to minimise cost while maximising potential? Who shows them around government grants, scholarships, work-aid programs, lodging options, etc.? Are black men just that lazy as a people that we would drop out of school at such high rates or are there systems in place which are leading us by the hand down paths that white men (as a general rule) would never even consider? Are black men just that eager to fall in line with the stereotypes presented in the media or are we being conditioned, on a neurological level, by Pavlovian, Skinnerian processes from the moment we first laid eyes on a Television?

Like Mr. T. What did Mr. T. teach us? Which of the team’s perennial problems did he ever solve? Only the ones which could be solved by cracking skulls, by being a bad-ass mother-[shut-yo-mouth!]. Mr. T., clearly an integral member of the A-Team. This is one of the things I love so much about Star Trek: The Next Generation. Levar Burton played Lt. Geordi Laforge, the Enterprise’s chief Engineer. Geordi’s job, his role on the show, was the solve problems, lead the crew, and counsel the ship’s captain. Geordi didn’t “talk black”. Geordi didn’t “walk black”. Geordi didn’t “dress black”. Geordi simply was black. Levar Burton simply is black

And so is Mr. T. And so is Cornell West. And so is Kanye West. And so is Yasiin Bey. And so is Kat Williams, Bill Cosby, Clarence Gilyard, Yolanda Adams, Condolisa Rice, Mo’Nique, Saul Williams, Robert Glasper, Michelle Obama. And those are just some Americans off the top of my head.

But, when Chaz thinks of a black person who gets a fair shake in the American entertainment media as someone representative of and a role model for the larger black community, his first thought is not a harvard professor, US secretary of state, godfather of the modern family sitcom, world-renowned poet, or the man who taught America to read. His first thought is B. A. Baracus!

That’s a systematic problem!

Now, I don’t think that Chaz hates black people. Nor do I think that he is intentionally suppressing acknowledgement of influential blacks. I think he’s been fooled as much as anyone. A fish doesn’t know the pollution of the water in which they have swam since their hatching. I think he’s a fish who has never been forced to question whether the waters in which he swims are as clean as they can be. But when he does, he will be faced with a choice: address the smelly elephant or find some Fabreze.

P.S. A tweet I read this morning: Ferrari Shepherd (@stopbeingfamous) said, “C.P Sheppard owned my grandfather Bright Sheppard and sold him to A.O.P. Nicholson, a US Senator”. Slavery–seems like it was just yesterday.


A Piece of Hate Cake Revisited…

April 18, 2012

For the most part, the Swedish minstrel cake and the event surrounding it sparked mass outrage. However, today articles and opinions have surfaced, suggesting that the artist Makode Aj Linde did not intend on the cake being the final work of “art”, but rather the scene as a whole as the final work, giving harsh critique and commentary on racism in Europe and the West’s quickness to jump on pointing out oppression in Africa without full knowledge and insight. People amongst this camp are praising Linde for his brave and provocative success of exposing this modern-day colonialist mindset.

Writing for Africa is a Country, John Palme acclaims, “It’s a brilliant staging of structural racism and post-colonial existence.”

Giving Linde credit as a master puppeteer, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley wrote for Ebony, “I saw something powerful and heartbreaking unfold in this gallery. The celebrants and revelers at the exhibit were merely unwitting–but abundantly willing–performers in Linde’s play. The cake was not for their delight. The wails he let forth as the cake was cut into was not for their amusement. Linde wasn’t enjoying the moment, making light of a brutal history; indeed, his presence served to shame them, to shame them for partaking in something so distasteful as a cake representing the countless girls and women who have been brutalized. They should have been outraged. They should have been disgusted, haranguing for the cake and the artist to be removed immediately. But they weren’t. Rather than recoil in horror and outrage at the sight of such a cake or the sound of such screams, the men and women in attendance–The West–ate and chitchatted and snapped pictures of the spectacle.”

Though Linde admits to attempting to expose racism and ignorance of Europeans who only focus on certain types of oppression in Africa when racism is still rife in their communities, he claims he did not know what the response of the crowd would be. “I think a lot of people saw some images taken during the performance, saw the pictures online and took the images out of its context. And they accused me and the cultural minister to be racists,” he said. “So I think the people who have been upset about the art piece, about the images, have seen have misunderstood the intention or the agenda of me as an artist.”

It is interesting to note that much of the focus has been on the fact that Linde is a black man, and his artwork in the past, much with the minstrel blackface theme, has been dedicated to raising awareness about racism. Fair enough. What has not been emphasized is that Linde is mixed race, which means he is just as much “white” as he is “black”, showing how the one-drop rule still plays a huge role in our global culture. This would not even be a conversation if a white artist attempted the same “art”. Also, though I’m sure Linde has come across racism living in Europe, it is also noteworthy that he was born in Stockholm, and is assumedly just as far removed from the plight of Africans as other Swedes are.

No one can argue that, no matter what the artist’s true intentions were, Linde’s stunt exposed a strange form of modern-day imperialism and racism. But I think the question we should be asking is, at what cost? Does one injustice hold greater weight than  another, as the atrocity of female circumcision was seemingly made light of, allegedly to expose racism and imperialism? Even if the West shouts out about “oppression” they may know little about, it does not take away from the fact that genital mutilation is a disgusting form of torture, performed on young girls who have no choice in the matter, negatively affecting them for the rest of their lives.

Linde’s tasteless portrayal of an African female undergoing genital mutilation in the mocking form of a cake is a serious problem to many people. Take for example poet and author Kola Boof, who is an actual victim of genital mutilation, who cannot see past the mockery, tweeting heart felt tweets in response to the Ebony article,

@kolaboof: Who is getting this “meaningful artful picture”….at the expense of CUT WOMEN like myself? They see it as hilarious!

@kolaboof: I am vaginally infibulated. I have suffered…my entire life!!! My life is HELL!! And you think this is reaching people??”

I know art is a powerful tool that can be used to expose the ills our societies are plagued with. I am also all for freedom of expression and speech. But I also believe that with that freedom comes a sense of responsibility, and I do not believe Linde acted responsibly, creating “art” that was insensitive to the very people he was allegedly trying to help. And though he claims his point was to expose these post-colonial mindsets of Europeans, he continues to dismissively make excuses for the the Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, and she continues to refuse to apologize for any part she had in the event. Wait. So, what was the point of it all again?


A Piece of Hate Cake…

April 18, 2012

When I saw the Swedish minstrel cake fiasco this morning, I literally could not believe my eyes. It was one of the most disturbing things I have seen in a while. It was so completely offensive, on so many different levels. And then, of course, people’s responses to it online added to the offense, many trying to excuse the racist act by saying the “artist was a black man”, as if that makes it any better. It’s inexcusable.

For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, pictures and videos have emerged from a tax-funded, Swedish World Art Day party that took place on Saturday, where the Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, performed a clitoridectomy on a cake negatively depicting a black African woman in a minstrelesque-type way. Apparently, this piece of “modern performance art” done by Makode Aj Linde was made to raise awareness of the plight of female circumcision in Africa. At best, it tragically made a mockery of the cause, and managed to stir up outrage and pain that has been inflicted on African women for hundreds of years.

Putting aside the racist overtones for a moment, it does not take a genius to realize that not only did this event bring absolutely nothing positive to the plight of female circumcision, it went further, adding insult to injury, by the negative depiction of the African female. It made me sick to my stomach to watch the artist, with his actual head (in black face) connected to the cake, pseudo-screaming as people cut into the body of the cake. The jolly faces, laughing, and enjoyment of the party-goers do not reflect people who are aware of the seriousness of genital mutilation. As a matter of fact, they seem to be having a great time, and enjoying some cake. This brings the level of disturbance up a notch for me. Watch the video for yourself:

Not only did the alleged “message” of the “performance art” completely miss the mark, but the cake in and of itself was a repulsively racist minstrel parody of an African woman. It reminded me of the 1800s, when Saartjie Baartman was stolen from South Africa and taken to Europe as a sideshow spectacle. Europeans, young and old, paid money to gawk, point, gasp, laugh and jeer at Saartjie’s naked body, exhibiting features the white people were not accustomed to. Saartjie was dehumanized and humiliated for the entertainment and enjoyment of others. And of course Saartjie was unfortunately not the only one subjected to this inhumane treatment, as the tradition of “black mockery for white entertainment” went on for hundreds of years, even taking different shapes and forms.

I imagine the Europeans who gawked at Saartjie Baartman looked very similar to the faces found in the crowd of Swedish cultural elite, as Liljeroth, the self-proclaimed “anti-racist”, feeds the “African” a piece of her very own body; smiles, laughter, camaraderie, and not one single look of protest, disgust, or opposition.

Arguments that “the artist is black, and that makes it alright”, or that “performance art is an extreme medium known for shock factor” are outlandishly absurd. The people who say things like that act as though things are being blown out of proportion, “It’s performance art. What’s the big deal?!” I suppose a generation of people raised in an intrinsically racist system, where even Bugs Bunny occasionally dressed up in minstrel black face, have trouble seeing the harm in this. Photographer and activist Dwayne Rodgers tweeted, “The big problem is the “right” everyone seems to have to play with very painful images of Black people.”

I wonder what the response would be if photographs and videos emerged of a group of Germans laughing and eating whilst standing around a Holocaust victim cake. I think people would be a little offended, to say the least. I suspect total outrage would be more like it. And if the person who baked the cake was Jewish, would that make it any more okay or right? Of course not! Because there is history there, and it would be completely insensitive to even imagine such a thing.

I’m not sure what is more disheartening to me, the fact that preposterous racist occurrences like this continue to happen in these modern times, or the fact that so many people are so quick to defend them, seemingly wanting to hold on to that “right” that Dwayne Rodgers speaks of. As if a Minister of Culture taking part in something like this isn’t bad enough, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth herself has tried to justify, rationalize and make excuses by saying that the event is being “misinterpreted”. Right. Sigh. Liljeroth’s out of touch, “let them eat cake” mentality is ironic to say the least.