The internet is yet again abuzz with a viral video meant to bring tears of humanity to all of our eyes. The show is called ‘What Would You Do?” It is a bit of a moralizing Candid Camera. The producers stage various social/ moral situations i.e someone drugs a girl’s drink, do you tell on them? A store clerk is being discriminatory to a shopper, do you speak up? The responses of the public are then video tapped and aired on the show. I have seen the series several times and as a sociologist by trade I am fascinated by how human behavior is impacted by settings, social cues, etc. So when I saw the clip circulating this week, I knew I would get around to watching it. I wasn’t prepared for the anger that began percolating in my gut as watched the scene set in a Harlem barbershop. It took me a second to name it. Then it got clear….”Oh! This shit again!” A video about how everybody can be racist and everyone should stop racism by just being nicer to each other, all wrapped up and delivered in one big burrito of racist stereotypes. Watch the video below.
I do not believe there is some evil cabal sitting around a executive board meeting table discussing how to continue to reinforce racism and sexism via prime time reality series ( although sometimes I wonder). What I do believe is that we have sold the concepts of color-blindness and post -racialism so well that people actually believe that any discussion of humans being “mean” to other humans based on skin pigmentation is racism. That definition has become the most widely circulated description of racism. Unfortunately,defining racism in such myopic ways eliminates the larger discussions of power, politics, history, institutions and social systems that keep the structure of racism in place in this country. When we boil racism down to individual not niceness, we obscure its very alive presence in all segments of our society and how the unspoken, unseen, practices and policies of our country reinforce permanent structures of oppression. What we also, often do is wind up using the same tired racist stereotypes rampant in society to make our myopic points about racism. This WWYD? episode rolled out some tried and trusted historical racialized archetypes to set up its fictitious scenario. Here they go:
“THE ANGRY BLACK WOMAN”.
[Image description: Picture of First Lady Michelle Obama. She is photographed from the shoulder up wearing a black and white checkered jacket with a small bit of pink fabric show. Her dark brown hair is straight and just above her should. She has annoyed expression on her face and her mouth is closed.]
The premise of the entire scenario is built around this Black woman being condescending, rude, and abusive to the White woman, so much so that the White girl gets up in tears and leaves. The problem with this premise is it divorces the story line from historical and present day racism. You know what is racist, being shot in the face when you knock on someone’s door for help. You know what else is racist? Being the First Lady of the United States, sitting at funeral for one of the greatest men in history and having your entire being, marriage and moment dissected and mis-represented throughout mainstream media. Racism is not simply about an individual experience. it is also about how that experience fits into a larger social history. Racism is not about one moment, it is about how that one moment is informed by all the moment’s before it and how it will impact the moments after it. Here’s what America keeps forgetting. Black people have not been given the privilege of individuality. What is said about one of us always ends up being what each of us has to defend ourselves from. The girl in the barbershop does not get to be one mean Black lady. Not even when there are “nice” Black ladies around her. Because the most polarizing image is what sticks in the American psyche. I have even heard some say, “I didn’t even notice her color.” The scenario was set up to highlight the racial element so if you didn’t “notice” her race, you were actively trying not to which speaks to some serious discomfort about dealing with race, a perspective that also reaffirms racism. To build a social experiment around the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, is to, by function of power and privilege reinforce that stereotype.
What is also made invisible in this scenario is the real lived outcome of white supremacy as an idealized white standard of beauty. This video reaffirms the presentation of White women as better both in beauty and in behavior than Black women. We see the larger implications of that racist socialization in some of the historical and contemporary trends toward dating white women as status symbol. This trend is so common as to be satirized by performance artists like Nate Hill who created an entire bizarre but telling performance entitled,Trophy Scarves.
What happens in this video is that the valid issue of challenges people in interracial relationships face and the communities responses to them, is turned into a hyperbolic, presentation of Black woman rage rather than an actual exploration into the lived experience of actual REAL pain for those couples and for some Black women. The video turns that valid area of inquiry into a mass media tool to validate why men don’t chose Black women. To caricature a nuanced, complicated and for many, painful issue by portraying us as emasculating, raging “reverse” racists only serves an agenda that perpetuates ACTUAL racism.
FRAGILE INNOCENT FRIGHTENED WHITE WOMANHOOD AKA WHITE WOMAN TEARS
[Image description: Against a background of blue, brown, and blue wall paper a white woman with blonde hair is wearing a black off the shoulder cocktail dress. She is crying. She is holding a white tissue in her hand. Her mascara is running.]
The trope of fragile, timid, white, womanhood in need of protecting is as old as time but was reinforced firmly during slavery and reconstruction, when white supremacy needed to find a new fear to play on in poor White communities, in order to maintain the social hierarchy in a newly emancipated U.S. South. This trope of the White woman in danger against the violent Black brute (generally male) was highlighted in one of the earliest films Birth of a Nation. This trope has continued into present day, constantly reaffirming the social premium of providing White women safety and comfort as the highest form of civility. Good Blacks should and will protect her. Everyone should protect her, particularly if she is crying and running out of the building. Just to offer a counter anecdote, the day I got the call that my mother died, I spent 12 hours in airports and on planes sobbing. In one airport, not ONE person, NOT ONE, even asked if I was okay. Crying Black women are to be ignored, not saved. Also, just to be clear sexism and patriarchy are often inextricably tied to other oppression. With this we can see how the trope of frail, delicate white womanhood creates a system of protection for the White woman but only in exchange for her power and autonomy. The White woman is allowed to be protected as long as she does not ask for power or equity. The WWYD? scenario rewards Black people for behaving in socially prescribed responses that are tied to long held racialized roles in our society.
THE EMASCULATED BLACK MAN
[Image description: In this photo a Black man is sitting on a stoop. He is wearing a grey suit and a blue and grey patterned tie. He has a short haircut. He is sitting with his head in his hands.]
The emasculated Black man trope was given credence in the 1960’s with the release of the Moynihan Report. The report written by then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, proposed that the matriarchal structure of the Black family intrinsically devalued the Black man, thus silencing him and ultimately forcing him out of the family structure and destroying the Black family. He described the resulting family dynamic as a “tangle of pathology”. In WWYD? the silence of the Black boyfriend to the shaming and berating of his girlfriend reinforces the emasculated Black man image. He is proven inept in a multitude of ways. He is incapable of protecting the White woman, even as doing so is presented as the highest moral behavior and the highest masculine behavior. And he is incapable of standing up to the Angry Black Woman who of course in a system of patriarchy, needs desperately to be put in her place.
[Image description: In this photo a Black man and a Black woman are sitting across from each other at a wooden business table. There are papers on the table. The woman is holding a bottle of water. She is wearing sunglasses and a green shirt. The man is wearing a black suit with a white shirt and tie. He is pointing his left finger down and the table. His right hand is resting on a stack of papers. His face looks angry. She is leaning toward him. Above her head is a white caption box that reads, “Who gone check me boo?”]
Lastly, let’s return to the dangerous unspoken premise of the video, racism as simply individually crappy behavior toward a person of another race. Mass media’s continued peddling of that definition of racism, is unto itself racist. The attempt to pass off race based prejudice as the sum total of racism allows us to continue to look at small interpersonal experiences of meanness, pettiness or cruelty as the most potent remaining vestiges of racial inequity in our society. The big stuff is gone right? After all, “we have a Black president!” the woman in the film says! This definition reinforces notions of “post-racialism” and “colorblindness” and leaves no leverage by which to address structural, institutional, and systemic racism. WWYD? would have us think that fixing racism is the country is just about being “nicer” to each other all while highlighting, “see Black people can be racist too”. This simplified, easy racism fix is about as far from reality as the affliction of Affluenza.
We are a society regularly looking for quick answers and easily prescribed antidotes to racism. The power structure wants the social order intact. That goal is achieved by watering down racism, pretending it is as trite as being mean to a pretty White girl in a barber shop in Harlem. We do it by trotting out all of the old stereotypes America believes already. We do it by equating an entire history of slavery, subjugation, inequity, brutality, achievement gaps, prison industrial complexes, red lining, white flight, gerrymandering, jim crow, voter suppression laws, lynching, George Zimmerman acquittals, school defunding, etc etc in this country, to one scripted Black girl being rude to a scripted White girl in a barber shop in Harlem. That is how you reinforce a racist super structure in America.
What you don’t do is cultivate real national conversations about real experiences of racial inequity that happen in REAL life every single day. What you don’t do is talk about the real wide spread impacts of implicit racial bias that decrease the life spans of people of color and lead to some of the highest infant mortality rates in any industrialized nation and compound experiences of trauma and violence in our communities. What you DON’T DO is ever address the REAL power differentials that white supremacy and white privilege create in this social system that continue to have tragic and sometimes deadly outcomes. Why would we do that? That just doesn’t make good television does it?
[Headline image: Against a background of blue, brown, and blue wall paper a white woman with blonde hair is wearing a black off the shoulder cocktail dress. She is crying. She is holding a white tissue in her hand. Her mascara is running.]