As some visitors to this blog may already know, I curate a true story blog over at tellusastoryblog.com. For our first three years of existence, we aimed to publish one new true story every Wednesday (we took summers and holidays off). But we found that model to be unsustainable so we have just switched to a quarterly format, which we are very excited about! We also redesigned the look and functionality of our site.
Tell Us A Story is proud to announce the publication of our first ever quarterly edition of Tell Us A Story, featuring the best work submitted to us over the last few months. Give it a read and a share! Click here to read volume 4, issue 1.
Look for our next issue in Fall 2016!
Several months ago I published a 2-part guide to the academic job market right here on my blog (for free!!!!!!!!!!), as a way to help other academics explain this bizarre, yearly ritual to family and friends. Indeed, several readers told me that the posts really *did* help them talk to their loved ones about the academic job market (talking about it is the first step!). Yes, I’m working miracles here, folks. And then, this happened:
“A few months ago, as I was sitting down to my morning coffee, several friends – all from very different circles of my life – sent me a link to an article, accompanied by some variation of the question: “Didn’t you already write this?” The article in question had just been published on a popular online publication, one that I read and link to regularly, and has close to 8 million readers.
Usually, when I read something online that’s similar to something I’ve already published on my tiny WordPress blog, I chalk it up to the great intellectual zeitgeist. Because great minds do, usually, think alike, especially when those minds are reading and writing and posting and sharing and tweeting in the same small, specialized online space. I am certain that most of the time, the author in question is not aware of me or my scholarship. It’s a world wide web out there, after all. Why would someone with a successful, paid writing career need to steal content from me, a rinky-dink blogger who gives her writing away for free?
But in this case, the writer in question was familiar with my work. She travels in the same small, specialized online space that I do. She partakes of the same zeitgeist. In fact, she had started following my blog just a few days after I posted the essay that she would later mimic in conceit, tone and even overall structure.
Ethically speaking, idea theft is just as egregious as plagiarism, especially when those ideas are stolen from free sites and appropriated by those who actually make a profit from their online labor.
When pressed on this point, the writer told me that she does read my blog. She even had it listed on her own blog’s (now-defunct) blogroll. But she denied reading my two most recent posts, the posts I accused her of copying. Therefore she refused to link to or cite my blog in her original piece, a piece that generated millions of page views, social media shares, praise and, of course, money, for both her and the publication for which she is a columnist.
So if a writer publishes a piece (and profits from a piece) that is substantially similar to a previously published piece, one which the writer had most certainly heard of, if not read, is this copyright infringement? Has this writer actually done something wrong?”
Well, Christian Exoo and I decided to try to find out. To read our article “Plagiarism, Patchwriting and the Race and Gender Hierarchy of Online Idea Theft” at TruthOut, click HERE.
Academic writing has taken quite a bashing since, well, forever, and that’s not entirely undeserved. Academic writing can be pedantic, jargon-y, solipsistic and self-important. There are endless think pieces, editorials and New Yorker cartoons about the impenetrability of academese. In one of those said pieces, “Why Academics Can’t Write,” Michael Billig explains:
Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.
Yes, the implication here is that academics are always trying to make things — a movie, a poem, themselves and their writing — appear more important than they actually are. These pieces also argue that academics dress simple concepts up in big words in order to exclude those who have not had access to the same educational expertise. In “On Writing Well,” Stephen M. Walt argues:
jargon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack…
This is how we control the perimeters, our critics charge; this is how we guard ourselves from interlopers. But, this explanation seems odd. After all, the point of scholarship — of all those long hours of reading and studying and writing and editing — is to uncover truths, backed by research, and then to educate others. Sometimes we do that in the classroom for our students, of course, but even more significantly, we are supposed to be educating the world with our ideas. That’s especially true of academics (like me) employed by public universities, funded by tax payer dollars. That money, supporting higher education, is to (ideally) allow us to contribute to the world’s knowledge about our specific fields of study.
So if knowledge-sharing is the mission of the scholar, why would so many of us consciously want to create an environment of exclusion around our writing? As Steven Pinker asks in “Why Academics Stink at Writing”
Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?
Contrary to popular belief, academics don’t *just* write for other academics (that’s what conference presentations are for!). We write believing that what we’re writing has a point and purpose, that it will educate and edify. I’ve never met an academic who has asked for help with making her essay “more difficult to understand.” Now, of course, some academics do use jargon as subterfuge. Walt continues:
But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood…Bad writing thus becomes a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.
Walt, Billig, Pinker and everyone else who has, at one time or another, complained that a passage of academese was needlessly difficult to understand are right to be frustrated. I’ve made the same complaints myself. However, this generalized dismissal of “academese,” of dense, often-jargony prose that is nuanced, reflexive and even self-effacing , is, I’m afraid, just another bullet in the arsenal for those who believe that higher education is populated with up-tight, boring, useless pedants who just talk and write out of some masturbatory infatuation with their own intelligence. The inherent distrust of scholarly language is, at its heart, a dismissal of academia itself.
Now I’ll be the first to agree that higher education is currently crippled by a series of interrelated and devastating problems — the adjunctification and devaluation of teachers, the overproduction of PhDs, tuition hikes, endless assessment bullshit, the inflation of middle-management (aka, the rise of the “ass deans”), MOOCs, racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism, ageism, it’s ALL there people — but academese is the least egregious of these problems, don’t you think? Academese — that slow nuanced ponderous way of seeing the world — we are told, is a symptom of academia’s pretensions. But I think it’s one of our only saving graces.
The work I do is nuanced and specific. It requires hours of reading and thinking before a single word is typed. This work is boring at times — at times even dreadful — but it’s necessary for quality scholarship and sound arguments. Because once you start to research an idea — and I mean really research, beyond the first page of Google search results — you find that the ideas you had, those wonderful, catchy epiphanies that might make for a great headline or tweet, are not nearly as sound as you assumed. And so you go back, armed with the new knowledge you just gleaned, and adjust your original claim. Then you think some more and revise. It is slow work, but it’s necessary work. The fastest work I do is the writing for this blog, which as I see as a space of discovery and intellectual growth. I try not to make grand claims for this blog, mostly for that reason.
The problem then, with academic writing, is that its core — the creation of careful, accurate ideas about the world — are born of research and revision and, most important of all, time. Time is needed. But our world is increasingly regulated by the ethic of the instant. We are losing our patience. We need content that comes quickly and often, content that can be read during a short morning commute or a long dump (sorry for the vulagrity, Ma), content that can be tweeted and retweeted and Tumblred and bit-lyed. And that content is great. It’s filled with interesting and dynamic ideas. But this content cannot replace the deep structures of thought that come from research and revision and time.
Let me show you what I mean by way of example:
Stanley has already taken quite a drubbing for this piece (and deservedly so) so I won’t add to the pile on. But I do want to point out that had this profile been written by someone with a background in race and gender studies, not to mention the history of racial and gendered representation in television, this profile would have turned out very differently. I’m not saying that Stanley needed a PhD to properly write this piece, what I’m saying is: the woman needed to do her research. As Tressie McMillan Cottom explains:
Here’s the thing with using a stereotype to analyze counter hegemonic discourses. If you use the trope to critique race instead of critiquing racism, no matter what you say next the story is about the stereotype. That’s the entire purpose of stereotypes. They are convenient, if lazy, vehicles of communication. The “angry black woman” traffics in a specific history of oppression, violence and erasure just like the “spicy Latina” and “smart Asian”. They are effective because they work. They conjure immediate maps of cognitive interpretation. When you’re pressed for space or time or simply disinclined to engage complexities, stereotypes are hard to resist. They deliver the sensory perception of understanding while obfuscating. That’s their power and, when the stereotype is about you, their peril.
Wanna guess why Cottom’s perspective on this is so nuanced and careful? Because she studies this shit. Imagine that: knowing what you’re talking about before you hit “publish.”
Or how about this recent piece on the “rise” of black British actors in America?
Carter’s profile of black British actors in Hollywood does a great job of repeating everything said by her interview subjects but is completely lacking in an analysis of the complicated and fraught history of black American actors in Hollywood. And that perspective is very, very necessary for an essay claiming to be about “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America.” So what is someone like Carter to do? Well, she could start by changing the title of her essay to “Black British Actors Discuss Working in Hollywood.” Don’t make claims that you can’t fulfill. Because you see, in academia, “The Rise of the Black British Actor in America” would actually be a book-length project. It would require months, if not years, of careful research, writing, and revision. One simply cannot write about hard-working black British actors in Hollywood without mentioning the ridiculous dearth of good Hollywood roles for people of color. As Tambay A. Obsenson rightly points out in his response to the piece:
Unless there’s a genuine collective will to get underneath the surface of it all, instead of just bulletin board-style engagement. There’s so much to unpack here, and if a conversation about the so-called “rise in black British actors in America” is to be had, a rather one-sided, short-sighted Buzzfeed piece doesn’t do much to inspire. It only further progresses previous theories that ultimately cause division within the diaspora.
But the internet has created the scholarship of the pastless present, where a subject’s history can be summed up in the last thinkpiece that was published about it, which was last week. And last week is, of course, ancient history. Quick and dirty analyses of entire decades, entire industries, entire races and genders, are generally easy and even enjoyable to read (simplicity is bliss!), and they often contain (some) good information. But many of them make claims they can’t support. They write checks their asses can’t cash. But you know who CAN cash those checks? Academics. In fact, those are some of the only checks we ever get to cash.
Academese can answer those broad questions, with actual facts and research and entire knowledge trajectories. As Obsensen adds:
But the Buzzfeed piece is so bereft of essential data, that it’s tough to take it entirely seriously. If the attempt is to have a conversation about the central matter that the article seems to want to inform its readers on, it fails. There’s a far more comprehensive discussion to be had here.
A far more comprehensive discussion is exactly what academics have been trained to do. We’re good at it! Indeed, Obsensen has yet to write a full response to the Buzzfeed piece because, wait for it, he has to do his research first: “But a black British invasion, there is not. I will take a look at this further, using actual data, after I complete my research of all roles given to black actors in American productions, over the last 5 years.” Now, look, I’m not shitting all over Carter or anyone else who has ever had to publish on a deadline in order to collect a paycheck. I understand that this is how online publishing often works. And Carter did a great job interviewing her subjects. Its a thorough piece that will certainly influence Buzzfeed readers to go see Selma (2015, Ava DuVernay). But it is not about the rise of the black British actor in America. It is an ad for Selma.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an end to short, pithy, generalized articles on the internet. I love those spurts of knowledge, bite-sized bits of knowledge. I may be well-versed in film and media (and really then, only my own small corner of it) but the rest of my understanding of what’s happening in the world of war and vaccines and space travel and Kim Kardashian comes from what I can read in 5 minute intervals while waiting for the pharmacist to fill my prescription. My working mom brain, frankly, can’t handle too much more than that. And that is how it should be; none among us can be experts in everything, or even a few things.
But here’s what I’m saying: we need to recognize that there is a difference between a 100,000 word academic book and a 1500 word thinkpiece. They have different purposes and functions and audiences. We need to understand the conditions under which claims can be made and what facts are necessary before assertions can be made. That’s why articles are peer-reviewed and book monographs are carefully vetted before publication. Writers who are not experts can pick up these documents and read them and then…cite them! In academia we call this “scholarship.”
No, academic articles rarely yield snappy titles. They’re hard to summarize. Seriously, the next time you see an academic, corner them and ask them to summarize their latest research project in 140 characters — I dare you. But trust me, people — you don’t want to call for an end to academese. Because without detailed, nuanced, reflexive, overly-cited, and yes, even hedging writing, there can be no progress in thought. There can be no true thinkpieces. Without academese, everything is what the author says it is, an opinion tethered to air, a viral simulacrum of knowledge.
Sometimes I try to write creative non-fiction. Luckily, the good folks at Word Riot, a site I greatly admire, thought this was acceptable for publication in their December 2014 issue. I’m super honored and would love if you’d read it. It’s about my idol, Diane Rehm.
The link to “Diane” is here.
Here are some recent news stories about women:
In Afghanistan, a 3-year-old girl was snatched from her front yard, where she was playing with friends, and raped in her neighbor’s garden by an 18-year-old man. The rapist then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill the child. Currently this little girl is in intensive care in Kabul, fighting for her life. But even if this little girl survives this horrifying experience, her parents tell the reporter, she will carry the shame and stigma of being raped for the rest of her life. The parents hope to bring the rapist to court, but as they are poor, they are certain their family will not receive justice. The child’s mother and grandmother have threatened to commit suicide in protest.
In Egypt,Raslan Fadl, a doctor who routinely performs genital mutilation surgery on women, was acquitted of manslaughter charges. Dr. Fadl performed the controversial surgery on 12-year-old Sohair al-Bata’a in June 2013 and she later died from complications stemming from the procedure. According to The Guardian, “No reason was given by the judge, with the verdict being simply scrawled in a court ledger, rather than being announced in the Agga courtroom.”
Washed up rapper, Eminem (nee Marshall Mathers), leaked portions of his new song, “Vegas,” in which he addresses Iggy Izalea (singer and appropriator of racial signifiers) thusly:
“Unless you’re Nicki
grab you by the wrist let’s ski
so what’s it gon be
put that shit away Iggy
You don’t wanna blow that rape whistle on me”
Azalea’s response was, naturally, disgust and a yawn:
This story was followed, finally, by a story on the growing sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. Cosby has been plagued by rumors of sexual misconduct for decades. However, a series of recent events, including Cosby’s ill-conceived idea to invite fans to “meme” him and Hannibal Buress’ recent stand up bit about the star, brought the issue back into the national spotlight. As Roxane Gay succinctly notes “There is a popular and precious fantasy that abounds, that women are largely conspiring to take men down with accusations of rape, as if there is some kind of benefit to publicly outing oneself as a rape victim. This fantasy becomes even more elaborate when a famous and/or wealthy man is involved. These women are out to get that man. They want his money. They want attention. It’s easier to indulge this fantasy than it is to face the truth that sometimes, the people we admire and think we know, are capable of terrible things.”
I cite these horrific stories happening all over the world, to women of all ages, races, and class backgrounds, because they are all things that happen to women because they are women. These are all crimes in which womens bodies are seen as objects for men to take and use as they wish simply because they can. The little girl in Afghanistan was raped because she has a vagina and because she is too small to defend herself. Cosby’s alleged victims were raped because they have vaginas and because they naive enough to assume that their boss — the humanitarian, the art collector, the seller of pudding pops — would not drug them. And Iggy Izalea, bless her confused little heart, makes a great point: why is it when men disagree with women, their first threat is one of sexual assault? Why doesn’t Eminem write lyrics about how Izalea is profiting off of another culture or that her music sucks? Because those critiques have nothing to do with Izalea’s vagina. If you want to disempower or threaten or traumatize a woman, you have to remind her she is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a vagina that can be invaded, pillaged and emptied into.
But you know this, don’t you, readers? Why am I reminding you of the fragile space women (and especially women of color) occupy in this world, of the delicate tightrope we walk between arousing the respect of our male peers and arousing their desires to violate our vaginas? Because of International Men’s Day.
“There’s an International Mens Day?” you’re asking yourself right now, “What does that entail?” Great question, hypothetical reader. This is from their official website:
“Objectives of International Men’s Day include a focus on men’s and boy’s health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting positive male role models. It is an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions, in particular their contributions to community, family, marriage, and child care while highlighting the discrimination against them.”
When I opened up my Twitter feed on Wednesday, I noticed the #InternationalMensDay hashtag popping up in my feed now and then, mostly because my friend, Will Brooker, was engaging many of the men using the hashtag in conversations about the meaning of the day and its possible ramifications.
Now, I’m no troll (and neither is Will, by the way). Yes, I like to talk shit and I have been known to bust my friend’s chops for my own amusement (something I’ve written about in the past), but generally, I do not spend my time in real life or on the internet, looking for a fight. But International Mens Day struck me as so ill-conceived, so offensive, that I couldn’t help myself.
Within minutes I had several irate IMD supporters in my mentions:
These men were outraged that I could so callously dismiss the very real problems men had to deal with on a day to day basis:
Yes apparently International Mens Day is needed because all of the feminists are sitting around cackling about the high rates of male suicide, or the fact that more men die on the job than women, or that more men are homeless than women. And since women have their own day on March 8th — and African Americans get the whole month of February! — then why can’t men have their own day, too? After all, men are people, right? Of course they are. But that’s not the point.
As a Huffington Post editorial put it:
“The problem with the IMD idea is that men’s vulnerabilities are not clearly and consistently put into the context of gender inequality and the ongoing oppression of women. For example, a review of homicide data shows that where homicide rates against men are high, violence against women by male partners is also high (and female deaths by homicides more likely to happen). Or, for example, men face particular health problems because we teach boys to be powerful men by suppressing a range of feelings, by engaging in risk-taking behaviors, by teaching them to fight and never back down, by saying that asking for help is for sissies — that is, the values of manhood celebrated in male-dominated societies come with real costs to men ourselves.”
Yes, the problem with IMD is that the real problems faced by men are not the direct result of the fact that they are men. Let me offer a personal example here to explain what I mean. I am a white, upper middle class, high-achieving white woman. According to studies, I am more likely to develop an eating disorder than other women. And eating disorders are very much tied to gender in that women face more pressure to be thin that men do. But does that mean there should be an entire day for white, upper middle class, high-achieving white women in order to bring awareness to the fact that we are more likely to acquire an eating disorder than others? No. Because the point of having a “day” or a “month” devoted to a particular group of people is to shed light on the unique challenges they face and the achievements they’ve made because otherwise society would not take notice of these challenges and achievements. Let me say that again: because otherwise society would not take notice of these challenges and achievements.
We do not need an International White, Upper Middle Class, High-Achieving White Woman Day because I see plenty of recognition of the challenges and achievements of my life; in the representation game, white women fall just behind white men in the amount of representation we get in the news and in popular culture. Likewise, we do not need an International Mens Day because, really, everyday is mens day. Every. Single. Day.
As more and more angry replies began to fill up my Twitter feed, I knew I should abandon ship. I would never convince these men that they do not need a day devoted to men’s issues since “men’s issues,” in our culture, are simply “issues.” But I couldn’t help myself. These men were so aggrieved, so very hurt that I could not see how they were victims, suffering in a world of rampant misandry:
I realize that giving an oppressed group of people their own day or month is a pretty pointless gesture. It could even be argued that these days serve to further marginalize groups by cordoning off their needs, their history, their lives, from the rest of the world. Still, after #gamergate and Time magazine readers voted to ban the word “feminism,” to name two recent public attacks against women, it’s hard for me not to see International Mens Day as an attack on women, and feminists in particular, like a tit for tat.
So yeah, I realize that by trolling the #InternationalMensDay hashtag I did little to promote the cause of feminism or to educate these men about why IMD might be problematic. But I didn’t do it to educate anyone or to promote a cause. I did it, you see, because sometimes in the face of absurdity, our only choice is to cloak ourselves in sarcasm and great big mugs of mascara flavored bitch tears.
You may have heard that Twin Peaks, beloved cult television of my adolescence, is getting a third season on Showtime. That won’t happen until 2016. In the meantime, I’m going to quietly weep about it. Why am I blue? I explain over at Antenna and talk about it with two other fans, Jason Mittell and Dana Och.
Here’s an excerpt:
“I started watching Twin Peaks when ABC aired reruns in the summer of 1990, after some of my friends started discussing this “crazy” show they were watching about a murdered prom queen. During the prom queen’s funeral her stricken father throws himself on top of her coffin, causing it to lurch up and down. The scene goes on and on, then fades to black.
I started watching based on that anecdote alone and was immediately hooked. Twin Peaks was violent, sexual, funny and sad, all at the same time – I was 13 and I kept waiting for some adult to come in the room and tell me to stop watching it. My Twin Peaks fandom felt intimate, and, most importantly, very illicit.
One month before I turned 14, Lynch’s daughter published The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a paratext meant to fill in key plot holes and offer additional clues about Laura’s murder. But really, it was like an X-rated Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. The book was far smuttier than the show and my friends and I studied it like the Talmud. That book, coupled with Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack, which I played on repeat on my tapedeck, created my first true immersive TV experience.”
Read the whole thing here.
Like many professors, I live on the same campus where I work. As a result, I’ve watched drunk East Carolina University students urinate and puke on my lawn and toss empty red solo cups into the shrubbery around my home. But one evening I had a more troubling run-in with a college student. It began when I woke to the sound of my dog barking. It took me a minute to orient myself and understand that my dog was barking because someone was knocking on the front door. It was 2 am and my husband was out of town, but I opened the front door anyway. On the stoop was a college-aged woman dressed in a Halloween costume that consisted of a halter top, small tight shorts, and sky-high heels. The woman was sobbing and shivering in the late October air and her thick eye make up was running down her face. She was incoherent and hysterical– I could smell the tequila on her breath — so it took me a while to figure out what she wanted .
She told me that she was visiting a friend for the night and that she had lost her friend…and her cell phone. She had no idea where she was or where to go. I think she came to my door because my porch light has motion detectors and she must have thought it was a sign. As she rambled on and on I could hear my baby crying upstairs. I told the woman to wait on my stoop, that I had to go get my baby and my phone, and that I would call the police to see if they could drive her somewhere. “Nooooooo,” she wailed, “don’t call the police!” I urged her to wait a minute so I could go get my baby and soothe him, but when I returned a few minutes later with my cell phone in hand, she was gone.
I felt many emotions that night: annoyance at being woken up, panic over how to best get help for the young woman, and later, guilt over my inability to help her. But one emotion that I did not feel that night was fear. I was never threatened by this young woman’s presence on my stoop and I never felt the need to “protect” my property. Why would I? She was a young woman, no more than 19 or 20, and though she was drunk and hysterical, she needed my help. I was reminded of this incident when I heard that Renisha McBride, a young woman of no more than 19 or 20, was shot dead last fall after knocking on Theodore Wafer’s door in the middle of the night while drunk and in need of help. Wafer was recently convicted of second-degree murder and manslaughter (which is a miracle), but that didn’t stop the Associated Press from describing the Wafer verdict thusly:
McBride, the victim, a young girl needlessly shot down by a paranoid homeowner, is described as a nameless drunk, even a court ruling establishing her victimhood beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, just a few days later in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens are actively protesting the death/murder of Michael Brown, another unarmed African American youth shot down for seemingly no reason. If you haven’t heard of Brown yet, here are the basic facts:
1. On Saturday evening Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer on a sidewalk in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
2. There are 2 very different accounts of why and how Brown was shot. The police claim that Brown got into their police car and attempted to take an officer’s gun, leading to the chain of events that resulted in Brown fleeing the vehicle and being shot. By contract, witnesses on the scene claim that Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the middle of the street when the police car pulled up, told the boys to “Get the f*** on the sidewalk” and then hit them with their car door. This then led to a physical altercation that sent both boys running down the sidewalk with the police shooting after them.
3. As a result of Brown’s death/murder the citizens of Ferguson took to the streets, demanding answers, investigations, and the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. Most of these citizens engaged in peaceful protests while others have engaged in “looting” (setting fires, stealing from local businesses, and damaging property).
Now America is trying to make sense of the riots/uprisings that have taken hold of Ferguson the last two days and whether the town’s reaction is or is not “justified.” Was Brown a thug who foolishly tried to grab an officer’s gun? Or, was he yet another case of an African American shot because his skin color made him into a threat?
I suppose both theories are plausible, but given how many unarmed, brown-skinned Americans have been killed in *just* the last 2 years — Trayvon Martin (2012), Ramarley Graham (2012), Renisha McBride (2013), Jonathan Ferrell (2013), John Crawford (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Ezell Ford (2 days ago) — my God, I’m not even scratching the surface, there are too many to list — I’m willing to bet that Michael Brown didn’t do anything to *deserve* his death. He was a teenage boy out for a walk with his friend on a Saturday night and his skin color made him into a police target. He was a threat merely by existing.
Given the amount of bodies that are piling up — young, innocent, unarmed bodies — it shouldn’t be surprising that people in Ferguson have taken to the streets demanding justice. And yes, in addition to the peaceful protests and fliers with clearly delineated demands, there has been destruction to property and looting. But there is always destruction in a war zone. War makes people act in uncharacteristic ways. And make no mistake: Ferguson is now a war zone. The media has been blocked from entering the city, the FAA has declared the air space over Ferguson a “no fly zone” for a week “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities,” and the police are shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at civilians.
But no matter. The images of masses of brown faces in the streets of Ferguson can and will be brushed aside as “looters” and “f*cking animals.” Michael Brown’s death is already another statistic, another body on the pile of Americans who had the audacity to believe that they would be safe walking down the street or knocking on a door for help.
What is especially soul-crushing is knowing that these events happen over and over and over again in America — the Red Summer of 1919, Watts in 1964, Los Angeles in 1992 — and again and again we look away. We laud the protests of the Arab Spring, awed by the fortitude and bravery of people who risk bodily harm and even death in their demands for a just government, but we have trouble seeing our own protests that way. Justice is a right, not a privilege. Justice is something we are all supposed to be entitled to in this county.
When the uprisings in Los Angeles were televised in 1992 I was a freshman in high school. All I knew about Los Angeles is what I had learned from movies like Pretty Woman and Boyz N the Hood –there were rich white people, poor black people with guns, and Julia Roberts pretending to be a prostitute. On my television these “rioters and looters” looked positively crazy, out of control. And when I saw army tanks moving through the streets of Compton I felt a sense of relief.
That’s because a lifetime of American media consumption — mostly in the form of film, television, and nightly newscasts — had conditioned my eyes and my brain to read images of angry African Americans, not as allies in the struggle for a just country, but as threats to my country’s safety. I could pull any number of examples of how and why my brain and eyes were conditioned in this way. I could cite, for example, how every hero and romantic lead in everything I watched was almost always played by a white actor. I could cite how every criminal, rapist, and threat to my white womanhood was almost always played by a black actor. And those army tanks driving through the outskirts of Los Angeles didn’t look like an infringement on freedom to me at the time (and as they do now). They looked like safety because I came of age during the Gulf War, when images of tanks moving through wartorn streets in regions of the world where people who don’t look like me live come to stand for “justice” and “peacemaking.” Images get twisted and flipped and distorted.
The #IfTheyShotMe hashtag, started by Tyler Atkins, illuminates how easily images — particular the cache of selfies uploaded to a Facebook page or Instagram account — can be molded to support whatever narrative you want to spin about someone. The hashtag features two images which could tell two very different stories about an unarmed man after he is shot — a troublemaker or a scholar? a womanizer or a war vet? The hashtag illuminates how those who wish to believe that Michael Brown’s death was simply a tragic consequence of not following rules and provoking the police can easily find images of him flashing “gang signs” or looking tough in a photo, and thus “deserving” his fate. Those who believe he was wrongfully shot down because he, like most African American male teens, looks “suspicious,” can proffer images of Brown in his graduation robes.
Of course, as so many smart folks have already pointed out, it doesn’t really matter that Brown was supposed to go off to college this week, just as it doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing when she was raped. It doesn’t matter whether an unarmed man is a thug or a scholar when he is shot down in the street like a dog. But I like this hashtag because at the very least it is forcing us all to think about the way we’re all (mis)reading the images around us, to our peril.
The same day that the people of Ferguson took to the streets to stand up for Michael Brown and for every other unarmed person killed for being black, comedian and actor Robin Williams died. I was sad to hear this news and even sadder to hear that Williams took his own life, so I went to social media to engage in some good, old fashioned public mourning, the Twitter wake. In addition to the usual sharing of memorable quotes and clips from the actor’s past, people in my feed were also sharing suicide prevention hotline numbers and urging friends to “stay here,” reminding them that they are loved and needed by their friends and families. People asked for greater understanding of mental illness and depression. And some people simply asked that we all try to be kind to each other, that we remember that we’re all human, that we all hurt, and that we are all, ultimately, the same. Folks, now it’s time to send some of that kind energy to the people of Ferguson and to the family and friends of Michael Brown. They’re hurting and they need it.