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Disrupting Lazy Racism in the Media

Shadow and Act By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act July 10, 2014 at 4:30PM

I interact with White content creators. I interact with Black content creators. Both have a responsibility to DO BETTER
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Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black

As a Black person who writes about race, I have many fruitful conversations with readers. I believe that American culture shortchanges its citizens, in that, there are few healthy venues for conversations about race. Americans are hungry for a dialogue about race. Of course, there are various reasons for wanting the conversation. However, at this point, it should be clear to everyone that the media does not want a conversation about racism. Do Americans want a conversation about racism? I do.

Over the July 4th weekend, 82 people were shot in Chicago. 82. That’s 82 human beings with 82 families. Chicago has a public health crisis. I will not repeat the common steps to rail about other mass shootings receiving attention. We get it. We know. It is clear that America still believes that Black people are something other than human. America still believes that Black people are genetically coded to kill themselves. Because there is very little time and effort given to the root cause of the violence. We simply flip to another channel. We have an array of channels to distract us. We can give short shrift to the violence because it does not feel urgent or relatable to our lives. And there is nothing in pop culture, that addresses the root cause - racism.

The past few weeks, I have tuned into the OWN Network to understand the culture of OWN. The general messaging. There is no dissection of racism, patriarchy, sexism, economic marginalization, nothing comprehensive and incisive. Not on OWN. Not on BET. Not on Arise. Not on CNN. Yes, on MSNBC. The phenomenon of these shootings are not relevant to our lives. We do not experience the shootings as happening to “our children”, “our brothers”, “our sisters”, “our Uncles”, etc. If we did, we would approach them differently. We would provide the context for the shootings, address root causes and offer comprehensive and compassionate solutions.

Yet and still, the television landscape is changing. This morning’s news of Emmy Nominations makes us hopeful that things are shifting in the culture. As a content creator, I do believe, as Black representation shifts in media, Black lives, on the ground, will improve. Perhaps that is naive. Considering, we had Oprah for over two decades. And we have a Black President in the White House. The symbolism is significant. Yet, violence still disrupts the lives of Black America. Not just gun violence. Domestic Violence. Why? Yes, lack of opportunity, economic marginalization, a legacy of disenfranchisement. We - most of us - get that. We need to take this a step further and figure out how all of us, specifically, content creators, can disrupt the violence.

And we have to disrupt lazy racism. White people, the overseers of institutions, are participants in what I call, “lazy racism”. Usually, I don’t see a need to qualify the word racism, but there is something afoot that needs to be addressed. I interact with White content creators. I interact with Black content creators. Both have a responsibility to DO BETTER. And I do believe Black content creators are getting that message. The desire to show Black images that are loving, playful, fulfilled, etc., like in "Best Man Holiday," is encouraging. I subscribe to the belief that layered, challenging imagery is more important. In my opinion, stories that dissect difficulty and speak to the human condition, offer more of a challenge to viewers. Difficult Drama, for me, is the ultimate learning tool for the culture. However, I can appreciate the need to fill screens with positive, loving Black people. Black content creators are, actively, challenging racist tropes and ideas that permeate the visual landscape in this country.

Which brings me to “lazy racists”. 

Allowing me to order first at a coffee shop (tea, I don’t do caffeine), is not combating racism. Smiling at me on the subway train, is not combating racism. Gentrifying my neighborhood and offering a smile or a kind word, is not combating racism. Combating racism means making a concerted effort to change your work environment. To expand your pool of friends. To become as enraged at the loss of Black life as you do about the loss of White life. And, mind you, I don’t believe any one has to do this. Nor am I waiting for White folks to do it. I just need to state this, clearly. Having Black Facebook friends is not combating racism. This is lazy. If, at this stage of the game, you have not read bell hooks, or James Baldwin or Malcolm X or any number of books available to you, it is safe to assume you have no desire to the change racist practices that have a stronghold on this country.

Lazy racism is everywhere. How many times do I have to binge watch a TV series and be disappointed by the short shrift given to the Black characters? Giancarlo Esposito on "Breaking Bad" is one of the fiercest characters to ever grace a television screen. But, what happens in these shows? We have one Black character with depth. And, typically, he is a Black male. Or, we have "Mad Men," where they have no idea what to do with their Black characters. There was improvement this season but, they have a ways to go. For a show set in the 60’s and 70’s, it’s reprehensible that they can’t construct complex story lines for Black characters. Kudos to "Sons of Anarchy" for Rockmond Dunbar and CCH Pounder (an actual complex Black woman and Black man on a show, at the same time!). However, these shows are, unabashedly, White.

On "Orange Is The New Black," the second season, the White women get to have sex all over the damn place. If a person of color has sex, it is with a White person. Vee was in bed with a Black man. But, they did not have sex. They laid in bed together. Jenji Kohan has taken great strides to present well-rounded and layered characters. And, she’s doing a decent job. Although, I have no idea why ‘Crazy Eyes’ and Laverne Cox’s character were sidelined this season. Big disappointment. That show is most interesting when Piper is not on the screen and Crazy Eyes is. Hopefully, next season, the Black women will be able to “get some”. And, it is lovely to see a friendship between two Black female characters (Poussey and Taystee). The issue is, White content creators have to increase their cache of Black writers. To not do so is just plain lazy.

I will end with an example of “lazy racism”.

Readers like to dialogue with me. I appreciate that. It’s one of the things I love most about writing articles and sharing them with the public. Most people want to thank me for shedding light on issues. I thank them for taking the time to read and then send a message. Some engage me with an anecdote from their life. Many times, I learn something in these exchanges. I read all comments. All messages. I even delight in seeing who a new twitter follower is. These connections make me feel like the internet is a wonderful place.

However - yep, here it comes - when you write about “racism” there is a special kind of person that haunts you. This person, I call, “the lazy racist.” The interaction goes something like this:

Lazy Racist: “Hi, I love your work. It is rare for people to discuss racism. As a White person, I too feel uncomfortable about race. Talking about it doesn’t end well. The conversations don’t go anywhere. Thank you for your article.”

Me: “You’re welcome. Writing about this is not easy but necessary. I believe in engaging all sides that are truly interested in having a conversation. I learn a lot.”

A series of mindless exchanges take place. I can usually feel the build up so my responses become brief or stop altogether. Ultimately, it lands here:

Lazy Racist: “Why don’t you think there is understanding between races?”

Me: “Lack of empathy. Racist White America can extend sympathy to varied situations. But, when it comes to Black folks, empathy is non-existent. Why that is…? It’s a mystery to me.”

Lazy Racist: “So true! We don’t know what we are to be empathic to. How can you be empathic to people who are looking for handouts, killing each other, lazy, etc.?”

And they attach an article, clearly written by someone who just escaped a mental institution. Someone raised in the 1950’s who just stepped back into civilization and believes that Black people are rabid beasts, relaxing on Welfare in order to eat ham sandwiches.

Said individual will also inform me that they work with Black people. Typically, in a Management position over Black people. Honestly, if you can take the time to read an article (written by a nut job), take the time to find me on social networking and dialogue with me. Certainly, if you are truly invested in combating racism and understanding racial inequity, take the time to read a damn book. Take the time to understand the other side. To not do so is just plain lazy.

If you are in a position to hire people of color, are in a Management position where you oversee people of color and it is your primary interaction with people of color, it is your duty to understand who your employees are.

White folks, stop with the shortcuts. Stop leaning on Black people who write about racism, to do your race homework. Go to the library. Inform yourself. And then, only then, engage us. In the meantime, content creators, I suggest you do the same. Read. Engage. Your inability to cast Black people simply illustrates your lack of commitment to moving this country forward, to racial equity and out of the mental landscape of the 1950’s. Unless, of course, that’s where you prefer to be.


Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SteeleInk. Or visit digtanya.com.


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