Friday, January 22, 2016

#OscarsSoWhite diversity debate prompts question of the awards show’s relevance among people of color

After the Academy Awards announced a slate of all-white nominees in major categories this year celebrities including Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee called for a boycott of the awards show. A communications researcher says the Academy must become inclusive if it wants to be relevant among people of color.

Dr. Sherri Williams, a faculty member in the Communications Department at Wake Forest University, studies representations of people of color in the media. FOX 8 in High Point, North Carolina asked Williams to offer insight into the debate. Williams said the awards show is already irrelevant among many black viewers.

"There is and already has been a quiet and maybe undeclared boycott of the Oscars by African-Americans anyway,” said Williams who teaches a class on race, gender and the media. “People already don't watch the Oscars and they have really become obsolete because people don't see the work that they enjoy and the work that really expresses their life stories on television so they already haven't been watching."

The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag created by April Reign last year reappeared again this year because the exclusion of the work of artists of color is “systemic and ongoing,” Williams said.

“This is a conversation that has been ongoing not just with African-Americans but with people of color across the board because throughout the years, I mean pretty much since black people, people of color, have been represented in films they haven't necessarily been recognized for the work that they've done and people have become really frustrated by this," she said.  

The Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement in response to the call for more diversity saying the Academy will revamp the way that it recruits members. In the 1960s and 1970s the Academy tried to recruit younger people so it could remain vibrant and that’s critical now, Williams said, if it doesn’t want to lose the interest of other groups.

“Right now the voting Academy is 94 percent white, 76 percent male and the average age of the voters is 63,” Williams said. “The Academy needs to really reflect the country and it needs to really show and reflect what's going on in this nation or it really risks becoming obsolete not only with African-Americans but with other demographic groups." 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Black Twitter crushes AP for Renisha McBride tweet, highlights social media's power

Renisha McBride was more than the “woman who showed up drunk on porch.” But that’s the way The Associated Press referred to her yesterday after a man was convicted of fatally shooting her.

The original tweet that the global newswire service sent from its official Twitter account was apparently removed and replaced with another update with less offensive language and a note “rewords language from previous tweet.”

But Black Twitter did not miss the original tweet and immediately took AP to task for its portrayal of the unarmed 19-year-old black woman who knocked on the door of a white man, Theodore Wafer, after she reportedly crashed her car.

Black Twitter saw the “drunk” AP tweet and criticized the AP for portraying
McBride as a homicide victim who was responsible for her own death. Black Twitter applied that shift in responsibility to other historic and contemporary examples of injustices against black Americans with the hashtag #APHeadlines. Here's a collection of some of those tweets.

The social media response to the McBride tweet crushed the old one-way letter to the editor model of communication with editors. Readers, in real time, let the AP know that its words to describe the justice reached in the McBride case were an injustice.

Communities of color often lament negative news coverage they receive. The way the media reports on the background of black crime victims is often criticized. Reports showed that McBride had alcohol and marijuana in her system at the time of her death. But are those facts that needed to be included in a breaking-news tweet about the verdict? No.  

The AP’s insensitive wording about the McBride verdict is very important because it is one of the few national media organizations to report on the trial with any significance.

There were mentions of the verdict yesterday on national newscasts and websites. But the Wafer/McBride verdict was not a priority among national news outlets.

The fact is, black women and the violence committed against us is rarely a top news story. In 2011 after Anthony Sowell was convicted of killing 11 black women in Cleveland that story barely made it through one national news cycle. Producers and editors were too preoccupied with the cases of defendants Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox.

Even when they’re the defendants, white women get more media attention than black women crime victims.

Renisha McBride didn’t get much national mainstream media coverage after she was fatally shot or during her murder trial. When black women’s pain is in the news it is devalued and belittled. The AP tweet is an example.

But activists kept McBride’s story alive through social media. I first learned of her death from a Facebook update from my cousin who lives in Detroit. Then I saw the #JusticeForRenisha and #RememberRenisha hashtags on Twitter.

Social media has empowered communities of color to be their own media agenda setters and gatekeepers and bypass traditional mainstream media outlets to get their messages to the masses. That’s a good thing.

But social media has also put more pressure on journalists to get information out even faster than ever before. There is little time for journalists to think much about what they’re doing. The rush to be first also increases the possibility to be wrong. Social media magnifies and amplifies journalists’ mistakes in a way we’ve never seen before.

However, journalists have to find a way to step back and think about what they’re doing before they send a message to millions of followers who are ready to retweet or refute their updates.

A former journalist friend told me about #APHeadlines. She wondered if more diversity in AP newsrooms and on its social media desk would have prevented the unnecessary tweet about McBride. I don’t know. But it is clear that diversity in mainstream newsrooms has taken a strong hit in recent years.

Just last week the Pew Research Center reported that there’s been a loss of almost 1,200 black journalists in daily newspaper newsrooms from 1997 to 2013.

There is no question that racial diversity is important in newsrooms and contributes to more accurate and complex portrayals of people of color.

But there is no guarantee that journalists of color would work on or even be consulted on editorial issues regarding race. I know several black journalists who were consulted after newsroom editors and producers committed grave racial editorial errors.

This time it was AP. Next time it'll be another mainstream media outlet that will make a mistake that will put a dent in its credibility. Perhaps others will learn from the AP’s mistake.

If they don’t Black Twitter will bring it to their attention. The tweets is watchin'.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Dealing with rage, angst after seeing a Facebook photo of the man who tried to rape me

I hadn’t seen him since he tried to rape me more than twenty years ago.

I thought I’d never hear anyone talk about him again. But a college classmate told me that the guy who violently attempted to rape me reached out to the classmate on Facebook.


Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Fury. Confusion.

Wait, what? I know my classmate didn’t just tell me that this man who pinned me down to a bed, smothered my body with his until I couldn’t move and left purple-blue-black bruises on my chest, arms and legs for weeks now wants to chat it up with my homie on Facebook ? This can’t be real. Right?

But it was real.

I shouldn’t have, but I looked at his page to see if that was him. It was. Damn. There he was smiling in photos looking like the boy next door and not the beast that he is.

I was angry. Hot. After I saw his picture and told my friend, again, what happened that night when I was a 20 year-old college student I felt like someone just bashed me in my back, knocked all of the wind out of me. All the memories from that night came back fresh. For a moment I was stuck in the pain of 1993 and here he is smiling on Facebook today like that night never happened.

I always said if I never saw him again in life that would be too soon. And it was. After seeing his face I felt a suffocating rush, a wave of rage and it was about to crush me. I could not breathe as I thought about how I begged him to stop like I had never begged anyone for anything in my life then or since. I sat still as I recalled how I pleaded with others in the house to please help me. No one did. But I boxed my way out of that room. His plan to rape me failed.

Then my guilt of not reporting him rose up and rolled around in my stomach. Ugh. Lawd. I always felt horrible for not going to the authorities. But I honestly did not think it would do any good.

I didn’t think anyone would believe me.

Back then it seemed like no one ever believed black girls when we spoke up about sexual assault and harassment. Just a couple of years earlier it seemed like all of black America hated Desiree Washington for “putting that boy (Mike Tyson) in jail.”
Even a few of my own relatives talked about the “fast-tailed girl” who should have never been around that grown man by herself in the first place.  

If people would easily dismiss one of black folks’ most beloved young women, a Miss Black America contestant, why would they believe me?

Two months ago when President Obama released a report from the new White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault I couldn’t help but to think about my own experience. I was more than happy to hear that the President of the United States, the father of two black daughters, realizes that rape is a crisis on the nation’s college campuses and it’s everyone’s responsibility to seriously combat it.


What if prominent black male leaders used their voices to talk about the safety of black women and girls back in the early 1990s? Would I have felt safe to come forward then? News of President Obama’s task force also highlights how rape and rape culture still exist on college campuses at an alarming epidemic level.  One in five women is sexually assaulted in college, according to President Obama’s task force.

I study social media and how people use it, especially people of color. But I never thought about how social media has the potential to disrupt our lives by unexpectedly unearthing evil people and painful events. I’ll never forget what he did to me that night and how alone I felt in that house full of people while fighting for my life. Those memories are vivid and clear. But seeing his picture on Facebook brought on a special mix of outrage and angst.

I wonder how many other women and men end up seeing the faces of their attackers on social media decades later. I don’t know. But social media is reintroducing people into our lives from our past in ways I would have never expected. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

#StopBlackGirls2013 latest digital assault on black women

I wasn’t really shocked to see another ugly Twitter trending topic about black women emerge Sunday night. #StopBlackGirls2013 isn’t the first time I’ve seen Twitter become a web war zone littered with pieces of black women’s mauled images scattered across its digital battlefield.

#StopBlackGirls2013 didn’t surprise me but it did hurt. First, there was the photo of a gorilla leaning back with its hands on its hips that made me gasp. Then I saw photos of grown black women’s bodies placed next to animals and objects. Here's a Storify of some of the tweets.

But the photos of little black girls were really disturbing. Girls sitting in classrooms, trying on clothes at stores and taking selfies all got sucked into this ugly trending topic.

The #StopBlackGirls2013 Twitter trend seemed to attempt to showcase perceived ignorance among black women and girls. But even working at desks in classrooms,  acting out the opposite of a stereotype, these black girls couldn’t win.

#StopBlackGirls2013 hit me in the gut because I saw it grow so fast and the women and girls seemed so familiar. Some of those women’s bodies look like mine. A few of those little girls’ selfies remind me of pictures my baby cousin takes of herself.

#StopBlackGirls2013 reminds me that black women’s bodies aren’t valued and neither are the spirits that reside in them. Historic stereotypes make it easy to reduce us to a funny photo that appears to be meaningless. But there is meaning in these ugly images of black women that are etched in the American psyche and continue to be recycled.   

Twitter users also sent tweets using #StopWhiteGirls2013, #StopIndianGirls2013 and #StopHispanicGirls2013. Those were also sexist and degrading. People of all backgrounds sent all tweets, including black folks.

But #StopBlackGirls2013 had a stronger and longer Twitter life. At 8:30 p.m. I noticed it was the number five trending topic. It was in second place 20 minutes later. #StopWhiteGirls2013 trended more than an hour later at number six but it didn’t stay a top 10 Twitter topic for long.

The #StopBlackGirls2013 hashtag is part of America’s historical legacy of objectifying and demeaning black women’s bodies for sport and entertainment. Social media is just a new platform where it happens and the technology allows stereotypes to amplify quickly.

Twitter especially often transforms into a cyber combat zone where black women and girls are abruptly ambushed simply for existing. On Twitter black women always seem to be under attack and troops remain armed with an arsenal of stereotypes, memes and hashtags (such as #GhettoBabyNames and #BlackBitches) ready to strike. Remember how Rachel Jeantel was attacked.

I felt the sting of the #StopBlackGirls2013 hashtag more because just two days before I presented at the Gender, Race and Representation in Magazines and New Media conference at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center.

The keynote address from Kimberly N. Foster, founder of the online community For Harriet, reminded me of the ways that black women are using digital media to create their own images. 

Blogging by black women allows them to “defy those codes of silence and break down those walls of shame,” Foster said. “This work that black women are doing online is a reclamation of our power.”

Black women and others entered the #StopBlackGirls2013 stream to disrupt the discourse and defend black women.

More disruption and reclamation are needed to #StopBlackGirls from being the punchline.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Angry Trayvon game dehumanizes Trayvon Martin in life and death

He stands with his black face covered, wearing a gray hoodie and holding a knife in his hand while two men, one stocky with almond brown skin and stubble on his face and head, stand facing him holding knives.

They’re in a standoff. No one knows what will happen next. It’s up to players to decide who lives and who dies in the Angry Trayvon game.

The visuals for the game and the name of the “protagonist” bear an eerie resemblance to George Zimmerman who is on trial for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, 17, as he walked to his father’s home last February in Sanford, Fla.

Social media users found the coincidence tasteless and disrespectful and appealed to app stores to remove the game (here's a Storify of their tweets). News of the game spread through social media rapidly on Monday, the 20th day of the trial. The same day the unarmed teen’s father, Tracy Martin, testified.

Trade Digital, the New York City-based game company that created the game, released a statement on their Facebook page late Monday saying the game had been removed from online app stores after complaints. But early Tuesday the Facebook version of the game was still enabled to add new users. Late Monday between 5,000 and 10,000 people downloaded the app from the Google Play shop before Google shut down the page.

The Facebook apology was posted around 11 p.m. and said: "The people spoke out therefore this game was removed from the app stores. Sorry for the inconvenience as this was just an action game for entertainment. This was by no means a racist game. Nonetheless, it was removed as will this page and anything associated with the game will be removed."

The game’s Facebook app page, created earlier this year, had 1,048 likes early today.
The @AngryTrayvon Twitter page, launched June 12 last year, has 946 followers and has a Dec. 2, 2012 post that says the game would be released “Christmas Day!”

It is very hard to believe that the developers of this game thought it was OK to use the details of what is perhaps the most high profile, racially-charged homicide of the decade as the premise for a violent video game. The game reduced Trayvon's 17 years of life and his murder to a backdrop of entertainment for couch potatoes.

The game’s developer’s described the game this way:
"Trayvon is angry and nobody can stop him from completing his world tour of revenge on the bad guys who terrorize cities everyday. 
Use a variety of weapons to demolish Trayvon's attackers in various cities around the world. As you complete a level, you will notice more bad guys coming at Trayvon at a faster pace and a deadlier attack."

The image of the black male as the brutal boogey man who will viciously annihilate unsuspecting victims without provocation or warning is an image that is pervasive in American media and is embedded in the American psyche.

The pervasive presence of that dangerous stereotype may be why the Angry Trayvon developers thought it was OK to create such a game. But this game is a tasteless, callous way to not only recycle ugly stereotypes of black men but also to capitalize off this tragedy.

Social media and new media have emerged to play an interesting role in this case in and outside of the courtroom. Last year social media activism pushed authorities to investigate Trayvon’s murder. Courtroom insiders are bringing us into the room by reporting the tone and feel of the proceedings through social media updates.

But throughout the Zimmerman trial social networks have revealed some of the deep-rooted prejudices this nation still holds of people of color, including black women and Latinas.  

And this game that used Trayvon’s name and murder for entertainment reveals just how easy it is for some to dehumanize black boys in life and in death. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The social media stoning of Rachel Jeantel

When Rachel Jeantel testified in her friend Trayvon Martin’s murder trial yesterday she was called fat, ignorant, sassy, ugly and manly.

Jeantel was called everything except what she is, a witness in one of the most significant criminal trials in recent history – a young woman who heard her friend fight for his life.

Social media users called Jeantel a thug, an embarrassment to humanity and to black America. Some joked that she is worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit, a living stereotype, an example of America’s failing education system. Here's a Storify of some of the tweets. 

Those tweets reveal some of the things that some Americans believe is wrong with this country, but more deeply, what’s wrong with young black women. Attacks on Jeantel’s hair, body, speech, grammar and attitude all seemed to be proof for social media users that young black women are fools.

Social media empowers users to mobilize quickly and spread information about a common cause to raise awareness and provoke change. But it also allows users to express ugly thoughts at lightening speed and with anonymity. Social media enables users to throw digital rocks and hide their hands. After Jeantel’s testimony Twitter users’ insults grew into a social media stoning.

One of the most common criticisms about Jeantel was that she looked like Precious, the overweight, undereducated character with a deep brown complexion portrayed by actress Gabourey Sidibe. That criticism was particularly troubling because social media users assaulted her appearance because she lives in a body that this society finds repugnant - one that is large, black and female. Jeantel’s is a body that holds no value in this society so she is perceived as a person who is not valuable or credible. So for some people anything that came out of her mouth, even in the most perfect English grammar and diction, would be meaningless.

Black folks had their share of criticism for Jeantel too. The black respectability police on Twitter pondered if her father is in her life. They said if George Zimmerman is acquitted it would be her fault because of her sassy attitude. Black folks said girls like Jeantel are the type to keep away from their children.  

Social media users mocked the fact that Jeantel testified that she doesn’t watch the news. How many people in their late teens and early 20s do watch the news, especially young people of color? Part of the reason why they don’t watch the news is because they only see reflections of themselves that are stigmatized, mocked and ridiculed much like the discourse about Jeantel on social media and mainstream media after the first day of her testimony.

The ugly comments that circulated through social media about Jeantel’s speech, looks, mannerisms, race and education reveal the deep-rooted classism, racism, sexism and lookism in America and our inability to focus on what was important yesterday – justice. Yesterday young black womanhood seemed to be on trial instead of Zimmerman.

Last year Trayvon Martin’s murder was thrust into the spotlight by social media and black media. Mainstream media ignored the story until they were forced to start paying attention to online activism on social networks. Social media activism helped push law enforcement to investigate Trayvon’s murder and not just brush it off as another nameless, faceless dead black boy. Now social media is dissecting and devouring the last person who spoke with him.

Rachel Jeantel will return to the witness stand today. More sarcastic gifs, memes and comments about her will surely be created.  But I hope social media users will invest more time into listening to her testimony and think before they post another mean photo or comment about a girl who is testifying in her friend’s murder trial.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

King Day sales hijack, taint legacy

At first I thought I heard it wrong. So I looked up from my computer to pay attention and really listen. No, I wasn’t wrong. The Kmart commercial boasted of steep savings during its Martin Luther King Jr. sale.

Eeww. Really? A Martin Luther King Jr. sale? Something about it made me shudder, kind of made me feel icky.

But it’s a feeling I’ve felt before when I’ve seen tasteless party fliers with half-naked black women’s shiny breasts, thighs and backsides exposed next to a bottle of luxury liquor advertising Martin Luther King Jr. “unity” parties at nightclubs.

The commodification of the King holiday feels disrespectful and wrong, especially because he advocated for economic equality and financial empowerment.

In the midst of high black unemployment, a flat economy and a global movement to distribute wealth it is time to revisit King’s advocacy for economic justice including a living wage and affordable housing – needs that remain elusive for many Americans today.

On today, what would have been his 83rd birthday, the sight of Martin Luther King Jr. Day sales and party fliers make me sad and even a little angry that his image has been hijacked this way.

This is America where capitalism and profit reign supreme. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. However, the reduction of King’s legacy to a weekend sale is too much.

At the King Memorial dedication last October many of the speakers at the National Mall connected King’s concern for the poor to today’s Occupy Wall Street movement and his Poor People’s Campaign which called for Congress to help people of all ethnic backgrounds climb out of poverty.

I don’t know how King would feel about a Martin Luther King Jr. sale. But I know I don’t like it or the shake-what-ya-mama-gave-ya nightclub posters bearing his image and name.

So I won’t be sipping on Martin martinis at a bar or catching any King holiday deals at department stores this year or any King Day in the future.

I respect him and his legacy too much for that.