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.