Disrupting Lazy Racism in the Media

Disrupting Lazy Racism in the Media

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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Comments

Grackle

I'm white and have nothing useful to say about this article other than that it is excellent and gave me plenty to think about, so thank you!

Jenny

Lazy racism seems to be yet another aspect of the idiocracy. I admire you for being hopeful enough to expect more from stupid people. The notion of disruption is very great and useful and telling white people like myself to put up or shut up is a very good idea. When I look at content makers who have attempted to be disruptive in the best possible ways, I don't really see their work reaching the mainstream. My favorite recent examples would be The Wire, Wendy and Lucy(about poverty not race) Treme and Fruitvale Station. Honestly, I would prefer a genius award to an Emmy (Simon), and I think Fruitvale Station will be remembered more than most of the films nominated for best picture last year, but I do find it discouraging that the public's attention and more accolades are not awarded to shows and films that take on "real" problems in complex ways.

Ray

Tanya, it is not our racist culture's fault that you are reduced to writing for forth-rate websites like Indiewire, that barely anyone even know exist.

In much the same way that Lazy Racism is not the reason why you have been on Twitter for almost three years and yet been unable to accumulate even a thousand followers.

And the reason you have been unable to establish yourself, despite your best efforts, also has nothing to do with prejudice, or any kind.

All of it is simply down to the fact that you have nothing interesting to say. To call you mediocre would be a massive overstatement.

I'm sure you like to represent yourself as a film maker and a writer, but the reality is that you are (and always will be) defined by your nine to five.

Still, at least you can always tell yourself that the reason you never made it was down to the colour of your skin. I'm sure you repeat that to yourself while you stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night, dreading the sound of the upcoming alarm; a noise that reminds you daily that you'll never have the life that you so desperately crave.

Sophie

That person ( I hesitate to call them a writer) who vomited out this nonsense is attempting to posit the idea that not if someone has not read "bell hooks, or James Baldwin or Malcolm X or any number of books" then the automatically assumption is that they are somehow a lazy racist.

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, the definition of racism seems to have very little to do with the books on our shelf, or by our beds. Let's have a look at it:

rac·ist [rey-sist]
noun
1.
a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that a certain human race is superior to any or all others.
adjective
2.
of or like racists or racism: racist policies; racist attitudes.

I'm quite certain that I can whole-heartedly believe that no race is superior to another without having read any of those tomes the author of this piece feels the need to bring up.

Having Black facebook friends doesn't excuse me from being a "casual racist"? Ah Shucks, what should I do, disown and ignore people I have known since I was five years-old? Because I would hate it to seem like the black people I've hung out with since grade school were just a casual token of my "Lazy Racism."

As for Mad Men, or OITNB, or any other show that portrays a fictional universe … Well, it's clear that you have a large chip on your shoulder, and an axe that you enjoy bitterly grinding.

That fact that you are so insanely hung up on race that you even felt compelled to embarrass yourself by writing this piece says it all, really.

No wonder you see racism everywhere you look. You're no different than the old white guys obsessed with the idea that black kids are going to steal their cars.

John

Not sure that "As a Black person who writes about race, I have many fruitful conversations with readers," was the best opening.

Considering the rest of the piece, it may have been more honest to to start with, "As a Black person who writes about race, let me tell you why every single little thing is The White Man's Fault."

Violence in Chicago? Yes, it is clear that "lazy racism" is the reason why people in urban Chicago are addicted to the idea of shooting each other.

Miles Ellison

Perhaps you should have actually watched Orange is the New Black before commenting on it.

CareyCarey

I've heard it said that if a person decides to write a book, it would behoove them to write about something they know. Running with that theme, I believe if a person decides to speak in "public" their best interest would be speaking on something they know.

Woe is me, I've never watched, or even peeked at, an episode of OITNB, so I can't join that discussion. But let me cut to the chase. OitNB aside, I could not find the gist/central point/purpose of this article? I mean, it may have been well written, but it left me thoroughly confused.

Was it a call to action? What's the mission? Who was the intended audience? Was it intended to put white folks on blast? Was it a review of Orange is The New Black with a side of salt shaken on white people? Or, was this a smorgasbord size, well-written racial rant?

Having said all of that, I did hear one clear message that I can agree on.

"content creators, I suggest you [and everyone] do the same. READ!" … at every opportunity… and THEN ENGAGE at every opportunity. Seek first to understand.

Charles Judson

When was Crazy Eyes sidelined? She had an entire arc connecting with Vee. They spent the entire season building up to the betrayl.

They spent a portion of this season giving us more backstory on other characters. We learned more about Taystee and Pousey, and saw their friendship tested. Seeing Miss Rosa in her younger days as a bad ass almost demanded she get a spin off it was that good. Would it have been great to get more Sophia, but there's so much we wouldn't have gotten.

As for Vee and the sex scene, I'm not sure what you're looking for. By that point in the series, it had long been established that Vee uses emotional intimacy, maternal and sexual, to manipulate. Kissing a young man who has been a surrogate son is violation enough, we don't need to see more. It's also not the point. That was already established with Vee's relationship with Crazy Eyes. What was vital was that scene was reinforcing how much Vee's conflict with Red could escalate, foreshadows Vee's betrayl of Crazy Eyes, and firmly establishes that Red and Poussey had Vee pegged, she can never be trusted.

Let's say they did show us the sex scene, would it ever have matched the mind blowing sex we imagined in our heads when we saw how turned out RJ was? Game of Thrones stepped into this mindfield earlier this year.

You continue to use many words to fill up space, while saying very little. I did learn you like to dialouge with your readers. Why not review OitNB as it is, not as you'd like it to be? Or, why not write your own version. I don't see lazy racism, I see a lazy writer who still can't bother to stay focused on her own topic long enough to say anything interesting or new. Why focus on white writers so much, when black writers could use some guidance. This is a place dedicated to the disapora after all, and not a platform to reform white people.

Luce

I have nothing to add. Just that your last sentence is usually the answer to the problem you see in media, and the world at large.

Lynn Rutledge

People are tribal. I see it when I travel the world and this country. We are divided in the USA by class in 2014 and then by race. An age old strategy is to divide and conquer. It serves a capitalism and consumerism well. The most pervasive thought – "what do I want to buy next.

Nikki

."Chicago has a public health crisis."
Hate to break it to you, but Chicago has always been violent. I grew up in Chicago and still live there. The murders in the 90s and early 2000s were almost doubled back then, so why is it all of a sudden a public health crisis? In 1994 there were 931 murders in 1998 there were 704. In 2003 there were 601 and in 2013 there were 415. So why all of a sudden everyone wants to talk about Chicago. I think it's bc of Obama.

Chris

Hm, I'll have to take time to think about this article to come up with a good response. I will say that the writer needs to make a very clear difference between the American Blacks and the Caribbeans, the Europeans, and the Africans. That is the first point I'll bring up – black people are not a monolith and the label "black" is in itself problematic. These terms have been made up to oppress us. American blacks (whose ancestors came here via the slave trade) have been stripped of their cultural identity and herded around. There is no specific culture or homeland to hang on to. One may say that "Africa" is the motherland, but why is there is this homogeneous view of such a diverse continent. Kenyans are different from Nigerians who are different from Ghanaians who are different from Ethiopians. Often times, facial structure can give a hint about a person's origins. I can tell the difference between a Japanese person and a Korean person like I can tell the difference between an Italian and a German.

While Caribbeans did suffer much of the same awful colonial treatment, each island was able to foster a cultural identity of its own… When I'm down there, everyone feels like an individual. In the USA, it's a whole other story. I am so sick of people telling other black people how they "should" be in this country and that's what's getting everyone into trouble.

So True

I find this article very thoughtful and sad at the same time. I remember hanging out with a white girl I met while I was studying abroad in Tokyo and we were engaged in a nice conversation when she suddenly mused aloud that I was her first black friend. I asked her why that was so and she said she didn't know. That all her friends were white, her neighbors and family were all white as well. She was American by the way so no excuse of living in a foreign country. I didn't press the issue beyond that, but this interchange stuck with me. It also made her question herself since we hung out for the rest our time there with a mixed group of people (white, black, hispanic).

I do believe that our constant segregation from one another causes whites to view blacks as other/alien and causes blacks to view whites as superior/something to be afraid of. I remember a road trip with my mom and dad and stopping at a McDonald's that had all white patrons. I lost my appetite being around them and didn't regain it until we were in the car driving away. Being surrounded by them made me feel highly uncomfortable and I'm not unsure that some of them might feel the same way if surrounded by too many blacks.

The otherness of our existence is not helping to make America a better country. And regarding the whites who read what the nut jobs say: I firmly believe that people of a sound mind know the difference between right and wrong. I also believe that whites who read and think lesser of us do so because something inside of them is broken. The need for validation and camaraderie as a human being is incredibly strong.

I remember talking to my mother about neo-nazis/skinheads and telling her that they are poor, disenfranchised and too scared to blame their white oppressors so they blame those who are already oppressed because they can reach those people. It's much easier to blame the victim.

And most white people are much to weak to converse about race without feeling something akin to hurt for themselves mostly, but also for how they look to us. When someone holds a mirror to your failures, its hard to look at them and make the conscious effort to fix them from the inside out.

Oh, before I sign out, its nice to hear that you dialog about race with others, including whites. I don't bother because my standards are admittedly pretty low for them. I take them on a case by case basis, but there is always the feeling that they are inherently condescending towards us, each other and themselves.

You can't help an addict who won't do the work.

~Have you read about the intersectionality debate among white and black feminists?

Andre Seewood

Thank you for writing this Ms. Steele! Because I am so sick of listening to White people tell me that they are tired of talking about racism to which I have to reply," That's easy for you to say because only you would benefit from silence on the subject." The term "lazy racist" really captures the duplicitous character of these non-empathic Whites who pretend to understand the issues only to reveal the depth of their ignorance two sentences later. I am also disturbed by the lack of action, alarm and concern for the carnage that is being allowed to happen in Chicago. It's as if the powers that be are allowing a certain class of Blacks to kill themselves off as punishment for being locked in that lower class in the first place. It's as if what's going on in Chicago is the result of "benign racism" where nobody in power or law enforcement rushes in to save the Blacks that are falling victim to violence caused by various unaddressed systemic problems. It's a complete moral failure on the part of government officials to respond to this carnage. Great article!

FP

Beautifully written, Tanya, on a day when many will say OITNB has accomplished a great feat. It has, and it still has a long way to go. There is much laziness towards and a lack of empathy for our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters, our elders rendered as ancient and irrelevant by the young and dumb, our young and intelligent kids in inner cities and ghettos everywhere held down by their peers and by families too insecure about their own failings to truly want their success, by a system that wants to rob them of their deserved future, etc. Lazy racism won't go away anytime soon, but at least calling it out forces all of us to acknowledge it as a fabric we have to unravel, one thread at a time.

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