Stop Silence 2013

by ejkendall

The world lost a great man this week. There aren’t really words for the respect, admiration and love that Nelson Mandela deserves. I very clearly remember learning about his work in Year Two history, and we were honoured the share this Earth with him. The work he did for the fight against racism will never be forgotten.

Meanwhile, last week, #stopblackgirls2013 trended worldwide on Twitter. The user @BlackGirlsStop – encouraging submissions of images that can be used to shame black girls’ bodies, sexualities and lives – has over 7,000 followers, most (if not all) of which appear to be either white or men. Worse, this disgusting account, proclaiming that “All these ratchet black girls need to stop!” is one of many. I’m writing about this because, in my opinion, if there’s one way we can pay our respects to Mandela’s life, it’s by continuing to fight against racism.

I’ve been trying to educate myself about privilege and equality this year, and the main lesson that I’ve learnt is what an endless amount of material I still have to read, share and discuss. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I want to learn in this area, so I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to you, and to Future Me, about anything that I write in this article which I ought to be better educated about. I’m coming to this blog post from a point of privilege, and am humbly open to correction as my opinions mature and grow.

But for all my caution, I’m sure that my revulsion over this hashtag isn’t misplaced. I can’t actually believe it’s happening, and it’s popular, and a LOT of people think it’s funny. I can’t believe it was the #2 trending topic on Twitter. Just…. unapologetic, blatant, in-your-face racism. One particular example laughs at a 13-year-old girl for “exchanging sex for a new weave.” The real question here is why this has made telly because she’s ‘ratchet’ and not because, well, someone wants to know who the fuck is having sex with a 13-year-old. It’s a horrible, horrible combination of rape culture and “Solidarity Is For White Women” (a phrase definitely worth looking into, as it’s the most concise way of expressing the problems with a lot of white liberal feminism, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff there) that people have chosen to laugh at instead of fight against. I couldn’t stay silent any longer when I saw this, and objected – first I was asked repeatedly if I was joking, then called a “debbie downer.” This made me sad, because it was just that last little bit of proof that, when it comes to racism and feminism, there is still so much work to do.

Is this why it hasn’t been covered by mainstream media? Would our newspapers have reported the story if it had been pictures of white women that were being repeatedly compared to animals, food and furniture? A Twitter hashtag might seem trivial, but it stems from the same place that means George Zimmerman gets away with killing because his victim was wearing a hoodie, but the good old Daily Mail makes a headline out of the fact that Renisha McBride had consumed alcohol the night that she was shot dead. To everyone that’s ever said, “You can’t change society” or “That’s just the way it is” – think how much change we could make if we all spoke up, if we all stopped being silent, to these little things that we hear every day. If slowly, the message got across that we care. That we won’t tolerate it any more. That we’re going to fix the small things, then we’re coming for the big problems, and nobody can stop us.

#stopwhitegirls2013 and #stopwhitepeople2013 are also things, which have been created in response, but are different beasts altogether. For one, they’re a response. For another, they’re not as prolific, falling away from the Twitter trends quickly. Most importantly, they focus on Uggs and Starbucks and handbags and ‘dumb comments’ and the commentary is light-hearted and free of any real malice. This really isn’t comparable to the way the #stopblackgirls2013 reduces women of colour to their sexuality alone shames them for their bodies, picks apart what they perceive to be flaws and encourages racist jokes. As for the black girls posting in the tag, ask yourself who taught them to hate their own kind?

If you’re a person of privilege who thinks it’s okay to tell racist jokes, blackface or use the N-word because, I don’t know, you “have a black friend” or “don’t really mean it” or “don’t see why black people can make these comments but we can’t, that’s discrimination in itself” the, please, just check your privilege and think about the kind of culture, history and power structures you’re perpetuating. I’m ashamed of one of the jokes I made in a play that I wrote and directed this year; a struggling teacher performs a monologue where the audience stand in place of a rowdy class. As he reacts to the imaginary disturbances, he picks out “Shaniqua,” and immediately, the entirety of my middle-class audience understand that he’s talking to the troublemaker. Because it’s a black name, and black names are synonymous with ghetto, which in turn is synonymous with poor, promiscuous, uneducated, disruptive, trashy. Never mind that, if you look far enough, you find out that then name derives from the meaning “God is gracious” or “God’s grace.” In our eyes, conditioned by systematic societal racism, it’s just a bad name for a bad person.

Is that an over-reaction to a throwaway line that provoked a laugh? After all, if I know one thing about myself, it’s that I’m anti censorship of art. I’m not even sure where I stand on the bannings of Blurred Lines, despite how much I absolutely despise that song, because I refuse to get behind creative suppression. But this is something that’s important to me, and all I did was create a flat, one-dimensional character, exploiting a racial stereotype, for a joke, and I don’t think that’s any more justifiable than the jokes I’ve been so horrified by on Twitter. It’d be different if I’d done something to empower, subvert or challenge racial preconceptions in the play, but I didn’t. On a tangent, it’s actually been watching “Orange Is The New Black” that’s made me think more about this – its 3-D representations of all sorts of women is what I want to strive for in my art. If you haven’t watched this yet, give it a shot – I can guarantee you’ll have finished the series before long.

And so, to the conclusion. I’ve been searching for this particular quote that’s been stuck in my head to finish this blog post, but unhelpfully cannot remember who said it, where I saw it, or any of the exact phrasing. It was spoken by a woman of colour, and was something along the lines of “I’m not interested in living in a world where my race isn’t important. I’m interested in living in a world where my heritage and ethnicity and race are part of my identity, but do not hold me back or oppress me in any way.” I think this is just so perfect, and what we should aim for in all aspects of identity. I’m not interested in a race-blind, gender-blind, sexuality-blind world…. I’m interested in a world that’s interested in equality. It’s time to start caring about the small things. It’s time to speak up.

PS) Tom Daley’s not gay, that’s the whole point of the video, and bisexual erasure is a thing, and it isn’t cool.

PPS) Some extra reading for y’all: if you’re interested in this stuff, here is an excellent masterpost of some accessible resources about oppression and privilege.

PPPS) What’s the difference between a cat and a comma? One has claws at the end of its paws, and the other is a pause at the end of a clause.