Decoding the Invisible Whiteness In Boston Bombing Coverage (Participation)

Decoding the Invisible Whiteness In Boston Bombing Coverage

Reporters congregate at the Montgomery Village, Md., home of Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the suspected Boston Marathon bombing suspects, on April 19, 2013. Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Watching professional broadcast journalists attempt to compete with social media hobbyists for any nugget of information during last week’s manhunt for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, many us felt a familiar dread. We know, either intuitively, through direct experience or via professional training, that media have a collective power to help diffuse or fuel the fear and tension that so often triggers racial violence in this country. Despite all of the post-9/11 reflection and lessons learned, it seems that some members of traditional media cannot help but have a racist response to the unknown. The hysteria of social media users—who enjoy the luxury of using handles rather than their names and faces—serve to intensify the racist response.

So despite their public atonement, it still appears as if people with power don’t understand the impact of their decisions.

American history shows us time and time again that without an incredible amount of resistance to and clarity about the white supremacy undergirding our culture, mob rule serves as the default.

So although some media members have made public apologies for the racism they fed into via silence, doublespeak or rote reporting, there is still work to be done. A lot of work. One way to begin is by examining the language we use when we’re doing our jobs.

Let’s probe the Monday mea culpa from Reddit general manager Erik “@hueypriest” Martin. He described the racist behavior of some the site’s users as a “witch hunt.”

In 2013, on the Internet, “witch hunt” can apply to the post-9/11, Islamophobic, and racist branding of Sunil Tipathi, the Indian-American student missing since March 16.

But the centuries-long American usage of “witch hunt” refers to the 1692-1693 trials in Salem, Mass., of more than 200 women accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic.” All of the authorities and most of the victims in this shameful chapter were what we today consider white. Yet people use “witch hunt” in a racially neutral way because Salem, at the time, was an English colony. So “England” was the oppressor, “Puritanism” and “religious intolerance” was the problem, the victims were “women” and nobody’s white except for the “Caribbean slave” Tituba.

The redditors who “crowd sourced” the wrong information about Sunil Tipathi and the blogs that spread the conjecture were not conducting a witch. They were mimicking the behavior of American white supremacist mobs.

Now, think about how CNN’s John King reported the nonexistent arrest of a phantom “dark skinned man” last Thursday afternoon during the manhunt, then tweeted that evening a self-defense that declared, “…What I am not is racist.” As several Twitter users helpfully pointed out, the system of racism is about outcomes for the multitude of men in this country who don’t appear to be white, not John King’s perception of himself.

This is how the United States of America does racism. We live in an ahistorical culture that continually attempts to deny the white supremacy that determines who is and isn’t defined as a U.S. citizen, a criminal, a terrorist or a victim. But a trip through our history is instructive.

Human Mob Theory

Because living things have trouble coping with pain, let’s start with something neutral about how mobs behave.

In an interview over email, Nicole Monteiro, a clinical psychologist from the United States who currently teaches at the University of Botswana, explained:

“Mobs allow for [the] diffusion of responsibility, anonymity, the illusion of authority and ‘othering.’ Racist ideology provides a fertile breeding ground for all of these dynamics because it lures adherents with the promise of clear-cut, unambiguous identities and allegiances,” she wrote last week. “Modern media reinforce racist ideology via repetition of stereotypes and by presenting a racially biased, ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality as objective fact.”

Monteiro, who was watching American news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings from Botswana, added, “The broadcast media is definitely looking for the ‘Muslim,’ ‘foreign’ or ‘other’ angle to re-establish that ‘mainstream,’ ‘wholesome,’ white America.”

Many Americans talk about the dynamics of American white supremacist mob rule as a series of isolated “tragedies.” The outcome of this behavior is 100 percent tragic. But American white supremacist behavior and the media that fuel it aren’t some cosmic accident.

Let’s look at where we’ve been.

It’s impossible to tell the whole thing here. I’d like to start in Memphis, 1892. The African-American journalist Ida B. Wells began her eight-year investigation into the ritual of white mobs kidnapping, hanging, burning, castrating and otherwise torturing black men for the alleged rape of white women. In response to an editorial about the lynching of three of her friends published in The Free Speech and Headlight—a black newspaper she co-owned—a white mob destroyed The Free Speech office.

Now, lets try 1910. From the online version of the photo book “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America”, here’s an account of a white supremacist mob-lynching of a black man named Allen Brooks in Dallas. (Text italicized for emphasis):

The H. J. Buvens family had esteemed Allen Brooks a trusted servant until Flora Daingerfield, a second servant, claimed to have discovered Brooks with their missing three-year old daughter in the barn. Dr. W. W. Brandau examined the child and concluded, rather vaguely, that there was “evidence of brutal treatment.” A local newspaper described the alleged crime as “one of the most heinous since the days of Reconstruction.” Immediately following Brooks’ arrest, a mob attempted, but failed, to kidnap him from authorities. But while his trial was underway, a second mob, of two hundred whites and one “conspicuous Negro,” entered the courtroom and successfully overwhelmed a “defending force” of fifty [sic] armed deputies and twenty [sic] policemen.

Of course mobs are formed to protect whiteness from more than black people in America. Let’s move to 1943, in Los Angeles, during World War II. In this setting the leading threat is supposed to be “Communism” and Japanese Americans, whom the United States government rounded up by the thousands and trapped in internment camps. But we also end up with the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, which according to an American Experience summary, lasted from May 31 through June 9 of that year.

In this episode of white supremacist violence, we have white military servicemen leaving the Naval Reserve Armory and trolling downtown L.A. with the purpose of street-harassing young Mexican-American women, and of trading antagonisms with young Mexican-American men wearing the baggy, colorful “zoot suits” associated with black bandleader Cab Calloway. On May 31, a white serviceman grabs the arm of a Mexican-American teen and ends up severely beaten. In retaliation, mobs of white men representing the United States Armed Forces come into the city to beat up people they see as Mexican.

In the major papers, such as the Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Daily News, it’s reported as “riotous disturbances” by “zoot suit hoodlums” provoking “revenge-bent servicemen.”

And two years later, in a report from—not making this up— the “Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California” we learn that “zoot suits,” “Negro and Mexican youth” and “Communism” are to blame for the actions of a pack of white males who rushed into a movie theater, beat up 13- and 14-year-old Mexican-American boys, stripped them near naked and burned their zoot suits. An excerpt from the 1945 report:

The Pachuco, or so-called “zoot-suit,” fad among Negro and Mexican youth in Los Angeles’ east side was a golden opportunity for Communist racial agitation. The riots that occurred in June of 1943, together with the activities of certain Communist front organizations and the vociferous charges of the Communist press, forcefully brought the situation to the attention of the Committee. …

Gangs of Mexican and Negro boys, garbed in the fantastic costumes now generally known as ‘zoot-suits,’ had been roaming the streets of the east side of the City of Los Angeles since early in 1941. Many of these boys were armed with clubs, knives, brass knuckles and links of chains. Every properly attired ’ zoot-suiter’ wore heavy-soled oxfords. In extreme cases the soles of these ‘zoot-suit ’ oxfords were in excess of an inch thick and when properly used in a gang fight became formidable weapons. United States sailors and soldiers were assaulted on the streets and in cocktail bars by groups of ”zoot-suiters” and violent disturbances were reported from time to time. Early in June of 1943, the long-smouldering antagonism flared into violence.

We can’t skip over September 11, 2001, of course. The years of mob violence that ensued are ongoing. Under George W. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, we have “targeted drone strikes” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, that routinely kill brown people—including children—that we don’t see. In this country, we’ve had racially motivated attacks on Sikhs and other brown folks.

And now, in April 2013, with all of our “democratized” media and “crowd sourcing” we quickly began forming mobs in search of “dark-skinned” suspects, Arab-American joggers, missing Ivy League students with foreign names, Muslims—those who would threaten whiteness. The whole effort was initially thrown into confusion by the fact the actual suspects were literally Caucasian.

But then as Sarah Kendzior pointed in an Al Jazeera essay, the Tsarnaev brothers were soon found to be “the wrong kind of Caucasian.” To wit, we witnessed absurdities such as the attempt by to link the terror-producing, deadly behavior of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who grew up in Boston, to the suddenly novel concept of hip-hop consumption.

The older brother who was killed and suspected in the Boston bombings was deep into hip hop, and it appears he belonged to a fan website that touted that genre of music. …

The site provides information about hip-hop artists and upcoming DVD releases.

What’s interesting … hip hop lyrics are notoriously violent and often degrading to women. Tamerlan Tsarnaev has a boxing profile in which he says he doesn’t take his shirt off much because he doesn’t want women to get bad ideas, adding, “I’m very religious.” This statement is significantly more conservative than the hip hop genre.

And today and indefinitely, we’re going to hear details of how 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his Caucasian brother were “radicalized” by Islam. In an Associated Press report, we learn of the ominous figure “Misha,” a bald, bearded man whom reportedly befreinded the older Tsarnaev and turned him to the dark side of Islam. AP reports that days of searching, it was unable to actually find a trace of this mysterious man. Nobody’s white in this equation.

In fact, the label “terrorism” demands they cannot be white, according to Princeton professor Imani Perry, Ph.D., J.D., author of “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.”

“Efforts to try to fit [the Boston Marathon bombing] into the standard racialized narrative didn’t work. That became clear once the names and photos of the Chechen brothers were released and the speculation about whether they were Muslims or terrorists and Caucasian started,” Perry said in a Wednesday interview. “I think it’s a reflection of how [media] language of ‘terror’ registers as the vulnerability of whiteness, because ‘American’ is read as ‘white.” To capture the label of ‘terrorism’ it has to be whiteness threatened by ‘The Other’.”


Race of Boston bombing suspects plays a role in fallout from attack (Participation)

Race of Boston bombing suspects plays a role in fallout from attack


by James Braxton Peterson | April 23, 2013 at 9:37 AM
This combination of undated file photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The FBI says the two brothers are the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, and are also responsible for killing an MIT police officer, critically injuring a transit officer in a firefight and throwing explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar captured, late Friday, April 19, 2013.This combination of undated file photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. The FBI says the two brothers are the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, and are also responsible for killing an MIT police officer, critically injuring a transit officer in a firefight and throwing explosive devices at police during a getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar captured, late Friday, April 19, 2013.

The fact that race in America is socially constructed (not biologically-based) is a settled debate – at least in the halls of academia.  But for those who remain unconvinced of this important sociological idea about race, you need look no further than the media (and social media) coverage of (the identities of) the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Joan Walsh’s recent essay: “Are the Tsarnaev brothers white?” poses a rhetorical question that is impossible to answer without considering the arbitrary manner in which racial categorization is deployed in America.

This fact has become all the more complicated in the context of our post-911 malaise, the second term of our first bi-racial president and more so again in this – the immediate run-up to another much-needed round of immigration policy reform.

‘Dark-skinned’ double standard

Last week, in the frenetic coverage of the well-publicized “manhunt” for the suspects, CNN’s John King “leaked” information from a “high-ranking” federal official that law enforcement was pursuing a “dark-skinned” male suspect.  The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and others have taken King to task so I won’t rehearse their justifiable outrage here, but as Walsh points out and as it turns out, the suspects in last week’s horrific acts of terror are white according to the U.S. Census’ own racial categorization system.  For all of this nation’s racialized islamaphobia, the fact of the matter is that white folks practice Islam too.

If only this realization could affect some of our right-leaning politicos in the same manner it did the late, great Malcolm X – for him, this fact was an awakening that lead to an exorcism of some of his racial demons.  For another King – Rep. Peter King (R- New York), and too many in the media, the whiteness of the alleged perpetrators is literally unremarkable.

This week, Rep. King is suggesting that we enhance our surveillance of Muslim communities in America. One has to wonder if white American practitioners of the faith will be subjected to the same kind of surveillance that their “dark-skinned” counterparts will.

Immigration reform hangs in the balance

The Boston Marathon bombing is reportedly making some politicians skittish about immigration reform – so much so that the process will likely be delayed and it is becoming clearer that it will lose some support.  If this sounds counter-intuitive to you, that’s because it is.

By all accounts, it seems as if the immigration system worked in this case – the jury is still out on the FBI.

I can’t help but wonder that if the Tsarnaev brothers were black, particularly the elder, Tamerlane, could he have eluded detection, surveillance, and suspicion for as long as he did?  Too bad listening to hip-hop doesn’t have the same kind of racialization powers as practicing Islam.

It is a cruel fact of our American reality that people of color carry an extraordinary burden of representation as individuals.  It is an equally powerful fact that one vestige of white privilege is to be free from this burden.

Profiling is not based on facts

Stereotypes thrive on our nations historical penchant for super imposing negative characteristics on entire groups of people.

For black Americans, that has manifested itself in a brutal legacy of institutionalized discrimination. It should not come as a surprise then, that many Americans can actually identify with those communities – in this case the Arab-American and Middle Eastern American Islamic communities – who suffer the anguish of persistent racial profiling and harassment.

This profiling is based, not on biological facts or some recently-discovered strain of DNA that codes violent behavior with race and acts of terror.  It derives from a collectively socialized and historical way of defining race and over-determining its meaning.

Many have applauded the uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, of the Boston Marathon bombers because of his candor and passion in distancing himself from the perpetrators and his full throttle acceptance of the shame that, according to him, they have brought upon the entire Chechen ethnicity.  I don’t recall the McVeigh family or the Lanza family making statements comparable to these.

In fact, in these cases, the perpetrators of these acts of terror are not looked at as representatives of their racial, ethnic, or religious communities; they are viewed as individuals, committing heinous crimes.

It is a strange and psychologically debilitating experience to be considered guilty, violent, or anti-American because of the color and/or complexion of one’s skin; stranger still to breath sighs of relief when, in the midst of the media frenzies that accompany ultra-violent crimes, you learn that the suspects are not of your racial, ethnic, or racialized religious group.  I don’t begrudge anyone the right to exist as an individual who is judged largely on his/her own merits.

I do however hope for (and fight for) these same rights to be afforded to all – regardless of color or creed.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson

White and Yellow: Overcoming Racism (Participation)

White and Yellow: Overcoming Racism

April 24, 2013

By Grace Ji-Sun Kim

“It’s so nice and warm on the inside that you forget that there’s an outside. The worst of it is, the crab that mostly keeps you down is you…The realization had her mind on fire.”
—Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

I was heading home from speaking at the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Synod of British Columbia meeting when a short incident on the plane ended a rather wonderful and fruitful trip on a sore note.  It was a long flight home from Vancouver to Philadelphia.  My eleven year old daughter, Elisabeth, and I had to get up at 5 am to catch the early morning flight back home.  We left Vancouver around 7 am, transferring in Dallas to get to Philadelphia around 9 pm. It would be another hour’s drive before we got home.

On the flight from Dallas to Philadelphia, I was seated in the second to the last row with Elisabeth.  There was an elderly white couple seated behind us in the last row of the plane. I have traveled enough times by plane to know the etiquette of deplaning. The first rows begin to move down the aisle, and everyone else waits their turn to follow them. It is important that this is a unique situation. There are no choices. There is only one way out for everyone, unlike lines at a supermarket or doors in a sanctuary.

One person violated this rule when the plane opened its doors in Philadelphia due to more than thoughtlessness or rudeness. Thoughtlessness is based on oversight. Rudeness is asserting oneself in a situation just to feel a momentary state of power over another. This case was more hurtful in that it invoked the notion that this person was fundamentally better than us.

As we got up from our seats and stood in place to enter the aisle, the white woman behind me stood next to me in the aisle and was determined to gain the place in the line ahead of me. Elisabeth was standing by her seat in the row beside me, and the woman’s husband was standing behind us in the aisle.

We stood a long time, as it seemed to take longer than usual for the passengers ahead of us to file out of the passengers’ cabin.  When it became closer for our row to exit, the elderly woman beside me started walking ahead and somehow got three rows in front of us.  I am not sure how she managed that, but she did, leaving her husband behind us. So far, we have simple rudeness.

As she left the plane, she was about eighteen passengers ahead of me on the ramp.  So, when it was my turn to walk out, I asked her husband if he wanted to go ahead of us, and he politely said, “Please go ahead.” So, my daughter and I stepped from the passenger cabin.

As we passed the elderly woman on the terminal ramp, she had an angry look on her face as my daughter and I emerged from the door ahead of her husband.  She was waiting for her husband in disgust.  Her displeasure was written on her face, and as we walked past her, she said aloud to her husband, “I can’t believe you allowed the Chinese to get ahead of you!”

She said it loud enough so that I could hear.  As the words left her mouth, her spitefully-based statement to her husband angered me more than such events may warrant. My first thought was the perception that an Asian is always already viewed as a foreigner no matter how long they have been living in this country.  Even fourth or fifth generation Asians are viewed as the “perpetual foreigner.”  Asian Americans have been depicted as “perpetual foreigners,” “unassimilatable,” and other stereotypes that reveal historic and persistent racism experienced by this racial/ethnic group.  For example, almost every Asian in America has been afflicted with the perpetual foreigner syndrome.  Many have been asked, “Where are you really from?”  This loaded question, which I shall call the “really-question,” differs from the usual one, “Where are you from?”  The really question figuratively and literally ejects the Asian American respondent to  Asia, because the assumption behind the question, even if the questioner is oblivious to it, is that Asian Americans cannot be “real” Americans.

Asian American others, even if they are descendants of railroad workers, are assumed to be foreigners, while the white questioners, even if they are descendants of first generation immigrants, center themselves as “true” Americans.  Generally, there is no intention of offense, much less malice, on the part of a white questioner whose American identity would never be called into question.  Nonetheless, the person who is asking the really-question brings to mind all the epithets that our racialized society heaps upon Asian Americans:  foreigner, unassimilatable, not American, someone who simply does not belong in American society, or, to use the “O” word, an “Oriental.”[i]

My second thought was that it wasn’t so much that she didn’t allow for the possibility that I was Korean (or Vietnamese or Thai or Mongol or Tibetan or Japanese) and not Chinese.  It was her tone and false understanding of Asians in general.  In her mind, white people cannot allow Asians to get ahead of them in any aspect of their lives.  At many times and in many places, I have felt that communities around me generate the perception that they cannot allow an Asian to get ahead of them. There appears to be a glass ceiling that prevents Asians to get ahead as we are viewed as good, but not good enough to be at the top.  But isn’t that in some way a problem with how I feel more than in what I experience?

Somehow, those of us who look different by nature are regarded as secondary human beings, and all is good if our social position mimics our role marked by natural genetic variation.  Once some see us as getting out of that secondary status or achieving more than our subordinate status dictates, we are ignored, blamed, and made the “other.” One’s “Asianness” signifies to the white dominant group that s/he is a foreigner. This is true even if one is a second, third, or fourth generation “immigrant.” It is this racial difference, this physical difference of appearance, which marks Asian Americans as “other,” creating the status of “perpetual foreigner,” which functions to permanently marginalize Americans of Asian descent.  For women, it is even more complex:  they have to endure both the patriarchal attitudes of their Asian ethnicity and those of their U.S. context.[ii]


My airplane incident is rooted in white privilege and how society views race.  Critical Race Theory emerged and evolved out of opposition to dominant conceptions of race, racism, and equality.  What surfaced was a commitment to racial justice.[iii]  “Whiteness” is the ideology of calling people in the United States of different ethnicities (Irish, English, French, German, Italian, and so forth) who have somewhat fair skin, white.  The purpose is not to find a common ethnic name for these people, but rather, white is actually a term of “ethnic erasure.”  As a consequence, the distinct histories and ethnicities of people in this group are erased by being made “white.”   Furthermore, this term “white” creates privileged groups in relation to all “non-white” people.  The problem is the grouping of a privileged group on the basis of a socially-constructed whiteness.[iv]   Therefore, whiteness needs to become visible as a racial construction.  Whiteness shapes and constitutes mainstream U.S. culture and society, and seeks to develop ethical responses.[v]  My experience on that plane was precisely rooted in white privilege, which allows the white woman to believe that she has every right to discriminate and believe that she can get away with it.[vi]

Thus, whiteness erases an entire group of different people with different ethnicities into one singular monolithic group as if their differences do not exist.  This erasure makes the “white group” appear pure while other groups are considered impure.  People who are different from the white group are considered ethnic, while the white group is not.  Ethnic people belong to the “different,” less dominant group.  Such categories should be viewed and used with suspicion, as it is usually those with power who get to do the labeling and naming. This happened quite overtly in my airplane experience, as the white woman not recognizing the diversity of Asia just decided to call me “Chinese.”

To work towards a just society, it is necessary to dismantle dominant social structures and replace them with a paradigm of plurality, equality, and mutuality. This paradigm shift recognizes that there is a plurality of centers and embraces that rather than searching for purity, we need to embrace “hybridity.”  “White privilege” is the outcome of a pervasive presumption of the racial superiority of whiteness.[vii] White superiority is the presumption, and white privilege is the material consequence.  We need to renegotiate justice by making the privilege visible and dismantling it.  Race is not a social category that stands alone, but rather a dynamic interaction with gender, sexuality, and class.  Race must be acknowledged as having been assigned such tremendous significance, both historically and today, in that it provides unearned advantages to those racialized white, albeit to varying degrees.[viii]  White privilege is so embedded in our culture and society, it is important to recognize this so that we can fight against it.  The white woman on the plane sincerely believed that Asians are people who cannot “get ahead” of white people, and therefore, even during a simple act of deplaning, she can barge ahead of me, as it is her right to do so under “white privilege.”

Final Thoughts

This plane incident has been quite painful to me, especially since I did not experience it alone.  My young daughter also had to experience first-hand the humiliation of being attacked on the basis of our skin color.  I am not sure why the disposition to demean some other people based on racial background still exists and permeates much of our society.  The ignorance or lack of respect for people with differences becomes visible in so many aspects of our lives.  However, we need to move beyond the color of our skin or the size of our eyes or noses.  We need to celebrate overcoming the evil influence created by a viral perception of differences that are before us rather than being fixated on them and allowing them to come between people. It may be at that moment when it occurred to me that racism is so deeply embedded in our culture and steps need to be taken to dismantle it.

I envision a world for my daughter in which people of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and social classes can come together in harmony and love.  My daughter’s world should be free of hatred, racism, sexism and other “isms.” Each one of us can work toward it and try to help it happen.

[i] See Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2011),  132.

[ii] See Gale A. Yee, “Where Are You Really From?  An Asian American Feminist Biblical Scholar Reflects on Her Guild” in New Feminist Christianity:  Many Voices, Many Views edited by Mary E. Hunt & Diann L. Neu  (Woodstock:  Skylight Paths, 2010), 79.

[iii] See Jacqueline Battalora, “Whiteness:  The Workings of an Ideology in American Society and Culture” p. 3-23, in Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion:  Views from the Other Side, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2002), 3.

[iv] See Rosemary Radford Ruether, editor, Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion:  Views from the Other Side  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2002), x, xi.

[v] See Battalora, “Whiteness:  The Workings of an Ideology in American Society and Culture,” 3.

[vi] See Joseph Cheah, “Race and Religion in American Buddhism” (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[vii] See Tim Wise: Anti-Racist Essayist, Author, and Educator (

[viii] Ibid., 10-13.


KimGrace Ji-Sun Kim obtained her M.Div. from Knox College and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.  She is an Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary.  She is the author of The Grace of Sophia (Pilgrim), The Holy Spirit, Chi and the Other (Palgrave Macmillan) and Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit (Palgrave Macmillan) in addition to several journal articles, book reviews, and chapters.  Presently, she is working on a biblical commentary on First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.  Dr. Kim is especially active in the American Academy of Religion (AAR), serving on the Research Grants Jury Committee, the Women of Color Scholarship, Teaching, and Activism Consultation steering committee as a Co-Chair, and the Comparative Theology Group and Religion and Migration Group steering committee.  She also serves on the Editorial Board for the Journal for Religion and Popular Culture, and is a referee for the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion, the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and The Global Studies Journal.

Five Fears About 42 (Participation)

Five Fears About 42

By Dave Zirin


I’m both excited and apprehensive about the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. I’m excited because any high-profile film and attendant discussion about the man Martin Luther King, Jr., called “a freedom rider before freedom rides” should be a positive. I’m excited because the film might stir people to read brilliant books like Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment, Chris Lamb’s Blackout and Arnold Rampersand’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography. I’m apprehensive because we know what Hollywood does to history. It’s not unlike what a monster truck does to a ferret: leaving it flattened and unrecognizable with all its sharp teeth knocked out. Historical movies about sports and the triumph over racism are often even worse. Films like Glory Road or Remember the Titans follow the s-i-c formula: segregation, integration, celebration. In a biopic of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, that formula would be particularly ironic since Jackie Robinson was doubting his own integrationist belief in the better angels of this country at the end of his life. I will watch 42 with an open mind. However, here in advance are five aspects of Jackie Robinson’s tumultuous, politically complicated life story I fear won’t make the film’s final cut.


1. Branch Rickey was no saint. Based upon previews, it certainly appears that the hero of 42 will be not only Jackie Robinson, but Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey played by Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Yet Rickey, while brave in bringing Robinson to the majors, hopefully will not be exempt from criticism. He is what Melissa Harris-Perry would call “an imperfect ally.” Rickey was responsible for Robinson’s entry in the majors. He also bears a great deal of weight for the implosion of the Negro Leagues, after Robinson made his debut in 1947.

The Negro Leagues weren’t just a place of thwarted ambitions for the country’s best African American players. They were also the largest national black-owned business in the country. Black owners, bookkeepers, trainers, coaches, and groundspeople were all part of what was a source of economic power, pride and self-sufficiency. Yet Rickey was ruthless in his dealings with Negro League owners, publicly claiming no obligation to compensate teams for signing away their talent. That became the pattern as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many more were signed out of the Negro Leagues and this infrastructure of black economic power rotted away, creating a racial power imbalance in sports that persists to this day. Rickey’s pilfering, layered with a public campaign of denigration, set the Negro Leagues on the road to ruin.

Rickey was also, as he said proudly, “no bleeding heart.” He saw the economic advantage of showcasing, as Jackie Robinson said himself, “a patient black freak” for mass consumption. In fact, Rickey had far more public concern and condemnation for how black Americans would respond to Robinson than the reaction of white Americans. As he said at a mass meeting of New York’s “respectable” black community, “The one enemy most likely to ruin [Robinson’s] success are the Negro people themselves. You’ll hold Jackie Robinson days, and Jackie Robinson nights. You’ll get drunk. You’ll fight. You’ll be arrested. You’ll wine and dine the player until he is fat and futile. You’ll [turn him into] a national comedy and ultimate tragedy.” The audience applauded. I’d love to see the film dramatize this scene and educate people about pre-civil rights class tensions within the black community. I’m not hopeful.


2. Testifying against Paul Robeson. The most high profile political event in Jackie Robinson’s life is almost certainly not going to be in this movie. It was 1949, and Robinson took part in what he called “the greatest regret of my life,” testifying against perhaps the most famous African-American in the country, the singer, actor and communist-aligned activist Paul Robeson, in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Paul Robeson said, “Blacks would never pick up arms against the Soviet Union,” HUAC wanted to bury him. To legitimize their attack, they called on Robinson to testify. This made perfect sense as Rickey and the media had presented Robinson, a proud veteran and patriot, as a symbol of racial progress.

Robinson, in a prepared statement to HUAC, said, “Every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do…. Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared.” Such a statement, both in the absence of a civil rights movement and directly in the face of a HUAC committee dominated by Dixiecrat segregationists, was incredibly brave.

However, it was Robinson’s next remark regarding Robeson that has stood the test of time. “I haven’t any comment to make except that the statement [about Blacks refusing to fight the USSR]—if Mr. Robeson actually made it—sounds very silly to me… Negroes have too much invested in America to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass.” With those words he had done the bidding of HUAC—giving them license and cover to attack and persecute Robeson. Robeson was asked to condemn Jackie Robinson but he wouldn’t do it. Jackie’s “greatest regret” should be a part of a film about his life.


3. The role of Lester “Red” Rodney and the Daily Worker newspaper. Speaking of Communists, without the radical Reds, it’s highly likely that Jackie Robinson never gets the chance to break the color line. Lester Rodney, the sports editor for the US Communist Party’s Daily Worker paper from 1936 to 1958, launched a high profile labor-based campaign to integrate baseball in the 1930s. (Like thousands of others, Rodney left the party in 1958 when the extent of the crimes of Joseph Stalin were revealed.) As he said, “[The campaign] just evolved as we talked about the color line and some kids in the YCL suggested, ‘Why don’t we go to the ballparks—to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds—with petitions?'”

This was history-making work. That petition campaign evolved into the issue becoming part of May Day and Labor Day mass union demonstrations where the slogan “End Jim Crow in Baseball” was displayed with proud prominence. In the late 1990s, Rodney’s role was finally recognized and embraced. He was interviewed on ESPN and PBS and also spoke on panels in 1997, sitting next to Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson. I saw in the credits of 42 that an actor plays Wendell Smith, the legendary sports columnist and editor for the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. Smith worked alongside and exchanged articles for publication with Lester Rodney. I didn’t see anyone playing Rodney. It’s a greasy move if the filmmakers, after 15 years of appreciation and three years after his death, shove Lester Rodney back in the closet.

4. Jackie Robinson: Republican? Whether the powers behind 42 are Republican or Democrat, tackling Jackie’s own politics are both an education as well as somewhat embarrassing for both parties. Robinson was a Republican for most of his life and people like former RNC chair Michael Steele have raised this in speeches as a way to highlight the party’s historical roots in the black community—as well as a way to deny the present evidence of racism. But Robinson was a Republican because, from his Georgia birth, he had a hardened, and quite justifiable, view that the Democrats were Dixiecrats—the party of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow. When John Kennedy gave his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Robinson saw sitting by JFK’s side none other than Democratic Governor of Arkansas and notorious segregationist Orval Faubus, and this confirmed his worst fears that little had changed. But Robinson would be devastated as the Republicans became the new home of the Dixiecrats after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. When he was a guest at the 1964 Republican convention and heard Barry Goldwater speak, he said that as a black man, he finally understood “how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” By 1968, he had endorsed Hubert Humphrey for President over old friend Richard Nixon. He’s a Republican like Frederick Douglass was a Republican: a member of a party that no longer exists.

5. Political transformation. Robinson’s ideas further changed over the last five years of his life. He disagreed with his friend Dr. King for opposing the war in Vietnam. But then the realities of the war came crashing into his own life. His son, Jackie, Jr., saw combat in Southeast Asia and returned deeply scarred—carrying a gun, jumping at shadows and addicted to drugs.

Jackie, the fervent anti-communist, began to change his own views: “As I look around today and observe how lost and frustrated and bitter our young people are, I find myself wishing that there was some way to reach out to them and let them know that we want to help. I confess I don’t know the way.”  By the end of 1968, he supported the much-criticized movement among black athletes to boycott the Olympics, writing, “I do support the individuals who decided to make the sacrifice by giving up the chance to win an Olympic medal. I respect their courage. We need to understand the reason and frustration behind these protests… it was different in my day, perhaps we lacked courage.”

In 1969, this “veteran,” “Republican” and “anti-communist” wrote, “I wouldn’t fly the flag on the fourth of July or any other day. When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.” I could very well be wrong. Maybe the film will be a politically sophisticated magnum opus. Maybe it will cover some of the above with nuance and flair. Or maybe we will be treated to yet another race and sports fable of segregation, integration and celebration. I hope not. History is often contradictory and complicated, and the best movies share these traits. Let’s hope 42 embraces—and doesn’t ignore—Jackie’s contradictions, because it’s within them that we learn the most pungent lessons for today. It’s also within them that his bravery and sacrifice can best be appreciated in full.



Some Notes On Rape Culture (Participation)

******Trigger WARNING ***********

There are several videos in this post, so click here to see them; also included is image from Dolce & Gabana that I had planned to talk about last week).







I happened to catch a tweet from Karnythia yesterday that turned my blood cold.

#rapeculture hurts everyone. The same rhetoric VSB spouted is used in court to make sure less than 20% of all rapists do time.

Say what?

Turns out, Damon (a.k.a. The Champ) decided to create a really flip response to Zerlina Maxwell’s piece “Stop Telling Women How to Not Get Raped.” Despite Maxwell writing lines like these:

Our community, much like society-at-large, needs a paradigm shift as it relates to our sexual assault prevention efforts. For so long all of our energy has been directed at women, teaching them to be more “ladylike” and to not be “promiscuous” to not drink too much or to not wear a skirt. Newsflash: men don’t decide to become rapists because they spot a woman dressed like a video vixen or because a girl has been sexually assertive.

How about we teach young men when a woman says stop, they stop? How about we teach young men that when a woman has too much to drink that they should not have sex with her, if for no other reason but to protect themselves from being accused of a crime? How about we teach young men that when they see their friends doing something inappropriate to intervene or to stop being friends? The culture that allows men to violate women will continue to flourish so long as there is no great social consequence for men who do so.

Damon still decided to write his piece, essentially asking this question:

But, why can’t both genders be educated on how to act responsibility around each other? What’s stopping us from steadfastly instilling “No always means no!” in the minds of all men and boys and educating women how not to put themselves in certain situations? Of course men shouldn’t attempt to have sex with a woman who’s too drunk to say no, but what’s wrong with reminding women that if you’re 5’1 and 110 pounds, it’s probably not the best idea to take eight shots of Patron while on the first, second, or thirteenth date? Yes, sober women definitely get raped too, but being sober and aware does decrease the likelihood that harm may come your way, and that’s true for each gender.

It seems as if the considerable push back again victim-blaming has pushed all the way past prudence and levelheadedness, making anyone who suggests that “women can actually be taught how to behave too” insensitive or a “rape enabler.” And, while the sentiment in Maxwell’s article suggests that victim-blaming is dangerous, I think it’s even more dangerous to neglect to remind young women that, while it’s never their fault if they happen to get sexually assaulted, they shouldn’t thumb their noses to common sense either.

Damon’s already (somewhat) apologized and been raked over the coals by folks on his site, Twitter, and Tumblr.

So my goal in writing this piece isn’t to hold him accountable–that’s already gone on. My goal in writing this is to answer his question. And since I recently gave a talk at Swarthmore on rape culture, I just so happen to have a bunch of examples and facts right at my fingertips.

First, the primary premise is flawed.

Damon seems to think that reinforcing to men that circumstances and consent are different things means that we are also letting women off the hook for reckless behavior. However, most men aren’t privy to all the rape prevention tactics women employ everyday, as a matter of course. (For the purposes of this discussion, the framing will be around cisgender, heterosexual men and women, though we are not the only people impacted by this type of thinking and this type of violence.)

I could share stories about being told from the time I started going out to always cover your drink with a napkin, never be alone after dark, always have your keys out in case of an attack, to never be alone with a guy you don’t know. I was also told not to open the door for boys I didn’t know, but in my case, it was the boy you kind of know that gets you. But I digress.

We could tell our stories all day, but where’s the data? When I presented at Swathmore, I ran a little experiment based on a question I had. How do men talk about rape? So I took it to the newsstands.

Cosmopolitan Magazine is best known for it’s unrelenting focus on sex tips, meeting men, and the ubiquitous “75 new ways to make him pop!” feature. However, in each issue, Cosmo always has something on rape prevention. Since they are the most popular magazine sold on college campuses, they just rolled out an initiative on stopping campus rape, encouraging their readers to lobby their schools and Congress for changes. If you search the content on the Cosmo website, a search for rape pulls up 24 action oriented articles–however, that is misleading as the majority of Cosmo’s content in magazine exclusive, so a lot of their monthly features aren’t in there. I’ve been reading Cosmo since I was 17–if they run one article on rape prevention each month (and sometimes, they run two), I will have consumed 132 of them. And that’s just Cosmo. Other major women’s magazines, like Essence, Marie Claire, and Glamour also cover rape, but not with the same frequency as Cosmo.

So how do Men’s Magazines stack up?

Interestingly, most men’s magazines don’t do “How Not to Rape” articles. They don’t really do “How Not to Get Raped Articles.” A further reading into what these articles were about revealed that most of the articles listed on men’s mags weren’t about rape at all–many were jokes about prison rape (or reviews of Oz) or contained the specific phrase “against abortion except in cases of rape of incest.” With one huge exception from Esquire‘s Tom Chiarella, the majority of men’s articles that mention rape aren’t actually dealing with the subject.

In my talk, before I got into the rape-culture nitty gritty, I asked students to consider a scenario:

[A] spends a late night drinking heavily at a bar. After going a few rounds [A] meets a group of people that includes [B]. [A] continues to hang out with the group for a while, drinking more and more. Later, [A] ends up with [B] alone. [A and B] are both dating other people. Something went down – but [A] was so drunk [A] doesn’t remember exactly what happened. Neither does [B].

I asked who was at fault. There are no easy answers. If I say A is female, a lot of people responding to Champ’s post might have said that she needed to take responsibility for drinking so much. But what if I say A is male and B is female?

This is the rape story in Details, about a guy named Kevin Driscoll who was brought up on rape charges. He’s the person I condensed into the A story.

As he was packing the car, Driscoll got a call on his cell phone. “I don’t know if you know who this is or not,” the caller said, “but, um, this is the girl from the other night.” He remembered her as the pale brunette with the big smile he’d picked up two nights earlier at the Tumble Inn, a dive bar a couple of miles from his home in Redmond. They talked for a few minutes. The woman said she was in a relationship and was freaked out about contracting an STD. Driscoll assured her that he was clean but promised he’d get tested again. “Like, why didn’t you just stop, like, when I was trying to tell you no?” she casually added. “Well, you didn’t say no,” he responded. Soon the woman wished Driscoll a good day, and he hung up, perplexed. He got everyone in the car and started to drive, but he didn’t get far—a police car pulled him over a few blocks away, in front of Pappy’s Pizzeria. Moments later, four more squad cars appeared. The officers, their hands on their guns, ordered Driscoll and Dunn out of the car. One took Driscoll aside and told him he’d have to come down to the station. Driscoll asked for a minute to talk to Dunn, who was getting visibly upset. “That cop told me you beat some girl to death and raped her,” Driscoll recalls her screaming as he walked toward her. “What the fuck is going on?!”

And so began Kevin Driscoll’s nightmare. Charges of first-degree rape—three counts. A very public humiliation. Two trials. And the loss of just about everything he valued in life. After two years, Driscoll was acquitted of all charges—when the not-guilty verdict was handed down, each of the jurors shook his hand—but to him that’s no more than a footnote to the fact that he will forever live under a cloud of accusation, a pariah. Last Halloween he ran into two friends who hadn’t spoken with him since he was taken into custody. “I heard everything worked out for you,” one had said. “Yep, that’s what I heard too,” Driscoll said.

“You didn’t say no” is not a “yes.” And somehow I doubt that people tsk-tsked Driscoll about taking responsibility for how much he was drinking and going home with people he didn’t know. That’s almost exclusively reserved for women. Ultimately, a jury decided to clear Driscoll of the charges–but reading that story as a feminist, I wonder what kind of messages Driscoll received about rape and consent. (Not to mention fidelity.)

Moving on from Driscoll, the crux of my talk was that pop culture helps to normalize rape culture by painting problematic behavior as okay, and even laudable or romantic. Case in point: The Twilight Series. There’s a lot of questionable content in there, that has been discussed for years and years at this point. But it is fascinating to contrast a scene that made it into the movie and the book.

(Notice that undercurrent of violence right there amongst all the sweet talk? Rape culture harshes my squee, son. They’re making it hard to be Team SuckaAssJacob.)

You know what’s so bad about that scene? Besides the fact that you have a man literally forcing himself on a woman (just not with his penis)? The one in the book is actually worse!

Why is she using the type of tactics that rape survivors describe to escape from the situation to talk about this kiss?

But Jacob is still one of two heroes, and he and Bella go on to share a consensual kiss later in the series.

Films and books aren’t the only places where rape culture is normalized.

It also occurs in music videos. In the talk, I illustrate these points with clips from Byron Hurt’s Beyond Beats and Rhymes, and from Sut Jhally’s Dreamworlds 3. (Some images NSFW.)

(Relevant part of the clip starts at 6:05 with Beverly Guy-Sheftall and runs to the end.)

Sut Jhally takes a multi-genre look at how rape culture is encoded in our society, with seemingly innocuous choices in music videos. While Jhally makes powerful points by just stripping away the sound, but he really drives the point home at 4:12, where he contrasts the images of women being assaulted in Central Park with popular music video tropes.

Here’s what he concludes:

Rape culture is why we have to treat random men on the street like Schrodinger’s Rapist. Because we don’t know. And we can’t know.

To expand on an earlier point, here’s the full Limp Bizkit video:

What Durst fantasizes about in the video has been conveyed to me by men on the street time and time again. Reject me, there will be violence. Accept me, and there will be love (edged with a violent threat). This video isn’t just exploring the pornographic imagination, as Jhally says–at this point, we’ve entered the psychopathic imagination. In this world, a woman will acquiesce to a man’s demands through a combination of pretty words and violence. Durst’s created world is disturbing–a kidnapped and terrified woman will eventually come around to love? Are you fucking kidding me?

At this point, people who haven’t spent a lot of time thinking through rape culture will be screaming. “All men aren’t like that!” Yeah, most of us are aware of that. But it only takes one to change how you approach other interactions forever. It only takes one to destroy your trust in the inherent goodness of other people. And it only takes one to fuck up your life.

The men reading this probably aren’t that one guy. (Then again, you could be…to someone else.)

But most of us have already met him.

Women are told, over and over again, that it is their responsibility to keep themselves safe. And in the event that you fail, rape culture will ensure that people will blame you for dropping your vigilance, while directing little, if any attention to the person who actually acted without consent. And this is why we started shifting the conversation to speak to men directly.

Because all the words aimed at us still aren’t keeping us safe.