Scrolling through Facebook when this meme was shared by three of my friends...
Generally when I post things on Facebook or respond to something on Facebook I take my time to think about what I want to say but my reaction to this was a visceral one. I typed my response without thinking and realized afterwards that if I posted it I was potentially setting myself up for a fight I really didn’t want to get into. But I posted it anyway…three times. After the deed was done I was nervous because I didn’t want to get into a fight and I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be fighting about.
My response to all three people:
“Nope! Not today! Don't come for Kanye. Y'all are not going to dehumanized that black man. Y'all are not going to diminish that black man's mental health! Not when I read all the shit about y'all wanting to support all the "minorities". And I'm saying y'all because I'm talking to you specifically and white people in general because white people been making me mad lately (aka Trump is going to be our president and y'all did that shit). So rethink this shit. Madd love 👊🏾✌🏾️✊🏾”
It wasn’t until conversations began that I realize what my visceral response was about.
First, there is something problematic about the juxtaposition of Kanye West’s glaring black face and three pictures of a white woman who was injured protesting the Dakota Pipeline: one where she is smiling holding a puppy and the other two of her visibly injured.
On one hand this meme wants us to feel sorry for one person and not the other. On the other hand it wants us to be angry at the media for covering one person’s story and not the other. In a world where racism did not exist this meme would not be problematic, however, we do not live in such a world nor do we live in a post racial world.
It is our cultural history that the experiences of black people are less important that those of white people. Subtly that is exactly what this meme is saying. In this day and age racism at its worst is subtle unconscious racism that is overlooked and is seemingly harmless.
I’ve been fortunate enough to never have had a run in with someone who expressed their racism overtly but I’ve sat in classes with, shared beers with, partied with, am friends with, shared my secrets with, and have loved deeply white people who have said racist things that they didn’t realize was racist.
When racism can be perpetuated and only marginalized people can feel or notice it then we know racism goes much deeper than lynchings and burning crosses. That is the world we live in today. We live in a world where well intended white liberals can perpetuate racism just as much as the KKK without ever recognizing it.
I have no idea what Kanye West is dealing with in his life but I do know the life of a celebrity is a difficult one, so I feel for him. I remember when people mourned Robin William’s suicide.
A suicide that seemed to do with how dark and lonely the life of a celebrity can be despite it the positive ideas we associate fame and fortune with. I imagine Kanye West knows a lot of about the dark sides of fame and fortune.
The woman in the meme whose name I don’t know was attacked by police while protesting the Dakota Pipeline. Police violence against protestors has been a frequent occurrence especially during Black Lives Matter protests and we’re seeing it in Dakota as people protest the pipeline.
We need to discuss this violence because it is an issue. Both of these stories deserve coverage but for different reasons. To assume we can have one story and not the other or that one story is more important that the other seems outlandish.
Two of the three people who posted the meme replied to me. Here is the first conversation that ensued. I will call the first person Ted.
Ted’s response to my initial comment:
You don't have to appreciate that man or how he handles himself but he is a prime example of how black men are turned into monsters because we don't appreciate or like how they carry themselves. We have no idea what its like to live his life or know what he has been through so let him live.
If you want to highlight the media's failure to properly do their job choose a scapegoat who does not fall into the category of a historically marginalized person. Don't use Kanye to highlight whatever wrongs may exist in the world.
Sorry about the Trump comment. White America has me on the edge and its not fair to take that out on you.
We definitely can but It would be important to do so objectively. And the behavior of black people in this country is too often laced with our history of racism.
This is true. These are the things I'd like us to think about especially during these trying times.
Conversation 2. I’ll call this person Matt:
Matt’s response to my initial comment:
If this isn't about Kanye then don't use him to make your point. If you want to criticize the media do that but leave Kanye out of it.
Using Kanye (which this meme directly does) to criticize the media is just another part of the hatred and violence aimed at the black people
To the first comment:
Don't be a patronizing white man. Its not cute. I am upset and its not fair to take that out on you because that is definitely apart of where I was coming from with my comment. So as far as that goes I apologize.
To the second comment:
If you want to criticize the media do that. It is important, however, don't criticize the media by diminishing someone else's experience especially when that someone is apart of a community that is dehumanized on a daily basis by the media. The "real" pain the black community faces has to do with all of the pain experienced Kanye's included.
To the third comment:
This meme in no ways shed lights on how the media ignores or stigmatizes mental health issues or Kanye's privacy. This meme was meant to do something and its execution is poor and perpetuates the very issues you want to believe it is speaking to.
If you really want to be about this life consider how this meme is problematic in that it juxtaposes a black man we love to hate and a white woman we want to praise for her good work.
I wouldn't dare argue with you about what this is all about. So no worries there.
Fine lets disregard the color of the people in the meme. How exactly does this shed light on the lack of understanding of mental health issues? Where is the sympathy aimed by this meme?
Do I want to increase the divide? No. Do I want to acknowledge that there is a divide and examine how that divide works? Yes.
There is no real basis for the notions we have about people's skin color but we can't start there because we do live in a society where those notions are deeply ingrained into every aspect of our culture. If we want to move pass those false notions at the very least we need to acknowledge that they exist because we've created them and examine how they managed to gain traction as well as how we perpetuate those notions.
Those may be the intentions of this meme but its poorly done. This meme says "why are we talking about this person when this other person is so much more important". That is arguing over whose problems are worse.
Once the dusted settled and I reread them I took note of a few things that stood out to me.
Ted was open to acknowledging the fact that his dislike for Kanye may have a lot to do with racism even though he doesn’t quite want to admit it. For me that feels like an important place to start when white people and black people talk about race. The truth of it is every American is effected by racism.
Racism isn’t an aspect of our culture that we can choose to opt out of. The reality is all white people are racist. People don’t like to hear that because it sounds like you’re saying all white people are bad hateful people.
That isn’t the case. As I said early the most harmful perpetuations of racism are the subtle unconscious ones that we’ve learned and act out without realizing it. When Ted said “Definitely. I'm sure, even as much as I wouldn't want to admit it, that even my disgruntled attitude with him is tied to that, because let's face it, racism is latent and viciously good at hiding” it sounds like he doesn’t want to think of himself as racist but he probably is and that sucks.
During my conversation with Matt I felt like he was being condescending and patronizing which may be the most ironic thing when a black woman and a white man are talking about race. From the begining he dismissed my reaction to the meme by saying it was “exactly what oppressive America is trying to get out of you”.
He even encouraged me to be angry and to continue to allow this to divide us. He also mentioned his disapproval of the media not covering the “real” pain of the black community.
A key component to moving towards eradicating racism is shifting power. Marginalized people need to be empowered and white people need to give up some of their power. In this context that looks like Matt giving up the idea that he knows everything and sees the full picture as it truly is. In conversations of race when white people dismiss the experience of a marginalized person or tell them they are apart of the problem they are in turn perpetuating racism.
They are using all the hidden devices they’ve been taught to assert their superiority and let the marginalized person know that they are wrong in their experience. Sometimes white people need to step back and listen when marginalized people are talking about race and other forms of oppression much like women often express their desire for men to take a back seat in conversations about reproductive rights and contraceptive rights.
That doesn’t mean white people don’t have important things to say about race or that they shouldn’t ever say things about race. They do, however, have to be mindful of what they say and how they say it as well as being open to the possibility that they will say something racist.
That is the unfortunate reality of it much like it is the unfortunate reality that marginalized people experience social and systematic discrimination on a daily basis and have to maneuver a world that is such.
When Matt said, “Did you ever think that maybe there could be others who aren't black who see this and are sick and tired of this shit?”. I didn't specifically address this question in our conversation but my response is “yes I do and racism at its worst is subtle unconscious racism that is overlooked and is seemingly harmless”.
The idea that someone may see this meme and won’t think it is problematic doesn’t justify its use. After the questions he also said, “Maybe this is meant to bring light to a nation that does in fact have a innate lack of understanding for mental health issues?”. That may be true, however,
I don’t agree that it does but if it is would it helpful to do so in a way that is problematic? It seems counterintuitive to use problematic arguments and/or techniques to shed light on problematic issues. If we did that with every social ill we face we would run in circles and never change anything.
I also had to take a moment to apologize to Ted and Matt for yelling at them about President elect Trump. That felt like the kind of language and behavior that divides us and prevents us from having conversations.
Ted called me out on it and I appreciated it. Its also important I think to realize marginalized people have been and continue to be sick and tired of the state of things in this country so we’re not always going to be able to eloquently deal with racism, sexism, homophobia, or heterosexism all the time.
Some of us are angry and we have every right to be so cut us some slack and take witness to our pain when we can’t hold it in anymore or express it in a way that feels comfortable to you.
All in all I’m a queer black woman out here tryna have a good time and trying to figure out how to I create change in this wild world.
Let’s talk sometime.