Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tomi Lahren, Let's Talk

Sorry to hit y'all with two political posts in a row, monthly playlist coming later today.

I don't usually like to call people out on the Internet. I like to choose my battles. Generally, I don't talk about celebrity missteps because I feel like it's not worth it. Cultural appropriation, for example, deserves to be dragged for FILTH, but the topic is too nuanced to be accurately debated over any social media platform. Rape culture exists similarly; people who are anti-feminist love to spout statistics about how the wage gap isn't real, or about how rape is not a big a problem as people think, or about how cat-calling is a compliment. Or something.

But today, I am calling someone out. Tomi Lahren, let's talk.

She is a television and online video host who, right now, is under fire for her controversial comments about Jesse Williams' BET Humanitarian Award acceptance speech. Just for fun, I'm gonna link the two videos side by side so you can watch them and form your own opinions before you read mine.

Jesse Williams (& accompanying report from Slate):

Tomi Lahren (not sure if this specific link will work, but you shouldn't have a problem finding it on her Facebook page):

I'll wait.

Okay, welcome back.

Now, there's a lot of nuance involved in Jesse Williams' speech. There's the argument that it's easy for people like the ones at the BET awards to comment on the plight of African-Americans, because their own lives are somewhat removed from things like police brutality or profiling or the pay gap (it's been proven that there IS a Hollywood pay gap, but it matters way more on principle than in practice, considering that all big-name Hollywood actors are making absolutely ludicrous amounts of money). There's the idea that perhaps Williams was showboating, that his speech was a bit theatrical and long-running and almost self-serving given the severity of the issues he spoke about. There's the argument--and this is the only one I really find compelling--that being a biracial, light-skinned man talking about black issues is almost as Kiplingesque as a white man talking about the same issues (see: White Man's Burden). As a biracial person myself (albeit one not quite as racially ambiguous as Williams), I often question my place in racial discussions. Should our opinions come with an asterisk?

But colorism and socioeconomic status can be touched on another day. I'm looking at an issue that's just a little bit more black and white (excuse the pun).

Jesse Williams made a lot of phenomenal points. He talked about police brutality in a tender way that highlighted the lives of the victims rather than the death caused at the hands of their blue-clad executioners. He thanked black women, the unsung heroes of political movements and households, and promised to do better by them. He talked about cultural appropriation, the desire of black entertainers to be given modern "brands," as it were, and seamlessly integrated a quote from "Strange Fruit," a poem that remains worth reading in 2016. He was composed, he was articulate, and he never strayed from his intent. He maintained that our work is not done, and that simply being a successful African-American is not enough to stave off the oppression of our less successful brothers and sisters.

I cried when I watched that speech.

Now Tomi. I honestly pity you. Because the hate that you summoned in your response to this speech--a speech that was carefully curated and delivered to convey love, and NOT hate--could only have been learned behavior. Who taught you to hate? Who taught you to willfully dismiss struggles that you cannot understand? You're not a bad person. You've just been benefitting from a system that privileges pretty white women your entire life. What I don't understand is that white women have their own struggles. Being a beautiful woman, it must have been hard to be taken seriously in the fields of entertainment and journalism. You're probably not getting paid as much as your male colleagues for doing similar work. You probably get cat-called on your daily commute. You probably had to work really, really hard just to get where you are, and you're probably discriminated against all the time.

So why can't you see that black people are going through? Why can't you at least acknowledge that there have been miscarriages of justice, even if you don't exactly understand how?

I'm gonna dissect your response now.

You begin by saying that the BET awards were "very black." This is a fair observation, because BET stands for Black Entertainment Television. The need for such an initialism, such a channel, developed in the 20th century when black people were few and far between on major network shows, and if they were featured, they were caricatures and stereotypes, active players in their own degradation--they essentially played themselves in minstrel shows. With BET, black actors and executives took control of their destinies and put forth the programming that they wanted to see. BET has been rightfully criticized for some of its negative portrayals of its own people, through perpetuations of stereotypes in TV shows and music videos. However, while I'm not a huge fan of everything BET puts on the air, I respect what it symbolizes--a place for black entertainers to get their (well-deserved) chance on the small screen. I especially love the BET Awards, where black performers who are snubbed at major (read: white) awards shows can be recognized for their talents.

You then criticize Williams for "police bashing." While Williams brings up Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot dead by police for playing with a toy gun in a public park--among others--you talk about how the phrase "unarmed black man" is only technically accurate. You say that if someone reaches for an officer's gun or uses another object as a means of defense, they don't deserve a "free pass." I'm not up to date on recent cop-on-black attacks, but as far as I know, many of the deaths that have made headlines--and caused outrage in the black community--are not about violent perps savagely beating cops. I, for one, am not a proponent of mindless violence. They're about unarmed--literally and figuratively--black men who are arrested or detained on minor charges, who cooperate with officers, and who are still, for some reason, shot to death. Even in cases where the victims became violent, it was in self-defense.

I'm not going to talk about black people who have only hatred of the police due to a history of abuse. That's not a life I've lived, and I don't think I can speak on that. What I will say is that I don't hate police, and I don't think Jessie Williams hates police. I think he hates police brutality. And while not all cops brutalize their suspects, all police brutality is caused by cops.

You then play a couple of my favorite quotes from Williams' speech. I'll paraphrase: "If you have a critique for our resistance, you better have a record of critiquing our oppression. If you don't believe in equal rights for black people, then do not offer suggestions for those who do. Sit down."

You ask what rights black people don't have. Well, just to name a few: many predominantly black neighborhoods have been systematically disenfranchised, meaning that despite voting rights for all having been put on the books ~50 years ago, the government is still finding ways to stop black people from doing so; the wage gap between white men and black women, Asian woman, and Latina women is far greater than the wage gap between white men and white women; studies have been done proving that people with "ethnic sounding" names are more likely to be rejected by employers even if they have the same qualifications as applicants with "white sounding" names; and people of color are dramatically underrepresented (and badly represented) in mainstream media (Asians and Latinos actually struggle with this far more than black people, but blacks are still not being represented accurately). Oh, right. And black men are seven times more likely to be shot and killed by police while unarmed than white men are.

So, yeah. We'd just like the vote (regardless of where we live), equal pay, fair opportunities at employment, adequate representation in the media, and also not to die because some (NOT ALL JUST SOME) police officers are scared of black people. You seem to be fine with how things are now. That's really saying something about what you think of people of color.

You also say that white people have a track record of critiquing our oppression by citing that a lot of white people fought for the North in the Civil War. Well, Tomi, if we're gonna get historical, allow me to point out that the only reason there was slavery in America in the first place was because white people went to Africa and stole black people from their homes to make them work for no money. And then they physically and verbally abused them for centuries and implemented a political system that would continue to disadvantage them to the present day.

Williams wasn't TALKING about the Civil War in that moment. He was talking about modern individuals who are so quick to silence black voices in the discussion of equality for being illogical or overemotional or combative, when they never once criticize our oppressors for the ills they cause.

Your point about white Southern Democrats fighting FOR slavery is also just bizarre. An American history teacher can tell you that after the Civil War, the parties realigned their beliefs, and so what we now consider to be Democrats would actually have been Republicans in the 1800s, and vice versa. Sooooooo.

You then tell Jesse Williams to check his privilege and accuses people like him of dividing America, not white people. This statement absolutely blows my mind. I can't even really put into words how ignorant it is to suggest that black people are the source of racial hatred in the United States.

You also say that you pity him if he thinks he's a victim. Well, if you pay attention to other parts of his speech, you'll notice that he's not talking about himself, and he even calls out his own financial success, as well as the success of others in the room. They know that they, personally, are not victims. But they speak for a community of oppressed people. To be wealthy and famous and black brings you a powerful platform for the poor and the disconnected. Williams is reminding his fortunate counterparts that their job is to do the work that others can't, to represent their race as strong and intelligent and creative and beautiful, to speak for the voiceless.

Another troubling point you bring up is that Williams seems to be asking for special treatment instead of equal rights. Here is a comic that might explain what he's actually talking about:

Great. Now we've got that covered.

You end by telling Jesse Williams that HE is the one who needs to "sit down." In a way, it's fitting that you conclude with this statement. It's condescending and uneducated and coming from a place of fear--a fear of black strength, beauty, and intelligence that has flowed through white people since the 1600s, when we were brought over here on slave ships, and fear of your own falling empire. White people in positions of power will do everything they can to prevent minorities from rising up. It's hard to see from this angle, given all the progress that we've made. But those old systems are still in place--creaky and precarious, but still there. And people like you, Tomi Lahren, seem to want to keep it that way.

I wrote this in a fit of inspiration after watching your video, Tomi, but I now know that this isn't addressed to you. If you even read this, you won't be changed by it. You'll say that I'm just like Jesse Williams, that I'm trying to racially divide our peoples, that I'm playing the victim, that I want a "gold star just for being born." Even though none of those things are true, you're going to keep believing it, because it makes you feel better. You don't want to acknowledge the awful things that some of your white ancestors did. You don't want to acknowledge the awful things that white people today, your counterparts, are still doing. You'd rather have black people comfort you and tell you that racism is over because it makes you feel good than to do something about the injustices that are playing out on stages all over the country to this day.

So yeah, this isn't really addressed to you. It's addressed to anyone who had a serious problem with Jesse Williams' speech. It's addressed to anyone who doesn't want to talk about race anymore. This is a letter for anyone who somehow believes that 2016 is just another year in post-racial America.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

In Defense of Affirmative Action - Unpacking #StayMadAbby and the Secrets of College Admission

I am not going to be citing statistics or studies or Supreme Court cases in this post because this blog is not a news source. This is my opinion, though I do believe that it is a compelling one. If you'd like to see hard facts supporting my opinion, the Internet is full of valuable resources.

I was accepted into two prestigious universities during my senior year of high school, one of which I ended up attending (the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California). The other institution was ranked higher on lists comparing national universities, and when the news broke of my acceptance - I'd like to add that I didn't intend for the news to spread so broadly and so quickly - I experienced a wide variety of reactions. There was support from friends and acquaintances who were just proud and excited for me. There was indifference from people who didn't know me or didn't care about such goings on. And there was vitriol. The vitriol was fueled by jealousy - people who weren't accepted to the same or similar universities (one friend said, "Oh, I guess they're just letting everyone in now") - as well as other tensions. As much as people would hate to admit it, that tension was sometimes racially driven. At an academically rigorous and competitive high school, many people were vying for the precious few spots at these top universities, and in their eyes, I had taken a spot that belonged to them (which, it should be noted, is not how college admission works). In their (rightful) disappointment, hurt, and anger at being rejected, they lashed out at me. Countless friends told me about classmates who'd said that I didn't deserve to get in and that, because the school was not my first choice, I was taking a spot from someone who really wanted it (again, not how college admission works - after I denied the offer of admission, it was invariably offered to someone else, perhaps even one of my own classmates who'd been deferred). When discussing a rejection with one of my close friends, they said: "well, we can't all be black, Jewish women." The statement was problematic on a number of levels. One, it assumes that being Jewish or being a woman is helpful in college admission, when in fact both of those attributes are somewhat detrimental in the process (more Jews and more women are applying to college every year; women are even starting to outnumber men in that pool, as far as I know). Two, it assumes that if you're lacking those attributes, it's a given that you will be rejected from your top choice school. And three - and most insidious, in my opinion - this statement assumes that the only reason I was accepted into that selective school was because of my race.

I tried to laugh it off and counter this person's moment of hurtful commentary, but they remained steadfast. They laughed, too, but did not say that they were kidding or retract the statement. They simply said something else to affirm it and moved on.

I was not accepted into my top choice colleges because I am black.

It is frowned upon, for some reason, to talk about one's own qualifications and achievements, but I'm going to do it. I had a good GPA in high school. I tested above the median at my school on the SAT (and the median score at my school is no joke). I participated in a lot of extracurricular activities and achieved leadership positions in many of them. I took foreign language for all four years and, in doing so, finished the entire Spanish curriculum. I got good recommendations and wrote good essays.

I wasn't the perfect candidate. I didn't play sports or write for the newspaper or work on the yearbook or take an AP science. But what made me a great candidate for these schools - aside from the academic proof that I could do all the work - was how different I was from the other applicants. My extracurricular activities were unusual--improv, slam poetry, peer counseling, admission work, and a random stint as a student council rep my senior year. My essays were funny and conversational and emotional - they sounded more like memoirs than a paper you'd turn in for an English class. I submitted a video supplement of my original songs to the other school I applied to, a school that didn't offer very many music classes, let alone a degree in popular music performance. And yes, also, I am black.

But again, I was not accepted because I am black. I was accepted because I'm different.

Racial diversity is a huge part of college admission. Colleges seek to slightly increase their percentages of minority students every year, and many universities are reaching out to minority communities in newer and better ways in order to do that. It is a beautiful thing, because while I am a racial minority in a position of economic privilege, there are many people with my skin color who are not in the same boat socioeconomically. Colleges at every level of selectivity offer a way up and out of bad situations. On still another positive note, the more people of color graduate from four-year universities, the more role models that young people of color will have. It will be a cycle of productivity, mobility, success--you get the picture.

But while racial diversity is a huge part of college admission, by far the biggest part of the process is experiential diversity. Colleges want people from all walks of life. What sets you apart? It might be your race. But it might be your socioeconomic status. It might be a death or a divorce in your youth that made you stronger when you overcame it. It might be that you published a novel or wrote a hit song or invented a machine that makes people's lives easier. More than likely, it will be a combination of all these things. Experiential diversity in all communities, especially academic communities, enriches the life experience of all involved. No matter how numerically qualified you are to attend a university, if there are a thousand versions of you out there vying for the same spots, there's a chance you won't get admitted. That's yet another thing you have to consider in this process. I was admitted because I was qualified, and because I was different, but also because I got lucky. This whole thing is a numbers game, people! At the end of the day, they only have a few seats to fill. You might have done great things, but it might be that there's just not enough space for you. In cases like that, I PROMISE that you will wind up at an equally great school. Seriously. I know this for a fact.

If you are academically qualified and experientially diverse, you will get in somewhere great. So chill on that front. If you got rejected, I promise it's not because you're white. It's because they didn't think you'd fit, or because they already had people like you in the class. Think about it this way: at the place you do end up going to school, you'll be one-of-a-kind! (Or at least just a few of a kind!)

Affirmative action is an evolving policy. It's clear that when under-qualified applicants are accepted and ultimately attend rigorous universities, they do poorly and/or drop out. But more than likely, when a student with grades or test scores below a university's median that winds up going there, there's a pretty good reason. They have proven that they are capable of overcoming obstacles. They have a kind of intelligence that isn't accurately measured with regular modes of testing. They have a hidden talent. They have untapped potential. And someone in that admission office saw it. Affirmative action forces a university to consider things outside of test scores and grades which, let's be honest, are a pretty antiquated way of determining how a student will fare in the "real world." I fully acknowledge that there is a need to standardize the way they evaluate academic ability, but I am thrilled that they are seeking more holistic and unconventional ways to do so, too.

I'm writing this because I'm still seeing articles about people going to court over being rejected from their dream school. I'm writing this because this year, when the Class of 2016 gets their college decisions, frustrated white students are going to lash out at students of color for their success. I'm writing this because I want you to know, whoever you are, that if you work hard and be your best self, things will work out for you. And I'm writing this because I'm proud of my achievements and I don't want there to be any confusion about why I do what I do. I do well. I stand out. And sometimes, I get lucky. I bet you will, too.