Friday, July 25, 2014

If Black Washing the Bible Isn't Racist, What Is?

Ebony and ivory 
Live together in perfect harmony
Side by side on my piano keyboard, 
Oh Lord, why don't we?
—"Ebony and Ivory" Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney

The other day on Facebook, I shared a link to an article titled What Would Characters From The Bible Really Look Like? Here's One Photographer's Idea. The photographer in question is James C. Lewis of Noire 3000 Studios, and his photo series "Icons of the Bible" portrays various Bible characters as people of color. Quoth Lewis, "I think it is very important to see oneself in the Scripture so that it may become real in their eyes...The whitewashing of the Bible has always bothered me. However I'm happy to now have the opportunity to give a different point of view." Here are six of the seven photos from the series (it won't be released in full until October):

Reaction among my Facebook friends was pretty low-key and positive, with one exception: one of my friends was a little bothered that all the people featured in the article1 were black:

My friend's point seems to rest on the idea that racism is "a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation," a widespread belief among Americans in general and my generation in particular, according to Slate writer Jamelle Bouie. "If we ignore skin color in our decisions, then there can’t be racism."

If the problem here is the white washing of the Bible (i.e., portraying the characters of the Bible as white in movies, TV, paintings, etc.), then you can't solve that problem by "black washing" it away, according to this logic. Racial problems can only be dealt with by ignoring race; "Icons of the Bible" is just perpetuating the problem by doing the same thing in reverse.

But that's not actually what racism is, at least not in America. Bouie goes on to explain:
The problem is that racism isn’t reducible to “different treatment.” Since if it is, measures to ameliorate racial inequality—like the Voting Rights Act—would be as “racist” as the policies that necessitated them. No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least.
And the magic of white supremacy is that its presence is obscured by the focus on race. When a black teenager is unfairly profiled by police, we say it’s “because of the color of his skin,” which—as a construction—avoids the racism at play, from the segregated neighborhood the officer patrols to the pervasive belief in black criminality that shapes our approach to crime. Likewise, it obscures the extent to which this isn’t just different treatment— it’s unequal treatment rooted in unequal conditions.
Millennials have grown up in a world where we talk about race without racism—or don’t talk about it at all—and where “skin color” is the explanation for racial inequality, as if ghettos are ghettos because they are black, and not because they were created. As such, their views on racism—where you fight bias by denying it matters to outcomes—are muddled and confused.
The pervasiveness of the idea that racism is "a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation" is the reason you hear people ask "Why can't we have White Entertainment Television?"2 or "How come there's no White History Month?"3 If our main racial problem as a society is just, like, anyone noticing race, then focusing on any one race or excluding people who aren't of a certain race begins to sound like a problem. If the problem is actually white supremacy (or "racial discrimination + power"), then it makes sense to create spaces where people of color are celebrated to the exclusion of others, since white people are already celebrated and uplifted by the culture at large.

Now, before you get mad and start hauling out your dictionary, let me just say that there are multiple definitions of "racism," and the one that's in many dictionaries is simply "racism = discrimination based on skin color." I personally think that definition is really problematic. Here's a basic discussion of why:
Let’s start by getting something out of the way. Yes, racism has often been defined, and often still is defined today...[as] “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” You’re not imagining things, and you’re not making things up. That definition exists. It’s in dictionaries and everything. It’s real. But it’s not the only definition. There’s another definition, one that many other activists and scholars use. It’s been around for a long time, and in many circles it’s the standard definition. (It’s not at all uncommon for words to have different meanings in different contexts.)
Under the activist definition, the crucial component of racism — what distinguishes “racism” from other kinds of ethnically-based bigotry — is its relationship to institutional power, to structures of authority.
This distinction is grounded in the fact that folks who are oppressed hating their oppressors isn’t the same phenomenon as the reverse. You can call the two phenomena by one name if you want, and many people do, but they’re two different phenomena all the same. Because they’re different phenomena, and because they operate differently in a societal context, a lot of folks now use the term “racism” exclusively in the context of the oppressor’s bigotry, as a way to highlight the underlying structural issues.
When I posted the above text on Tumblr a few weeks back, I got two tellingly opposite reactions:
"You are blind if you think people of other races cant be racist… You can reason it away anyway you like but ANYONE and EVERYONE can be racist." soylent-greenispeople
"Also See: Callers Use C-SPAN Civil Rights Discussion To Complain About White Oppression A quote: 'And I think the blacks have brought on most of their present-day problems themselves. They insult white people. I heard it right on your own show, I heard some black call Karl Rove a "white boy." And I don’t think that’s right.'" ho-ho-beriberi
The biggest problem I have with the dictionary definition is that it levels the playing field so that anyone can be called "racist" (as soylent-greenispeople would have you do). Jonathan Chait points out in his (flawed but worth reading) thinkpiece, The Color of His Presidency: Why Race Has Been the Real Story of Obama's Presidency All Along, "One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen." In other words, "racist" has become a really powerful word—a weapon, even. It can derail careers. It can cost you the ownership of a basketball team. And I think ceding that power to people who already have most of the power (white people) to use against the marginalized and oppressed is wrong.

If you're not convinced that white people still have most of the power in America—if, heaven help you, you find yourself agreeing with the C-SPAN callers who called in to complain about white oppression as if it was worth mentioning in the same breath as the Civil Rights Movement—if you're not sure that people of color in this country really are marginalized and oppressed, then I'm not sure I have the tools required to convince you.

But that doesn't mean I won't take a stab at it! Before I end, let's take a look at one cog in the machine of marginalization. I've already talked extensively about reparations for slavery and why I think they're a good idea, so I'll add a note to that particular discussion. "Slavery is over" and "the slaves are long dead" are the perpetual rallying cry of those opposed to reparations, and of course, in a sense they're not completely wrong. But did you know that involuntary labor (also known as slavery) is still constitutional in the U.S. as punishment for crimes? Did you know that the United States has the most prisoners of any country in the world (25% of the world's prison population, only 5% of the world's total population)? Did you know most federal prisoners are in for non-violent offenses, which are mostly drug-related? Did you also know that arrests for drug crimes are disproportionately for people of color, even though people of all races commit drug crimes at the same rates? (As someone once said, "If the police were really just interested in catching drug users, they'd be raiding music festivals.") Did you know that you can be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-violent offense, and the majority of said lifers are people of color? It makes you think.

Now, I'm not saying that mass incarceration is the same as race-based chattel slavery. The latter is, thankfully, dead in this country, and I trust it will remain so permanently. But a criminal justice system that puts people of color (at a significantly higher rate than white people) in a place where they can legally be made to work for little or no pay does bear a troubling resemblance to slavery, doesn't it?

UPDATE: My friend wrote me a private message to clarify that his issue was with black washing the Bible specifically, not with noticing race. My logical leap that he shared our generation's predilection for colorblindness was unwarranted.

1. Note that the full "Icons of the Bible" features people of Asian, Native American, West Indian, Hispanic, African, and Black American heritage; there are only seven people shown in the article, but the series itself will feature 70 people. I have no way of knowing whether all or any of the people depicted here identify as "black," but since they all "look black," our conversation started with the tentative assumption that they were black, or at least could be.
2. The appropriate jocular response is, "So you don't know about Country Music Television, then?"
3. "That's, uh, every month, dude."

Friday, July 11, 2014

How to Tumblr

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

Tumblr's login page when I went there this morning; it's a different, user-posted image every time. 
Well, I rolled and I tumbled, cried the whole night long,
Well, I rolled and I tumbled, cried the whole night long,
Well, I woke up this mornin', didn't know right from wrong.
—"Rollin' and Tumblin'," Muddy Waters

Some time ago, I wrote a how-to post for Reddit, a social medium that I joined, and which I noticed had a rather steep learning curve. Today's post is like that, but for Tumblr, another social medium with a pretty steep learning curve.

Why use Tumblr? It's a service that's great for a few key things:
  • If you want to find stuff in a particular category to read, look at, think about, etc. (be it memes, politics, Sherlock fan art, or whatever), Tumblr has some excellent features that allow you to find and be presented with it regularly. 
  • If you want to present stuff (be it pictures of turtles, your stream of consciousness, or links to articles about cheese) in a steady stream to others, Tumblr is also great for that. 
  • Finally, Tumblr has a unique, loose-knit community of people with its own culture, and many of them are worth talking and listening to. 
I'll talk in a moment about how to dive into Tumblr, but first, a few notes on what Tumblr is like before we get too much further.

First, Tumblr's user base skews quite young; the site allows people as young as 13 to sign up, and they do. According to the above chart, it's just above Reddit in terms of average age, but note how many of the Tumblr users are in that 0-17 bracket. Tumblr sometimes suffers in the area of maturity as a result of this.

Next, note that Tumblr skews left politically, specifically toward the activist part of the left. If you're not already a hardcore leftist, it's possible Tumblr use will (1) turn you into one or (2) fill you with rage. Tumblr users create and circulate a healthy stream of ideas about feminism, gender, race, and class, and the site's culture encourages frank discussion of and no aversion to conflict over these subjects.

Finally, Like Reddit, Tumblr is a bit of a Wild West in terms of what people can and will say and do. You're anonymous by default on Tumblr, and I think it's safe to say that anonymity makes it easier to post inappropriate things.1 Fortunately, Tumblr has plenty of tools for helping you avoid the stuff you don't want to see and track down the stuff you do want to see.

~   ~   ~

So, let us commence with the "how to" of this how-to.

First, decide what you want to do with your Tumblr. Do you want to make a blog about something in particular, say pictures of Older Black People Who Look Younger Than Lorde, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Noses?2 Do you want to just post whatever makes you happy? Do you want to post nothing at all, and just use Tumblr to follow other people?

Once you've done that, go over to Tumblr and sign up; you can use your real email address to sign up—Tumblr doesn't email you very much, in my experience. Then, choose a user name that's appropriate to your purpose; most people choose something anonymous, but using your real, actual name isn't unheard of either (I use my real name, for example, mostly because I couldn't think of anything better at the time I signed up, and still haven't, really).

Once you sign in for the first time, Tumblr will give you some instructions on setting things up, and they're pretty helpful. You can spend a lot of time tweaking the look of your blog if you wish, but I find that most people's are pretty dang ugly, so don't worry about it too much. The reason for this is that Tumblr users generally don't look at each other's actual sites; instead, they see posts from all the people they follow on their dash, which is kind of like Facebook's newsfeed:

If you're putting together a themed blog, then go to town: you can create new posts by clicking on the appropriate post icon at the top of the dash. Post your stuff, and use the "tags" feature at the bottom of the post to make it searchable for other Tumblr users.

If you're just here to browse, you gotta find some blogs to follow. I suggest using the search bar at the upper right of your Tumblr dash to find stuff you're interested in. Search for a subject ("cat pictures," "belly flops," "corn pone recipe"), then click on a result to go check out the blog it comes from. If the description and the content of the blog seems good to you, click on the "+ follow" button in the upper right hand corner of the blog to follow them. (Alternative method: hover over their name anywhere it appears on your Tumblr dashboard or search results; their profile description should appear above their name, and you can choose to follow right then and there by clicking "follow" in the hover box.) From now on, everything that person posts will show up on your dashboard.

Once you have a bunch of blogs to follow, you can start interacting with the content on your dash. You can scroll through posts on your dash quickly with the "j" and "k" keys on your keyboard. If you see something you like, the bottom right of each post has buttons that will allow you to (1) go to the post on the person's actual blog, (2) reblog3 the post on your own Tumblr, or (3) like the post, which will save it for later in your likes section on your dash.

Them's the basics; you're now adequately prepared to use Tumblr.

~   ~   ~

Now, to the advanced material.

Once you're settled into using Tumblr and are pretty sure it's for you, there are some ways to make it easier and more fun to use:

The "Queue" feature on your dash, for example, will allow you to post things throughout the day; if you find a bunch of stuff to post but don't want to put it up all at once, this feature is for you. The "Activity" section can help you interact with others, since it notifies you when someone's responded to what you've posted.

Getting followers for your blog can be tricky; if that's a goal of yours (and it probably should be if you've come to the site for interaction and discussion), I can tell you what I've done to get it to happen. My method was as follows:
  • Figure out what my Tumblr-centric interests were, and focus on posting about them on my Tumblr.
  • Put these interests in my blog description. 
  • Look for posts about these subjects in the search bar. 
  • When I found a popular post, I would click on the "notes" in the lower left-hand corner of the post and see who had liked, reblogged, or otherwise responded to the post. I checked out these people's blogs and followed the ones that seemed relevant. 
  • In general, when I followed someone with similar interests to mine, they followed me back about half or two-thirds of the time.   
The other way is to get lucky; if one of your posts goes viral, you're likely to get a bunch of followers from that as well. This has happened to me twice. 

The most important advanced feature of Tumblr is not inherent to the site at all, but an external feature developed independently. It's called XKit; it's a browser extension that you can download and add to Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. There's also a mobile version for iPhones (as an Android user, my jealously knows no bounds). It has a ton of very useful stuff (I find it hard to use Tumblr without it now), but most of it is hard to explain if you're not already familiar with the site. Suffice it to say that if you decide to use Tumblr in earnest, run, do not walk, to your nearest XKit dealer and get it now.4

1. Sometimes an unsavory person or blog will follow you; go ahead and ignore them which is to say, use the Tumblr ignore feature), unless you're not so inclined.
2. I mean, those ideas are taken, so don't do them, unless you can do it way better, somehow.
3. Reblogging has a somewhat unique look on Tumblr; it creates a nested effect that allows you to see and involve yourself in extensive conversations with other users.
4. I'm kidding, of course. Just go to the link, or Google it. It's free for browsers and not-free for iPhones.