Here is an example of what I’m hearing from many white people in my community:
“I don’t see what the big deal is”
“She’s just 20, cut her some slack”
“She can shake her ass if she wants”
“Doesn’t she have any self-respect?”
“What a horrible outfit”
"Why is she grinding on Beetlejuice?”
“She’s just doing what every other young artist does”
“Why isn’t anyone criticizing Robin Thicke for his part?”
In contrast, this is the most popular discussion being had amongst my POC friends:
“Stop using black women as accessories”
“Did she seriously just try to play bongos on a black woman’s ass?”
“Black people are not just twerking and fake grills”
“We are not a joke”
“Don’t play black unless you want to BE black”
I have 551 Facebook friends and hundreds in my twitter community. Probably 70% of that community is white, most would call themselves feminists and only ONE white friend has mentioned the exploitation of black women and black culture in that performance. This has concerned me, but I’m an optimistic person and I try to give my friends the benefit of the doubt. So when I see people say, “I don’t see what the big deal is” I let them know what the “big deal” is: black people as a whole have often been depicted as animalistic, sexually compulsive, loud, crude and violent. When your idea of a “black feel” is twerking, wearing brass knuckles, simulating sex acts, dressing black women up as animals and playing bongos on their asses for a mostly white audience, you are reinforcing those harmful stereotypes and making money off of them. This isn't just rude, this isn't just in poor taste – it hurts people of color and especially women of color.
So I explain this to my friends, hoping that they will see what I’m talking about and maybe say, “you’re right, that shit is not okay.” Some friends have been awesome and have thanked me for adding my opinion and giving them something to think about. A few have wholeheartedly agreed with my statements. But that’s not usually the response I get. What I usually hear is this:
“Well, yeah, but that’s been going on for ages. Don’t blame her.”
“Well, I’m sure she didn't come up with that herself.”
“I don’t think she knows it’s offensive.”
“Elvis was way worse.”
‘Can’t we just focus on how shitty her music is?”
‘You’re right, that’s really bad, but it’s not really what I was talking about.”
Or – silence.
My community isn't usually silent. My friends aren't usually apologists. They are usually empathetic, loud, crusaders of justice. I've seen Athiest friends scream about discrimination against Muslims, I've seen straight friends campaign for gay marriage. But while I go to any dinner party in Seattle and someone always gets drunk enough to tell me that they “don’t see color” and think “racism is stupid” – they don’t really seem comfortable discussing the everyday racism that permeates our culture and even less likely to even think about addressing cultural appropriation. It makes me wonder, “Is this where we draw the line? Is this as far as our friendship goes?”
I’ve asked a couple of friends why they stay silent and they will often say that they are uncomfortable and that:
1) they don’t want to make a white friend angry, or
2) they don’t want to have a black friend say that they don’t belong in the conversation or
3) there’s nothing they can say that will change a bigot’s mind so why bother
But let me say this:
1) How can you have a white racist friend and a black friend and not speak up? Are you really able to compartmentalize someone’s blind hatred for another person that you care about based solely on skin tone? If your child was black, would you still have that racist friend, now that it directly affects you?
2) There may well be some black people who are distrustful of your actions should you choose to speak up, and yes, it will likely be uncomfortable if you are told to “mind your own business”, but if the chance of that happening is keeping you from speaking up, then you are chickenshit. Because you know what is uncomfortable? Dealing with the constant barrage of racist shit that POC encounter every day. That shit is REAL uncomfortable, and we can’t escape it. We can’t ignore that in our Facebook feeds, we can’t decline to comment and wait until it blows over so we can get back to posting about the great sandwich we ate for lunch. These stereotypes, they affect my ability to get a job. They affect my children’s ability to get a good education. They affect the level of protection I receive from police. They affect my safety around men. They reach every corner of my life.
3) You really think you can’t affect change? How do you think change happens – magic? If nothing ever changed we’d still have slavery and women wouldn’t be able to vote and we’d be drowning witches in the Puget Sound. Change happens, and it happens because PEOPLE make it happen. It’s not like racism and sexism just expire.
You can’t be a “feminist” and talk about how bad slut shaming of a white girl is while ignoring her blatant sexual exploitation of black women. You can’t say that you believe in equality but only fight injustices that affect you. You can’t say you “don’t see color” if you aren’t willing to make yourself the slightest bit uncomfortable to defend your friends of color (although, really – please stop saying you “don’t see color” either way). This is true for those of us staying silent on issues affecting the LGBTQ members of our community or members of our community with disabilities; we can’t just be outraged when it’s easy. When some idiot says something ridiculous and full of hate on Fox News, or when a gay man gets beat up on Capitol Hill we all post outraged statuses because that shit is easy. We have to tackle the shit that props all that up. These smaller injustices are the bricks that build the castle that bigotry rules from and every little instance of discrimination we see has to be fought, even if that means we have difficult discussions with friends and family, even if it means we can’t enjoy that pop song with the catchy beat, even if it means we can’t wear that bindi that looks “so cool”. Please make room within your privilege for these discussions and I will work hard to do the same. Please, be a friend.