Teddy Wayne, Miley Cyrus, and Jezebel: White Culture, Free Speech Entitlement, and the Fear of Engagement

“I don’t pay attention to the negative. Because I…I’ve seen this play out so many…how many times have we seen this play out in pop music? You know now. You know what’s happening. Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it. Every VMA performance, anyone who perform — you know, anyone who performs. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re wanting to make history. Me and Robin [Thicke] the whole time said, ‘You know we’re out to make history right now.'” — Miley Cyrus, her first post-Video Music Awards interview on MTV News.

mlkgoogledoodle

On August 28, 2013, I fired up my browser on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was appalled. I was glad to see King recognized in a Google Doodle, but why were King’s words reduced to mere text? On January 16th, Google had celebrated Frank Zamboni’s 112th birthday with a game that allowed you to maneuver through an ice rink. On Valentine’s Day, you could click on a heart to rotate two Ferris Wheels. On February 19th, Copernicus’s 540th birthday was recognized with a slowly animated solar system. On June 10th, there had been an elaborate Maurice Sendak Doodle. Even Debussy’s 151st birthday ushered in an impressive animation set to “Clair de Lune.”

If the mainstream baseline of online culture could not be bothered to offer more than a perfunctory nod to King, what was the point in celebrating?

Days before, the Internet had been aflame with Miley Cyrus’s disastrous twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards. Beyond the trashy bombast, people were bothered by the cultural appropriation, with some commentators comparing the performance to a minstrel show. One of the smartest and most heartbreaking responses came from Tressie McMillan Cottom, who described one summer in which she and her then partner had been the only black couple during happy hour. White men and women approached Cottom with racist suggestions. She wrote about how the dancers behind Miley Cyrus fit into a wretched history of black female bodies as “production units.” She pointed out how “Cyrus might be the most visible to our cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, non-threatening spaces where white women can play at being ‘dirty’ without risking her sexual appeal.”

I had thought that white culture’s worst impulses could be curbed for a day with a dignified celebration of a man who, unlike Miley Cyrus, made history for the right reasons. Wasn’t King worth more than a static image or a token acknowledgment? Even with the expensive rights attached to the speech, couldn’t Google, estimated to be worth more than $200 billion, have kicked in a few clams to use the audio in its Doodle? Why had white culture silenced one of black culture’s most indelible icons fifty years after the fact? Wasn’t King worth more than a Zamboni?

* * *

Lindy West has spent the past few years establishing herself as an outspoken pundit on rape jokes and comedy with Jezebel posts such as “Hey, Men, I’m Funnier Than You” and “How to Make a Rape Joke.” She was invited to appear on the May 30, 2013 episode of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to discuss her views further with Jim Norton. She suffered abusive fallout.

But white culture overlooked one vital element of this regrettable chapter. West did not appear on The View or The Colbert Report, but a television show hosted by an African-American, a show that also happened to be a smart and entertaining corrective to The Daily Show‘s predominantly Caucasian concerns. The show often discussed issues pertaining to race. What’s striking about West’s exchange with Bell is how she adopted a pugnacious tone towards the amicable host from the beginning:

Bell: And so I’ll ask the same question to you, Lindy. Do you think comics should say anything they want without consequences?
West: Uh, well, first of all, I think that question is dumb.
Bell: Thank you. Thank you very much.
[STUDIO AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
West: Because…
Bell: (nodding his head up and down) Good start for me. This is feminist versus comic, not this comic [pointing to self]. Over there. [pointing to Jim Norton]
West: So sorry. Um, no, because, uh, everything has repercussions. So if you’re talking about legal repercussions, uh, yeah, I do not think that comedy should be censored. And we’re not here to talk about censorship. And I’m pretty sure we agree. Uh, what I’m talking about is the kind of repercussion where you choose to say something that, like, traumatizes a person who’s already been victimized and then I choose to call you a dick. And that’s the repercussion.

Bell asked a perfectly reasonable question for his television audience, many composed of African-Americans who may not have been acquainted with Jezebel, so that everyone could understand West’s position. What was West’s response? “I think that question is dumb.” She then asserted her privilege by stating that she had the right to call anyone a dick as a free speech repercussion.

On June 4, 2013, Lindy West posted a video and a blog post, in which West read a series of terrible threats that she received in response to her Totally Biased appearance. (The only reason the video hasn’t been embedded in this essay is because Jezebel hasn’t allowed it to be embedded at any other site, cheapening West’s response into pageviews and linkbait.)

The abuse directed West’s way was absolutely unacceptable. It revealed awful misogyny that will take a long time to shake from the American fabric. But this shouldn’t disavow West of her free speech position, which involves another person offering “repercussions” in response to a disagreeable position. Clearly, the people who fired off bilious invective took West up on her offer. The difference here is that West has painted herself, with considerable justification, as the victim. Nevertheless, in her post, West informed her readers who the “correct” people were to abuse. Of Jim Norton, West wrote that he had been “kind and thoughtful throughout this whole thing, so don’t be mean to him.” When comedians, who were understandably ired by West’s politically correct position, expressed umbrage, they too were implicated:

Local comics — whom I know and work with — have told me to shut the fuck up. One hopes I’ll fall down a flight of stairs. (He later apologized—to my boyfriend, not me.)

In other words, West was unwilling to hold herself responsible for her own remarks — which includes telling one of the classiest African-American hosts on television that his question was “dumb” — while simultaneously placing herself in an entitled position in which she was shielded from criticism. She could condemn standup comics who fired off rape jokes, but refused to consider the consequences of her own remarks or biases. (This behavior is quite similar to what Richard H. Cooper observed of Twitter celebrities in 2012, pointing to hierarchies in which the top tier “[dispenses] admonishments to proles who get impudent” while simultaneously avoiding introspection.)

On June 6, 2013, Bell aired a followup segment about the discussion (and its aftermath):

Bell: Thousands of men protested Lindy’s claim that rape jokes encourage a culture of violence against women. And how did they do that? By flooding her inbox with threats of violence against women. Yay! Men! We’re the worst! Come on, men, what are we doing? I feel gross being a part of a group this terrible. Is this what it’s like to be white?…Now people are saying that Lindy is against free speech. She’s not. She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation. Now maybe that point got lost somewhere in the debate. Personally I blame the moderator….All I’m really saying is that this Internet harassment has got to stop. And that’s why I’ve developed the new technology that will put an end to hate speech on the Internet. You guys have heard of CAPTCHA? You know, when you fill in stuff on the Internet? Yeah. Well, I’ve developed SHUTCHA. As in Shutcha Damn Mouth! Exactly. Yes. Basically, before you can send me any tweets, you have to fill out this SHUTCHA to prove that you have basic awareness of black people and black culture. For example, is this word spelled correctly? [“NIGER” flashed on screen.] If your answer is “no,” then I won’t be hearing from you and you’ll have to harass a local black in your area.

Bell’s SHUTCHA joke brilliantly pinpointed the problem with white culture: namely, its willful ignorance of black people and black culture. (This is also seen with such needless concomitant terms as “Black Twitter,” a catchall designate used by clueless white people to casually position African-American voices as some Other to be deprioritized and/or ignored). But because Bell had been put on the spot and was forced to stand up for Lindy West, he was unable to remark on the more severe problem of white culture’s appropriation of other cultures — what Kiese Laymon has referred to as “the worst of white folks”:

The worst of white folks, I understood, wasn’t some gang of rabid white people in crisp pillowcases and shaved heads. The worst of white folks was a pathetic, powerful “it.” It conveniently forgot that it came to this country on a boat, then reacted violently when anything or anyone suggested it share. The worst of white folks wanted our mamas and grandmas to work themselves sick for a tiny sliver of an American pie it needed to believe it had made from scratch. It was all at once crazy-making and quick to violently discipline us for acting crazy. It had an insatiable appetite for virtuoso black performance and routine black suffering. The worst of white folks really believed that the height of black and brown aspiration should be emulation of its mediocre self. The worst of white folks inherited disproportionate access to quality health care, food, wealth, fair trials, fair sentencing, college admittance, college graduations, promotions and second chances, yet still terrorized and shamed other Americans who lacked adequate access to healthy choices at all. White Americans were wholly responsible for the worst of white folks, though they would do all they could to make sure it never wholly defined them.

In other words, white culture believes that black people should emulate the very mediocrity that now forms its nostalgia-soaked identity. W. Kamau Bell is not permitted to push back at Lindy West without “repercussions,” but he is allowed to emulate her unexceptional intellectual position (“She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation.”) instead of expanding his shrewder and more sophisticated observations on male abuse and the racial dynamics of expression. Robin Thicke is free to rip off Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and turn it into one of this summer’s greatest hits (“Blurred Lines”) and, because he too represents the worst of white culture, he audaciously files a preemptive lawsuit against Gaye’s family to prevent them from seeking damages against Thicke’s pellucid appropriation, claiming, “Plaintiffs, who have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies, reluctantly file this action in the face of multiple adverse claims from alleged successors in interest to those artists.”

In August, white feminist culture was challenged by Mikki Kendall with the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, largely in response to the now disgraced Hugo Schwyzer:

It appeared that these feminists were, once again, dismissing women of color (WOC) in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women. For it to be at the expense of people who were doing the same work was exceptionally aggravating.

The sole Jezebel blog post on the hashtag is a collection of the best tweets rather than bona-fide intellectual jostling with this very serious grievance. There is also this condescending note at the bottom of the post:

Update: The originator of the hashtag page, Mikki Kendall, has been incredibly influential to this conversation and should have been at the top of this list. See her speak more on the hashtag here. To have not included her in the original post was an oversight. Apologies to Ms. Kendall.

This apology isn’t enough. Because without real commitment to thinking and true acknowledgment of one’s blind spots, there can be neither influence nor meaningful conversation. There can be only white culture, inured from disagreement, that monopolizes the dais and remarks upon black culture with a flip elitist tone that would be offensively facile if it weren’t so damn risible:

White culture doesn’t just want to plunder the best of black folks for callow entertainment. It wants to ensure that black culture is never explicitly identified as black. It wishes to soften any sharp edges. It wishes to promulgate endless articles that, as the podcast The Black Guy Who Tips recently put it, fuck with black people. The disgraceful imbalance of free expression identified by Stokely Carmichael in 1966 is still essentially the same: “the only acts that white people can do is to stop denying black people their freedom; that is, they must stop denying freedom. They never give it to anyone.”

This is far more insidious than white culture’s mere copycat relationship with black culture, observed by Norman Mailer in the Fall 1957 issue of Dissent. White culture has moved beyond the willful scavenging and sanding of black culture’s best bits because it feels that it must hog the spotlight. White culture is terrified of engagement. In a complicated world of turmoil, white culture continues to cleave to a new political privilege, in which there can be no room for hyperbole, extremist rhetoric, and what Jon Stewart has wrongly identified as “insanity.” There is no space within white culture to cultivate independent, original, provocative, and non-ideological inquiry. But there is relentless racial assumption, limitless listicles, time-eating timidity through hate-favoriting and subtweets on Twitter, and dull depositories for white culture fantasies such as NPR, The Awl, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Jezebel.

White culture is never about taking a step back and allowing another culture to express itself. It is driven by an intuitive imperialism, one that it can scarcely recognize, that involves blaring its own cultural standards through a megaphone manufactured in another century. Indeed, white culture’s most prolific literary spokesperson, Joyce Carol Oates, is not immune from such xenophobic disgrace. Earlier this year, when she remarked upon the complicated political situation in Egypt:

Ironically, many of these sentiments led Jezebel‘s Katie J.M. Baker to urge Oates to stop tweeting. Was a 75-year-old writer revealing the worst of white folks? How long would this be tolerated from the Establishment?

Not long, as it turned out. On Sunday, The New York Times published a satirical essay by Teddy Wayne upholding the the same white culture stereotypes that Miley Cyrus had sought to “make history” with:

Explain that twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women that involves the rapid gyration of the hips in a fashion that prominently exhibits the elasticity of the gluteal musculature.

Some of white culture swallowed this up without batting an eye:

But a new and hilarious hashtag, #askteddywayne, started making the rounds on Twitter, fighting back against Wayne’s McSweeney’s-style essay with humorous qualities that had eluded the ostensibly professional writer:

Teddy Wayne sent apologies to some of his detractors in private. But as of Wednesday afternoon, he has not offered a public apology. He has switched his Twitter account from public to private.

White culture has been slow to recognize and atone for Teddy Wayne’s essay. The only outlets that have covered this scrape at length are The Root, The Inquisitor, Galleycat, and The Nation. Even more astonishing, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan expressed her enthusiasm that Wayne’s piece was #2 on the New York Times‘s most emailed list, without appearing to comprehend why (other than that it was “funny”):

Perhaps Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Teddy Wayne, some of the people who write for Jezebel, the editor at The New York Times who allowed Wayne’s piece to run, and the people behind the Google Doodles really don’t comprehend how their responses and appropriation of black culture represent Laymon’s “worst of white folks.” They have seen the battles play out. They are familiar with some unspecified pattern, much as those who listen to a radio program in the background without really listening to it are dimly aware that there is something important being communicated. But they cannot engage with black culture. Like Cyrus, they won’t “pay attention to the negative.” Because to do so would be to confess to their own mediocrity. To do so with grace and candor would be to share the stage. To find true humility and humanity. To learn something.

White culture has had a very long run. But the time has come for those who make it and comment on it to understand that there is more to appropriating culture than the great white lie of “respect and admiration.”

The Bat Segundo Show: Peniel Joseph

Peniel Joseph appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #318. Mr. Joseph is most recently the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he lands on Plymouth Rock, or Plymouth Rock lands on him.

Author: Peniel Joseph

Subjects Discussed: Whether or not the bold declarations within Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech has been entirely heeded, the progress of African-American politics, revolutionaries vs. political pragmatists, Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, Michael Eric Dyson’s critiques of Obama, Jeremiah Wright’s perception, Obama’s failure to confront race, the February 19, 2009 New York Post cartoon, race as portrayed in Obama’s speeches, the Henry Louis Gates arrest, whether the beer summit was more of a symbolic gesture rather than a practical confrontation, black revolutionaries being denied publication in prominent mainstream outlets vs. Stokely Carmichael getting published in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, color-blind racism, the Nation of Islam’s bootrap and racial uplift strategies, Nixon seeing “black capitalism” as a promising prospect of Black Power, Fubu’s co-opting of Black Power slogans, black women and activism, misinterpretation of the Black Panther Party, the plasticity of ideology, Stokely Carmichael’s November 7, 1966 speech in Lowndes County, the fluidity of Black Power, Claiborne Carson’s In Struggle, Carmichael being wrongly accused of being the main influence on the SNCC Black Power position paper, misconceptions about Carmichael, Obama’s dismissal of Kwame Toure as a madman, the failure to celebrate Martin Luther King as a critic of American democracy, what Carmichael’s FBI file says about limited perspectives of black power figures, Carmichael’s antiwar stance, false government conclusions about Black Power, Tavis Smiley being taken to task for criticizing Obama, and prospects for new forms of Black Power radicalism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When Malcolm X delivered his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, you point out that newspapers ignored his more tangible call for one million new black voters for a black nationalist political party. Now black voters, as we all know, were instrumental in getting Obama elected in November. I’m wondering though — because they were not necessarily black nationalists — whether Malcolm X’s call was entirely heeded.

Joseph: Well, I think his call is going to be heeded into the next generation at least. When we think about when Malcolm said that in 1964, there was no congressional black caucus. There were no black senators since Reconstruction. There were no black governors. There wasn’t the wave of black mayors that we started having — starting in 1967, with Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana; Carl Stokes in Cleveland; by 1970, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey. In the early ’70s — ’73, ’74 — you’re going to have Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. By 1983, you have Harold Washington in Chicago. And that’s the Chicago that Barack Obama comes of political age in at least — even though he grows up in Hawaii, he’s born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. So I think African-American voters in the 1970s, in the 1980s, take heed to these politics of racial solidarity, for the most part. There’s going to be exceptions. People like Edward Brooke, the first black Senator elected in a general election in 1966 from the state of Massachusetts. Tom Bradley becomes Mayor of Los Angeles after the 1973 election in a city that only has 10% African-Americans. But for the most part, there’s really a racial script, where you’re going to get black elected officials in places like New Orleans. Mississippi becomes the state that has the most black state representatives and officials. It doesn’t have a senator. It doesn’t have a governor. But it has the most elected officials out of any of the states decades after the segregation of Freedom Summer and the assassinations of those three civil rights workers — Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman; two white and one black.

So when we think about Malcolm’s call, it is heeded during the ’70s and ’80s. But as we get into the ’90s and the 21st century, there’s going to be some real notable exceptions. People like L. Douglas Wilder, who becomes governor of Virginia in 1989. People like Deval Patrick, who becomes governor of Massachusetts in 2006. People like Barack Obama, who becomes a Senator out of Illinois in 2004. People like Carol Moseley Braun, who becomes a Senator in 1992. So when we think about racial politics, the politics of racial solidarity for elections is still there. When you think about Bobby Rush, who Obama ran against in 2000 for the South Side of Chicago Congressional District, that’s a black district. Most likely, you’re always going to have an African-American representative there. So the politics of racial solidarity are there. But at the same time, there’s a new class of African-American elected officials. People like Cory Booker in Newark, New Jersey, who are really doing a pan-racial appeal. There’s saying, “Look, I’m an elected official. I am also black, but I happen to be black.” They’re not coming out in a very robust way talking about black solidarity and that the reason why I should be Mayor of Newark is because I’m black. Michael Nutter in Philadelphia’s the same way. Deval Patrick, the same way. Where they’re saying, “I happen to be black, but I’m going to be an elected official for all people.”

Correspondent: I’m curious if it takes someone like a Harold Washington or an Obama to create that one particular figure who both revolutionaries and those who believe in the pragmatism — revolution can be pragmatism too in its own ways — but those who believe in elected politics. Because there’s always been a fractiousness going on between the two within the black power movement of the last four decades, in particular. So does it take some brand new figure to unite? Or is it possible to have someone who can leave a legacy beyond the elected moment?

Joseph: Well, I’d say that it depends upon the time period. Because when we look at the late ’60s and early ’70s, black militants and black elected officials had real coalitions and ties. I think the best example of that is Amiri Baraka and Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey — and also the Gary Convention in March of 1972. The Gary Convention was a national black political convention attended by 12,000 people. And the co-conveners were Congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan, Mayor Richard Hatcher from Gary, Indiana, and Amiri Baraka, who held no elected position and who was just a black nationalist poet and an organizer. So there was this coalition. But by the middle ’70s, that coalition is going to fracture — really amid mutual recriminations. Politicians are going to accuse militants of being wild-eyed dreamers who don’t understand the politics of governance and the pragmatism that governance really precipitates. I mean, to be an elected official is to be somebody who is pragmatic and to compromise. Militants are going to accuse black elected officials of being the worst kind of sellouts. People who really utilize the politics of racial solidarity to get into office. And as soon as they get into office, they use the power of municipal politics and City Hall to enrich themselves and their cronies. And I think you’re going to see that tension over the next forty years. But there’s going to be notable exceptions. One is Harold Washington, who has a coalition of pragmatists and militants and somehow, in four and a half years as mayor, manages to please them all. Because Washington is re-elected and dies of a heart attack right around Thanksgiving of 1987, but is very much well-regarded in Chicago. Another mayor is going to be, surprisingly, Marion Barry of the 1970s. At least the initial Barry. So Barry, before the huge controversies over crack cocaine and adultery and all this different stuff, had militants and moderates in his camp. And he managed to please both of them.

Correspondent: A very [Adam Clayton] Powell-like resurgence as well.

Joseph: Absolutely. Absolutely. And when we think about militants and moderates in the 2008 presidential election, you saw the social movement that surrounded Obama draw in pragmatists. And it also drew in revolutionaries. So sometimes you do see these transcendent figures. And, finally, the best example in the 1980s of that is Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson runs for President in ’84 and ’88 — really inspired by what Harold Washington was able to do. And Jesse gets three and a half million votes in the Democratic primaries in 1984. Seven million in 1988. And he really inspires both pragmatists and militants in that campaign.

Correspondent: But inevitably there still remains a fractiousness — possibly tied in, in Obama’s case, with the failure to discuss race, which you bring up in the book and which Michael Eric Dyson recently appeared on MSNBC in response to the Harry Read fiasco, pointing out that Obama was “a president who runs from race like a black man runs from a cop.” You point out, in your book, that Obama’s reluctance to embrace race is especially ironic in light of the fact that he has a public admiration for Lincoln. You note that “his appreciation remains a simplification in as much as it largely fails to deal with the sixteenth President’s extraordinarily complicated racial views.” So the question is whether that observation and Dyson’s remarks come from the same particular place. Does Obama’s many political compromises — which we were talking about earlier, the necessity of being a politician — essentially make his failure to confront race untenable?

Joseph: Well, it’s very interesting. I think that we’re living in a time period in which politicians can talk about race in a less open way than forty years ago. And I think that’s interesting. Because we usually think of progress as something that’s linear — it’s a linear narrative. So if it’s 2010, we should be able to talk about race better than we could in 1968. That’s not true in this case. We can talk about race in the late ’60’s in a much more candid way because of the civil rights act, because of the voting rights act, because of the race riots that we’re going on, because of the Kerner Comission. The New York Times used to be an organ in the late ’60s and early ’70s, where you had black militants who had a podium in the New York Times, were writing op-eds about black thinktanks and about the Gary Convention. The Washington Post was the same way. In a way that we would find — our generation — extraordinary. Because those august institutions won’t give black militants that kind of platform anymore. So the President of the United States, in terms of Barack Obama, one of the reasons why he won, race was a positive and a negative. It was a positive in the sense that, for a whole new generation of voters, especially those under 30, they found it quite refreshing that this man was running for President and took him very seriously. It was a negative, as we saw in the case of Jeremiah Wright, when critics of Obama, especially the right wing, could connect him to what was perceived as black extremism and anti-American sentiment. Including things like the Black Power movement. Because Jeremiah Wright is certainly coming out of a tradition of black liberation theology, which is rooted in that black power movement. People like James Cone. People like Reverend Albert Cleage out of Detroit. So I understand Dyson’s critique and, on some points, I actually agree with Dyson’s critique and others.

BSS #318: Peniel Joseph (Download MP3)

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