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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/15/10

Racism in the Elevator. Misogyny in the Video Production Room.

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This video clearly wants to make a social statement. Does it succeed?
This video clearly wants to make a social statement. Does it succeed?
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I just came across a video that I'm pretty sure was intended as a statement of anti-racism. I'm also pretty sure it fails in that intention. More than that, I think it's one huge step backwards.

I hate writing anything that is critical of any attempt at anti-racism. It's hard to put yourself on the line. By any measure, it's much easier and safer to remain silent. But the silence is deadly. It allows our racist systems to continue to operate unchallenged. It validates interpersonal prejudice and bias. We need to have more people who can recognize the bias and help others recognize it as well. And if they fail in their anti-racism attempt, well who among us hasn't? If you ride a wild bronco, you're bound to fall off eventually. No shame in that. It's just part of the process, and usually I want to celebrate the effort. Usually!

The video below is an exception, a painful one for me to even watch, much less celebrate, and given its popularity (almost 3 million views on youtube alone), I see it as a failure of epic proportions. I'll elaborate, but let's pause to watch. It's called "Racism in the Elevator".

It's important to me to acknowledge that the video is not without redeeming qualities. As my Twitter friend Jo Nubian (@beautynubian) tweeted last night: "The purse grab is an aspect of the Black criminal/savage meme that is so engrained socially, its almost unnoticeable." To wit, anything that makes three million people take notice is worthy of some positive regard, particularly when stereotypes of Black criminality are so widely held, particularly when the criminal justice system is racially biased beyond repair.

What I'm saying is that I have no beef with the video's problem definition. None. The purse-grab may seem like a subtle act, but it's horrifically destructive in its (often unconscious) assumption of violence and criminality -- in Black women, as well as Black men, in other people of color too. I'm glad someone is calling our attention to it. I just wish it were done in a way that had a chance at being effective and didn't denigrate women in the process.

The word "b*tch" is denigrating, demeaning, dehumanizing. And all that aside, its use in this context reinforces the very negative stereotypes it tries to dispel. My twitter friend, Shulamit Berlevtov (@shuliji), who is usually perceived as white, tweeted "The misogyny I perceive in this video frightens me more than his blackness. I feel nauseous and teary." I agree. I feel the same way. The video's misogynistic tone overrides any empathy, righteous justice, and camaraderie I would normally feel. I'll admit it. After watching this video, I don't want to hang out with this guy.

I get that he's angry. I do. And I agree that his anger is justified (see paragraph under the video above), and if this was a real encounter captured on film, I might be willing to attribute his outburst to frustration and loss of control. But this (obviously) was not a real incident captured on film but a scripted and staged encounter. As such, the man in the video did not utter "b*tch" out of frustration. He uttered it because, as the script writer, he thought the important/best thing to do in such a situation is to assert his own power and put the woman in her place. And yes, I see it as a misogynistic act, all the more so when I view it in the context of the alternate version (below).

Not everyone sees it this way. Jo Nubian tweeted that though she thought the use of the word "b*tch" was sexist, she thought it was justified in this particular context because it came from a frustrated response from being discriminated against. Another popular Black female blogger (@sistertoldja) who I also hold in high regard, wrote that, in the context of the video, the word 'b*tch' did not imply misogyny in the way the N-word implies racism. She then added, "When that happens to me, 'b*tch' is one of the words I say in my head, to be honest." The next day she postedthis thoughtful blog on the topic:

I think the b-word is one that we need to wield with caution. I don't mistake female strength or aggression with being a b*tch, nor do I think it's the appropriate utterance every time a woman does something wrong. I've called men "b*tches' and women "assh*oles' and it didn't mean that the former was acting "like a woman' or vice versa. When I watched that tape, I didn't feel like the man was attempting to use patriarchy to reassume power or lash back at this woman. I felt like he called her the same word that I would have used in that situation.

Apparently, it's complicated. And I don't want to remove the complexity. I want to acknowledge that Black men (and women) have a right to be angry about the purse grab. I think the anger (and the hurt too) are justified, and I wish that the outrage was shared by every justice-minded person. I also acknowledge that I live in this world as a white person, a white, male person, and this undoubtedly affects my experiences and perceptions. I am certainly not unaware that the voices that supported the video's message were all Black. This matters to me. I don't want to be blinded by my whiteness. It's why I tried to understand the alternative perspective, and why I'm trying to represent it fairly here. At the same time, the Black community is far from single-minded on this issue, and at the end of the day, I continue to disagree with the strategy in the video.

First of all, the word "b*tch" is painful to a lot of people and literally dehumanizing in that it's a term used for female dogs. That some women, including the estimable @sistertoldja, don't find it objectionable is meaningful, but it doesn't change the fact that other women do, as evident in this short documentary film titled Shh...b*tch.

And if we can agree that many women (and men) find the word "b*tch" degrading, then doesn't that suggest that the word should only be used when there's a shared agreement that it's acceptable?

Obviously, such an agreement was not present in this video. To the contrary, in the context of the video, the word was used for the sole purpose of inflicting pain. This is supposedly justified on the grounds that the woman, by grabbing her purse, perpetrated a racist act but since when does being victimized by one type of oppression give the victim permission to dehumanize someone else? Since when does one "ism" justify the use of another?

And there's more here too. The video makes the assumption that the woman perpetrated a racist act (and therefore deserves to be personally punished), but how do we know this to be true. Not to deny that such behavior usually reflects either intentional racism or unconscious fear/bias (which is also racist in its effect), but how do we know that this particular person was guilty of either form of racism as opposed to say, distrustful of men in general due to a personal history of sexual and physical assault? Does the possibility of personal innocence matter when that person's racial group has been determined "guilty"?

I know. I know. I'm reading too much into it. This is a skit after all, one whose purpose is to show an insidious behavior that usually goes unseen. The woman is, therefore, not real but a representation of all women who have ever grabbed their purse under such circumstances. The response is not so much directed at her but at all those other women. She is a representation, a symbol, and if she's a symbol then there can be no possibility of innocence. I get that.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and courses on restorative justice.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the outcomes associated with restorative responses via Conflict 180.

In addition to conflict and restorative (more...)

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