Author Archives: Darkling

About Darkling

I am Darkling, one of the five university students responsible for running this blog! I look forward to posting about gender, race, and popular culture!

Respectability Politics and Decontextualization in Media Coverage of Martese Johnson’s Arrest – Darkling

On March 18th, 2015, at 12:45am, University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was violently arrested outside of Trinity Irish Pub by Alcohol Beverage Control Agents. Beaten into the pavement and brutally handcuffed while being pinned down, Johnson was left with a gash across his face requiring ten stitches. The blood pouring from his head wounds splattered the sidewalk.

In the days that followed, various media outlets reported that the arrest occurred because Johnson was in possession of a fake ID, but according to statements released by Johnson’s lawyer, the identification Johnson provided was his real driver’s license, and the discrepancy over which ABC agents initially approached Johnson was that he gave his mother’s current postal code instead of the one listed on the license (Kingkade). According to onlookers, the ABC officers rapidly escalated the situation through the use of unnecessary force. Video footage of the arrest shows Martese Johnson calling out in pain, repeatedly stating “I go to UVA,” and eventually shouting “F*cking racists. F*cking racists” at the officers arresting him (Heskett). Demands for an investigation posit that the violence of the individual arrest is situated within a widespread culture of antiblack racism: black boys and men are disproportionately targeted by police for minor transgressions, and Martese Johnson’s arrest falls into that pattern of racially motivated police brutality.

None of this is adequately addressed in the BBC’s March 19th article “Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” Although it is arguable that the absence of many significant details is due to the article’s brevity, the choice to exclude information that places the police brutality in a broader context of institutionalized racism is suspect. While the article quotes a student who believes the violence was unwarranted, and mentions that the Virginia Governor’s office has asked for an independent investigation into the use of force, the article does nothing to explicitly address the arrest as a symptom of institutionalized antiblack racism.

The BBC article quotes the white agents who arrested Johnson as saying he “was very agitated and belligerent.” This particular language is insidious: it implies violence, aggression, and defiance on Johnson’s part, but carefully avoids the specifics of the arrest. Later in the article, the charges against Martese Johnson are briefly cited to be “obstruction of justice without force, and public swearing or intoxication.” By quoting the officers earlier in the article, the BBC prioritizes their racially coded interpretation of the incident over the charges with which Johnson is faced. The charges show that Johnson did not physically resist arrest, and that there is no definitive evidence of drunkenness: the “public swearing” to which the charges refer occurred after extreme and unnecessary force was employed against Johnson. The language used by the officers to describe Johnson is subtly racially coded: it turns his justifiable anger into unwarranted aggression, and presents his use of swear words as more violent than the physical violence to which he was subjected.

The only quote from Johnson himself that the BBC chose to include was his request at a protest that “you guys…please respect everyone here [and that] we really are one community” (BBC). As with the rest of the article, the quotation does nothing to address the broader systemic injustice underlying the arrest. Video of the arrest, and subsequent interviews and statements show that Johnson recognizes his arrest as part of state-sanctioned antiblack racism. In this context, the BBC’s choice of quote from Johnson fits into a broader pattern of white people and media selectively choosing messages from black people that do not threaten current social order. Ignoring Johnson’s awareness of the racialized nature of the arrest, and his desire for justice, the BBC article focuses on messages of “respect” and “community” in a manner that decontextualizes the violence, and places responsibility on marginalized people to maintain peace by policing their emotions and methods of resistance to oppression. It creates a falsely egalitarian structure in which black student protesters are presented as having as much power to shape the outcome of protests as institutions of law enforcement—and therefore equal culpability in the event that further violence is enacted by police. These same tactics are routinely employed by white people and media to justify violence against black bodies by police elsewhere: in Ferguson, the use of teargas, rubber bullets, riot gear, and tanks by police was determined acceptable because the protesters were depicted as “looters” and “rioters.” As with white people who selectively quote Martin Luther King Jr. to tell black people how to respond to state sanctioned violence enacted against them, the BBC’s choice of quote from Johnson is meant to condemn expressions of black protest and resistance that harm institutions of white supremacy.

Something not mentioned in the BBC article, but brought up in most sympathetic media coverage, is that Johnson is the only black member of the university’s Honor Committee. This fact is brought up frequently because of respectability politics: often, violence against black people is justified in the media because of their attire, past criminal record, level of education, or other factors that make them expendable in a racist and classist society. Respectability politics tell black youth that in order to prevent themselves from being victimized by police, they must behave in a way that is not associated with stereotypical black masculinity. It is a form of victim blaming that is used to justify state violence against black bodies and lives, and devalues all black people who fail to meet the nebulous and unspecified criteria for acceptable blackness under white supremacy. Johnson, however, embodies politics of respectability: he is a double major at a prestigious university, a member of the school’s Honor Committee, involved in campus affairs; he speaks American Standard English, and dresses in clothes associated with an upper class position. In a society where education is presented as a “social, economic, and racial equalizer…Johnson’s educational success should theoretically protect him from [racist stereotypes] of violence and inherent criminality” (Bennett). Although not included in the article, video of the arrest shows Johnson repeatedly declaring that he attends UVA: by invoking his education, Johnson attempts to access a form of social currency that respectability politics dictates will negate or supersede his marginalized racial status. The failure of his educated status to protect him serves as a grim reminder of the reality of antiblack racism in the US (and globally): there is no acceptable way to be black under white supremacy.

It is possible that the BBC article is attempting to avoid promoting politics of respectability by not mentioning Martese Johnson’s academic success. It is also possible that brevity, and not a deliberate attempt to decontextualize the arrest, is behind the exclusion of many details that link it to institutionalized racism. It is more likely, however, that these omissions are the result of an inability to recognize black value, even when it appears to conform to white standards of acceptability. It is more likely that the BBC, as media dominated by white people and ideals, wishes to perceive Johnson’s arrest as an isolated, possibly deserved instance of violence, than as the symptom of a greater social ill.

Thanks for reading! It has been a pleasure posting here this semester. I hope that everyone in my group (and in our class as a whole) will continue to identify and combat systemic injustice wherever they see it.

-Darkling

Works Cited

Bennett, Amanda. “Your College Degree Won’t Protect You From Institutional Racism.” Huffington Post. 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-bennett/your-college-degree-wont-_b_6905284.html>

Clifton, Derrick. “7 Phrases Everyone Needs to Stop Using to Describe Black People.” Identities.Mic. 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.<http://mic.com/articles/99182/7-racially-coded-phrases-that-everyone-needs-to-stop-saying-about-black-people>

Heskett, Chloe. “University Student, Honor Committee Member Martese Johnson Arrested.” Cavalier Daily. 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.<http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2015/03/university-student-honor-committee-member-martese-johnson-arrested>

Kingkade, Tyler. “Martese Johnson Did Not Have a Fake ID, Attorney Says.” Huffington Post. 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/19/martese-johnson-fake-id_n_6906044.html>

Trudy. “Whites Dehumanize Dr. Martin Luther King, Kr. into a Trope to Silence Black People.” Gradient Lair. 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 7 Apr. 2015 <http://www.gradientlair.com/post/103591208648/stop-using-mlk-as-a-silencing-tool>

“Virginia Governor Calls for Inquiry into Student Arrest.” BBC News. 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-31965856>

White Queerness, Black Alienation: Exploring the Link Between Racialized Transmisogyny and White Queer Racism

Laverne Cox’s Speech: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/laverne-cox-intersection-what-to-do/

In a speech on the intersections of racism, transphobia, and misogyny, Lavern Cox, black transgender actress and activist, identifies ways that hate crimes against members of the LGBTQIAP+ community disproportionately target trans women of colour. She proposes that most violence aimed at queer people, regardless of whether they are cisgender or transgender, is derived from a desire in the mainstream to enforce binary models of gender performativity. As a black trans woman, Cox also discusses encountering transmisogyny at the hands of black cisgender men in a way that her white trans counterparts do not: she immediately counters the notion that black men are more transphobic, and instead identifies racial trauma as contributing to black male unease with black trans women. Cox attributes the trauma to slavery and Jim Crow era lynchings, during which “the men’s genitals were cut off [and kept by white lynchers, betraying a] historic fear and fascination with black sexuality” (Cox). According to her, some cisgender black people see her “trans woman’s body, and feel that [it is] the embodiment of this historical emasculation” (Cox). Quoting Cornell West’s statement that “justice is what love looks like in public,” Cox suggests that to counter transmisogynistic, racialized violence and bigotry, there needs to be honest, genuine communication stemming from a place of love. As long as white members of the LGBTQIAP+ community blame and alienate black people, and present whiteness as ubiquitous with queerness and transness, the world is made exponentially more dangerous for trans women of colour, and black trans women in particular.

Stereotyping black communities as being more transmisogynistic, transphobic, and homophobic than any other racial group fosters white supremacy: it functions to erase systemic oppression on multiple axes, putting the onus on black people for the perpetuation of violence and bigotry against the LGBTQIAP+ community. When whiteness is seen as synonymous with queerness, the priorities of white, economically advantaged, cisgender community members become the sole focus of LGBTQIAP+ activism and organizing, leaving trans women of colour vulnerable to systemic violence and exploitation. With the trans community already marginalized within mainstream LGBTQIAP+ organizing, the role of white supremacy serves to utterly devalue and alienate trans women of colour. In an article for Slate Magazine, journalist Parker Marie Molloy uses the suicide of Leelah Alcorn to critique the media’s pattern of ignoring racialized transmisogyny: when “trans women of colour [are] murdered at a rate of roughly one per week, [the media should] recognize this violence for what it is—an epidemic” (Molloy). While the reaction to Alcorn’s death is good, the contrasting lack of regard for the lives and deaths of trans women of colour highlights the degree to which only white lives are valued by the media and mainstream LGBTQIAP+ community.

A troubling historical precedent of ignoring trans women of colour exists within the LGBTQIAP+ community: journalist Eunbyul Lee points to the Stonewall Riots as “a classic example of the whitewashing of trans legacies. [While Stonewall is lauded] as a cornerstone of the white gay liberation movement…crucial TWOC leaders like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major [are ignored and erased]” (Lee). The whitewashing of trans and queer history serves to reinforce that these marginalized sexual and gender identities are inherently white, and positions trans women of colour as aberrations. It is not difficult, then, to see why the street harassment Lavern Cox experiences from black men is derived from a sense that she is “a disgrace to the race because [she is] trans” (Cox). For decades, white gay and lesbian movements have actively set themselves in opposition to blackness as a means of gaining social status and security. Instead of recognizing the marginalization black trans women experience, they actively distance themselves, and present white gay and lesbian identity as confined to a gender binary and social normative. In order to achieve acceptance within a heteropatriarchal, white supremacist, imperialist society, “[white] gay and lesbian [activism lays] claims to imperilled domesticity, privacy, and kinship” (Bassichis, Spade 195). The emphasis on marriage equality—compared to the lack of focus or resources directed towards violence against trans women of colour—illustrates the desire among white, cis, middle-to-upper class queer people to integrate into an oppressive system. Other projects, like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign, also illustrate “a form of gayness implicitly linked to whiteness and upward mobility” (196) and “generalize a particular narrative in which white queers can ‘escape’ homophobia…[unlike] queer and trans people who will remain targets of policing [and other state sanctioned violence]” (196). Trans and queer people of colour cannot attain the social status afforded white, cisgender gay people, or participate in respectability politics that treat cis, white bodies as normative, and trans, non-white bodies as Other. If LGBTQIAP+ politics make inclusion within the state a priority, they invariably participate in a system that devalues black life. From housing and employment discrimination to criminalization and mass incarceration, black people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are harmed by the institutions to which white, cis gay and lesbian organizers look for validation and support (200).

White discourse within mainstream gay and lesbian politics frequently places the blame for homophobic legislation upon black voters, as with the passing of Proposition 8 in California, during which white, cis, gay organizers actively accused black people of being more homophobic than white people (197). When white, middle-to-upper class subsets of the community are actively dismissive of and hostile to the ongoing struggle for black humanity to be recognized and defended, cisgender, heterosexual people of colour are implicitly taught to connect LGBTQIAP+ organizing with their racial trauma. As Laverne Cox points out, the homicide rate for trans women of colour is the “highest in the LGBTQ community [comprising] 54% of all LGBTQ homicides” (Cox). This damaging and dishonest binary between white queerness and blackness ensures that trans women of colour, and black trans women especially, have no community to turn to for support and protection. To reduce violence against trans women of colour, it is vital that mainstream LGBTQIAP+ organizations actively address the racism they perpetuate, and work to provide support for trans and queer women of colour.

Until next time!

-Darkling

Works Cited

Bassichis, Morgan, and Dean Spade. “Queer Politics and Anti-Blackness.” Queer Necropolitics. Eds. Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman, Silvia Posocco. New York: Routledge, 2014. 191-203. Print.

Cox, Laverne. “Laverne Cox Explains the Intersection of Transphobia, Racism, and Misogyny (And What to Do About It).” Everyday Feminism. 7 Dec. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.     <http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/laverne-cox-intersection-what-to-do/&gt;

Molloy, Parker Marie. “Trans Women of Color Deserve to be Mourned as Much as Leelah Alcorn.” Slate. 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 7 Mar. 2015. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/ 2015/02/13while_the_media_focuses_on_leelah_alcorn_murders_of_trans_women_of _color.html>

Lee, Eunbyul. “Who Gets to be Human in Death?: Leela Alcorn and Trans Legacies.” Black Girl Dangerous. 6 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2015. <http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/ 2015/01/gets-human-death-leelah-alcorn-trans-legacies/>

Girlhood: A Beginning – Darkling

It is rare, in cinema, to see the joys, pains, struggles, and hopes of dark-skin black girls centred and celebrated: tokenized, fetishized, dehumanized, mocked, violated, caricaturized, certainly—but rarely do black girls and teens have the chance to see themselves portrayed as complex human beings. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), which I had the pleasure of watching at ReelOut, is not perfect, but it is certainly a start.

Set in the projects on the outskirts of Paris, Girlhood stars newcomer Karidja Touré as Marieme, a sixteen-year-old whose low grades have barred her from continuing her education on an academic tract. Frustrated and uncertain of her prospects, Marieme’s life is changed when she meets a group of three older girls whose freedom and confidence captivate her. Throughout the film, Marieme’s self-worth is bolstered by the sisterhood she forms with her friends, but her development is not without a price: being part of the band of girls requires Marieme to participate in violence, and at home, her already strained family relationships are highlighted as she seeks identity and self. By the end of the film, Marieme is forced to cut all ties with her family and friends, but through the support and love of the band of girls, she has grown into her own person.

A scene in Girlhood that has garnered attention in critical reviews is the one in which the four girls, having booked a night at a hotel room, dance and lip-sync together to Rihanna’s “Diamond.” The cinematography is beautiful and ethereal: the room is dark and the girls are bathed in deep, bright blue light. Marieme watches as first two, and then three of her friends dance together, laughing, their bodies close and connected. Eventually, she joins them, first abashedly and shyly, then with more confidence. It is this scene that truly encapsulates what is powerful and good about the film—that it is a celebration of black girlhood, in all its tenderness and joy, solidarity and friendship. In a film that is often violent and emotionally devastating, the innocent delight the girls take in their own bodies and in each other is a moment of beauty. The scene, and many other aspects of the film, challenges the homogenization and devaluing of dark-skin black women. In a society where racializing scripts dictate that dark-skin women must be relegated to the background of visual culture to serve as walking embodiments of negative stereotypes, and as props to benefit the narratives of light-skin or white women, this extended scene celebrating the beauty and humanity of the four girls is very powerful. In Girlhood, every central character is dark-skinned, and their personalities, emotions, and lives are distinct and believable.

The hotel room scene succeeds in its depiction of the girls, and there are many other instances throughout the film where their playfulness, humour, and fierce love for one another is emphasized. Whether confronting a white shop girl who racially profiles Marieme, or throwing themselves heart and soul into a game of mini-golf, the central characters of Girlhood are portrayed with great nuance. That is not to say, however, that Girlhood does not have its problems. While the film does seem to work to address intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality in the marginalization of Marieme and her friends, it does not directly deconstruct them, and frequently presents the results of marginalization without their context—a narrative that can contribute to victim-blaming of oppressed groups. Throughout Girlhood, the four girls repeatedly engage in conflict with other girls—usually other dark-skin black girls. It is arguable that Sciamma’s film focuses too narrow on intracommunal violence instead of questioning or challenging the internalized misogynoir that positions black girls as enemies to each other. Further substantiating this notion is the fact that the most prominent aggressor in Marieme’s world is her older brother: black masculinity is often constructed as hyperaggressive, and serves to dehumanize and vilify black men. By focusing narrowly on Marieme’s community, the film fails in many ways to account for larger social forces that contribute to the community’s disenfranchisement. Here, the positionality of the director becomes important: although Girlhood is centred around black girls, Céline Sciamma is a white woman, and her representations of Marieme and her world should not be accepted uncritically. As audience members, it is also important for us to examine our positionality, and our situated knowledge: we must ask ourselves what elements of the film that we accept as true are based in our preconceived notions and understandings as observers. What aspects must we question and challenge as viewers?

Kingston is still a predominantly white city, and for me, this has always been alienating: walking out of the Screening Room as the ending credits played, I did not feel alienated. In the lobby, I encountered many of my black and mixed-race friends, and we tripped over our words in our excitement to utter them.

“The cinematography was so beautiful—that hotel room scene with the blue light—”

“What about the minigolf?”

“I just hope that Marieme is alright in the end—”

Girlhood was not perfect. It should not go unchallenged. But in the minutes following the film’s ending, we were not critically analysing anything. What Girlhood gave us was 112 minutes in which white people were not the focus, and in which the emotional journey of a dark-skin black girl and her friends could be the heart of a beautifully rendered feature film. Watching Girlhood in a small theatre surrounded by people who, like me, left feeling stronger and more complete, is not an experience I would trade for anything.

Thank you for reading!

Darkling