Black Identity, American Race Relations & Popular Media

Posted in 2014 The Gnovis Blog

Tip #1: If you’re Black and are trying to create awkward tension in a classroom at Georgetown, mention race.
In fact, the mere mention of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown will culminate in a room full of rolling eyes, blank stares, heavy sighs and obstinate “Should-we-be-talking-about-this?” facial expressions. Somehow there is an absurd belief that having an African American president eradicates racism in the United States and we automatically live in a post-racial society. Yet, just two months ago, a young Black teenager in North Carolina was found dead, hanging from a swing set with his arms tied back his back and investigators are iterating that no foul play was involved. Not only is race a key issue in America, the denial of racial tension in America is an even bigger problem.
With exceptions to the murder of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown – both instances where intense demonstrations followed the killings, thus gaining media attention – discussions on race and the institutionalized fear of blacks in America have been averted over the past four years. Minimal broadcast news attention has been drawn to the deaths of Jordan Davis, Lennon Lacy, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and others. In fact, the only method of obtaining constant coverage of investigation updates and vast public opinions following these murders is to stalk Twitter and Tumblr news feeds. Both social media sites have served as a launching pad for black activism and the assembly of a cyber community called #BlackTwitter or #BlackTumblr, where unfiltered sentiments on race are voiced. As the Washington Post explains, Black Twitter is a micro-society within the social media site that caters to the interest of young blacks online, a quarter of whom are active on Twitter. The article reports, “…the rallying cry surrounding the death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride began with writer and activist Dream Hampton tweeting about McBride before going to Detroit to demand justice for her (McDonald 2014). These digital communities have raised the bar for social accountability, even if mainstream media attempts to move on to the next news story. While buzz around Ferguson riots found a spot on television news broadcasts for the first three weeks following Brown’s murder, Twitter and Tumblr kept the conversation going much longer.
Despite people cringing when discussing the race relations in America, Twitter, Tumblr and now — thanks to Justin Simien, a nascent black filmmaker — “Dear White People” has fostered a safe haven for sans-sugarcoated dialogues about race. Feminist and author bell hooks stated in her essay Revolutionary Attitudes that “the emphasis on film is so central because it … determines how blackness and black people are seen and how other groups will respond to us based on their relation to these constructed and consumed images.” Using this argument, Simien – the producer, director and writer of “Dear White People” – created a satirical film, using it as a tool to spark discussion.
The controversially titled movie hit theaters October 17 and has done fairly well in the box office thus far, garnering just under $2.9 million. The fictional but all-too-accurate motion picture follows the lives of four black students attending an Ivy League college and examines the pushback they receive from their White counterparts as they deal with what it is to be a politically correct black face in a white place. As someone who has seen this film, I can undoubtedly say “Dear White People” allows for ample amounts of laughter. However, it balances out with relevant, note-worthy moments that forced me to seriously consider my role in settings like Georgetown versus who I am seen as in the Black community. This piece of art isn’t a Black film. It’s a film for anyone who cares about the state of humanity.
Maybe we need a movie like Fruitvale Station, to resuscitate the urgency of addressing race in 21st century America. There is a taboo-filled air that resides in America where people think that chaos will ensue if race is discussed. But, in fact, avoiding the issue is guaranteed to worsen race relations in this country. The fact is  race is not discussed enough in America thus the need for “Dear White People” and Black Twitter. Race isn’t just the slave trade or Reconstruction. Discussions on race are not meant to be easy and they shouldn’t be watered down to make people feel comfortable. As bell hooks would say, we can no longer “avert our gaze”. So, Tip #2: If you want to create an atmosphere for change in society, mention race.
McDonald, Soraya Nadia. “Black Twitter: A virtual community ready to hashtag out a response to cultural issues.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post. 20 January 2014. Web. 1 November 2014.
hooks, bell. “Introduction: Revolutionary Attitudes” Blacks Looks: Race and Representation. (1992). 349-352. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.