"Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess." – Donna Haraway

I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes when I heard that Seth MacFarlane was hosting the Oscars. I don’t “get” Family Guy. Not even the Star Wars episodes. When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler did an amazing job at the Golden Globes, the prospect of MacFarlane hosting the Oscars seemed like an even worse choice. Rather than watch alone, my partner and I made a few dishes named after cheesy movie title puns and had a few friends over. As a result, I pretty much stayed offline much of Sunday. MacFarlane was predictably awful, but watching was made better by doing so with friends.

I signed on to Twitter this morning and it turns out that MacFarlane wasn’t the worst thing about the Oscars this year. Instead, the worst thing has been the media’s treatment of Quvenzhané Wallis. Where to begin?

Well, this rundown of the situation by Arturo García at Racialicious is a pretty good background primer.

As others have pointed out, white child actresses have never been subjected to this kind of treatment. The tweet from The Onion was reprehensible. After the apology, as people continued to discuss the incident, the following appeared in my tweet stream:

apology-tweet

I blurred out the identity of the writer because it is not my intention to direct ire at him. I’d prefer to address the attitude, which seems quite prevalent. Yes, the tweet was retracted. And yes, The Onion issued a thoughtful apology that took responsibility and promised to try to prevent similar offenses in the future. But the problem is so much bigger than this tweet.

The problem includes the context in which anyone ever thought it would be okay, let alone humorous, to talk about a 9-year-old girl in such a way. The problem includes the people who want to pretend that her race has nothing to do with it, even though young white Oscar nominees are not held to the same standards of behavior or called horrible names. The problem includes all of the people who want to apologize for the behavior as being “just a joke.” The problem includes Seth MacFarlane’s joke about George Clooney dating Wallis. And all of the media personalities who did not even bother to try to pronounce “Quvenzhané.”

Radley Balko, who is a senior writer at The Huffington Post engaged in some Twitter debate with Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing on the topic. Eventually, Balko tweeted, “Ok. But instead of demanding apologies for jokes, why not focus on places where -isms cause tangible harm?” Balko links to a news story about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor reprimanding a prosecutor for racially biased remarks during the review of an appeal.

Tweet: Ok. But instead of demanding apologies for jokes, why not focus on palces where -isms cause tangible harm?

 

One of two things is happening here. Either Balko thinks that the things that happen online do not have tangible outcomes. Or he does not recognize the tangible harm that likely results from growing up in a culture that racially others you and views you as fodder for misogynist humor. A subsequent tweet, in which he laments the “PC patrolling of comedy” suggests it is the latter.

As my students know, I hate the term “PC.” People who bemoan political correctness seem to be those who feel victimized by others who would have them treat all people with decency and respect. Not buying it. But rather than follow that tangent, I want to stick to the issue here. The issue is that Quvenzhané Wallis is a personable young black girl who gave an amazing performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She has a name that is unique and that has to be learned. The media’s treatment of her reveals that in the racial project of the United States today, she is not important enough for others to try to learn to say her name. She should be quiet when people get it wrong.  She should not be happy about her Oscar nomination. She should sit, docile and respectful, while the camera is on her, granting to the ceremony of the Oscars the respect that has been denied her on multiple occasions in the course of the evening. And if she deviates from these prescribed behavioral norms, she is called a cunt and a brat.

It’s a naïve dream to think that Wallis could stay oblivious to all of this coverage and that this incident will not have tangible harm. Because that assumes that she is not already a little black girl living in the culture that makes people think it is okay to say these things or that makes people scream that their rights are being violated when someone asks them not to. As responses from Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous and Moya B at Crunk Feminist Collective point out, this incident is just one of many that she will face growing up in this place at this time. A place and time that is often too quick to congratulate itself for being beyond racism and sexism.

The tweet from The Onion is a synecdoche for the place of race and gender in wider cultural structures. I don’t know what actually set it off, or what prompted Christine Teigen to call Wallis a brat, but I can’t help but be reminded of the criticism of Serena Williams when she C-walked at Wimbledon during the Olympics (credit to #digitalsoc students for bringing that one to my attention).  Standards of behavior in elitist circumstances are being used to prescribe behavior and criticize deviations in a way that has racial undertones. Just as with Serena’s exuberant Crip-walk, Quvenzhané’s audacity to correct people on her name and her jubilant celebration, arms raised in “gun show” position, somehow offended people. Anyone who has watched any interviews of her knows that she is a smart young woman, with a charming and bubbly personality. Anyone who has seen the film recognizes in her posture the move from one of the sequences that managed to be simultaneously terrifying and endearing (seriously, I want to discuss the film. I continue to interrogate my reactions to it…Just not here.). It was a moment of small triumph for her character just as the Oscars were a moment of triumph for Wallis.

I really don’t know how to end this post. I mostly wanted to write this to underscore that this is not about accepting The Onion‘s apology. It is so much bigger. And those who attempt to deny the importance of the series of incidents are behaving badly on two levels: 1) You are attempting to belittle and actively suppress something that is an important issue that others feel needs extensive discussion and 2) You are denying that there is a larger racist and sexist cultural framework surrounding this issue. Both things are pretty tangibly harmful, if you ask me.

Animated gif showing Wallis' Gun Show at the Oscars

Quvenzhané Wallis at the 2013 Academy Awards. Thanks to @rhrealitycheck for the link.

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Comments on: "Tangible Harm? This is so Much Bigger Than One Tweet About Quvenzhané Wallis" (9)

  1. Why has no one replied to this? Now that i teach school, I am always learning the kids names. Thought usually the African American kids have the most interesting of spellings to their names, they aren’t hard to pronounce once I am told their name. As a person whose name is usually mispronounced, I pay special attention to getting the kids names right as this is an entry level form of respect. You never hear about anybody getting Glenn Becks name wrong, but that’s another comment for another blog.

    I didn’t hear about The Onion’s tweet until I read your post but I am quite shocked (but not surprised) to read about it. I am curious what Baratunde has to say about this, mostly because he knows this person. He might have hired this person and I’m pretty sure he had to correct this person when saying his name as how many Baratundes do you meet?

    I’m too tired to form any more of an academic race fueled rage at the moment but I’ll keep and eye on this.

    • Well, you get to be first! Thanks for commenting.

      Baratunde Thurston is no longer at The Onion, right? Even so, he could know whoever posted the tweet. But just to clarify, the @TheOnion tweet called her a terrible name (it’s bad enough I used it in the post, don’t want to repeat it). I was trying to position the Onion tweet in relation to a larger pattern of media treatment, much of which criticized her behavior or mispronounced (or failed to even try pronouncing) her name.

      I know well that it can be awkward to learn to pronounce student names, but I’d rather look foolish for a little while and get it right than to continually mispronounce them! And if I were a media personality, I’d be sure to try to get it in advance.

  2. Very well written. Jealousy can be a very powerful human emotion. That has got to be part of it. The flip side of PC is the right to be an incredible jerk which is, perhaps, the right we cherish above all else.

    • Thanks for commenting.

      A lot of people speculated that the tweet from The Onion was meant to be parody of the jealousy that the nominees feel. Twitter was definitely the wrong vehicle for that, but I’m not sure they could have done it successfully even in a longer form. Perhaps with a different actress or different language.

      We do seem to cherish the right to be a jerk. What people often forget about free speech is that it means neither freedom from all consequences nor freedom from criticism.

  3. “People who bemoan political correctness seem to be those who feel victimized by others who would have them treat all people with decency and respect.” Thank you so much for saying that, and for writing this wonderful post. I think that the issue of respect is what really matters here. What The Onion tweeted was in such incredibly bad taste. The one good thing that has come out of this is the showing of support from so many disparate Internet communities–from fantasy writers to feminists to to middle aged men to a lady identifying herself as a “white suburban mom”–all coming together for a common cause. I also think it was great that Seth McFarlane’s over-the-top obnoxiousness as a host illuminated the ugliness of the casual misogyny and racism so endemic to Hollywood.

    When I saw Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance last summer, I was so inspired that I decided to get back to work on a screenplay I abandoned 10 years ago. I am glad to see that she has inspired others as well.

    • Thanks for your comment and kind words. I agree that while MacFarlane was predictably offensive (can’t imagine why people expected otherwise?), that the conversations that have come out of it have the potential to be productive.

      Good luck with your screenplay!

  4. I’m sitting in astonishment that a journalist can seriously be arguing social context as an irrelevance to prejudice. If he genuinely believed that to be true, then he also believes his work to lack all meaning and value.

    A judge didn’t wake up one day and decide to make racially prejudicial statements in a vacuum. S/he didn’t even do that in a culture free of prejudice. That judge was reflecting the culture we all live in, and if we don’t challenge examples of racism and sexism and homophobia, then judges will continue to be racist and sexist and homophobic. Because “tangible harm” results when human beings in positions of power make bad choices. It isn’t “the system” doing these things. Just people.

    I’m also stunned by the idea that the mass media bullying a nine year old child in particularly aggressive, horrible ways is not tangibly harmful to that child. Most people acknowledge school bullying is tangibly harmful; what must it be like when so many adults, with such a wide platform, make it plain that their culture has no room for you, and they regard you with contempt? For what – the terrible sin of giving an Oscar worthy performance as a child, and enjoying the fact?

    • Thanks for reading and commenting!

      If I could add one thing it would be to open up the discussion of racist people vs. racial systems. I find Eduardo Bonilla-Silva really useful in thinking about the implications of treating racism as the problem of pathological individuals vs. social structures. I think you point to some of that tension when you mention the “culture we all live in.” The attitudes of “people” get passed down, embedded in social institutions, etc.

      Bonilla-Silva argues that it is tempting to view racism as an individual problem because we can more easily make sense of the pathologies or irrational behaviors of flawed individuals. However, that may lead some to overlook the racism embedded in social institutions.

      Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the tension between individuals and systems beautifully in his recent NYT piece, “The Good, Racist People.” He writes,

      “The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.”

      Thanks again!

  5. […] See the link above for the 2013 Year-in-Review for The Spiral Dance. 4,200 visitors, with a record for the most in any day (696 on Feb 25th in response to this post). […]

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