Whose Voice Is It, Anyway? On Being Seen As A "Black Voice" In White Media

I’ve lost count of how many white editors have asked me to write about Ferguson. My first answers were along the lines of “I’ll try if I can stop crying,” or “I really don’t have much to say beyond THIS IS HORRIBLE.”
Publish date:
August 21, 2014
media, race, m-rated, allies, M

I was a late adopter to blogging and social media. I’ve been acting, singing, and dancing professionally while writing for pleasure since the ’90s and I’m very Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard about the whole thing. In my day, we didn’t need Instagram filters; we had faces!

I consider it a privilege and an honor that anyone on these here interwebs gives a toss about anything I have to say, particularly here, where the xoJane community has been so kind. The fantastic xoJane editors bear with me when I say “no” more often than I say “yes” to specific topic requests, and are so welcoming when I present them with one of my unsolicited ramblings. For every piece of mine you’ve read here, there are probably three or four that I either didn’t feel like enough of an expert to address or that I began writing and didn’t deem good enough.

Perhaps I censor myself too much and judge the necessity of my voice too harshly. That’s part of my journey.

Which brings me to Ferguson, Missouri. The murder of Mike Brown and subsequent protests, escalating police presence, and assorted despicable fuckery of the police force there have become a national crisis, because of the events themselves, and also because of the initial lack of coverage by major media outlets. I’ve lost count of how many times a white editor has asked me to write about Ferguson. (From xoJane and other sites as well.) My first answers were along the lines of “I’ll try if I can stop crying” or “I really don’t have much to say beyond THIS IS HORRIBLE.” I promised to try and flesh out my thoughts to include about 1,000 more words, but so far it hasn’t happened.

When I heard news of Mike Brown being killed by the police, I couldn’t believe it. I had just written about having intervened on behalf of a young black man who was in danger of being unfairly arrested, an experience that I wanted to share because despite having a heinous root cause of racial profiling, it actually had a happy ending.

When Mike Brown was killed, I had already submitted that piece and I thought about asking for it not to run. Who cares about my little experience in the face of such big tragedy? But that felt wrong. Ultimately, I emailed Lesley that I had to add a mention of Mike Brown because I couldn’t not mention him. Lesley was amazing and right there with me in that desire and though I expect nothing less from Her Wonderfulness, it bears repeating.

Ali Barthwell wrote right here about her difficulty in talking about Ferguson with white friends. I’m still trying to reconcile it within myself. When I look at imagery from Ferguson I feel hopeless. I feel that racial equality is moving backward. I feel that true justice for Mike Brown may be an impossibility. And I cry and I shake and sometimes my first reaction is just to hold my nieces and tell them their brown skin and hair in braids are beautiful, in some wildly minute effort to build up their reserves against the systemic racism that would have them believe otherwise. When I see video of Mike Brown’s mother screaming in the street, my first reaction is not to blog about it.

In fact, I couldn’t finish watching that particular video. Nor could I watch the video of Eric Garner in the NYPD chokehold that would end his life. Ditto the video of his widow collapsing in tears at the rally days after his murder. Or any number of other images of what happens when black humans are treated as less than.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I never saw the movie "12 Years a Slave." I bought a ticket and gave it to someone in front of the theater, just like I’ve bought a few albums of black artists that I don’t actually listen to, to support their work. I realize that’s a potentially dangerous statement, and I don’t uncritically support anyone based solely on skin color, but numbers matter and box office receipts matter to people’s careers and I can safely say that I want Steve McQueen and that production team to continue to be hired to make movies. I say so with my voice and with my $12 at the box office.

Because, my self-deprecation aside, our voices do matter. It matters who tells our stories and it matters who speaks up on our behalf. I defer to those who are leading the way in Ferguson because I’m having trouble dealing with it.

In true Norma Desmond fashion, the world has changed around me and suddenly I am someone who is considered a Black Voice. I tweet whatever I choose to my darling Tweethearts, I make YouTube videos to showcase my comedy writing and original characters, and of course my writing has appeared here and on other sites. I will always address race, among other things, but a funny thing happened on the way to online equality: Being silenced and erased has been replaced with often inappropriate demands of my thoughts and words. In the pursuit of communicative freedom, I am commodified as a content generator, still not granted the luxuries of being a human who might not want to do what a stranger on the Internet wants me to do, in their way, and on their timetable.

So I say no. Of course that is always an option. But in the case of Ferguson, I feel guilty for not writing about it. And for even considering writing about anything else. The message from certain white editors -- that I have to write about it because they can’t say anything about race at all forever and ever amen -- is a corruption of the very necessary ideals of allies in the context of social justice. Yes, when marginalized voices are speaking on race, it is best for the privileged to simply listen. Which kinda includes listening to me when I say no to their demands.

I understand the commerce of it, of needing content. And this is largely not about xoJane; you wouldn’t be reading this here now if I were even remotely upset with this site. And as I said earlier, it is a huge compliment to be asked. It is less of a compliment to simply have the content of my tweets stolen for an aggregate list-icle. It is less of a compliment when a white editor says they want to “pick my brain” about a black topic, but that they’ll be writing the actual article. It is less of a compliment when it is a demand.

And then there’s the gray area when it’s my friends doing the asking. On the one hand, at least my friends are respectful enough to hear me when I say no, but on the other hand, it can be harder to say no because we’re friends.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a number of white male friends who are professional comics or comedy writers who’ll ask me if racially-themed jokes are OK. Even the comics I know who are far from PC don’t want to be monsters, otherwise I wouldn’t call them friends.

Those inquiries have increased like mad, too. Props to my homies who make a living making the funny about current events, but the other night my phone was buzzing like a bee with requests to write about Ferguson and also two comic friends asking me to proofread their tweets lest they inspire a hashtag campaign against them.

At the same time, another white male comic friend texted me to angrily chide a mutual friend of ours. He was furious that our friend, a black comic with a blue verified check, had retweeted someone saying he’s funny, and HOW DARE HE be engaging in pleasantries on his Twitter timeline considering what’s happening in Ferguson.

I was unable to help the angry friend with his white guilt in that moment. We can’t fully know what state of mind someone is in at any given moment and maybe the black comic friend needed the release of those chuckles to get through the night. I don’t know if the angry one wanted me to say something to our friend or to be as angry as he was, but I stopped the conversation. I just couldn’t do it. I had to clock out of my Black Friend™ shift for the night.

It is a manifestation of ignorance and/or privilege to present people with subject matter that is personally traumatizing to them as a Point of Interest or a topic to be explored like a tourist. When I was little, I did a school report on the Civil Rights Movement and I thought I would look in-depth at the KKK. I had always sewn clothes for my Barbies, so in my overachieving child’s mind it made sense to make a detailed KKK costume for a Ken doll and bring it to school as part of my presentation. My teacher, an older black woman, gasped when she saw it. My ignorant little ass thought she was blown away by my craftsmanship, until I saw the tears in her eyes.

She had to leave the room to compose herself. When she came back in, she very calmly asked me to put the doll in my bag and not take it out again. She told us about her personal experiences with the KKK. She gave us firsthand accounts that we ’80s kids growing up in NY could never have imagined. My foolish doll costume had deeply triggered her and I can only be grateful that she was able to carry on teaching that day because those lessons were priceless.

I didn’t see "12 Years A Slave" because I can’t bear to watch the brutality of subjugation and pure dehumanization of slavery. It’s not about turning away from history; on the contrary, it’s seeing the truth of those stories and how they resonate with history we’ve studied. I saw "Django Unchained" but was saved by the obviously (intentionally) phony look of it and still had to cover my eyes for many scenes. When Oscar Grant was killed in 2009 and a witness’ cellphone video was released, I saw a snippet and was physically ill.

After much consideration, I made the choice to see "Fruitvale Station," the movie dramatizing his last day of life, and I was emotionally obliterated. It ended and I sobbed, unable to move, until a movie theater employee had to ask if I was OK. I had gone to see it with the guy I was dating at the time, who is white. He didn’t know what to do. He walked away from me and chuckled to the movie theater employee, “Tough movie.”

It isn’t just a movie. It is really our ancestors whose necks were stretched in nooses; it is really our brothers and sisters being gunned down like animals. And right now, in real time, Ferguson isn’t just a hashtag or a headline. I am grateful to those who are covering it. I’m not there yet. My tears are not helping in the face of loss of life and rights, but I am struggling to remain engaged. I want to be in Ferguson, to talk to the people who are not being heard, and in the meantime I’m listening to the voices of the journalists, mostly independent, who have traveled there. Obviously it needs to be reported on and I salute those who are doing it while offering them support where I can, to try and feel a little less useless and overwhelmed.

I invite you to please check out my friend @ElonJames, as well as @Felonius_Munk and @Awkward_Duck, independent journalists and activists who are in Ferguson and posting live information to Twitter and Instagram, as well as considering making a donation toward Elon’s team distributing food and medical supplies to protesters. They’ve especially needed things like bandanas, vinegar, and milk to distribute to help the tear gas exposure that has been happening at night, and if you are not comfortable with donating, perhaps consider sending a message of support.

Please share below if you have a trusted source of information in Ferguson that is also supplementing mainstream media coverage, as well as other verified donation links that you know of. I don’t know how to fix this, but information and assistance are a good place to start.

Follow Pia on Twitter here.