When reflecting on the questions posed in this week’s blog prompt, I immediately thought about the difference in consequences between something like the Ferguson protests (or even the 1992 riots over the Rodney King verdict) and the riots that routinely follow sports victories. Often, these consequences involve a racial component, with white people suffering fewer or lesser consequences than people of color. In an article written for Mic, Derrick Clifton notes that mainstream news media routinely refer to sports rioters as “‘revelers,’ ‘celebrants’ and ‘fans'” while calling black protestors “‘criminals,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘pigs’ or even ‘violent.'” Similarly, Chantal Da Silva of Newsweek compares the consequences suffered by Black Lives Matter protestors to those that affected people who participated in the Philadelphia Super Bowl riots, and observes that “officials appeared slow to condemn the destruction caused by [sports] rioters.” She spoke to Black Lives Matter New York President Hawk Newsome, who states, “Somehow, it seems there’s a line drawn in the sand where destruction of property because of a sports victory is OK and acceptable in America. However, if you have people who are fighting for their most basic human right, the right to live, they will be condemned,” told Newsweek.”
I believe that these ideas all tie into the questions about whose bodies are allowed in public and civic spaces, as well as which actions are seen as appropriate. It also relates to Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism,” specifically the idea that “Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses” (6). Thad Morgan provides a prime example of this notion with his discussion of how the National Rifle Association supported gun control as a way to limit African American access to gun, as this idea reveals how the white majority demonizes the black minority as a way to maintain their oppression. Indeed, just in the last few years, white men regularly stroll the streets while armed with automatic rifles with no consequences, yet young black men are gunned down in the street for merely wearing hoodies or selling cigarettes. This illustrates Césaire’s assertion that colonization leaves “societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” (6). It also reveals the racial divide that determines who gets to speak in public and which actions are accepted and which condemned.
To tie this into my own work, I turn to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, which frequently presented “images of African-American men” that were rooted in a fantasy of liberation and Black Power rhetoric” (Bausch 258). Indeed, films like Shaft, Black Caesar, and Superfly all drew on Black Nationalist and Black Power imagery and ideologies to craft a new portrayal of black manhood and masculinity that involved empowerment and emancipation. At the same time, though, many of these Blaxploitation films were written and directed by white men, and they often played into white anxieties and fears regarding African American enfranchisement. Indeed, as Katherine Bausch notes, “black men have always been a site for anxiety and imagination,” and Blaxploitation films, while offering empowering images to black audiences, also stoked both fear and fascination among white audiences. This tension has seemingly always impacted the relations between white people and people of color (but specifically African Americans), and in many ways it fuels ideas about who gets to protest, which bodies get to act in public spaces, and which ideas are acceptable.
Ultimately, ideas about who gets to speak and who does not involve more than just race; indeed, class, gender, sex, age, and several other factors determine whose bodies are allowed, whose bodies are seen, who is enabled to bear witness, and what actions and behaviors are appropriate, acceptable, effective. Today, despite an increased awareness of identify politics combined with marginalized groups and individuals gaining more of a voice thanks to new distribution platforms (such as social media), white, straight, upper-class male voices still tend to dominate the conversation. The political climate of the early part of the 21st century has only made the gulf between those who get to speak/act and those who do not even more evident. One need only look at the different reactions that greet Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem and Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst of “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. For many people (particularly those on the right), Kaepernick’s actions were disgraceful while Wilson’s were merely speaking truth to power. This gulf reveals the continued need for protest, but also for us as a society to engage in some thoughtful reflection on who we allow to speak and act, and why we frame things the way we do.
Bausch, Katherine. “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 257-76
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review Press, 1972.
Clifton, Derrick. “11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots like Baltimore.” Mic.com. Mic Network Inc., April 27, 2015. Web. March 16, 2019.
Da Silva, Chantal. “Black Lives Matter: Philadelphia Super Bowl Riots Reaction ‘Glaring Example of White Privilege.'” Newsweek, February 5, 2018. Web. March 16, 2019.