Claiming The Hook

Asaya Plumly / Cultural Studies – 501 Collaboration (Manifesto) / March 14, 2016

Claiming The Hook

Revisiting Praxis

These days, it seems like there’s always questions within the question. For example, from our prompt, “or is collaboration a distraction from the real work of Cultural Studies?” I’m not even caught up on understanding what is the “real work” of Cultural Studies. It is a question which looms large over the head of first year scholars and perhaps others. It’s a question which seems to set itself up to fail. There’s simply too much left assumed within the definition and between the particles. Who, within the ranks of cultural studies is preordained to answer the question? Who defines which words and how? From which social location, I would like to know. If so many Cultural Studies thinkers differ, inherently, on what constitutes “real work,” can the question ever be authentically answered? Assuming, first of all, we agree on a definition of Cultural Studies itself. Six months deep into a cultural studies program, I honestly don’t feel much closer to speaking firmly on any of these questions. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the process of cultural studies. And likewise, this lack of certainty influences the reason cultural studies seems to hang in balance (tension?) of praxis and capitalism so often.

Yet, I am curious about how to confront the role of collaboration within cultural studies without knowing such answers. Then again, I guess that’s why we’re here – fresh minds for rotting ideologies. Cultural Studies, like a good neighbor, demands constant renegotiation. The People of cultural studies benefit from not only self-affirmation but self-reflection as well. Within my brief time studying within Cultural Studies, I have appreciated the space to interrogate power dynamics and social inequalities and often embraced the ambiguous nature which I often associate with cultural studies.  The feeling of beginning a new intellectual journey on a new playing field has often left me challenged and disturbed. In order to make some sense of this relationship, and to get closer at forming an opinion about collaboration, I will return to the beginning to reach the end, as is often the case.

Last quarter, upon completing Formations, I left off contemplating my own position on praxis within Cultural Studies, and indeed within Cultural Studies itself. This is a position I hope to continue tripping back and forth over. However, for the time being, I feel the need to draw a hard line. Praxis, seeming to be such a natural part of the interrogation of systems of domination, doesn’t seem like much of an option as much as it is always already a necessary component of transformation –  institutionally, socially, culturally and otherwise. In my own previous words,

For those of us holding significant amounts of privilege, it’s a process of honestly asking ourselves (as Baldwin challenged us to do) how invested are we in ‘real change’ and how much ‘safety’ are we willing to do without in order to ensure the liberation of the most terrorized peoples among us. Part of this safety means stepping outside the dichotomy of what ‘real change’ looks like and blurring the lines between ‘resistance’ and ‘everyday life’.

Academia stretches us in many ways. As a place that allows, and sometimes encourages, the development of rigorous theory, we can take advantage of the opportunity to consider, what is my position on praxis? Are there “positions” on praxis to be taken or just social locations which inform the amount of praxis you engage in? What can we do with those locations? Are they potential sites of intervention? Admittedly, I’m not to keen on the nuances of the praxis debate within cultural studies. I surmise that the general difference revolves around how much praxis should scholars engage in. Maybe some people say that the role of the cultural studies scholar is purely to imagine the possible sites of intervention, to question what conditions got us to a place requiring intervention? Where does power reside? There it is, now you practitioners, activists go do something about it. Surely it’s more complex.

Cultural studies is like that though. And on purpose I guess. “Theoretical work as interruption,” (Hall, 282) as it were. In elaborating on the tension and the interrogational function of cultural studies, Stuart Hall says, cultural studies “holds theoretical and political questions in an ever irresolvable but permanent tension. It constantly allows the one to irritate, bother, and disturb the other, without insisting on some final theoretical closure” (Hall, 284).  Here, I think Hall informs the field about the nature of praxis and the critical role it can play in legitimizing cultural studies, which he refers to as a ‘project’ not a ‘field.’ Placing “theoretical and political questions in an irresolvable but permanent tension” commits the cultural studies scholar to consider the interlocking relationship between the two and places them in a place of accountability. In a potential misinterpretation of Hall’s AIDS metaphor, if the theory isn’t threatening, then it has left you off the hook. He may have been referring to the tension of being an academic and being emotionally moved by the distance between theory and reality, but either way it seems “the hook” is where one wants to be. Which seems like a spot to aspire for in considering both praxis and collaboration. It at once conjures up the metaphor of danger or trouble, where in typical use of the idiom we would want to be “off” of, as well as, that appealing section of the song which we can’t seem to shake from our head. Can we envision a place within cultural studies that is both dangerous and appealing enough to repeat?

Hall’s use of “the hook,” warrants a two fold question – (1) from which positions/locations does cultural studies pose as a threatening engagement?, and (2) which methods of cultural studies engage us most deeply, unapologetically, unencumbered, uncompromised in that tension?

I think the tension created by intellectual work and critical reflection with the institution probably functions towards demanding creative responses to one extent, and on the other, presents the danger of relying on ‘tensions’ to legitimize our desired social positions. Meaning ‘the tension’ that is so often invoked can be seen a rigorous place of theoretical turmoil, or just as easily can be used as an excuse to be non-committal and content.

In speaking to the positions from which we engage in the “real work” of cultural studies, or the work that keeps us on “the hook,” Meghan Morris (who is not a pluralist) frames “the hook” as the academy, and that it’s sometimes “the academy or the forms of academic institutionalization [that] can drive tension out of people’s work” (Hall, 291). Broadening our understanding of “the hook,” it often seems tied in many ways to a form of economic reliance. If this is true, as is certainly alluded to often enough (the capitalism of scholarly journals, the concept of tenure, the debt of student loans), and in an effort to avoid generalizations to particular circumstances, what are the best ways to stay on “the hook” within the confines of financial agreements? Or how much time can we commit to considering that “real work” might only happen when it’s not “work” at all but the freely chosen use of our “free” time. In other words, the “work” that we make sacrifices elsewhere in order to do. If we want to combat the ephemeral, insubstantial nature of the work, how do we reconcile that with the capitalist conditions under which we live?

The idea of the “real work” of cultural studies is important for me to consider if I am interested in understanding the role of methods and other facets of the cultural studies project. Likewise, thinking about the myriad of constraints and compromises that we sit in and are approaching us at all times, inform the amount of conviction I can give to positioning myself explicitly anywhere, nonetheless, “in relation to the various approaches to collaboration,” as deemed collaborative by cultural studies. To be clear then, I believe the “real work” of cultural studies happens off the clock and on the hook.

Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s name is the point of Collaboration?

Several of the pieces that we covered this quarter provided perspectives on collaboration in a useful, applicable way. Though many of them were design centered or placed comfortably outside the context of an anti-capitalist agenda they did provide sites of intervention to complicate and expand on. The distinction that I would most comfortably place myself within is being concerned most enthusiastically about collaborations with direct anti-capitalist intentions. Or, in less antagonistic terms, mutual aid, transformative, liberatory methods of collaboration. Either way, collaborations that are honest and unwavering in their decision to engage in collective creative projects, who explicitly seek to undermine capitalist frameworks and also to illuminate alternatives to profit-based economies, are my preference. It’s also my preference to understand the difference between a preference and privilege.

When I consider a few of the readings, I aim to view them through a lens that seeks to connect their success and drawbacks as they relate to furthering a collaboration method that prioritizes an anti-capitalist focus, an emphasis on solidarity, attempts to historicize and a commitment to confronting structural oppression. The methods that are used to achieve, or attempt to achieve, these goals are less important to me than the driving ideology behind them. Three readings stick out to me in terms of adding to an engaged, creative, responsible method of collaboration that can alleviate the distance between theory and practice.

Participatory Action Research presents a concrete example of knowledge production through collaboration in action. The particular example we visited for PAR was between the work of a community-based social action group and a group of women involved in college classes in a New York prison. This story, demonstrates a method towards dealing with the responsibilities of intellectual work in connecting with communities outside of academia and engaging in social justice work. I appreciate the value that this collaborative project placed on both a democratic approach as well as being honest about responsibility and privilege. These seem like essential characteristics to a project aimed at dealing with, if not alleviating, social inequalities.

A key note from the PAR reading is framing of collaboration as “participation with, not only for, community” or “praxis as solidarity” (Fine, et. al., 176). This is a helpful guide for determining the usefulness of collaboration in a cultural studies project. It both highlights the inherent political nature of the project and emphasizes a relationship in continual process. Though under certain circumstances, perhaps a prolonged relationship between participants in a collaboration may not be possible or desirable, I think the principle of solidarity, a deliberately political act of mutual aid and sustained engagement, is necessary as a guiding principle.

The work that the PAR group did within the women’s prison might not have been outright anti-capitalist but it did provide an example of strategic collaborating within an institution designed to dehumanize. By focusing on and strategizing about “emotions at the table,” “issues of power,” “lost bodies,” “audience”, etc. this method was able to create change within an institution and build genuine bonds between groups from distinctly different communities.

Bringing Design Thinking To Social Problems, Ideo.org Focuses On The People In Need, serves as a reminder, a reality check and a source of inspiration to resist conformist, reductionist, Eurocentric approaches to collaboration. The anthropology/design approach that Wyatt and Martin employ reminds me that there are people out in the ‘do-gooder’ world who have possibly good intentions but are somehow removed from self-reflection and the role of capitalism in creating the problems they seek to address. It’s a reality check, or a barometer of sorts, that is helpful to consider the traditional methods and job opportunities that take up the majority of space and air time when looking to engage in collaborative, poverty-alleviation projects.

Speaking of preferences, critiques of traditional methods are often more self-satisfying than actually effective in building on our cultural studies methods. Despite their lack of structural analysis and glossing over of sameness and difference with broad “These were people who were just like me” statements, this article did raise some questions for me – How can we get access to the funding they have? How do we balance working with people whose ideas seem fundamentally different than our own? Is collaboration with such groups worthwhile? What can we learn from their mistakes/approach? I am encouraged to think outside of the easy critique and apply these lessons of this example to collaborative projects I am currently engaged with.

For example, my recently acquired position as the grad student representative to the Diversity Council, provides an opportunity to participate in a system whose goals are at odds with my own but present a complex interaction in exposing unequal power dynamics and attempting to hold those benefiting, most straightforwardly, accountable. The Diversity Council is an example of an attempt to change the structure of an institution from within the institution at the behest of the institution. In order to engage in this collaboration with people who I have no affinity with, in a way that is both in line with my own priorities of radical social justice and maintaining some semblance of mental well being, I need to find a balance between being realistic about the function (and capacity of) this collaboration as well as being unrealistic about challenging the narrative that is often at work within the Council. Understanding my own experiences in collaborative ventures and, particularly, reflecting on my personality role in those collaborations, has been a fruitful part of this quarter.

The collaborative approach that the Swedish folks used in, Co-design methods for designing with and for families, resonated with me. Incorporating and valuing non-traditional methods of project-based designs was encouraging. I appreciated the use of photos and drawings and interview and prioritizing the voices and concerns of the family members. What I really liked though was this line, “Overall, technology was primarily seen as a means for facilitating seeing each other in person. Meals with the whole family were really desirable.” A breath of hope in a suffocatingly screen filled world. How can we direct our efforts at collaboration so that they more closely resemble a family dinner? What are the revolutionary characteristics that are embodied in collaboratively preparing and consuming meals together? How do we bring dinner tables, drawings and “teleporting devices” into our collaborative projects? The focus on a ‘continuous process,’ and ‘playful interaction,’ when applicable, are collaborative characteristics that I would like to call cultural studies-esque. Though that desire to qualify things as ‘cultural studies,’ may simply be those damn ‘preferences’ creeping in again.

In order to better capture the promise and avoid the pitfalls of collaboration, the project of cultural studies must commit itself to fundamental guidelines or shared values. I don’t personally have a huge investment in furthering that discussion with a bunch of scholars. I’d rather focus on my own collaborative priorities and be directed by my own political tendencies and personal, communal influences. For me, there are clear distinctions between what I see pushing towards social upheaval and what I see as maintaining a violent mundaness.

If the field we are talking about is MACS, then the question becomes more reasonable to me. If MACS wants to keep collaboration from becoming a distraction, I think we should be clear about our intentions, be strategic about our options and be honest about the nature of the program. Is MACS a place where collaboration can add to the “diversity” or “transformation” that the university loves to talk about? Can collaboration use those words in a way that adds depth and real life answers to the conditions “diversity” sustains? Can collaboration within MACS push our vision of “transformation” beyond a capitalocentric imaginary?

Cultural studies informs the way and the which I decide to participate in these projects. It highlights the fluidity of identities, relationships and possibilities. With fluidity in mind, I aim to participate in collaboration which adds fuel to the fire and places me on “the hook.” It’s from that vantage point that I can begin to see the “real work” most vividly.

Comparatively, it’s much easier to understand my relation to collaboration from an anarchist perspective. While the self-proclaimed anarchists differ greatly about who is and what is, authentically anarchy, several tenets remain clear in defining a shared declaration – mutual aid, solidarity, direct action are the standard characteristics but can be more nuanced by conversations about hierarchy, self-determination, affinity and desire. When I enter a space, a collaborative one or otherwise, these are topics which are on my mind and ethics that I work to embody. I’m not sure what the cultural studies scholar brings to the collaborative effort beyond a healthy critical lens to consider power through. I think if cultural studies is interested in capturing the promise and avoiding the pitfalls of collaboration, it needs to claim a stake in the game and defend it.

Works Cited

Westerlund, B., Lindqvist, S., Mackay, W., Sundbald, Y., (2003). Co-design methods for designing with and for families. Retrieved from http://www.ub.edu/5ead/PDF/4/westerlund.pdf

Fine, M., Torre M.E. et. al. (2003). Participatory Action Research: From Within and Beyond Prison Bars. Camic, P.M., Rhodes, J.E., & Yardley, L. (Eds.),. Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design (173-197). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hall, S. (1992). Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., & Triechler, P.A. (Eds.), Cultural Studies (277-294). New York: Routledge.

Pastorek, W., (November 12, 2013). Bringing Design Thinking To Social Problems, Ideo.org Focuses On The People In Need. Retrieved from http://www.fastcoexist.com/3020789/change-generation/bringing-design-thinking-to-social-problems-ideoorg-focuses-on-the-people-

 

Complicating the NBA Narrative: A Narrative Analysis of the This Is Why We Play campaign

Complicating the NBA Narrative: A Narrative Analysis of the This Is Why We Play campaign

Asaya Plumly, University of Washington – Bothell

12/15/15

Abstract:

Internationally, the NBA works as an apparatus of global capitalism spreading Western conceptions of race, class and gender through the guise of teamwork, inclusivity and goodwill. This is the essential function of the NBA but its reception can have a myriad of effects outside the economically quantifiable. In this paper, I will analyse the current This Is Why We Play campaign of the NBA in order to demonstrate the ways in which this happens. I will use a narrative analysis to deconstruct the images and representations within the commercial and connect them to the broader effect of the NBA. In conclusion, I hope to point to the potential for social justice within the complexity of a commodified form of basketball.

INTRODUCTION:

According to the NBA’s own narrative, it’s current This Is Why We Play campaign “highlights the game’s historical milestones and reverberating cultural impact, and demonstrates many ways teams, players and fans are deeply connected to basketball and the values it teaches (leadership, teamwork, respect, dedication, etc.)” (White, 2015). This statement of purpose is significant in analyzing the goals of the NBA. It is equally significant in what it tactfully omits and also as a source to consider the meanings and implications behind such altruistic motivations.

Depending on one’s positionality, the NBA serves many functions as a capillary of capitalism. On the surface, the images of teamwork, community and inclusivity, that are consistent throughout the NBA narrative, can have significant impact as sources of meaningful representation and inspiration. However, as commodities created to promote a product, they also reinforce a Eurocentric, patriarchal and commodified version of sports while omitting an acknowledgement of the crude economic model under which they operate. Capitalism is intertwined with systems of oppression that maintain the functioning of a system based on the unequal distribution of resources and freedom. It would seem fantastical for a business operating within the confines of capitalism to not perpetrate racist, sexist and classist ideologies.

Throughout this paper, I will analyze the components of the This Is Why We Play commercial, in relation to the wider NBA public relations campaign. I will demonstrate how the representations inform the audience of acceptable ways to perform and engage with race, class, gender and sexuality. The aim of this analysis is not to present the NBA within the confines of a good/bad binary but rather to draw out the complexity of the effects that commodified values and experiences may have on our efforts towards genuine empowerment. In conclusion, I hope to reimagine the narratives of basketball exploited by the NBA and provide suggestions for sites of intervention within the NBA.

LITERATURE REVIEW:

In demonstrating the capitalist nature of the NBA, I will be drawing on several sources which I researched to highlight the unequal distribution of resources intrinsic to the NBA, the use of media convergence in their marketing and the ramifications of the multiracial stratification of the league itself. These sources do not provide a theoretical framework, but do show how the economic impetus of the league define its marketing decisions. These sources include material from journalism in the areas of sports, racial justice and the financial world.

In order to critically think about some of the consequences of those decisions, I will utilize the work of cultural studies practitioners who have considered similar circumstances. To analyze the effects of the race and diversity, I will use the work of Shohat and Stam in concerning “voice” and representation. I will also consult the work of Nicola Rehling to consider the perpetuation of “normalcy” in relation to the predominance of African American visibility in the NBA. I will use the Marxist framework that Christian Fuchs elaborates to consider the commodification of work/labor and representation in terms.

I hope to build on these existing theoretical frameworks by combining the intersectionality of oppressions that are at play in the NBA’s marketing campaigns. Furthermore, I aim to understand the complexity of effects that the NBA’s current campaign may have on audiences. These theories are crucial in considering the production of meaning and the functioning of oppression inside the NBA and between the intersection of sports and politics.

METHOD:

I will be using a narrative analysis to closely examine the representations presented in the This Is Why We Play campaign of the NBA. I will be using the work of James Watson in Media Communication as a guide in deciphering how this commercial in particular works to create a narrative about race, class and gender in terms of the United States. In particular I will be using different narrative codes to decipher the meaning of signifiers and symbols throughout the commercial.

I chose this specific commercial because as a lifelong fan of the NBA I am interested in understanding what role the league plays in contributing to conventional discourse on race, class and gender. As a person living with significant unearned privilege and who holds explicitly anti-capitalist views, I am invested in deconstructing the narratives put forth by the NBA in order to expose the ways in which they contribute to restraining the terms of our livability. I am seeking ways to separate the ritual, analog, joy of basketball from blatant consumerism and place it within a context of liberation or even decolonization.

I chose this commercial in particular because it is part of the current campaign of the NBA to promote the new season. However, it is representative of common themes that the NBA has used throughout its more contemporary form. The NBA also can be seen as a piece of a larger dialogue that happens within (professional) sports overall in establishing acceptable norms and behaviors. Lastly, I selected this commercial because the first several times I watched it, I had a difficult time deciphering any negative implications despite/because of my aforementioned tendencies and privileges.

THIS IS WHY WE PLAY: “A powerful declaration of purpose”

The NBA promotion for the upcoming 2015-16 season is entitled “This Is Why We Play.” This campaign was developed by the advertising agency, Translation (whose clients also include McDonald’s, Kaiser Permanente and State Farm). The promotion includes a series of short (0:31) and long (1:01) commercial briefs. These are accompanied by eight “chapters” which focus specifically on last year’s champions, the Golden State Warriors. Similar to NBA promotions of the past, the commercials follow a similar pattern of including presentations of inclusivity, internationalism, goodwill alongside teamwork, dedication and athleticism, while relying heavily on the images of the bodies of people of color, black bodies in particular.

For purposes of this paper, I will focus on the longer version of the advertisement entitled “Anthem.” The commercial is narrated by a “black” male voice who recites the reasons “why we play” over a Tone and Poke produced instrumental track. There are several narratives playing simultaneously throughout the commercial. For example, high profile NBA players performing feats on court, notable NBA athletes engaged in community service type activities, anonymous athletes playing basketball, fans interacting with the players and reacting to the game, and individuals within the NBA who are recognized for breaking boundaries. In the NBA’s own words, “[t]he film combines electrifying inside-the-arena footage with images pulled from around the world and deep within the NBA archives—showing all the many ways that players, fans, and teams demonstrate their love of the game both on and off the court” (NBA, 2015). The narratives are interspersed with each other and culminate in championship celebrations.

The commercial includes over 30 images, many of those images are familiar to basketball fans. The use of archived footage from previous decades develops the mythology of the NBA as a beacon of excellence and social engagement. The other images are of less recognizable athletes. The background stories to these characters is unknown. Regardless, the combination of the clips showcase a myriad of representations that merit their own attention. For the purposes of this analysis, I will focus on just a few that I feel highlight the socio-political effects of the NBA’s commercialization of basketball.

The global ambitions of the NBA

There are too many factors to condemn the commercial as functioning on a purely exploitive basis. Amidst a society steeped in consumerism, the commercial does retain some amount of positive cultural impact.The NBA has put a substantial amount of time, money and energy into developing itself as a cross culturally marketable enterprise. To this end, the commercials they use display images of a diversity of people engaged in one way or another with basketball. I believe that regardless of the capitalist intentions of the NBA, these images undoubtedly serve their stated objective to “capture[s] the emotions behind basketball’s universal appeal, showcasing stories of what motivates, inspires and excites teams, players and fans both on and off the court” (White, 2015). Basketball can indeed provide an atmosphere for people from all walks of life to share in the competitive joy of basketball.

It is not my goal to diminish the relevance and importance that these images may hold for certain audiences who take them in, especially the more marginalized among them. Young Arab women of color playing in a wheelchair basketball league, developmentally disabled Chinese kids and half the world’s population (women) in general, certainly do not receive an acceptable amount of representation through the mass media. I can’t know what different people might gather from such images without further (ethnographic) research, but speaking for myself I know it is at least refreshing to see a commercial which is not dominated by images of able bodied hetero white men.

In some regards the NBA participates in a shift of concentration from that demographic (normal white dudes) to a more realistic representation of the world. The NBA has 100 international players from 37 countries and territories for the 2015-16 season- marking the second consecutive year that opening night rosters featured at least 100 international players. There were a record 10 African and nine Brazilian players on opening night rosters (Benigno, 2015). This on-court diversity can attribute for the “tremendous surge in multicultural diversity” amongst NBA viewership (Zia, 2015).

The wide range of representation creates possible opportunities for marginalized populations to encounter images they can relate to that may not exist elsewhere. Additionally, or perhaps foremost, this significant increase in an international audience also provides more opportunities for the NBA to market to international advertisers. The NBA is emerging as the number two global sport after soccer and with their growth of social media exposure, their global market for economic growth is expanded by the appeal of their international players (Zia, 2015).

Before analyzing more specific functions of the This Is Why We Play commercial, I believe it is important to consider a key question raised by Beverley Skeggs in Class, Self, Culture, when she asks “‘in whose interests?’ do particular ways of understanding class continue to exist or not” (Skeggs, 2004).  In order to begin to answer this question from a sports industry perspective, we must determine the class structure of the NBA. To this end, and because this underlies the motives behind the functioning of the league, I will give a general summary of the position of the NBA within the larger capitalist economy.

The NBA is a global company that conducts business in over 200 countries, giving them “the most diverse fan base in professional sports” (Playing, 2015). That is an enormously uneven amount of social and cultural capital. Adding to this, is an alarming amount of financial power, a little more than a year ago, the NBA signed a nine-year, $24 billion media-rights deal with ESPN and Turner Sports. How this money gets distributed is a complex process which is not the focus of my efforts here. Officially, the money will be distributed evenly between the 30 franchises in the league but from that point on the distribution between owners and players is less equity based. According to Forbes, the average NBA franchise is now worth $1.1 billion dollars.

While the distribution of such enormous amounts of money is certainly crucial to understanding the NBA, for my purposes the league’s participation in a market based economy is sufficient for my analysis. Within this system, the exploitive function of the NBA is not called into question often enough. Financial commentators and advertising experts seem to be in agreement of the successful approach of campaigns such as This Is Why We Play without consideration of further effects beyond profit. However, the unequal distribution of money within the NBA has many ramifications outside of the NBA.

As demonstrated by the wealth generated from TV contracts, the NBA is a notable player in the realm of global capitalism. However, the focus of their promotions remain largely concerned with demonstrating their social engagement, providing a lopsided construction of their organization. Charity has long been a driving force in NBA marketing campaigns and is certainly highlighted in the This Is Why We Play commercial. Since 2005, over $210 million dollars and 2.3 million hours of community service have been donated by NBA teams and players to charity through NBA Cares. Again, these measures aren’t without real effect but pale in comparison to the billions that owners continue to accumulate.

Despite the contrast in numbers, the promotion of NBA Cares serves a purpose more practical than altruistic. The saturation of NBA Cares in their commercials provide a sense that the NBA as an institution is an effective source for creating positive social change. Or as Emilio Collins, the NBA’s senior vice president of global marketing partnerships would frame it, “the league is synonymous with making a difference in the community” (Jessop, 2013). True enough, but this statement raises as many questions as it seeks to stifle. Which communities receive how much money? What kind of impacts are these initiatives having? How are owners participating in these events? Is the difference equatable to the amount of revenue generated from these communities? The NBA’s social engagement leaves much to be assumed.

This strategy is similar to the case presented in John McMurria’s work on “Good Samaritan Reality TV,” in which he notes that corporations offer “neoliberal solutions of corporate benevolence, individual volunteerism and personal responsibility for solving serious social issues” (McMurria, p. 22). The NBA’s exclusive focus on its own charitable efforts work to invisibilize the organizations and individuals who are continually working to improve their communities at a grassroots level. Within a capitalist society, the defining of social responsibility and engagement is largely in the hands of those with the biggest budget.

Given the NBA’s capitalist structure, I will seek to demonstrate how the This Is Why We Play campaign perpetuates stereotypes and reinforces restrictive norms of how race and gender exist in Western society. The nature of capitalism attempts to force a categorical way of living and understanding upon us. This method works conveniently for analyzing profit margins and as a means of oppressing people. However, when considering the ways in which capitalism has entangled (antagonized) our relationships with each other, thinking in terms of categories is not always the most helpful route. There is a constant tension between the oppressions of race, class and gender that renders them inseparable.

RACE PLAY IN THE NBA

Acknowledging this tension, I will focus on three examples of racism within this commercial and the NBA. First, racism exists within the structure of ownership. Second, it is in present in the strategic placement of white male bodies amidst people of color. And lastly, racism as seen in the correlation of the representation of black coaches and the reality of a white dominated field.

Racial disparity in NBA ownership

Race has been integral part of basketball since its inception in the late nineteenth century. The early formations of leagues were white male only. Originating in 1949, the NBA has continued to mimic the larger society in struggling with conceptions of race. Similar to other professional sports leagues, the inclusion of players of color was gained as part of an overall struggle towards basic human rights. Today, the league continues to ineptly deal with issues of racism despite being a league composed with over ¾ African American players. Structurally, of 30 owners in the league only three are not white men. Individually, those same white men owners publicly demonstrate a severe lack of respect for people who are not affluent white men – Donald Sterling (LAC) and Bruce Levinson (ATL) for example.

These predominantly white owners continue to exploit the appeal of their black players while promoting an image of welcome diversity. In the context of a society that loves black culture but does value not black lives, this exposure warrants more than casual consumption. The black male body, masculinity and the values associated with sports become commodified and seen as products for consumption. Through over proliferation on the screen as extraordinary athletes and rarely seen in the full spectrum of their lives, black male athletes are used as sources of income for the capitalist owners of the league.

Centering whiteness

In considering the diversity of images throughout the commercial, the work of Nicola Rehling in Extra-Ordinary Men becomes particularly relevant. Rehling notes the “dominant, structuring norm” white heterosexual masculinity has been charged with being in a state of crisis (Rehling, 2009). She explains that much of the over saturation with white heterosexual masculinity is in reaction to the growing tide of diversity, which unlike whiteness retain a “surplus of signification”. A form of this reaction can be seen in the ending sequence of the This Is Why We Play commercial.

Throughout the commercial, the majority of the people shown are not white men or rather they are people who are meant to represent an international appeal. However, the NBA has market concerns about white male demographics and is concerned to not leave them feeling excluded. Reflecting this concern we see an interesting arc throughout the commercial that shows a range of diverse demographics but ends in a flash of three consecutive images of white men. Of the final four shots of the commercial, three of the four close-ups are of white (or white presenting) males – John Stockton (Spokane), Manu Ginobli (Argentina), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany). The final spots are designated to the MVP of last year’s NBA Finals, Steph Curry and a shot of the Warriors crowd at the Oracle arena.

The relevance of these particular white men is debatable in context of the succession of championship celebrations which the commercial seems to be playing on. John Stockton is a Hall of Fame point guard who played for the Utah Jazz and retired in 2003 without a championship. Manu Ginobli plays for the San Antonio Spurs and the image of his celebration is from 2005. Dirk Nowitzki plays for the Dallas Mavericks and they last won a championship in 2011. Of the 36 images overall, six are camera shots where a white male is the center of focus. Three of those shots are mixed throughout the beginning and as I noted above, the rest comprise three of the last four shots of the commercial.

This is seemingly an innocuous editing decision. But considering the fact that the white audience compromise 13.7% of viewership and African Americans total 62.9% and the Bruce Levinson revelation that the predominance of African Americans at Atlanta Hawks games was keeping white audiences away, the amount and placement of white bodies in the commercial may be slightly more strategic.

Racial disparity in NBA coaching

Another instance to consider the influence of race is during the commercial two coaches are shown. One is Doc Rivers who is a black male and the President of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Clippers. Doc Rivers is shown from a ‘medium shot’ and from a worm’s eye camera shot, presenting him in a position of authority. He is wearing a suit and tie and his image corresponds with the spoken words “shot callers,” letting us know he is a man who assumes a position of power. The focus on Doc Rivers as the only head coach represented is a somewhat dishonest portrayal of reality. Of the 30 teams, nine have a man of color as the head coach. Thus, Doc Rivers position serves to present a facade of greater diversity than actually exists.

The choice of the use of “shot callers” in designating Doc Rivers as a notable figure is also worthy of comment. The NBA (along with marketing in general) exploit aspects of black culture in order to increase appeal and produce a certain discourse. To be a labelled a “shot caller” within hip hop culture marks a certain position and characteristic. To label Doc Rivers as a “shot caller” identifies him within black and hip hop culture. Had a white coach been presented in this position in the commercial, we are left to wonder if he would have been labelled similarly.

The use of Doc Rivers as a “shot caller” should also be considered in relation to this observation made Shohat and Stam, “The film or TV commercial in which every eighth face is Black, for example, has more to do with the demographics of market research and the bad conscience of liberalism than with substantive polyphony, since the Black voice, in such instances, is usually shorn of its soul, deprived of its color and intonation” (Shohat and Stam, p. 215). For our purposes, we see the representation of a black coach in Doc Rivers but not the myriad of stories connected to his arrival at such a position and the racist structure of the LA Clippers organization which he is now involved in. Similar to the rest of the images of black bodies in the commercial, their representation comes at the expense of their exploitation through being relegated to symbols for the promotion of the NBA.

REPRESENTATIONS OF SEX, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY IN THE NBA

It’s important to notice the absence of any representation of transgender people or the intentional marking of any transgender people. The NBA may have been motivated by profit to be more inclusive than its counterparts, but they show their lack of genuine concern by this glaring omission. A brief scan of several other NBA campaigns and commercials confirms this decision. Obviously, this omission does not mean that transgender people are not deeply involved in competitive sports. Kye Allums, the first openly transgender NCAA athlete to play Division I sports demonstrates the problem with hyper masculinity within our culture. Allums notes that, “People talk about [unfair advantage] as if men are super-human, as if just because you were born with a penis, that means that you can defeat every single female. And that’s not true. This world values men. We value men. We value male bodies. We don’t value women … People need to stop placing limits on how strong people can or should be, and what their bodies should look like” (Steinmetz, 2014). With this in mind, I will consider the role of gender within the commercial.

In general, representations of traditional forms of gender performance play a significant role in NBA commercials. In particular, this is highlighted in the This is Why We Play advert. In context of their larger presentation over the years, the NBA may be regarded as ahead of its NFL, MLB counterparts as far as addressing social inequalities. The development of the WNBA and campaigns such as Think B4 You Speak present an image of an institution that has genuine interest in supporting an environment of inclusivity. However, a few key sections of the This Is Why We Play commercial are critical sites through which to examine the cultural influence of the NBA, especially in regards to sex, gender and sexuality.

The This Is Why We Play spot is 1:01, five seconds of that commercial serve as critical sites of representation for groups of people particularly marginalized within the sports industry, the LGBTQ community and women. These five seconds include the narratives of three important figures in the history of the NBA and in sports history in general. This importance is underscored by the synchronization of the music being played to emphasis the impact and by the words being narrated. Regardless of capitalism, marginalized people continue to push the boundaries imposed on them by conventional norms and regulations. Vice versa, the market continues to find ways of incorporating those people and exploiting them.

During the clip of Jason Collins, the narrator tells us another reason for why we play is “for breaking through.” Jason Collins played 13 seasons in the NBA and became the second publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues during his last season. This image shows Jason Collins walking in a crowd of people.  We are led to believe this is some kind of gay pride parade because in the background are several blurred out rainbow signs. Additionally, a generic chyron is shown on the screen which reads: JASON COLLINS: NBA player marches in Boston. The context of this march are left to be analyzed through our own skills of inference.

An image of Becky Hammon follows the Jason Collins image. Becky Hammon was a professional basketball player who played in the WNBA and on international teams. On August 5, 2014, she was hired by the Spurs as an assistant coach, becoming the second female assistant coach in NBA history but the first full-time assistant coach. Two images of Becky are displayed in two seconds. One is a medium close up shot of her from a high angle. Her face is centered and on the edges are pieces of players bodies, leading us to believe she is in a time out huddle. The words “breaking barriers” are split between this shot and the second shot, which is a long shot showing her  on the court pointing directions, presumably coaching.

Following Hammon is a clip of Violet Palmer, who is a African American referee in the NBA and WNBA and the first female official to reach the highest competitive tier in a major U.S. professional sport. She is shown from a long camera shot and in motion making a referee gesture signifying possession of the ball. During the shot of Palmer the words “and paradigms” are combined with her action and a bang in the music, creating a powerful effect.

To fully understand the placement and inclusion of these specific stories, Rakow and Wackwitz’s work in Representation in Feminist Communication Theory provides a helpful theoretical framework. They remind us that there are distinctive types of representation. In relation to my purpose here, these explanations are helpful- “representations stand not for the original subject but for its meaning” and “representation…[as] a part that stands for the whole.” When thinking of the images of any person represented in this commercial, and the “special interests” section in particular, their meaning/significance is best understood as separate from their actual lives and impact.

Adding to this analysis we can imagine the comparison of “voice” and “representation” put forth by Shohat and Stam in Stereotype, Realism and the Struggle over Representation. While the representations may or may not be helpful, they do little to create a “polyphony of voices” that is less commodifiable than images. Without access to the creation and production of the story, marginalized groups will continue to be used merely as images and symbols of diversity for capitalist interests.

The use of these particular people and the values they represent are used to further solidify the NBA as a leader of progressive causes. The inscription of race, gender and sexuality on their bodies informs a national audience about current conversations about those identities. Separately, the images convey their own significance and grouped together their placement represents a “special interests” section of the commercial. On the surface the words, “breaking through, breaking boundaries and paradigms,” exploits the very real struggle and history behind the inclusion of people who aren’t white hetero men in the NBA. The color of their skin, the gender presentation and their sexuality become detached from their personal histories and are used as symbols to create the image of inclusivity for the NBA. This process commodifies their identities in order to promote a product. As workers in the NBA, the use of their image for commercial purposes alienates them from their labor. They receive a salary and moments of fame in our culture, but the overwhelming benefactor of their work remains the owners and leadership of the NBA.

The interesting questions viewers may be left with after this section are: breaking through what? boundaries constructed by who? breaking paradigms that benefit the audience? The system of exploitation fueled by racism, classism, homophobia and sexism remains unmarked and free to continue its expansion.

INTERNATIONALISM OR EUROCENTRISM?

As the NBA continues its expansion on a global scale, these conceptions of identity and privilege inform narratives nationally and internationally. From the NBA Taiwan to the NBA Africa, the league reaches millions of audiences around the world. As a function of global capitalism, the symbols and meanings attached to the NBA act as form of Eurocentrism. By positioning itself as virtual monopoly on the game of basketball, the NBA adds to the conception that ‘The West’ is desirable, civilized and supreme while ‘The Rest’ of the world exist in contrast to that image. As Hall et. al. describe another function of Eurocentrism is to create a false history that the achievement of European excellence was largely an internal affair. The NBA presents itself in a slightly more nuanced manner by situating itself as part of a global community but also placing itself firmly in the center of any discussion about the legacy of basketball (Hall, et. al., 1996). While, basketball may have originated in the United States, we can now see that, in fact, it is part of a global story. The effect this produces is a representation of “The West” as unique and “The Rest” as conglomerated whole.

Through the use of the referential code, we can see how the commercial sets the story around the globe while centering on the NBA basketball court. Following the narratives mentioned above, depictions of basketball being played around the world are shown. For example, residential driveways, city playgrounds, community gyms and professional arenas. Although not directly stated, the settings also take place internationally. African countries, India, China and perhaps Mexico are depicted as places that also enjoy NBA basketball. Yao Ming and Satnam Singh Bhamara receive significant amounts of airtime (2 seconds each). They each get 2 separate consecutive shots. Yao Ming is 7’6’’ man from China. He retired in 2011 after eight successful NBA seasons. Satnam Singh Bhamara is from India. In 2015, he became the first Indian born player to be drafted into the NBA.

The exposure of these two people in particular should be seen in context of the NBA as a global enterprise. Efforts to highlight certain players from certain countries showcase a diversity of talent and also act as a form of Western expansion of economy and culture. The strides made by these two men are not insignificant but their stories are detached from their experience when they are used by capitalists to sell as a commodity. China and India are two of the largest countries in the world and have growing economies. While this continues to be true we can assume the presence of the NBA and the Eurocentric values attached to it will continue to impact the world in a uniquely racist, sexist and classist way.

CONCLUSION:

Through analyzing the capitalist framework of the NBA and its presentations of diversity through its marketing campaigns, I hope to have highlighted some ways that the NBA inherently is involved in Eurocentrism. The mechanisms through which the NBA promotes this agenda can be seen through its charity efforts and its commercial campaigns. Both of these branches of the NBA use images and representation of the diverse populations of people who engage with basketball. However progressive these images may seem, they do not give effective “voice” to the people involved in the storytelling. In order to move from exploited representation to a greater diversity of “voices” we must first come to terms with the nature and complexity inherent in a capitalist vessel employing distorted means.

The commercial places itself firmly within the context of “We.” The images of “We” that are displayed range from contemporary professional athletes to less identifiable disabled athletes. The face of the NBA in this context include fans and athletes from a diverse selection of demographics. Almost anyone, it seems, is welcome to be part of the “We”. Despite these efforts of inclusivity, the faces that do not grace the screen are those of the capitalists owners who reap the benefits of the labor because they own the means of production- franchises, arenas. By successfully detaching themselves from acknowledgement they both remain unscathed of responsibility as well as accumulate disproportional amounts of capital. The symbol of the NBA then serves a Eurocentric purpose to expand the league’s reach as far and wide as possible.

This version of internationalism promotes is synonymous with neoliberal agendas while exploiting the bodies and character of its workers and the recipients of their goodwill. The extreme disparity in earnings between owners and workers further solidifies the consolidation of wealth. On a global scale, the NBA participates in the free market, unregulated and free to move capital, goods and services. The NBA also perpetuate neoliberal characteristics of by remaining free of government regulation while also benefitting from subsidies and tax benefits (re: publicly funded arenas). This is not the internationalism that will effectively confront the severe inequalities that exist in the world that require the necessity for charity, nor is the NBA the vehicle through which we should expect such struggle to take place.

Fortunately, sports are increasingly becoming accepted sites of social justice advocacy. The workers/athletes of the NBA have increasingly taken steps to use their position of notoriety as a way to promote or align themselves with contemporary human rights issues. Recently for example, Dwayne Wade wrote #LaquanMcDonald, #Justice on his game sneakers, showing he was in solidarity with protestors in Chicago who have been demanding justice in the face of ongoing police brutality and killing of the black lives. These stories within the NBA demonstrate the need to look critically at the intersection of sports and politics and seek sites of intervention within an industry that exploits our diversity for their profit. Given the global scale of the NBA’s audience, opportunities to highlight the exploitation inherent in capitalism and to create dialogue about the intersectional nature of oppression should not be diminished.

WORKS CITED

Benigno, K. (2015, October 30). Wow!: 100 International Players Part of NBA’s Opening Roster. Retrieved from http://www.wheninmanila.com/wow-100-international-players-part-of-nbas-opening-roster/

Hall, S. et. al. (1996). Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Jessop, A. (2013, February 20). The NBA’s Adoption of Charity as a Central Business Model is Apparent During All-Star Week. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/aliciajessop/2013/02/20/the-nbas-adoption-of-charity-as-a-central-business-model-is-apparent-during-all-star-week/

McMurria, J. (2008, February 22). Desperate Citizens and Good Samaritans: Neoliberalism and Makeover Reality TV. Television & New Media, 1-27.

NBA. (2015, October 12). This Is Why We Play: Anthem (Long). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwKhufmMxko

Playing At The Pro Level: working at the NBA. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.nba.com/careers/prolevel_diversity.html

Rehling, N. (2009). Introduction. In N. Rehling, Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Cinema (1-20). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Shohat, E., Stam, R., (1994). Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the media. London: Routledge.

Skeggs, B. (2004). Making class: Inscription, Exchange, Value and Perspective. In B. Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture. NY: Routledge.

Steinmetz, K. (2014, October 28). Meet The First Openly Transgender NCAA Division I Athlete. Retrieved from http://time.com/3537849/meet-the-first-openly-transgender-ncaa-athlete/

Watson, J. (2008). Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process. New York: Palgrave Mcmillan.

White, O. (2015, October 14). The NBA Will Unveil Their “This Is Why We Play” Campaign. Retrieved from

http://thesource.com/2015/10/14/the-nba-will-unveil-their-this-is-why-we-play-campaign/

Zia, L. (2015, March 10). Diversity is a Slam Dunk for the NBA. Retrieved from http://www.dieste.com/provoke-daily/all/blog-entry/diversity-slam-dunk-nba

 

True story #meltingpot

Many years ago, the USA was once proudly self-referenced as a ‘melting pot’. A land of great promise and generational wealth. Also a nice spot to fuse together the ‘huddled masses’ with the ‘wretched refuse’. People (were) assimilated.

Then the multiculturals demanded recognition and re-spun the metaphor to maintain our diversity. Damn your homogenous culture! We’re a salad bowl!

As we and our repercussions remain in orbit, a more accurate metaphor (for the ‘unmeltable ethnics’ of us) might be:

every kind of cereal soaking in a bowl of milk.

PLAYERS INSPIRED BY PLAYERS: Advancing Social Justice through the words and actions of activist-athletes

PLAYERS INSPIRED BY PLAYERS:

Advancing Social Justice through the words and actions of activist-athletes

Asaya Plumly, January 2015

We usually have a warped version of the way things used to be. I heard somewhere that the more you access memories, the less accurate they become. With that in mind, and as far as I’m concerned, the early 90’s were a fantastic time to be a kid. According to my mind’s eye, as a pre-teen in a foreign country, my childhood was filled with skittles, rollerblading, learning how to flirt with girls and a whole lot of basketball.

However, I truly believe that I did in fact spend hours on the basketball court. Usually I played with other military brats, but almost as often it was just me, the ball and the hoop. I like to think I did this out of pure dedication and love of the game – a young boy with dreams of basketball glory and the wherewithal to work for it. This may have been true in an oversimplified way. What is equally true is that a driving force behind that dedication came from a childhood dream that if I stayed on that court just long enough I could manifest my own real life role in Michael Jordan’s Playground.

We’ve all seen the movie, right? By all, I mean all of us who were obsessed with Michael Jordan (MJ) and worked in tandem with our friends to get our hands on any VHS tape that had our leading man MJ plastered on it. For those who don’t care to remember, the movie came out in 1991 and documented MJ’s rise to his first finals victory alongside the narrative of a young African American  kid having similar struggles as MJ did when he was a cut from his high school basketball team.

There’s a memorable scene between the kid and MJ in which I replace myself as the kid like this: I play basketball all day with my friends, being involved but not necessarily the most impactful kid on the court. As a result, I stay after everyone else goes home for dinner. I shoot bricks until sun starts to drop below the high rise apartments. I can’t allow myself to go home on a brick so I take one last shot. A swish! Cue the 90’s inspirational keyboard jam. Cue the ball rolling to the feet of Michael Jordan who gracefully picks it up and says,

“Nice shot, I see you’ve been practicing,” he says with a championship smile. Speechless, I gaze in amazement. “I know you like to play alone. You don’t mind if I shoot with you, do ya?” he continues. In anticipation of this moment, I have not only been practicing my jump shot, but also the look I would give MJ when this very moment would happen. It’s a look of calm bewilderment. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He schools me for what feels like hours until my parents send my older brother to summon me home and he finds me lying in the middle of the court, staring into the heavens with a glaze of satisfaction over my face. And scene.

I don’t have the resources to confirm this, but I feel like it’s safe to say that millions of other kids have had eerily similar delusions. At the time, MJ was climbing a long road to not only the top of the NBA, but to the top of a billion dollar industry as well. His influence eventually dwarfing any held by his contemporaries in all of sports. Kids around the world consumed him with a fervor.

For many people surrounding my age, Michael Jordan played a not so insignificant role in our understanding of the world. Certainly for those whose worlds were crowded with sneakers and playgrounds – not only did he set the standard of greatness, but he was also packaged to us as a representation of wholesome success. He was flash, brilliance and hard work, all wrapped up in a handsome persona. None of his off court fumbles ever penetrated the psyche of an eleven year old kid.

Probably, I benefited from an aspect of this image- the part that emphasized dedication and work ethic. The part of the story that used his charisma and accomplishments to push the idea that success requires hard work, every day. The part that made for such great posters- “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” It’s hard for a 4th grader to argue with logic like that.

Michael Jordan taught many kids many different lessons. The one with deepest repercussions, however, wasn’t his ability to come through at clutch moments but his absence from any matter of social justice.

Of course, he was not without plenty of opportunity to display any kernel of moral courage during and since his rise to fame. In the early 90’s, while I was being consoled by Wilson Phillips over a breakup and Michael Jordan was building the foundation of a dynasty, the US military was busy developing the Gulf War, apartheid was coming to a close and NAFTA was being signed.

Carpet bombing and trade agreements may be an unrealistic place to imagine MJ taking a stand. However, in the 90s, we also saw the uprisings in Los Angeles over police brutality and Magic Johnson was making headlines by announcing he had contracted HIV. These were two pivotal moments in history and two occasions we heard little if anything from not only MJ but the majority of the well-known sports figures.

Perhaps the defining example of MJ’s dedicated social ambivalence was in 1990 when asked if he would support black Democrat Harvey Gnatt in his attempt to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms, (a man who opposed making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday). Jordan declined. Reportedly telling a friend later, “Republicans buy sneakers too” (King, 2014).

This statement has come to epitomize what many consider a failure of MJ to take full (or any) advantage of his worldwide popularity to shed light on the many social-political problems of the day.  Almost 25 years later, with his industry firmly intact, he would donate to the Obama campaign. (Granderson, 2012) He would return to his ambivalence by not contributing in 2008, while many other athletes such as LeBron James (LBJ) and Vince Carter did (Granderson, 2012).

Regardless of their decision to engage in civic dialogue, professional athletes have a meaningful impact on our culture. Whether they take the social ambivalence route of MJ or the loud and proud approach of Muhammad Ali, their choices have far reaching effects on a population obsessed with sports. For me, now fully outgrown of my Air Jordan’s, the point really isn’t why wouldn’t MJ support Harvery Gnatt but what role can professional athletes play in creating learning environments for the student athletes who aspire to be like them?

Today, fortunately, we don’t have to search very far to find examples of prominent athletes sharing in the legacy of Ali, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and others. A significant number of athletes and star athletes are deeply involved in community issues both on and off the court. The Jordan wanna-be’s of today have plenty of well-rounded role models to choose from. I believe, that over recent months, the actions taken by these high-profile athletes can have profound benefits for people working towards social change.

When the non indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo sparked a national outrage over police brutality, basketball players, such as, Derrick Rose and LBJ, accessed their humanity and put it on display for millions to see. Derrick Rose wore a shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe” on December 6 in a game against the league’s best Golden State Warriors. Later, prompting the league’s biggest star, LBJ, to comment “It’s spectacular, I loved it. I’m looking for one” (Highkin, 2014).

Soon enough he did. LBJ wore his shirt the following Monday, along with fellow high profile player, Kyrie Irving. The Brooklyn Nets, whom they played against, also donned the shirts. Even President Obama himself applauded James effort saying he “did the right thing”(Sink, 2014). In a display of just how far the conversation about sports and politics has come, Obama continued,

We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves, he said. LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention (Sink, 2014).

I’m not what you would call a LeBron fan nor would I consider myself a supporter of the drones and deportations of Obama but, it’s hard to imagine MJ taking such a step and perhaps even more unbelievable to imagine hearing such encouragement from President George H.W. Bush.

Soon enough, high profile players all over the league could be seen making some form of commemoration to the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and the countless other black men, women and children who have been murdered by police. Teams such as the Phoenix Suns, the Sacramento Kings, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers all had players who showed their support for the victims of police brutality. Making Asian-Americans around the country proud, Jeremy Lin was the first non-black player to sport an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt (“Jeremy Lin wears”, 2014).

Naturally, the players all had somewhat different reasons for wearing their shirts. For example, the Lakers franchise player, Kobe Bryant said it wasn’t about race but about justice. Eclipsing anything MJ ever accomplished from a platform, Kobe went on to add,

“It’s important that we have our opinions. It’s important that we stand up for what we believe in and we all don’t have to agree with, and it’s completely fine. That’s what makes this a beautiful country” (Lutz, 2014).

As mentioned above, Derrick Rose, wore his shirt less than a week after a Staten Island grand jury decided to not indict the cop who killed Eric Garner. He had previously been active in his hometown of Chicago, donating $1 million to After School Matters, a Chicago non-profit that provides programs for at-risk teens (Ziller, 2014). Although he drew some inept criticism for his decision, Rose spoke poignantly about his decision:

I grew up and I saw it every day,” Rose said. “Not killing or anything like that, but I saw the violence every day. Just seeing what can happen. If anything, I’m just trying to change the kids’ minds across the nation and it starts here.”

I’m a parent now,” Rose said. “I had a kid two years ago. It probably would have been different [before his son was born]. I probably wouldn’t have worn the shirt. But now that I’m a dad, it’s just changed my outlook on life, period (O’Donnell, 2014).

Of course, basketball stars weren’t the only ones participating in the conversation. Prior to the Garner decision, five St. Louis Rams raised their hands in the ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ slogan (which was used widespread during the protests in Ferguson) during their pregame introductions (Wagner, 2014). Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens and Tavon Austin joined other NFL athletes, such as players from the Washington NFL team, who used their platform to convey their feelings about the recent fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. (AP, 2014).

Sharing a helpful understanding of the situation that many commentators seemed to miss, Washington Safety Ryan Clark said Brown “could have been any one of us. That could have been any one of our brothers, our cousins. … When you get an opportunity to make a statement and be more than a football player, it’s good.”

Beyond the world of men’s professional sports, amateur athletes in college and high school student/athletes broadened the response by wearing a variety of shirts with similar messages. In these cases, we can see the direct impact such actions can have on teams and their communities.

On Saturday, December 13, the University of California’s Women’s Basketball team, wore shirts that read Black Lives Matter and We Are Cal on the back. On the front of their shirts each player had the name of an African-American who was killed by police or by lynching, along with the date of their death (Eisenberg, 2014). Some of the names are as follows:

Emmett Till (1955), Oscar Grant (2009), Trayvon Martin (2102), Michael Brown (2014) , Eric Garner (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Kimani Gray (2013), Michael Donald (1991), and Laura Nelson (1911).

This statement made by the Cal team, pointed to a deeper look at police brutality and put it in a historical context. Although it was somewhat at odds with the viewpoint of their NBA counterparts whose comments were directed more towards support for the family and “justice,” the women at Cal helped add to the national conversation about the roots of the problem between police and people of color. By providing examples of names throughout US history, the women demonstrated that the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not isolated incidents, simply the most publicized in a long line of police violence against communities of color.

On December 13, in a game versus Michigan, the Notre Dame Women’s basketball team wore pre-game warm up shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe.” They also posted pictures on Twitter, accompanied by this quote, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” (Sherman, 2013). The women were also supported by their coach Muffet McGraw. In a press conference after the game, McGraw addressed the teams decision to take a stand.

I was really proud of our team…You have to be willing to stand up and fight and you have to be accountable in that fight. And the accountability doesn’t end when you leave that locker room. Its not just about basketball. Basketball is just a game. The thing that it teaches you is about life. And these are the lessons that I want them to learn. I want to have strong, confident women who are not afraid to use their voice and take a stand (“Irish wear”, 2014).

One can only speculate on the amount of conversations and revelations that occurred between players, coaches, friends, family member, etc. because of the brave actions of these women. Having the support of their coach is undoubtedly a major factor in allowing the student/athletes to learn from this situation and to continue feeling that much more empowered and knowing they have the ability to make a change.

No team at the collegiate or professional level appeared to have dealt with the amount of controversy that was created around the decisions of some high school basketball players around the country. One of the more inspiring examples of athletes taking a stand came far away from any ESPN reporters or corporate-sponsored stadiums.

In Northern California, the Mendocino Girls and Boys basketball teams were disinvited to a tournament hosted by nearby Fort Bragg High School. The athletic director at Fort Bragg High informed the team from Mendocino they wouldn’t be allowed to play over concern that players planned to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Fort Bragg officials said they worried about the reaction some people would have to the shirts and that they were too small a school to deal with such a situation. An odd presumption given the players had worn the shirts previously without incident nor had there been an other documented cases of conflict from other teams, professional or otherwise (AP, 2014).

The boys team was reinstated after all but one boy decided to comply with the condition of not wearing the shirt. The girls team, however, had too few players not willing to not wear the shirt and were not allowed to play (AP, 2014) .

A couple days later, the teams were re-invited to the tournament. The school district reversed its ban on the t-shirts and said it would allow them as long as they didn’t cause problems. This decision happened after both sides had spoken with lawyers (Leff, 2014). A First Amendment lawyer who represents one of the players, said the reversal by the Fort Bragg School District came just moments before she intended to file a federal court motion arguing that barring the shirts violated the free speech rights of student athletes (Leff, 2014).

In the end, the girls team did not participate in the tournament, but the boys team did. Regardless, the decision by the athletes to stand up for something they believed in caused many ripples throughout Mendocino county. There has been international coverage of the situation and certainly local residents have been impacted, including the coach of the Mendocino girls team,

“I didn’t even know what it meant. I thought it was a joke about how I had conditioned them so hard,” Freehand said. “None of the administrators knew what it was or that any of them were doing it in advance. This was entirely for their cause that they had strong feelings about” (Leff, 2014).

Through their actions the Mendocino Girls Varsity team sparked debate about freedom of speech and also about privilege. The student bodies at the two schools are 1% black, 50% white and 41% Hispanic at Fort Bragg; 75% white and 9% Hispanic at Mendocino. The girls addressed this disparity and offered a thoughtful explanation for their decision in a public letter, via MSP, ‘To Mendo Sheriff Assoc. & To All ‘Concerned Citizens’:

Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by law enforcement officials. His last words during the incident, ‘I can’t breathe,’ have become a slogan that has gained momentum and media attention after members of the NBA, as well as entire college and high school basketball teams wore shirts with this slogan during their warm-ups.

The Mendocino High School Varsity girls and boys basketball teams made the decision to wear the shirts without the initial encouragement of any parent, coach or other adult. We, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public (AVA, 2015).

These girls not only provide an example of how the message of professional athletes is translated from the media to the minds of young people but, more inspiringly, the capacity of student/athletes to take the lead and continue the conversation in places that may have otherwise have missed it completely.

Across the country, in Hartford, CT, the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts received a different reaction when worn by members of the Weaver basketball team. The team was advised on the decision by their coach, Reggie Coach, who also referred to the influence of NBA players in their decision.

“LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, some NBA teams and others, like the latest was the Notre Dame women’s team, have worn the shirts. So now Weaver will, too,” Weaver coach Reggie Hatchett said Monday (de la Torre, 2014). Hatchett continued,

The Eric Garner video showed in front of our eyes he was murdered. So there is the protest, but there are more layers for us wearing the shirts. … “Wearing the shirts shows our responsibility and pride in our team’s multi-ethnicity, most of it African-American. We are socially responsible and aware of what is right. (de la Torre, 2014).

The Weaver High’s Culinary Arts Academy works to emphasize issues of freedom of speech and social responsibility. The support of the principal and the basketball coach have had a positive influence on the players. Some teachers at the school have engaged with the students about the Eric Garner case and the upheaval in Ferguson, Mo. These difficult conversations in the classroom can help young students begin to develop a critical analysis of the conditions that directly affect their lives. Coach Hatchett, emphasises this point:

“When you have young men under your wing, there’s a serious responsibility not just to teach them sports, but also make them understand the life, the community that they live in, and what’s going on,” Hatchett said (de la Torre, 2014).

On December 12th, another group of student/athletes were inspired by NBA players and wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to demonstrate solidarity with people who think there are racial inequities in the criminal justice system. Kleahl Parker, Daurice Mouelle and James Kauli saw NBA players wearing the shirts and were prompted to join the national conversation on race and police brutality (Donaldson, 2014).

Although they had their coaches support and permission, the school’s administration did not want them wearing the shirts during high school games. According to administrators, they are allowed to wear the shirts to school but not during games because they would be representing the school (Donaldson, 2014).

During a game against East High on December 18th, the boys wore their shirts during warm-ups and throughout the game. During the second quarter, the assistant coach was approached by the principal who told him the boys couldn’t wear the shirts while on the bench. None of the boys removed their shirts. At halftime the assistant principal met the boys at the locker room door and informed them wearing the shirts was a violation of Utah High School Activities Association rules. The boys who were wearing them either removed or covered them (Donaldson, 2014).

The boys promised to keep wearing their shirts even if they were under their uniforms because they wanted to educate people about the effects of racism. As young black men living in a predominantly white area, the boys had their own experiences with racism:

I decided to do it with him because I wanted to make other people aware of what’s going on around the world,” Mouelle said. “Every time when I go out, my mom is always telling me to be careful. Don’t do anything stupid because of all of the things that have been happening. People judge you by your skin color, even though they don’t know you. You never know what might happen to you when you go out, even if you’re not doing anything bad (Donaldson, 2014).

The young men from East High and other athletes around the country support each other in re-introducing the athlete-activist after decades of relative silence. They are also a vital part of the broader #blacklivesmatter movement. It is important to understand that similar to how we saw the creation of this important hashtag derived from the work of three queer black women, the initiation of #blacklivesmatter solidarity on the basketball court was also first undertaken by a young black women.

On November 29, Knox College Women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith courageously performed a one woman demonstration at the Knox College v. Fontbonne University game held in Clayton, MO. During the national anthem, Ariyana walked with her hands up in a ‘hand ups, don’t shoot’ gesture towards the American flag and laid on the ground for a full 4.5 minutes to bring awareness to the police killing of Michael Brown, after which his body was left to lay in the street for 4.5 hours (Zirin, 2014). She was suspended for one game. A few days later the college reversed the decision after talking with other members of the basketball team.

In an interview with a local television station, Ariyana said, “I could not go into that gymnasium and pretend that everything was okay. I could not, in good conscience, I could not play that game.”

In a country where business as usual is defined as much by our adoration of athletes as it is by facts such as ‘every 28 hours a black man in murdered by the police, security guard or vigilante,’ I think we would all do well to listen to the words of Ariyana and ‘not pretend everything is okay’ (Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, 2013).

It’s also important to realize that under a system of racialized oppression, the perceptions of ‘okay’ for white people and non-black people of color are are inherently different than those of the black community. For some of many examples, black students are three and half time more likely to be suspended than whites (SuspensionStories.com, n.d.); African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population; and 1 in 100 African American women are in prison (NAACP, n.d.).  Statistics paint a grim picture but listening to stories give us a more complete description of how this system operates. When we struggle to fight this system we should listen to the stories of those most adversely affected by it and follow their lead towards collective liberation.

From a educator/coach perspective, some ways we can honor these moments is not to consider the courageous actions of athletes as just a flash in the pan. If we choose to look at these examples as solely singular acts than we diminish the value of the interactions that led to them and that followed them. It’s the moments that are experienced in and around the wearing of the shirts – the dinner conversations that we’re sparked, the interactions between students, school officials and community members, the sense of empowerment that often accompanies defiant acts – that allow us to deepen our ability to act in an appropriate way. As educators, coaches, parents and simply as adults, it is our obligation to encourage and support young people to have confidence in themselves and in their beliefs.

The student-athletes were able to get a lesson in participatory democracy and ‘civic dialogue’ they could have never experienced within a classroom unwilling to approach controversial subjects. This is in essence the definition of a teachable moment. By no means do I mean that it was the adults who were doing the teaching. Rather, it’s because of the courageous acts of a few young people that the community at large was exposed to lessons in dealing with adversity, engaging in political debate and expanding their comfort zones. Moving forward, it’s important to remember that these examples are part of a revolutionary process, not to be consumed and tossed aside but to be valued and extended.

Regardless of who instigated the momentum, we do know that ‘basketball season as usual’ was interrupted for many communities around the country.

These days I still spend a considerable amount of time on the basketball court. Demonstrating that some things never change, I still put up more than my fair share of bricks. However, I no longer have skittle-induced dreams about larger than life athletes materializing before me and whisking me off to basketball stardom. This time around, I think of Ariyana Smith more often than Michael Jordan, and the profoundly different ‘Playground’ she and others have provided for the young basketball players of today.

Associated Press. (2014, August 19). Redskins show Ferguson support. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11375414/eleven-washington-redskins-players-show-solidarity-ferguson-missouri-protest

Associated Press. (2014, December 27). ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts see high-school basketball team disinvited from event. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/27/i-cant-breathe-t-shirts-high-school-basketball

AVA News service. (2015, January 1). Somewhere Vern Piver Is Laughing. Retrieved from http://theava.com/archives/38826

Brennan, Eamonn. (2014, December 10). Hoyas latest to don protest shirts. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/12012164/georgetown-hoyas-wear-breathe-t-shirts

Cook, Bob. (2014, December 27). ‘I Can’t Play’ — High School Athletes Face Backlash for Eric Garner-Inspired T-Shirts. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/bobcook/2014/12/27/i-cant-play-high-school-athletes-face-backlash-for-eric-garner-inspired-t-shirts/

de la Torre, Vanessa. (2014, December 18). Weaver Players Wear ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Shirts In Solidarity. Retrieved from http://www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-hartford-weaver-basketball-1218-20141217-story.html

Donaldson, Amy. (2014, December 23). West High basketball players work to debate race, educate peers. Retrieved from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865618310/West-basketball-players-continue-to-find-ways-to-protest-racial-inequities.html?pg=all

Eisenberg, Jeff. (2014, December 14). Cal women’s hoops partakes in ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Retrieved from http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/ncaab-the-dagger/cal-women-s-basketball-dons-handmade–black-lives-matter–shirts-191307973.html

Granderson, LZ. (2012, August 2012). The Political Michael Jordan. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/8264956/michael-jordan-obama-fundraiser-22-years-harvey-gantt

Highkin, Sean. (2014, December 7). Lebron James on Derrick Rose’s “I Can’t Breathe” shirt: “Spectacular. I loved it”. Retrieved from http://probasketballtalk.nbcsports.com/2014/12/07/lebron-james-on-derrick-roses-i-cant-breathe-shirt-spectacular-i-loved-it/

Irish wear ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts. (2014, December 13). Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/womens-college-basketball/story/_/id/12023106/notre-dame-women-wear-breathe-t-shirts

Jeremy Lin wears ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt. (2012, December 12). Retrieved from http://blog.angryasianman.com/2014/12/jeremy-lin-wears-i-cant-breathe-shirt.html

King, Jamilah (2014, December 18). When It Comes To Sports Protests, Are T-Shirts Enough?. Retrieved from http://colorlines.com/archives/2014/12/are_protest_t-shirts_enough.html

Leff, Lisa. (2014, December 29). California School District Reverses Basketball Tournament Ban On ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-Shirts. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/29/fort-bragg-i-cant-breathe-shirts_n_6393194.html

Lutz, Tom. (2014, December 10). Kobe Bryant and LA Lakers don ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts over police brutality. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/dec/10/kobe-bryant-and-la-lakers-don-i-cant-breathe-shirts-over-police-brutality

Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. (2014). Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killing of Black People. Retrieved from http://www.operationghettostorm.org/uploads/1/9/1/1/19110795/new_all_14_11_04.pdf

Minor, Chris. (2014, December 2). Knox College lifts suspension for player’s Ferguson protest. Retrieved from http://wqad.com/2014/12/02/knox-college-lifts-suspension-in-ferguson-protest-on-basketball-court/

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (n.d.) Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

O’Donnell, Ricky. (2014, December 8). Derrick Rose explains why he wore ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt. Retrieved from http://www.sbnation.com/nba/2014/12/8/7356267/derrick-rose-chicago-bulls-eric-garner

Sherman, Rodger. (2014, December 13). Notre Dame women’s hoops wears ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts. Retrieved from http://www.sbnation.com/lookit/2014/12/13/7388169/notre-dame-womens-hoops-wears-i-cant-breathe-shirts

Sink, Justin. (2014, December 19). Obama praises LeBron James for wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt. Retrieved from http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/227659-obama-praises-lebron-james-for-wearing-i-cant-breathe-shirt

SuspensionStories.com. (n.d.) Are Our Children Being Punished Into Prison? [Fact sheet]. Retrieved from: http://www.suspensionstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/STPPgraphic.jpg

Wagner, Nick. (2014, November 30). Rams players salute Ferguson. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11958985/st-louis-rams-give-pregame-salute-ferguson-missouri

Ziller, Tom. (2014, December 8). 3 words are enough for Derrick Rose. Retrieved from http://www.sbnation.com/2014/12/8/7352503/derrick-rose-i-cant-breathe-tshirt-eric-garner

Zirin, Dave. (n.d.). Interview With Ariyana Smith: The First Athlete Activist of #BlackLivesMatter [Interview by Dave Zirin]. Retrieved from http://www.edgeofsports.com/2015-01-06-982/index.html

Dear Justin Simien, I mean Dear Gabe.

First things first, in the end of Dear White People, Sam White (the lead black female protagonist) chases down a white dude and confesses that she loves him. I really wish someone would’ve told me that before or mentioned it in one of their reviews because I absolutely would not have watched it. Frankly, Id rather listen to Geraldo Rivera. Second first thing, I’m mixed asian. Read into that.

Prior to the release of DWP, I had been reading anything I could get my hands on about Dear White People. I re-posted so many interviews on my blog that I stopped for fear of alienating my follower. I had been giddy about the chance to see the film. Sounds great on paper- cool, young, hip, black, an asian lady, race politics, shit talking about how white people have some serious (often deadly) difficulties wrapping their head around race and privilege, college radio, fashion. I love all that stuff. Some of that love is packed with problematic internalized racism projections, sure, but that’s for another time.

As the release date was approaching. I starting checking all the theaters within an hour driving distance. I was brain storming people who I could watch it with. I made plans with multiple people even though I certainly would’ve watched it alone. In fact, I made plans with white people to go see it. Then I started to get nervous that the local, independent, volunteer run Capitol Theater wouldn’t show it. (Olympia, as you should know, is a small white liberal haven and the Capitol Theater maybe has shown relevant films before but judging from recent selections there was no indication they would feel obligated to show a film like Dear White People.) Needless to say, I eagerly anticipated this movie.

Finally tonight the moment arrived. I broke the speed limit by 5 miles on my 7 minute drive home from work, slammed half a PB&J and walked fast to the corner store for some Halls and then walked faster down to the theater. My awesome friend of color was there waiting. We got some beers, avoided sitting by the few separate but large groups of white people and let’s get this shit started! Time to enjoy one of the few exceptions where we can hear white people get called out in public and not expect immediate contempt. After 3 trailers for movies starring all white casts, the scene was set.

108 minutes of post-racial time pass.

Okay, that was a pretty funny movie. Some unexpected kisses and some good one-liners. But if you  want to know what it’s about and why this white dude said this about it:

“Justin Simien’s first feature film [Dear White People]…is as smart and fearless a debut as I have seen from an American filmmaker in quite some time: knowing but not snarky, self-aware but not solipsistic, open to influence and confident in its own originality.” – A.O. Scott New York Times

you should rent it from the library and watch it or read any of the numerous reviews of it all applauding it for similar reasons.

To me the only thing that really matters is the ending. You may be wondering why this bothers me so much. In retrospect I shouldn’t be surprised by this ending. Because it’s the same ending to almost every movie almost ever in the history of movies made in countries predominantly white. The white dude wins. Russel Crow beats Denzel Washington in American Gangster even though he’s severely outclassed.* Heck, Ryan Reynolds beats Denzel Washington in the end of Safe House.**  Who believes that would happen in their reality mind? White people don’t actually always win. Muhammad Ali won all the time. Sistah Sinema is winning. Grace Lee Boggs wins.  Ferguson began a victory.

Why send white people that white centered message yet again? The movie is very accurately titled. Yes Dear White People indeed. Dear White People, it’s okay. Everything is going to be okay. Black people are angry but in the end they’ll come to terms with it and hold your safe, white supremacist hand even while their friends look back at them in disgust. Translation to the real world- watch Crash for the same effect. Yes white people you are culpable in crime after crime against humanity. Your unearned privilege chokes others to death but we’ll come around to love your Sandra Bullock ass in the end. So keep shopping the way you shop, talking the way you talk, dancing the way you dance and ignoring the way you ignore because, as we learned from DWP, forgiveness is always a courtship away.

This perhaps explains why this movie received so much applause and positive review. My friend asked me earlier to send her a full review because she wouldn’t be able to see it. My response, oh it’s gonna be good, just go watch it, no review necessary. I was so naive earlier today. Would the same reception had been given if Sam White ended up with Reggie, her black counterpart? Would Justin Simien have made the same movie after the events in Ferguson have shifted the momentum?

I find being this upset and frustrated at a movie about black and white relations potentially problematic for a blended dude like me, so I’m going to deflect those feelings onto Gabe, the white lover. Fuck you Gabe why’d you insert yourself into this film? Why’d you manipulate a mixed girls white father complexes? You should’ve went to Notre Dame you hairbag.

*check out the Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period podcast.                       **it’s delicious.

How Ferguson Put Me In My Place – a mixed perspective on the revolution

Here’s what a beautiful sunny walk to the farmer’s market on a Sunday listening to Tim Wise on my phone in Olympia has revealed to me. One of my biggest reactions to the upsurge in conversation and attention to police brutality on black lives, is that it very much magnifies my white skin privilege. Wrestling with privilege is never an easy thing. For me at least. I’ve said before many times that being mixed Asian and white and looking more white than Asian more or less pisses me off. Mostly internally. Part of that privilege is that I choose to deal with it and I’m not always forced to deal with it.

What it means for me to have this privilege is I set the terms of engagement with police. I see police all the time. Usually they’re beating the shit out of people on my computer screen but also real live ones walking and talking and driving and acting like their existence is completely legitimate. I saw them markedly less when I lived in Napa, CA.  I saw them all the fucking time when I lived in Albany, NY. Not only did I see them there but even when I didn’t see them I saw the ramifications of them. Most gut wrenchingly in the form of shrines dedicated to black youth who had been murdered by them. However, if I choose to not interact with police, I can, with a certain amount of maneuvering and a larger amount of compromising, avoid them at least in terms of agitation.

I remember once, after recently moving to Albany I was in the community garden/vacant lot adjacent to The Free School and a cop came speeding the wrong way up a one way street. He stopped and yelled at me, “have you seen a guy wearing a red cap?’. No I said in my best disdain filled voice, and he sped off. I was pissed. Why the fuck do you think I would tell you anything? What about me told you that I was on your side? And in a place where people spend a lot of time outside in their neighborhood on stoops or just walking around and in a neighborhood that is predominantly black, I felt like that asshole had just pegged me as a co-conspirator in whatever brutality he was about to get himself into.

It was summer so my skin was browner than usual. My hair and other features remained ambiguous enough though. Certainly I wasn’t black. Registering in his brain I wasn’t a criminal. And worse, a potential ally in his chase. As dirty as that feels, it sure isn’t the police harassment I would’ve received as a black dude wandering in a vacant lot. My daily life does not involve feeling threatened, marked and cornered by white supremacy.

Now that I’m back in Olympia, WA my relationship with police has shifted again. I see them still. The school I work at now is on the same block as a small cop shop. Sometimes at lunch Ill walk to get some coffee and walk alongside their building. Once I had the misfortune of walking by as a cop was walking into the building. He smiled and said good afternoon to me. I stepped off the sidewalk and kept walking. Trying to not let his cordialness ruin my day. How would that interaction been different if I was black or brown? I try my best to ignore these pigs. To act like they don’t exist but they still feel compelled to engage me. To give me the Officer Friendly treatment. My daily life does not involve feeling threatened, marked and cornered by white supremacy.

Later in the week I went for a walk during my break to relieve some stress. I took a short walk down the hill to a view of the port of Olympia. I stood there a while and zoned out thinking about how people generally suck at communicating. As I turned to start walking back to work a cop rolled up. “Everything ok? you need some help?”. After a pause because I was caught off guard, “Just taking in the view?”. “uh huh”I stammered. And off he went. Dude leave me the fuck alone. Can’t you see I’m not on your team. I don’t want your help. And I certainly didn’t ask for you to feel comfortable enough with the way I look for you to offer it to me. It’s hard to level having privilege against a hatred of capitalism. My daily life does not involve feeling threatened, marked and cornered by white supremacy.

Acknowledging privilege makes me feel like Im conceding part of my anti-authoritarian self. But I think its problematic to fall into this type of dichotomous relationship with the state and authority. Actually in my heart of hearts, I should define for myself who I am and what Im worth. And it doesn’t come down to which side of the binary Im on.

As a person who spend a lot of time reading amazing things people are saying and doing around the country in the face of white supremacy, I think about race relations just about constantly. Recently Ive realized that my understanding of race in this country has been completely redefined. My insights and experiences with race, while still slightly valid, have been pushed to the rear end of relevancy. I don’t mean that in a complaining way. As a not obviously person of color, I hold on to any figment of connectivity with person of colorhood, as if my life depended on it. And certainly my mental health life depends on it.

In reality my existence is defined much more by passing than by tangible effects of racism. The continued lynchings of black lives in the usa has deepened my understanding of my own white skin privilege. Its hard to think about the history and violence of racism the same way. Before this current uprising I was aware of the statistics. “by the 1930s half the black people killed by white people were killed by white cops”, “every 28 hours a black person is killed by police and their ilk”. I was aware of the intersectionality of the hate. “70% of reported LGBT related murders were of LGBT people of color, while people of color accounted for only 44% of all victims”. Casual understanding of how this country operates presents you with little room for denial of the fundamental oppressions that keeps the boot firmly planted on your faces.

My point is whereas before I felt uncertain about my place in the racialized hierarchy of things. Its taken a process. As we continue with current events and national dialogue and daily/nightly protests around the world, I know that lives of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have meant different things for different demographics. For some of us it has meant deep despair at the loss of a father, son, friend, human being. For others, its meant slowly coming to realize that the violent reality of treating black life as less than white life has been around since the beginning of this country and won’t easily be swept away. For bi-racial anarchist motherfuckers like me, it’s meant confronting truths I’ve know all along but been too insecure to admit.

Coming to revolutionary consciousness is a process. And one that I am not ashamed to be going through. If we can’t reflect on our ugly progress and embrace each others misdirected anger then we remain stagnant. Stagnation is the realm of dead ideologies and the dumb ass people who uphold those ideologies against human life. My understanding and perspective on this ongoing conversation deepens everyday. My awareness grows everyday through face to face conversation with real ass people and through the miracle of social media which floods my screen time with knowledge and power. I hope to add to the dialogue and be part of the method. As we say in the nochipsnopeace household, solidarity is a verb.

In closing, I just got fed this goodness gracious by the folks at :

“The Filipino community stands in solidarity with the Black community…In the struggle for justice and liberation…We understand that it is our duty…to band together…in the struggle…to fight against…the oppressive state represented…by the racist NYPD…we may not experience…the same consistent oppression…as the black community…but if we don’t take action…our complacency…perpetuates the systemic racist system!

December 14, 2014 – Solidarity action co-organized with DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving; with members of RAISE: Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast, BAYAN USA, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), Adhikaar, MinKwon Center for Community Action 민권센터, Nodutdol for Korean Community Development Jackson Heights Cop Watch, Sunset Park Cop Watch, & War Resisters League. Rallying together outside Rego Park Center, Queens, NYC, in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter

heartbreak by microaggression

New Column! Remember when I posted my first post about what the intention of my blog was? Of course, you don’t. Well, sort of it was supposed to be like a journal. If I had a journal which I don’t because that’s for weenies. I have a diary. I would document all the little shitty things people say and do throughout the day that is racist. I don’t respond to those ill-conceived remarks because who likes an inflammatory pants, amiright? Enter heartbreak hotel- population: microaggressions. I document all the little racist bullshit people love to hear themselves say. And that’s helpful because?

Today, we visited Coupeville. Sleepy little neighboring town on Whidbey Island. We went there for Japanese fabrics. We are my mom and her mom, my grandmom. What a nice place! You remember the endearing late 90’s film, Practical Magic, of course. It was filmed in Coupeville. Partly.

Anyway, for some naive reason I was expecting to enter a cute little shop with an old Japanese lady behind the counter. I was gonna try to be close to my mom and look as Japanese as possible so she would maybe think I was mixed and not some random white shopper. If I mentioned something about Japan or visiting there then my okasan or obaachan might chime in about me being part Japanese and their son/grandson. Then the obviously Japanese shopkeeper would be like, oh you’re Japanese! How cool! Me and you are alike! That would be validating. You’re mixed and not obviously not white right? So you get it. Little pathetic but a little white supremacy too.

Turns out, much to my shouldn’t be surprised, that the old lady is in fact a white lady. A. white. Lady. No biggie. Does that even count as a microaggression? Not really when compared to like someone telling me I’m not a real Japanese because I don’t like seafood. But then I got to thinking about it. And before I go any further let me clarify I didn’t clarify any of this with the old lady. She could’ve been part Japanese just like me. Just kidding, no she couldn’t. So I was thinking she makes her livelihood of the selling arts and customs (not to be confused with costumes) of Japanese people. That’s weird. Maybe she like donates a percentage to the Nuclear disaster repair. Lots of people are still struggling through that right? Maybe she grew up fetishizing Japanese culture because she’s like 65 years old and when she was young all the Oriental images she saw were so exotic and frightening and beautiful? Wow bro take it easy she’s just an old lady selling Japanese fabrics, which your Japanese grandmom totally was happy to buy.

So we leave and go to the thrift store. At the thrift store, there’s dumb old crap from dumb old times. What happened during dumb old times? All the plates and cups and records were adorned with hella racist images of black people and Egyptians and Orientals. Basically a National Geographic design team swept through a ceramic factory. In this thrift shop is an old man. He is loud. He is white. I’d put him around 70. He talks to anyone. He tells my mom, “at least you smiled”. Gross. He talks some more. I try to maneuver us away. Of course that doesn’t stop him. “My friend was is WWII, stationed in the Phillipines, he was up there to get away from the Japanese…” Shit, let’s get out of here, now.

On the way out I did find hangers for 10 for $1!

Don’t talk to strangers*

Sometimes or too often times I really hate people. Hate, like the knee jerk reaction. Similar to the I hate lima beans feeling. Not like the hate you see directed at people crossing the border.  My mind tells me I have good reasons. Then it tells me it’s not their fault and you gotta meet people where they’re at and we all grow up under different circumstances leading to different perceptions and capitalism kills and you’re kind of a prick yourself and some people don’t read and only watch fox news so its kinda their fault anyways.

This certain sometime however, was yesterday [ed. – actually weeks ago now] and I was tossing the pigskin around with my young nephew in the street. Big brother (Bryan) was overseeing the occasion from my mother’s driveway. My mother’s driveway connects to her house which is out of town in a quiet neighborhood overlooking some ocean. You can see Mount Olympus from here so I’m pretty sure its the Pacific Ocean. We’re trying to get Jakey (the nephew) to catch the damn ball with his fingers not his body and keep his damn eyes open. When suddenly, this dude (tucked in t-shirt into an old pair of loose fitting blue jeans, some generic hat hiding a mess of balding white hair, eye glasses sitting on a round wrinkly nose) with his dog on a leash comes strolling down the oft not used road. Comfortable looking guy. All white and stuff. Unassuming, safe.

Given our proximity it seemed we were doomed for an interaction. But I don’t know anything about this man yet. He could be a totally cool old white dude. I mean why not right? Certainly plenty of cool old white dudes walk their three-legged dogs in waning hours of a beautiful northwest evening. This is America. This country belongs to dudes like that. (Actually, we the man, you just visiting)

So we’re stuck. Me, big brother, lil nephew, sister-in-law, newly born niece and stranger white man. Us stopping our game to appease this old dude and hear him tell us about his dog and how he got the dog from a shelter and how the dog loves to be around him and sleeps in his bed and blah blah blah. Niceism gets the best of us and we stand listening to words slide out of his man’s mouth. And lord knows if someone doesn’t do something they’ll just keep sliding out. We wait too long. Too many nods of the head and reaffirming “mmm hmmm”s and polite questions. Active listening wasted on a piece of bread.

He eventually gets around to explaining to us that the dog has 3 legs now because its from Iraq. And the dog was found in Iraq in a river. Why? asks my nephew innocently enough. Because they are bad people, stranger white man says, and he lost his leg so they threw him in the river. He says this real casual and amidst saying some other less crappy stuff. I’m aghast. Like in a breathtaking way. The amount of arrogance required to casually slip in racist certainties is something to behold.

You know that word unpacking that people use for talking about privilege and oppression. I sit there and look at him and I wonder how long would it take to unpack with this white stranger. How much dumb moldy shit does this guy carry around? Just decades of misinformation and unchecked discrimination. And really why do I find it so much easier to ignore him and let him keep walking so proudly and ignorantly around the neighborhood? He tells us he and the dog are self-appointed neighborhood watch. They look out for us.

Thank heaven my moms partner Connie sees whats happening from the window. Knowingly she sends Gloria out to tell us dinner is ready when it’s not she just knows that that dude talks too much. We are saved for the time being. But not before he tells us he knows the ladies that live here. One is an Asian woman right? Right, dude.

As we walk up the driveway, I ask Jakey if he heard what the man said about Iraqis being bad. Yeah I heard him. Well he’s wrong, saying all people from a certain country are bad based on the actions of individuals doesn’t make a lot of sense does it? No I guess it doesn’t. That’d be like saying all white people suck at catching footballs just because they saw you drop all those catches just now. Fuck you Uncle asa.

A week later, me and my brother walk up to the football field where Jakey is practicing. My brother is carrying his little yippy dog named Willie that weighs 3 lbs. The white dude dad wearing a safari hat and cargo shorts next to us has a german sheperd. They joke about how his dog could eat my brother’s dog. The dude tells us he was teasing Gloria that he was gonna take Willie and give him to his oriental neighbor so she could eat him. My heart breaks. Micro aggression by micro aggression.

*fuck it. don’t talk to anyone.

 

Chip Review #2

photo(4)Japanese really like to individually wrap everything. It’s like they think everything is a fucking condom. What’s with the Japanese psyche that makes them do that?These crackers come in a bag all individually wrapped. I guess it makes each cracker special. (But we know that’s not true right poc, wink wink) They wrap wrappers. Hey, Japan don’t you even know what a carbon footprint is! Gosh! Do I even know what the extent of the Empire of the Sun is? Darn! I have been learning this lesson for years. But you gotta separate the people from the government right? Unless you get mad at the people for not standing up to the government and being like “psst, please knock that shit off government”.

One day I was at a May Day rally in Seattle. It was like 2006 or something. Whichever one where there was like tens of thousands of people clogging the street. It had to do with a big immigrant rights focus that year. It was amazing. I forget how great it feels to be part of a mob of people taking the streets over because injustice exists. At the end of this march we are downtown like by Seattle Center and we come up on some commotion. People are getting heated, yelling across the street at a small group of people who are being guarded by police. Here you are correct to assume that these people are espousers of hate speech because that’s generally the only people who get superb police protection in these instances. Upon closer investigation I see the small group of people with signs. The signs say things like, Illegal Aliens are murderers and have pictures of brown peoples faces saying they killed children and some other stuff I won’t try to remember. Suffice to say it was ugly. The people are all white. They’re all young. And they all kinda look like coffee house hipster folks. They’re like the new cool generation of white supremacy. Re-marketed for the liberals of the northwest. They’re also getting berated by an increasingly large group of people from the May Day rally. And these people who are berating them, they’re all POC of course.

Naturally I feel compelled to get in the mix. The small group of white people aren’t saying anything. No responses to the people yelling at them or trying to engage them in other ways. Stone faced to the bone face. They just hold their signs with the knowledge that they are better than the nasty riff raff of color around them. The May Day people try to surround the small group and block their signs with their larger immigrant rights signs. The cops continue to push people back and bark noises. Finally, one of the small group of white people breaks rank and gets into a heated conversation. He can’t take it anymore. People who don’t hate the way he hates are so ignorant and he must tell them so. He goes in on some severely warped version of history and yada yada. The whole situation is becoming really dumb. In hindsight everything is 20/20, the only correct outcome would’ve been for the police to arrest themselves and the small group of white people to empty their bank accounts and give all their money to the courageous people who came out with their families to protest racist immigration policies and behaviors.

This whole time I’ve singled out a police man who is brown and Asian looking. I start talking to him about why are you defending these idiots who hate you and don’t give a shit about you. I start to explain to him how I’m part Japanese and internment camps and assimilation and Hiroshima and gooks and chinks and Vincent Chin. He does a really good job ignoring me and all the incoherent ideas I’m trying to articulate. While this is happening the small group of white people slowly start to leave with police on bikes escorts. It’s weird how it dissolves so quickly. But before it dissolves completely my POC police bud turns to me and says, “I’m Filipino and you’re Japanese people occupied and murdered my people during WWII”. And he turned and left. Holy shit. “b,b,but that was the empire of Japan not the people of Japan”, I whimper as he walks away. Damn. Stumped by The Man again.

Really though what I took away from that whole incident was why were all the people who were protesting the young white supremacists all brown? Shouldn’t it be the good white people of conscious out there taking the heat for them. Like being an ally and not making brown people interact with the police and put themselves in further jeopardy than they already are by just being brown at a May Day rally? Come on crackers. Get out of those wrappers and get in the damn struggle.

Anyway, I know these crackers aren’t officially chips but since I’m the official reviewer of chips I’ll let me slide on this one. Only because these crackers really set the bar for my texture preference. It’s like I didn’t know what real texture was until I ate these crackers. Everything before these crackers was cheese whiz. Its like sugar in tea. It’s like my sister always says, “like em, you’ll try em”.