Last week, an article in Slate entitled “How Black People Use Twitter: The latest research on race and microblogging” caused a bit of a stir and some moments of sheer hilarity on Twitter and in the Black blogosphere. The piece’s incomplete research and (unintentionally) racist and insulting tone was noted and brought to the attention of the author himself both on Twitter and on personal blogs. Author Farhad Manjoo’s 6-month surveillance of the Twitter habits of young Black people smacked of virtual cultural tourism. (By the way, Manjoo defended his article, stood by his theory and flawed research, and as of this write-up, hasn’t changed his tune one whit. )
Adding insult to injury, Manjoo’s piece featured a brown redux of the classic blue (but possibly racially White, apparently) Twitter bird as a brown, oversized-cap wearing bird holding a mobile device.
One enterprising blogger brilliantly assembled a virtual aviary of various types of brown Twitter birds , Black folks on Twitter replaced their avatars with their birds of choice, and thus was born the retort heard ’round the internets. The #BrownTwitterBird hashtag, or conversation topic identifier, spawned epic bouts of silliness and wit. Black Twitterers didn’t get mad; they got awesome. And as a participant in the foolery, I was truly inspired by what I saw taking place around me in virtual space.
However, a recurring meme was troubling me. As I combed the Black blogosphere, reading through reaction piece after reaction piece, I noticed that quite a few of my fellow Black bloggers were prefacing their objections to the Manjoo article with statements like, “Now, I’m not one to cry racism, but…”and “I hate to be that person who’s always bringing race up, but…” As I read, my brow furrowed, I began to ask myself who it was that the authors of these posts were addressing. Pointing out what seemed to be pretty obvious if non-malicious racism wasn’t “crying” anything! Why is it that we police and second-guess ourselves for making intelligent observations of wrong-doing committed AGAINST us?
It dawned on me that the phrase “crying racism” is both dismissive and silencing. It posits the person on the receiving end of racist abuse – the victim – as a petulant and manipulative child. It infantilizes their concerns and waves away both a person’s right to not be hurt AND their right to point out the offense. It holds up situations for arbitration by people who may not have ever been on the receiving end of this brand of oppression. It reinforces the White normative conceptual lens as the ultimate arbiter. The “crying racism” accusation is a weapon, and arguably one of the most powerful ones in institutionalized racism’s arsenal.
Well, nuts to that. I believe that people of color in general and Black folks in particular rarely “cry (non-malicious) racism”, because if we did there’s a good chance we’d never stop crying. This is something that I have understood since I was a child. By the time I was eight years old, I already bore the internal scars of malicious racism, acquired both on the playground and in my interactions with the White adult world.
The first time one of my classmates called me The Word That Wouldn’t Die, I was five, and I cried (turns out my mother did as well, the night I told her about it). Somewhere during the course of trying to both understand what I correctly sensed was some White people’s contempt and fear, and deciding for myself that I was good, smart and most undeserving of this shameful treatment, I got mad.
I wouldn’t know how powerful that was until one otherwise uneventful summer day in 1990, when I was twelve. School was out, the mercury was hovering around 96 degrees by mid-morning, and I was in charge of looking after my younger brother. The house I grew up in South Florida, shaded year-round by a massive palmetto tree and cool on all but the hottest days, was quickly turning into an unairconditioned slice of hell. My brother, four weeks shy of his 11th birthday and resentful of my mother handing me authority, was going out of his way to aggravate me. In an effort to keep the peace, I had decided that we’d walk over to the beach.
We had changed into our suits and put our clothes on over them, and I’d packed a tote with lotion, a beach towel, my A.M.-only radio, sandwiches, a bottle of Gatorade from the fridge to share for the 1/2 hour walk, and a bunch of Capri Suns from the freezer for later. As we’d strolled east, away from our neighborhood with its squat houses and smiling and familiar Black people, the scenery along the way shifted slowly, giving way to beautiful office buildings with gleaming windows, meticulously pruned greenery, and concerned-looking White folks wondering what we were doing over there.
My throat ached to shout what I knew to be the truth: that this little resort city had once been a township settled by runaway slaves and Seminole Indians. That me and my brother, like many of the Black people who grew up there, were the descendants of one of the township’s original settlers. That my right to walk any damn where I pleased in this place had been paid for in blood. That if anyone didn’t belong here, it was them. Instead, I ignored them, and my little brother followed suit.
We’d stopped at an intersection across the street from a soft-serve ice cream stand. I’d opened my mouth to promise my brother some soft-serve in a waffle cone on the way home if he was good at the beach when I felt eyes on me. I looked down, and sure enough, an older White woman was staring at us from the passenger side of a sedan. She quickly looked away when she saw me looking back at her. I could sense my brother watching me to see what I would do. Before I could turn away and divert his attention, I heard it.
Clichunk. Clichunk. Clichunk. Clichunk. All four doors of the sedan, locked, and the White woman in the passenger side looking noticeably relieved. I looked at my brother; the expression of shock and hurt on his face mirrored my own. “She’s scared we goan rob her,” he’d said, his little boy voice astonished. “But we’re good kids!” It didn’t matter. As I watched, my little brother learned a lesson that I was already wearily familiar with. From where I stood, I could see the sheen of tears in his eyes.
That did it. The only person who had the right to hurt my younger brother’s feelings was me. In a flash, the ache in my heart went stone cold. Suddenly I knew exactly what I had to do. I strode over to the sedan, where the woman sat in smug security. She started, the look of alarm returning. Pulling my face into its meanest lines, I’d waved my arms manically and yelled, “AH BOOGA BOOGA BOO!”
The car sped through the red light, leaving the stink of burnt tire rubber and angry honking in its wake. I’d sauntered back over to where my brother stood, laughing and bent from his waist, a triumphant grin on my face. “Now, she got somethin’ to be scared of,” I’d said, chuckling as I held his hand in mine to cross the street.
Years later, remembering how clever, how funny, and how ultimately courageous I was as a kid keeps me keeping on. Racial microaggressions are often a daily reality for a person of color. They’re small, but they add up. So, nope, we don’t do a whole lot of crying. What we do more often than not is laugh racism. We laugh, not because it’s funny, but because it gives us hope, reaffirms our personhood, and beautifully defies a system of oppression that would have us, our children, and our collective history curl up and die.
Laughing racism isn’t brushing off its effects, denying its existence, or ignoring the damage it causes. It is instead a vital act of resistance, and one that is key to your survival and sanity. You’re showing racism that it may be bigger and older, but you are stronger and smarter. When you laugh racism, you’re mocking it, and letting it know that it doesn’t have the power to spirit-murder you. And that, really, is enough to make anybody smile.