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"Blackness, Exploitation of"

[written April 11, 2002]

How do TV shows always manage to find the worst examples of black people to put on the air?

Let me clarify before I begin: this isn't some rant against black culture or how black people as a whole are doing things wrong. I would dare not condemn it when I draw so much from it, like from rap and hip-hop, and playing and watching basketball at the rec centers and on TV, areas which have been progressed mainly by black figures.

This is about how it seems like there are just so many bad examples used by the media that only confirm the stereotypes placed on blacks by other races.

For instance, what's with this Sean guy on Survivor: Marquesas? Before anyone pulls the race card, he's already proclaiming the former fighter pilot in the group to be a wannabe leader (even though the guy was TRAINED to be a leader) and that Sean himself is the true leader of the group even though he does nothing to help. Then he says he hears the Roots music because his group makes him work so hard when he'd rather rest. Then he talks about only being able to bond with Vecepia, the other black person on this season.

This season of Real World has a black guy, Theo, who was being overly forward to the black girl in the cast, upsetting her and the others in the house, and anyway she turns out to be a lesbian, and since Theo is hardcore Christian, he doesn't approve of gays and lets everyone know that's how he feels. And no one will change his mind of that, mister, even if it means not attending events that all the other cast members attend.

Real World has a long history of problems with black members of the cast, including: a sexual harassment incident leading to expulsion from the house (LA), Kevin (NYC) instigating race arguments with the cast, the cast in New Orleans treating the naive Mormon like an idiot for not knowing black history, etc.

And then there was the sham created by the media surrounding the Oscars. Oh, a huge triumph for the black community! The glass ceiling for black actors in Hollywood has been lifted! Spooge! Elation!

I didn't see Monster's Ball but Denzel was pretty good in Training Day. I'd rather he won for Hurricane. I didn't see Malcolm X but that'd probably be more deserving of a best actor nod. But the whole hype that the media made out of it was ridiculous.

I don't know if it's like this for everyone, but at least for me, and in my estimation, for people my age and younger, seeing successful and talented black people is NO BIG DEAL! Shit, turn on MTV, mainly black people, or at worst, lots of different races of people. Turn on sports, tons of black people. Turn on the news, Kofi Annan or Colin Powell saving the world. Watch a movie, tons of black people. Video games, the same. Law enforcement, same. Etc. etc. To people like me, we've grown up accepting seeing different races of people regularly, so it's NO BIG THING unless you live in some backwoods homogenous neighborhood.

Anyway, I just felt ashamed of the media for it shamelessly hyping up the race issue as if it mattered. They just want to be sensationalist. Not that race isn't still an issue in, say, Hollywood, but it's not exactly shocking to see a black actor perform superbly anymore...

The type of person who will make it through the entire process fits into a "stereotype" and is "out-of-the-ordinary and controversial," says Walker. She says that when she tried out, the casting directors tried to fit her into a stereotype that she did not actually fit into.

"They tried to fit me into a mold that I seemed to be but really wasn't," Walker says. "They kept asking me racist questions, about whether I hated blacks, especially after they found out I was Mormon."


The casting people for these shows tend to want to pick the most outrageously ignorant and obnoxious black people for their shows. Is this fair? Of course not. Does it make them more interesting to watch? Definitely. Which is why it continues. But these caricatures who are selected to go on TV are terrible. And at odds with what is reality to me, seeing how most of the black people I've ever known have been exceedingly creative, hard-working, cooperative people.

So here's where my Soapbox gets a bit dicey. Bear with me. I think that black youth need to be taught by their communities and elders that they really need to set good examples for themselves and others so as not to allow relationships to break down into basic racist stereotypes on both sides. Hold yourself to such a high standard that no one can criticize you for it.

It's just too easy for some of these dumb kids to fall into the trap that's laid out to ensnare them. Complain about this, complain about that: boom, everyone else thinks you're a lazy, angry black guy. Theo on the Real World and Sean on Survivor both voiced wishes not to become said angry black guy, so at least they're aware of these societal traps. Sure, it's not easy to swallow your pride, nor is it fair, but these kids are taught to defend their pride fiercely and so they get caught defending their mommas or refusing to cooperate because they think the other people are racists. Me versus them. Black versus white.

Just like in any community, it's the stupid, ignorant ones who get the most attention. People like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who only confirm bigotry in others' eyes. I long to have lived through the times of the civil rights movement (MLK Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP) and the heroes that it spawned or cherished (Clemente, Parks, Ellison, et al) and wish that such charismatic, influential leaders existed for black people today. Not that there aren't very intelligent and influential black people these days, but rather there are no galvanizing leaders to provide direction and clarify purpose on a larger, more public scale.

And while most of criticism of popular black culture stems just from ignorance, even I have to admit that successful black athletes and musicians have become far too enamored with their newfound wealth and adulation. Other groups have fallen victim to the same vices in the past, and continue to today. The old 'nouveau riche' problem. But I wonder when rap will go away from bling bling (although I enjoy most bling bling, strangely =P) back to revolutionary political ranting or even expand to include self-exploration.

I wonder when the streetball games that rely so heavily on disrespect, trash-talking, and one on one playground moves will mature into rewarding team play and cohesiveness and camaraderie. I read John Edgar Wideman's "Hoop Roots" not too long ago and it did a good job of painting the picture of streetball and its importance to black youth for me. The problem with American basketball that I see in the future is that other areas like Europe are adapting while American ball isn't. It doesn't have to, yet. The main flaw with Europeans is that they aren't big and muscular enough to compete with American players yet. But they are quickly getting stronger. It just takes time in the weight rooms and increased diets from earlier ages. But American kids grow up playing ball that doesn't require fundamental excellence. Fundamentals are taught on high school teams but have to be retaught in college and then in the NBA. In streetball, American kids learn how to do fancy dribbling and juking and weaving and crossing, taking huge shots and leaping high off the floor to rock the rim, but never how to play better as a team or how to inspire teammates. Streetball is also packed with blatant reverse racism directed against white people, as Kevin Blackistone recently noted. White men can't jump and all that shit.

It's ironic, though, that nowadays the pendulum has swung so far that white players are the subject of doubt, and sometimes ridicule, from black peers because of the color of their skin. But they are, whether it's on the American Airlines Center floor or in the local recreation gym.

As Shaquille O'Neal wrote in his book, Shaq Talks Back: "If you're from the 'hood, you don't want to get dunked on by a white guy. That's just how it is."

But Europeans all grow up knowing the fundamentals so you see tall players like Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol or Peja Stojakovic or Vlade Divac or Arvydis Sabonis who can do more than just bully someone down in the paint. They can dribble, drive, shoot, pass, steal, and block. They're quickly improving and showing themselves to be superior to many American players.

And then there are black-directed TV shows and movies, most of which are garbage. Then again, most TV shows and movies are garbage anyway. =) But you take the shows that end up on the WB and UPN and you wonder if this is the best creative talent they could find to appeal to the black demographic. They're formulaic, horribly unfunny shows that exploit the same stereotypes that you see zealots complaining about on discussion programs. It's hard to take a zealot seriously who says that it's racist for a school menu to serve fried chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes for Black History Month when black people in TV shows and commercials, and black people you know, all really want to eat those things. I mean, come on. It's like the overused topic of the word "nigga" and how only black people can say it. Double standard.

It's just that it's time to get past enjoying the sensation of finally being recognized as creative, talented people, and move on towards continuing the unparalleled cultural contribution that black people have done in many different areas. That is, yes, people will pay you well for your talents. Now stop thinking about money and get back to art, what got you there in the first place! Strive to make people proud of you! Develop fascinating scripts, write world-changing books, do things no one's ever done before!

It can be strange for me because I am part Chinese and had a good upbringing so I ended up going through school with a ton of other Asians similar to me in the advanced courses. Most of us are first generation Americans and our parents moved to the U.S. and created much wealth for themselves here. One argument I always hear from Asian people is how they feel that using race is no excuse. Granted, Asians weren't slaves in the U.S. to the degree that black people were. Some of those people gloss over that concession. But their side is that they came over here with nothing and worked hard at even the most menial jobs, but stressed education in their children, who then grew up to be highly intellectual kids who easily passed into powerful professional jobs with high-paying salaries. The Asians stick close together, it seems to me, but they always work hard and always keep a tight family (living close to their parents is not unusual) and have a good entrepreneurial spirit. Asians are so dominant in education that it's really a drawback to be Asian if you're trying to get into an elite college. They continue the point that blacks have an evaporating family structure, fight each other often, and have had huge problems integrating into society. So as I was saying, it's strange to hear Asian people I know talk about this and not find some validity in what they're saying. I am not black so I will always be an outsider in that area, but I AM part of another race that hasn't been in the U.S. as long but has managed to do well despite that fact.

And don't think I'm just picking on black people here. I've tried to make it clear that who I am criticizing are the people who set bad examples. I may be part Asian, but in truth I'm more American than anything else. I have few ties to my past cultural history. I grew up in the U.S. and have always loved it. It's who I am. I can't honestly say I'm Brit or Chinese... So I'm interested in the well-being of the U.S. more than anything. And in general, I've become somewhat disgusted with what I see in the U.S. I think it's the finest country on Earth with principles that one can honestly die for in order to defend. I think it's an unsurpassed font of creativity and ingenuity. I think it's the most diverse country in the world. But it's gotten a bit lazy and uncaring and unreasonable. I feel Americans need to have more respect for ourselves. We need to continue to set a standard of excellence for the world to be in awe of and to try to beat. We need to continue to innovate by exploring all directions. I feel that Americans getting fatter and becoming more resistant to change thanks to prosperity and strict religious belief are possible symptoms of a flagging of the American spirit.

Anyway. I just don't want anyone to take this the wrong way. It's a sensitive issue. But I just wanted to get it off my chest.


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