“Animals” and “Respectability”

August 27, 2014

Rev. Al Sharpton waiting to speak at Michael Brown funeral, Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO, August 25, 2014. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, via http://www.wkbn.com).

Rev. Al Sharpton waiting to speak at Michael Brown funeral, Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO, August 25, 2014. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, via http://www.wkbn.com).

With America’s history of racial oppression, it should come as no surprise that the range of reactions to events like the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (among many others, male and female, Black and Latino) have been on the side of racial stereotypes and assumptions. On the one hand, police officers, ordinary Whites and some ultraconservative Blacks have used the terms “animals” and “thugs” interchangeably because Garner and Brown were big Black guys, the stereotypical boogeymen, lurking and ready to rape, maim and kill scared-shitless White folk.

On the other hand, the traditional civil rights establishment and its cadre of ministers have equated the lessons of Brown and the Ferguson protests with the need to stop “looting and pillaging” and to stop wearing baggy pants. That’s the fallback position for attempting to explain why the message of police brutality and militarization against communities of color because of racism and classism isn’t getting through to Whites who have mostly been silent on these incidents.

As I’ve written in the past year or two, both of these perspectives suggest that Blacks and Latinos must somehow make ourselves worthy of humanity. That way, even the most racist of Whites could see that we’re not animals or thugs, but human beings worthy of the same human rights and civil liberties that they enjoy. This didn’t work even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement some five decades ago. Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., John L. Lewis, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Wearing suits and ties, marching with White allies, having the backing of the President of the United States. None of that swayed most Whites, as evidenced by changes in American politics since 1968.

Screen shot of CNN newscast coverage of support for Officer Darren Wilson at rally, Ferguson, MO, August 23, 2014. (http://rawstory.com).

Screen shot of CNN newscast coverage of support for Officer Darren Wilson at rally, Ferguson, MO, August 23, 2014. (http://rawstory.com).

The fact is, those Whites and sycophant Blacks who call African Americans and other people of color “animals” and “thugs” know we’re just as human as they are, if not more so. It’s their way of asserting that they’re better than us, precisely because they believe they can get away with seeing, calling and treating Blacks and other people of color as such. Especially since so many of these “animals” and “thugs” advocates have missed the full material benefits of American capitalism. And with America’s long history of allowing Whites to get away with lynchings, murders, rapes, race riots and other forms of violent oppression, why shouldn’t Whites think they’re in the right when they give money to Officer Darren Wilson for “doing his job” in murdering Michael Brown? As I’ve said before, the year doesn’t matter, the clothes don’t matter, our demeanor in public or how perfect our walk doesn’t matter to many — if not most — Whites. That may be our problem as people of color, but it’s definitely their problem as well.

Rev. Al Sharpton, sexual predator Jamal Bryant, megachurch-Gospel-of-Prosperity pastor T.D. Jakes and so many other men who spoke at Michael Brown’s funeral Monday put themselves on the other side of the “animals” and “thugs” coin with their agenda-loaded bloviations. Sharpton especially should know better, given his history of talking out of both sides of his mouth about the limits of the politics of respectability (Tawana Brawley comes to mind). Yes, being able to orchestrate nonviolent protests with proper victims in a way in which the mainstream media cannot dehumanize or engage in stereotypes was how the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the first place. But this methodology had its limits then, as it led to some victories that looked more like symbols than actual victories (even Dr. King said as much in his final three years). It definitely has its limitations now.

Foot on my neck and head, symbolic of oppression in terms of view of Black and Brown as "animals," April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

Foot on my neck and head, symbolic of oppression in terms of view of Black and Brown as “animals,” April 18, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

We have a leadership that has grown corpulent and ossified in its stomach, pockets and spirit when it comes to oppression and how to respond. Their thinking in so many ways isn’t much different than the Whites who post pictures of President Barack Obama eating a banana with his face pasted onto the head and body of a great ape. That’s the full shame of watching a funeral that was more about individual agendas than it was about Michael Brown or his family and friends, or his life and death, or mobilizing a larger effort.

It’s already terrible that we already have a nation of millions trying to hold people of color back, if only in their own minds (to quasi-quote Public Enemy). We can no longer afford to have an aging leadership whom, even when well-meaning, is unable or unwilling to move beyond symbols and pontification to an effort that promotes new tactics and strategies and younger leadership. It’s beyond time for younger generations to take the reins, and not in a respectable way, either.


Fear and (White) Women’s History Month

March 6, 2014

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, November 27, 2013. (The Herald via Wikipedia). In public domain (US).

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway, November 27, 2013. (The Herald via Wikipedia). In public domain (US).

I often find it ironic that Women’s History Month follows immediately after Black History Month. In this sequence, both are racialized, as the former tends to represent White women, while the latter represents all Blacks regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or country of origin. Meaning that women of color often have to fight to be recognized during Women’s History Month, that poor women often go unrecognized in both Black and Women’s History months, and that other nuances of demographics and history aren’t thought of at all.

Such is the case with issues of -isms within feminism and Women’s History Month. Particularly when combined with the actualization of fear. In the cases of domestic violence, rape, assault, kidnapping, harassment and other threats against women, it’s certainly understandable that the fear of such things (and the breaking down those threats and fears in dialogue) are a big part of feminism and Women’s History Month more specifically. But when combined with certain -isms — especially racism and elitism — these issues become more about profiling stereotypical threats rather than dealing with real threats against women, especially (but not exclusively) for White women.

Compact Glock 19 in 9x19mm Parabellum, November 4, 2007. (Vladimir Dudak via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 & GNU.

Compact Glock 19 in 9x19mm Parabellum, November 4, 2007. (Vladimir Dudak via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 & GNU.

It’s something I experience every day. A White woman crossing the street as I approach, on my way home, to my car, to run an errand, or to pick up my son from school. A woman — White or Black — gasping audibly at the sight of me in an elevator, some even not getting on board, as if I had a ski mask over my face and a Glock in my right hand. White female co-workers who, upon seeing me outside the office, would put on a blank face and walk by me while I’m holding open a door, too scared to even say “Hello,” much less a “Thank you.”

It’s the nearly daily reminder that where feminism and Whiteness intertwine, I represent the Black male misogynist. I am dangerous, the guy whom White women and middle class women of color imbue anti-feminist threats and violence. Even when standing still on an elevator, deep in my own thoughts about work, teaching, family and writing.

Martyrdom of Joseph Marchand (1860) by unknown, September 27, 2008. (World Imaging via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 and GNU.

Martyrdom of Joseph Marchand (1860) by unknown (or death by 1,000 cuts), September 27, 2008. (World Imaging via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC 3.0 and GNU.

I get it. White women often have to expend micro-energies on microaggressions from men — including Black men — in order to get through the day. For some, it’s probably an exhausting part of their existence. Likely so much so that they forget to turn off their shields even when bumping into a male co-worker or friend.

From my perspective, though, it’s not that simple. It’s not like I look at every White male and female and see another willfully ignorant and entitled racist ready to accuse me of ruining the country or threaten me with bodily harm. I think that in some feminist circles, racial and classist profiling goes on even more so than with most police officers. Fear is an important part of our existence, but it shouldn’t be the centerpiece of how anyone lives their lives, even when it’s justifiable.

In thinking about feminism, Whiteness and Women’s History Month, my two little cents’ worth of thoughts come down to this. I’m tired of being a victim of your fears, which when multiplied over the past 150 years, have often led to misunderstandings, false accusations, arrests, convictions, beatings and deaths. I’m tired of abstract discussions of microaggressions, threats and violence against mostly White women that don’t include the perspectives of women of color. And I’m tired of feminists who refuse to evaluate their own elitism and Whiteness in how they go about their everyday lives.


Rachel Jeantel, A Real, True Beautiful Friend

June 28, 2013

Witness Rachel Jeantel continued her testimony,  George Zimmerman trial, Sanford, FL, June 27, 2013. (Jacob Langston, AP/Orlando Sentinel; http://time.com).

Witness Rachel Jeantel continued her testimony, George Zimmerman trial, Sanford, FL, June 27, 2013. (Jacob Langston, AP/Orlando Sentinel; http://time.com).

There will be months’ worth of stuff written and said about Rachel Jeantel and her performance on the witness stand during the George Zimmerman trial. Everything from her dark skin and being overweight to her lazy tongue syndrome and reluctance to take the witness stand. Between Black Twitter on Wednesday critiquing her language, shyness, and style and blond-haired, bubble-headed Whites picking apart her testimony on Thursday, it’s a wonder that anyone sees Ms. Jeantel as a human being. She’s far more than the hero, villain or ghetto girl that folks in social media have and will portray her to be.

Ms. Jeantel is beautiful to me, skin-deep and otherwise. Yes, she’s not perfect, which is one of the things that makes her a beautiful person. The most important thing to remember about Jeantel, though, is that she’s a real person and a real friend. The truest friend any human being could ever hope to have. I should know. I’ve never had more than eight people in my life at any time that I could truly call friend, and none during my preteen and teenage years before college. Of those, about half have proven themselves to be fair-weather friends, unreachable when I’ve needed them the most.

Jeantel is the ultimate friend, for she has acted in Trayvon Martin’s best interests even after his death. A friendship that gave her the strength to tell the truth, to endure ridicule and scorn and hours of cross-examination from Don West. Jeantel gave voice to Martin from beyond the grave, knowing that she was in the right.

Jeantel makes me think of a scene from Tombstone (1993), the one with Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday. Dying from the long-term effects of tuberculosis and living the life of an alcoholic gambler, Holliday continued to ride with Wyatt Earp to hunt down his youngest brother’s killers. When asked, “Why you doin’ this, Doc?,” Holliday said

“Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.”

In response, the other character said, “Friend? Hell, I got lots of friends.” To which Holliday replied, “…I don’t.”

Jeantel may well have lots of friends, but her friendship with Trayvon Martin is as real, true and beautiful as it gets. I hope that my close friends are even one-tenth as true to me after I’m dead as she was to Martin this week.


All The Media’s Stereotypes

April 21, 2013

Dzhokhar & Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Boston Marathon crowd moments before bomb blasts, April 15, 2013. (http://www.mirror.co.uk)

Dzhokhar & Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Boston Marathon crowd moments before bomb blasts, April 15, 2013. (http://www.mirror.co.uk)

The mainstream American media was just one big, almost unbelievable fail this past week. Between the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent hunt for brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the ricin letters to Mississippi GOP politicians and President Obama and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. In the last case, the one that killed and injured more people than two dumb asses in Boston. Yet, somehow, in a world in which the best answer should be “I don’t know” or “We don’t know yet,” media folks and their experts have been tweeting and reporting at the level of gossip for the past five or six days.

Usually a fairly careful journalist/columnist, Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post tweeting three hours after the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, “April 19: Anniversary of storming of Branch Davidian compound & the Okla. City bombing.” At that point, we didn’t even know the number of people killed, maimed or injured. Nor did we know the number of bombs that had exploded in Copley Square. Think, man, think!

The more famous comments of the week came out of CNN’s shop, though. John King had breaking news Wednesday afternoon that law enforcement officials had identified a “dark-skinned male” suspect. Being a White guy working in mainstream media means that you never have to say “I’m sorry,” apparently. Especially when all of his “breaking news” reporting turned out to be completely wrong.

Let’s not really analyze the so-called reporting of FOX News or the New York Post. You’d get more truth from a psychic doing a Vulcan mind-meld with Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s brain right now than you could from Murdoch’s news media world in a year.

Let’s also not forget many of the so-called terrorism experts whom guessed wrong about race, immigrant status and so many other details this past week. Not to mention reports whom apparently couldn’t find Chechnya on a map if the republic were blown up to 100x normal map size and they put a floodlight on it.

But the most disturbing — yet not very surprising — thing about the past seven days has been how the US media has engaged in a near-endless campaign of racial stereotypes, immigrant stereotypes, terrorism stereotypes, religious stereotypes, patriotism stereotypes, and hyperbole that attempts to defy history. A simple list should help:

  • Terrorist(s) = Arab Muslims
  • Males from the Caucasus = Caucasians, but not White
  • Muslims who commit a violent act = terrorists
  • Violent criminals = anyone not White (especially Blacks & Latinos)
  • Violent mass-murdering Whites = mentally disturbed (i.e., NOT terrorists)
  • Arab Muslims = immigrants, NOT US citizens
  • Indo-Europeans who are White (phenotypically) & citizens but not born in US = Immigrants
  • Boston = city terrorized like no city ever before

On this last one, I must put on my academic historian hat. As in — are you kidding me? Anyone ever hear of Boston in the years before and during the American Revolution? Or, in more recent times, the Oklahoma City bombing in ’95, 9/11 and Lower Manhattan, the DC sniper rampage in ’02? Or, if the idea here is that terrorism should only be viewed through the prism of those who feel terrorized, what about poor Blacks on the South Side of Chicago, in SE Washington, DC, or poor Latinos in cities like Albuquerque and Phoenix? Or, for that matter, innocent civilians in Yemen and Pakistan attempting to avoid being among the “collateral damage” caused by our drone wars for terrorist scalps?

And then, there was the need for release, for yelps of relief and cheers of joy over the successful capture of Dzhokhar Tsarneav late Friday evening, with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” included. Of course people should feel relief for the end of a tense situation. But let’s not get carried away with the tide here.

Stereotype quote taken from Annie Murphy Paul article (May 1998) in Psychology Today, January 16, 2011. (http://nwso.net/). In public domain.

Stereotype quote taken from Annie Murphy Paul article (May 1998) in Psychology Today, January 16, 2011. (http://nwso.net/). In public domain.

We know nothing of motive, but we do know that the police will return to its regularly scheduled racial and socioeconomic profiling in the coming days. We can’t wrap our collective heads around the idea that two assimilated White American immigrants decided to kill runners at the Boston Marathon. Yet we also somehow decided to culturally and legally un-Americanize them — something we didn’t do with Timothy McVeigh. Chants patriotic might be a way to show solidarity, but we refuse to come to grips with the racial/xenophobic and anti-Muslim psychology that comes with these impromptu outbreaks of so-called unity.

Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” remains just as relevant now as his tune about the American news media was three decades ago. Still, the completely centrist and biased, always-concerned-about-the-bottom-line media is a mere reflection of our narcissistic and imperialistic selves.


On Dumb-Assed Ignorance and Race

August 7, 2012

Gabrielle Douglas on balance beam, Olympics Women’s Gymnastics All-Around, London, August 2, 2012. (Gregory Bull/AP).

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled “On Being An Ignit American” (February ’10). It was about how this issue of what is and isn’t “authentically” Black often has folk Black, White, Brown and Yellow thinking and speaking in stereotypes, especially Black folk, who should know better. The past week has demonstrated well how ignit some of us are or can be on this issue of race and so-called authenticity.

The thousands of ignit tweets on Gabby Douglas’ hair in the midst of her becoming the first African American to win gold the Olympic gymnastics all-around was just dumb and shameful. I mean, who the heck cares about what Douglas’ hair looked like as she hovered a good five feet over the balance beam last Thursday? Did it keep her from winning gold? Did it suddenly mean that she was no longer Black? No! All it showed was how much better an athlete, person and woman Gabby Douglas was and is than the dumb asses who decided to take issue with her hair.

Given that Douglas was competing and practicing every day, at sixteen, in a city she can’t be familiar enough with to run to a hairdresser, why would it be necessary for her to satisfy the superficial ignit folks among the Twiterati? Seriously, we don’t expect our male athletes to “get their hair did,” even though most of them have bed head on the eve of their competitions. No, the thousands of dumb-ass comments about Douglas’ hair is a reflection on a group of people who have never been passionate enough about any dream of theirs to take risks, to sacrifice, to give everything they are and have to achieve that dream. They also lie to themselves, in that being Black and female is to care more about your hair than your goals in life.

D.L. Hughley at The Huffington Post Pre-Inaugural Ball, Washington, DC, January 20, 2009. (Carl Clifford and D.L. Hughley via Flickr.com/Wikpedia). Released via cc-Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Then there’s D.L. Hughley, the master of the put-down. He’s the kind of guy that if I’d gone to high school with him in Mount Vernon, I’d killed myself from the constant ridicule, or beaten him half to death with a brick. What makes someone like Hughley dangerous as a comedian is that he thinks he’s much smarter than he really is. Hughley, though, is about as smart about race as Rush Limbaugh, and only slightly more funny.

Let’s face it, on the IQ scale of comedians on race, if Richard Pryor was a 225, Eddie Murphy a 190, and Chris Rock a 155, Hughley would be about a 72. Even Bill Burr would be a 99-108 on this scale. Hughley obviously has deep connections in the entertainment world. How else can anyone explain all the small screen opportunities he’s had the past two decades? Perhaps it’s because Hughley’s funny, if only in a pedestrian, what-is-and-isn’t-authentically-Black sort of way.

Which is why I bring Hughley up here. Last week, while thousands of folks made fun of Gabby Douglas’ hair, he gave an interview on SiriusXM Radio mocking President Barack Obama’s intellectual and calm response to criticism. Hughley said, President Obama “doesn’t seem to get that you have to be willing at some point to fight fire with fire. He’s closer to being a white kid. Intellectually, like his experiences are so different from mine that, I should say, he responds like an intellect as opposed to a regular guy.”

Yes, Hughley, or should I say, dumb ass, Obama’s experiences are different from yours. He went to Occidential College in California for two years before transferring to Columbia on an academic scholarship. He worked as a community organizer on social justice issues for four years before getting in to Harvard Law School. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, a state senator for eight years, a US Senator for four, a constitutional law professor, all before become POTUS. As your contemporary Chris Rock would say, “How the f— you expect him to sound?” Hughley, you are so seriously ignant about race and authenticity that it may be time for you to go back to school.

Don’t you Gabby Douglas’ haters and ignant folks like Hughley get it yet? There’s always been more than one way to be Black, to be human. Why should we choose to act the same way, think the same way, look the same way, to satisfy the limited way in which you see the world. You are people of the worst sort. Too ignant to truly understand the world around you, and too chicken to really better yourselves, to pursue your own dreams and success.


Virtual Linsanity

February 25, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Knicks) beating Matt Barnes (Lakers) in the paint for a layup, Madison Square Garden, February 10, 2012. (AP).

As a New York Knicks fan since my mother’s third trimester with me (the fall of ’69, the season the Knicks won their first of two NBA titles) here hasn’t been much to be excited about since Patrick Ewing popped his Achilles’ tendon in between Games 2 and 3 of the ’99 Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Jeremy Lin, the sensation that’s sweeping the NBA Nation. When he scored 28 points in his first game as a starter nearly three weeks ago, my only thoughts were, “Finally, we have a real point guard who can get the ball to Stoudamire and Carmelo.” Beyond that, I thought of one of my high school students from the JSA-Princeton University Summer Program in which I taught in ’09, because they have the same first and last name. My former student, though, is still in college, and not at Harvard, either.

Patrick Ewing raising the roof after a dunk in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, June 5, 1994. (AP).

Leave it to ESPN, the New York media and the motley crew of naysayers, though, to raise Lin to celebrity status faster than the USS Enterprise-D could reach maximum warp. The fact that Lin plays for the Knicks, a franchise in a decade-long search for respectability, and decades-long search for its lost glory, is reason enough for me to see their perspectives on the point guard as more than slightly skewed. I mean, New York’s the reason why sports fan still think the sun shines out of every Yankees’ behind, even Don Mattingly’s.

Not that Lin’s good and often very good play didn’t warrant attention. But if you could dig deeper into all the attention, it was as if the sports and entertainment worlds were shocked — actually shocked — that Lin could start and play with all the precision and poise of an above-average NBA player. What would bring this kind of outpouring of skepticism wrapped in somewhat exaggerated hype? The fact that Lin went to Harvard? The fact that he’s just under six-foot-three? What, pray tell, has been the key to this burst of attention?

Could it be, could it possibly be, about race? Really? After two decades of international competitions between Chinese and American basketball players? Really. By the time some of the shock jocks and uncouth commentators began to spread their versions of Lin-adjectives, Lin-verbs and Lin-phrases, it was obvious that the shock went something like this: “Oh my God! An Asian guy from Harvard can play professional basketball? Bring on the MSG!”

It all crystallized in one stupid, and yes, racist tweet on the part of a “journalist” I used to respect, Jason Whitlock. “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” Whitlock tweeted while Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers on February 10. At the very least, this is a sign of some deep-seated insecurity being pushed upon Lin as a proxy for two stereotypes rolled into one. At worst, Whitlock was merely expressing what many White and Black folks feel about some Asian American guy excelling in an allegedly “Black” sport. Either way, it’s almost as disgusting as ESPN’s “Chink In The Armor” headlines from

Jay Kay in Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (1997) music video screen shot, January 6, 2006. (via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture's low resolution and relevance to blog post.

the Knicks’ February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

I don’t understand the exaggerated hype and the subsequent race-baiting, playa hatin’ comments in mass and social media around Lin since the middle of Black History Month. I played tons of pickup games at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon when I was in graduate school, and a good portion of the folks I played with were Asian or Asian American. Like the Whites, Blacks and Latinos I played with, some of them could really play basketball, and some couldn’t dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off their foot. Some could shoot from seventeen feet blindfolded, and others had the accuracy of a Scud missile.

Lin, as good as he is now, can and should get better. How good is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to Steve Nash or Magic Johnson quite yet. Nor should we write him off when he faces a team like the Miami Heat and turns the ball over five times in a three-minute span. We shouldn’t celebrate a media that apparently has bipolar disorder when it comes to anyone whose body of work cuts against stereotypes.

Lin’s success shouldn’t threaten anyone’s Blackness, sense of manhood or intelligence or the world view of American sports journalists. At least no more than my having a PhD or being a writer on race, education reform and diversity should threaten higher education or anyone’s Whiteness. But, then again…


Why Ferengi Are Jewish & The Maquis Are Latino

January 17, 2011

 

Ferengi Characters, Star Trek: DS9, "Little Green Men" Episode Screen Shot, January 16, 2011. Image qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because of its low quality and limited use nature.

Maquis Characters, Star Trek: Voyager, "Caretaker, Part I" Episode Screen Shot, January 16, 2011. Image qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because of its low quality and limited use nature.

In honor of Martin Luther King Day ’11, it’s my privilege to discuss Star Trek and stereotypes. For whatever reason, I’ve spent the better part of the past six months watching episodes of different Star Trek series in my spare entertainment time. Whether the theatrically great DS9 (Deep Space 9), the ever-goofy TNG (Next Generation), or the uneven and mediocre Voyager, the Star Trek franchise that made runs of four different series between ’87 and ’05 had at least one theme consistent with our much less harmonious twentieth and twenty-first century times. Playing to stereotypes seemed to be a common undercurrent, though with great makeup artists — and at least with DS9, good writing and acting — those stereotypes were light and subtle.

 

In watching, it amazed me that nearly all actors who played the alien Ferengi were Jewish. Yes, the actors who played the Ferengi characters were supposed to be short, but I didn’t know that Jews had cornered the acting market for people under five and a half feet tall. Armin Shimerman, Aron Eisenberg, Wallace Shawn, and Max Grodenchik all played the main Ferengi characters on DS9. Not so ironically, the Ferengi culture centered itself on making profit by virtually any means necessary, a pretty vile stereotype for an entertainment franchise based on a future and better human race.

Reggie Miller, Potential Ferengi

 

Even while watching DS9 in the late-90s, when all of the episodes were new ones, I commented to my friends that NBA Hall-of-Famer Reggie Miller could easily play a Ferengi, even at six-foot-seven, because the makeup artists would have very little work to do. Of course, that wasn’t to be.

 

Tony Plana as Maquis Character, Star Trek: DS9, "The Maquis" Episode Screen Shot, January 16, 2011. Image qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because of its low quality.

It wasn’t just the Jews-as-Ferengi that I picked up on the first or second time around. On both Voyager and DS9, the Maquis, a guerilla group fighting for disputed territories, had a disproportionate number of Latino actors playing those lead characters. Robert Beltran, Roxann Dawson and Tony Plana (mostly known these days as the father on the recently ended TV series Ugly Betty) were among the Latino actors playing these characters. I guess that the passionate or hot-blooded Latino stereotype played a role in the selection of these quality actors to play passionate or hot-blooded rebels in the relatively placid paradise of the Star Trek galaxy.

 

Of course, Black men on these shows found themselves emasculated for the most part. From LeVar Burton

Anthony Montgomery as Travis Mayweather, Star Trek: Enterprise, January 16, 2011. This screen shot qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because it is of low resolution screen shot and is a minimal use.

as the blind engineer to Michael Dorn as the semi-defanged Klingon, and from Tim Russ as the more-emotionally-repressed-than-normal Vulcan to the milquetoast twenty-second century human played by Anthony Montgomery, these characters seldom were provided the opportunity of a higher level of complexity beyond stereotypes or in playing an anti-stereotype. The one notable exception was Avery Brooks’ character Capt. Benjamin Sisko, who became one of the Bajoran Prophets at the end of the DS9 series, destined not to enjoy the fruits of his god-like work in the here-and-now.

 

I’m not bringing all of this up to denigrate the Star Trek franchise. I actually love DS9, still like TNG, and can tolerate an occasional Voyager episode. Rather, this is about the battle over racial stereotypes, living them down, defying them, and being surprised when others don’t exhibit them. The fact that a franchise as optimistic and progressive as Star Trek couldn’t avoid major stereotypes says a lot about how deeply ingrained they are in our advanced culture.

Here’s a stereotype-breaking thought. Let’s make most of our images of alien humanoids out there somewhere in the Milky Way into folks who have various shades of brown skin. I know that this wouldn’t play well on any future Star Trek series. But this has about as much of a chance being true as the pink-skinned humanoids that characters in the Star Trek franchise constantly encounter. This first-contact stereotype, of course, is the hardest one of all for the Hollywood set to break.

It still amazes me that people are amazed that someone like me, a six-foot-three Black guy, has a doctorate, teaches, writes and still likes to play basketball. It also amazes me that many are still waiting for President Obama to slip into a stereotype, even though he’s bent over backwards to be neither a stereotype nor an anti-stereotype. Or, for that matter, the amazement of Blacks or others of color in watching a fast White guy play football or a tall one dunk a basketball. Stereotypes, like perceptions, are real, but not as real as the human capacity to defy them. Anyone who doesn’t believe that doesn’t believe in anything that Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for.


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