“The crazy thing is I’ve never been called a nigger to my face” begins Issa Rae’s blogpost. Issa Rae, for all those who do not know, is the creator, writer and star of the hit web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. In her recent article,“People on The Internet Can Be Hella Racist” Rae describes how after winning the 2012 Shorty Awards, her Twitter and Facebook pages were inundated with racist comments, that ranged from horrific to downright deplorable: “I nominate @awkwardblackgirl for @shortyawards in #cottonpicking.” And then “#ThingsBetterThanAwkwardBlackGirl The smell coming from Trayvon Martin.” Livid that a show featuring predominantly black actors could win any award, scorned artists and friends of those artists retaliated with the only language they’ve learned to direct towards people of color. Most times, I’m not even sure these people are fully aware of what those words truly evoke in a historical context. These are people, who I imagine, outside of the internet are perfectly respectful to people of color, might even have friends of a darker complexion, might even have voted for Obama (Yes We CAN!), but somehow they traded in their civil decorum and decency for the internet’s anonymity.
Issa Rae, creator of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
When I was in 7th grade my mother shaved off all my hair. The chemical relaxant (otherwise known as perm) that I put in my hair had absolutely destroyed my scalp and hair, causing uneven hair length all over my head. The hair cut was probably better than my Ronald-Trumpesque hairdo—straight hair, a sort of short comb over, in the front, and tight kinky hair in the back. I describe my hair in detail because once cut off, and once it began to grow back, the patches of hair, I felt, made me look like a Chia pet. My hair was as misshapen and awkward as I felt around all my white friends. I bring my hair up to say that in 7th grade I was the awkward black girl, but that oftentimes I could pretend I wasn’t any different. Most times, at least…
Once, a biracial friend told me about how a group of boys, who I knew and held, for the most part, in friendly regard, made a horribly offensive joke about black people—something of the “What do you get when you…” variety—and then spoke negatively about “miscegenation.” To my friend’s horror, and pain, these boys had forgotten she was half-black.
This was on the island, Nassau, where I grew up, the place I never truly associated with bigotry or racism until college, where having left home I could see it most clearly. My friend’s recount was not so much surprising—I was not that naive—as it was revelatory, for I realized in that moment that these were things these boys would never have said had I been present. Even then, in that moment, with such minimal awareness of myself and those around me, I had to confront, at least, the very idea that there were things people were not saying to, or around, me, and that there choices about what to say and omit had something to do with the color of my skin.
I don’t know why this Issa Rae article, this Hunger Games controversy and this death of a young black boy, Trayvon Martin, seems to be hitting so hard this past month. I’ve heard the counter-arguments that the internet does not reflect society, that the people who read my books will be more enlightened than the audience for the Hunger Games, that one wrongful death is not indicative of an entire society. And, of course, I know things are more complicated than a black-and-white issue. I know, shamefully, that black people kill each other, and hate themselves, as much as white people hate black people, and as much as white people hate white people; that there are people who neither identify as white nor black, who face similar issues of bigotry. I know that the comments directed towards Issa Rae have as much to do with her being a woman as they do with the color of her skin. I know the people who post these hurtful things are not the creators, but reiterators of what the societal infrastructure has taught them. I know all this.
Rue, Amandla Steinberg, from the Hunger Games
Perhaps, my Facebook NewsFeed is too saturated with these particular moments in the recent cultural memory, and if I stepped back from the internet and faced real people again, I’d be comforted by the fact that people would never dare call me nigger to my face. I wouldn’t be feeling the way I do now: that there’s a great possibility that the people I care about, the characters I create, are worth less in my readers’ eyes, that my characters’ horrific deaths and tragedies are just not as sad as their white counterparts. Or, worse that unless I make their “blackness” something as tangible, as recognizable, as what we believe blackness should look like, my readers might rewrite my characters all together. And not in the good way, not in the way you strive for as a writer, where people recognize the common threads that connect all of us as humans, but the more horrific sense of identification, where humanizing means whitening, where full empathy with a character cannot be achieved unless that character physically looks like the reader.
Trayvon Martin (1995-2012)