Today I have a guest post from my eldest child, Khembara. For longtime followers of CircuitouslyCute.com, you should already know, one reason for this blog is because of my kids. So, Dear Reader, without further ado and to spare you from yet more of my gushing… Enjoy!
I am a 23 year old black male. When I lived in Savannah, Georgia I lived in fear because overseer’s, the term for officer’s during slavery, would routinely stop me and harass me when I walked in the streets due to lack of government funding for sidewalks. They would say each time “there have been a lot of car break-ins in this area…” This also happened to me in Clemson, South Carolina where I was even more terrified. They would then proceed to frisk me and check for warrants, all while shining bright flashlights into my eyes. This happened on almost a weekly basis. An NPR broadcast stated that one of police officers’ favorite weapons to use is the flashlight. Their first choice unfortunately is the gun.
If there were sidewalks in Savannah, there were no street lights for me to see them, so I had to walk in the road. This caused me to always live in fear of bodily harm from police, cars, or street-level predators. There have been hundreds of thousands of police killings in America since slavery. I feel, as a young black man, this targeting of black people by institutional racist gangs of cops should be stopped. From my perspective, it’s the cops who act like domestic terrorists. Many cops are mentally unstable and need better evaluation to be held accountable for their careless actions. Too many police are a poison to the black community.
The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on beforein this blog and is now, more than ever, the topic of exigency. The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others whose names are yet fully known bring to mind the work of one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners: Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Deathworthy” study about how the dark skin and African looking facial characteristics of black defendants are highly correlated to the likelihood of their being sentenced to the death penalty.
The spontaneous memorials, such as the one pictured above, have popped up at sites where police (or wannabe cops) have murdered unarmed, often adolescent black males all speak to teddy bears as a visual and spatial phenomenon of race. Alongside the realities uncovered in the Deathworthy study, is another study by Robert Livingston. Coined the “teddy bear effect,”researchersdemonstrated how and why our society can enact the“postracial” iteration of Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration and all these brutal police killings directly alongside the amazing success of the Barack Obama presidency.
It seems, according to the evidence, that successful African American leadership —beyond impressive credentials, competence, and diligence — is accompanied by certain “disarming mechanisms” such as physical and behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of black threat held by the dominant culture. It appears that some black men have developed an extraordinary psychological capacity to affect the feelings of comfort engendered by persceptions of cuteness in order to assuage white racial anxieties about black men’s purported criminality. Among these disarming mechanisms is that of “babyfaceness,” which some African American men physically possess (and may intentionally play up) because they realize how whites experience their “cuteness” as helpful in reducing the perception of black aggression. White experiences of fear or intimidation may actually be a cultural form of subconscious projection due to the realistic threat suffered by blacks because whites’ possess such inordinately higher levels of social power vis-à-vis their black counterparts in most cases.
Deathworthiness versus babyfaceness serves as empirical evidence of the quantifiably predictable quality of “cuteness” as a racial construct that too often means life or death for our black brothers, partners, and sons. It’s interesting that both studies, particularly in the case of Livingston, make clever nods towards the heavily anthologized Brent Staples essay, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” in which the essayist refers to his habit of coping with whites’ perception of black male threat as a “tension-reducing” tactic meant to assuage white fears and and offer a sense of racial comfort in the public sphere. The kicker comes when Staples admits how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country” and speaks most eloquently to the strange dilemma of masculine empowerment and racial entrapment experienced by black men when moving through public space.
Teddy bears in bear country, sadly, is the perfect trope for the beastly outcomes derived from the unchecked racist policies and legal processes of white American culture and jurisprudence. #BlackLivesMatter
As heartbreaking and unjust as it is, the #FergusonDecision provides an opportune time for us to remind our respective families and communities during this Thanksgiving that the struggle for liberation among Africans in America hasn’t been so much about the giving as it’s been about the taking. This give/take has been the fuel in the engine behind US social strivings toward becoming a better, more robust democracy.
This constant push/pull have been stirring and shifting in every direction with, for, against, and all around us for some time. We would do well to remind those around us that the supposedly discrete bookend events we attribute to 1954-1968 (or the time representing the push for Black Liberation commonly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement) was but one well publicized episode within an ongoing continuum of struggle. African descended peoples have had to fight for their lives since the founding of this country up until the present day to demand the acknowledgment of our collective humanity and respect for our basic right to exist freely, despite the centuries-long refusal by the dominant centers of white power and privilege to recognize as much because the push for civil rights has been far worse than the pulling of teeth.
And truth be told, that recognition has never ever occurred because the majority of white people woke up all of a sudden one day and decided to hand over a giant silver platter with Freedom sprinkled all over it. Though to learn the history of civil rights as told through the lens of our failed education system, you would think all of White America suddenly realized, “Here ya go black, brown, yellow, and red folk… Why don’t you take a little of this extra freedom. We ain’t using it right now and thought you might like to have some…”
The facts clearly demonstrate something far more complicated because freedom was never given freely. It had to be actively seized upon—taken, as it were—through struggle, in spite of the imminent threat of death, certain violence, and utter destruction of everything about how the entire American system had been set up.
It’s important we make clear the understanding that the modern Civil Rights Movement as we have come to think of it was much more so about US national security than it was the modest capitulation of rightness over whiteness, let alone a sincere desire for white churchgoers and clergy to answer MLK’s immanent critique of Southern America’s version of Christlike behavior. (After all, “Christian identity” has long been a cornerstone of white supremacy while Sundays have and will likely always remain the most segregated day of the week.)
Workers for civil rights and freedom understood that if the US federal government really wanted the political economy of a capitalist system to prevail over the Cold War, the social apparatus would have to concede to the idea that money and the allocation of public resources and accommodations should have to carry the same value across the entire citizenry, regardless of color. Otherwise, global capitalism would be a hard sell as the vast majority of people of color around the world watched white cops sick German Shepherds on little girls wearing bobby socks and beating up on fully grown men who dared to do nothing more than be treated equally in the eyes of the law. All that being said, American style racism made Stalinist Russia look almost kind in comparison for the world of Asians, Africans, and Latin@s observing our political system from elsewhere.
And for all Obama’s eloquence and virtuosity with African American speech performances, the president’s consistent refrain pertaining to “the rule of law” and “zero tolerance for property damage” proves that having an African American president is not only insufficient for solving America’s racial problems, but proves that having a black Commander-in-chief is a solid win for those in favor of the status quo regarding the problems of racial profiling and other forms of institutional discrimination based on color.
This is why I take such strong issue with those who excuse Obama’s tendency to “give a little to both sides” when discussing race. In my mind, criticism for the ethics of Obama’s rhetoric should not be held back when it’s questionably applied to matters related to existential threats to black survival.
Mike Huckabee says Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, is “winsome” and George Will considers Cain’s run for office “cute and fun” but nothing to be taken at all seriously. Maybe so — maybe not, who really knows? To be sure, Cain is definitely a long-shot.
I would be interested to see if Herman Cain was included among the cohorts of Fortune 500 black CEOs whose physiognomy was determined as having a “baby face.” If he was not included in the study, I’d be surprised.
Though, of course, everyone may not agree that Cain is cute per se — regardless of partisan persuasion — you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will dispute whether or not Cain has shown himself to have been competent as a food service industry executive. And I think, regardless of one’s political views, most everyone would have to agree that Cain seems to have developed an unusually high skill set in terms of attenuating dominant perceptions of black male threat and really does possess an extraordinary ability to disarm others — even potential rivals. According to the study:
disarming mechanisms are beneficial to powerful Blacks because they reduce the perception of ‘threat’—whether threat is experienced as fear or intimidation due to an out-group individual possessing high levels of power (i.e., realistic threat), or as anger, resentment, or discomfort due to the perceived illegitimacy of a low-diffuse-status individual holding a hegemonic position (i.e., symbolic or ‘worldview’ threat)… [and that] there are numerous traits and behaviors that might function as disarming mechanisms, such as modifying style of speech or dress, adopting assimilationist ideologies, having a goofy appearance (e.g., big ears), smiling, or even ‘whistling Vivaldi’ (Livingston 1234).
Well, I think Barack’s got the whole “big ears” thing covered and the reference to Brent Staples‘s “Black Men and Public Space” essay about negotiating public space in Chicago as a large black man. Staples Staples admits at the very end of his essay how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is [his] equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.”
Teddy bears in bear country.
Cuteness as a quirky racial construction in American politics and civic life as related to Cain’s Republican presidential candidacy is a fascinating little political story to follow. Oh yeah, and as for the political catch-phrase fail of the moment:
Aside from the much publicized irony of Black History Month being celebrated in the shortest month of the year, I generally relate to certain other criticisms about these four weeks of commemorative celebration having become pretty much absurd at this point in contemporary popular culture.
I have sometimes held the opinion that sneakers are a sort of cute rhetoric that signifies on certain essentialist claims made about African American men. Of course I’m talking about the troping on the “run, nigger, run” metaphor from African American literature and folk-tales, which I suspect is informed — at least somewhat — by the 19th and 20th century historical references to youthful black male flight from Southern slavery and Jim Crow lynching.
Certainly, in the sports and entertainment media, young, athletic, African American male bodies are fetishized and made objects of white, middle class, heteronormative spectacle as in the case of baseball, football, and basketball. This emphasis on youthfully playing games is a “cute” rhetoric. Arguably, sneakers are the cutest menswear shoe style available and, for good or bad, remain a staple of hip-hop style and urban fashion.
And sadly, even up until now many young black men still view professional sports as the only legitimate avenue to wealth and fame, as the frames of black athleticism are narrowly interpreted as the optimal performance of African American masculinity. The popular sports legacy of Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nike Air Jordans and his influence on urban fashions associated with the late 90s style of dress when grown black men dressed in over-sized jersey tank tops, low-hanging, ankle-skimming shorts, and yes — sneakers. Grown black men wearing play clothes. The issue of concern for me is that “black” must be modified by “grown” and I’m curious as to how this is related to the performance of gender.
Spike Lee as “Mars Blackmon” parodied this child-like mannishness in his first and highly acclaimed independent film, She’s Gotta Have It, and in his numerous Blackmon reprisals in several Nike ads back in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, there are blogs and chat-rooms populated by intelligent, educated, technologically savvy — literally well-heeled — black men who spend hours comparing their sneaker collections and discussing the intricacies of limited editions, latest trends, and architectural designs. Within these digital communities, rarely is the issue of exploited overseas sweatshop child labor ever raised. Personally, I don’t claim to understand what motivates sneaker enthusiasts. I guess I’m not much of a sports fan either. However, I do think the question is worth asking: is this a part of what Carter G. Woodson warned about in The Miseducation of the Negro?