“We get to be human. We get to be all of these things: Black people in church, Black people playing pool, Black people as professors, etc. Black people get to make mistakes; Black people get to be great.”
So said Dr. Myra Washington, an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism, about the tendency to represent Black people in entertainment as one-dimensional characters during a virtual forum on June 5 convened to discuss anti-Blackness in the media.
Washington joined New Student Orientation leader and ASUNM senator Miles Harris on the African American Student Services’ (AASS) Instagram Live with an audience of about 70 people. The event consisted of a brief lecture by Washington followed by a question and answer session.
Washington kickstarted the event by defining anti-Blackness as “the devaluation of Blackness to the point where it puts Black people outside of humanity.” In other words, anti-Blackness is an agenda that delegitimizes everything represented by Black culture.
Washington clarified a common misconception that exists within Black representation: She said that viewers often condemn Black people being depicted as criminal characters on television, but that portrayal itself is not an intrinsic problem. Rather, Washington said that “Black people are allowed to be criminals” as long as producers, directors and writers are not only invested in equating an entire race to criminality.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with being a twerker or a criminal,” Washington said. “But we also want to see (Black people) teaching Sunday school or in church. Because there are only a few hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning, and Black people live all of them.”
To connect her analysis with a contemporary political example, Washington pointed to the media’s response to a tweet from Donald Trump that coined rioters as “thugs.”
“The media did not have to run with Trump’s narrative of Black people being thugs that are looting and rioting,” she said. “They could have chosen anything else — the narrative could have simply been ‘this is a rebellion.’”
Washington also outlined the two steps that most effectively combat anti-Blackness during the current Black Lives Matter movement: call out loved ones who are affirming incorrect narratives and be an accomplice rather than just an ally.
Washington said that an ally merely says ‘I’m here for you’ without taking action, while an accomplice puts themselves on the line to be with the movement rather than just for the movement. She urged her viewers to take the role of an accomplice and not fall into the self-satisfactory trap of fulfilling a mere ally’s role.
Washington said the best way to consume media that doesn’t push an anti-Black agenda is to recognize that the news as a whole is an anti-Black institution and support news outlets that are working actively to dismantle anti-Blackness. She suggested following Black journalists on Twitter and reading news sources, such as the Guardian and BBC.
A significant portion of the event discussed how detrimental it is for organizations to release pro-Black statements without taking adequate action, like the National Football League.
“We need organizations that go beyond donating and denouncing anti-Blackness,” Washington said. “We need symbolic actions, such as Birmingham taking down its Confederate statue.”
Washington gave examples of positive action, such as defunding the police and putting that money toward education. She contrasted these actions with empty gestures, such as police officers kneeling with protesters.
When asked her opinion on the possibility of universities establishing a George Floyd scholarship, Washington said she praises the idea but is worried that academic institutions will stop there.
“The whole point is that universities need to give money into supporting Black students and Black education,” she said. “How can we help people live their very best lives safely and happily?”
Before ending the livestream, Washington discussed how systematic oppression creates a domino effect of violent anti-Blackness. She once again dissected how the media problematically spotlights lootings rather than attempting to understand the sentiment behind the riots.
“We aren’t burning down police precincts because we just hate brick buildings,” Washington said. “We are chipping away at structural oppression by forcing them to look at their own structural domination. That is when we begin to progress.”
Washington said that sending out more police officers to quell rioting only intensifies the situation, thus calling for an alternative solution, such as defunding the police.
Before signing off from the AASS livestream event, Washington told her viewers, “I got you all, I’m here for you. Let’s keep the fight.”
Beatrice Nisoli is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BeatriceNisoli