This interview was originally published on nototally.com, read & listen here:
Shaun Lau is an Asian-American occasional writer and host of the film and social issues podcast No, Totally! Follow him on Twitter, @NoTotally, and find his work at http://nototally.com .
Bernard A. Hayman is a writer, Fulbright scholar, and U.S. Army veteran. He writes speculative fiction and the occasional observation about issues impacting marginalized and oppressed peoples — usually while listening to Hans Zimmer. Currently Bernard is a campaign manager with Color Of Change, a racial justice nonprofit organization.
Shaun Lau (host): Hello, and welcome to No, Totally! My name is Shaun, and this week we have a very special guest: my friend Bernard Hayman. Bernard is currently a campaign manager with Color Of Change, which is a nonprofit digital activism organization that focuses on racial justice issues. He has also been a Fulbright scholar in Brazil, doing environmental sustainability studies and teaching at a university, and he writes articles about subjects like police brutality, science fiction, fantasy, and other social issues. Bernard, hello!
Bernard Hayman (guest): Hey, man. Thanks for having me on.
SL: Yeah, absolutely. So as with a lot of guests, you and I met on Twitter, and I wish I could remember and credit who connected us. Do you know- do you follow @BlerdyShani?
BH: Yeah, I think that was the mutual connection before we started talking.
SL: Nice. All right, so, she’s fantastic. Right off the bat, we’re going to give a recommendation to follow her on Twitter. You can follow Bernard at @bernardhayman. We’ll mention all of this later on.
The way that Bernard and I initially connected was- I think the Peter Liang/Akai Gurley thing was a huge deal. And if people don’t remember, Akai Gurley was a Black man in New York City who was shot and killed by Peter Liang, who is a Chinese-American police officer in New York, and there was some friction between the Asian-American- Chinese-American community, and the Black community, because the Chinese community felt that Peter Liang was taking a fall that white cops haven’t had to, when they murder Black people, and that presented to the public, and to the Black community specifically, as pretty callous. Right?
SL: Just, the idea that just because we’re talking about a non-white police officer, that they should not be subject to the full justice of the law, I think is obviously distasteful. I, and a lot of other Asian-Americans, were- I hate to say, you know, sides or whatever- specifically talking about the right of Akai Gurley and his family to get justice for that. But so, within that, I learned more about a term that I had heard quite a bit, but didn’t really fully understand. That term is anti-Blackness, and that is what we are going to talk about today.
So first of all, let’s just get super, super basic and definitional, and let me ask you, what is anti-Blackness, and how is that different from just saying “racism?”
BH: So, I think that’s a really good distinction to make, because people- I think there’s a sense when you talk about “racism” versus “anti-Blackness,” a lot of people, people of color who aren’t Black, will say, “oh, well it’s all just racism, it all applies to us equally,” and it’s like no, anti-Blackness is specifically- it kind of falls into this theory of racial hierarchy where the worst thing you can be is Black.
And while racism can be applied to people of color across the spectrum- you know, if you’re from Asia, South America, if you’re a Native American, wherever- anti-Blackness is specifically the ways that those racist structures target and oppress Black people, and in some cases can elevate other people of color above Black people, if they’re willing to buy into those structures. And I think, like you said, especially around this Peter Liang- and even going back further, Daniel Holtzclaw, the guy in Oklahoma- I think it was a moment where Black people, at least on Twitter, were saying, “okay, this really needs to be a discussion.” We always hear about solidarity, but we need to look at how anti-Blackness impacts, or how it influences, the behavior of people of color who aren’t Black.
SL: Yeah, absolutely. So, just to remind people about Daniel Holtzclaw, he was a, I think he’s half-white, half-Asian, cop who over, I don’t remember how many years, but a decade, maybe more? He spent that time as a police officer victimizing Black women of a wide age range: elderly, young Black women as well, targeting them sexually. And yeah, was put away for life as a result.
But again, another point where there was certainly friction between the Black community and Asian-American community. Although, to be honest, he doesn’t look particularly Asian, so there was a lot of kind of, sliding by the point that this was a person of color. Which, I think, goes a little bit to what you’re talking about, as far as anti-Blackness and the way that it separates from racism against other POC. Because Holtzclaw benefitted from the white proximity of the way he looks; that he can pass as white.
BH: Yeah, he was definitely, like you said, he was white-passing, and it kind of muddied the waters at first. People were like, “well, you know, this is a white cop” and like you said, he was leveraging that proximity. And towards the end, when things started to turn against him, I think that’s when you started to hear, “oh, well, he’s being scapegoated.” This rhetoric of a person of color being punished for something a white cop would get away with.
SL: Right, yeah. It’s a nice way to avoid- you know, “nice” as a sarcastic term- way to avoid reckoning with the victims in this kind of situation. But he, also, beyond being white passing as far as the way that he looks, there’s also that “model minority” thing that a lot of people of East Asian descent fall under, because we have light skin relative to other POC.
So, anti-Blackness is a term that- probably two years ago I would not have been aware of its existence. As a term- as a kind of sociological description of a phenomenon, is it a new thing? Is it a recent thing? Do you know about the history of the term?
BH: Actually- I mean, I know I looked it up a while back, but I couldn’t tell you off the back of my head. It’s not new. I think what’s changed recently, and I would say only in the past three or four years, maybe five at the outside, is that it’s entered a more acceptable mainstream use. It’s a more widely accepted concept. I think when I was in high school- so this is, like, 15, almost 20 years ago now- anti-Blackness was something that I’d heard of, but if you said that in an academic environment, if you said that in like a corporate environment, people would look at you like you grew a third eyeball, you know. Seriously.
In a lot of movies where you have more than one Black character, which is not a lot of movies, but if you look at movies like Friday, or any kind of these, you know, culturally important Black movies, there’s always one character who’s, like, really militant, and really, you know, pro-Black and blah, blah, blah, but they always play him off as kind of a humorous person. Like someone to not take seriously. And that was kind of the way that anti-Blackness, like, if you said “anti-Blackness,” that’s kind of how you’d be treated, like, “oh, look at this guy. He’s militant for no reason. He’s making stuff up.”
Even five years ago, four years ago, when I started to become more aware and more comfortable with using it, and discussing it, and using it as a framework to look at, kind of, things that I’ve experienced in my life, it was still kind of like, “oh, you just saw that on tumblr, you’re just a social justice warrior.” Only in the past two, three years as result of #OscarsSoWhite and, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement, now it’s becoming- you know, Hillary Clinton will say “anti-Blackness,” or, you know, some prominent political figure will say these things, and it’s like, “oh, shit.”
Not everyone is going to take it seriously, but you can’t deny that it’s an actual thing. You can’t deny that, you know, it can be engaged in conversation and taken seriously, and say, “okay, this is the frame, this is the lens through which we’re going to look at the way the world operates.”
SL: Right. I feel like the term “white supremacy” is pretty similar in that regard, like, you’re kind of automatically marked as overly militant if you start using these certain terms. And it’s frustrating because a term like anti-Blackness, and a term like white supremacy- they’re so much more specific than just saying racism.
And I think you get a lot of pushback, especially if you try to discuss with people online, you get caught really quickly, if you’re using the word “racism,” or “racist,” you get caught really quickly in the early stages of the argument, where someone is just going to be like, “no, this is absolutely not racist. I am absolutely not a racist. Let’s pull up the dictionary definition of racism.”
So it does seem like, in a way, and I’m not going to say whether it’s intentional or not, but the result is definitely to keep these discussions in a very non-specific area and argue semantics, rather than get down to the actual business of talking about it. Which I think using terms like “anti-Blackness” and “white supremacy” actually would allow us to do.
BH: Yeah. I think the distinction there is that, like you said- and verbatim, I’ve had discussions, or arguments, especially on Facebook, with people where I’m like, “this is racist,” and they’re like “no, like, let’s pull out the dictionary; this is what the dictionary says racism is.” And I’m like, “it’s more complicated than that.”
But you start using terms “white supremacy,” “anti-Blackness,” things like that, there’s an automatically- you know, it’s elevated above an individual level, for one. You’re talking about a system. You’re talking about something that’s bigger than just two people having a disagreement, which is what I think racism is often boiled down to, in popular discourse. But I think that with those two terms it interjects a sense of power dynamics, which is really racism. Like, the definition of racism is, someone has power over someone else because of their skin color or their background. But it’s so ambiguous now, it’s like “oh, racism.” It’s like a code word, almost, at this point.
White supremacy, anti-Blackness, you can’t deny it. It’s like, there’s a power dynamic at work here that specifically says, certain people are complicit in this, certain groups are implicit in this, and you can’t just opt out because “oh, well, I didn’t mean it that way.”
SL: Right, right. Actually, so it might be useful to- kind of, beyond just splitting racism and anti-Blackness out into two separate terms, do you think it’s useful to also talk about the difference between those two terms, and also the terms “prejudice” and “discrimination?”
BH: Yeah, of course. I think it’s- because this is Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, wherever these arguments come up, and you say, someone does something, and I’m like, “hey that’s racist.” Or, generally, what you’ll hear is, a POC will make a comment about something a white person did, and they’re like, “oh, that’s racism. You’re being racist towards white people,” and it’s, like, “no, racism involves a power dynamic.”
It’s not just about, “oh, I hurt your feelings,” it’s- there’s a power dynamic predicated on race and skin color, that says, you have this power over me, or, you have more advantage; you have more privilege, in a certain way, than I do. So if I’m mean to a white person, you could call that prejudice. I would say “prejudice.” I wouldn’t even go as far as to say “discrimination,” because there’s nothing I can do to discriminate against a white person. Like, what am I going to do, like, “you can’t come in my house?” Like, that’s it.
But yeah, you know, especially in the discourse, especially the way things are now, you know, “racism,” “prejudice,” “discrimination,” these all get lumped into the same- you know, they’re treated like synonyms, and they’re not. To discriminate against someone, it’s a verb. It’s an action; you’re actively doing something. Prejudice and racism, again, the distinction is that I can hold negative feelings about any given group, but if I don’t have the power to act on it, then that’s not the same as, like, racism on an institutional level, the way that we’re often talking about it. That’s what we’re often referring to. But it gets boiled down to, “oh, well you just don’t like me because I’m white.” I’m like, “well that might have some merit, but that’s not going to impact your life in any significant way.”
SL: Right. Okay, so on this show, on a previous episode, we talked- I talked specifically with Shannon Miller of the Nerds of Prey podcast about misogynoir. And so, let’s see. Just to give a quick definition of that, and correct me- if you’ve got anything to add let me know. Misogynoir is a kind of specific intersectional racism that Black women face?
BH: I think that encapsulates it. You know, obviously you can unpack a lot of that into different specific situations, because, I think, and this is a lot of conversations that I’ve seen: misogynoir impacts, you know, it’s different, it looks different if Black women are being targeted by white men versus white women versus Black men. It’s all under the same umbrella, but the specific kind of variance differ, and I think that gets parsed out in how you see certain discussions play out, on the internet, especially.
And the way that people feel they have access to Black women, like, super smart Black women, like Roxane Gay or Tressie McNeill, who are both really great, super smart, super talented people, and these random assholes on Twitter will come at them like, no regard, no respect, nothing. Not to say that anyone should be treated that way, but it’s just really kind of disturbing to see that play out, literally every day, no matter what the subject or impetus is.
SL: I just want to acknowledge, too, that misogynoir is a relatively recent term, I believe. I think it was coined by a queer Black woman named Moya Bailey, if I recall correctly? So if we can, kind of- we can distinguish between anti-Blackness and misogynoir quickly, because neither of us are Black women, so we don’t want to stay in this lane for more than is useful. I mean, to me, it looks like kind of a sub-branch of anti-Blackness? Or is it its own specific thing outside of that?
BH: I think you could say that it’s its own thing. I think at this point, you know, there was actually there was a conversation, someone on Twitter was asking people, like they tweeted out a question and it got retweeted and went it viral. But they were asking, “Black women: do you consider yourself a woman first, or Black first?”
And lot of the Black women that I follow were like, “that’s a false dichotomy.” You know, they’re both at the same time. So I think that anti-Blackness definitely influences misogynoir, but I would hate to subsume it beneath anti-Blackness, as if being Black is always, you know, the utmost allegiance for Black women, or for anybody.
I think it’s difficult for any person of color who is also a woman, or queer, or trans, or whatever kind of identity they might have, to say, “I’m Black first, I’m Asian first, I’m Latinx first,” versus “I am all of these things at once, and the way that this thing specifically impacts me should not have to take a lesser priority.” Because I think that part of the way that misogynoir operates is that people often say, “anti-Blackness should be your first priority. You’re Black first, and a woman second.” And that, like, it’s really a demeaning and damaging way of asking people to, kind of, chop up their identity, and say, “your allegiance should be to me, and not to making sure that your needs are met, in the specific way that you need them.”
SL: Right, right. Oh, okay, that makes total sense. Because if you can chop those up, then, like, you’re saying, you can then kind of feel like it’s a reasonable thing to do, to say, “well, discard your womanhood for a second, and stand with this Black cause,” which is- you’re right, because not everything intersects quite as neatly as we would like, you could end up doing yourself harm. Or, asking someone to do themselves harm. See, I learned something live on air, I like it. Let’s see, so- that makes sense to me, that’s awesome. I feel like I need to have another misogynoir-based episode, and get a little bit deeper into that, because it’s super interesting.
So, kind of, back to anti-Blackness, more generally. I think, in this country, there’s sometimes this impulse to practice colorblind politics, right? And I think one of the ways that it manifests a lot, that I’ve seen it recently, is that- this belief that if we resolve class problems in the US, that racism will, kind of, just automatically disappear.
And I think we were talking about, kind of, separating these terms out, “anti-Blackness” and “racism” and everything else- it kind of seems to me like it makes it a lot harder to hold this belief, that racism is kind of a side effect of class, which, just to clarify, I don’t think that’s true. And, of course, I’ll hear what you think in a second. But, it seems to me, like, if we understand anti-Blackness as anti-Blackness instead of racism, in a lot of these cases, it could help us to understand better, and more quickly, why this kind of colorblind politics can be problematic, or not viable.
BH: Yeah. I think, especially in the midst of a political season, Presidential election, things like that, there’s a lot of desire to- in order build this big, you know, if you’re a Democrat, this big tent, this big coalition of people of color, and poor people, and white people, whatever. but very rarely does it look at, you know, you can’t- I definitely don’t agree with this idea that if you solve classism, racism will go away; that if you solve classism, anti-Blackness will lessen.
Like, that’s definitely not- it’s ahistorical. It doesn’t mesh with the history of the US. It doesn’t mesh with the way that things operate politically in this country. And it’s, kind of, an idealism? It’s appealing to a lot of people to believe that, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats, but you have to look at the specific ways that-
So, I grew up as the oldest son of two high school dropouts. My parents did not finish high school when I was born. My family was very poor for a long time, and we’ve kind of pulled ourselves up, to a certain extent, but at best we’re, like, working class. And we’re working class because, it’s not just because the economy sucks now, it’s because there are very specific ways that Black people are either disenfranchised, or sheerly excluded from the economy, or have their money just siphoned away from them through any number of things: whether it’s payday loans, whether it’s less pay overall for the same work, whether it’s being preyed upon by the criminal justice system, whether it’s erosion of a social safety net.
I can tell you firsthand, that the time that when my family was doing the best, was the mid 90s, before the Clinton stuff happened. And, you know, we were getting food stamps, and section eight, and blah, blah, blah, which sounds- I guess to some people, that sounds like a handout, but, like, I would not be here if it wasn’t for food stamps. My family would’ve been homeless- like, we were homeless, and we would’ve stayed homeless for a long-ass time, had it not been for section eight housing.
So, you know, the specific ways that class impacts Black people- and we were a lucky case. My parents worked hard, and I’ve worked hard, but there are still way too many specific ways that class impacts Black people, that get overlooked when you’re just focusing on class. When you just focus on class, you’re letting people slip through the cracks, all over the place.
SL: Do you think- so I’ll just, kind of, state my belief. I feel like the reverse is also not quite true; that resolving racism would automatically make classism disappear overnight, despite the fact that people of color, and especially Black people, are, kind of, the most hit by these class divides, as you’re talking about. What do you think about that? Is it as unrealistic in the reverse scenario?
BH: I think it gets you closer to the ideal. Just because so many of the policies that we have that cause long term, entrenched, endemic poverty in this country are directly related to the ways that- you know, this country does not incentive POC to succeed. It doesn’t create that opportunity. It doesn’t create a system where that’s really even possible, for a lot of people.
So, I think if you start to resolve those issues, like these, kind of, race-based issues that indirectly impact economic policy, it would probably get you closer to the ideal. It wouldn’t get rid of it entirely. You know, even within the Black community, there’s classism. As long as you have this huge divide, this huge gap, between the poor. the middle class. and the rich, there’s always going to be classism. So, you know, I think it gets you closer to where you want to be, but I don’t think it gets rid of- you can’t solve one, if you solve one, it’s not going to solve the other, automatically. It has to be, kind of, an integrated approach.
SL: Are there any big examples, just to kind of hook on to what you were talking about, of the disincentivizing of people of color succeeding? The big one that I always go to, which isn’t specifically economically tied, but does kind of speak to this inequity, is the idea that the jail sentences for cocaine use, you know, powder form versus crack cocaine, are wildly different, even though they’re basically the same drug. So, you see that kind of institutionalized racism. Can you think of other examples that are kind of more in line with what you’re talking about?
BH: Sure. One example, off the top of my head, is that in order to be licensed to braid hair, in quite a lot of states, which is a pretty significant sideline income for Black communities, there’s either not a mechanism to provide those licenses- and if you’re a hair braider you can be fined quite a lot of money, if you get caught doing it off the books- or it’s disproportionately expensive, like $5000 to get licensed. You have to take an official cosmetology course, which is, like, hair dying, and all this other stuff, that really- one, it’s not formulated around the way that Black people’s hair is, so you’re learning skills that really don’t apply to your customer base. And then you’re having to spend a significant amount of money for all this training, basically to get accredited, so that you can do the work that you want to do, so it puts you further in the hole.
Stuff like that: job licensing, accreditation. You can look at the way that public transit, in a lot of places, is either nonexistent, or becoming more expensive. And most of these things, you can kind of look it at through this colorblind lens, like, “oh, it’s just a quality of life issue.” But really, you look at who that impacts the most, and it’s like, “oh, of course it’s harder for these people to get ahead,” or have a chance to even do anything. Because your money or your time is being siphoned away.
And, you know, it’s a cliché but it’s true: being poor is super expensive. You have to spend a lot of money up front when you’re poor, that just basically leaves you- you’re constantly behind. You’re trying to catch up. Not just bills, but, just, clothes, food, like basic things. Especially as time goes on, there’s always more and more stuff that you need. You have to have an internet connection. You have to have a cell phone. Those are requirements in today’s world. If you don’t have a cell phone, you don’t have internet, you can’t do anything.
SL: Right. Holy shit, I hadn’t even thought of that. I grew up somewhat poor as well. I remember when we got a fax machine, it was a big deal, because my mom, who is self-employed, she could get more business that way. That was a requirement, as you were saying. And, like, I’m just thinking about my cell phone bill, and my internet bill, and I’m like, “we wouldn’t have been able to afford that.” The fax machine, at least, was a one-time purchase, and you’re paying a little- like an extra couple of bucks a month- for another phone line. But utilities are regulated in a way that the internet isn’t quite regulated yet. I know there’s a push to regulate it more as a utility. But, you know, phone companies, they have to offer discounts for lower income people to get a phone line, which, I don’t believe that mobile carriers have to do the same thing, even though they are kind of hybrid-regulated as utilities. Do you know?
BH: No, they don’t. So, what there is, there’s a stopgap- at least there used to be- where there was a federal program. It was actually put into place under George W. Bush. This program, where, if you made below a certain amount, I think if you made below the poverty line, you get a subsidized government phone. And it’s not, like, a good phone, it’s, like, a flip phone, right? It’s, like, a Motorola Razr, or something. But it would get you a phone and a certain number of minutes per month. I mean, if you’ve heard of it, most people have heard of it because they call it “the Obamaphone.”
SL: Oh, okay, yeah.
BH: Yeah, if you’ve heard some Republican asshole ranting about Obamaphones, this is it. And it was put in place by George W. Bush. But that’s, like, the most basic thing. You can’t use Twitter, you can’t use Facebook, any of that shit. No apps, no Uber, nothing, on your phone, if you have that. And for internet access, a lot of companies really balk at this idea- it’s called “last mile internet,” I think?
Where it’s- they’ll put the hubs in, but they don’t want to go that last mile to connect people who might be a little further out from the city, or things like that. So all this contributes to a digital divide, which- it sounds terrible. I mean, it is terrible. But if you look at how ubiquitous the internet is- there’s a story every month in the New York Times about some kid, or an entire school worth of kids, mainly Latino or Black neighborhoods, who have to go to the library, and sit outside the library until 8 o’clock at night so they can do their homework.
You know, they don’t have internet at home; they can’t afford it. Stuff like that. And everyone thinks, “oh that’s so terrible, those poor kids.” Like, yeah, but look at the wider implications of this. Not only these kids, having to sit outside- or, sitting on the bus in the school parking lot so they have internet- like, how far is that putting them behind their education? We already talk about- it’s just a cascading effect. It goes all the way up. And it’s more than just- like you said, there are some big examples. Everyone always thinks of criminal justice stuff, things like that, but there’s so many little, tiny things that impact your life if you’re poor, if you’re Black, if you’re a person of color, that it does not set you up, to even, really, survive.
SL: Right. All right, so I’m going to switch gears just a little bit, here, and talk about when you and I met on Twitter. I think this is a really interesting topic, and even though you and I connected about it, it’s still almost a third-rail type of thing. I know a lot of activists who are willing to talk about almost anything, but are really hesitant to talk about this, which is: the idea that- okay, let me just put it in an example, to kind of make it clear.
I’m an Asian-American. I speak out about Asian-American issues, and I think, early on, when I was speaking out, the easiest way, for me- the most natural way, I felt- to communicate these kinds of issues, was to communicate it in a language that most people understood, and that just happens to be, kind of, using the language of Black struggle.
So, for example, I’m sure I’ve said a bunch of things, but as an example that maybe other people have heard of- the actress Constance Wu, who is on Fresh Off the Boat, and she’s probably the most prominent, visible Asian-American in entertainment. A few months ago, she said at some panel that she doesn’t like to use the word “yellowface,” she likes to use the term “Asian blackface” instead, because it makes more of an impact on people. So that’s the example I think that most people will have heard of, where a non-Black person of color is really using this language that only makes sense because of the history and work of Black struggle, right? So, as I mentioned, I fully own up to the fact that I was doing this in the beginning. It seemed like the easiest, most effective way.
And I talked to you about it, because I had seen you tweeting about it, and also, I had seen other people kind of responding to this kind of stuff, in a way that wasn’t allowing me to understand. And so I approached you, and you were very generous with your time. You didn’t bite my head off, basically, which can sometimes be hard to find on Twitter. Which, I understand, because people are doing work every day on Twitter, and you can’t just approach anybody- I’m not saying I’m entitled to anybody’s time, but you were there to give it most generously.
Anyway, so, let’s talk about this idea of non-Black people of color using this terminology: why it can be harmful, why it, kind of, holds back, and actively harms, in some cases, both the movements of Black people, and non-Black people of color.
BH: I’ll say first, yeah, it’s difficult to broach this subject. And I don’t think you’re the first person to have that conversation with me. I think you just caught me on a good day. Because normally, my reaction is to, like, tell people, “go fuck yourself,” or I might link you to a Tumblr post or something, but I’m not going to spend hours and hours. But I think, like I said, it was just a right moment where I was like, “okay, I’ll pass some knowledge on.” Not to say I’m an expert.
SL: Well, let’s give me some credit. I believe I was nice to you, right?
BH: You were pretty respectful. Because most people are like, “I don’t think you’re right,” and you were just like, “well, can you explain that?” And I was like, “yeah, okay, I’ll explain it. Seems like a nice enough guy.”
SL: Well, I think, just as a side note: I’m not trying to make this all about me, but as a side note, I do think it’s super important to be like, “look, I do not expect this of you. This is not a demand of your time. If you have five seconds and can link me or explain it to me in these five seconds, that would be really appreciated, but I can also try to look for it somewhere else.” Approaching people on Twitter could be its own episode, but I wanted to say that. And I’m glad- I don’t know, I’m happy. I’m happy we connected. Anyway, I’m sorry, go ahead.
BH: No, I think part of it, going back to this misogynoir conversation we had earlier, I think that does make a difference. That I’m a guy. So I’m seen as both accessible but also having somewhat of an authority on speaking on some of these things. And also I don’t have that many followers. Most of my followers- I’m like, five, six hundred people. So I think that’s part of the context, too. Some of the people who are getting asked about this day in and day out have- not hundreds of thousands, but dozens of thousands of followers. And they get retweeted, and it blows up, and you have random assholes coming in, just being really entitled. So, I think that context, and also the way that people are approached, makes a difference.
But, to go back to the question: so, I think, yeah, this is always a really tense, really fraught thing. Because it can be super harmful. And people throw around terms- in the best of circumstances they’ll throw around terms like “lynching,” or “slaved,” or blah, blah, blah. And it’s always a point of contention. I remember, when I first got on Twitter, I was following a lot of people involved in the Palestinian freedom struggle, and there were some people who got told about themselves, because they were saying, “oh, Palestinians are being lynched.”
And it goes back to this thing of, like, one, “we support your cause, but don’t use-” lynching is a very specific context. It’s something that happened to, mostly, Black people. It also happened to a fair amount of Jewish people, and people of color; specifically, Mexican people. But the vast majority was Black people. And so that’s such a hurtful term. It’s such a loaded term. It just evokes so much context. You can’t divorce it from the struggle of Black Americans.
And to have it be used as like- you know, someone will say, “oh, Peter Liang’s being lynched.” No, that’s not cool. That’s not okay to say. Or to say, “oh, Palestinians are the Black people of the Middle East.” Like, whoa. At that point you’re not even respecting the struggle, or respecting the labor that Black people have done; you’re just taking it and applying it to show how aggrieved you feel that you’re being treated like Black people.
SL: Right. Okay, so, that’s the really interesting thing to me. Or, one of the really interesting things. Because, like Constance Wu said, she wants to include the actual term “blackface” when she says “Asian blackface,” because she wants to traffic in the specific type of trauma that people understand when you use a term like that. And I think it’s exploitative of the fact that there was trauma done to other people, right? So you’re taking this trauma that you have no specific connection to, and using it to make a point about whatever’s going on with you.
BH: Right. And I think, beyond that, a little bit- with this “blackface for Asian people” comment, blackface is obviously a harmful thing, but it’s also- the way that she phrased it, as, like, “oh, well people will understand the idea of blackface better than they’ll understand the idea of yellowface.” Which I don’t think is true. I think yellowface- I mean, I don’t know what the hierarchy is of racist phenomena is, but I think they’re pretty close to each other, if there’s a ranking.
I think yellowface- people will understand that yellowface is a thing, with a history, and a context, and people will point at it, and understand what it is. But the way she phrased it is like, “oh, people will connect with this more.” It’s like, “well, why is that?” It’s not because they care. It’s because Black people, Black activists, have done work to make it understood that this is unacceptable, and this is harmful. And so, you’re leveraging this work that other people have done, and saying- it’s almost saying, “okay, your issue isn’t important anymore,” or, “it’s only important in service of making my stuff look more prominent.”
SL: Right. I think one of the points that you made, when we first had this discussion, is really important to this as well, which is to say that Black suffering and Black work is required to give the term “blackface” the horrific connotation that it has nowadays. So, if you are a person who is saying, “I prefer the term Asian blackface-” basically, what you’re saying is, if you can’t use the term yellowface to describe something, and allow that thing to be horrific, in a way, you do not want to end the Black suffering that causes these terms to have those connotations.
BH: No. And it’s exactly that. There’s no real interest in looking at this phenomena, this terminology, whether it’s “blackface,” or “lynching,” or “slavery,” or any of these very contextual terms. It’s not any interest in fixing that, it’s just saying, “oh, well this is a frame of reference that everyone can understand and therefore-” like you said, they can just lean on it. It’s just, like, “oh, this is shorthand for something terrible.” You don’t want this to happen to any other group, but we’re not going to address the ongoing ramifications of how it impacts the actual people that it happened to.
SL: Right. If I can- and hopefully this doesn’t come off as too inappropriate- it’s kind of a really dehumanized example- but there was a point in the early days of Windows, the operating system, where- I think most people know, by now, that Windows actively was ripping off the Mac operating system’s graphical user interface. And at one of the many points that Apple was going to bankrupt- this happened a lot in the early history of the company- Bill Gates gave, I think it was just a flat million dollars, to make sure that Apple stayed alive, specifically to have something to continue to pattern Windows off of.
So, again, maybe not the best example, but I think it frames it in a way that people can understand. If I’m so reliant on Black suffering- and not just blackface, obviously that’s an older thing in our history- but anything that comes from the future; Black Lives Matter, as a term, is a super recent thing. And people, kind of, taking, and saying, “well, Asians Lives Matter too,” or something like that- again, if you can’t form your own basis for activism, or you can’t form your own basis of humanizing your people, then you’re going to continue to need things like Black Lives Matter to keep popping up. But, in order for Black Lives Matter to pop up, you need Black people being killed by cops. So, non-Black people of color, being the Bill Gates in this scenario- this analogy maybe is not great-
BH: No, I think it’s actually a great analogy. I think that’s actually something I haven’t heard before; I didn’t know that portion of history. But I think that’s a very apt analogy, in this case. So, like you said, a lot of- not to say that all political activism comes from Black people; it doesn’t. There’s a lot of different groups, you know, Latinos and Asian-Americans, and all kinds of- and Native Americans, especially. Any marginalized group is always doing activism; organizing, mobilizing to defend themselves, and to assert their rights.
I think, going back to your analogy about Windows keeping Mac alive, so it has something to copy from: you always hear about this “solidarity” between different groups. And there’s always a small swell of solidarity, but I think people get tripped up on this idea of, like, “well, Black issues get all the attention,” and it’s like, “no, we’re hyper visible.” That’s our place in this country.
We’re hyper visible, all the time, and that manifests in different ways, depending on if you’re a Black man, a Black woman, whatever. But just because our issues are hyper visible, it doesn’t mean they get solved. It just means there’s more- not even more attention paid to them, it’s just that it’s more visible. It’s not necessarily that it’s perceived better, or anything like that.
And I think when that happens, like you say, people saying, “oh, Asian Lives Matter, Brown Lives Matter,” whatever, which is fine, but it’s just copying from the template that we’re creating. And then you get some trickle down kind of support, where there’s solidarity, or people marching, but then it just becomes so problematic, which is such a vague term, but it’s just- that’s what it is.
Because when people say “Asian Lives Matter” they’re not talking about people who might also be Black and Asian. Usually, we’re talking about people who are just East Asian. Not even, like, Southeast Asian. Or #OscarsSoWhite, where there’s, “oh, how come this issue isn’t talking about the lack of representation for Asian actors?” It’s like, “no. No one’s saying this is only about Black people.” It’s saying that there’s too many white people, and there should be more diversity in general. But there’s always this pushback, this blowback of, “oh, well Black people only care about their issues.” It’s just such a clusterfuck so much of the time.
SL: I want to jump off of that, into this idea of directional communication. I think what someone like Constance Wu is trying to do is to- she’s pointing her communication at white people, right? Because white people- if they hear the term “blackface,” they’re clutching their pearls already. So maybe when they hear the term “yellowface,” maybe they’re not doing that. And that’s what she’s trying to leverage.
So, I think one of the things that you touched on is this idea- that you have to understand that that communication is going in many, many directions, not just towards white people. And saying, “Asian blackface,” as you mentioned, can be traumatic to Black people, because it’s pulling up an aspect of history that- I’m not going to say that Constance Wu doesn’t understand it. Maybe she’s an African-American Studies major? Like, I don’t know what’s going on with her, but most of the time, I think, when people are using words like “lynching,” like you’re saying, or even the term “shackles,” you see that a lot. I’m thinking about- vegans have been very well-known online for comparing the modern food production system to slavery. PETA does that kind of thing quite a bit. What you’re doing is- as you said, they’re using these terms without understanding the history.
But these are all people that are- they’re directing their communications towards non-Black people. I feel comfortable saying that, because you don’t use traumatic terms in advertising copy to your intended targeted audience. So this idea that, going back to the very beginning of our conversation, it feels like there’s a little bit of white supremacy involved in using these terms in the first place, right? It’s white supremacy in the sense that- if you’re only appealing to white people, and you’re discarding what harm it can be doing to the Black people who, even if you’re not intending to communicate with them- which is kind of fucked up in the first place- you have to understand that they still exist in the same culture that you do. And that that message is going to be taken a certain way. And that just hearing something like “lynching” offhand is not going to be pleasant for those people, regardless of whether or not you’re trying to hit them.
BH: I definitely agree with you: it’s a benign form of white supremacy. It’s like, “oh, we’re going to shock these people,” or “we’re going to use these loaded terms to motivate them to take up our cause,” whatever it might be, without considering who else that’s going to impact. Or just even considering that- again, a lot of this is predicated on the labor and the work of Black activists in the past. It doesn’t even have to be a negative connotation.
Sometimes it seems the same way when people start to invoke Martin Luther King, Jr. They invoke him for anything and everything, to lend some false sense of morality to whatever cause they’re supporting at the moment, regardless if it was in line with his actual politics. Regardless of what those policies- if they’re supporting something that’s terrible for Black people. It’s just, like, any time a Republican goes on TV and starts talking about MLK, it’s like, “no. If MLK was here today, you’d be calling him a thug. You’d be calling him all this shit, and he’d be a rabble-rouser,” or whatever.
SL: A lot of people don’t know that, towards the end of his life, he specifically said, “I’m not going to take violence off the table.” And he’s presented as this, Gandhi figure, essentially, when that really wasn’t him.
BH: Yeah, that’s the thing. If you go back and actually read the things that he wrote, or read the way that he was perceived at the time, this guy was almost public enemy number one. And it’s been so sanitized and decontextualized. And I think it just goes back to this sense of- people feel entitled to Black labor, they feel entitled to Black activism, they feel entitled to Black culture, and all of that feeds back into this sense of, one, anti-Blackness, but then it’s also often used in support of white supremacy.
You have shit like this GoFundMe for a burned down GOP office in North Carolina. Or this article this weekend that we talked about, where it’s like, “oh, this white supremacist, he saw the light, and now he’s going to do the right thing.” And then you push back against it, and people talk shit, like, “oh, this isn’t what MLK would have wanted.” One, you don’t fucking know what he would have wanted. And two, these are people who want to kill, and exterminate, anyone who isn’t white. You can’t just turn the other cheek and be, like, “oh, this is cool,” and then use Black labor to justify this passive, “oh, we gotta hear both sides” kind of thing. Like, no, that’s going to get people killed- literally get people killed, and hurt, and, just, directly harmed. It’s crazy to me.
SL: You’re talking about the piece on Derek Black, who is the son of Don Black, who founded the Stormfront website, which is the internet’s premiere destination for white supremacists. People should really read this piece; I think it’s a- it’s a super well-written piece. I was talking to someone about this, earlier. There was this amazing thread, on Twitter, that was talking about how Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” which is a boilerplate for modern storytelling, how it’s, kind of, inherently racist. Or, white supremacist, at the very least.
So, it’s interesting to me that this Washington Post piece, about Derek Black and his redemption story, from being the anointed next leader of the white supremacist movement in America, fits completely into normal storytelling conventions, and is well-written in that way, which seems to make some people think that it’s a good story, in terms of morality. You know, that if you can tell a story effectively enough, by the book, that that, all of a sudden, absolves it from moral questionability, or something.
BH: Yeah, and I agree a hundred percent. I read it- I was getting on a plane early Sunday morning, and I was like, “oh, this looks interesting, I’ll read it.” And I couldn’t put it down. It was such a well-written article, but like you said, it fits the Hero’s Journey archetype, almost one to one, if you break it down. And then people want to see this, kind of, redemption narrative, and see it as, like, “this is proof that deep down inside that everyone’s good, and if we just keep trying,” and it’s like, “no.”
You have to look at this contextually, and think about, like you said, the narratives that we’re placing. I saw that same thread on the Hero’s Journey. It’s a very colonizing sort of narrative, where this person, ostensibly white, goes out into the world, and claims all these things, and then comes back to wherever they came from.
It’s reflected in that story about Derek Black, and I’m thinking, “why are people so hungry to believe- to just kind of hand-wave this guy’s role?” He wasn’t just a passive kind of guy. It wasn’t just, like, he didn’t do anything, or it was foisted upon him. Like, he was born into it, but he accepted it, and then he, kind of, made a choice to move away, but-
SL: Well, as a young man, the story makes it seem like he almost singlehandedly popularized the term “white genocide,” which is something that I see on a daily basis. Which is something that they put onto pictures of Black bodies hanging from trees, with that meme font. Popularizing that term is a fucking act of violence.
BH: Yeah. And the way they frame it, I guess, you know, people expect white supremacists, or neo-Nazis, to be some skinhead, tatted- like, the guys from Breaking Bad. Some yokels with tattoos up their fuckin’ neck, and whatever. And, it’s like, “no, this is what it looks like.” Some kind of clean-cut, maybe kind of scruffy-looking white kid, who, like you said, popularized these terms.
He created a Stormfront website for kids; was going out, giving speeches, all this other stuff. It’s not like these are some aberrants, or deviants, out in the world, hiding in a shack, in fucking West Virginia. These are people who live, probably, down the street from you, or in your city. If you live in a bigger city, there’s definitely some there. They’re cultured, they speak well, they’re very polite, but they’re also very dedicated to making sure that people like you and me do not exist.
SL: Yeah. And I want to say, kind of, as a last word on that article: I’m a little uncomfortable making the people at the- so, there are people of color, and people of different faiths, at this dinner, that are, kind of, portrayed as changing this kid’s mind, just by hanging out with him every week, for a little while, or for a bit. And, I don’t know, it makes me deeply uncomfortable to think that Dylann Roof sat through a two-hour sermon, and then did what he did. I mean-
BH: It’s an exact parallel. He could’ve done something like that. And it’s weird- not just weird, it’s repellant- to me, that people would look at that, and be, like, “oh, well the answer is for people of color to just welcome these violent, hateful people into your homes, into your hearts, and just hope that they don’t bring a gun with them.”
SL: Right. I’m sure we have a lot more to say about it. But as you mentioned, this North Carolina GOP firebombing, and- I’m not sure we provided context on that, but a number of, kind of, well-known-on-the-internet liberal figures raised $10,000 in 40 minutes, to give to the North Carolina GOP, to help repair the building that was damaged by firebombing, for which there are no suspects currently, despite what Donald Trump says, about how pro-Hillary “animals” did this. Which, he means, “Black people.” Let’s just say that.
But, that story, this idea, of donating money and cloaking in it the Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high,” kind of thing. I mean, there are so many angles from which to look at this, but I think, germane to our conversation, it is a lot like this narrative that “just being nice to bigots” is somehow going to work.
But, it also- going back to the Constance Wu thing, the “Asian blackface” thing- I don’t think the people who donated understood the communicational directions. I think they were signaling morality to other white people, but I don’t think they thought about things like the recent finding that the North Carolina GOP were attempting to disenfranchise Black voters with “surgical precision,” and also the revocation of some LGBT protections in the state; obviously, this is the state of HB2, which is the anti-trans bathroom bill stuff.
I would not be surprised if- and maybe this is being too nice to them, too generous to them- but I would be surprised if any of these people who donated even thought about what kind of signal it was sending to the people affected and oppressed by the North Carolina GOP.
BH: I think it’s exactly what you said. You know, the vast majority of politics in America is about signaling to other white people that one party or the other has their interests at heart. And, especially for Democrats in this country- they want to signal that they are the morally superior party. They are taking the high road, you know, this whole Michelle Obama thing.
But yeah, like you said, if anyone sat down, and thought about it for two seconds, you would see how crazy this is. I mean, you’re donating money to a party, in a state, where all of these things- HB2, the voter disenfranchisement. The Governor of North Carolina is, just, a prick. All of that, and then on top of it, a vast portion of North Carolina is still underwater from Hurricane Matthew, in predominantly Black neighborhoods. And the Governor has said that they will refuse to extend the voting deadline for voter registration because, “it’s just a way for Democrats to take advantage of a national disaster.”
And so, it’s like- I could not believe it. I really thought, “this has to be a joke.” But it’s about posturing. It’s about making yourself look good to other white people. It’s, like, “we’ll cover you if something bad happens, no matter your ideology,” which is like, so really, the perception, or the feeling, of other white people is more important than the tangible harm that has been done to people of color, to LGBTQ people, poor people. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that white people think the Democrats are “the nice ones.”
I saw a few people, who are actually from North Carolina, tweeting about this. They talked to some of these more prominent people who are doing some of the fundraising, and they were saying, like, “look, I’m Black, I’m from North Carolina. This directly supports a party that harms me.” And it’s just- it’s so weird to watch that play out, in real-time. It’s not even surprising; it’s just, really, the phrase that comes to mind for me is, “people tell on themselves,” in moments like these. And it just shows you how prevalent, how deeply rooted, white supremacy is. You’re not thinking about anything beyond how to make other white people- how to gain their support. How to keep their allegiance, at the cost of everybody else.
SL: Yeah, absolutely. So, as a last word here- well, I’ll give you the last word, but for my last word: obviously we’re not going to encapsulate the whole idea of anti-Blackness in one podcast episode. We’re certainly not going to solve it. But we, kind of, went from every angle. There are very active ways of carrying and perpetuating anti-Blackness. I think what we’re talking about more towards the end of this conversation is the way that anti-Blackness is more “passive,” because it is part of the underlying context of a lot of communication and relationship in this country.
The idea that you can just do this thing, give this money to this organization, without even- like, there are very few consequences for not having Black people or queer people even come to mind when you make decisions like this. Nobody’s going to lose their job because they donated to the North Carolina GOP. So in a way- I was going to say, “in a way, that’s more terrifying,” but, obviously, both ways are terrifying. But, I think the lesson, for someone like me, especially if I’m involved in talking about social issues from a non-Black person of color’s point of view, is to know that I don’t need to be burning crosses in people’s yards, to be anti-Black.
I can be anti-Black by using the wrong word choice. By standing behind the wrong things. Like, by standing behind Peter Liang or Daniel Holtzclaw. So, it’s really important to realize, I think, as non-Black people of color, that while we have a responsibility to say what we need to say, because we can’t assume that anyone else is going to do it for us, that we have to understand these intersections- when I say intersections, I mean that Black-Asian people, Blasian people, do exist, but also the people who are strictly non-Black people of color, to understand that your activism can’t harm. Solidarity is about standing together, but in actual practice, it’s much more about avoiding harm.
BH: Yeah. I think avoiding harm is a good way to put it, and I think also, something that I would emphasize is accountability. I think this idea of “solidarity” comes up a lot, but to really have solidarity with a community, it involves not talking over them, not perpetuating harm against them. And me, as a straight, cisgender, heterosexual Black guy, I experience oppression from one axis, but I don’t know anything about what it’s like to be trans, to be gay, to be a woman. And, so, that’s often the way that I put it in perspective, for myself.
I consider myself to be an ally to women, I believe in feminism, things like that. But no matter how good my intentions are, no matter how much I want to stand with them, that doesn’t mean shit if I’m perpetuating harm against them. And it doesn’t have to be something as bad as, like, abusing a woman, or doing violence against women, or doing violence against someone who’s gay, or trans, or whatever. It could be something as simple as the words that I choose to use. Or the way that I do, or don’t, address my own implicit biases about any of those groups.
And I think things are progressing, as far as a larger solidarity conversation. I don’t know. I look at a very small corner of Twitter, so I feel like things are kind of progressing. I know I’ve learned a shit-ton in the, I guess two- I’ve only really been active on Twitter for two years. I’ve been on there for four, but I’ve only been active for two. And it does seem like, generally, people are learning a lot.
And it’s always really encouraging to me to see young kids, people like teenagers, and they’re in their twenties now. They’re, like, light years ahead of where I was, when I was that age, as far as having an awareness of these things, and understanding the intersections, and living what they profess to believe. So that’s really encouraging. But there’s definitely always more work to be done. Like you said, there’s always these frustrations, and there’s always this idea of, like, who are you actually trying to communicate with, and how does that align with the things you say you believe, I think is something that probably doesn’t get enough consideration.
SL: Well, man. This was an amazing conversation, as always. I’ve talked to you off-air a couple of times, and you’re, just, I don’t know, you’re one of my favorite people to talk to.
BH: I’m flattered.
SL: No, absolutely. So, anything else? Before we, kind of, wrap up here?
BH: Nah, I think we covered a ton, man. I think we, like you said, we kind of came at it from all angles and not just, white supremacy as it pertains to- or anti-Blackness as it pertains to white people, but across people of color, communities of color, so I think it was really a great conversation.
SL: Fantastic. So, besides following you on Twitter, is there anywhere else people can, kind of, you know, take a look at what you’re writing, and that kind of thing?
BH: It’s just Twitter right now. I don’t have a lot of stuff out there but I do link, you know, when I have stuff that gets published. But, yeah, pretty much just Twitter. And, yeah, I’m always- not always happy- to talk with people, but as long as you’re polite about it, I’m always happy to dialogue with people and, kind of, discuss these kinds of issues.
SL: Yeah, follow Bernard on Twitter. It’s @bernardhayman. You can follow us on Twitter- I guess, just me on Twitter, @NoTotally. We’re at facebook.com/nototally. And if you shop on Amazon, what you could do is go to nototally.com/amazon; that will redirect you to the front page of Amazon with our affiliate code already applied. It does not cost you any extra; just shop as normal, and Amazon will give us a few pennies for each purchase that you make, in that fashion.
So, yeah, Bernard Hayman, once again. Love talking to you, and thank you so much for being on, man.
BH: Yeah, thanks for having me.