“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” ― Benjamin Franklin
“But the issue of sexual harassment is not the end of it. There are other issues – political issues, gender issues – that people need to be educated about.” ―Anita Hill
As a result of new technologies and perceived profitability, we can now watch black-and-white movie classics in color. While the tinted images we are offered may be more palatable to the modern viewer, we are still watching the same old movie that was offered to us before. Movie colorization adds little of substance–its contributions remain cosmetic. … Rather than seeing [girls] of color as fully human individuals, [they] are treated as the additive sum of [their] categories.” ― Patricia Hill Collins, On Intellectual Activism
And Justice for Adolescent Black Girls
When I was in high school back in 1979, I imagined and began to deeply desire becoming a lawyer. I think for my adolescent self it was about a need for control that most children–adolescents and teens–don’t have because of their position in society, because of age. Wanting to be a lawyer also fueled a desire for protection from harm that I saw was missing in the lives of children in their own homes, including my own.
My desire to become a lawyer was threatened off by a major motion picture in 1979. It was my senior year. The year hip-hop went mainstream with “Rappers’ Delight” and “The Message” both on Sugarhill Records. The feeling I had as I exited the movie theater scared me off completely. Corruption would break me. No justice? No inner peace!
This morning I decided to watch a clip of the final scene from “And Justice for All” starring A list actor Al Pacino (post Serpico fame) and tears welled up in my eyes. The scene dramatically exposed confronting the corruption in a U.S. legal system. I saw that film over 30 years ago and my deep passionate desire for protecting children–especially girls–from harm persists. Now I’m standing for the ethics around studying human subjects in the complicated public spaces of YouTube. And it’s all a remnant of that teenage desire I tried to run from. When I left the theater, I left that dream and my voice behind. A hidden sacrifice I never shared with anyone.
Then, as a singer in my first year of college, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was afraid to express myself publicly. That fear haunted me for 20 years. My diary was violated during my late adolescence and again in grad school. My private thoughts were always intruded upon. Sometimes I think I’m better from blogging and that even the publicly personal style of vlogging brings a kind of safe, constructed intimacy that gives me a sense of control I never had in other situations as an adolescent. Even though I have pronounced all kinds of truths and partial knowledge in front of a classroom before hundreds of strangers who became familiar faces and sometimes friends, something about truth-telling to myself is missing. It has everything to do with being “black” and “female” in the body I was gifted on this ride around the Sun.
Lately, the hegemony of corruption and the lack of concern for the ethical and humane treatment of black people and black girls threatens to rear the head of my silence again. Seeing black people as fully human, as fully enfranchised citizens protesting their unjust treatment, and as expressive beings finding solace in a moment of dance and pleasure like in the twerking videos I code and analyze, seems so foreign to others, to far too many. It frightens me in complicated ways and I am frightened or at least concerned for the girls I wish to impact with my work. Look, I initially didn’t want to study twerking. I had adopted a pornographic lens about it at first that triggered all the usual respectability politics often heard around black girls’ sexuality or actual eroticism in the pleasure of loving to dance. Things have changed.
Yet, that deep-seeded fear still keeps me from stepping out in the limelight with my publishing and my voice. It hides itself from me, it seems, ever elusive when I set out to write an article in which I intend to speak my truth to the power within me and to authorities and listeners out there. Remember, Al Pacino’s character nearly went mad confronting his voice and deep-seeded passion for justice. And I am a sucker for a subjective, romantic narrative that says you can never win. SMH. In the end, as I prefer to tell myself when the fear has me, he ruined his own career because of his truths. I quickly learned back then, or I decided is more accurate, that the moral of the film was that you can never win…and therefore, law was not for me. Wish some guidance counselor at my public high school could have told me there are many types of lawyers. Intellectual property would have been a nice choice for me. lol Hindsight speaks. #20-20
Now I am realizing something invaluable: Madness may not be a choice. You can either go mad hiding or you can use the madness to fight injustice. Either way it seems madness will be close at hand. We humans are always on the verge of it and it’s not because black people are angry thugs or thots (them hoes over there).
Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:
– I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
– I shall fear only God.
– I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
– I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
– I shall conquer untruth by truth. And in resisting untruth,
I shall put up with all suffering.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
I had no memory that the film “And Justice for All” was set in Baltimore. I grew up and went to high school in Rockville, Maryland, just outside D.C. and 40 minutes outside of Baltimore. My grandfather loved to get lost on purpose whenever we took a trip Baltimore. It was his way of discovering new neighborhoods or maybe seeing how other blacks were faring in our home state. Haven’t been to Baltimore much since my senior year in 1979. Perhaps I should watch this film again given all that’s happening today given that Baltimore’s protest has replaced Ferguson’s along with the distortions and censors of today’s short-sighted news reporting cycles. I saw people complaining about man-on-the-street interviews being censored and interrupted mid-stream on CNN.
While watching clips from “And Justice for all” on YouTube I also noticed its all-white cast and seemingly color-blind portrayals of the roles within the criminal court system — defendants, complaintants, witnesses, power hungry prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, juries, and crooked judges. It all somehow still spoke to the same issues of blackness, wealth inequality, patriarchy, and sexuality and its accompanying bullying and abuse we see today. The same issues but with people of color filling the screens are all at work in Baltimore today. What I didn’t remember was how Pacino’s character defends a transgender client which I could connect to the fact that the #blacklivesmatter hashtag began as a reaction to the mistreatment and killing of transgender black females. Characters in the film went mad left and right and so are citizens in Baltimore and Ferguson and in transgender black networks. Madness turned within is as destructive as that seen in the rioting.
Society needs protection from such harm and lawyers are a last resort. It begins with planning, organization and even the kind of CSI work I do with my students to figure out what’s actually going on with black girls who twerk on YouTube as far as the digital consequences and meanings of all the players in action there. Think about users, subscribers, viewers, commenters, the people who design the built environment and spaces of YouTube, media players like VEVO who distribute the content black girls who twerk dance to, and more.
Don’t know why these two disparate yet related expressions are coming to mind: “Give me your tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free” and, “Power to People! Power to Black People! Power to All people and to the land!” If I remember it correctly, that’s the chant of the Black Panther Party movement in the stand and message to us all for sovereignty. They were, as too few know, shut down by COINTELPRO. Their history of community progress and development was distorted and misrepresented by the FBI and mass news media.Generations of youth today still fear the black planet the news characterized about them. I had a student tell me he had no idea they were feeding hungry children and providing health care and that the average age of many in the BPP were 14-18, according to Ericka Huggins (listen).
Without doing the critical study for themselves, students today continue to be miseducated. How can you learn anything critical on top of such distortions about our history in the US? But history is not self-perpetuating. And America’s history is messy and complicated like the courtroom scenes and the out of courtroom drama’s in And Justice for All (1979).
Respect, Beneficence, and Justice: Human Subject Research
This blog post came about because I was making a YouTube vlog earlier in the day based on comments from students in my anthro sections on ethics. They all took human subject research training and were certified in basic concepts related to protecting the subjects in our study (black girls ages 13-16 and younger) from harm. I was so moved by the matter-of-fact-ness of their embrace of three principles of The Belmont Report on studying human subjects that this blog is the result. The report insists on three principles that even I didn’t learn in grad school, to be honest. I never had an ethics training during my PhD. Can you believe it? Some of my actions in the past belie this reality.
It’s ironic that the same year I saw Al Pacino’s film, the same year I graduated from high school and the same year rap music went mainstream, The Belmont Report (1979) was released. It is a concise reliable summary and guide for researchers of human subjects which insists on:
– RESPECT for persons and their autonomy and the respect of those with limited autonomy (i.e., girls and boys under 13 on YouTube, the homeless, transgender folk, sex workers, etc.)
– BENEFICENCE meaning to maximize benefits and minimize risks of harm to subjects (i.e., studying children is a good example of measuring risk of studying their videos in the interest of their future benefit)
– JUSTICE or the fair distribution of the benefits and distributions of research; to each person an individual share, to each person according to individual need, to each person according to individual effort, to each person according to societal contribution and to each person according to merit.
The report mentioned the non-consensual treatment or infection of black men with Syphillis. There are a great deal of non-consensual acts happening to girls under 13 on YouTube that I hope to confront with my work. Consent offline matters and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act matters, too!
Voicing Ethics in the Bottomlines Project
After students were certified in these basic tenets of conducting human research, I asked them what they learned and their comments were so insightful.
One student wrote: “It took me 5 hours to complete this training and every step of the way I realized that what i considered public and normal in Youtube can also be harmful and a violation of privacy to the subject.”
Another wrote: “It seems like it would be very easy to violate someone’s privacy if you didn’t know the restrictions and ways to prevent this. Privacy is one of the most sacred things to a person and it would be a shame to violate it on purpose or even by accident.”
Yet another wrote: “When we code YouTube videos of teenage girls twerking, we have to treat them with respect while we do a digital ethnography that includes their videos, whatever their motive for putting the video on the internet was.”
These codes of ethical conduct matter not only in research but in life. The grandfather of Al Pacino’s character (Arthur) played by Lee Strasberg in the film says to his grandson, “If you’re not honest, you’re nothing.” #RESPECT!
I am still learning what is it to be honest to what you spirit calls for you do to and to be true to setting yourself up to win. I didn’t take life’s lessons and I thought it would just all work out. Life doesn’t really work that way. It’s part dream and part work and action. #followyourinnervoice and have a plan of execution. Just uploading any old video online can have severe costs later.
You never have a second chance at a first impression!
While making my vlog of students’ comments, one of my students sent me an email at midnight. This student was struggling to recover from a recent sexual abuse incident with a family member. What a horrible thing to be happening during the last 2 weeks of the semester. This left me with a question:
What kind of spaces are we creating for our children that will continue to impact their adult lives and futures? This is why I do what I do around twerking videos. Not because twerking is wrong. It is not. It’s dance. It’s art. It’s erotic expression. I do it because how others perceive what you do, their first impressions, were set long before more of these black girls were ever born. The persistence of racism and sexism in our mediated communication and interactions on- and off-line
Sexual assault and issues of consent or lack there of can shape you and break you. Yet, each of us harmed by such events must still learn how to find our own voice, become an adult, reclaim old desires left behind from fear, and stand up for our SELF when others whom you expect to don’t.
So much about patriarchy and about rites around girls and women in families are norms gone wrong. They are in need of deep societal, familial and community caring-frontation and change. This student’s email reflected how they blamed themselves for not being able to finish their work under such extreme circumstances. Yeah, it’s always you’re fault. Don’t expect any compassion these days.
They wrote to me: “I know there will be penalties for not turning work in on time…”.
This kind of twisted analysis stems from the personalization of blame that haunts American culture and society. It limits our ability to adapt to our greatness by simply making a request under the circumstances without shame or deep explanation. For instance:
“Dear Professor, I had a serious personal issue happen around the assault I mentioned earlier where I missed class. Can I request an extension on my work?”
If they say no, then there’s work to do. While this student has generally kept up with work and is known from their class participation, they have also hugged the wall just near the door and, in hindsight, avoided conversations that infer sexual exploitation of the girls we are studying on YouTube. We are human and we are affected by what we study in ethnographic inquiry.
In response, I invited the student to realize that there are no “penalties” and that students are not “on trial” in my classroom. Yes, there are costs for not turning in work but they are actually beneficial costs (beneficence) not penalties (losses or risks of harm). Such constraints inspire and agitate us to stay on track in coursework.
Maybe we all need to learn more about ethical standards of human interaction so we don’t get the penalties twisted up with the benefits of boundaries and limitations which most adolescents resist with everything in them.
Without a voice, there is no respect, beneficence and justice and that goes for all those in Baltimore and those in my classroom in NYC. And I must remind me.
OUTRO: I’m Angela Davis, I ain’t shakin my buns
Ima let Rah Digga of Newark take us out on this one rapping on the song “Angela Davis.”
I added these lyrics to Rap Genius cuz 1) not a lot of women contribute to the crowd-sourced lyrics and annotations there it seems and 2) no one had put these great lyrics up before. They needed to be there because Rah Digga is a badass and so was and is Angela Davis still!
We need more black female contributors to the participatory culture of Rap Genius, Wikipedia and YouTube. More girls making their own beats to dance to and more criticism of the music they want to get from artists they love! Girls and women run the fan videomaking culture on YouTube!! But the politics of the market never work for them.
I’m Angela Davis, I ain’t shaking my buns
I’m yelling power to the people and waving ’em guns
I be pumping dat fist, I ain’t running some shit
It ain’t too many o’ you broads got the stomach for dis!