Tag: White

Words That Black People Invented, But White People Killed

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and black culture — the coopting of traditionally black: hairstyles, fashion, and music. But perhaps it’s time to take a step back and revisit what might be the most appropriated aspect of black culture — black slang.

From “the bomb” to “holla” to the very short-lived “YOLO,” black slang words often go through the cycle of being used by black people, discovered by white people, and then effectively “killed” due to overuse and a general lack of understanding of how to use these words. Often, the origin of these words aren’t even acknowledged — “twerk,” had literally been around for over a decade before Miley Cyrus brought it to the mainstream (ie. white people).

The politics of black slang are tricky. Black slang and AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) have long been considered inferior to so-called “standard” English, and the black people who use it seen as uneducated or unintelligent (forcing many to master the art of code-switching). So when suddenly words and phrases that have strong ties to the black community are adopted and warped by non-black people, it can cause some of us to feel indignant, even insulted.

A case can be made that these words entering the mainstream is ultimately a good thing. It can be viewed as a melding of ideas and worlds, proof that the English language is always changing, and evidence that black people and black culture are becoming more largely accepted. And anyway, don’t black people use “white” slang words, too? Like awesome, and rad, and totes (not really)? But another case could be made that we live in a society that loves black culture — but doesn’t like black people all too much — and what might look like acceptance is just downright thievery.

Listen. The idea here isn’t necessarily to say that white people shouldn’t use certain black slang (although by now we should all be clear on the N-word debate). There’s a trickle down effect with anything that is cool, hip, and happening, so it makes sense why these words and phrases eventually reach the mainstream and become part of a larger, mixed lexicon — take YOLO and “hot mess” being added to the OED, for example.

But the issue is how the etymology of these words gets lost in the sauce. There have been white people who’ve taken issue with the black slang word “salty” (meaning angry, pissed off) for being derogatory against mentally ill people, which is blatantly untrue. A lot of this kind of confusion and misinformation abounds, leading white and non-black people to use some of the more offensive terms in the black lexicon.

As a general rule, if you have to ask whether or not it’s OK to use a word, if there’s any hesitation, then don’t. But also, we should all be aware of where these words come from and what they mean without attributing arbitrary definitions to them.

So in keeping with that idea, below are some words and phrases that found their roots in AAVE before being coopted by white people. Rest in peace. Gone, but not forgotten.



Bae is an abbreviation of the word “babe,” and basically means a significant other. While its exact origins are unclear (as is the case of many of the words on this list), it became popular on Black Twitter and Instagram as early as 2013 in the form of the hashtags #baecaughtmesleepin and #cookingforbae, among others. It eventually made its way firmly in to the mainstream after Pharrell released the song “Come Get It Bae” and Time magazine wrote an article about it, and several Urbandictionary entries  have erroneously defined it as an acronym for “Before Anyone Else.” Its popularity petered out quickly because white people eventually found it obnoxious (after using it do death). One Buzzfeed article suggested people should stop using the word because “bae is actually the Danish word for ‘poop, crap, feces.'” Welp.

Trap/Trap Queen


The “trap” and “trap queen/king” have been used for years, but became popular once Fetty Wap’s super catchy song “Trap Queen” started playing on mainstream radio this summer. Now there are white girls out in these streets calling themselves trap queens. White crooners like Ed Sheeran did an acoustic cover of the song. Mr. Wap himself performed it on stage with Taylor Swift. Blake Griffin had to break down what a trap queen (the ride-or-die girlfriend of a drug dealer) is in an interview. And then the above video got made. There’s nothing left to say. Trap Queen is dead. Long live Trap Queen.



Ratchet is one of those words, like ghetto, that white people tend to use to describe anything and everything — but especially things that aren’t even ratchet or ghetto (“Oh my god, my broken iPhone screen is totally ratchet!”). It’s a classist term for sure, but some white people seem to use it as shorthand for “black,” (as evident in the tone-deaf and wack Lil Debbie video above). That’s not OK. It’s kinda like “diet-n**ga,” as Hannibal Burress once said. Maybe don’t.

Squad, #SquadGoals


At some point this summer, Taylor Swift and her revolving door of bffs became synonymous with the idea of the squad. That’s fine, that’s great — it’s ultimately a pretty empowering idea that many women are using as a way to define solidarity. But gee, there sure are a lot of articlesexplaining what #squadgoals  are without once acknowledging that “squad” is a black slang word and was originally tied to black solidarity — par for the course when it comes to the appropriation of AAVE.



Let it be known: Mariska Hargitay is a goddess who can do no wrong, but this Instagram post from a couple months ago is just too good an example of how #peakwhiteness can cause even the best to hilariously misuse a black slang. To be fair, though, “fleek” is probably the worst word on this list, no one ever really knew what it meant, and nobody really misses it. Enjoy, white people.

Twerk/Nae Nae/All Black Dances Ever

Both “twerk” and more recently “nae nae” were taken over as soon as they became popularized after the release of the hit song “Watch Me” by Silento. Miley Cyrus was credited with discovering twerking, even though the song “Whistle While You Twerk” by the Ying Yang Twins came out in 2000, and there have been amazing twerk teams concentrated in Atlanta for years. Now, much like twerking, a persusal of the “whip and nae nae” dance on Youtube will bring up literally thousands of white people doing the dance with varying levels of uncoordination. The kids above are definitely doing it wrong, but they’re also adorable, so it’s OK. (NOT!)

Yassss/Yas Queen 


One of the highlights of the last season of Broad City was the moment Ilana’s babysitting charge shouts “Yasss queen!” as she exits the scene. It’s also the moment many black people knew that “yassss queen” was done. Of course, “yassss” has been around for a while — Nicki Minaj even did a song called “Yass Bitch” with Soulja Boy. Above, she gives a rather refreshing definition of the word (or rather the pronunciation of the word), acknowledging that its roots are actually in the LGBT and drag communities (especially in the Atlanta gay scene). More on that later.

Bye Felicia


Vh1 actually had a show debut last year featuring two sassy black women teaching (mostly white women) how to be sassy, too. The show’s title: “Bye Felicia!” This two word phrase has had a whirlwhind couple of years (coming full circle in a controversial scene in the new “Straight Outta Compton” movie). What’s amazing though is that over the last year or so, so many white people and non-black people have used it (as a sassy dismissal) without actually knowing where it’s from: a brief scene (above) in the iconic 1995 black comedy, “Friday.”



The word basic is now associated with pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots. Words change, and amidst the myriad think pieces and “In Defense of Basic” articles that emerged last year, this particular word changed so fast that most people, including black people, forgot that the original meaning of “basic” was something more akin to, as writer Jesssa Barron aptly describes, “someone unsophisticated, extremely average, and still buys club dresses at Rainbow.”

Turn Up

In January 2010, the Atlanta rap group Travis Porter released the song “All the Way Turnt Up,” generally considered to be the first instance that the phrase “turn up!” was used. Above is the exact moment that “turn up” and “the function” passed away, thanks to those arbiters of black cool, Miley Cyrus and Macklemore.

No Shade

To be fair, we all get the side-eye for effectively commandeering this phrase and other terminology commonly used amongst black and Latino people in the LGBT community. It’s actually kind of amazing that “shade” was a question on an episode of Jeopardy, but it’s also a little unfortunate that many people’s first introduction to black gay slang (if they haven’t seen “Paris Is Burning”) is through shows like “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” where LGBT people are mostly tokenized. But “throwing shade,” “no tea, no shade,” “hunty,” and other words are now being used with wild abandon by mostly white women who don’t get it. “Yassss hunty you better read the tea the house down for the gawds no shade!”

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*Article originally published on Huffington Post

15 Stupid Things White People Do and What They Could Do Instead

  1. Call an African-American “articulate.” This sounds like “articulate-ness” is something unusual in a person of color. Because of a long history of oppression, degradation and dismissal of our talent & skills, this statement can be misconstrued.
  2. Say “one of my best friends is [Black, Latino, etc.]” Oh really?! Do you know where they person shop for groceries? Where they go to church? Where they get their hair done? What their children’s/granchildren’s names are? Have you ever been to their home? These are the things you know about a ‘real’ friend. If you have so many minority friends, you should be able to sympathize with them instead of announcing your friendship with them.
  3. Say that the success of [Oprah, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, etc.] shows that there’s no more racism, or it isn’t that bad anymore. The real question is: How many more people like Oprah would there be if there was actual equality in this country? If you really think about it, most people can only name a handful of African American millionaires (who don’t play ball or sing/rap). Why is this? If we are nearly 13% of the US population, there should be far more successful African Americans than just a handful.
  4. Say that if anyone works hard they will get ahead. The USA really isn’t a meritocracy. A lot of people who are working hard do not get ahead in this country. And that’s regardless of color; it just happens to negatively impact African Americans even more. Besides, how can we really get “ahead” when White people have already had a head start in life?
  5. Say that it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was, it matters what Jesus did, while insisting that pictures of him must be White.  Then why don’t we just make him Black instead with brown hair & brown eyes?
  6. Say that if we could just all be friends, everything would be all right. Instead: Consider that friendships are nice but they are not a substitute for equality and justice.
  7. Say that you need a safe space to talk about race. Instead: Consider why you feel there is a danger zone and why. Not only that, what can you do to provide a safe space to talk about it.
  8. Say that you “don’t see color.” Instead: Consider that saying this is not a compliment because the implication is that having color is a diminishment. Are you trying to bestow some kind of “honorary whiteness” on a person of color? They don’t want it. Besides, if you don’t see it then why discuss it?
  9. Say that we should just trust and respect each other. Instead: Why isn’t every White person rich or successful like Donald Trump or Bill Gates? Ask yourself why you didn’t invent the atom bomb. Every culture has its exceptional individuals. But most of us are pretty ordinary.
  10. Say things like, “Look at [Condoleezza Rice, Ben Carson, Colin Powell]. Why can’t other people of color get ahead?” Instead: Consider whether that isn’t a part of any genuine relationship and why it needs to be highlighted in this instance. Who broke and continues to break that trust? Respect has to be earned. And with all the police brutality that’s going on AIMED at African American young males, it’s not hard to figure out why most Blacks don’t trust Whites.
  11. Lecture African Americans & other people of color on how they need to let go of the past. Instead:  Acknowledge that racism is here in the present.  Whites still benefit from white privilege; people of color are still oppressed by racist institutions. Asking people of color to let go of the past history of racial injustice in this country is actually to ask them to deny the present reality that such injustice still occurs.
  12. Excuse yourself from responsibility for racism because you weren’t born yet when people were enslaved. Instead:  Recognize that every white person alive today benefits from white privilege, right here, right now, in the 21st century.  You may not be responsible for enslavement in the past, but that doesn’t change your responsibility for how you knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate racism today. After all, don’t White people still make more money on the dollar compared to just about every other ethnic group?
  13. Believe that racism is a thing of the past. Instead:  see above
  14. Insist that you can only understand racism if a person of color explains it. Instead: Look around, do some research of your own, talk to white allies.  There are books, films, organizations, and websites to learn from.  (See resources list.) Racism itself is a burden to people of color; it is an additional burden to have to constantly explain racism to whites, which often includes having to justify or defend their views and experiences in the face of hostility.
  15. Insist that people of color should look at your intent and not the impact of what you do/support/deny because of your “good intentions.” Instead:   If intent is the only measure of your work towards racial justice, then the only benefit of that work is that you feel better about yourself by doing it.  On the other hand, if the impact is a measure, then there is accountability to how your work actually advances the goal of racial justice, which benefits everyone.















*Article taken from Baltimore Anti-Racist.

I Don’t Have The ‘Luxury’ Of Being Racist

“To benefit from oppression is to be responsible for changing it” – Jim Wallis


With everything that’s going on right now – a White woman passing for Black & lying about it, 9 innocent African Americans killed JUST because of the color of their skin, White judges using the N-word at their place of work – reinforces to me that racism is alive & kickin’. My problem is that there is only 1 group of people that are allowed to be racist: White people. People of color don’t get the luxury of being racist.

I don’t need to recount our US history – it’s a widely known fact that African Americans have been discriminated against far beyond their years of slavery. Everything from voting rights to jobs to justice have been withheld from us for decades upon decades. It’s no secret that White people have used their power & influence to suppress anyone who doesn’t look like or sound like them. From rejecting resumes with “unique” sounding names (Oh, I had a few things to say about that) to shutting down polling locations & hours to restrict the minority vote, to racist monikers of our nation’s President, racism is all around.


And don’t even get me started on all of the young Black men who have been murdered at the hands of White people in a position of power without any repercussions (Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and the list goes on & on….) How can anyone with common sense honestly think that racism doesn’t exist in this country?! For me, there is a constant reminder that racism has the ability to affect my income, how I am treated in the store or even just my right to walk down the street.

But I don’t get the benefit of being racist nor does any other person of color. You see, I can’t choose to not engage with someone because of the color of their skin, or reject their resume/phone calls because they have a ‘White-sounding’ name. I don’t have the benefit of generational wealth or legacy due to the free labor my ancestors were able to profit from. I don’t get to open fire on a little White boy walking down the street wearing Polo shirts because he looks “suspect” and not expect to go to prison. I don’t get to sell drugs and expect a lesser sentence because I was selling crack & not cocaine. I don’t get to use racial slurs at work & keep my job. I also don’t get to go to college & make more money than someone else who has the exact same qualifications than I do because of the color of my skin. It just doesn’t work that way. I DON’T HAVE THE LUXURY OF BEING RACIST. And really, no one should.

White people need to stand up AGAINST racism. The more that African Americans are affected, the more it affects everyone else.


Thoughts? Comments? Fire at me in the comments section below –

Sometimes I Don’t Want To Be White Either

In light of all the racism that’s going on – from a White woman pretending to be Black to 9 African Americans being slaughtered by a White gunman – it’s a tough week to be Black. It seems like every week, some race-related crime is taking place in the United States, followed by either 24-hour media coverage or large but peaceful protests.

When is the last time you’ve heard of an African American shooting a White person BECAUSE they were White?  You haven’t. That’s because there is something in this country called white privilege. And it’s real – VERY REAL. When we commit a crime (or even when we don’t – like in the case of Walter Scott & Freddie Gray), Black people are gunned down & killed without a trial or a chance to explain themselves. But when a White person massacres, they are left alive, taken into custody & given a fair chance under the law to present their case even if they don’t really have one (like James Holmes & Dylann Roof). Why are their lives spared? Why are they peacefully taken into custody, but African Americans aren’t? It just goes to show how unfair things really are in this country.

Below is a good article about White privilege. Read it & let me know what you think –

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Rachel Dolezal is a fascinating case study in White racial identity development.* She is stuck in the immersion/emersion stage, in which White people, having learned extensively about the realities of racism, and the ugly history of White supremacy in the U.S., “immerse” themselves in trying to figure out how to be White in our society, and “emerge” with a new relationship to Whiteness. Only in the case of Dolezal, her way of dealing with the pain of the reality of racism, was to deny her own Whiteness and to become Black.

She is an extreme example of a common phenomenon. The “immersion” stage is typified by White people taking more responsibility for racism and privilege and often experiencing high levels of anger and embarrassment for racism and privilege, which they sometimes direct towards other Whites. They sometimes try to immerse themselves in communities of color, as Dolezal did. She’s not alone.

I definitely experienced this. There was a time in my 20s when everything I learned about the history of racism made me hate myself, my Whiteness, my ancestors… and my descendants. I remember deciding that I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically.

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If I was going to pass on my privilege, I wanted to pass it on to someone who doesn’t have racial privilege; so I planned to adopt. I disliked my Whiteness, but I disliked the Whiteness of other White people more. I felt like the way to really end racism was to feel guilty for it, and to make other White people feel guilty for it too. And then, like Dolezal, I wanted to take on Africanness. Living in South Africa during my junior year abroad, I lived with a Black family, wore my hair in head wraps, shaved my head. I didn’t want to be White, but if I had to be, I wanted to be White in a way that was different from other White people I knew. I wanted to be a special, different White person. The one and only. How very White of me…

Beverly Daniel Tatum has written that White people don’t choose to identify as White because the categories to choose from are loaded from the start. Traditionally, one can identify as a colorblind White person, a racist White person or an ignorant White person: those are the three ways White people get talked about as White. If those are the options, who would choose to identify as White? And so White people identify as “normal” and “Irish” and “just American” and do not self-identify racially. And that leaves us with a society in which only people of color have a race, where only people of color seem to be responsible for racialized problems. It makes it hard for all of us to know and tell our racial stories — because White people think we don’t have any. And it makes it hard for us to own our history, because we don’t see it as ours.

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Many White people also feel like we don’t have culture, and this isn’t a coincidence.

Throughout the 20th century, countless immigrant groups abandoned the artifacts of cultures that racialized them as immigrants (language, religion, food, styles of speaking, gesticulations, family structures, traditions, etc.) in order to become White. And this was not just a matter of fitting in; it was about accessing rights that were reserved for White people: citizenship, land ownership, police protection, legal rights, etc.

The more one could cast off the markers of otherness, the more likely it was that one could become White. And so while the desire to become White is really the opposite of what Rachel Dolezal had, the process of becoming White that her ancestors undoubtedly went through in the great American star-off machine, may be connected to her desire to un-become White, to lose that feeling of being cultureless, of being part of an unidentified group, and to leave behind that identity that has no positive way to be. And lots of White people — myself included — do this in thousands of tiny ways as we appropriate the cultures of others (from Africa, India, Compton, Guatemala, Harlem, Mexico…) to fill in the blanks in our own.

Daniel Tatum said we need to change this. We need to give White people new ways to identify as White. Because at the end of the day, we need White people to see that we are White. When we recognize and own our Whiteness, we can account for our own portion, our one 1/billionth of responsibility for what White people have done throughout history. We can work with other White people to begin to challenge bias, ignorance and colorblindness. We can use our privilege to confront the sources of that unfair favoring.

I was lucky. The Black family I embedded myself in during my “Rachel Dolezal phase” insisted on my inherent goodness, and that of my family and even — I thought this was a stretch — of my ancestors. They helped me focus on my capacity to make change as a White person. They appreciated my desire to be Black, they teased me, they let me know in no uncertain terms that I would never be Black. I read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Steve Biko. I swore off White authors. But the Black authors I read saw the immersion stage coming, and they reminded me that Black people don’t need White people to help them pursue liberation, that the job of White people lies with teaching other White people, seeing ourselves clearly, owning our role in oppression.

I’m not sure what happened with Rachel Dolezal. Maybe it was mental illness. Maybe it was a desire to connect to her adopted brothers. Maybe she felt safer and more loved in Black communities. Maybe it felt good to distance herself from the overwhelming oppressiveness of Whiteness — her own and that of her country and of her ancestors. But the lesson for me is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I’m White, and that I and my ancestors are responsible for the incredible racialized mess we find ourselves in today. The pain of facing that honestly is blinding. It’s not worse than being on the receiving end of that oppression.

Being White — even with the feeling of culturelessness and responsibility for racism — is nothing compared to not being White. But being White — and facing the truth of what that means historically and systemically — can drive you to do the weird and unthinkable that we see in Dolezal today.

It seems like a good warning. Rachel Dolezal’s actions are a potential pitfall for any White people on the journey towards recognizing the truth of what it means to be White and accepting responsibility for it. But we cannot not be White. And we cannot undo what Whiteness has done. We can only start from where we are and who we are.

*White racial identity development was first theorized and written about by Dr. Janet Helms.

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*Article originally published on Huffington Post.

Oscar Nominations Are Out! And It’s A Good Year To Be A White Male

The Oscar nominations are in (you can see the full list here), and Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel lead with nine nominations each, followed closely by The Imitation Game with eight. Speaking of eight, this year, eight films will compete for Best Picture:

  1. American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
  2. Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 12-year chronicle of the life of a boy from kindergarten to college.
  3. Birdman, starring Michael Keaton as an actor who once played a superhero and attempts a comeback on Broadway.
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s offbeat but meticulously drawn story of a concierge played by Ralph Fiennes and his young protege.
  5. The Imitation Game, liberally adapted from the actual life of Alan Turing, the mathematician who broke Germany’s Enigma Code during World War II and was later prosecuted for homosexuality.
  6. The Theory of Everything, about the marriage and early career of scientist Stephen Hawking.
  7. Whiplash, the tense tale of a drummer played by Miles Teller facing off against a teacher played by veteran actor J.K. Simmons.
  8. Selma, Ava DuVernay’s dramatization of the events surrounding the Selma civil rights marches of 1964 and the development of the Voting Rights Act.

Lead actors nominated include Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper for American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton for Birdman and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything. Lead actresses are Marion Cotillard for Two Days One Night, Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore for Still Alice, Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl, and Reese Witherspoon for Wild.

On the supporting actor side, the nominees are Robert Duvall for The Judge, Ethan Hawke for Boyhood, Edward Norton for Birdman, Mark Ruffalo for Foxcatcher, and J.K. Simmons — the expected winner — for Whiplash. Supporting actresses are Patricia Arquette for Boyhood, Laura Dern for Wild, Keira Knightley for The Imitation Game, Emma Stone for Birdman and Meryl Streep for Into the Woods.

Once upon a time, there were five Best Picture nominees each year. The awards for 2009 expanded the field to 10. But in 2011, the number was adjusted again so that it could be anywhere between five and 10, depending on the way the votes fell. For three consecutive years, this has resulted in a nine-film field; this year, it shrinks slightly.

Every year, there is a capricious quality to the nominations that makes it difficult to draw any particular meaning from them, but there are likely to be a few discussion points floating around today in the wake of these announcements.

  • Even for the Oscars — even for the Oscars — this is a really, really lot of white people. Every nominated actor in Lead and Supporting categories — 20 actors in all — is white.
  • Every nominated director is male. Every nominated screenwriter is male.
  • Shall we look at story? Every Best Picture nominee here is predominantly about a man or a couple of men, and seven of the eight are about white men, several of whom have similar sort of “complicated genius” profiles, whether they’re real or fictional.
  • Particularly in light of these two points, the lack of a Best Director nomination for DuVernay (nominations went to Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman, Linklater, Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher, Wes Anderson and Morten Tyldum) is a disappointment not only for those who admired the film and her careful work behind the camera, but also for those who see her as a figure of hope, considering how rare it is for even films about civil rights to have black directors, and how rare it is for any high-profile project at all to be directed by a woman. Scarcity of opportunity tends to breed much lower tolerance for the whimsical sense that nominations normally have, so that even people who know better than to take Oscar voting to heart feel the sting of what seems like a deliberate snub. (While the film has been criticized for the places were it takes liberties with facts, that issue doesn’t comfortably explain any challenges it faces with voters, given the welcoming of The Imitation Game and Foxcatcher, both of which have been criticized for substantial alterations to the stories of not supporting characters but principal characters.)
  • Similarly, David Oyelowo was considered a good bet for his portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, but the film was shut out of everything except Best Picture and Best Original Song. How a film can qualify for Best Picture and have practically no other elements worthy of recognition is an eternal — but here, particularly painful — bit of bafflement. (My friend Bob Mondello will be heartbroken that Timothy Spall was not nominated in the same category for Mr. Turner. Bob also points out that there are zero big box-office films among these eight Best Picture nominees.)
  • Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, perhaps the most anticipated film of the year that doesn’t involve superheroes, grabbed five nominations, but other than the score, they’re all visual/sound — nothing in writing, acting, directing or cinematography.
  • The strong showing for Boyhood, with six nominations, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, with nine, is awfully nice for those who like to think you can still get Oscar nominations without throwing your film into the fourth quarter (or, in fact, the last couple of weeks) of the year. Boyhood opened all the way back in August, and Grand Budapest in March 2014, which — for the purpose of this kind of thing — is practically 2012.
  • While the expanded field was once expected to perhaps provide spaces in the Best Picture race for well-regarded blockbusters, kids’ films or even superhero movies, that has never taken hold, as it might have this year with something like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Lego Movie. Instead, it seems to provide space for more of the most traditionally Oscar-ish films to make the cut.
  • Wes Anderson is a beloved director for many movie enthusiasts, and this is the first time he’s been nominated outside of writing (for Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums) and animation (for The Fantastic Mr. Fox). Along with Linklater, he’s perhaps transitioning from an indie writer admired for offbeat storytelling to a maker of Best Picture contenders.
  • Four of the eight nominees are dramatizations of real events. That’s well within range for recent years, as prestige pictures have more and more focused on telling stories with various levels of connection to history. And after 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln and The Help, this makes four years in a row that a film focused on the story of race in America has been in the running.
  • The documentary Life Itself, about Roger Ebert and made by popular documentary filmmaker Steve James, was one of the most-discussed docs of the year, but was not nominated for Best Documentary Feature. (Nominees were Citizenfour, Finding Vivian Maier, Last Days in Vietnam, The Salt of the Earth and Virunga.) It’s going to be received as a significant snub, but honestly, if anyone would have known, at least intellectually, not to take it to heart, it would have been Roger Ebert.
  • The extraordinarily popular and well-received The Lego Movie failed to get a nomination for Best Animated Feature against Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Gotta say: Nothing against the other nominees, because I haven’t even seen all of them, but I can’t explain that one. At least they nominated the song, so I, for one, will soothe myself with 85 consecutive choruses of “Everything Is Awesome.”


*Originally published on NPR.

Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand #Ferguson

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The shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the anger poured out in response by Ferguson’s mostly black population, has snapped the issue of race into national focus. The incident has precipitated a much larger conversation, causing many Americans to question just how far racial equality and race relations have come, even in an era of a black president and a black attorney general.

Polls since the incident demonstrate that black and white Americans see this incident very differently. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll finds that while Americans overall are divided over whether Brown’s shooting was an isolated incident (35 percent) or part of a broader pattern in the way police treat black men (39 percent), this balance of opinion dissipates when broken down by race. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of black respondents say that the shooting is part of a broader pattern, nearly double the number of whites who agree (40 percent). Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll found that overall the country is divided over whether Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed” (44 percent) or whether “the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves” (40 percent). However, black Americans favor the former statement by a four-to-one margin (80 percent vs. 18 percent) and at more than twice the level of whites (37 percent); among whites, nearly half (47 percent) believe the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

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Clearly white Americans see the broader significance of Michael Brown’s death through radically different lenses than black Americans. There are myriad reasons for this divergence, from political ideologies—which, for example, place different emphases on law and order versus citizens’ rights—to fears based in racist stereotypes of young black men. But the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.

A 2012 PRRI survey found that black Americans report higher levels of problems in their communities compared to whites. Black Americans were, on average, nearly 20 percentage points more likely than white Americans to say a range of issues were major problems in their community: lack of good jobs (20 points), lack of opportunities for young people (16 points), lack of funding for public schools (19 points), crime (23 points), and racial tensions (18 points).

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These incongruous community contexts certainly set the stage for cultural conflict and misunderstanding, but the paucity of integrated social networks—the places where meaning is attached to experience—amplify and direct these experiences toward different ends. Drawing on techniques from social network analysis, PRRI’s 2013 American Values Survey asked respondents to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey. The results reveal just how segregated white social circles are.

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white.* White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).

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For me, a white man, hearing accounts of how black parents teach their sons to deal with police is difficult to grasp as reality. Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post column after the Brown shooting contained a personal and poignant account of his mother’s lessons to him as a young black man:

How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail—or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.

And national survey data suggests that the need for this kind of parental coaching persists in the black community today. When given a choice between two traits that respondents believe their child should have, a 2012 PRRI survey found that African Americans are far more likely than white Americans to favor “obedience” over “self-reliance.” By a margin of three to one (75 percent to 25 percent), African Americans preferred “obedience” to “self-reliance;” among white Americans, only 41 percent preferred “obedience,” compared to 59 percent who preferred “self-reliance.”

In discussing these survey findings during a panel discussion, Michael McBride, an African-American pastor who directs Lifelines to Healing, a campaign to prevent neighborhood violence, related his personal story of being beaten by two white police officers in March 1999. He described it this way:

This happened because they felt like I was not being obedient enough. The way they saw the world and me in their world created a certain kind of fear and reaction to my actions that caused me harm. I live with that experience as many folks of color live with that experience.

But these are not stories most whites are socially positioned to hear. Widespread social separation is the root of divergent reactions along racial lines to events such as the Watts riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and, more recently, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. For most white Americans, #hoodies and #handsupdontshoot and the images that have accompanied these hashtags on social media may feel alien and off-putting given their communal contexts and social networks.

If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles.

Updated, November 25, 2014: Since I wrote this post, PRRI gathered new data that shows a few other dimensions of the racial divide over Brown’s shooting. PRRI’s American Values Survey was in the field before and after the shooting, and it captured a snapshot of divergent white and non-white reactions. Before the shooting, there was a 15-point gap between the attitudes of white and non-white Americans: 44 percent of whites agreed that blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal-justice system, compared to 29 percent of non-whites. In six days of interviews conducted immediately after Brown’s shooting (from August 10 to 15), the gap had doubled to 32 points, with 48 percent of whites, compared to just 16 percent of non-whites, agreeing that the criminal-justice systems treats blacks and other minorities fairly. There’s more information on the results here.


*Article originally published on The Atlantic.