race

Should White People Tell Black Stories?

So I saw the movie Detroit a couple of weeks ago…

It’s not a horrible movie, BUT it was obvious from the very beginning of the film that director Katheryn Bigelow didn’t really have any black consultants in the room to tell her how to best tell this story with sensitivity and empathy.  I can understand the complaints from other black viewers.  This film brings up another conversation about whether white storytellers should tell black stories (or stories of other people of color for that matter).

I am of the belief that it doesn’t really matter what the skin color of the storyteller is; it is more important that the story is told with accuracy and respect.  However, with that said, a black storyteller is going to have a completely different perspective on a historical, racial event than a white storyteller.  This is why I think Bigelow fell short with this film.  Maybe if she consulted with some knowledgeable black folks during the filming process, maybe the film could have been better.

This is not to say that if the film was made by a black director, it would have been automatically much better and on point.  That black director could have been just as tone-deaf with the film.  Nonetheless, more times than not, black directors do black stories better because of the perspective.

Take for instance Spike Lee’s epic film Malcolm X, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.  There was a similar controversial during pre-production for this film.  Originally, white Canadian director Norman Jewison was to direct the film.  However, Lee and others in the black community protested that it should be made by a black director.  Lee succeeded and took over as director and rewrote the script in his vision with support from black consultants and people who actually knew the slain leader.  Coincidentally, some black leaders like Amiri Baraka were concerned about how Lee would make the film because he was a middle-class black man and Malcolm X represented inner-city, working-class blacks.

Lee also came up against budget restraints from Warner Bros who refused to increase funding for the film.  Luckily, some very wealthy black folks like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Prince came through with funding so Lee could make the film he envisioned.  When it was time to promote the film, Lee requested to only be interviewed by black journalists.

At the end of the day, Malcolm X was a great film not just because a black director made it, but because it was great storytelling.  Before I first saw the film in the theater as a teenager, I didn’t know who Malcolm X was.  But after seeing it, I was inspired to learn more about his life and other black leaders.  While Norman Jewison did a great job directing In the Heat of the Night, I don’t think he would have been able to do justice to Malcolm X’s life because of the perspective.  Also, black folks are very protective of how our leaders are portrayed in the media, due to the long history of sanitizing and white washing black history in this country.  The black community was especially concerned about Malcolm X’s portrayal on film because of some of the controversial things he said about whites before leaving the Nation of Islam and if Jewison was going to make him look more sinister on film.  It mattered to have the right person who would handle his life story with care and accuracy.  I still catch Malcolm X whenever it comes on TV because it still stands the test of time and quality.

So going back to Bigelow’s Detroit, there was literally a problem with this film at the very beginning with an animated telling of the Great Migration.  I assume this was done to give viewers a background on the history of race in the Motor City.  When I saw this, I thought it trivialized and diminished the story.  I wasn’t sure if I was about to watch a cartoon about a very serious, hurtful event.  Clearly, Bigelow had no black folks there to tell her “No, don’t do that.”

There was also the problem with John Boyega’s character, Melvin Dismukes, who was a security guard patrolling a supermarket who became like a peace negotiator at the Algiers Motel that night.  If you didn’t know anything about Dismukes or the Algiers Motel incident, you wouldn’t understand why he was even in the film.  But yet all the marketing for the film is focused on John Boyega, which is probably because he is the most well-known person in the film. But it still didn’t make any sense.  It would have been better if Bigelow spent more time explaining Dismukes’s background.

Then there is this whole issue of torture in the film.  Not surprised there was so much violence in it, as Bigelow is known for doing movies with lots of violence.  Some black viewers complained about the excessive, graphic depictions of torture by the white police officers.  However, if that level of violence is accurate to what really happened, then that is fine to show in my opinion.  Again, I’m not for white washing history.  Ironically, though, it seemed like the film’s violent treatment of the two white girls was less severe than was depicted in John Hersey’s book, which said that they were stripped completely naked and called n*gger lovers.  It was obvious that the black guys at the motel were not being tortured because of a possible gun or sniper in the building, but rather because they were with white women.  Something about the more violent punishments on black male bodies and no discussion on why one of the white women lied about Dismukes being a perpetrator turned off a lot of black viewers.

Maybe the real conversation we should be having here is how to get more qualified black directors and writers to create these black films. While #OscarSoWhite brought much-needed attention for more people of color in front of the cameras, we need to also focus on increasing diversity behind the cameras as well so there can be more balanced storytelling about us.

What Black Females Think About STEM Education

STEM careers

Lately there has been all this talk about the lack of racial and gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.  This was spurred on by Google revealing a breakdown of their employees by race and gender.  And to no one’s surprise, the tech giant’s workforce is largely white and male.  Yahoo and LinkedIn followed suit with their own diversity reporting with similar findings.

I’ve been a web designer for about five years, and I interact with people on projects with a wide variety of computer programming skills, ranging from talented web developers who build databases to hardcore programmers who can build with C++ and Java in their sleep.  When I go to tech conferences or networking events, I am almost always the only black female in the room.

I recently went back to school to get more formal programming training, and, again, there were very few women and minorities in those classes.  Interestingly enough, the few women and minorities in my classes were all foreigners from India, Russia and Nigeria.

So I wasn’t actually surprised about the lack of workforce diversity at these companies.  Many people have insinuated that racism and sexism has caused this problem.  I’ve never worked for any of these companies, nor do I know anyone who currently works for Google, Yahoo or LinkedIn, so I don’t have any real insight into what is really going on in these respective human resources departments.  I also don’t have any solid proof that there is hiring discrimination.

I just don’t know.

But my initial guess is that there aren’t that many women and people of color working for these companies because there aren’t enough qualified applicants in the job pool because there aren’t enough women and people of color pursuing STEM careers in the first place.  Only 18 percent of women and less than 10 percent of African-Americans and Latinos pursue computer science college degrees.

Before there can be a serious discussion about STEM workforce diversity, we have to look at the state of STEM education in the United States.  From my vantage point, there are many reasons for the lack of non-white guys in STEM industries.  While these apply to all science, engineering and mathematics careers, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on technology education and careers.

1. Lack of role models and mentors – Simply if you don’t see anyone who looks like you working in that field, you are more likely to not want to consider a career in that field.

2. Gender stereotyping – As far as women are concerned, there has been this longstanding stereotype that computer science is a guy thing, geeky and not “feminine.”

3. Lack of training opportunities – Most people working in computer sciences are first introduced to the field while in K-12 schooling.  If you are a girl of color or a low income girl of any color, you most likely attend a crappy public school that probably doesn’t have computers, let alone computer science classes.  Even if you are lucky to have access to computer science classes at your school, most likely those classes don’t count towards your graduation requirements, so there is no incentive to take the classes in the first place.

I remember I had to take a computer science class in high school, and I really hated it because the teacher was an old guy who fell asleep in class and it seemed really hard with all that math.  I never had any real interest in technology until I was already into my journalism career.  By the time I started my career, the writing was on the wall and journalism was being turned upside down by the Internet.  I first got interested in technology when I started to see how the Internet was democratizing the media and making it possible to be your own publisher.

In my spare time, I mentor a couple of 15-year-old African-American girls – Cynthia and Keyshia – and I asked them the other day specifically if they had any interest in STEM classes or careers. Cynthia attends an public school in Boston.  She says she has to take a computer class at her school, but she hates it because her teacher is “soooooo borriiiiing.”  Keyshia attends a suburban public school outside of Boston that offers AP computer science.  She said she doesn’t want to take the class because it seems too hard, too much math and they’re only boys in the class.

Coincidentally, Cynthia and Keyshia are very tech savvy, as their eyes are always glued to their iPhones either texting or posting pictures on Instagram.  However, their tech consumption doesn’t seem to translate to any interest in pursuing a tech career or even finding out how the Instagram mobile app was built.

I recently showed Cynthia and Keyshia how I designed my new website Women Talking, and they were fascinated not only by the design, but how easy and fun it was to design it.  I showed them a little HTML and CSS and how they worked together.  I then helped them to create a slideshow using jQuery for a different website.   Both girls said they were really interested in these web design techniques because they could instantly see the results of their coding in a browser.

“Why don’t they teach stuff like this in my school?” Keyshia said.

Maybe schools should teach computer science in a way that makes it relevant with things we do and use in our daily lives.  Teenagers love to text, maybe there should be classes on how to develop mobile apps for texting.  Video games?  How about a class that not only teaches JavaScript and other game design tools, but also require students to design their own video game by the end of the semester.

Considering the fact that not many American high school students – regardless of race or gender – are taking AP computer science classes anymore, schools need to get more creative about how they teach technology. This would not only expose more kids to possible STEM careers, but also to other traditionally non-STEM careers that now heavily rely on technology (like journalism).  I know if I had learned how to design and develop a website in high school, my career trajectory probably would have been different.

I know there is a lot more to making STEM education and careers more inclusive than I can discuss in this piece, but at least we are starting to have that conversation.

Life After: Kehinde Wiley

Acclaimed painter Kehinde Wiley was first introduced to his craft when his mother enrolled him in art school as a child while living in South Central Los Angeles.  He used to visit museums and read art history books with paintings from the Renaissance age of chivalrous white men looking poignantly at their viewers.  Wiley realized early on that these larger than life portraits were more about representing the levels of access, power and racial identity in society.  Wiley has been on a journey to explore these issues ever since.  He recently came to town to deliver a 10-year retrospective on his work and discuss the evolution of identity politics in art.

Wiley started his career taking pictures of black men in the streets of Harlem.  He mainly focused on the power politics of hair and black masculinity.  He would invite the models up to his studio, where they would also view the portraits in his art books, asking “who are all these old white dudes?”  Like Wiley, most of the models were from areas that didn’t have access to this kind of art, which again explains the power dynamics in society.

Wiley took his craft to another level with the “World Stage” series, his best known work of fusing traditional art with the contemporary street life of men of color around the world.  The series began in China, where he was invited to work in a studio in Beijing.  Wiley had his African-American models assume poses from Chinese communist propaganda posters.  He says the models and the original people in the posters seemed to share the same characteristics of false hope through their smiles.

“The idea is more than a painting on a wall; this painting is a social wall,” Wiley said.  “I wanted to capture that social history.”

Wiley then took his World Stage, well, around the world.  From Tunisia to Senegal to India to Brazil, Wiley has captured the contemporary black male experience like never done before.  He recalled his time in Israel setting up shoots in the back of Tel Aviv night clubs and asking for drunken models.  Many of the Israeli portraits are of Ethiopians and native-born Jews and Arab Israelis.  Wiley says the experience opened his eyes up in many ways about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  One frame of a painting of an Ethiopian poser says “Can We All Just Get Along” in Hebrew, referring to the Rodney King beating incident.

In Rio de Janeiro, the model interaction was much more challenging, as he had to travel through the favelas with a camera crew and security guards with AK-47s.  He did one shoot at a woman’s home when word got out that an American was paying a lot of money for models, and a queue of people suddenly showed up at the house.   In other countries he has visited, Wiley found many people to be reluctant or even hostile towards a camera crew coming into their area.

“Often times it’s hard to get models, but sometimes there are people who want to be discovered,” Wiley said.  “There are people who are like ‘of course you found me.’”

Nowadays, Wiley doesn’t have a hard time getting models.  He has been commissioned in recent years to produce paintings for the World Cup and Michael Jackson.  Usually when he hosts opening receptions for his work, Wiley invites his models back to view the final products.  Many of them love the work; in fact, some of the models use their portraits on social media profiles.

Wiley’s work has finally come full circle.

“I am always wondering if there is a social good in this work,” he said.  “I meet young artists around the world who now feel it’s possible to be a part of this world.”