A Front Row Seat at the Woke Theatre

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democratic lawmakers take a knee to observe a moment of silence on Capitol Hill for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality June 8, 2020, in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

I’m enjoying the show. The marches. The statements of solidarity. The toppling of statues. And the alterations to legislation. But it’s kind of hard to differentiate real change from performance art.

Even seemingly altruistic efforts come off as oversimplified and off the mark, and dilute the message. Last week, when Elmo (of Sesame Street) appeared on CNN alongside his father, Louie, to help children understand why people are protesting, his father said it was to "end racism."

I know that’s not real, because one: it’s a puppet talking. And two: you can’t get rid of an idea. You can work to remove it from American institutions and strive to hold racist individuals accountable, which I’m pretty sure is the goal of activists and organizers right now. But we’re never going to end racism.

I don’t mean to split hairs about word choice, but it’s best to be clear when describing why people are protesting during this pivotal moment in our country’s history. That way, we don’t get sidetracked by the performative nature of some of the protests, social media posts and messages of solidarity that threaten to overshadow that goal.

And although there are a few bright lights that have come out of this dark time, causing many to be hopeful about coming change, I think the majority of what we’re seeing in this moment is a sideshow. We'll go back to our regularly scheduled program soon enough.

Credit to Twitter user @Campster for capturing the quintessential performative brand tweet. (Chris Franklin)

Last week, Ezra Klein and Ta-Nehisi Coates held a discussion on where this moment falls in the long scope of American history, and what might come of it. Coates noted that current events make him believe concrete change is here, because it’s not a reenactment of the uprisings of the late 1960s—when Black people took to the streets to combat police brutality in black neighborhoods across America. He’s right in one sense: this movement has reached the suburbs, and white folks are showing “solidarity.”

Last week, people led protests in the East Bay towns of Walnut Creek (pop. 70,000, less than 2% African American) and Livermore (pop. 90,000, also less than 2% African American). And a friend sent me an image of a Black Lives Matter poster on the ground in front of the gates of the extremely affluent East Bay community of Blackhawk. Mind-blowing. I went to high school out that way, and the only things black are the power lines overhead and the smooth, uncracked asphalt in the streets.

I wonder how much time it'll take for Walnut Creek and Livermore to go back to business as usual? I wonder how long that sign stayed up before it was removed? Long enough for someone to pose in front of it for the ’gram?

On last week’s episode of the Truth Be Told podcast, host Tonya Mosley sat down with the chair of Princeton’s African American Studies Department, Dr. Eddie Glaude. When Mosley asked Dr. Glaude if he’s optimistic about this moment, he replied, “I’m neither optimistic or pessimistic, I’m a meliorist.” Dr. Glaude elaborated: “What that means is, it’s up to us. The world can either go to hell or it could be saved, all depending on what we do.”

He finished his point by recognizing that historically, we fail in these moments. But nonetheless, he holds faith that change is on the near horizon.

In that exchange I learned a new word, and heard a point of view similar to mine: an even-keeled mindset that says, “Yes, this moment is significant. But this is America, we know how it operates. If we really want change, there’s some real work to be done.”

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, author Michelle Alexander laid out how people can educate themselves on the pervasiveness of institutional racism in America, with links to resources that serve as a clear introduction to the work. There's more, much more, but that's a good place to start.

Whatever you do, don't believe that the work is being done by your company simply offering up a statement of solidarity. Or that posting a blank black square on social media is going to create a more equitable society. And lastly, don't be like the Democratic members of Congress, posing for photo ops while wearing Kente cloth stoles. Just don't. (A friend’s Instagram post described it as “woke theatre,” a term which she credits Zahira Kelly- Cabrera for coining—for the second time this week, my vocabulary expanded.)

Speaking of theatre, the show COPS finally got pulled from the air. Getting rid of that long-running propaganda program, that so often shows people of color as “the bad guy,” is a step toward changing the racist mindset that’s pervasive in American institutions.

Know what’s even better than ending a TV show? Ending a shitshow. To many, disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department is a step in the right direction, albeit one that comes with questions about what type of law enforcement would take its place, and what would be done about other officers in the region like county deputies and state troopers.

Here in the Bay Area, the Anti Police-Terrorism Project is pushing to partially defund the Oakland Police Department, starting with halving its budget and redirecting the funds toward community initiatives. And just this week Oakland school board members and superintendent backed an initiative to remove police from school campuses. These are steps to take power away from institutions that were built on racist principles. We need more of this. Lots more.

And we need more not just in policing, but in tech, schools and health care. Even—especially—in professional sports. It's great to see NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the same dude who previously came down on Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in protest, change course and now say that he should’ve listened. And it's cool that NASCAR has banned confederate flags at their races, and that the only African American driver, Bubba Wallace, has a new paint job that reads Black Lives Matter. But that's surface level change—woke theatre. A good start, but it doesn't really change the system.

How many NFL owners are African American? How many NASCAR owners are African American?

Again, racism is pervasive. It’s deeper than a car’s paint job, or some lettering on a street, or a new ice cream flavor, or writing a dying man’s last words on your face in makeup, or writing every name of every victim of police brutality you can think of on your bare chest and recording a video of you delivering an awkward monologue. The list goes on and on.

As part of my podcast listening rounds from last week, I tapped into the Hella Black podcast, hosted by Delency Parham and Blake Simons. Their latest episode discusses protests, intelligent militancy when combating the police state and the fact that racism, more specifically white supremacy, is ingrained in our society.

About halfway through the episode, the duo opens up about having to check their own isms and phobias—such as sexism, transphobia, fatphobia and more. And they note that these self-checks need to be continuous to rid themselves of the mindset instilled in them while living in America.

Imagine if America and its institutions had these periodic check-ins about isms, and actual systems of accountability. Well, then I'd be a little more optimistic. But take the events of this past weekend: for all the cuteness that was the children's march in Oakland on Sunday afternoon, and the beauty that was the East Bay Bike Party's ride of solidarity that evening, there were other stories that proved America is operating under business as usual.

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In the past 10 days, a Black man was accosted by police in Alameda for "dancing in the street"—a part of his normal exercise routine. In Vallejo, Sean Monterrosa was killed when an officer shot him from inside an unmarked police car. And in East Oakland, Erik Salgado was killed after being shot 40 times when officers stopped him for driving a stolen car. His pregnant girlfriend, Brianna Colombo, was shot too.

There’s a long way to go. And again, no knock to Elmo’s dad, but we’re never going to end racism. What we can do is move forward by dismantling institutions built on racist principles, holding people accountable when they practice racist behavior and constantly checking our own isms.

And while the woke theatre performative protest can almost always get attention, there has to be follow-up. In other words: cut the acting, and get active.

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