Category Archives: WTF?

The Rape of Harriet Tubman

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By Guest Contributor Janell Hobson; originally published at Ms. Magazine blog

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the passing of Harriet Tubman. I had the opportunity to celebrate that fact when organizing a special symposium back in March, resulting in some thought-provoking critical papers on her legacy of resistance, which I’m currently guest-editing for Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism.

One of the more interesting conversations that came out of this event questioned why, on the anniversary of her death, we have yet to experience an epic cinematic treatment of her life.  She certainly qualified for that great Hollywood biopic. Against all odds, as a disabled enslaved woman, she escaped to freedom–having learned of the Underground Railroad network that included support from black and white allies–and once she made it to the other side returned to slavery 17 more times to free countless other slaves.

Tubman used all sorts of wit and trickery to enable her dangerous journey in this secretive network, and even believed in her divine right and power to engage in liberation. She collaborated with John Brown on the raid at Harper’s Ferry, recruiting slaves for the project, but her illness at the time prevented her from taking part in the uprising. During the Civil War, she served as a Union army spy, nurse and soldier, and in 1863, she led a successful military campaign on Combahee River in South Carolina, resulting in the liberation of 750 slaves.

In short, she’s the stuff of legend–for black history, women’s history, American history. The fictional Django from Django Unchained ain’t got nothing on her!

But on the year of her centennial anniversary, what does Tubman get instead of the great Hollywood biopic? She gets a “sex tape.”

You read that correctly. Recently, in an internet launch of his new YouTube channel, All Def Digital, rap media mogul Russell Simmons featured a failed comedic video titled Harriet Tubman Sex Tape–the first in the line-up of this new series. It didn’t take long for black audiences on social media to utterly denounce this video and petition against it. Within 24 hours, Simmons removed the video from his channel and issued this apology:

My first impression of the Harriet Tubman piece was that it was about what one of the actors said in the video, that 162 years later there’s still tremendous injustice. And with Harriet Tubman outwitting the slave master? I thought it was politically correct. Silly me. I can now understand why so many people are upset.

It is amazing that Simmons could not have predicted the outrage upon seeing such a video–which infers that, in order to build an Underground Railroad network to free the slaves, Tubman basically used blackmail against her white slaveowner by conniving with a fellow male slave to create a “sex tape” of their sexual encounter that she could later use as “leverage.” Then again, this is what porn culture will do to one’s perspective–something Simmons has perpetuated in his decades-long involvement with sexist rap music and culture.

Just reading the video’s premise was enough to make my blood boil, but sometimes, especially when you do media analysis as part of your scholarship, you just have to be a witness. So I viewed the video, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating when I say that, on this centennial anniversary, Harriet Tubman got raped.

Most of Tubman’s biographers have argued that there is no documentation that Tubman experienced sexual abuse while enslaved.  She was definitely physically abused–routinely beaten, and at one point as an adolescent suffered a head injury caused by an overseer who threw a two-pound weight against her head, breaking her skull and nearly killing her. The injury impacted her throughout her 91 years of life, as she was often given to sleeping spells (which Tubman claimed brought on various dreams and prophetic visions).

Slavery was “hell,” Tubman described in her narrative, dictated to Sarah Bradford since she could neither read nor write. She experienced a great deal of trauma while enslaved, but if there were any experiences with rape–which marked the experiences of far too many enslaved women–Tubman remained silent on the issue. It’s still also possible that, as hellish as her experience might have been, she was spared from a deeper hell that sexual violence brings to the picture. Which is why Simmons’ “sex tape” adds insult to injury.

It’s a hell of a sobering reality to realize that, 100 years after Tubman’s passing, our porn culture–intertwined inextricably with rape culture–would produce such a demeaning narrative about one of our great American heroes. It happened not because there is any basis in history for such an imagined scenario (Tubman simply would not engage in sexual leverage–it’s not part of the essence of who she was) but because our culture continues to trivialize rape (which is what we must categorize any unequal encounter between a slaveowner and slave, regardless of “consent”) and debase women’s experiences.  Ironically, the horrendous truth about sex tapes is that they tend to be used as leverage not against men but against women! It is women who are often blackmailed or demeaned when sex tapes are made available on the Internet. Women are the ones who have everything to lose, considering the slut-shaming that still clings to female sexuality. Sure, some celebrities might parlay such “porn” videos into a career, but the intention of sex tapes is public humiliation.

The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape publicly humiliates one of our great icons, and if she–whom many believe is inviolable, sacred, untouchable–can be debased, then not one of us is safe.

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Uh-Oh. The Pentagon Considers Well-Traveled, Broke Indian American Women Threats

by Guest Contributors The Aerogram Editors, originally published at the Aerogram

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The Huffington Post’s Matt Sledge recently introduced readers to “Hema,” a character in an online training given to Pentagon employees to teach them how to identify “insider threats.”

Writes Sledge:

A security training test created by a Defense Department agency warns federal workers that they should consider the hypothetical Indian-American woman a “high threat” because she frequently visits family abroad, has money troubles and “speaks openly of unhappiness with U.S. foreign policy.”

As you can imagine, reading that line caused all of us here in The Aerogram’s headquarters to have a “Hey! That sounds like me!” moment.

Sledge goes on to say that the training was designed to help catch future Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens, who are both white men. (Editor’s note: We think the training would have been much more true-to-life if Hema had been the child of a Welsh immigrant a la Manning.)

Visits twice a year; inadequate work qualityBecause the training is declassified, anyone can now take it here. Examining the slides, we were struck by the fact that a character that regularly plays high-stakes poker was considered less of a threat than Hema, and that Hema’s propensity of travel made her as much of a risk as a recently divorced man mired in debt who openly worries about paying child support. Hema’s foreign travel, the slide notes, is a threat because it “gives foreign agents a chance to contact foreign intelligence services. She also demonstrates possible divided loyalty and financial difficulties. She is a high threat.”

Emphasis ours. Let’s break down exactly why labeling Hema as a threat to security is problematic. Using this training’s criteria, in order to be classified as low risk (0 indicators) by the Defense department, one would have to:

1) Estrange oneself from family and friends, not to mention cultural connections and heritage by not going back to India regularly. (Besides, who needs grandparents or your aunties when you have Uncle Sam?)

2) Be politically apathetic or somehow always support U.S. foreign policy, even though that policy could vary wildly from administration to administration. But never mind that. U-S-A! U-S-A!

3) Be financially well off. (But don’t you dare spend any of that money on foreign travel or political causes, like other well-off people do. Always remember: brown-skinned individuals have to be extra careful.)

For us, the strangest part of seeing someone like the fictional Hema classified as a high risk threat is that traveling internationally, exercising the rights to free speech and having political opinions are generally indicators of a well-rounded, actively involved citizen. Couldn’t the government use more inspired young people who know that the world is a big and complicated place? Why are these traits considered undesirable and threatening when the person possessing them is a South Asian American woman?

Friday WTF? “Asian Girlz” Pisses Folks Off–And Rightfully So

By Andrea Plaid

Recall the previous post about Guante’s vid and its takeaway about being PC is really about not being a jackass. Well, this next pop cultural item is exactly why political correctness came into being in the first place.

Longtime Racialicious homie Angry Asian Man tweeted this:

Asian Girlz Tweet 5The shit he’s referring to is the latest anti-Asian vid called “Asian Girlz” by some band called Day Above Ground. Well, one person didn’t listen…

Asian Girlz Tweet 1Sis, I learned from your example. I listened and didn’t watch, but I did try to read the lyrics to understand why AAM said what he said. All I’m going to say is prepare yourselves for gross amounts of fuckery.

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Friday WTF?: Whole Foods Says Speaking Spanish Is “Unsafe” For Its Working Environment

By Andrea Plaid

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Whole Foods, the grocery-store signifier of the “personal is political” and social responsibility, has been busted for some sketchy business practices antithetical to its progressive hype, like union-busting as well as maintaining low wages and failing to support farmworkers.

Let’s add language surveillance to that list. From NBC Latino:

Two employees at a Whole Foods Market store in Albuquerque say they were suspended last month after complaining about being told they couldn’t speak Spanish to each other while on the job.

Bryan Baldizan told The Associated Press he and a female employee were suspended for a day after they wrote a letter following a meeting with a manager who told them Spanish was not allowed during work hours.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Baldizan, who works in the store’s food preparation department. “All we did was say we didn’t believe the policy was fair. We only talk Spanish to each other about personal stuff, not work.”

He said Whole Foods officials told them about company policy and issued the suspensions.

Ben Friedland, Whole Foods Market Rocky Mountain Region Executive Marketing Coordinator, said the Austin, Texas-based company believes in “having a uniform form of communication” for a safe working environment.

“Therefore, our policy states that all English speaking Team Members must speak English to customers and other Team Members while on the clock,” Friedland said in a statement. “Team Members are free to speak any language they would like during their breaks, meal periods and before and after work.”

Friedland said the policy doesn’t prevent employees from speaking Spanish to customers who don’t speak English nor does it prevent them from speaking Spanish if all “parties present agree that a different language is their preferred form of communication.”

Whole Foods Market spokeswoman Libba Letton told the AP that in addition to safety reasons, the policy is in place so employees who don’t speak Spanish don’t feel uncomfortable.

WTF? Supercute Cheerios Ad Featuring Mixed-Race Family Rallies The Racists

By Andrea Plaid

Now, I can understand critiquing this Cheerios commercial for being, say, heterosexist–and even at that, that’s not a critique that unto itself would shut down a YouTube comment section.

Nope. The decision-makers at Cheerios had to shut the comments because the racists somehow thought it was a dog-whistle for them to get their hatred on. From Huffington Post:

The ad had received more than 1,600 likes and more than 500 dislikes as of Thursday evening.

Prior to the closure, the comment section had been filled “with references to Nazis, ‘troglodytes’ and ‘racial genocide,’” according to Adweek.

Commenters on the cereal’s Facebook page also said they found the commercial “disgusting” and that it made them “want to vomit.” Other hateful commenters expressed shock that a black father would stay with his family.

Though the racists shut down the comments section, Huffington Post reports that “many took to Facebook to express their appreciation for Cheerios’ decision to feature a mixed-race family,” and the commercial is still up on YouTube.

(H/t Lakesia Johnson)

The Hippocratic Oath Doesn’t Apply To Undocumented Immigrants

By Andrea Plaid

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Even as the Drop The I-Word campaign and their partners celebrate the good news about the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post dropping the i-word, US hospitals are quietly dropping off undocumented immigrants who need life-saving long-term health care in the countries they emigrated from in order to keep down costs.

According to both NPR and Huffington Post, these healthcare facilities have sent about 600 people back under the system of “medical repatriation” in the last five years. Under this, the hospitals put the stabilized, and usually unconscious, patients on a chartered international flights–which the facilities are willing to pay for–back to their former home countries.

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“We Will Not Rest”: UC Irvine Mobilizes Against Asian-American Frat’s Racist Video

By Arturo R. García

“DISCLAIMER: No racism intended.”
- Statement from Lambda Theta Delta’s original post of “Suit & Tie” blackface video, per The Huffington Post

That stunning “disclaimer” over a University of California-Irvine fraternity’s use of blackface to interpret the Justin Timberlake/Jay-Z track “Suit and Tie” makes the fraternity’s subsequent “apology” ring hollow.

“We sincerely apologize if we offended anyone whatsoever,” president Darius Obana told KCBS-TV. “On behalf of my brothers who were involved in the video, know that it was unintentional. But unintentional or not we do know that it was wrong.”
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