The official video for Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” was uploaded to YouTube on October 22, 2015. Within minutes of its drop, two separate friends had gleefully sent me the link.
“Have you seen this? It’s amaaazing!”
I watched it. It was. The track was clean and beautiful. Impossible to resist. The video -- ecstatic in the most simple of ways -- featured magnificently outfitted dancers with unbridled elation emanating from their bodies. I liked it. And at the same time, it gave me this vague and needling sense of despair. I kept thinking about how it came to be that the video featured an entire troupe of hip-hop dancers, yet not one black woman. It’s been said that cultural appropriation is like watching someone else get an “A" for turning in an exact copy of work that you got an “F” on. And being in a beautifully directed Justin Bieber video with 1.2 billion views is nothing if not getting an “A.” I brought this up to the two friends who had shared it with me. Both were white women, both of whom frequently aligned with me on topics of race as I had with them on issues of gender. “Well ... they’re from New Zealand, I think they’re, like, Maori, or something,” one of them offered weakly before we lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Neither of them saw my point. All three of us felt bad about that in our own ways. And I began to doubt myself.
Being black, and thinking about race all the time, means that there’s a moment where you start to worry that you’re just making things up, imagining racial problems where none exist. So much of your personal and professional life, not to mention your sanity, depends on keeping a relatively smooth, relatively working relationship with whiteness. You fear lapsing into unchecked paranoia or, worse, a bitterness so perpetual that it makes it impossible for your heart to ever work properly. You want to be woke, but carefully so. Just on pure due diligence you have to question if what you think is subtle but persistent racism is really just your own deep-seated resentment, vulnerability, and hurt about past transgressions. You have to wonder if you’ve become your own unreliable narrator.
That’s a particularly fucked-up concern to have because as soon as you start to entertain it, you’ll notice that a whole lot of people around you are happy to confirm it for you. Especially if you’re on Twitter or other social media, or any forum where race is discussed publicly. It’s not the Confederate-flag racists you worry about. Those people are like horror movies: unsettling but relatively easy to dismiss. Proud racism is a simple and avoidable foe.
The ones you have to worry about are the self-congratulatory ones. The PBS documentaries of people, who don’t think they’re racist at all and are therefore qualified to offer their candid opinion on where you’re getting it wrong. “I don’t see the problem,” they might begin with, before a qualification that claims some imagined authority equal to a lived experience of blackness: “I have a black wife/friend/cousin” or “I was on a diversity coalition in college” or “My parents marched with Dr. King.” And then finally, having established their credentials, they come with the dismissal: “... and I don’t think there’s a problem here. This is not about race. You’re reading into things.” It’s a sadly predictable pattern. Some part of you really wishes they were right.
It would be so much easier to put the whole thing down and get back to loving the shit out of that beautiful video. It’s just that I’m afraid that if I don’t protect myself against racism, no one else will.
I recently saw another video for "Sorry." This time, all the dancers were black.
Created just weeks after the official Bieber video and one of the thousands of fan videos inspired by the worldwide fame of “Sorry," this one features a Ugandan dance crew known as “The Ghetto Kids.” The group, made up of school-aged dancers ranging from late toddler to early teen, specializes in what might be called the choreography of incidental magic. Dances start off as simple stories of people passing by one another on the road, talking, flirting, having disputes, or just hanging out in a yard, but they all eventually turn into fully arranged and organized moves. Dancers are barefoot, shirtless. Their clothes are ripped and in some cases falling off. It may be confusing for Americans to see such playfulness intertwined with the kind of poverty we’ve been taught to both fear and hate. But it’s also popular. Their first video, from 2014 and set the tune of Eddie Kenzo’s “Sitya Loss” (“I Don’t Fear Loss”), garnered 19 million views on YouTube. Diddy posted it to his Facebook wall, boosting its views by 4 million in one day. African news sites at the time reported rumors that the kids would be flown to appear on Ellen, but this apparently never materialized.
Since then they have made about 15 videos, soundtracked mostly by African pop songs. They're usually two-shot gems with intricate choreographic storytelling designed to look incidental; sometimes chickens, toddlers, or people on mopeds drift in and out of the frame. Moves often begin as gestures, games, or chores. The best example of this is for another Eddie Kenzo track, “Jambole,” which came across my Facebook timeline six times in a single day. The magic, the disarming wonder of it, is that it all looks like kids being kids, like life being life (people are playing with a tire on a stick, here purposefully leveraged as a ubiquitous symbol of childlike purity), until subtly, almost imperceptibly, everything turns artful and considered. The dancers smoothly slip out of the choreography to look after a young one or pick up a dropped object, only to return again mid-step. The result is that the videos come to be about a kind of universal beauty in the randomness of life that is, if not intentional, certainly spiritually masterful and easily understood by everyone, regardless of race, place, or class.
Watching it, I feel protective of the kids. I feel their value and beauty as if they’re my own family. I want the world to know about it. I want them to appear in Justin Bieber's video, styled by the best in the business, with their beauty viewed and admired by 1.2 billion people.
It’s easy to see why Americans, which many of my friends are, love these videos. They are simple and gorgeous, with the magical wonder of an OK Go video and the pure, unconstrained sweetness of cotton candy.
I don’t want to find any bitterness here. What kind of grinch would I be to have a problem with a bunch of kids dancing?
One of the best problematic shows on television is Tina Fey’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Fey is perhaps the strongest working comedy writer of the past decade. Between her time as SNL’s head writer and as the star and executive producer of the glorious 30 Rock, she has delivered some of the funniest television lines in recent memory. She’s also become a master at following up sharp and fearless observations about gender and race with truly cringe-worthy social blindness (witness Jane Krakowski inexplicably cast as a Native American). Kimmy Schmidt centers on the trials of a woman who grew up in an underground bunker and was rescued from a recently disbanded cult, and now has to make sense of modern life in New York City. She is eager to hide her past, but her perpetually aspiring actor roommate, played by the resplendent Titus Burgess, reminds her of why people are obsessed with her story. “One, it’s titillating like a horror movie. Two, it makes people feel like a good person because they care about a stranger. Three, it makes people feel safe that it did not happen to them.”
It’s hard for me not to wonder if this isn’t how we feel sitting in front of $2,000 laptops watching videos of what look like incredibly poor African children dancing. World history with regard to Africa is insane. Income inequality is insane. Slavery, murder, child soldiers, genocide, starvation — these things are insane. Most Americans with anything resembling a conscience feel helpless and guilty when confronted with them. So we do whatever we reasonably can to stave off these deeply unsettling feelings. Sometimes we rationalize, sometimes we ignore. And still other times we smash the share button as fast as we can so that all of our friends know that we personally think African children are super cute — that we are not the problem, we are not siding with the problem. Even love of African people has been repurposed to perpetuate oppression. No one shares videos of African children suffering. Much better to see them happy. Then the problem doesn’t look nearly as insurmountable.
Yesterday when I was compulsively procrastinating the writing of this piece, I went to grab dinner at Whole Foods in Oakland. I used to go there three or four times a week, but had stopped after a black man buying food with an EBT card was beaten bloody by security guards there in September of last year. Initially the response was universal outrage. We’re never shopping there again, all my friends said. Oakland is gentrifying quickly and violently, and Whole Foods, with its $10 juices and $6 asparagus water, is a convenient symbol for a complex system of racial and economic injustices. Whole Foods is a lie. Whole Foods uses prison labor to produce its cheese. Whole Foods is problematic.
But in the ensuing weeks the story seemed to change. “I was there,” one of my white friends said. “He was threatening staff.” “The security guard was apparently black, too, so it’s not racism,” commented another. One by one, I noticed people finding reasons for it to be OK to step over the threshold where a veritable pool of a black man’s blood had been spilled in an apparent sacrifice to protect whatever access to produce and comfort was inside. Eventually, I was the only one I knew who still wouldn’t go in there. People gotta be able to shop, I guess. But then last night came, and I was hungry, and the only other thing open was McDonald's.
Whole Foods is problematic, but for some of us nearly everything is problematic.
One of the kids from the original Ghetto Kids video, Alex Ssempija, died in December when a bike he was riding crashed. The only female member of the troupe, Patricia Nabakooza, rode on the back and was critically injured but survived. Both were flung into a ditch, where Alex hit his head on a rock. The group continues to perform. This is such a different fate than flying out to meet Ellen or appearing in a Justin Bieber video. Being poor in Africa, riding two to a bicycle is dangerous. Or maybe accidents just happen and I need to stop “making everything about race.” Maybe sometimes kids just die.
Maybe all that matters is that the Justin Bieber video is gorgeous. And the Ghetto Kids videos are gorgeous.
I just wish there wasn’t such a lonely hurt that came along with seeing beautiful things.