“This is the first time I’ve heard of twerking.”

“Miley’s dad must be real proud of her.” Mike laughed as he walked into his office, the one opposite mine.

“Mike, you watched the VMAs last night?!”

Mike is another one of my older white coworkers. Unlike Old Jim, he’s not clueless — he was a hippie during the Woodstock era and asks me about musicians featured on NPR’s All Songs Considered. We share stories about the best shows we’ve seen; his was Pink Floyd at Berkeley, but I haven’t been to enough to pick a favorite yet. The last thing he would ever watch is MTV, much less the VMAs.

“Nah, CNN was showing a clip on the TV when I grabbed coffee at the café.”

“Ugh, Miley is a train wreck!”

“I was wondering what kinda sick porno they were showing — I just about fell down the stairs!”

“She always says she’s twerking, but that’s not what her dancing is.”

“This is the first time I’ve heard of twerking. Is it a dance style like the Harlem Shake?”

“Yeah, the styles aren’t similar, but it is a dance style like the real Harlem Shake.”

“I take it those costumed weirdos randomly flailing in the YouTube videos weren’t doing the real one.”

“Exactly.” I paused. “If you want to see real twerking, then we should watch one of Big Freedia’s videos.”

Mike gestured to his computer. I found Big Freedia’s video for “Y’all Get Back Now” on YouTube and hit play. Mike watched curiously.

“Big Freedia is a rather big woman — buff, I mean.”

“She’s a drag queen. Her show at Terminal West was epic.”

“These folks dancing behind her –”

“Her twerk team.”

“Women and men — their moves are amazing!”

“Whatever Miley was doing doesn’t resemble this at all.”

“Why does a skinny white girl make a fool of herself trying to imitate the twerk team members?!”

“I ask myself that every time I read stories about Juicy J or other rappers putting her onstage.”

“She’s gotta know they’re laughing at her, not with her.” Mike chuckled, “Thanks for the education, Sam. We should show Big Freedia’s video to Old Jim after lunch. He’d appreciate this, for sure.”

“I don’t know what good it’ll do. He still thinks dubstep is a dance, not a genre of music.”

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A broken system: the perpetuity of racism, ignorance, & lack of empathy

There have been countless articulate responses to the verdict from the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case that people have posted already, but I wanted to collect my thoughts (and not repeat what many have already said) before contributing my opinion.

There aren’t words to properly express the simultaneous outrage and incredulity that I felt when Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges. The American court system has proven to be ineffective in other cases, but this is the most recent case that showed justice doesn’t exist for everyone. There are legal and political reasons for the system being broken, but I think it comes down to the perpetuity of racism, ignorance (and harmful stereotypes), as well as a lack of empathy.

My coworkers are mostly middle-aged (or older) white men. While the trial was going on, they would make comments like:

“What if Trayvon was a thug and Zimmerman was just protecting himself?”

or,

“Trayvon sounded like he was acting suspicious and could’ve provoked Zimmerman to shoot.”

and my all-time favorite,

“I don’t think this is about race.”

There are too many white people who don’t have empathy. They’ve been insulated from prejudices and stereotypes that are inherently working against people of color. They believe that people deserve whatever their lot in life is, not that the system is designed to work against certain people. They can’t see outside their white privilege, because they don’t acknowledge that it exists.

A white young man doesn’t have to worry that if he’s wearing a hoodie and walking by himself, that he’ll get shot down by a neighborhood vigilante. He will not be pulled over by a policeman for driving “too nice” of a car. Or be followed around a store, if he’s just browsing. A white young woman wouldn’t be labeled as a hoodrat if she used slang or had long nails with intricate nail art.  A white young woman wouldn’t be presumptuously asked if she has a baby daddy. (Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” video is proof of this, but that’s another rant for another time.)

There are too many white people who don’t recognize these are things they have never dealt with, which people of color deal with everyday. The fact that Zimmerman’s attorneys tried to defame Trayvon’s character, by attempting to prove that he was a thug implies that “he deserved to be shot.” That Zimmerman was protecting himself from an eminent threat — an African-American teenage boy.

It’s not enough for people to claim that they’re not racist because they don’t use the n word. It’s not enough for people to have one token friend who’s a person of color. It’s not enough for people to be outraged at this court ruling, or others like it. People have to change their way of thinking. Neighborhoods that are mostly comprised of minority families shouldn’t be considered sketchy, just because of its residents. Poverty shouldn’t define a person’s life trajectory, nor should there be a stigma attached to one’s socioeconomic status.

This should be a wake-up call. It’s 2013 and the U.S. is still dealing with institutionalized racism. Change needs to happen.