Friday, February 20, 2015

Shame on Who?

Earlier this week I was awash in pride at my childhood friend Scooter LaForge's big moment when Beyonce wore a one-of-a-kind trench coat he had painted to the NBA All-Star Game. I was predicting international fame and fortune for my pal, and I know he was over the moon.

What I didn't realize was that within hours, Scooter was under fire from various writers, bloggers and social media types -- including the venerable Black Enterprise Magazine -- for perceived similarities in his design and the racist "Sambo" character seen on the infamous (and long defunct) Coon Chicken Inn chain of restaurants. Ever the sweetheart -- and never a racist -- a mortified Scooter issued a heartfelt apology, in which he explained the true inspiration for his painting.

Scooter LaForge:
On February 16th, I woke up elated to see online that Beyonce had worn one of my trench coats to the All-Stars Basketball Game. The joy became bittersweet however, when I started receiving tweets and posts saying that the coat was a painting of Sambo. As people laid images of the coat next to Sambo to show likeness, I have to acknowledge, that I too was able to see the similarities. I am aware of the role that image has played in our racist history. This image has been used as a tool to justify the dehumanization and discrimination that African Americans have faced and continue to face in our country. As an artist whose work is about love and joy, I am heartbroken that my work triggered and raised pain for anyone and for this I am truly sorry. I also have to share the actual inspiration for this coat. If you look at the history of my work, it is clear that clowns and cartoon characters have been major themes for the last two decades. The trench coat collection is actually called “The Happy Collection” and my intention is to make whoever wears the coat feel joyful. I used Bozo the Clown as the inspiration for the coat that Beyonce wore because I simply love his smiley face. While this is the image that I drew from, I acknowledge that it has been interpreted differently and again apologize for the pain it caused.

While I am sure he did the right thing, I couldn't help but think about an article I had just read in the New York Times about PR pro Justine Sacco, whose life was turned upside down by a tweet that was widely perceived as racist. (Before you say it wasn't "perceived" as racist, it IS racist, please read the article. Like most things in life, context DOES matter -- even if her tweet was ill-advised if not ill-intentioned any way you slice it.) The piece raises some troubling questions about the so-called "shamers," and culminates with the person who initially helped make the shaming go viral -- and Ms. Sacco losing her job -- writing a piece to apologize to the young woman, who he has since become friends with. In poor Scooter's case, it did seem a lot of the hate was directed more at Beyonce rather than him -- "How could SHE wear that?" "She is such a fucking xyz!" -- which probably shouldn't surprise me because I'm familiar with the people who spend their waking hours ripping on the likes of Katy, Madonna, Mariah and Lady Gaga, so they were obviously looking for a reason to hate on her. But it certainly was deeply upsetting for someone like him to be accused of doing something so hateful -- and within a few minutes, more than 4,000 people agreed that his design was channeling a racist stereotype. If a legitimate news organization had been writing about this topic, Scooter would have been able to put the whole thing to rest in the first take. Real news operations will never publish something ripping someone a new one without giving the person a chance to respond -- and if they choose not to, it's included that they refused comment. But this is the Internet. What's disturbing to me is that I get the feeling -- and the apology from Sacco's shamer admits this -- that the majority of the people who are gleefully shaming people, even for legitimate reasons, don't actually give a damn about what they're talking about. Instead, they seem to be mindlessly enjoying the lynch-mob mentality, never taking into consideration -- let alone hearing the offending party out, i.e. Scooter's Bozo moment -- that there's a human being on the other end of the attack. That there are livelihoods at stake.

My takeaway: Rudy Giuliani, a big boy with many resources, saying he can't be racist because President Obama's mom is white? Rip away. A complete unknown -- a little guy or little gal -- who does something seemingly awful? Perhaps take a breath and hear a person out -- try asking -- or at the very least think twice before piling on. Maybe ask yourself why you're enjoying exacting some form of "payback" on a total stranger so much, particularly when it's a race in which you have no horse. I've certainly been guilty of this, but knowing someone on the receiving end (of a wrongful attack) has changed my perspective a bit.


Jennifer H. said...

Great blog post, Kenneth! (I read the Justine Sacco article last week and it really made me see things in a new light.)

Matt B. said...

Well said.

LDV said...

Well, you already know my thoughts on each matter, but just wanted to say that's a convincing synthesis of two seemingly disparate incidents, with a solid premise resulting.

Also, good on your friend for hastening to provide clarification even in the face of unwarranted criticism -- i.e., taking the high road -- rather than doubling down or opting for stony entrenchment, as many are wont to do in such instances.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but it doesn't change my heart in the least regarding the intent of her tweet, or its consequences. Would you apply the same logic to Kathryn Knott? Knott's on trial and Sacco, the mouth-decider for a major MEDIA (social and otherwise) company, lost her job. Seems commiserate. If anything Sacco's sophistication should have matched her paycheck.

Anonymous said...

I'm just seeing your post about Scooter's coat being called "racist" this morning. I have to say that, over the years, I have come to love Scooter's fashions through you. When I originally saw your post several days ago about Beyoncรฉ wearing his coat, like you, I thought how great for Scooter. I loved the coat and immediately saw the image of the clown and not a "Sambo" image. I too am very disappointed that this moment, which should have been celebratory for Scooter, turned into something ugly. I think he recovered rather well though. And I wish him well as others begin to really appreciate him for his fashion genius.