Are you afraid to write on the Internet?
So, there’s an interesting article making the rounds on Medium called ‘Black Culture is Cool, So Why Aren’t Black People?’
It’s got a bunch of people angry. Some people are accusing the author of clickbait, or of ‘playing the race card’. Others think he’s conflating black criminals with ‘black culture’.
Here’s the thing, though:
This was a paper for a freshman writing class.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Gabriel was one of 18 other students who spent an entire semester in a class called ‘hey guys let’s talk about cool stuff #swag’, doing just that — and then putting their thoughts out into the world, here on Medium.
And, full disclosure: I was the instructor.
I’m proud that people are criticizing Gabriel’s article. It means that he did his job.
His piece doesn’t read like a stilted freshman essay at all — it reads like a piece, and people are respecting it as such. People are jumping on it like it was an article in the New York Times.
I mean, when’s the last time you saw a term paper go viral?
Don’t get me wrong. The piece isn’t perfect – but I never ask for perfection from anyone, least of all my students. Only honesty, and effort.
Gabriel’s piece is ambitious — maybe even overambitious. He flits from slavery to Migos to Viola Davis to Madonna. He argues (at the end) that the media needs to show us a more diverse picture of ‘black culture’ — not just ‘dangerous’ stuff. He never quite defines ‘black culture’ (who can?), but he does break down the disconnect in people who love The Wire but didn’t care about the Baltimore protests:
Before trying to understand the concepts behind the Black Lives Matter Movement, white people ask the questions “What about black-on-black crime?” or “Why destroy your own community?” while still listening [to] and enjoying songs about the very struggles they choose to ignore.
He devotes the end of his piece to an interview with his parents, which rubbed a couple people the wrong way. I imagine that most college instructors would frown on this, but who cares about most college instructors?
I thought talking to his parents was an interesting move.
You don’t fix society by endlessly scrutinizing poor people of color, and lecturing them on what they should be doing differently. Sometimes, you have to put the people who are in power under the microscope as well. Analyze what they say.
By the way, this was the entire point of the documentary White People:
A lot of us disagree with our parents about politics. There’s a whole article about how to survive conversations about Black Lives Matter at the dinner table.
But how many of us are willing to confront these generational differences, and talk about them in a college paper — and then post that paper online?
By the way, I think Gabriel’s piece going viral (20K reads at my last count) is a sign. It’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t taking the potential of the Internet seriously enough.
We should all be asking ourselves these questions:
- Why should the classroom be a closed space? If we can use the Internet to share cat gifs, we can use it to share knowledge. Let’s stop teaching students AP citation format, and teach them to interact with the world on their terms. College professors, I’m looking at you.
- Why should we rely on legacy brand names for knowledge? If we only trust our social analysis to people with PhDs or bylines in the Guardian, then as a society, we’re stifling the potential for new, innovative thinking. I want to see new formats, new genres of thinking and writing, from people who don’t care if newspapers die. Op-eds are boring.
- Are we brave enough to think out loud? Or should we fear criticism so much that we won’t talk? If technology allows us to put our thoughts online, I think we should take advantage of that. The key here, though, is that we aren’t writing to showboat or impress people with how smart we are. And, when we write, we should listen. We need to talk with care, but we need to talk.
That last one is really big for me right now. That’s why this line from Gabriel’s last paragraph is so crucial:
When people are silent on these issues, they are actively choosing to be. Silence is a privilege and an action. We need to get past this awkward stage of not wanting to talk about how our racial relations are not as progressive as we think they are.
I’ll say it again: we need to talk with care, but we need to talk.
What you witnessed in this article is a young thinker who was willing to show his thought process. I’m happy he was brave enough to share it, and I am happy that I got to witness someone put a crack, however tiny, in the wall of the Ivory Tower.
People criticizing his work is a great sign. They expect more because his piece shows that he can do more. I’m looking forward to what he does next.
I’m obviously biased. I think all of my students did amazing work, and I fully expect each of them to be a force for positive change.
Hell, they already are.