The Perils of Investing in Mainstream Culture: A Lesson from Leslie Jones

Leslie Jones has become the most recent addition to the voluminous catalog of black public figures that have been reminded of exactly what America truly thinks of black people. Of course, one does not have to be a public figure to be reminded; daily life as a black person in America is its own accomplishment. And in case there are any non-believers still left in the world, black or otherwise, 2016 may be in a race to break a record for the most abundant display of the spilling of black blood on camera.

Jones, an actor and comedienne, played basketball on a scholarship in college and had dreams of becoming a lawyer.[1] However, she changed course and built a long and hard-earned career as a stand-up comedian and TV personality. Jones’ career saw even more success in the last few years.[2] This year, she was cast as one of four lead actresses in the blockbuster remake of the film, Ghostbusters, and that is where all of the trouble started. Jones first made headlines when she took to Twitter to express her frustration about the fact that no prominent designers had offered to dress her for the Ghostbusters movie premiere. Not long afterwards, the actor’s timeline was flooded by a stream of racist attacks, which reportedly included individuals posting pictures of gorillas to Jones’ account and sending her sexually explicit hate messages.[3]

Leslie Jones engaged her attackers on Twitter, responding to some of the displeasure her detractors expressed about her being cast in the Ghostbusters movie. Jones also retweeted some of the messages she received so that all of her followers (and Twitter executives) could see it. Things reached a bitter crescendo with an overwhelmed Jones tweeting, “I feel like I’m in a personal hell. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s just too much. It shouldn’t be like this. So hurt right now”.[4] Media outlets reported that Leslie Jones left Twitter soon after her statement, but the star denied the claims in later interviews. Twitter heads subsequently reached out to Leslie Jones, worked with her to locate some of the ringleaders of the attack and banned them from the social media platform.[5]

Anyone with a conscience who followed Leslie Jones or just read her Twitter timeline out of idle curiosity would be moved by what she experienced. Still, the sentiment that stood out in her comments addressing the situation was the amount of hurt that the star felt about what had happened to her. Jones (a beautiful woman who stands at an elegant six feet, with rich coffee-brown skin and non-European features that are rarely ever earnestly celebrated) confessed that she is used to insults. However, the star indicated that she was appalled by the sheer number of people “jumping against [her] for a sick cause”.[6] Jones appears to be stunned by a truth that many others before her have swiftly come to learn; working hard to attain mainstream success, playing by the rules and playing fairly do not guarantee fair treatment for black people.

Mainstream success for an entertainer may mean celebrity and wealth, but for the average black person in America it means equal opportunities, equal access to resources and treatment equal to that received by the country’s dominant population. The brilliant minds that devised movements to gain civil rights for black Americans, and the bold bodies that secured them in the decades following the end of chattel slavery may not have foreseen the by-product of their struggle: That their efforts would lead to a disparate pseudo-form of integration and future generations of black people over time would come to believe in the virtue of a system that continuously oppresses them.

The movement builders of the past had the right idea. After all, America’s economic might was built on the backs of black people and its cultural world dominance was gained as a result of black talent and ingenuity. It is only fair that we benefit fully from the spoils. Our stake in America is clear. It is also a noble idea; one that is based on ideals of justice. It is a concept that fueled generations of people that were descended from slaves into action. The movements of the past served the time within which they operated; but times have changed.

It is only human to want to believe that this society has evolved to a place where one’s race does not have any impact on how one is valued. Time has brought with it all sorts of social and technological advancements. Surely, we would want to think that racism is a thing of the past as well. Who can blame the most vulnerable targets of institutional racism for just wanting to will it away? Who can blame those same targets for thinking that following the rules and doing the right thing means that the right thing will be done in return? It is understandable that black people would subscribe wholesale to the narrative that if we invest in the mainstream dream, we will be equally rewarded. It is a narrative that is heavily sold; the purported hope of every American. However, we should not invest blindly in systems that would see us destroyed.

Scores of black people have had high levels of success in the mainstream; immense wealth, super stardom, political prominence, success in the arts and in the corporate world. But these individual achievements do not overshadow the challenges that the vast majority of black people must overcome day after day; challenges that we have long accepted as part of the routine of our existence in America and the world. As social evolution moves the world in a progressive direction, there is a climate converging against black people, exposing waves of bigotry that have long been concealed. Nowadays, we can watch ourselves be killed live on television by agents of the state, and people are emboldened to spew their biases from behind computer screens.

The onslaught that Leslie Jones has undergone is not new in the black experience; it is merely magnified because she is in public life, and laid bare for all to see. We have witnessed such occurrences with other black figures time and again and are not surprised. Yet, our familiarity with the effects of racism, coupled with the electricity of the current atmosphere in this country should inspire us to take better lessons. We should be less invested in mainstream culture. We should not be passively enveloped in it. Instead, we should stake our claim to our space in this society as those who played an integral role in building it.

Black people are not tenants. We have an equal right to live in America and dictate its trajectory. We should not expect that America will genuinely come to terms with that fact and operate in fairness just because we are playing by the rules. Our history in this country should be our education. It should bolster us to act to create a new construct of the mainstream dream. We should not buy into a vision that was invented to benefit others.

Therefore, this generation of black people must be prepared. We must become more insightful about all of the paths that led us to the place where we now are. We can no longer use our own decency as a gauge of the behavior of those who are afraid of our taking an equal place at the table. We cannot sit around and simply hope that our civility will be reciprocated. A boxer who knows that the nature of her fight guarantees that her opponent will hit her, is not astounded when it happens or inconsolable when she is struck; she either blocks the blow or is fast in bouncing back from it.

[1] Late Night with Seth Meyers. May 12, 2015. NBC.

[2] The Huffington Post. January 8, 2014.

[3] USA Today, July 19, 2016.

[4] Newsweek. July 19, 2016.

[5] Late Night with Seth Meyers. July 21, 2016. NBC.

[6] Late Night with Seth Meyers. July 21, 2016. NBC.