From Outrage to Disgust: How HONY Exposes Our Continuing Racism

The popular blog may tell the stories of its subjects, but denies America’s racial narrative.


About two months ago I had a really interesting experience.

The blog, Humans of New York (HONY), which I have loved ever since I moved to New York City, blocked me from commenting on one of its posts and deleted my comments.

Why?

I told the truth. I feel like Huey Freeman.

As per Facebook’s (and HONY’s recently updated) community guidelines, I was not hateful, or ignorant, or abusive. I simply commented on a post about a (white) man, a teacher in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, that spoke about how difficult it is for the students to extract themselves from poverty because there is not a “culture of expectation” at home.

Nearly all of the comments were patting him on the back as a hero and great guy, but I thought differently. I commented, “A ‘culture of expectation’ is hard when you are in a ‘culture of I work 16 hours a day.’” I also stated that though his heart was in the right place, his ideology was implicitly racist, and would fall under the umbrella of cultural racism.

Someone then responded to me that I was unnecessarily “playing the race card” because there are also poor white children and because this man did not openly express anti-black or anti-people-of-color sentiments. The commenter then told me that she did not mean “to dismiss racism in any way.”

Super comforting, lady.

I let her know that someone who is not dismissive of racism would not use the term “playing the race card,” as it implies that in most cases, racism should be dismissed. I let her know that I was very aware that there are poor people who are white, but I also let her know that to be white and poor and to be black and poor, in this country, are two very different things. I let her know that the latter is actually much worse; black people live in a level of poverty that only one percent of white people are even exposed to. I told her I had links to the statistics and studies if she wanted them.

I let her know the truth of the matter, and I was silenced for it. I cannot begin to express my outrage at this.

This woman and other commenters were having trouble understanding my argument; mainly, they wanted to know how I got a racial argument from what the teacher said, and called me “ridiculous” for thinking that his statement was in any way racialized.

Really y’all?

Harlem is well-known as a neighborhood that contains project housing as well as mostly people of color (the majority of whom are black). You’d think that these “Humans of New York” would recognize the demographics in long-standing neighborhoods of New York City.

But, from the many comments I received both on Facebook and on Wordpress, I think there’s much more to it than that, four things really.

First, the recent gentrification of Harlem has nothing to do with the impoverished children mentioned. Second, the teacher’s intent vs. his impact is a very important distinction. Third, coded language and implicit racism are real tools that perpetuate inequality. And last, but certainly not least, we need to let go of the individualism and think bigger.

First things first. When neighborhoods are gentrified, prices go up, the families and residents who previously lived there can no longer afford to live there, and they are displaced and replaced by more affluent people who move in. In Harlem, this often means blacks and other POC are displaced and whites move in. More on that here.

Second, let’s talk about intent versus impact for a bit. Many commenters, whether rushing to this teacher’s defense or merely as a passing observation, felt it necessary to let me know that this teacher most likely did not intend to be racist. Some of the few in this category believed that, because he did not intend to be racist, his statement was somehow not racist, or at the very least should be excused.

Nope.

I could not really care less what his intent was, because intentional or unintentional, the impact is the same. Ergo, his intent does not matter. And from my experience, this unintentionally racist language is usually coded, which brings me to point number three.

People seem to find it difficult to understand coded language, i.e. that one doesn’t have to specifically say “black people” or something obvious and explicit in order for the idea or words to be racist. When generalizing a large group of people as having one ideology or habit while using racial signifiers, the coded language comes to light.

Again, I am quite aware of the number of poor students who are not black, however, the “culture of expectations” as reason for the educational disparity argument is not used in regard to white children. The reason the “culture of expectations” argument is used as an explanation for existing inequality is because of its association with blackness, because as a society we associate poorness with blackness and blackness with culture, however right or wrong that is. The point is that without an implicit association of poverty with blackness, a cultural explanation for disparity does not arise.

Finally my fourth point: individualism. American Society is very individualistic — and because of that we often miss the trend of the entire forest while focusing on the behavior of one little tree, which may or may not be indicative of a larger issue. HONY’s creator, Brandon Stanton, as well as many commenters on Wordpress, thought that I was attacking the teacher as an individual.

In what I am fairly certain was HONY’s response me (the revised “community guidelines,” linked above), Mr. Stanton called my comments, blog post, and general argument “an attack” on the subject of his street portrait — and that is the reason I was blocked.

Let me be quite clear: my comments have not and will never be an attack on the subject — the teacher — but rather, are a critique of society. If anything, they are directed at the other commenters on HONY as a reflection of the general larger national discourse surrounding the issues of poverty, education, and race. It doesn’t really matter what the teacher’s specific nuanced belief is, or what Brandon’s specific beliefs are. I repeat, it does not matter what these individuals’ beliefs are, but rather, how these men and the responses to them point out a larger societal problem.

I endeavored to highlight what this teacher chose to focus on (his assumption of a lack of an apparent “culture of expectation at home”) and was alarmed by the ignorance surrounding the charged nature of his words and the moral high-horsing in response to him. All of it serves to perpetuate (again, regardless of intent) negative ideas about poverty and inequality in our country that blame the victims of society and ignore the root causes of these problems. Our implicit ideas about race (namely, the general, implicit, negative feelings we have for black people) have a lot to do with why we take this reasoning as seemingly “true” (even when race is not explicitly stated).

The point is that it is a widely held belief by many that there is a cultural pathology present in poor and minority communities that is, at some level, responsible for the prevalence of the current inequality they experience. Such a pathology allows those who believe it to convince themselves that if these people would simply change their behavior (at home, at school, wherever), the achievement gap could/would narrow.

The problem with this perspective is that it treats a symptom rather than the cause: it ignores the larger structural causes of the problem (namely poverty, among other things) and attempts to deflect the blame off of us as a society and onto these individuals and communities.

Why, you ask?

Because it is easier for us to dismiss the problem as “cultural” (“It’s your problem, not ours!”) than it is for us to take on the colossal task of eliminating poverty and institutionalized inequality in this country. We cannot explain this disparity in our worldview of rugged individualism, therefore, it must be “cultural.”

The myth of a “cultural pathology” standing in the way of educational achievement is nothing more than an assumption made (and make no mistake — it is absolutely an assumption, made mostly by cultural outsiders) because it fits a worldview that does not make us think any further.

Let’s pretend for a moment the assumption is true. Even if poor people developed what many think they are lacking (“a culture of expectation at home”), and did their best to try to improve, that alone would not be sufficient to significantly alter the observed discrepancies.

Something more has to happen.

Unfortunately, adhering to the philosophy that it is the poor people’s fault and a “cultural” issue supports an idea that, instead, encourages us to do nothing.

This conflation of poor culture and black culture speaks greatly to the insightful discussion The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates recently had with author Jonathan Chait — proving the difficulty that people have separating blackness with poorness.

I said it before and I will say it again. Take note. The teacher featured on HONY is probably not a racist. I’m sure he loves his students (in the HONY post, he talked about how hard he works for them), however, it cannot be ignored that his philosophy — that the parents are to blame for the children’s lack of success — is shortsighted.

It ignores that many of these parents work grueling hours and sometimes multiple jobs, not leaving very much time, energy, or money to invest in their children’s education. It ignores the systematic and structural racism that leaves families in these circumstances. It assumes that the parents just don’t care about their children’s education, that they don’t value it, that they have no expectations.

This philosophy of a “cultural” problem with poor and minority households assumes a great deal — and relies on a wide-reaching ignorance of coded language in order to flourish.

After the Suey Park/ Stephen Colbert Twitter Fiasco, I am aware that social media is not the best arena for a discussion of important social topics — I own up to the fact that commenting on HONY’s Facebook post was not necessarily the best time, place, or public forum.

However, by silencing a naysayer (me), Humans of New York established its own position that it is okay to perpetuate the myth that these parents are just culturally lazy and do not care about their children’s education.

What’s more, in its response, HONY solidified its upholding of the status quo. As my fiancé commented on HONY’s response post: “if HONY is of the position that any kind of critical discussion stemming from their posts is too divisive to be seen on their page, then they are admitting that their platform is merely a giant circle-jerk masquerading as sociological insight.”

Indeed, babe.

I am no longer sad to say that I will no longer follow Humans of New York.

It was my hope originally that HONY would not silence educated, non-hateful voices in lieu of uneducated and hateful conjecture, or worse, blind acceptance of a situation without thinking critically about it. However, with their response (and a Wordpress commenter’s response to me and HONY that I will screenshot below) HONY has situated itself against progress. Because make no mistake — inaction and willful ignorance are a choice.

This is a comment left on my Wordpress blog by someone who read my post on HONY and was also silenced, but not for attacking a subject, for defending me. Why are they so intent on silencing all discussions on race in this direction? This commenter says in a later comment she saw several white-on-black racial attacks that remained.

My original blog post on this topic can be found here: http://chocolatepompandcircumstance.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/outrage-why-i-will-no-longer-follow-humans-of-new-york/

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