The fact that Sharpton dealt in the underworld 30 years ago isn’t really news. The value of the Smoking Gun report is mainly historic—it offers a glimpse into Sharpton’s past life, before Obama and MSNBC, Upper West Side apartments, and private cigar clubs. It takes us back to a time when Al Sharpton wore tracksuits, weighed 300 pounds, and incited riots. Which gets at the real question: Why are we still talking about Al Sharpton?
The Many Mysteries of Al Sharpton
It’s Wednesday morning, the first day of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention, and D’Juan Collins is telling me how the state took his son and won’t give him back. A slight man in a linen button-down and a Bluetooth earpiece, Collins is passing out flyers with a baby photo of his son Isaiah and a plug for his site, www.SaveIsaiah.com. Isaiah, now seven, was put into foster care in 2007, when Collins was sent to prison. When I ask what he was sent in for, he demurs. The conviction was overturned last year, he says, but Brooklyn Family Court and the foster care agency have declined to return custody of his son.
He has come here, to Sharpton’s annual civil rights confab, to get help. “I’m all about networking,” Collins explains, “because I can’t do this alone.”
If the Reverend Al Sharpton has a nexus of power, it is here, in the sweaty third-floor ballroom of the Sheraton Times Square, where more than 6,000 activists have assembled to talk shop at panels with titles like “American Holsters: How the Gun Won,” “The Role of Media in Crafting the Social Narrative,” and “Truth to Power Revival.” Outwardly, the annual civil rights hoedown is an essentially political event, a display of the influence Sharpton has aggressively cultivated over three decades in the national spotlight. But the convention is also a yearly pilgrimage for people, like Collins, who have been beaten by the system, screwed by insidious and structural racism that has stacked the deck against them. Because Al Sharpton, in addition to being a syndicated radio host, prime-time MSNBC talking head, and personal friend of the president, is still the guy you call when your kid gets shot.
Everyone I meet on Wednesday has a story. One woman at the conference tells me she’s here for the first time this year because her nephew was killed in Harlem last week, and she wants to “talk to the reverend about gun control.” Another spends the morning passing out yard signs that read: “My Civil Rights Were Violated.”
In some circles, Sharpton is considered ridiculous—a 90s race-riot relic turned smug cable-news hack. It’s easy to forget that he is probably the most powerful civil rights leader in the country, and a political kingmaker whose influence is evidenced by the parade of liberal pols who drop by his conference every year to pay their respects. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was on hand Wednesday, as was Attorney General Eric Holder and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. President Obama is headlining Friday.
'B-stylers' Are Japanese Teens Who Want to Be Black
Dutch photographer Desiré van den Berg has spent the past seven months traveling around Asia. She lives in Hong Kong at the moment but when she was in Tokyo, back in December 2013, she met Hina, a 23-year-old who works at a trendy Tokyo boutique called Baby Shoop. Hina’s shop has the tagline “Black for life.” She describes its products as “a tribute to Black culture; the music, the fashion, and style of dance.”
Hina’s appearance is also loyal to what the Japanese call “B-style”—a contraction of the words “Black” and “Lifestyle” that refers to a subculture of young Japanese people who love American hip-hop culture so much that they do everything in their power to look as African American as possible.
I called up Desiré to find out more about her time photographing Hina and her gang.
VICE: How did you meet Hina?
Desiré van den Berg: She appeared in a documentary about B-style a couple of years back, which I happened to watch. This is what got me interested in the culture. It took a lot of effort, but I eventually got in touch with her on Facebook, through other B-stylers. I said I wanted to take photos of her, and she actually thought that was pretty cool. It was all a bit of a hassle though, because Hina and the other B-stylers didn’t speak a single word of English. We needed a translator both to make an appointment and at the actual first meeting, too.
How does that work in terms of translating rap lyrics?
Hina speaks some English but not fluently. She does like to use some English slang when she speaks Japanese with her B-style friends, like finishing a sentence with “man” or using bad words like “motherfucker” jokingly.
This Week in Racism: The #CancelColbert Debate Is the Funniest Thing to Ever Happen
-If there’s one thing I believe the human race can totally agree on, it’s that comedy only gets better the more you dissect it. For instance, the classic joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side,” surprises the recipient of the joke with its literal, non-punchline. It’s a pure form of anti-comedy, the “Nick Cannon in whiteface" of one-liners. Isn’t that joke so much funnier now that I’ve explained it? I thought so.
Last week was a real golden age of comedy, thanks in no small part to the#CancelColbert controversy. Like with all the best art (textbooks, CliffsNotes, the Transformers movie series), the meaning needs to be super clear, or it’s not good. That’s not a suggestion. That’s, like, a rule.
Writer/activist/excellent comedian Suey Park and TV personality/white person Stephen Colbert both learned this powerful lesson through the course of last week’s controversy over Colbert’s joke about the Washington Redskins’ Native American outreach foundation. The Twitter account for The Colbert Report tweeted an out-of-context quote on the subject that contained a racial slur against Asians. That caused Park to create the #CancelColbert hashtag and blow up the internet for a few days. Conservative pundits, often the ones getting accused of racism, jumped at the chance to give their hybrid-driving competition a taste of their own medicine. You go, Michelle Malkin! You’ve really earned it.
Eventually, Colbert went on his show and explained that what everyone was upset about was a joke, specifically a satirical dig at Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s insistence on his football team having a racially insensitive nickname. At that point, the joke took off, growing from a mildly amusing larva of social commentary into a full-blown comedy butterfly. And yet… something was missing. What if there was yet another layer of sarcasm at play here? What if… Suey Park was just kidding the whole time too?
Shit’s about to get real.
In an interview with popular comedy blog Salon.com, Suey Park explained—in agonizingly funny detail—how she’s actually a fan of Colbert and that she was merely trying to point out how white people are allowed the benefit of context, but minorities don’t receive the same privilege. Allow Ms. Park to explain further:
"A lot of white America and so-called liberal people of color, along with conservatives, ask, “Do I understand context?” And that’s part of wanting to completely humanize the oppressor. To see the white man as always reasonable, always pure, always deliberate, always complex and always innocent. And to see the woman of color as literal. Both my intent behind the hashtag and in my [unintelligible] distance, is always about forcing an apology on me for not understanding their context when, in reality, they misunderstood us when they made us a punch line again. So it’s always this logic of how can we understand whiteness better, and that’s never been my politics. I’ve always been about occupying the margins and strengthening the margins and what that means is that, for a long time, whiteness has also occupied the margins. Like, people of color get in circles with no white people in the room and we see that whiteness still operates. So I think it’s kind of a shock for America that whiteness has dominant society already, it also seeps into the margins. What happens the one time when the margins seep into the whiteness and we encroach on their space? It’s like the sky is falling."
I’m not sure who’s being misunderstood, who’s lacking context, or what “margins seep into the whiteness” means (maybe a Sarah McLachlan lyric?) What I do know is that the above block of text is very, very funny. I encourage comedians everywhere to explain themselves more. Based on the media’s fixation with this story, it seems like a sure way to up your Klout score. HILARIOUS
How Did Victor White III Die in the Backseat of a Cop Car?
The night Victor White Sr.’s son died in the backseat of a cop car in New Iberia, Louisiana, he called the local sheriff’s station to figure out where his boy was.
“I asked them if he’d been apprehended, and they told me no,” he said to me. It wasn’t until the following morning, March 3, that Victor Sr. found out his son, Victor White III, had been arrested and died while in police custody. But he didn’t receive the news from the New Iberia Sheriff’s Department—he got the call from his son Leonard, who also lives in New Iberia and had been questioned that morning by police in connection with the death of his brother.
Immediately, of course, Victor Sr. made the two-hour drive from his home in Alexandria down to New Iberia to find out what the hell was going on. But the cops refused to tell him anything about the circumstances surrounding his 22-year-old son’s death, citing an ongoing investigation by the state police. At that point, Victor Sr. had no idea his son’s death was caused by a gunshot to the back while he was still in handcuffs in the backseat of a patrol car. Every official he talked to was cagey.
“They wouldn’t even let me see the body,” Victor Sr. told me over the phone. Eventually, when they realized he wouldn’t take “no comment” for an answer, they brought in the coroner and allowed Victor Sr. to take one look at his deceased son—but even then, they had conditions. “They told me I couldn’t see his lower body,” he told me. “I could only see his face.”
'Microaggression' Is a Stupid Word That You Should Take Seriously
“So where are you from?” It’s innocent enough, that question—a way to break the ice when no more can be said about the weather. But if you aren’t White, there’s a good chance it will be followed by one of the most cringe-inducing sentences in the White lexicon: “No, I mean originally.”
That’s never asked of me, mind you. No one ever wants to know where I came from, since I’m pale enough and sufficiently boring-looking to appear to other White people as a born-and-raised American, which I often lament that I am. That question, when I’ve heard it, is always posed to a friend of mine, who always responds the same way: “Ca-li-for-ni-a.” This always comes out sounding a bit like “Fuck. You.” It inevitably causes offense, this matter-of-fact response. It isn’t what people—White people—want to hear. They feel cheated.
“Oh, you know what I meant,” they always groan, the word asshole on the tip of their tongue.
The problem is apparently my friend, who isn’t White and looks “exotic” to people whose idea of exotic is a beer with a lime. My friend isn’t pale like me, which means he’s a walking zoo exhibit from the coasts to the country, always expected to respond to strangers’ interrogations about his native land with a smile and a careful recounting of his family tree.
Power: The Evolution of Black Masculinity Through Fashion
In an article released this month by the Church of Latter-day Saints, leaders and historians are cited in what is meant to be an explicit disapproval of past racially restrictive policies. Yet an actual read of the article is disappointing.
Nate Hill Wears Naked White Women as Scarves
Nate Hill stood in the living room of a twee North Brooklyn apartment on an afternoon in late October with a naked white girl draped around his shoulders. I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a picture. Then he nodded and started to walk slowly around the girl’s furniture. Everything was silent except for the creak of the wood floor. After about a minute, he gently let the girl down. She smiled, said thank you, and showed us to the door.
The peculiar act that I saw was part of the 36-year-old performance artist’s latest project called “Trophy Scarves.” The project involves Nate traveling to the homes of white women, getting them naked, and wearing them as human scarves. As strange as it sounds, it’s not the first time Nate has perpetrated some seriously weird shit in the name of art and social critique. Nate crashed into the art world back in 2008 with taxidermy tours of Chinatown’s garbage. He followed that up with “Death Bear,” a project that involved him wearing a bear suit and meeting up with random people to take away their possessions associated with bad memories. He’s thrown half-eaten cheeseburgers at pedestrians while riding a bike, delivered fake crack to apartments while wearing a dolphin suit, and sent a computer virus to all of his press contacts. Most recently, he’s been focusing on doing race-based pieces, like “White Power Milk,” in which he operates a website where you can order milk gargled by pretty, college-educated white girls.
I followed him around Brooklyn as he transformed a couple white women into naked fashion accessories. I asked him a few questions along the way. Here’s what he had to say.
What’s “Trophy Scarves” about?
Well, there are people who see certain races as status symbols, and someone had to comment on that.
Is this a similar tone to what you were doing with “White Power Milk”?
Yeah. With “White Power Milk,” I just wanted to talk about how people see white women as a status symbol. With “Trophy Scarves,” I wanted to find another way to come at that. I guess it’s the same kind of satirical, tongue-in-cheek approach that I like to take with things. I like to talk about something serious but do it in a lighter, kind of a goofy way.
Don’t Have People in Blackface at Your Birthday Party
Welcome to another edition of This Week in Racism. I’ll be ranking news stories on a scale of 1 to RACIST, with “1” being the least racist and “RACIST” being the most racist.
-An Australian girl currently known only as “Olivia” became internet infamous this week for posting a bunch of photos from her "Africa"-themed 21st birthday party. In Australia, I guess “Africa-themed” parties traditionally include plenty of racist caricatures of black people, dudes in gorilla costumes, and a dude in a KKK outfit. If you haven’t had your eyeballs melted by these pictures yet, please prepare to lose your ability to see the majesty of human existence!
Still trying to figure out what a Klansman is doing at an African-themed birthday party. You can’t tell a black person to “go back to Africa” if they’re already there.
An elephant never forgets… unless we’re talking about remembering to respect ethnic minorities!
Please note the title of the album on Facebook was “This is My Africa.” I’ve never been to Africa, but if it’s as lame as this party looks, then you can have it, baby.
The girl who threw the party issued a statement on her Tumblr, which was subsequently deleted. In the statement, she offered a rebuttal to anyone who dared be offended by her friends’ decision to buy all the grease paint and Darque Tan oil in Australia and apply it to their faces:
"I am 100% sure that parties would be held that would be ‘Australian themed’ or American themed or even countries of the world, and in that instance I don’t believe anyone would be offended. People wear oktoberfest cotumes [sic] to parties and no one cracks it that they are not German?"
I am 100 percent sure that if I had an Australian-themed party, I wouldn’t paint my face white. But that just might be because I hate costume parties. RACIST