When you’re a person of a racialized background, the world makes it difficult to forget about the skin you’re in. You might feel your body instinctively freeze up as you pass a police officer, or find yourself weighing up the urge to camouflage an identifiably foreign name on a CV. It’s nothing new, and it stings today as it always has. But for a long time, meaningful, realistic conversations about race and racism were relegated to the margins. In the mainstream, a status quo-serving agenda has always buoyed false myths about hope and progress when it comes to race, peddling the idea that racism died with the end of Civil Rights era. Optimism that we have arrived at a post-racial reality can be a useful salve for navigating a sick world but, for many, 2015 provided a necessary wake-up call.
This year, conversations about race and racism exploded outwards. “I can’t believe how many times I've walked past random people this week just talking about race,” Elizabeth Spenst, a sophomore at Yale, told me this fall about the powder keg of race on campus. “People who otherwise probably wouldn't have been talking about it before. Suddenly, it was like everyone had the same stake in this. Everyone felt a sense of urgency, and it was something that needs to be addressed.” Beyond that particular institution, the tensions many of us have held in the pits of our stomachs for decades felt more universally palpable this year, like the world agreed it couldn’t possibly absorb one more instance of a politician’s blatant hate-mongering, or a celebrity or corporation’s profiting from casual racism. Spanning pop culture to policing, here are seven times race and racism made us feel perilously close to the end. Change may be on the horizon, but it’s a slow-chugging train.
1. When Rachel Dolezal was outed for pretending to be black
Early in the summer, social media lit up with news that Rachel Dolezal, a white woman from Spokane, Washington, had been living as black and even served as leader of a local NAACP chapter. Dolezal used makeup to darken her skin, denied her white heritage, and defended her racial misrepresentation by describing herself as “transracial.” Intense debates immediately flared, as did viral jokes and hashtags about the concept of being born into one race but personally identifying with another. Throughout it all, a very serious issue was swept under the rug: by falsely living as black, Dolezal gained what she wanted out of that racial identity while escaping the real, often-traumatic historical context of blackness in America, be it the legacy of slavery, the generational fallout of Jim Crow laws, or the pervasive physical fear of law enforcement.
2. The time Donald Trump announced his presidential bid by attacking Mexican immigrants
Donald Trump is running for president. With every hateful comment he makes about any given group—immigrants or refugees or women—the country seems to support him more. Increasingly, it feels like people are more intrigued with his high-level buffoonery than they are cognizant of the consequences of acknowledging his words like they’re anything beyond reality TV-style entertainment. In a June speech announcing his bid for the presidency, Trump took his xenophobic anti-immigration stance to a new level, accusing Mexican immigrants of bringing drugs, crime, and rape into the U.S. “Some, I assume, are good people,” he then said. The backlash was rightfully strong, but here he is months later, leading the Republican polls.
3. When the KKK held a pro-Confederate flag rally in South Carolina
All year, debates about the Confederate flag and whether or not it is a symbol of racial hatred and violence felt like an avatar for larger discussions about how America’s racist history informs its present. When activist Bree Newsome scaled a pole to remove the flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol in July, the conversation peaked. Newsome gained support around the country, but also earned the ire of some southerners insistent the flag is more an emblem of pride than hate. In July, the KKK and anti-flag activists associated with the Black Panther Party faced off in South Carolina. The protests were eventually quelled, but seeing open and proud hatred was scary, like a relic from the past come to life. “[Decades ago], the Klan they still wore hoods and robes. You didn’t know who they were. At this particular rally, there were no hoods and robes. They wanted you to see who they were,” recalled Ian Reid, who photographed the rally for The FADER. “It might have been the kid at the auto-body shop, or the guy who worked at the coffee shop, or the gas station attendant. There was no hiding.”
4. The time Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus tried to come for Nicki Minaj
If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year 😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊😊— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) July 21, 2015
A lot of our national anxieties about various social issues play out in pop culture. TMZ headlines, for instance, can open a dialogue about race to audiences that otherwise might not interrogate such matters. Late in the summer, Nicki Minaj called out the VMAs for their double standards and reinforcement of dangerous beauty standards. But Taylor Swift, presumably feeling targeted by the string of tweets, responded quickly, accused Minaj of “pitting women against each other.” The reactions—from fans of both artists, and from media covering the back-and-forth—magnified the extent to which black women are subject to biases and stereotypes that their white peers are free of. Swift making similar comments would have earned her the title “feminist”; Minaj doing so made her a “bully.”
The two eventually squashed the disagreement, but on stage at the event, Minaj called out host Miley Cyrus over disparaging comments she had made in the New York Times earlier that week. Nicki Minaj’s response, staged or not, felt like a live-action version of the way it feels for black women having to constantly defend ourselves. “Miley, what’s good?” quickly became a punchline—but not before hella tweets and thinkpieces were sounded off about the way black women are sidelined in the entertainment industry and beyond. In a later interview with the New York Times Magazine, Nicki Minaj explained her perspective thusly: "The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls. You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important?"
5. When Washington D.C.’s football team continued to buck calls for a name change
America was built on a legacy of violence and hatred towards Native Americans, so it’s no surprise that many of its cultural institutions followed suit. But today, in the year 2015, it is simultaneously infuriating and puzzling that a professional football team, worth $1.5 billion, still has a racial slur in its name. Calls for Washington D.C.’s football team to change its branding have been long and loud—even President Obama, speaking at the White House Tribal Nations Conference this November, concurred, saying that “Names and mascots of sports teams like the Washington Redskins perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native Americans." Yet the franchise, and many of its fans, continues to defend the choice. Chris Rock summed up the situation with a bit in his 1991 album, Born Suspect: "The Washington Redskins? Redskins? That's not nice, that's a racial slur. That's like having the New York Niggas." Nearly 25 years later, the not-niceness persists, despite continued protests.
6. When the Supreme Court agreed to re-hear a white student’s lawsuit alleging racial discrimination
The concept of affirmative action has been at the center of America’s reckoning with race for decades. Leave aside the fact that white women are the policy’s greatest benefactors, misinformation-bordering-on-propaganda surrounding affirmative action has stoked racial fears for decades, sort of like myths about welfare do. In truth, affirmative action favors no one—it simply attempts to level a playing field rigged by centuries of capitalist white supremacist patriarchy. When a white female college student brought a suit against a Texas university over a false belief her spot had gone to a less qualified black student, necessary conversations about the deep-seated effects of institutional racism cropped up. The case has been ongoing for several years but attracted renewed attention in 2015 when the Supreme Court, which has often ruled against affirmative action, decided to hear new arguments from both sides. Though it has been refreshing to witness substantive discussion about affirmative action as a concept, reading most commentary about the case made one thing abundantly clear: We’ve got a long way to go in the fight for equity, not just equality.
7. Every time cops killed an unarmed black person and we feared they would get away with it
Paterson Brown Jr
James Carney III
William Chapman II
Frank “Trey” Shephard III
Donald “Dontay” Ivy
Thomas Allen Jr
Darrell “Hubbard” Gatewood
Charly “Africa” Keunang
Andre Murphy Sr