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Dave Chappelle's "Some Of My Best Friends Are Trans" Story Doesn't Hold Up

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Comedian's death underscores high suicide rate among transgender people

The final third of Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, The Closer, is an extended Some of My Best Friends Are Trans anecdote. Daphne Dorman was a comedian, actress and former software engineer who, according to Chappelle, stood out of the crowd at his small-venue San Francisco shows by both being trans and laughing at his trans jokes. They met after one of his sets and he eventually asked her to be his opening act.

Chappelle described his friendship with Dorman in a “hidden ending” to his 2019 special Sticks and Stones. She was thrilled to be name-checked by one of her favorite comedians and posted about their relationship on Facebook and Instagram. On Twitter, she defended Chappelle against charges of transphobia.

According to Chappelle, this statement of support sparked a wave of vicious harassment from the LGBT community.

“It took a lot of heart to defend me like that, and when she did that the trans community dragged that bitch all over Twitter,” Chappelle says in the last few minutes of The Closer. “Six days after that wonderful night I described to you, my friend Daphne killed herself.”

Chappelle attributes Dorman’s suicide, at least in part, to the avalanche of abuse she received from other trans people. “I don’t know if it was them dragging or, I don’t know what was going on in her life but I bet dragging her didn’t help,” he said. “I was very angry at them, I was very angry at her.”

Since the release of Chappelle’s special, the narrative that Dorman was bullied into suicide by other trans people has taken hold in right-wing media and Just Asking Questions Twitter.

It has also, as these things often do, migrated to “serious” publications. Here’s The Economist repeating Chappelle’s description of Dorman’s suicide.

Where’s The Evidence of An Online Mob?

Chappelle is making a serious accusation. Blaming a specific person or group for “hounding” someone into suicide amounts to a charge of murder. Given the complex nature of mental illness and self-harm, cases where the facts warrant such an accusation are extremely rare.

So what’s the evidence that online bullying from trans people led Daphne Dorman to take her own life?

None. There is none.

Chappelle’s wording implies that Dorman’s suicide happened shortly after she sent the tweet supporting him, but her post is from August 2019 and she killed herself in mid-October, nearly six weeks later. In the interim period, I could find no trace of online harassment or abuse.

Her tweet currently has hundreds of replies, but they’re almost universally from Chappelle’s fans after The Closer came out.

Back in 2019, according to archive.org, the tweet had just 12 replies. Another, jokier tweet about supporting Chappelle, had 9.

Of the contemporaneous replies that have been archived, none are critical. Here’s what they look like:

It’s like this across the internet. The Instagram post in which she declared her friendship with Chappelle doesn’t have any critical replies. Comments on her Facebook post announcing that she was opening for Chappelle are uniformly positive; so are the ones on Reddit after she posted about it there. She doesn’t appear to have said anything on Twitter or Facebook about receiving abuse. Her suicide note doesn’t mention bullying; nor do any of the obituaries written after her suicide.

I also couldn’t find any news stories from 2019 describing a campaign of harassment against Dorman. Right-wing websites will publish anything that makes trans activists look unreasonable. I find it difficult to believe that a trans woman was bullied by other trans people for supporting Dave Chappelle — basically the Platonic ideal of an alt-right clickbait story — and it didn’t show up in Breitbart, Spiked or the Daily Mail.

None of this means Dorman wasn’t criticized for her association with Chappelle. Other Twitter sleuths have found her debating the content of his special and whether their friendship meant that he accepted her. Maybe she felt attacked by these conversations. Maybe some abusive tweets have been deleted. Maybe she got nasty DMs or lost friends. We don’t know what being online looked or felt like to Dorman during those six weeks.

But listen again to how Chappelle describes this period:

“It took a lot of heart to defend me like that, and when she did that the trans community dragged that bitch all over Twitter. For days, they was going in on her, and she was holding her own ’cause she’s funny. But six days after that wonderful night I described to you my friend Daphne killed herself.”

Really? Trans activists were “dragging her for days” but left no public evidence of this whatsoever?

As a comparison, consider the case of “Prom Dress girl.” In 2018, a white teenager posted a picture of herself wearing a Chinese-inspired dress to a school formal.

Lefties found it and called it cultural appropriation; righties called the controversy SJW-ness gone mad, we all know how these things play out. But look how much residue this brief, minor, forgotten controversy deposited onto the internet. A simple Twitter search reveals thousands of posts and a half-dozen hashtags. Redditers discussed it, small-fry news sites wrote it up, YouTubers discoursed about it.

You could argue that Dorman supporting Chappelle was a smaller hubbub and left fewer traces, but none? Not a single mean reply or salty Reddit post?

Dorman, as far as I can tell, had roughly 600 Twitter followers at the time she defended Chappelle. She barely used Twitter and most of her posts have likes and retweets in the single digits. Maybe you want to argue that Dorman would have faced criticism if more people knew about her support of Chappelle, but the most plausible read of the evidence is that the internet simply didn’t notice.

What Is Chappelle Doing?

The narrative that Dorman was “hounded to death” by trans people relies exclusively on Chappelle’s word. Dorman’s sisters (who support Chappelle and call him an “LGBTQ ally”) attribute her suicide to PTSD from a traumatic childhood.

Her friend and former roommate says Dorman had battled suicidal thoughts for years. “The final blow,” she wrote in a Facebook post, “was a combination of her losing custody of her daughter, losing her job, and dealing with a lot of transphobic harassment on the streets of San Francisco.”

Speculating on the “real” cause of someone’s suicide, especially someone I’ve never met, feels reductive and gross so I’m going to stop here. I don’t know why Dorman killed herself and it’s none of my business.

What I do know is that Chappelle is telling a story that just so happens to perfectly align with the narrative pushed by the rabid, rapidly metastasizing anti-trans movement.

For years now, right-wing media has cast trans people (and especially the dreaded “TRAs” — trans rights activists) as radical, hysterical and dangerous. The primary evidence for this claim is the frequency with which they bully their critics online.

This charge is irrelevant, of course. The fact that some percentage of gay people are jerks on the internet has nothing to do with the merits of gay marriage. Transphobes regularly bully and harass trans people online; their fellow transphobes appear not to think it invalidates their cause.

And yet, the charge of bullying has become central to anti-trans rhetoric. Here is Andrew “I’m against eugenics but” Sullivan arguing that trans rights activists have the power and cultural capital to “blackmail” their opponents into submission.

Here is a famous children’s book author arguing that cis women are “justifiably” terrified of being doxxed, fired or physically assaulted by trans activists.

This too is trickling into the mainstream. Last month, the CBC (sigh) argued that activists’ “slander and defamation” tactics were holding back the cause of trans equality. “I have been regularly appalled by the attacks on even well known celebrities, such as J.K. Rowling, Martina Navratilova and, most recently, Margaret Atwood,” the author wrote. Won’t someone think of the celebrities?

This is a classic tactic of reactionary backlash: Guide the debate away from the core issue (do trans people deserve equal treatment and protection under the law?) into irrelevant cul-de-sacs about “civility,” strategy and linguistics.

I don’t think this is operating at a conscious level. Few members of the JAQ-brigade would admit to believing trans people should be denied rights because some of them are mean on Twitter. But there is a reason this irrelevant accusation comes up so frequently in the trans “debate” — and why it came up during the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall and women’s suffrage and every other struggle for minority rights.

“What if we give this group equality,” the majority population cries whenever a stigmatized group demands recognition, “and they don’t deserve it?!”

Trans Suicides Aren’t Trans People’s Fault

I’m going to write a separate post about whether The Closer is transphobic (gee I wonder what I’ll say), but it’s worth pointing out that Chappelle is not telling Dorman’s story in a vacuum. The United States is in the middle of a years-long, nationwide effort to deny medical care to trans kids, block bathroom access and ban LGBTQ books from classrooms.

Chappelle’s message isn’t just congruent with these efforts, it’s even more batshit. According to a 2020 study, queer and trans kids who die by suicide are five times more likely to have the word “bullying” in their death records than straight and cis kids. More than half of male transgender teens and 30% of female transgender teens report attempting suicide at some point in their lives.

Is Chappelle really implying that trans people are the reason trans people are more likely to die by suicide? Are you fucking kidding me?

Chappelle presents his friendship with Dorman as a story of empathy, two people from different walks of life finding common ground. But when you reduce it down to its core elements, what has Chappelle actually learned? He told some transphobic jokes, trans people criticized him, a trans woman told him they were incorrect, then they hounded her to death.

There is no arc here. Chappelle started out thinking trans people were unreasonable, then he met One Of The Good Ones, then her community acted unreasonably toward her — with devastating consequences.

This would be irresponsible even if it were true, but the specifics of Dorman’s death make it unforgivable. The lesson Chappelle wants to leave you with is the opposite of empathy: It is not be nice to trans people, it is watch out for trans people.



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jarmartinezs
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rocketo
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questions for the emperor

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statue of superman in metropolis, illinois
photo caption: a large statue of a stern-looking white guy wearing form-fitting clothing. he is covered up from the neck down with a long sheet of red cloth that starts at his shoulders and falls behind him. he stands proud in front of a government building. he’s been in that spot for a while but he hasn’t done anything yet.

This week, a mostly-white jury found Ahmaud Arbery’s lynch mob guilty of his assault, kidnapping, and murder. A few days earlier, a different jury found a different murderer not guilty of killing two men. Those men were protesting the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake. These murders are horrific. The justice that was served or not served is not enough to balance the lives that we lost.

The Movement for Black Lives reached cultural consciousness last year. Since then, lots of companies released statements that express the shock and outrage that the system… is what it is. This outrage comes with a burnishing of their credentials as an antiracist organization. Their goals to end anti-Black racism and discrimination. Their plans to do so that begin with listening and learning. But for so, so many companies, that’s where their efforts end.

It’s not wrong for people to commit to racial equity and antiracism without knowing how to do that. I present, in this spirit, some questions to help people in power imagine or articulate their plans. These questions work best when they begin conversations. They can help add context to statements that sound or feel hollow. People without power have plenty of ideas about how to get out of the situations they are in. But people in power are too easily out of touch, have misguided or ill-formed ideas, or have ulterior motives. These aren’t meant to be gotcha questions. While not everyone responds well when they feel caught unawares or called out, you don’t have to go easy on them. Ask these hard questions, or even harder ones. But be ready with ideas about what to do, where to go, or who to ask.

listening to people

Few status quo organizations listen to their community or constituents in meaningful ways. Many white leaders have never reflected on how meritocracy depends on their whiteness. One way to learn about those impacts is to listen to people who have not had that privilege. I’m not the first to say that learning on one’s own, through media like books, podcasts, movies, is important. But talking to real people who consent to sharing their stories is significantly better. People are more complex than the books or media they produce: one is not a substitute for the other.

  • Why do this now? What’s important to you about this moment?
  • What’s something you’ve learned recently about racial inequality?
  • Who in your circle of influence would you believe if they told you that some belief or practice is racist?
  • How would someone outside that circle tell you?
  • Who leads your organization’s antiracism initiatives?
  • Who do you include in decisions that affect the entire organization?
  • How has your organization changed since you started? How will it change?

sharing your progress

Some companies start and end their antiracist journey with a public statement. I can’t relate: I don’t even like telling people I’m watching a TV show until I’ve finished it (I’m afraid of spoilers). Statements themselves aren’t all bad. They can help raise needed visibility and awareness of the issues they’re about. But they often lack candor about where we really are as a company. A public statement should not be the last we hear about your efforts, it should be the beginning of a dialogue. Most of all, the public should not be hearing about your antiracism plans before your employees. Leaders who are truly committed to change should start by empowering and informing the people who are paid to be there.

  • What have you shared inside the company about your progress towards racial equity? What about outside the company?
  • If you wrote a statement on racial equity or your goal to be an antiracist organization, who wrote it?
  • What was their race and proximity to power?
  • Where did the ideas in the statement come from?
  • What have you done since you first made this statement?
  • After your statement came out, how did you include your community?

taking action or ideating action

I hate to say it, but we should celebrate companies that take any action towards antiracism. Right or wrong (wrong), I live in a country where a significant number of people are vocally or violently racist. Taking a stand against that is unfortunately still a bold choice for many companies. That doesn’t mean we should settle for the scraps they hand out. Instead, we should encourage their progress and demand more.

  • What have you done so far?
  • What is a recent accomplishment that you’re proud of?
  • In what area could you be doing better?
  • Who has contributed to your progress?
  • What excites you about making these changes?
  • What doubts do you have about the direction your antiracism plans are going?
  • Where are you seeking feedback? From whom?
  • What’s an example of a recent decision you’ve made that would’ve been different without having an antiracism practice?

accountability

Action without community guidance is worse than no action at all. If we are to work in service of the community, then community must be our guide. We should compensate them or turn power over for their expertise. How else will we know if what we’re doing is causing harm?

  • How do your values (of DEI) show up in your work? How did they show up in your work today?
  • How do you hold your leaders and peers accountable for advancing antiracism?
  • Who have been your biggest supports in your antiracism practice?
  • Who has surprised you?
  • Who has challenged your thinking?
  • How will you know if you’re on the right track?
  • You’re in charge. What’s your timeline for change?
  • When will you check in with us again?

A lot of these questions challenge the roots of workplace white-dominant culture. Antiracism and racial equity seeks candid communication with everyone, not behind closed doors among the powerful. We must urge everyone to approach this practice with humility and openness. We should also expect much more from our leaders than what they are prepared to give. And as leaders, we should change what’s within our power and support the causes demanding more.

Most leaders will have blind spots on experiences they cannot feel for themselves. Rather than shy away from those gaps in our awareness, we should embrace what others alone can know. After all, the emperor was naked well before someone finally told him. Now he knows! Yes, everyone else already knew. But now he knows, too. Together, we should do something about it.

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jarmartinezs
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rocketo
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Three Guilty Men Almost Weren’t Tried

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The men who killed Ahmaud Arbery will not get away with it. Yet the most surprising aspect of the trial is not the verdict, but the fact that the trial happened at all.

On Wednesday, a Georgia jury convicted Travis McMichael; his father, Gregory McMichael; and their friend William Bryan of felony offenses after the trio chased down and then shot Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, in February of last year. The men claimed that they were attempting to make a “citizen’s arrest,” having suspected Arbery of being behind burglaries in the neighborhood, an accusation they had no evidence to support.

The three men were not even arrested until May. The district attorney, Jackie Johnson, recused herself from the case because the elder McMichael had been an investigator in her office. Johnson was later indicted for her actions in the Arbery case—allegedly preventing police from arresting the three men for Arbery’s killing. Video of the aftermath obtained by The Washington Post showed that Arbery was still alive when police first arrived but that “officers did not immediately tend to him and showed little skepticism of the suspects’ accounts on the scene,” the Post reported.

[Ibram X. Kendi: Who gets to be afraid in America?]

George Barnhill, who took over the case from Johnson, claimed the men had simply acted in self-defense when they chased down the unarmed Arbery, because “at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia Law, [Travis] McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.” In this view of the law, Arbery was at fault for his own death by defending himself from three men with guns who followed him in a truck and attempted to cut off his escape. Barnhill also recused himself—but only after Arbery’s mother complained that he, like Johnson, had also worked with McMichael.

It took video of the shooting going viral, in May of last year, for the men to be arrested. The clip showing Arbery’s death became public a few weeks before the release of the video showing George Floyd being murdered by a police officer. In retrospect, the two share a disturbing connection: The videos contradicted the statements of local authorities that both Floyd and Arbery were responsible for their own deaths. Without the video evidence—and the national protest, outrage, and scrutiny they sparked—neither man’s killers would have seen the inside of a courtroom. It took a series of extraordinary events to force the system to regard their deaths as crimes worth investigating.

The trial itself also proved illuminating. After Al Sharpton showed up in the gallery, Kevin Gough, one of the defense attorneys, said, “We don't want any more Black pastors coming in here.” Last week, Gough complained about the public atmosphere surrounding the case against his clients, three white men who shot an unarmed Black man. “This is what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century,” he said. In her closing arguments, the defense attorney Laura Hogue told the jury, ​​"Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

Defense attorneys are morally obliged to do their best to work the levers of the criminal-justice system on behalf of their clients. That said, it is notable that the defense team believed this approach was the one that offered their clients the best chance of beating the charges.

The defense successfully struck all but one Black juror from the pool. The team argued that the three men were executing a “citizen’s arrest” under a Georgia law that has since been changed, and insisted that McMichael had acted in self-defense against Arbery. “It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would've got the shotgun from me, then it was a life-or-death situation,” the younger McMichael testified. “And I'm gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”

If it sounds ridiculous to say that chasing someone down while armed is an act of self-defense, and then to claim you had to shoot the person you were chasing, because they tried to defend themselves, recall that this was precisely the conclusion the local authorities initially reached.

The jury ultimately found the defense’s arguments unpersuasive, and the evidence against the defendants overwhelming. But had it been up to the folks in charge in Glynn County, the jury never would have seen that evidence. To say the system worked in this case is like saying your car made it home—after your entire family had to get out and push it miles down a dirt road.

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sarcozona
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Why Are the McMichaels So Scared?

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Fear is more than just a way to argue self-defense—it’s the racist dog whistle that’s been present throughout this trial.

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rocketo
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The Armpits of White Boys

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During the predeparture orientation at the crumbling three-star hotel by the sea—with its white portico and its lobbies smelling like a Native Jetty swamp—the exchange student is warned about a number of things. Ex-exchange students—by now so Americanized, you would think they had spent their entire lives in the U.S.—regale him with anecdotes both funny and scary: host fathers casually dropping the bass during dinner-table conversations, and host mothers quietly letting one or two rather pungent ones slip during walks in the park; host fathers letting their hands hover too close to the breasts and buttocks of their host daughters, and host mothers soliciting bare-bodied massages from their host sons.

In Washington, D.C., where he arrives in August along with all the other exchange students from his home country, he has another set of orientations. Exchange students get a monthly stipend of $125 from the State Department. The host families report to the local coordinator, the local coordinator to the regional coordinator, the regional coordinator to the national coordinator, and the national coordinator communicates directly with the State Department—a chain of command through which news of discontent or concern ascends like an elevator. The prime warning here is loud and clear: Be rude to your host family and you’ll be thrown out of their house, put up for adoption by another host family; get caught drinking, doing drugs, shoplifting, impregnating someone, planning to flee or overstay, and you’ll be sent back home.

It is the first time that the exchange student has fully escaped his family’s supervision, and although the temptation to hook up here—to give himself to another exchange student—is immense, and although the hotel rooms allow for such opportunities, he has that warning tucked securely in his mind. His days in D.C. are marked by strict celibacy. After four days in and out of orientations, sightseeing around the big, historic city, he boards a flight to his assigned state for a school year of cultural and academic exchange.

He gets lucky with his placement: Visalia, California, middle-aged host parents. He is aware that many exchange students get sent to remote nooks in Iowa or Kentucky; he is also aware that many exchange students get stuck with elderly couples looking for company after their own kids stop bringing their families around for Christmas with the grandparents.

On his first night, he anxiously eats a single slice of pizza for dinner. He is disappointed by his room initially, small and plain, devoid of character. Despite his disappointment, he lays out on the bed all the gifts he has brought from back home: embroidered Sindhi hand-fans studded with golden beads; a small, hand-painted rickshaw figurine; packets of Laziza kheer and Shan korma masala; kundan bangles for his host mother; a white kurta for his host father.

His host mother is a stay-at-home mom to two kids, a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, and his host father is a sergeant with the City of Visalia Police Department. They live in an ordinary house on an ordinary street, not unlike the ones he has grown up seeing in American movies. His host mother is all safari shorts and spaghetti-strap tops, baseball caps and mineral sunscreen. Her freckles change color under variations of light. She is about the yard-sales-and-Costco-membership life. She uses phrases like “none’ya business” and “alrighta-Idaho-potato,” and is all about holding hands and saying grace before every meal. His host father is a big guy, a regular guy, unhandsome in a way that suggests he has never been handsome—thin lips, cheeks like a hairy fruit. He is mostly away at work and mows the lawn and rakes the leaves when he is home. He says things like “funk up my trunk” and “drop a deuce.” His host siblings are small: nubby shoulders and jutting knees, ribbons of coagulated snot in their snub noses. The brother is boisterous arms and a screaming mouth, smelling of the sweet rot of Jell-O and Go-Gurts; the sister is a fat, white fermented dough waiting to rise, smelling of soiled diapers, rash cream, and no-tears shampoo.

The exchange student surprises himself by not getting homesick. He doesn’t miss Pakistan, or his family. He is in awe of his hosts, astounded that they’ve allowed a stranger—from a whole other country, no less—such uninhibited access to their house, to their lives, for 10 months. His family back home has barely any patience with external intrusions—relatives, guests, house-helps, even his sisters’ children.

For the exchange student, school is a maze, a confusing colosseum. A boy, his first-day “buddy,” takes him around and shows him his classes, the gym, the cafeteria. A girl in his U.S.-history class offers him a dented Tootsie Roll, to “introduce you to American candy.” The kids in his debate class ask him questions about Pakistan, about terrorism and homemade grenades and Osama bin Laden.

At home, when he has settled into the family well enough to not feel awkward calling his host mother Mom and his host father Dad, his host mother asks him if the bangles his mother has sent for her are expensive and whether she should put them on their family insurance plan. The bangles are cheap, fake gold, purchased from Liaquat Market, he knows, but he pretends to be clueless, says that he will ask his mother when he speaks with her next. He tells his mother that his host family loved all the gifts. Each time he thinks about the bangles, he pictures his mother in the sweltering Karachi heat, bent over a dilapidated kiosk in Liaquat Market—her kamdani chador clinging to her damp back—haggling furiously, excited to buy presents for his new family in America. He avoids the subject with his host mother, but she eventually brings it up herself. “Don’t ask your mother about the bangles,” she says with a pitying smile. “I don’t want her to get embarrassed.”

Embarrassed on his mother’s behalf, he feels a lump in his throat, a sensation that returns during a mild altercation about coffee creamers. He starts drinking coffee—real coffee, made in a coffee machine, with ground beans, and not the stupid instant coffee that he is used to drinking back home—and to soften the edges of the bitterness that jabs the corners of his mouth, he pours in half a cup of creamer. For a few days his host mother lets it slide, allowing him to unabashedly splash his coffee with caramel, hazelnut, toffee, pumpkin spice, and French vanilla. Then, one day: “Coffee creamers are expensive,” she says in a tone that takes him by surprise, a tone laced with anger. “You cannot keep doing that. Use milk, or don’t drink coffee.”

By October, from the pictures other exchange students post on Facebook, he gathers that snow has begun to fall in some parts of America, but the heat doesn’t relent in dry, sandy Visalia. At school, boys continue to wear tank tops, shorts, and flip-flops—yet another cultural shock for him, the school’s lack of a uniform code making him feel like a guest, not a student. What shocks him more are the armpits of these boys: unshaved, thick hair shimmering with sweat, flattened to swirls on their skin. He averts his eyes from the exposed armpits almost as quickly as he does when he sees anyone making out in public, which is something he was warned during the orientations never to stare at. Eventually, out of curiosity if not desire, the armpits of these boys become a bizarre receptacle for his attention.

He notices that there is hair in the armpits of boys who do not even shave yet, boys still in the throes of puberty. Turfs, scant and abundant, black, brown, and golden, muddled with tiny white crumbs of deodorant, like snow caught in foliage if they use the white, powdery kind, or matted flat and wet-looking if they use gel. He notices the intricate web of wrinkles around the edges of their pits when they hold their arms too close to their bodies. He hears the susurration of wind passing through the abyss between a raised arm and a torso. He wants to bury his face under their arms and smell them all.

At home, too, he notices his host father taking a plunge into the swimming pool, arms raised over his head to form an inverted V. The cords of his triceps snap, and the tender skin under the arms dips to form a cavity, ripe with two tracks of hair, dark-black and disorderly. His host siblings are too young to have any body hair at all; they are shiny and smooth like mannequins.

He has a hard time making friends at school. The girl who offered him candy does not speak to him again; his “buddy” does not recognize him in the hallways, does not return his smiles or nods. His only friends are other exchange students from Croatia, Senegal, and Indonesia.

Thankfully, he does not allow the early rifts with his host mother to convince him that his time with his loving American host family will be unpleasant, and in fact, soon enough, in his host mother he finds one of his closest friends in Visalia. She takes him along on every trip to the supermarket (she prefers WinCo over Vons and Shasta Cola over Coke; both choices save her money) and takes him to her loquacious hairdresser, who gives him a Justin Bieber hairdo with blue streaks. With parents, host or otherwise, he cannot be close to both, so he chooses sides, plays favorites. He is devoted to his host mother, and without protest, his host father recedes into the background, emerging every now and then to take him to a lake or to watch a bicycle race.

His host mother, too, he notices, lacks friends—her days are chores-oriented; she keeps the house immaculate and cooks uncomplex but delicious meals. Or if she has friends, she does not invite them over for kiddie parties and brunches, or speak with them for hours on the phone; or if she does any of that, she does it while he is away at school. Sometimes he returns home to find her napping in the middle of the day, errands behind her, nothing else to do.

His host mother is the coolest person he has ever met. The two of them talk over dinner, post-dinner, while putting the kids to bed, late into the evening. They end the day with a sweet “Goodnight,” picking up the conversation the next day exactly where they left off. They buttress each conversation about the present with anecdotes about the past, filling each other in on the parts of their lives the other has missed: siblings’ weddings, vacations, deaths in the family. They fall into a daily routine. He tells her each and every thing that happens each and every day at school; so what if one day she says—when he tells her about the boy who, during the first numismatics-club meeting, seeing the blue streaks in his hair and the skinny jeans hugging his skinny legs, walked up to him and volunteered the fact that he is gay—“Ugh, stay away from him.”

In December, the central heating is turned on too high and he lies in bed naked, a thin throw blanket draped over half of his body. After an entire day of wearing a jacket, a feral, fermented scent rests in his armpits. He rubs his nose on the papery edge of one and sniffs. He imagines that the smell emanating from his armpit belongs to a white boy. He thinks about their bare, milky limbs coruscated with golden hair and ears pierced with diamond studs, their perilously sagging jeans and exposed boxer briefs. He thinks about standing close to them and inhaling their tangy white-boy breath and the antiseptic fumes of cheap aerosol sprays masking their sweet boy smells. The hardness between his legs makes its presence felt. He touches himself.

He thinks about how the white boys carry triumphant gains in their arms and shoulders, the bulks of their chests, flaunting their physicality. How some of them wear tank tops and even in profile you can see the geometry of their hard abs, the plush palimpsest of hair on their navels. He thinks about the nebulous glow of their skin, about how the faintest trace of hair on their Adam’s apple catches the light in the sun, how a lone bead of sweat dangles for dear life from the bristles on their chins. They always smell so clean that he imagines God softened their flesh with laundry detergent.

Then he thinks of fathers back home, pressing razors into their sons’ palms after Friday prayer, after the sermon in the mosque, the shrill voice of the maulvi echoing in his ears. Cleanliness is half the faith. He hears the hushed tones of fathers whispering to their sons, instructing them to cut—to a size smaller than a grain of rice—the hair in their armpits and above their members; to follow the Sunnah, the lifestyle of the Prophet. He imagines all of these scenarios in his head because his own father has never had such a conversation with him, never pressed a sharp razor into his soft palm. These are scraps of information he has picked up from boys around him, in school and in his family.

He folds his arms behind his head to look at the skin of his armpits, razed to the texture of sandpaper, each pore agitated and red. Soaped and scraped, soaped and scraped, ardently scratched with a razor every week, the sharpness tingling long afterward. And before he was big enough to hold a razor, he remembers how his mother used to strip his armpits clean with homemade wax. How she stood him in front of the mirror to show him how the wax had to be heated on a steel plate that had been blackened over the stove, and then a stick, usually from a leftover ice pop, had to be dipped into the hot, gluey wax, which was then immediately smeared in an even sheet over the hair. His mother taught him to wait and blow gently on the wax, let it harden and shrink and tug on the skin, and then to pull, always in a single direction, and always quickly. Sometimes the pain made his eyes water and sometimes little ellipses of blood formed on the broken skin. And sometimes, even worse, especially when he started waxing his own pits, he tugged too hard, or too slowly, or in the wrong direction, causing a violent breaking of a hair or two—causing within a week the problematic hairs to grow inward when they returned, causing boils to emerge in his pits, boils that grew and grew until they waged war against the tensile strength of his skin, and the skin eventually gave way, causing the boils to burst open, oozing pus before becoming small again, disappearing over time, leaving behind shriveled dark spots and congealed skin. Days later, hair would appear in his armpits again, tiny and prickly, like the heads of toothpicks in a jar.

He looks at the mutilated pores in his armpits and wonders, This is what they come out of, the hairs? The pores are, he thinks, tiny portals—the birthplace of hair. And what is inside? he wonders. Long spools of hair coiled and resting under the warm skin? Coils of hair unwinding themselves every week and squeezing out of the sievelike membrane of skin? He imagines covering the pores up with tape or glue, or better still with cement, so he never has to shave again. And then it hits him, the jubilant realization that here, in this place, he really doesn’t have to.

photo of the silhouette of a boy's shadow on sunlit window curtains
Eylül Aslan / Connected Archives

Half of his time in America has passed, and yet each time he visits a grocery store with his host mother, he experiences afresh the joy of seeing all things familiar and unfamiliar. Every time he purchases Aquafresh toothpaste, St. Ives body wash, and Clinique moisturizers, he feels like he has moved up in life. Yes, these products are available back home too, but in large, shiny marts frequented by the rich, where each time he goes, just to lurk, he is trailed by store clerks, their suspicion barely masked by their eagerness to offer advice and answer questions. Everything tastes different here, though. Pineapples are hard and dry; mangoes are sweet ghosts of themselves, sold in a box or a can, dipped in cancerous syrups. Milk is not delivered by a fat man on a scooter every morning at the break of dawn but pulled down in cool bottles from pristine shelves. It does not smell of the warm, febrile belly of the cow. It smells of nothing and tastes like chalk.

On nights when his host father is away at work, he and his host mother—after putting the kids to bed and cleaning up the mess of swimming-pool noodles and dismembered limbs of toys—watch TV late into the night. Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model—they love these shows. There was a time in his life, around when the Bollywood film Fashion came out, when he grew obsessed with the idea of becoming a dress designer. His family found him one day—tangled in fabric that he had taken from his sisters’ creaky closet, face made up like a Barbie’s—and the successive name-calling, shaming, and blackmailing eventually subdued his interests; but as he sits down to watch these shows with his host mother, a rekindling occurs in his heart. He finds himself unable to speak, the words slipping further and further away from him after his host mother says—as he comments one night on how talented the men on the show are, how beautiful the dresses they design on such short notice, using such scant materials—“If they can be called men at all.”

Undoubtedly his host mother knows what he is, they both know, but he is scared to say it. He does not have words yet to argue about or explain how he feels to his host mother—the shape of his hurt remains unknown to him—so he argues with her about milder things: petty arguments about his chores and about spending more time on Facebook than with the family. When he tells his host mother it’s sunny outside and he wants to tan—and she says that he already has really dark skin and doesn’t need to—he says she is being racist. When she yells and flings things in the air, he locks himself in the bathroom and pretends to cry. The State Department issues him its first disciplinary warning.

For his 16th birthday in March, his host family takes him to Vegas, a city he has expressed a desire to see ever since he arrived. They don’t do much there other than walk up and down the strip, in and out of hotels, but it is the best birthday of his life. During the last ride from the strip to the hotel, he gets into the cab and murmurs—under his breath so the driver doesn’t hear, in a voice full of mock amusement—“So now, where are you from?” Thinking that he is making fun of his host father for being nice and conversing with the cab drivers (when he’s simply remarking on the fact that in the two days in Vegas, every single cab driver has been a non-American, from Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Bosnia, or Ukraine, speaking accented English, just as he does), his host mother scolds him in front of everyone, lecturing him on the American values of politeness and kindness.

A few months have passed since he last shaved his armpits. The hair has exposed its unseen potential, growing longer and longer every month. Though he should be sickened, he is delighted to find, post-shower, the solvent smell of fresh sweat beneath his arms, his pits mildly sticky like a Post-it pressed and plucked too many times. In his more daring moments, he steps outside the house wearing tank tops recently purchased from Target. He finds excuses to expose his armpits, to show the world his new, benign development. He scratches the back of his neck to rid himself of a nonexistent itch; he reaches for the top shelf in the library to grab a book that he replaces seconds later. He is fascinated by how the barest puff of air provokes the hair in his pits into motion, flickering like a hundred candlewicks. How devoid of shame this ostentatious display of virility, how lacking in grace. How beautiful.

The applications arrive for the next year’s crop of exchange students and are sent to the current host families, neatly plastic-coated. His host family goes through all the forms, asking his opinion on each applicant. His host parents decide not to host next year. They want to take a break, they say. He feels two things simultaneously: A part of him is happy that for a while, he will be their only exchange-child experience, and a part of him feels he has let them down so much that they will never want to host again.

Several months later, when he is back in Karachi, he will learn that in the end they did decide to host another exchange student, from Senegal, and a year later he will learn that they decided to adopt him, to keep him forever. They will announce it on Facebook, our new son, and set up a GoFundMe to pay for his college education. They will make him a permanent member of their family, just as he had imagined they would—but didn’t—make him.

As spring arrives, his host parents go out together—to an annual police officers’ dinner—which is something they do not do often. His host mother’s sister, the one who lives in Fresno, comes over to babysit the kids, along with her hot jock of a husband and their son. When his host parents leave, she invites her half brother and his girlfriend over too. He sits talking to these people, telling them, yes, he is from Pakistan; no, that’s not in Saudi Arabia; yes, he is a Muslim; and no, he doesn’t speak Islam. The girlfriend is especially impressed by the exchange student’s school newspaper, which has recently published a heavily plagiarized feature he has written. Eventually, boredom stalks the gathering. Smiles are exchanged. A bottle of wine is produced. Passed around and gulped down. Another bottle. It is not his first time drinking alcohol—he has been stealing vodka and rum from the pantry throughout the year, mixing it with orange and cranberry juice—but he says that it is. This fascinates the group, and they fill his glass again and again. His host siblings sleep in their room peacefully, soundlessly, but when his host parents return home to a party of half-passed-out babysitters, their yelling wakes them up.

Later, when his host father’s younger brother is getting married, his host parents let him drink under their supervision. They don’t seem to notice that he gets drunk out of his mind. In the privacy of the bathroom, where he runs to throw up, he thinks to himself, Now I am drunk and should act like a drunk person. Drawing on images of drunk people—mostly from Indian movies and TV shows, because he has never seen a drunk person in his life in Pakistan—he begins to sway and stagger and slur his speech, much for his own amusement, but more for the drunken girls in short, shiny, sequined dresses, who call him cute and take selfies with him on their iPhones. When he is no longer able to walk or even stand, his host father carries him to his room and puts him to bed. For years he will replay this memory in his head again and again, trying to conjure the exact image of his host father lovingly planting a kiss on his forehead and covering him up with crisp white sheets and whispering, “Goodnight, son.” He will remember, too, how minutes later, he purposely rolled off the bed, just to be held again and be put back in by his host father.

“Grounded and phone is taken away”: He uploads a status on Facebook several weeks later, using the small laptop his host parents have loaned him for schoolwork. As he had hoped, his host mother comes out of her room, into the living room, where he is sleeping—his own room is occupied by his host father’s parents, who are visiting. “Give me the laptop,” she whisper-yells. “Now.” His phone has already been confiscated, all his messages on it, conversations with the boys he has pursued at school—to no avail—and the phone has no lock. He shuts the laptop and hands it to her.

She will, of course, read all his chats—with the boy in his Spanish class, with the one who is a peer tutor, and with the one he met at a debate tournament. Later, she will confront him not about the risqué messages to these boys, but about the fact that he lied to one of them, told him that during his visit to Las Vegas, his host family had taken him to a Dev concert, and also to the VMAs, where he had seen Taylor Swift perform live, all of which showed that he was ungrateful and did not fully appreciate what his host family had actually done for him.

After a few days, his host father takes him out for coffee, tells the exchange student that they love him very much, but if he continues to disrespect his wife, they will have no choice but to ask him to leave their home.

It’s May—one month to go. The thought of leaving crushes him. Despite the fights with his host mother, there is no place else he would rather be. He feels bad about not missing his family, his real family back home, his sisters, his father, his mother—especially his mother—who has torn her clothes to dress him, has flung pieces of meat from her plate onto his. His mother whom he loves but has never spoken with the way he speaks with his host mother: endlessly, ’til he runs out of breath. Sometimes in the middle of the night he wakes up from nightmares—he dreams that he is already back home, in Pakistan. His body breaks out in a cold sweat and his armpits, now so full of hair, are clammy.

His fights with his host mother become more frequent, more virulent. He has figured out ways to hurt her, and he finds it thrilling to watch her face dissolve in a mix of anger and sadness. Calling her “Host Mom” does the trick. Telling her that he is not interested in going to family events and wants to focus on community service—so he can get that certificate from the White House, signed by Obama—works too. So does eating a snack as soon as he gets home from school, and then, at the dinner table, telling her he is no longer hungry for the meal she has spent a lot of time preparing. Some days he does not understand why he pushes her buttons. His host mother sings Lady Gaga with him. She puts together his costumes for the spring-fling week at school. She passes down Aveeno skin-care products for his cystic acne. She trusts him to take care of the kids while she does quick errands. She tells him that as a teenager she was very rebellious and belligerent—getting suspended from school, bringing back bad boys, calling her mother a bitch, etc. Some days the exchange student wonders if he has been karmically brought into her life, to give her a taste of her own medicine. Despite the ceaseless chatter, he never feels truly seen or accepted by her. Isn’t half-formed love what he’s received all his life?

On the night of his graduation, as a surprise for him, his host mother cooks chicken korma using the spices he has brought from home. His local coordinator and a few other exchange students, and his host mother’s sister and her hot jock of a husband and their son and his host father’s brother and his newlywed wife and their unborn child, are invited. When he comes home from the graduation ceremony, he is greeted by the smell of garam masala and for a second, he thinks his mother has come all the way from Karachi to cook dinner for him. Before he sits down to eat, his host mother grabs him by the arm, drags him to his room, to the dresser in the corner, on the shiny surface of which he had left, while rushing to get ready for the graduation ceremony, the clippings of his fingernails. Their ragged edges streaked with black dirt stare at him. “Do not do this ever again,” she says, her eyes aglimmer with fury. “I almost threw up.” Then, she leads him back out and smiles at the guests. He feels ashamed, his hunger replaced by sadness. Later at night, crying in his bed, he thinks that he did not even ask her what she was doing in his room, and then he remembers that it isn’t his room at all.

One week before he is to officially return home, he is asked to leave. The reason for the argument with his host mother is irrelevant, as it always is. They are hurtling along Church Street at high speed to the Hair Mania for what will be his final haircut in America; tumbleweeds hurl themselves in their way with a suicidal ambition. The steering wheel is slapped; words like fuck and goddammit fly from his host mother’s mouth. He—sensing that he has set in motion something that cannot be reversed—clutches his breath. The warm June sun shines in his eyes.

His local coordinator comes to pick him up from the salon, not his host mother, and he knows what this means. On the ride home, his neck and back itch, chopped hair clinging to the damp skin. His host mother is waiting for him at the door, the cordless phone in her hand, host father on the line. After a preamble about his disappointment and hurt, the father says, “I will have to ask you to leave our house,” and though he has expected this, he allows himself to be shocked by the dictate. He falls to the ground, cries.

“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry,” he says now to whoever will listen to him: his host mother, who averts her eyes; his local coordinator, who shrugs; the elder of the two host siblings, who watches with wide-eyed horror, and the younger girl, who puts her foot in her mouth. “Pack whatever you can,” his local coordinator says. She will send for the rest later.

At his local coordinator’s parents’ house, he will occupy an empty room until his future is decided by the national coordinator. He sleeps in a foreign bed all over again. Outside the window, an unfamiliar street, with identical cream- and beige-colored houses; the moon is full, and full of scars.

In the morning, post-shower, post-breakfast, his local coordinator calls. She speaks in a low, mournful voice. “Yeah, dude, sorry, we are putting you on a flight back home tomorrow.” There is a silence, because he doesn’t know what to say, what to do with his voice. Then there is laughter, a thigh being slapped. “I am kidding, dude, relax. You’ll go home after a week, with everyone else. As planned.” Relief spreads; his eyes fill with tears. A knot loosens somewhere inside of him. “Your dad will come to pick you up tomorrow afternoon.” The muscle of his heart unfurls. But then: “No, they are not taking you back in.” A pause. “For, like, a last family meeting. To talk.”

The next day his host father runs late but eventually comes to pick him up. While he is not exactly hostile, he is not cordial either. His host father asks if he is hungry, if he has eaten. The exchange student explains his lack of hunger. “Anxiety,” the host father concedes, and buys him a sandwich anyway.

At the dining table in their house once again. His host parents on one side, their backs to the kitchen, and he on the other, his back to the window that looks out onto the backyard and the pool. His host parents’ English is calm and impeccable, their words like birds returning at night. He feels the language sharp in his mouth; his tongue chafes against his teeth. He gathers his shattered voice, shard by ragged shard. He begins with a dramatic prelude—the memory of which will flush his cheeks and make him cringe for years to come, though later he will not remember if this was rehearsed or spontaneous. “Home is where the heart is,” he says, voice quivering, snot halfway between his nose and lips. It is a phrase he has picked up from a Christmas ornament. He tells them they are—this is—his home.

He apologizes, accepts his mistakes, makes no excuses. A laptop screen is flipped open, turned in his direction. His eyes take a moment to adjust to the brightness. A Word document, a couple of thousand words long. A diary of his arguments with his host mother, trifling skirmishes, cataloged by date and time. The fog in his head clears, things come into focus. Words such as annoyed and too long glisten on the page. It feels like a betrayal that his host mother has kept a diary all along.

A copy of the document has been emailed to his local coordinator and to the national coordinator, who upon reading his host mother’s notes will, the exchange student later learns from his local coordinator, question whether it was a loving household for him anyway. “Feeding off of each other’s negativity,” someone will suggest. The document is also emailed to the exchange student’s family back in Karachi, but he will log in to his father’s account to delete the message before his father can read it.

When his host family says that they forgive him, that in the future the doors of their house will be open to him, he feels irritated. These wrapped gifts of kindness, packaged in a supremely American brand of congeniality.

Back at the house of his local coordinator’s parents, he is surprised when, for the first time during his nearly year-long stay in America, the electricity goes out. He is used to load-shedding, which happens almost every day in Karachi, but he has allowed himself the luxury of getting used to the constant presence of artificial light and air around him. The whir of the refrigerator disappears, and the restless shadow of the ceiling fan attains a state of uncanny calm. Soon the recycled air in the house begins to shift, an osmosis from cool to warm to unbearably hot. His hairy armpits are damp; a wet film of sweat has formed where his left foot rests on his right. He mistakes the churning in his stomach for hunger. He goes to the kitchen and retrieves the leftover sandwich from the fridge. He feels queasy—sick, not hungry—and tosses it in the bin. He wants to throw up, so he goes to the bathroom, leans over the toilet, and heaves. Nothing. He remains hunched over the bowl, his mouth dry and tears in his eyes. How much he has lied to others, to himself, he thinks, everything a deception, a facade. When his parents come to pick him up at the airport a week from now—reunited with the well-disciplined boy they know from back home—their eyes will swell, faces pasty with pride.

He should shower, he thinks, and takes his shirt off and then his shorts and hangs them up. He looks at his face in the mirror. Rheumy, jaundiced eyes; ruddy, terra-cotta complexion. Sunlight makes the patina of sebum on his skin gleam. The boy he sees is not the one who arrived here 10 months ago. He has a small belly now, lean muscles on his arms from all the swimming, and pimples scattered all over his forehead. Face saturated with fat, cheeks the size of apricots. He has lost fluency in the language of his body; only now is he noticing.

He picks up the razor. For a split second the blade catches light from the sun streaming in through the window, a small spot in its center, from which brightness explodes. But the hair in his armpits is too long and unruly now. He imagines it will get caught in the blade, tangle, and become stubborn knots. He puts the razor back down. He raises both his arms and places them on his head. He turns his head left and then right, sniffs—that new scent of his body: animal and ethereal and smarmy. When did he become this person, and how?


This story appears in the December 2021 print edition.

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rocketo
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The Karen Episode of Queen Latifah's The Equalizer Shows All That Is Wrong With the Current Anti-Woke Movement

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Black people don't enjoy protesting all of this racist shit. It's not fun in any way, and there's lots of other things to worry about. by Charles Mudede
And, yes, my name is actually Karen.
"And, yes, my name is actually Karen." CBS

In the The Equalizer, three generations of black women live under the same roof. There's Viola "Aunt Vi" Marsette (Lorraine Toussaint), a boomer; there is Robyn McCall (Queen Latifah), a Gen Xer; and there is Delilah McCall (Laya DeLeon Hayes), a Gen Zer.

The Gen Xer is the star of the show. She was trained by some elite force of the US military, and she now offers the skills she learned to powerless people in the New York City area. Latifah was raised in the era when the first Equalizer, staring the British actor Edward Woodward, made its mark on American popular culture (1985–1989).

In the subplot of the fifth episode of the show's second season, "Followers," a classic Karen leaps from social media onto the TV screen. The black woman who suffers the Karen is the boomer of the McCall house, Aunt Vi. She is shopping with her niece in a fancy second-hand store when an obnoxious white woman gets in her face about a yellow dress in her hands. The white woman wants the dress; the black woman is at a loss for words. The rudeness and sense of entitlement is just too much. The white woman calls the police when, after assaulting the black woman, she does not get her dress.


The police enter the store, listen to the Karen, and, predictably, threaten to take Aunt Vi downtown if she doesn't make an apology for whatever happened between the two. Aunt Vi stands her ground and refuses to do any such thing. But before the white cops arrests the recalcitrant black woman, her niece intervenes with a video clip. Like a good Gen Zer, she captured the whole bad business on her phone. She presses play on the touchscreen, the cops see the truth, and they force the Karen to apologize to the black woman.

But here's where things get interesting. Aunt Vi tells the cops that it's not over. As she was the victim of an assault, shouldn't they ask her if she wants to press charges against the white woman? The faces on the cops fall hard upon hearing this. The apology is not enough for the uppity negro. But before they can cook up an answer, Aunt Vi tells them that she will not press charges because her relationship with policing is not the same as that of the white woman. The police are not a weapon to her.

I bring this scene up for two reasons. One, it explains exactly what many on the right and white center-left mock when mocking wokeness. It's not so much an idea or program but a mode of survival. Wokeness is about staying alive. I stay awake to stay awake.

When Aunt Vi realizes that the Karen has placed her life and the life of her niece in danger, she needs to make a very tough decision: Her dignity or her life. What is of more value at that moment? Should she just apologize to the white woman, as the police demand? But wouldn't capitulation to a racist system negatively impact the developing mind of her black 15-year-old niece? This is not a situation a black person can sleep on.

The second important thing captured by the scene is that sheer exhaustion led Aunt Vi not to press charges. Once the danger had cleared, she just wanted her life back and nothing more. You can't keep fighting your society all of the time. Where is there time to live when you're protesting every racist thing that happens to you? The right and white-left have completely missed this point, which is brilliantly made at the end of the shop scene of The Equalizer.

Blacks don't enjoy protesting all of this racist shit. It's not fun in any way, and there's lots of other things to worry about—the state of a marriage, the education of children, credit card debt, health insurance, rising rent, falling wages, and so on. The frustration expressed by Vi says this: Why wont white people let her live her life? Why do they have get into it at every opportunity? Why can't she just look at a yellow dress in peace.

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rocketo
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