By Kam Sandhu
Alongside the release of our new podcast Now We Here, which was inspired by TWiB, we interviewed CEO and Host Elon James White.
You’re CEO of TWiB (This Week In Blackness) an award winning show, and have also appeared regularly on news networks across America and even internationally on the BBC here in the UK, but going back to 2008 what was the reason you started the platform TWiB? What were your experiences watching the media and how it represented you?
I had my feelings around representation within the media. I had been an outspoken critic of BET (Black Entertainment Television), and our representation in media in general. But what had happened in 2008 was I had successfully run a festival in NYC called the black comedy experiment where I basically was attempting to challenge certain stereotypes around what black comedy looked like, what a black comedian was and what content we discussed. So we put a festival around it and it was a success; we got a lot of press, ended up getting called into VH1 for a meeting and they asked me to put together a black best week ever. They were trying to capitalise on the black audience they were picking up. I told them whatever I put together, it won’t look like what you guys are doing now because I don’t like what you’re doing now. They said ‘no we understand, we want to see what you would do.’ Over the next few months I had a couple of ideas floating around, around the programme we would do, what it would look like.
I decided to do a screen test on Youtube to see what this would look like and work through it. And that was the first This Week In Blackness video; just putting this video on the Internet and seeing what it looked like, sounded like, but I didn’t expect anyone to pay attention to it. After I did one I saw all the mistakes I made, and did another one that same week. I think I maybe put out three in one week. It was a weekly show and I did three in one week to see what was the best way of doing it. By episode 4, I ended up paying attention to a big Conservative conference out here that is considered problematic by certain circles, and they handed out out a very racist representation of Obama. It wasn’t CPAC itself – basically one of the vendors there was selling these Obama waffles, and someone sent me a message saying have you seen this? So then I covered that, on why it was problematic. It happened to get caught up in the news cycle – a lot of liberal blogs started to post this video and all of a sudden people were commenting and I was like, wait people are watching this. People started to pay attention to the video. All of a sudden I found myself in a position where I was able to weigh in on the election but I was testing out a layout for the show. In the middle of that people started telling me they were using the video in classrooms, within academia, which is something I wasn’t expecting.
Soon after, one of my colleagues hit me up saying do you know Melissa Harris-Perry. I said I’m not familiar with her work. She said get to know her she’s doing great work and is apparently a fan of yours…She’s a professor at Princeton and she’s posting your videos and saying she is using them in classrooms. This is what started the whole platform of TWiB – putting together the test for VH1 which by the way they didn’t accept because it was too political, they thought it was funny but they thought it was too political.
What are your thoughts on why the media is so bad at representation?
The media didn’t get bad. It’s always been bad. When you think about it the media was not created to be this great meritocracy that covers everything reasonable and fairly from all communities, that’s not what media ever was. That’s why there’s a long rich history of independent black media, because it was always needed. Over time, for our stories to get told, we would have to tell our stories, for generations now. I see TWiB as just another example of having to create a space that is not there.
You talk in depth about injustice and instances of police brutality and abuse, the details of which are harsh, emotive and at times difficult listening. Is this an important part of what you do to demonstrate the reality of what is happening?
I don’t think we thought we were going to be that type of space initially. We were supposed to be way more of an entertainment style space. But as big stories would happen over the years, we would tackle these conversations, and we would see the audience needed these conversations tackled because they couldn’t see anywhere else [to have them]. So early on, when Donald Trump initially asked, forced, Obama to show his long form birth certificate. That was a moment where the community felt dejected, how even in the highest office of the land you are basically told to show your papers, in order to continue doing your job. It was a hard time, and people started turning to us to have that conversation.
Over the years various verdicts were read – around the Zimmerman trial we ended up going on air that night. It was Saturday night. I was in the Bay, West Coast of the US – it was eight-something on the East coast, one-something we see the verdict come down. I was at my co-hosts house and I was like I think we need to go on air, she said yeah. So we leave and go on air and be on air for 6 hours with people calling in to weigh in on stuff. We realised our audience was looking for these types of conversations and they didn’t feel like they had a space. There wasn’t any safe space to discuss these things. There’s always one [version] shown in the media, rather than lots of different ways of looking at what’s happening, why it’s happening and how it’s affecting our community and that’s how we became that space overall.
Gary Younge is a correspondent for The Guardian – he’s a black journalist that became a New York correspondent and reported on the Obama election in 2008 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement since 2014. At a recent speech he said that the instances of brutality against the black community have been going on for years but we have reached a point where we are ‘unable to pass off the grotesque as unremarkable’, do you agree?
That’s why you see a lot of people aren’t overly like…let’s have a conversation about this because we’ve been having conversations about this. What we’re seeing now in the media, in the black community we’ve had these conversations about what’s happening for generations. You had someone – a niece , a nephew, uncle or your parent’s experiences. It’s always been the case that this is happening. Now with the advent of social media, you have the opportunity for stories to move across the web in ways it could never move in the past, it would never be as fast to get to somewhere else. The conversation around Mike Brown happening in Ferguson, Missouri, suddenly became a national conversation we were having, that we were participating in – West coast to East coast to internationally.
What we’re seeing right now is a community grown tired of the same stories happening over and over and over, and being told ‘it’s separate, it’s not the same,’ when we can categorically prove that is not the case. Its a major issue that’s happening over and over and that’s constantly being ignored and you’re ignoring it. We can prove it. Even down to when people talk about instances that are on video. We can show this is happening. Even I am a little bit tired of seeing our bodies, victimised over and over again hoping that white people will eventually go ‘oh now I see what the problem is/I see your point it’s really bad.’ I’m tired of it. A lot of people don’t want to go through that.
Information moves quickly. You don’t feel you’re alone where there are national moments of tragedy or mourning [in] communities. You might be the one black person in your office but you can connect to other communities where there is also grief, so you can find comfort and solace when you are not anywhere near them. I have had people in the UK speaking in on issues that we’re having and offering support because of the medium and how stories are reported . So that’s the big difference in how we are dealing with what we are dealing with nowadays. There’s a lot more folks taking advantage of the fact we can create our own platforms and call things out and not wait for permission from spaces to speak about what we think is important.
In many cases, as shown in the examples made prominent by the BLM movement, black lives are often vilified after their death. How do you move to break these cycles?
At this point it’s almost comical how it happens. With the Michael Brown shooting I tweeted the night it happened ‘I really hope he didn’t have marijuana in his system because he if he does he will have deserved his death.’ Little did we know that would become a point of contention in that whole case. It’s the concept of rejecting a certain type of respectability politics, meaning you are only a victim if you are a perfect victim, that you’ve never done anything wrong, you’ve never been in trouble – that’s the only way you can ask for justice. Cause if you’ve ever done anything else wrong, your death now, no matter how unjust it was, it’s your fault because you’re one of those people. So having a conversation around what that means and how ridiculous it is, and you can’t have justice waiting on whether someone is what others consider a perfect person.
One of the reasons you know the name of Rosa Parks is because she was considered a perfect victim for that. When they did the whole bus boycott, someone else had done that – actually done what Rosa Parks did but she was not the perfect person. This is something that is stuck within culture. For the most part majority culture, and absorbed by black culture as well. We are afraid to step up people if they don’t qualify. Certain voices might not speak up because they don’t qualify as the perfect victim. Part of our job is to point out humanity is humanity no matter what, and whether a person was arrested doesn’t mean they should be shot in the back and that should be considered okay.
After the non-indictment of the officer that shot Tamir Rice, a Cleveland press release asked protestors to act in the spirit of MLK and remain peaceful…
That’s something that again, it follows respectability politics. And they quote MLK and ignore the other quote from MLK where he explains riots are the voice of the unheard. It doesn’t just happen. There’s reasons why these things occur and it’s pretty insulting to communities that are losing their members, [their] youth to violence, that they should be as quiet and peaceful as possible.People have been peaceful for some time, and you guys keep killing us. So now what? We’ve tried peaceful, we’ve tried showing you how human we are all that good stuff, none of that’s working so what are we supposed to do.
I have listened to members of the BLM movement call in to your show and say that you helped radicalise them. Was that something you aimed for or thought would happen?
Of all the things that I thought would be connected to us, the idea that we radicalise folks I never even put in my head as a possibility honestly speaking. And we’ve had folks tell us that. Directly. Because of your shows it radicalised us or whatever, and I’m like really? You mean the nerdy brunching negroes in Brooklyn are the reason why you decided to become radicalised, and its something I still absorb because in all honesty I am in the midst of being radicalised in the past few years. I’ve been in a continuous space of radicalisation having to report these stories over and over and seeing things for which there is no other explanation – dealing with the reality of it.
It’s funny, before we were even fully radicalised we were radicalising other people, by having these conversations which shows that having these conversations is some kind of revolutionary act. Because black people just hearing it, just hearing very direct conversation around these issues, they decide they can’t live by the way things are anymore. That shows, one, the problem with media in general because they’re not doing their job because more people should be upset, but its also part of the mentality. In Arizona, they ended ethnic studies, because one of the rationales was it made the ethnics angry. Because when you read and when you hear about reality, sometimes you go hey I’m not okay with that, our culture shouldn’t be treated this way and then people say hey why don’t you calm down. Remember you’re American, just be American you don’t have to be all that other stuff. But no, I’m other things too and I’m not okay with this.
It’s been a weird time understanding we play a role in that, especially for the fact that we weren’t trying. There are people out there actually trying to radicalise folk and I feel as if when people talk about our work or point to what we do they think of us in this weird way. Like I joke that people think it’s just 90 minutes of slave crime, like woe is me and oh the white man – that’s what people think what we’re doing is, and we’re not. As someone who listens to the show you know that’s not how the show rolls. We have conversations and we are not afraid of what the conversation means and the reality of it, and we’re very much aware these things have happened, we want change, we’re going to work towards that but at the same time we’re not going to deny our humanity.
I believe the way we do things, how we have conversations, I look at it as a data point in a bigger picture. What I do with TWiB I refer to it as being a public negro, rather than a public intellectual, a public negro, who lives very much out in the open. I have things out in the open, but I’m creating data points in the conversations. So when people say black people don’t do A, well some black people don’t do that but Elon James said so and so, or folks on TWiB do A, B and C- so we create these different data points that challenge what the overall norm is and what people can say about what we do. Every time we’re written up or academic papers are written around us, we’re changing the discussion around us, around what blackness looks like what it is and what it means to be black in America; and we hope to affect other spaces internationally as well.
You talk a lot about the problems you can face in progressive spaces to get issues and points across. How important is it to challenge these spaces and what you would call ‘White Progressives TM’?
I look at it that, it is often a talk about the ‘Coalition’, folks who are working together for change and I find it problematic because a lot of the time this coalition only works based on the marginalised folks letting go. When you say hey we have an issue, you’re told we have bigger issues that affect everyone and your community as well so you have to be this and they kind of blow us off and I don’t sit well with that in a space where people are supposedly on our side, in coalitions and allies. Are we really on the same team? Then why am I being ignored if I talk about sexism, or racism, LGBT – their community, why is it that any time anyone in this coalition points out their issues they’re being divisive, and we need to come together.
I work with Netroots Nation who do a progressive conference, and other spaces who would qualify as white progressives. In the end I do it because I feel have to challenge them even in their own space, you cannot think that this is okay. And so if I have to come in and say hey you know you’re fucking up right, if you’re so progressive you should be doing a, b and c and if I have to make these arguments then we do, otherwise we will sit around wondering when it’s our turn again. We’ve been a part of this coalition for a long time – the black community, so why aren’t our issues put at the front. This is the first presidential campaign where police brutality has taken any type of real forefront space and they’re doing the minimum around it. In conversations and debates they’ll come and say something, and questions go fast – it’s not stuck on as it should be. That’s why you have to go at these team mates or allies, they need to understand they’re dropping the ball. Because if we let it happen they’ll continue.
You started a hashtag called The Empty Chair which lead to a host of people telling you their stories and experiences of abuse. Can you tell us what happened?
New York Magazine put out a cover on the alleged convictions against Bill Cosby – those who had come forward saying he had assaulted them, raped them or drugged them – they had a whole cover. A very moving cover. All these women, like 15 something women and one empty chair, because they hadn’t come forward yet or not agreed to do this thing – the empty chair was for all the people who are victims but couldn’t speak up or call out their abusers in the way they’d like to. And it was something that was striking to me and a bunch of folks on Twitter so I tweeted out #theemptychair and people slowly started tweeting me about why they were in the empty chair and couldn’t speak out against their abuser. Someone sent me a direct message on Twitter and explained their abuser knew they needed the money more than they needed justice so they took the settlement as opposed to pushing it because they desperately needed money. I said do you want me to put this out publicly without your name? And they said please. So I published it without their name, just the story and then people started sending stories back to back. I ended up publishing hundreds of stories of folks, of their experiences, of why they couldn’t speak out against their assaulter who raped them, the reason why even when they tried they were told not to by police, family, friends. I’m forever changed having read so many of those stories. And the arguments around quote-unquote ‘lying bitches’. Really, they’re lying so much they send someone they don’t know a story to publish anonymously, so they get nothing out of it except they get to express what happened to them and people would say we believe you, but they’re lying bitches, that doesn’t make sense so we pushed that a lot. And it was a thing.
Does this show the things that independent media could achieve if done right?
Right. That’s another reason why when you asked about the idea of challenging spaces we have to do it because when we do the work, we do it the way we want to do it. How we do it is in this vein of what progressive media should look like. Yes we have a focus on people of colour, and black folks but we cover various stories. If there’s injustice we’re going to cover it. If you believe in intersectionality, you understand these stories a lot of times touch blackness, in all sorts of ways, there are black LGBT folks, trans folks, women – that skit from SAturday Night Live where white people realise Beyonce was black – one of the best lines was ‘but she’s a woman’/’I think she can be both.’ People don’t understand the intersectionality around issues that touch on blackness. If we care about this we should be caring about all of these intersections, and how they are connected.
I was joking I had business cards saying writer, performer and the third one was CEO and troublemaker or problematic negro and I look at the job and the work we do as a challenge and we can do it in a way that others can’t do so succcesfully – which is with humour – in the middle of having serious conversations, people having this conversation are also human, not just robots going in on things wagging our fingers, so that’s important.
Our big push this year is our video platform blackness.tv – we created a space where we can control the content we are putting out. Whenever you challenge media the first thing people do in order to shut you up or derail you is say ‘well what are you doing, you’re not doing anything.’ I will go do it. I will figure it out. In previous years we built up the network of shows and podcast suites, this year we are pushing video content. Our main show will be on American TV soon, TWiB prime will have video We relaunched Blacking It Up. We’re creating video content people want to watch. We are bulding our platform to do that. We will have the conversations and challenge people and do it without any corporate interests looming over our head. We get to challenge things other places can’t because they’re worried about ad revenue and because of our model with people subscribing directly, the only people we have to answer to, are our readers.