General Snobbery
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Monday
Dec202010

Soledad O'Brien, the Snob and the "Context" of Our Character

This weekend the Twitter alerted me that CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Howard Kurtz had mentioned my site on Reliable Sources on Sunday. They were talking about the online debate about O'Brien's ethnicity and how she defines herself and Kurtz mentions a quote by "a blogger by the name of Black Snob." My befuddlement went from mild amusement to WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON when I realized I was kind of, sort of being accused of saying O'Brien wasn't black enough to report on black people.

Which was insane considering the cited piece where I was accused of this was from a lengthy post where I defended her and other light skinned people from black litmus tests by the self-appointed, online racial police. Somehow my musings on colorism were a misinterpreted as an endorsement of the colorism I loathe.

More after the jump.

From CNN:

A blogger by the name of Black Snob who said -- who wrote or blogged -- "Can Soledad O'Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not sounding black and not being married to a black man?"

The quote was one sentence from a much longer piece I wrote in 2008 in response to grumbling online about O'Brien not being "black enough." Long-time readers know that it bothers when people routinely have their blackness questioned based on how they physically appear or their mannerisms. I've written a lot of posts about it. The post I wrote regarding O'Brien was an abstract look at the arguments I thought those who were challenging her on her race were making and the absurdity of them. Of how these accusations of "black is, black ain't" is all part of the larger psychological game routed in dividing black people.

But out of context ... well, out of context it's just a series of questions posed left up to interpretation. In this case, my questions were presented as an endorsement of being one who picks and chooses who to accept as black based on some abstract set of criteria.

For instance, this is the passage referenced by Kurtz and that was quoted in the book:

Can Soledad O'Brien embrace blackness while not looking black, not "sounding" black and not being married to a black man? Can she embrace it with blond, blue-eyed children? Have the rules of blackness changed, or are we still playing the same psychological mind games we've always played when it has come to race in America?

I often say in America you are what you look like? But if you look white but call yourself black, what are you?

But, here's the main argument I make in the lengthy piece, which was about racial identity in our so-called "post-racial" America:

After decades of the "one drop rule," where blackness was based on the slightest amount of African heritage, it seemed odd to argue over a woman who openly embraces both sides of her family and talks candidly about being raised black, but also being biracial. It seemed odd to determine that this was some form of betrayal if she used the term multi-ethnic in reference to herself when she is, in fact, multi-ethnic.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama describes himself as a black man of mixed heritage and no one questions it, but Soledad O'Brien does it and it's somehow contradictory. I have come to believe this is only because she looks white enough to pass and is married to a white man. These signifiers are used to strip her of her right to call herself a person of color. They are a way to reject her for having the gall to be born not looking black in an age where half-black people who don't look black often choose to declare themselves otherwise.

So, per my own post in its entirety, it's about the absurdity of accusing Soledad of not being black enough. It was a defense of her and other biracial, multi-ethnic people.

On the show, O'Brien was talking about her new book "The Next Big Story," where I'm also mentioned in the chapter "Not Black Enough." In the span of few paragraphs, O'Brien sums up some online criticism of her not being black enough to report her "Black In America" series for CNN. The only problem is the examples she uses are pretty unimpressive. But maybe that was by design to point out the ridiculousness of the arguments.

She references a post from The FreshXPress, but there is no mention of the author. (The FreshXPress is a group blog with tons of different contributors, similar to Huffington Post.) But the post in question was directly critical of whether or not O'Brien has the racial agency to report on black people. The second was a mention from my joke blog "The Secret Council of American Negroes," from a parody post praising people who could pass for white, but don't. That one was more silly and embarrassing than anything, because, in my opinion, that was one of the least funny things I wrote for the site. For those who don't know, the Secret Council was a joke/political satire site I created in 2008. It features plot lines about celebrity babies acting as spies and Mitt Romney as a double-agent. It's not intended to be taken with any degree of seriousness.

Then, finally, comes the quote from the last two paragraphs of my original blog post in 2008. But it isn't quote from the Snob blog or Racialicious, were it was reposted at the time. It's referenced to Zimbio, an online magazine news aggregate site. This tells me that my story was likely found in a random Google search and no real effort was made to look at the piece in its entirety or its original context. There wasn't even an effort to find out where it came from.

Altogether, the section on bloggers criticizing whether she was black enough wasn't well sourced and only featured one post that was actually critical about her racial affiliation. The SCAN post was satire and had no mention of her ability to report on black people and the blog post I wrote that was cited to Zimbio was completely taken out of context. And in that piece I still did not criticize whether or not she had the right to report CNN's Black In America. I criticized those belly aching online about her.

In all actuality, the few paragraphs about the blogosphere's reaction to her ethnicity seemed pretty much like a dispassionate afterthought thrown together after a dull Google search that found most people, outside of anonymous commentators, didn't really question her race. But that these scant results were needed to prove a larger narrative. You can't say people are attacking you online if you can't demonstrate evidence of an attack. It's just the evidence was rather underwhelming. But, again, I think it was underwhelming by design to make the arguments look as absurd as they are.

As for my reaction to all this, I'm not going to lie. I was a little disappointed. Mostly because I've written extensively about colorism, about light skin/dark skin debates and how I feel biracial people should be able to define themselves. I've written that you can be both black and Latino. And the piece I wrote about Soledad was the result of my own outrage and confusion that black people were still having this argument in chat rooms online. Or that people still feel the need to quantify statements like "I'm normally not into light skinned dudes like that, but he's cute" or "She's cute for a dark girl" and other such nonsense. But I could see how if someone didn't read the whole post or didn't read it closely could misunderstand my intent.

And to be honest, while I was initially freaked out by what I thought was an accusation that I was being critical of her right to self-define, once I saw Reliable Sources and once I read the passage in the book two things became very evident:

1. She probably never read that full post in its full context on either my personal site here or Racialicious.

2. This was all pretty much an afterthought in her effort to create a larger narrative about people accusing her of not being black enough.

So for those two reasons: This is not that big of a deal. I'm bummed that I'm misrepresented, but it was so small, so much of a throwaway that it's more comical than anything.

But, I'm mentioned in a book! And got named dropped on Reliable Sources. That counts for something, right? Only I'm accused of something awful, but not really, because the quote I made wasn't particularly damning, my name wasn't mentioned, and it was a set up to present what I wrote, and what others said, as crude racial arguments in an internet vacuum.

Live by the blog. End up misquoted in books by the blog. 

Funny thing is, I still like Soledad despite the confusion. So if you were under the false impression that there was some beef going on, let me be the first to shoot that down. Reading the book confirmed for me that she's likely never read this blog or has any clue who I am. She just thought I was some random, anonymous commenter on the Internet, pissing into the virtual wind. I wasn't a fan of Black In America. I was sometimes harsh, even. But that was because I thought the series lacked depth and was a little pandering and voyeuristic in parts. But, again, that had nothing to do with how she looks. It had everything to do with the limitations of doing a documentary about African-American culture within the limits of a cable news network.

I honestly do think it was all a misunderstanding. 

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Reader Comments (36)

That's disappointing and sloppy journalism by Howard Kurtz, which is surprising because he's usually the one critical of sloppy and one dimensional reporting in the news business. If they both had actually bothered to read entire blog postsmand research (what these journos routinely preach) before jumping to misinformed assumptions, they would both realize they sorely misrepresented what your original post was about.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe New Black Woman

great post! you've certainly covered all basis, and i do hope that they print a retraction. in this case, THAT wld be good journalism.

i have to tell you in all honesty that in reading about this issue, i was exhausted from start to finish, not because i don't relate, or can't relate-- i do in many more ways than you can imagine--but because i don't 'see' people: black people, multi-ethnic people, biracial people ever really coming to terms or agreement on what constitutes 'black' in america. i know that 'white people' other than those who 'have black friends,' have an impression of what it means to be black, live black, and exude blackness, but perhaps we are not talking about "those people," or are we?

the fact that i am a canadian [i don't use the term african-canadian, many of us don't] might have something to do with it, the fact that i am of african and caribbean descent might be somthing else. [that said, i too have had my own issues with the "black in america" series, wondering how on earth this little snippet; this carefully edited segment of a few random samples of black people could constitute or characterize a rich and vastly different set of people].

digress.

i think the larger issue at hand has to do with the fact that we people of colour want to define for ourselves what our own personal 'black' experience is and what it means in regards, and in reference to the larger society at hand. due to the extreme ways that black/culture has been captured and caricatured in the mainstream press it stands to reason that we may very well have our own issues about what we find tolerable and intolerable, and who we want to "represent" us and our experiences. so if the word 'black' is used as a catch-all, i too can very well understand how one could potentially argue that ms o'brien isn't "black enough" meaning that she may very well not embody the stereo/typical 'black experience,'--whatever that is.

i've had the same nonsense levelled at me, and so too have my sisters. having been born and raised in winnipeg, manitoba canada, we were constantly reminded of how 'different,' and 'not-black' we were, and the fact that we had nigerian names[!], didn't seem to matter or solidify our experiences as black. what made us 'not black enough' was the kind of culture our mother exposed us to, the fact that we supposedly had so-called atypical black experiences, and that those folks who stood in judgment of us, had determined that we had somehow 'conformed' to mainstream, read white, culture. as if.

all this to say is that what i do think about issues of race and race culture is that people ultimately want to be heard. i think that when you tow the mainstream party line, people will be inherently suspicious and sceptical about whether you have their best racial interest at heart. i do think it's a drag that your words were taken out of context, and misconstrued, but on the upside like you said, you were given some PR and negative or otherwise, you've got people talking.

i've personally read time and time again through the twitterverse that "black people are not a monolith," [but apparently the mainstream press did not get that memo!] and so if you're STILL trying to characterize us in one fell swoop, well then you literally have NOT done your homework, and yes that amounts to shoddy journalism. evidently "the black snob" was chosen because of your high profile, and your large readership. if you were some 'random' account on twitter well, that would carry no weight, and certainly no clout. let's not be fooled about the motives of the mainstream press, and how desperately they want to sometimes mock and belittle the very real gains that the blogosphere has made particularly giving a 'voice' to those of us who do not fit the mold of 'acceptability' or who certainly don't fit their limited scope of who we are.

so to say whether soledad is or isn't black isn't really the issue [for the record, i thought she was latino], but rather it's about whether we think she's a "suitable" representation of what the 'royal we' think she is. it comes down to class privilege, access, experience, etc., and maybe not just skin colour after all.

i think that one has to be very clear about who we are and what we are when we endeavour to discuss race, evidently we've made it inherently more complex and complicated than it probably needs to be. no longer does anyone get a "free pass," when it comes to discussing our lives, certainly if you persist on putting us in a tidy box of common habits, we all what to know what your credentials & qualifications are, and what gives you the "right" to speak on our behalf. that's just common sense, and i'd like to think that the media knows better, but they don't. it's not their job to come correct, it's OURS. so with you setting the record straight as it were, we're on the right[eous] path.

keep up the good work!

cheers,
xobolaji

www.ithinkyoushould.com

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterxobolaji

I watched the interview and cheered inwardly when your site was mentioned, then jeered outwardly when they tried to rip into being black enough. I, too, am a Soledad fan but it's this sort of half-assed research that continues to prove journalism will forever be flawed.

Hopefully, someone on her research team will see this post and read through your original. I doubt we will ever come to a point in time where ethnicity will cease to be an issue.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTexNYQueen

Although I didn't like how your name was put out there it's free publicity and I know someone looked up your site. I think you are fabolous and more people need to know who you are!!!!

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercosmicsistren

Congrats on the name-drop!

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCDF

Way to take the high road Danielle. To O'brien and Kurtz - that was so sloppy and lazy. Fox news is impressed.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternica1313

A wise woman once told me:

Don't waste time on other people's insecurities!

Keep it movin'

Justice

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJustice

It's so amazingly ironic that Reliable Sources misquoted you. Seems to me if you are going to call your show Reliable Sources then you had better be a reliable source.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Kudos to Kurtz and Soledad for mentioning Black Snob. I had only heard of your post one day before I saw them on Reliable Sources. That mention propelled me to look up Black Snob! Now I am a happy camper. I suspect many more people are here Now because of it. Win win!

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDorothy

Just wanted to share this with you -

First off, I like your blog. I remember seeing those pieces and I get the point you were making with rergards to race/colorism. Those few sentences weren't read in context, and when seperated from your main essay, they don't convey the point you were making - (you got Shirley Sherrod-ed!).

At times though, some of your writing is very thick with sarcasm and it's hard for me to understand what stance you are truly taking or sometimes to even understand the issue that is being presented. Someone who gives the blog a cursory glance may not get an accurate understanding of your arguments.

By no means am I saying change your style, but perhaps you can use sarcasm/parody more effectively to get your point across while clearly presenting facts and your own stance.

This is no cure-all and it won't ensure that you won't ever be mis-quoted or have your words taken out of context. But if you can find ways to let your words make a clear and accurate impression at a glance, I'm sure it will only help to let your voice be heard.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterENicole

This is a very generous response to something that, were I in your shoes, would probably make me really angry. Good on you, and congrats on being high-profile enough to be grotesquely misinterpreted!

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

That goes to show you that no good turn goes unpunished. Here you are defending her Heinz 57 varieties butt and she (wait for it) threw you under the bus. It's the yellow house slave vs. the darkie field slave all over again. Damn. damn.damn.

Maybe you can rip a page from the Sheila Bridges' new book, "Mediating Forward: A Guide to Conflict Resolution" and demand an apology because this may damage your brand.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

On this episode of As the Snob Star Rises...

They say all press is good press. Don't know that wholeheartedly agree with that but congrats on the name drop Snob!

@ENicole, I think Snob's use of sarcasm/satire works in perfect pitch to critique twisted reasoning in first person. Part of my love of her blog is she often isn't on one side or the other of an issue but prefers to sit within the complexities that we are losing the ability, interest, & attention span to examine and objectively articulate.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe_A

5 Things Soledad O'Brien Did To Become Black

1. Was born into a multiracial Cubano-African and White family.
2. Purified herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka in the 80s
3. Appeared on CNN in a show made by white people directed at black people.
4. Got so fired up during Katrina that BET created a news award to give her.
5. Check the be-donk out.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWenzel Dashington

Sorry to hear you were so badly mischaracterized. I've never been impressed with Howard Kurtz or his style so I sort of give him the raspberry. I haven't seen much of Soledad's work except for hearing her a few times on NPR shows and I don't watch cable news on principle (except for BBC and Al Jazeera) but I have liked her from the little I've seen. Too bad she wasn't rigorous in this instance. Kudos for taking the high road and being magnanimous. Keep ya head up sista girl.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa J

@ The A

When Snob is Oprah, I just want to be her Dr. Phil.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWenzel Dashington

Well, I am glad you can see the silver lining in all of this even though your thoughts were taken out of context. And second I am so glad you wrote something. I saw your comments on FB yesterday and I was trying to figure out what was going on with out asking the question (being nosy without actually being nosy). Best Wishes always love to see what you have to say.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertls

What bothers me about this (but also kind of delights me) is that this incident is proof that traditional journalists have no choice but to respect and acknowledge bloggers, but even as they do exercise poor journalism.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThembi

@ nicca1313 "Fox news is impressed" and @Enicole "Shirley Sherrod-ed". Man, the Black Snob commentors are just a cut above...Ya'll had me rollin'.
Snob - having worked at CNN for several years before making an escape I can tell you that the research is generally shoddy and Hell will freeze over before anyone over there apologizes for sliming you. They're CNN - they don't have to apologize. The arrogance knows no bounds, sadly. You take the high road and know that the audience you are shooting for already knows the truth or will have the intellectual honesty and curiosity to seek out the truth.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbajanlady

I'm very surprised that O'Brien wouldn't find your blogs (seeing as how she's a journalist who does a series on "Black" people in America) and be flattered and impressed by the things you have said about her.

I clicked the link for "Passing is for suckers: Beyond the One-Drop-Rule" and thought it was very amusing and flattering to those mentioned, with the exception of Nichole Ritchie. LOL.

It's very sad that O'Brien felt she couldn't write a book about herself without including a "poor me" chapter. And even sadder that someone who's job is (supposedly) to uphold the truth wouldn't bother to check her facts before sending her book to the publisher. She should be ashamed of herself! And the other fellow too (never heard of him before, to be honest).

The days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are truly dead! The journalists of today are mostly liars, failed actors and all-around attention whores. But at least you're getting new readers, who have the curiosity and good sense to seek the full story, so congrats on that!

December 20, 2010 | Registered CommenterAndrea L.

Great site! Nice post! Keep up the good work!

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSojourner Marable Grimmett

You are all class, Danielle. I'd be livid but you showed your true colors--your integrity and journalistic chops--here. Also, I really hope "It's the yellow house slave vs. the darkie field slave all over again" was meant to be ironic in light of the theme of the post; historical sources show that throughout the Americas before abolition, house slaves actually resisted their slave masters and undermined the plantation systems in which they worked; former house slaves were key in the Haitian Revolution, for instance. The caricature of "house slave vs. the field slave" is great rhetoric but factually incorrect.

December 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEP

So going to have to disagree with ENicole...
I don't want to live in a world (not even a virtual world) where writers have to condense their message into visual sound-bites.
READ PEOPLE! All people from professional journalist to schoolchildren must be forced to read. It is not okay to justify this mini-slight with "Oh you're so sarcastic, if I was skimming , I might not get it!" If it's worth skimming ONLINE it's worth taking the time to ACTUALLY comprehend what you are reading, especially if your JOB is to quote it and get it RIGHT!
Please don't take this personally...it's an educator's perspective on worldwide literacy. How can I demand that my fourth graders become literate members of society when we make excuses for CNN?

December 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSyritaJ.

@The_A
Soafter I read ENicole's comment I ran off at the mouth (err, uhmmm, keyboard?), not realizing you had already handled that...with great wit & decorum I must say. Blame it on the early morning lack of coffee! I am quoting you ...off to FB I go!

December 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSyritaJ.

@EP...Oops. I think quoting the Willie Lynch letter would have helped me clarify my position.

(I thought it was quite obvious I was being facetious.)

December 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica
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