Monday, August 27, 2007

Rachel's Tavern: Why There is a BET and There isn't a WET

BET Girl illustration lifted from this blog and is probably drawn by this person, but I can't find the original link :(

I just love Rachel's Tavern. She put up a great post today about a question I've been relieved not to have heard for awhile. There is a benefit to living in South Korea in that I can play dodge the scary and crazy white person (much more terrifying to me than the scary and crazy black person for obvious reasons).

Well, I can't dodge them all of the time, but I manage to do so quite well as there are less of them in number. However, the proportion of both scary and crazy is increases exponentially as expat populations are a really interesting selection of people ranging from open-minded free-spirits to criminals and nutters who can't get or keep a job back home.

Dodging these types mean I don't get the "I have many black friends" or "you're very articulate" spiels much, thank goodness. It means I also don't have to single handedly get put on the spot to justify or explain the existence of things like BET, NAACP or historically black colleges and universities. However, she does as it's her job.

She's got a great post on it: Why There is a BET and There isn't a WET.

She introduces and explains the concept much better than I can at 1:10am, so read on.

Editor’s Note: I’m posting this over at Allywork where comments will be open. I also need to do a second proofreading since it’s really late, and I had to retype this three times.

Nearly every semester, I get this comment, “Professor, why is there a Black Entertainment Television when there is no White Entertainment Television? They would say it is racist if we had WET, so why can they have BET?” There are other variants of this question, such as: “Why are there historically black colleges and not
historically white colleges?” “Why is there an NAACP and no NAAWP?” “Why is there a minority scholarship, but no white scholarship?” “Why is there an Asian/Black/Latino student’s center and no White student’s center?” I’m sure most of my readers have heard one or more of these questions, but for some reason, the BET question is the most common way this sentiment is expressed. The comment comes up so often that I have a set of canned answers ready for when it comes up. It is significant because it is indicative of many of the elements of contemporary racism–colorblindness, the normativity of whiteness, and the invisiblility of power inequalities in social institutions. 1 When I answer this question, I attempt to challenge students to think outside of the confines of contemporary racial ideology and whiteness.

My first reaction to the BET question is to reject the premise of the question. I tell students that there are many channels that are White Entertainment Television–they are called NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, the Home and Garden Channel, TLC, etc. At this point, many of the students of color laugh (as do a few white students), but most of the white students have a look of puzzlement. Then someone usually says, but those channels have black people on them too. I respond by telling them that there are white people on BET. At this point, I also take the time to explain how most shows on the white oriented channels have predominantly white casts. It usually helps to give examples of shows like Friends, The Hills, and Everybody Loves Raymond, where all of the main characters are white. I also explain that there are very few predominantly black (Asian, Latino, or American Indian) shows. I often have students of color who explain how or why certain shows or networks don’t appeal to them, which helps drive home the point.

Many whites don’t notice whiteness, so this is a good opportunity to talk about how whiteness is often unmarked and invisible. Schools, neighborhoods, churches, fraternities, and other groups and organizations that are create for whites are not marked as such. Part of the reason we don’t call our groups white is that we don’t even realize that these groups are catering to us. Part of being white means not having to think about whiteness and the opportunities it grants. In fact, even thinking
about whiteness makes many of whites uncomfortable, which is why the reaction to BET is so strong. There is a knee jerk reaction that says “calling something white is wrong so calling something black is wrong.” But what my white students don’t realize is that what is more offense than calling something white is excluding people of color (whether it is intentional or not). They are oblivious to how the groups they are part of operate to exclude people of color. On the other hand, they don’t realize that most groups that are labeled black don’t exclude whites; they incorrectly think that whites can’t join black fraternities or sororities or go to historically black colleges, which just isn’t the case. ((There are indeed some organizations that cater to people of color, which exclude whites, but they are quite rare, and obviously BET doesn’t not have any no whites rule.)) At the same time, they don’t realize that the groups they are part of are not doing much if anything to appeal to people of color.

The BET question also gives us the opportunity to talk about the psychology of being in the minority or the majority. It is difficult for many whites to imagine how being outnumbered and ignored affects people of color, so I try to make students think about how predominantly white programs dominate. This makes it difficult for people of color to find role models and realistic reflections of their lives. I tell them that the feeling that they have of being left out when they wonder why there is a BET, is something that people of color in this country deal with every day. I ask them to imagine how they would feel if they were the only white person or one of a few white people in our class. I explain that since the dominant culture’s views are everywhere people of color have to learn the norms and rules of whites in order to get by, but whites don’t have to understand what it means to be black (Asian, Latino, American Indian, Middle Eastern) to function in this society. 2

This question allows us to discuss the historical dimensions of discrimination. Many black groups and organizations have been formed because blacks were not allowed to be part of white organizations. So we have historically black colleges and universities because white schools did not allows blacks to enroll. When I note this, some students will say that black organizations should have been disbanded with the end of legal segregation. The problem with that view is that discrimination didn’t end with the change in laws; moreover, using that same logic white segregated schools should also have disbanded. If we never had racism, I suppose there wouldn’t be any BET. We would not even refer to people by their skin color, but there was and is racial discrimination, so we can pretend color doesn’t matter.

By this point, I’ll still have a few people that don’t understand, and really feel that there shouldn’t be any BET at all. Then, I tell them that BET is currently owned by whites. This seems to delight some of the more prejudiced students, but it throws others off because they don’t realize how many whites are profiting off BET, and damn near every other black oriented form of entertainment.

So next time someone asks, why is there a BET and no WET, you can give a long treatise explaining why.

  1. The normativity of whiteness refers to the idea that whiteness is viewed normal, unremarkable, and often invisible. Moreover, this concept reflects the idea that whiteness is both the standard of comparison for other racial groups and the category to which people should aspire. [back]
  2. I often make a joke about a stereotype that many blacks have of whites–white people’s hair smells like a dog when it is wet. I ask how many of my students have heard of this. Usually, the only students who have heard it are black. Many students laugh because this stereotype seems absurd. Then, I say, “How
    many of you have heard the stereotype that blacks are violent and crime prone?” Almost all the students raise their hands, and nobody laughs. I make the case that the first one is humorous to them because it really doesn’t have an impact on the day to day lives of whites, but the crime stereotype isn’t funny because it has a profound impact on blacks. [back]

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  1. This is a fantastic post.

  2. Yes, it's a great explanation!

    I am waiting for a similar explanation for the #2 most dumbass question:

    "Why is blackface so bad, when the Wayans brothers got away with whiteface in White Chicks?"

    I can't believe how many times I have seen that question pop up from angry white people on racial discussion threads.

  3. Gee willikers! What an articulate post!

  4. Jamelle,

    It's so good that I reposted it here ;-)


    Yeah, that's another one. I think these things CAN cross the line, but the overt cluelessness of people is really sad. I'm glad Rachel is on the side of minorities. As she's white, it gives me some hope.


    You better be glad that I know you and I know you're being funny.

    However, you do know the writer of this post is white, right? ;-)

  5. Well, if I recall correctly, BET was founded around the time Empty-Vee was only playing videos made by white musicians. It may be due to racism or their convenient excuse that they viewed themselves as only a "rock n' roll channel" (nevermind the fact that blacks invented that genre and there were plenty of black rock and roll bands) but the fact still remained that there wasn't a venue for black musical performers to play their promotional videos highlighting their music.

    What really irks me is that these same morons that criticize the existence of the NAACP, The United Negro College Fund or Black Entertainment Television are the same mooks who in the same breath always exhort blacks to solve our own damn problems and create our own institutions since white folks can't always be around to save us.

  6. Well, I remember that MTV wouldn't even play music videos by black artists when they first started broadcasting. It was building up into a huge issue and then Michael Jackson's Thriller came out and MTV noticed their ratings soared when they played his videos. This opened the door for other black artists.

    However, it was bad, so bad that when I wanted "my MTV" my parents refused because of that reason. Plus, they were very disturbed by something that would literally have you camped out in front of the TV for hours on end.

    BET was necessary. Although now I've heard the programming on it now is ridiculous.


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