Racism in the elevator; misogyny in the video production room.


I just came across a video I’m pretty sure was intended as a statement of anti-racism. I’m also pretty sure its intention fails. More than that, I think it’s one huge step backwards.

I hate writing anything critical of any attempt at anti-racism.  It’s hard to put yourself on the line. By any measure, it’s much easier and safer to remain silent. But silence is deadly, allowing racist systems to continue operating unchallenged. It validates interpersonal prejudice and bias. We need to have more people recognizing bias and helping others recognize it. And, if they fail in their anti-racism attempt, who among us hasn’t? It’s part of the process; usually I want to celebrate effort.

The video below is an exception, a painful one for me to watch, much less celebrate, and given its popularity (almost 3 million views on youtube alone), I see it as a failure of epic proportions.

The video is not without redeeming qualities. As my Twitter friend Jo Nubian (@beautynubian) tweeted last night, “The purse grab is an aspect of the Black criminal/savage meme that is so engrained socially, its almost unnoticeable.” Anything that makes three million people take notice is worthy of some positive regard, particularly when stereotypes of Black criminality are so widely held, and when the criminal justice system is racially biased beyond repair.

The purse-grab may seem like a subtle act but, it’s horrifically destructive in its, often unconscious, assumption of violence and criminality — in Black women, as well as Black men, in other people of color too. I’m glad someone is calling our attention to it. I just wish it were done in a way that had a chance at being effective and didn’t denigrate women in the process.

The word bitch is denigrating, demeaning, dehumanizing. All that aside, its use reinforces negative stereotypes the video tries to dispel.  My twitter friend, Shulamit Berlevtov (@shuliji) tweeted, “The misogyny I perceive in this video frightens me more than his blackness. I feel nauseous and teary.” I agree. I feel the same way. The video’s misogynistic tone overrides any empathy, righteous justice and camaraderie I would normally feel. After watching this video, I don’t want to hang out with this guy.

I get that he’s angry. I agree that his anger is justified. If this was a real encounter captured on film, I might be willing to attribute his outburst to frustration and loss of control. This was not a real incident captured on film, but a scripted and staged encounter. The man in the video did not utter, “Bitch” out of frustration. He uttered it because the script writer thought the most important or best thing was assert power. I see it as a misogynistic act, more so when I view it in the context of the alternate version (below).

Not everyone sees it this way. Jo Nubian tweeted, though she thought the use of the word bitch sexist, it was justified in this particular context since it came from a frustrated response to being discriminated against. Another popular Black female blogger (@sistertoldja), who I hold in high regard, wrote that, in the context of the video, the word bitch did not imply misogyny in the way the N-word implies racism.  She added, “When that happens to me, ‘bitch’ is one of the words I say in my head, to be honest.” The next day she posted a thoughtful blog:

I think the b-word is one that we need to wield with caution. I don’t mistake female strength or aggression with being a b*tch, nor do I think it’s the appropriate utterance every time a woman does something wrong. When I watched that tape, I didn’t feel like the man was attempting to use patriarchy to reassume power or lash back at this woman. I felt like he called her the same word that I would have used in that situation.

Apparently, it’s complicated. And, I don’t want to remove complexity. Black men and women have a right to be angry about the purse-grab. I think anger and hurt are justified; I wish outrage was shared by every justice-minded person. I live in this world as a white male person, undoubtedly affecting my experiences and perceptions. I am not unaware the voices supporting the video’s message were all Black. The Black community is far from single-minded on this issue, and at the end of the day, I continue to disagree with the strategy used.

The word bitch is painful to a lot of people; literally dehumanizing, it’s a term used for female dogs.  That some women, including @sistertoldja, don’t find it objectionable is meaningful. But, it doesn’t change that other women do, as evident in this short documentary film titled Shh…Bitch.

If we can agree that many women and men find the word bitch degrading, doesn’t that suggest the word should only be used when there’s a shared agreement it’s acceptable?

Such an agreement was not present. In the video, the word was used for inflicting pain. This is supposedly justified; the woman, by grabbing her purse, perpetrated a racist act. But, does being victimized by one type of oppression give the victim permission to dehumanize someone else? Does one ‘ism’ justify another?

The video assumes the woman perpetrated a racist act deserving personal punishment. But, how do we know this to be true? Such behavior usually reflects intentional racism or unconscious fear. How do we know this person was guilty of either form, as opposed to distrust of men, perhaps due to personal history? Does the possibility of personal innocence matter when a racial group has been determined guilty?

This is a skit after all, one whose purpose is to show insidious behavior usually unseen. The woman is a representation of all women who have ever grabbed their purse under such circumstances. The response is not directed at her, but at all women. She is a representation, a symbol. A symbol can have no possibility of innocence.

Still, I object. Most white people today abhor their own racism; denying it, hiding from it, obscuring it. Unless a self-identified white supremacist, they certainly don’t own it. Most don’t want to be the oppressor. And yet, sometimes, that’s exactly what we are. In those times, in all those elevator moments, we victimize others by our actions. But, even as we grab purses or cross streets, we are victims of our country’s racist history and our racist socialization.

I’m not trying to justify the purse-grab or any other racist act, nor do I want to equate impact perpetrating racism to those targeted. Rather, I want to point out racism in general exists because we continue to be socialized into racially biased society. Our social systems continue to support what has been labeled aversive or modern racism, it is certainly a sign of some progress they no longer support explicit racism.

At the end of the day, if we’re going to have a racially just society, it’s going to happen through combined efforts of men and women of all racial groups. Not through shaming and humiliating the oppressor. Call me naive, but in the words of Marshall Rosenberg, “I want to live in a world where everyone’s needs matter, not in one where we substitute one type of oppression for another.”


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Author: Mikhail Lyubansky (11 Articles)

Mikhail Lyubansky

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and Theories of Psychotherapy. His research and writing interests include racial/ethnic group relations and restorative justice. He is a regular contributor to anthologies on popular culture, including Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and House MD, published by BenBella and recently co-authored a book on the Russian-Jewish diaspora: Building a diaspora: Russian Jews in Israel, Germany, and the United States. In addition to his PT blog Between the Lines, he is a managing editor at http://www.OpEdNews.com All material on this site published under his byline remains the property of Mikhail Lyubansky, copyright 2009, 2010. Permission is granted to repost and distribute, with proper attribution. Born in Kiev, Mikhail immigrated with his family to the United States as a child in 1977.

2 Responses to Racism in the elevator; misogyny in the video production room.

  1. Methinks thou doth protest too much. The point of the elevator video was to highlight white fear and unfounded racism; it winds up, from your perspective, concerned with patriarchal misogynistic BS; its singular purpose washed out in continued efforts at misplaced feminist manifesto, page 1, no b*tch allowed.

    “The man in the video did not utter, Bitch out of frustration. He uttered it because the script writer thought the most important or best thing was (to) assert power. I see it as a misogynistic act….” I believe that is a totally incorrect assessment. You have to learn to appreciate black humor…test tube baby. Have you ever laughed when someone said bitch or motherfuxxer? If you havent, you dont get it.

    Shulamit Berlevtov (@shuliji) tweeted, “The misogyny I perceive in this video frightens me more than his blackness…After watching this video, I don’t want to hang out with this guy.” Unless born and raised in America, and well studied on the subject, most don’t really understand the subtle dynamics of black white relationships, especially if you’re not either. Much like knowing how to play the blues, but not having the soul to feel it.

    Instead of saying b*itch, (or other profanity, which, by the way, if executed correctly, should follow action by 2 seconds, any less or more and it loses value), what if the black man said motherfu**er, would you care? Would you then decry oh, being meany to white woman?

    Change the woman to an elderly man and depict fear with body language and lack of eye contact. Now have the black man say b*itch or motherfu**er; anyone gonna complain?

    Reverse the players, black man on elevator minding his own fu**ing business, white woman gets on, sees she’s alone, shrinks as far away as possible while further securing her purse while voice-over intones, “MDKRS; murder, death, kill, rape, steal.”

    Now voice from man follows, “after picking us Susanna from school, I must get some orange juice for home and flowers for her grandmother, she’s been so nice to me lately.” Elevator opens, white woman, still clutching purse, looks back furtively and scurries from the elevator. As door closes, black man, whose face or body posture hasnt changed the whole time, turns to camera and says…”motherfu**er, (or b*tch).

    That indicates the black man noticed her unnecessary gyrations, and while choosing to ignore her, did not miss her misplaced worry. And the profanity is understood to be addressed at the actions of the woman, rather than the gender; anti-racist message left more intact.

    What is being singled out is misplaced fear and racism from the white woman/race. What you chose to focus on was the use of b*tch and some perceived denegration of women. I believe you speak truthfully from your perspective, however, I think it’s one huge step backwards…(2 second pause, a friend)

    PS – I was on an elevator today and took note of the actions of the 3 woman on board, thanks. I may never “just” ride an elevator again.

    July 15, 2010 at 6:17 pm

  2. I would first like to add that this video is one of many videos that have been made by this production group and I think you have misinterpretted the usage of the b-word here. I understand your frustration, as I too, do not approve of this word. However, this is the typical way in which a few of his videos have ended and they are not always directed towards a woman. Therefore, I do not think misogyny is at work here. Yes, the history of the word has generally been associated in a derogatory way towards women (and remains probably the most degrading) but it has crossed over and has become more of a general term used to insult someone. So although you have brought up a decent argument I disagree with your perceptions of his intentions and dont believe he meant it in that fashion, nor does it justify his behavior but this video does make valid claims nevertheless.

    September 10, 2010 at 10:00 pm