Hard to Say ‘Sorry’

pop circumstance impactIn this Juneteenth edition of Pop & Circumstance, we consider the U.S. Senate’s late-but-official apology for slavery and Jim Crow, Tweets from a revolution, Jazz at the White House, ‘Speidi’ and the problem with reality TV religion, and what will Mary Mary sing at the BET Awards?

Senate Apologizes for Slavery — and Spartacus Wins

This week in “Current Events You Thought Shoulda Happened 40 Years Ago,” the United States has officially given its “my bad” on slavery. On Thursday, led by Iowa lawmaker Tom Harkin, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the “enslavement and segregation of African-Americans” and recognizing the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” Though the apology is official, there was concern among some senators that the language in the resolution would leave the door open for lawsuits or a demand for reparations.

While African Americans are certainly delighted with the apology, presumably 92-year-old Spartacus film icon Kirk Douglas is also happy. The actor had been petitioning Congress for an apology for slavery for years. Just this past April, Douglas wrote on his MySpace page: “As I told you quite some time ago, in my last book Let’s Face It, I wrote about the importance of our country showing the world that we are capable of humility by making an apology for our behavior towards African Americans before and after the Civil War.” The veteran actor also collected signatures in support of the apology on MySpace. Isn’t it interesting that a resolution like this hadn’t happened already? Well, better late than never.

The Revolution in 140 Characters or Less

Lest we think Twitter is just another useless digital platform to share a constant stream of the minutiae of our lives, the social networking site that asks members to share what they’re doing in 140-characters or less just got more interesting. Following the controversial election in Iran, protesters who were blocked from using other forms of online communication by government officials took to the Twitterverse to share their discontent. Sympathetic Twitter users from all across the world joined in the protest, spreading word about the election and even encouraging greater mainstream news media coverage of the events. Some even helped protect Iranian protesters from being tracked by changing their Twitter location and time zone to act as “proxy or ghost Iranians.”

The viral nature of Twitter allowed those of us who may not be politically savvy or aware to instantly participate on the front lines of a massive international protest against a Middle Eastern government from the convenience of our laptops or mobile phones. I had no idea about the Iranian election, but found out about the protest from my friend Kyle Westaway who is an attorney in New York City. He sent out the following Twitter update to all of his followers: “Twitter Friends: Change your location and time zone to Tehran and +3.30 to help the protesting Iranians from being tracked. #iranelection”. Since his Twitter account links to his Facebook profile, he alone spread word of the event to hundreds of people with just one click.

The implications of this kind of mass mobilization are great, particularly for people of faith who are called to bring the needs and concerns of society’s marginalized people to the forefront of our culture.

Jazz at the White House

As much as I’m trying not to be all Obama all the time, I can’t help it. The First Family just keeps getting cooler. On June 15th, the White House hosted a Jazz Studio, featuring musicians from the Marsalis family, the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and the Thelonius Monk Jazz Institute. In her remarks to the 150 high school students who attended the event, First Lady Michelle Obama referred to jazz as “America’s indigenous art form” and the best example of American democracy with its emphasis on “individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group.” UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, calls jazz more than music. He says, “[Jazz] is a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world. It is about freedom within community. It is a culture, that is, a set of values and norms by which we can experience life in general and faith in particular.” We couldn’t agree more, and it’s a pleasure to see the Obama White House encouraging creativity and re-imparting value on artistic expression.

Reality TV Piety

When Stephen Baldwin baptized Spencer Pratt a couple of weeks ago on television’s I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, we let it slide. It didn’t seem right to comment on such a clearly misguided publicity stunt, despite the Christian relevance. Besides, the rest of the media was already making a mockery of the incident. NBC, the network that produces the show, titled video clips of the baptism as “Stephen Baldwin shoves the devil out of Spencer” or “Saved by Stephen.” The whole thing was ridiculous, but this kind of behavior is par for the course when it comes to the former MTV Hills reality show star Spencer Pratt and his wife Heidi Montag. The couple has been injecting itself into tabloid headlines for months with self-generated drama. For a while they bought a few extra minutes of reality star fame by selling the story of a feud between Montag and Hills co-star Lauren Conrad. Then it was plastic surgery and a botched music career for Heidi that culminated in a Pratt-directed beach video. Most recently the couple invited paparazzi to their rushed wedding in Mexico.

But now things have gone too far. Montag, a self-proclaimed Christian who often “tweets” about her faith, is posing for Playboy, and she’s justifying the decision by calling herself a “modern day Mother Teresa.” As my mother would say, if she thinks she’s Mother Theresa, then she’s got another think coming. And though we’re not in the business of judging anyone’s faith here at UrbanFaith, we can express our disappointment over how “Speidi” is portraying Christianity in popular culture. We wish they would keep quiet about their faith until they figure out what they really believe. In the meantime, they’re probably doing more damage to the Church’s reputation. What do you think?

The Word on BET

A couple of weeks ago we shared with you the gospel nominees for the upcoming 2009 BET Awards. Now we have more information on the performers. Set your DVRs for 8pm ET/PT on June 28th because Mary Mary will take the stage. We hope the gospel gals sing something deep from their recent album, and perhaps bypass the secular-friendly “God In Me” single. It’s a toe-tapper, but with this kind of platform, they might want to deliver a message with a little more gospel truth. Also scheduled to perform are BeyoncĂ©, Kanye West, Maxwell, Ne-Yo, Fabolous, Young Jeezy, and Soulja Boy.

Social but Separate

social mediaEvery day across America we see self-segregation in lunchrooms, in classrooms, and in church pews on Sunday morning. But how about online?

Recently I began looking around the online spaces I frequent: Twitter and Facebook. I wondered if people, particularly those who were just online for social reasons, mix and mingle any differently than they do face-to-face.

To find out I did what any respecting social media junkie would do, I tweeted it. That is, I sent a Twitter.com microblog post polling my followers. And thanks to the Twitter/Facebook link app (aka “application”), all my Facebook friends got the same poll question: Has social media changed U? Do U now connect w/ a broader range of people? How? Offline too?

My new Twitter follower Bill Snyder responded quickly. “My friends certainly span a wide age range. Not totally sure I can attribute that to social media.” Bill, a fellow writer, whose blog is called A Life Beyond Traditional Media, added: “By default, I am more likely to meet people similar in age and skin color [off line]. Digitally speaking, though, it’s a different game. Through social blogging and Twitter, I put out ideas and read other people’s ideas. I find myself engaging in an exchange of thoughts and feelings before exchanging knowledge of skin color, gender, or age.”

Ramiro Medrano, a Facebook friend, indicated that social media had not changed him at all, having been raised in an ethnically diverse environment. Ramiro says, “I have added economically diverse friends to the list, which would apply [on and offline].”

It’s not surprising that the trend in our online relationships would follow that of our offline connections. Yet the Internet’s power to transcend the old boundaries of geography, race, and class also gives us the opportunity to encounter people, for better or worse, whom we formerly would never have had the chance to know otherwise.

Social networks are changing the way we receive our news and how we think about faith, politics, and a myriad of issues. The first amazing images of the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane crash last January were from a private citizen’s cell phone photos posted to his Twitter page. And much of the current protest raging in Iran over the dubious reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is notably taking place through the Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter dispatches of young Iranians.

Social networks also have become the new marketplace, particularly for startups and entrepreneurs. So, consequently, seeing a patchwork of multi-colored faces smiling back at you on a Twitter profile doesn’t necessarily say that racism is dead or that we’ve made great strides in racial reconciliation. It could also be confirming that money is green, no matter if it rests in a black hand or a white hand.

While many social media are used to bring people together around socially positive or neutral themes, sadly many pockets of the Internet thrive on hatred and bigotry. Racism does live in the digital world.

Latoya Peterson of Racialicious.com can attest to that. This spring, Laytoya led a panel discussion entitled “Can Social Media End Racism” at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, an annual cutting-edge media conference/festival. Ms. Peterson pointed out that she sees online racism every day on her blog in the comment box. Whether its on blogs, social networks, or news and opinion sites, comment areas are typically filled with racial slurs and off-color sexual references to people of color. Just look at the recent comment by Republican activist Rusty DePass. On his Facebook page, DePass apparently suggested that First Lady Michelle Obama is a gorilla.

The four-person SXSW panel, consisting of Latoya Peterson, Phil Yu (AngryAsianMan.com), Jay Smooth (IllDoctrine.com), and Kety Esquivel (CrossLeft.org), came up with three constructive ways to address the pervasive problem of digital racism.

They proposed that we resolve to use social media to:

1. Spread knowledge about racism through podcasting and videos.

2. Create refuge or sanctuary for those who are striving to defeat racism.

3. Mobilize for social justice and anti-racism grassroots efforts like those surrounding the Jena 6.

Some of the conversation around the SXSW event was held on Twitter, which according to Pew Research studies, tends to have a younger more racially-diverse crowd. One Twitter attendant observed, “There’s no ‘end racism’ app or we would’ve pushed that button a long time ago.”

If I just do a click-through of social media profiles, it’s easy to see the racial mixing and matching, the crossing over to the other side of the proverbial tracks. But I know racism (and classism) still exists. In fact, the anonymity and exclusivity of some networks can foster racist behavior. Statistics from Websense Security Labs confirm this. According to a recent Websense report, racist content has shown a marked increase on Facebook and Youtube during the first quarter of 2009. It’s human nature to hide our faces when we lash out in hate.

All things considered, I find it encouraging to see open dialogue about racism, taking the online world offline. Making the social media world really social. I particularly like it when it happens in Christian circles. For the faithful, being in a social network presents an excellent opportunity to come against the darkness of overt and covert racism. It’s a chance to create a new social climate, one that is inclusive, sensitive, honest, and interdependent.

Those of us who are Christ followers and social media junkies need to reach out across the digital boundaries that divide us with intentionality and fervor. Go looking for those in your niche that don’t look like you. Connect with those individuals and strive to interact with them regularly on a substantive level. As they follow our tweets and status updates, hopefully our online (and offline) behavior will reveal that we are following Christ.