How to (Not) Get Away with Being Out of Touch

The recent firestorm over a New York Times preview of television’s “How to Get Away With Murder” highlights the fact that pop culture now has the tools to take racial insensitivity to task.

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Shonda Rhimes arrives at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Third Annual Television Academy Honors in Beverly Hills, California, Wednesday, May 5, 2010. (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Shonda Rhimes arrives at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Third Annual Television Academy Honors in Beverly Hills, California, Wednesday, May 5, 2010. (AP/Chris Pizzello)

From the realm of “Much Ado About Nothing” social media outrage comes an instance that perhaps deserves the negative attention it garnered: last weekend’s racial folderol over an outrageously insensitive article in The New York Times that drew a firestorm of angry cyberspace responses.

In a preview of ABC’s new show “How to Get Away With Murder”—produced by the prolific Shonda Rhimes and featuring Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis as a defense lawyer and law school professor—television critic Alessandra Stanley layered stereotype upon stereotype to make the case that Rhimes “has done more to reset the image of African-American women on television than anyone since Oprah Winfrey.”

Witlessly, she wrote in her opening paragraph: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’”

Hit the pause button!

It should be noted that unless you’re in the privacy of a group of like-minded cave people or itching for a bruising battle—words or fisticuffs, your choice—you should not juxtapose the words “angry,” “black,” and “woman” in 2014. Context is immediately lost on black women, and any hope for further comprehension of what you have to say is rendered moot.

But then again, what Stanley said after her opening salvo didn’t make matters much better. In perhaps the most tone-deaf and maddening paragraph in the entire article, she wrote: “Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. [Kerry] Washington [of ‘Scandal’], or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series ‘Extant.’”

Apparently, Stanley has so few black women friends—or culturally sensitive editors—that she didn’t realize how unpopular her views would be. While she may not be making any friends after this, she undoubtedly has received the message by now.

Almost immediately after the article posted, as is the way with the Internet, Rhimes took Stanley to task. As CNN reported, Rhimes replied to a tweet by Pete Nowalk, the creator of “How to Get Away with Murder.” Her tweet read, “Confused why @nytimes critic doesn’t know identity of CREATOR of show she’s reviewing.”

To twist the knife a bit, she said in another tweet to Nowalk—a white man—that, “Apparently we can be ‘angry black women’ together, because I didn’t know I was one either! @petenowa #LearnSomethingNewEveryday.”

This entire tempest over a television show reflects the power of contemporary pop culture images—and how much power social media has to challenge the once-universal ability of institutional voices to establish and sustain our understanding of those images. Before Black Twitter, complaints about the depiction of black life in the media were largely relegated to dinner table conversations and beauty parlor rants.

But no longer. As Richard Prince reported in his online column “Journal-isms,” the concerns Rhimes raised in her tweets drew the ire of an army of social media activists who complained loud and long. In short order, The Times was apologizing—sort of—for Stanley’s article. Danielle Mattoon, The Times’ culture editor, said Monday that the expressed outrage over the article “is a signal to me that we have to constantly remind ourselves as editors of our blind spots, what we don’t know, and of how readers may react.”

Margaret Sullivan, The Times’ public editor, went further. “The readers and commentators are correct to protest this story,” she wrote in a Monday blog post. “Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that was—at best—astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.”

To be sure, the new Shonda Rhimes television show—which, I confess, I have not seen—has yet to prove itself deserving of the cultural significance of the Bard’s famous comedy of errors. However, just as William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is about mistaken notions of identity and the impact of honor and shame upon those who fail to understand, our shared comprehension of pop culture’s messages and images can produce multiple layers of meaning.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)