by Alison Collins
Last year, for the second year in a row, I was grateful to be invited to write a piece for #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and people of color as teachers, writers and scholars. I was heartbroken when I had to pull out at the last minute to protect my family.
At the time, I was a recently recalled school board member, being relentlessly targeted by threatening tweets, direct messages and emails. Tech billionaires openly shared hatred of me on Twitter while Qanon conspiracists and capital insurrectionists mused about my husband’s business, my home and my children’s school. Local and national media amplified the outrage about me, a “woke” SF School Board member, in the New York Times, Daily Mail and as far off as Australia.
My story is extreme, yet I am not alone. Since Chris Rufo and a cabal of dark money operators began the campaign to systematically eradicate Black thought from our nation’s public schools, I’ve tracked the pattern of attacks on social justice education. I’ve connected with researchers, district leaders and parents to identify the targeted misinformation campaigns being used to purge our public education system of antiracist and LGBTQ-affirming educators.
My story was high profile at the time. Since then, I’ve seen countless educators, many who are Black women in leadership, demonized in local media and, in some cases, driven out of town.
Thus, when the producer of a major news network contacted me last December, I felt renewed hope. She was producing a mini-documentary about the political shifts in our city after two million-dollar recall campaigns of our school board and district attorney.
After being blocked a hundred times in trying to tell my story, I felt optimistic about the opportunity to offer insights on a political drama that centered me, a Black mom and antiracist educator, as its greatest villain.
The day after my interview, the producer texted: “Curious … we’ve been asking folks what two questions they would ask the Mayor if given the opportunity? Do you have two questions you would ask her?”
‘This is a setup,’ I thought
Mayor Breed is the first Black woman mayor of San Francisco. She is also a “moderate” democrat, which in SF translates as conservative. A Bloomberg mayor, a West Coast version of Eric Adams, she sanctions homeless sweeps and talks tough on crime.
Suffice it to say she did not endorse my candidacy as a Black “progressive” school board member. She was one of the most visible of SF’s elected leaders to call for my removal from the board after I was targeted by a woman now working for the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank whose senior fellow is Chris Rufo.
I appreciate the Mayor’s investments in Black-owned non-profits and her promise to support reparations for Black San Franciscans. Nonetheless, the larger policies she has championed are less aligned with liberation than with libertarians’ free market fever dreams.
The very same folks who worked to recall me are dismantling affirmative action at SCOTUS and targeting trans youth in Florida. They are banning books about Ruby Bridges and erasing Dr. MLK Jr. from school curricula. All using the “woke ideology” lie that San Francisco neoliberals parrot in their own way.
After toying with imagined questions I could ask the Mayor, I gave up. My questions would be used as fodder. Two Black women fighting, a digital version of Black-on-Black crime.
I ignored the request and my hope evaporated. I realized: Mainstream media will never tell the truth.
Not about truth
The media is not about real news; it’s about performance art. Because sometimes the really real important news is boring. Even when it’s scandalous, the real news doesn’t get told unless it fits into a prescribed narrative written by folks who benefit from its telling.
For example, when my former colleague, Gabriela López, was president of the SF School Board and the center of pandemic school reopening debates, the SF Chronicle refused to print her OpEds. During a PANDEMIC, the paper refused to cover her work distributing food, masks and testing to low-income Latino families.
Latinx residents accounted for 15% of SF’s population, making up 50% of COVID cases. Rather than cover the struggles and fears facing low-income essential workers, the SF Chronicle provided ample page real estate to affluent white anti-masker moms (many of whom did not even have children in SF schools) musing on the potential long-term “learning loss” of learning online vs. in a physical school.
“If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” This famous Japanese Koan is, in actuality, a question about the media.
Ida B. Wells became a journalist after her friend was lynched, falsely accused of assaulting a white woman. Her reporting became so impactful that white supremacists destroyed her newspaper and chased her out of town. That’s how much white America wants the truth.
Black folks have always struggled with representation in the media
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was often maligned by the media. How many white supremacists twist his words to silence calls for Black liberation today amazes me.
“Hate breeds hate,” they quote. “Turn the other cheek.” Submit. Obey. “Like King,” they say.
King didn’t fight back. Not because he was opposed to standing up for himself. He chose highly visible locations to stage his marches. He used the media for political theater.
News outlets wouldn’t platform Black voices; when they did, they edited and censored them. King staged his marches in high-profile places because he knew police would respond violently. And he knew the press would film the fight. The fight would garner ratings, but the narrative it could sell was even more critical. If Black folks showed up ready to fight back, they would be characterized as violent thugs.
So instead, Dr. King weaponized their own narratives. Organizers dressed up in their Sunday best and practiced standing their ground while being shoved, yelled at, beaten, fire-hosed, spat on and bitten by dogs.
They say, “Show, don’t tell.” The media thought they would use Dr. King’s protests to tell a story about us, instead, Dr.King used the press to show America itself. And what he gave them nightly couldn’t be edited.
The Black press made sure these stories couldn’t be buried
Unfortunately, corporate media conglomerates have expanded over the last several decades, and there is less and less independent journalism.
Black Twitter filled these gaps in coverage, and arguably became more important than the nightly news when Black Lives Matter protests were broadcast live on thousands of individual timelines. During the dawn of social media, activists used hashtags to amplify their stories when mainstream media ignored them. The AP only began covering the Ferguson protests in earnest after the #MikeBrown hashtag began trending in Europe.
Apparently, the internet overlords (aka PayPal Mafia) and their gamer-gate goons are tired of hearing Black voices.
Enter, stage left, a new puppet master in this drama. Elon Musk is succeeding at ruining Twitter. By allowing sock puppet accounts to purchase Blue Checks and removing its former user verification system, no one knows which accounts belong to real humans. Twitter has become a hellscape and a hit list for educators, community activists and real journalists. We are now scrambling to find ways to share information and organize.
In the meantime, the corporate overlords (aka the Koch Donor network) are looking for new props for their distractions. Hershel Walker vs. Raphael Warnock, Candace Owens vs. Black Lives Matter, Kanye vs. the Jewish community and the concept of chattel slavery.
The media likes to see Black people fighting.
Schoolyards are microcosms of the larger society
As a former middle school violence prevention coordinator, I have a lot of experience managing conflict. When I first began teaching, I trained and recruited kids to resolve fights among their peers.
A good teacher knows that 99% of conflicts happen because of one of two things: 1) miscommunication or misunderstanding (sometimes based on language or cultural awareness) and 2) lies and rumors to gain power or social status. Often, it’s both.
I can’t say how many times I have de-escalated a fight only to find the combatants are both victims and the perpetrator is outside the conflict, enjoying the show.
Anger breeds engagement, “If it bleeds, it leads.” But what if the folks fighting are NOT the story?
It’s normal to react when you get punched in the face. But what if this is all a setup? What if all these outrageous stories and all this amped-up conflict are just a live-action digital minstrel show?
If the truth will set you free, who will set the truth free? Definitely not Tucker Carlson. (Don’t get too excited about Carlson’s recent firing. If you cut off one head, the Hydra grows another.)
Don’t pay attention to the talking heads; pay attention to the man behind the green curtain
There is a viral TikTok video that starts with the question: “What’s a scam that’s become so normalized that we don’t even realize it’s a scam anymore?”
The media: corporate, social, all of it.
Instead of asking me what I think about the Emperor’s new clothes, ask me about the tailor.
Maybe we are all debating the value of blue checks and spending countless hours arguing with accounts managed by Russian troll farms because it keeps us constantly panicked and confused.
Dr. Ian Haney López and Heather McGhee remind us that dog whistles don’t work because people are inherently racist or transphobic. They work because wealthy oligarchs know that amplifying fear about Black people (and trans folks and Brown immigrants) is the best way to amass wealth and power. The “Southern strategy” worked for Nixon, Reagan and even Clinton.
A history that people like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would rather we forget.
From the late 19th century until the mid-1940s, one of America’s favorite attractions was the “African Dodger” game which allowed patrons of fairs, carnivals and circuses to throw baseballs at real live “negro” human heads. According to Ferris State University, this attraction was also known as “Hit the N*gger Baby” or “Hit the Coon” and was as commonplace as Ferris wheels and roller coasters are today.
“The game was so popular nationwide that newspapers mentioned the African Dodger game along with trained animals, illusionists, penny arcades, merry-go-rounds and magic shows in the list of a carnival’s attractions. Dodgers made headlines when they were seriously and horrifically injured – otherwise, they were nameless victims.”
This history comes to mind when I think about my story and many other Black educators’ stories. The African Dodger game is still a favorite American pastime, but now it’s digital.
The patterns are undeniable
I thought of this history when the producer called me several months later to tell me nothing from my two hour interview would be included in the SF documentary. The news team decided they had “already covered stories about school board attacks” and would focus on discussing the homeless crisis instead.
This pattern of amplifying Black tropes while erasing Black voices became even more apparent when I learned CNN fired Don Lemon after he fact-checked an NRA lobbyist for claiming Second Amendment rights were critical in securing Black liberation (“Gun rights laws” were, in fact, expanded to weaponize white supremacist terror.)
Again, the pattern became visible after the horrific murder of tech executive Bob Lee. The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal all platformed the same tech billionaires who funded San Francisco’s right-wing recalls and claimed Lee’s untimely death was a symptom of rising street violence by (Black) homeless fentanyl addicts. One week later, when the alleged suspect turned out to be a tech bro (literally), the media didn’t rake them over the coals but called it an “aberration.”
This is the real-life nightmare of being born Black in America. Living in a dream where when you scream, no sound comes out. This is the “Silent Place.”
‘Each One, Pull One …’
Alice Walker wrote a famous poem, “Each One, Pull One” that begins:
“We must say it all, and as clearly
Trying to bury us.
As we can. For, even before we are dead,”
When I participated in #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series several years ago, it was my first time participating in a collective writing project. It was the first time I felt free enough and safe enough to be my whole self as an educator, author and thinker. I experienced the power that affinity spaces create for voices consistently pushed to the margins. To see yourself in others and be seen by a community that understands.
It is why I first became a teacher. It is why I created a podcast, Just Talks, to elevate the voices of others like me, fighting erasure.
I will not be a prop in a corporate media Punch and Judy Show. I refuse to play the “angry Black woman,” the Sapphire, or the feisty “Black sidekick.” I am not Amos and the Mayor is not Andy. I will not field baseballs with my skull as an “African Dodger.”
I am perfectly capable of telling my own story. And if, like Ida, I have to be the one to produce my own stories, that’s not a problem. I can bring my own mic.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Tricia Ebarvia (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).
Ali Collins is the creator of Just Talks Podcast, a platform to elevate parents, researchers, educators, artists and activists, sharing ideas to promote education justice and support public schools. Help her elevate more voices by becoming a Patron.