Meet Antoine Dodson. He currently lives in Huntsville, is one of the hottest commodities on YouTube, and may end up being an example of how to turn media manipulation into online agency. How? Because Dodson managed to insert himself into a dialogue that had quickly become a debate over modern day minstrelsy — and now he’s milking his newfound celebrity for all it’s worth.
Dodson’s stardom began when he helped to fend off an attacker trying to rape his sister late one night in their Huntsville home. A local news outlet picked up the story and interviewed his sister, Kelly. Midway through the interview, Antoine gets on camera and cements his place in the annals of YouTube stardom, saying:
Well, obviously, we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbing in your windows, he’s snatching your people up, trying to rape them, so you need to hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband, because they’re raping everybody out here.
The video quickly made its rounds. Some thought it was hilarious. Others thought it was embarrassing — well, an especially bad look for black folks.
Black bloggers seemed especially troubled. "If you wonder why folks can’t take the news seriously, here’s Exhibit A," blogger AverageBro.com told NPR.org. "Lord, Jesus, how can the reporter file this story with a straight face?"
The station that aired the video got angry calls and emails from presumably black viewers who felt that the reporters demonstrated bad judgement in airing the video in the first place, to which journalist Elizabeth Gentle responded, "Some have contacted our newsroom saying that interviews with people like Antoine reflect poorly on the community. To that I say censoring people like Antoine is far worse."
The initial drama over whether the video was racist or funny (or both) quickly inspired some creative flare for artists. Many began to make their own videos, some of which showed obvious talent, and not all of whose creators were white. Talented or not, though, they were all implicit jabs at a man who had clearly been caught up in a moment he had very little control over.
Things like this have happened countless times before. I still remember the infamous Bubb Rubb video, which has since been turned into a G.I. Joe cartoon. In it, two black Oakland residents — identified only as "Bubb Rubb and Lil’ Sis" — stand decked out in Raiders jerseys and do-rags while they tell reporters the benefits of having loud whistler tips installed on their cars. All this is much to the chagrin of angry white folks nearby, who vigorously complain. "The whistles go whooop!" Bubb Rubb says in the video.
The dynamics were largely the same: a black person put in front of a camera and then endlessly made fun of online. On the one hand, there’s the obvious question of journalistic integrity. If you’re interviewing someone who’s from a historically misrepresented community, do you have a responsibility to portray them in a positive light, especially if your audience is mostly white and see the misrepresentation as the norm? On the other hand, like the reporter in Huntsville mentioned, there’s the issue of censorship. Who decides which people get access to the public sphere? Bubb Rubb and Antoine Dodson are real people, and they deserve airtime, too. The problem is that they’re put in the precarious position of representing an entire race.
But while racism hasn’t changed in the past six years, then at least social media certainly has. Antoine Dodson’s been on a pretty successful quest to claim ownership of his own meme, in part by launching a blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel in less than a week. Over 8,000 people have joined Dodson’s "fan" page on Facebook, and some have said that the performative ways in which Antoine and his sister command attention off the camera and call out the would-be attacker is a small victory in an of itself.
And I agree.
Yet even with all that attention, Dodson hasn’t managed to change the dialogue — he’s just inserted himself into it. In a video he recently posted of a "fan" outing, most everyone in attendance is white. And my guess is that very few people are talking about the attempted rape of his sister, which started this whole mess.