Hi! I’m Stacy Lee Kong and this is Friday Things, a weekly newsletter about a pop culture story I can’t stop thinking about—and why it matters. If intersectional takes on media, entertainment and celebrity gossip are your jam, subscribe here.
Content Warning: This newsletter contains references to transphobia, medical racism and reproductive injustice.
Whenever I think about Black Panther, there are a few scenes that always come to mind: Killmonger’s “hey auntie” is forever a fave. M’Baku’s “We are vegetarians” is both a feat of comedic timing and a clever subversion of racist tropes about “savage” Africans. But you guys… Shuri. A snarky scientist-princess who lovingly mocks her big brother, refers to the sole white guy in the film as “colonizer” and is easily the smartest person in any room? I loved her so much.
… Which is why it was so disappointing to see British-Guyanese actor Letitia Wright, who plays the princess in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, post an anti-vax tweet late last week.
Even worse, there could have been a silver lining to this news cycle: it was the perfect opportunity to talk about medical racism, something we should absolutely be addressing as COVID-19 vaccines start rolling out. Instead, we had the same boring-ass conversations about cancel culture.
Here’s What Went Down
Last Friday morning, Wright tweeted out a 70-minute video by self-described “internationally recognised prophet” (a.k.a. evangelical Christian) Tomi Arayomi accompanied by the praying hands emoji. Arayomi, who runs a YouTube channel called “On the Table”—an obvious Red Table Talks rip-off—regularly makes anti-LGBTQ+ videos and dabbles in COVID conspiracy theories. This video was no exception.
Titled “Covid-19 Vaccine, Should We Take It,” it included speculation that anyone who gets a COVID-19 vaccine will have to “hope it doesn’t make extra limbs grow,” despite Arayomi’s admission that he doesn’t “understand vaccines medically.” He also claims people have “the right to be misinformed… Part of freedom of speech involves the right to believe that aliens are real and wearing tin foil hats will protect me from their mass mind control communication.” (This is… not what freedom of speech means.)
He also suggests people can’t trust vaccines made by Chinese pharmaceutical companies. To be clear, this is racist. But what’s more, it doesn’t matter who develops a vaccine; according to a CBC explainer, the government has a stringent approval process that not only confirms each vaccine works, it also ensures there are no “significant safety concerns.”
The video also includes a head-scratching devolution into transphobic rhetoric. “If you look at somebody that was genetically born a male but you say, ‘that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl, that’s a girl’ enough times, eventually you will force compliance by the composition of my speech to say something that I just technically, biologically don’t believe it,” he says at one point. I know I don’t have to tell you this, but you can’t will trans people into existence; they have always been here—and that has nothing to do with Arayomi’s weird incantations.
I Am Disappointed for So Many Reasons
It’s not clear that Wright watched the entire video, but I don’t think it even matters. She didn’t say she thinks transphobia is wrong while she was defensively clapping back against fans and trying to claim she was simply trying to think for herself, so it seems the sentiment didn’t bother her enough to explicitly address it.
Since then, Arayomi has (obviously) posted a ton of times on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube trying to capitalize on his newfound fame. Meanwhile, YouTube has removed the video for violating its terms of service, and Wright didn’t even make it through the weekend before deleting her Twitter and Instagram accounts.
But… I’m obviously not ready to move on, because while Wright doesn’t have a point about vaccine safety, her tweet tapped into a real phenomenon that we should be talking about.
Black, Latinx and Native Americans are both more likely to be diagnosed with COVID and more likely to experience significant health impacts—according to the Centers for Disease Control, these groups are experiencing two to four times higher rates of hospitalization than white people. Yet, they’re also more likely to distrust vaccines. According to a survey by COVID Collaborative, a team of American experts on health, education and the economy, only 14% of Black Americans believe a vaccine would be safe, and only 18% believe a vaccine would be effective. (For Latinx Americans, those numbers are 34% and 40%, respectively.) Another survey, this one by Pew Research Center, found only 42% of Black Americans intend to get vaccinated, compared to 63% of Latinx people and 61% of white people.
This… is not surprising. Conversations about COVID-19 vaccines have mostly centred on misinformation about vaccine safety, like this brutal video that Wright shared. But there’s actually an equally strong source of information for racialized, and especially Black, people: history.
What is Medical Racism?
In the 1800s, the “father of modern gynecology,” John Marion Sims, practiced surgical techniques and tested gynecological tools on enslaved women—without anesthetic, even, because it wasn’t used widely at the time. In the 1930s, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis began following 600 Black men, 399 with syphilis, 201 without, to see what unchecked syphilis would do to the human body. Originally intended to last for six months, it actually went on for 40 years. And during the Cold War, a government study exposed 88 cancer patients, aged nine to 84, to “extreme” levels of radiation to find out how much exposure a person could handle before experiencing mental or physical effects. Most were poor, 60% were Black.
The Tuskegee effect is real. Black people in the US have every right to be skeptical when medical racism exists. That is understandable and okay.— CiCi Adams🌸 (@CiCiAdams_) December 4, 2020
What is not okay is promoting easily-debunked conspiracy theories rooted in religious dogma, and rhetoric that could lead to deaths.
There are also plenty of contemporary reasons for racialized people to distrust doctors. For starters, medical experimentation didn’t go anywhere. In the ‘90s, pharmaceutical companies conducted clinical trials on unwitting patients in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Zimbabwe—and after public outcry, it seems they just chose a different spot on the map. According to a 2012 BBC report, drug companies like the Massachusetts-based Biogen tested new drugs on poor and low-caste Indians without their informed consent.
There’s also the reality of how racialized folks are treated by healthcare practitioners right now. Black and Indigenous people experience the worst health outcomes in Canada, for a host of reasons, from barriers to accessing care to medical racism from healthcare workers to higher rates of poverty. Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth (it almost happened to Serena Williams!), while doctors have forcibly sterilized Indigenous women in Canada since the 1800s, with reports of forced sterilizations happening up to 2017.
Keeping all of that history in mind, absolutely no one should wonder why some Black people—and other racialized folks—are suspicious of healthcare systems and research institutions. And there should be more and better outreach and communication from governments to racialized groups who are very aware of this history of discrimination and, in some cases, mutilation and torture.
What I Wish Letitia Wright Had Done Instead of Tweeting
But here’s where Shuri comes in.
What if, instead of signal-boosting a homophobic, transphobic, anti-science hack, Wright had used this opportunity to reach out to a doctor or public health expert who could address those concerns? It wouldn’t be the first time a celebrity used their platform this way—Jennifer Garner did a 30-minute IG Live with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who also chatted with Julia Roberts as part of #PassTheMic, a campaign where health experts take over celebrities’ social media channels to discuss COVID-19. (Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, took over actor Olivia Munn’s Instagram as part of the same campaign.)
It probably would have gone a long way to soothing her own fears, and (bonus!) it wouldn’t have raised the profile of ignorant conspiracy theorist and helped stoke fears that, while understandable, put all of us at risk.
But I know that’s not the appeal of conspiracy theories. As I’ve written before, they can be a way for people to feel special and as if they’re privy to knowledge that sets them apart from the rest of us. That certainly seems to be a factor in this situation. In response to the backlash, Wright tweeted, “if you don’t conform to popular opinions. but ask questions and think for yourself....you get cancelled 😂”
Thinking for yourself doesn’t mean you’re right. And you aren’t cancelled. But damn. Promoting anti-vaccine propaganda and shrouding it in intellectual curiosity is asinine. And dangerous.— roxane gay (@rgay) December 4, 2020
As writer Roxane Gay pointed out in a reply to Wright, what Wright is espousing isn’t intellectual curiosity, because if so, she’d be looking for information from credible sources. Instead, this is an example of a person with a huge platform not just buying into a conspiracy theory, but actually disseminating it.
And that’s why I wish the conversation about her tweets hadn’t focused on the idea of cancellation. “Cancel culture” is not a real thing. What we’re describing when we use that term is either the phenomenon of being criticized or facing consequences for your words or actions—and either of those reactions is perfectly fair in this situation. So, if that’s how she wants it, fine. Bye, Letitia.
Friday Picks #4: Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding
This month’s Friday Pick is, obviously, a Christmas movie. And not just because it’s December. Every year, Ishani, Lora and I spend at least some of the holiday season discussing the unique frustration and confounding charm of holiday movies. (They’re so predictable, and so white—and yet we love them?!)
This month, we’re so excited to have that conversation with Canadian director Sharon Lewis, who helmed Lifetime’s Merry Liddle Christmas Wedding. Starring the one and only Kelly Rowland, as well as Bresha Webb, Debbi Morgan and Thomas Cadrot, this follow-up to last year’s Merry Liddle Christmas follows Jacquie (Rowland) as she and Tyler (Cadrot) try to plan their perfect destination Christmas wedding. But with her boisterous family around, it’s no wonder all their plans go awry.
Mark your calendars: We’ll be posting our chat on IGTV on Monday, and don’t forget to catch the movie’s Canadian premiere on CityTV on Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 9 p.m. ET.
And Did You Hear About…
Writer Taylor Crumpton’s super smart piece on how P. Diddy turned Cîroc vodka into a household name—and why hip-hop is such a powerful marketing tool.
This literally perfect explanation of the problem with Olivia Jade Giannulli using Red Table Talk to rehabilitate her image, post-college admission scandal.
Writer and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s argument that Hallmark movies are actually feminist. (Or at least, have feminist elements.)
The Hollywood Reporter’s story on Johnny Depp’s self-imposed downward spiral.
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