July 2001: Chasing woman is not a story — Not even in blackface

Young men of all races chase women ... It's not a story
17 July 2001 – Toronto Star

By Morgan Campbell

Last Tuesday I looked at the front page of The Star and above the banner I saw a graphic of a black man. He was a cool-looking cat with cornrowed braids and aqua shades. Next to him were the words “Heart Breakers,” and an invitation to turn to the boom! section and read the story.

I accepted, and found an article that offended and angered me.

The story, called For some playas, any ‘ting’ goes, was about young black men, the pleasure they get from being promiscuous and the tricks they use to get women into bed.

The author, Asha Tomlinson, calls these young men “playas,” and in the story she describes an entire playa vocabulary. “Checking” is a sexual relationship, while a “flex” is a sexual escapade, and a “ting” is a girl with whom you have a one-night stand.

Tomlinson also makes clear that this phenomenon is not confined to the black men she has dated. “Being a ‘playa’ in the black community has become a persona, a mentality, a status symbol young men strive for,” she writes. “The playa mentality is all around and it’s all about lying, cheating and manipulating.”

The story offended me because it supports old stereotypes about black men. It conjures up the image of the lustful black buck, sexing “ting” after “ting,” following his never-ending erection to “flex” after “flex.” Can’t you picture him? He’s cruising his Cadillac. He’s sweet-talking your daughter, flashing his gold-toothed smile. He’s got your girlfriend in bed right now, and, in a minute, he’ll be off to his next flex.

I was angry, too, but not with Tomlinson. I didn’t think her story was very strong, but I realize she’s inexperienced and she’s probably capable of better work.

I’m angry with the editors who decided that journalistic standards don’t apply to stories by and about black people.

The editors I spoke to told me they ran the story because it was “well written.”

I’ve been out of school for two years, so maybe I’m out of touch. Still, I can’t see that story getting more than a C if I’d handed it in. Makes me wonder what these editors mean by “well-written.” Does that term apply just because the writer and the subject are black? I know as well as anyone that young writers need exposure, but I don’t think editors help anybody when they praise substandard stories.

These editors also told me they like the subject of the story. They both said The Star had never touched the topic before. Well, I’ve never touched poison ivy before, but that doesn’t mean I’ll grab a handful the next time I see some.

Does a story written by a white woman about philandering white men run on a section front? I don’t think so. I don’t think it makes the paper at all. Young men of all races chase women. We know that like we know Tuesday follows Monday. It’s not a story. Not even when you paint it in blackface.

I asked the editors if they thought the story affirmed stereotypes. “But what if the stereotype is true?” one editor asked in return. The other told me that the “playa” slang sold the story, made it worthwhile even if it fed into stereotypes.

So if a stereotype plus some slang equals a story, maybe I’ll write one about my big black penis. I’ll interview some friends with big penises and the story will enhance last week’s “playas” piece. After all, you’ll never understand how playas play until you pause to examine their equipment. I’ll call it Homeboyz and their hoods. It’s a pun, you see, because in the black community “hood” is slang for “penis.”

Yeah, I know that sounds outrageous and offensive. Two weeks ago, I’d have thought a story like that would have gotten me fired. Now it might get me front-page play (no pun intended).

I told each editor that For some playas would have had trouble making the pages of a black paper, that the story’s authority depended on the ignorance of white readers.

I said that an editor who knew the black community as well as Tomlinson does would have spotted the holes in her logic and had her patch them.

In response, one editor compared For some playas to a gardening story. Sometimes, he said, The Star will run a story about, say, tulips. If the story has faults, some tulip expert will invariably phone or send an email. The expert will set the record straight and the damage is minimal.

It’s a cute analogy but it doesn’t apply here. When white women walk down the street, they don’t clutch their purses tighter when they pass a pot of tulips. But some do it when they pass me. You feel (understand) me?

More than a million people read The Star every day. Not every one of them knows flowers, and not every one of them knows young black men.

Misinform them about tulips and a few folks will ruin a few bulbs.

Reinforce a racist myth and a whole community pays.

I’m not saying that exploding stereotypes about black men should be The Star’s stated aim.

But all newspapers exist to inform, to enhance cultural, social and political literacy.

For some playas doesn’t do that. It solidifies misguided ideas about black men.

Sometimes a writer can’t see where his or her story fails, but a good editor should.

Copyright ©2001 Toronto Star

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