Can You Plank on Slippery Slope?

Never been one to dive headfirst into senseless trends but I won’t stop the next person from indulging as long as it doesn’t affect me.

So when I finally figured out what this planking fad was all about I didn’t lay down face first on the hood of a car and have a friend photograph me. Three weeks later I still can’t figure out what about planking draws people in, but that’s nothing unusual. I feel that way about a lot of things people love — Harry Potter, televised poker, MMA fights that “go to the ground.”

Anyway, because these things inevitably happen, an anti-planking movement quickly developed online, and through it we learned that this seemingly innocent pastime actually has sinister roots, and traces its origin to the transatlantic slave trade. Apparently both the phrase and the pose originate from slave traders, who would maximize space in the holds of their ships by stacking slaves face-down.

Living in the internet age has fostered in me a strong suspicion of just about any “fact” that first surfaces Twitter or Facebook. And even though social media have truncated my attention span I can still remember all the way back to May, when a Martin Luther King “quote” zoomed through internet in the hours after the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

So while I can accept that face down and in stacks might have been one of a variety of ways slave traders packed human beings onto ships before hauling them across the ocean for sale in the new world, I’m skeptical that the slave trade is linked to a planking fad that’s as perplexing as it is popular.

We have no evidence that enslaved Africans were the first people on the history of the earth to lay face down, or that the people who invented the contemporary planking trend were consciously mocking victims of the middle passage — which is what the anti-planking movement strongly implies.

Yet the idea that planking is racist rolls forward with a momentum that may prove impossible to reverse.

Just ask Tommy Hilfiger.

If you could turn the tide with logic then it would be much easier to convince people that Hilfiger never told Oprah he didn’t want black folks buying his clothes.

And he didn’t say it.

And it’s proven.

But to tell that to the wrong person is to pick a long and bitter fight.

Trust me. I’ve tried it.

So instead of learning from the Hilfiger hoax folks seem determined to repeat it, digging in against planking because of a sketchy connection between a senseless fad and the slave trade.

But whether or not planking really is racist doesn’t even matter to a lot of people. As my good friend and podcast partner Will Strickland says, the only thing worse than a slight is a perceived one.

So what if the word “niggardly” is a synonym for “thrifty,” comes to us from Scandinavia, and has nothing to do with race relations? It rhymes with racism, so it has to go. Use it in a public forum and risk losing your job.

In 2011 we’re planking on that same slick slope, as if nobody ever had lain face down or used “plank” as a verb since the end of the slave trade.

The folks on the planking equals slavery bandwagon clearly aren’t into fitness, because if any of them had a decent personal trainer they would be planking three times a week.

Maybe we should abandon that exercise, or at least rename it because it too closely resembles the way some of us were stowed in the holds of slave ships.

Then we could mandate vertical massages, because if I lie face-down on a massage table I’m planking, and planking is racist.

And I can’t lie face-up because, as these diagrams show, slaves were transported that way too. So the only way to receive a massage without ripping open tender racial wounds is to do it standing up.

I guess the same thing goes for sleeping, and if you’re sensitive to America’s tortured racial history don’t even think about building a deck in your backyard out of wooden planks. What do you think they made slave ships out of?

See where this is headed?

I do too and I don’t like it.

A decade and a half after Tommy Hilfiger allegedly appeared on Oprah’s show we’re supposed to be better informed and more web savvy than ever, but as the planking equals slavery theory spreads it becomes clear we the last 15 years haven’t made us any less gullible.

Nor are we any less likely to short-circuit meaningful discussions on race by pointing out racism where it doesn’t exist.

In the moments after Casey Anthony was acquitted of murdering her daughter my twitter timeline lit up with theories about how Anthony’s race aided in her acquittal even though, as my college classmate Kyra Kyles writes, the Anthony trial was far from the perfect test case for racism in the court system.

Now we’re inventing connections between the planking and slavery, as if that proves this wildly popular fad is somehow racist.

And it’s not.

It’s merely pointless, and there’s a big difference.

3 Responses to “Can You Plank on Slippery Slope?”
  1. Greg M Keane says:

    Well written as always. I just wanted to be the first to say that I feel this blog maybe racist since it has so much black space…just getting that out there.

    I would never have tied the slave trade with this new fad.

    Should I stop using the plank exercise…is it now considered a hate crime?

    This is all ridiculous, I’ve seen some of my FB friends doing it and was curious as to what it was, and actually thought it was just them but the geek in me fired up the google and looked around and found that lots of people were “planking”. I heard someone fell to his death in Australia while planking. I’m 38 and so maybe I’m out of the circle of what is “cool” but it goes right over my head.

    I can’t see how this is associated with anything to do with slaves and how they were treated as cargo.

    What about pirates and the practice “walking the plank”?

    If I see someone “planking” should I enslave them or walk on their backs?

  2. DNMP says:

    Interesting post and you make some good points…actually I was one of those people that believed this Tommy Hilfiger rumor until reading this :{ I just stopped buying his stuff and I never checked to see if it was true or not…mind you I was in high school when the rumor came out and was not in charge of buying my own clothes but its funny that when I did gain control of my wardrobe that I didn’t check this out.

    Anyway I enjoyed the post and I like your podcast.

  3. Man, that Tommy Hilfiger rumour runs DEEP. It’s amazing how so many people believe it yet this footage of him on the Oprah show has never surface….my people….we love a conspiracy theory… Thanks for checking in BTW, and I’m glad yr a fan of the Podcast.

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