When Do Tweets Cross The Line?

Some people are calling late night host Chelsea Handler a racist after her tweets during the Oscars. But she says the accusation is bogus because she dates black men. The Beauty Shop ladies weigh in.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to visit the Beauty Shop. That's where our panel of women commentators and journalists take a fresh cut on the week's hot topics. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Bridget Johnson. She is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's a conservative libertarian news and commentary site. Demetria Lucas is back with us. She is a contributing editor for TheRoot.com and author of "A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life." Mikki Kendall is back with us. She's a writer and media critic with HoodFeminism.com. And back again also, Anne Ishii, editor in chief of They're All So Beautiful. That's an online forum that looks at race and dating. Welcome back to everybody. Thanks for joining us.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.

DEMETRIA LUCAS: Thanks for having us.

ANNE ISHII: Thanks for having us.

MIKKI KENDALL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I got - I wanted to bring this up. This is new news, breaking news, and I'm still wrapping my head around this. A Massachusetts court ruled that upskirting, which is basically taking a secret photo under a woman's dress, is not illegal. Now this resolves the case against a Boston man who was arrested in 2010 for taking pictures up the skirts of unsuspecting women on the Metro - or the trolley, I guess, the T. And the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared that upskirting does not violate current peeping Tom laws because the people in the pictures are fully clothed. Bridget, can I get your reaction to this?

JOHNSON: I'm astonished that intent doesn't seem to have a role in this. I mean, a guy can accidentally bump up against a woman on the Metro and accidentally touch her butt, and it's an accident. Or a guy could be a sexual predator on the Metro and start grabbing peoples butts. So this guy was a sexual predator. He took - he had, like, a little library of his up-the-skirt shots, and yet he's not treated the same as the peeping Tom who's hanging out in your tree looking through your window. So I think this is really a case where technology needs to - or the law needs to catch up with technology.

MARTIN: Demetria, what about you?

LUCAS: You know, I agree with that sentiment. It doesn't seem that the law has caught up with technology at all. And I can't imagine if men, you know, had - wore skirts and, you know, they didn't have their pants situation, that, you know, if they had to deal with someone trying to take pictures of their private parts - and let's be clear, like, everyone doesn't always, you know, have their underwear on. But if someone was taking pictures of their private parts, you know, it would be outrage, absolute outrage.

But I think this is a case of, like, a judge just not getting it and just thinking, like, oh, well, you know, maybe you should wear pants on. Maybe it's the same idea that, you know, like women who are assaulted, you know, you shouldn't have worn a short skirt, and so maybe you're asking for it by wearing a skirt. That kind of seems to be what they're telling women.

MARTIN: Anne Ishii, you were telling us that in Japan they've actually taken measures against this. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

ISHII: Yeah, I'm to understand - I think it's Japan and maybe Korea also - the shutter, that clicking sound on your smartphone can't be silenced. So at the very least, if somebody's, you know, taking upskirt shot, they have the decency of letting you know with an audio cue.

MARTIN: Yeah. Go ahead.

ISHII: But I like the - I like Demetria's suggestion is actually pretty cool. I think if everybody just started going commando more, maybe then the law would be in our favor 'cause we would be effectively nude when they took the pictures.

MARTIN: Mikki, what do you have to say about this? Somehow I think you could handle this with your military training. I feel maybe your strategies for going commando would actually be kind of literal on this, but...

KENDALL: I will put it to you this way 'cause upskirting isn't new. It used to be shoes. You know, they'd put a mirror on the...

ISHII: Yes.

KENDALL: ...Top of their shoes, things like that. I feel like we'll get a different law when some guy gets his nose broken 'cause that's going to be - I mean, to be honest, that's going to be when they start saying, oh, my God, the violence. But we've seen this before, right? We were seeing women assaulted - well, I think it was in Japan as a matter of fact that had special women-only subway cars at one point.

LUCAS: Yeah.

ISHII: That's right.

KENDALL: We're seeing women be assaulted on transit.

ISHII: Yeah, they still do.

KENDALL: Yeah. We're seeing women be assaulted on transit. We talk about street harassment. Hollaback! exists, other orgs around that concept exists. And I think Demetria is right. This is really about victim blaming. Well, how dare you be out in what's presumed to be a short skirt? I wear long skirts, but if I decide to go commando and you manage to slide your foot or your camera into the right angle because my wrap skirt fell the wrong way or whatever, that's not my fault. That's you. You're a creep.

MARTIN: Well, that's the part that gets me about this. Again, Anne, you spoke about it, and I understand that if that's a response that people approve of, then that's fine. But why then should you be segregated to protect yourself from somebody who's engaging in wrongful behavior? That's the part that bothers me. Why don't they have a car for predators and segregate the predators?

ISHII: Right.

MARTIN: And you can, you know - you know, you can be by yourself. That's the part that I find...

ISHII: Well, I...

MARTIN: ...You know, distressing about this. Like, why is it your problem?

ISHII: Right.

MARTIN: And what bothers me is that if I believe that if a woman does kind of physically challenge somebody who's engaging in this conduct, I bet you she would be prosecuted for this.

ISHII: It is going to take a mass attack on men in kilts for them to come around.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: All right, kilt-wearers, beware.

KENDALL: It's the same way we treat - it's rape culture still, right? We tell women how not to get raped.

LUCAS: Not to...

KENDALL: We don't tell men or other predatory behaviors not to rape. We don't even necessarily define what rape is. We still have this method - it's the stranger with the knife in the car, when the reality is that it's probably someone you know and who you theoretically should be able to trust. So that's what we're still doing. We're still telling women, well, you shouldn't wear skirts and not, you shouldn't take pictures of people's bodies.

MARTIN: Well, we'll keep you posted on this. My guess is that the legislature will be addressing this, and we'll keep you posted if they do. If you're just joining us, we're in the Beauty Shop. We're catching up on the week's hot topics with Mikki Kendall of HoodFeminism.com, Anne Ishii of "They're All So Beautiful," Demetria Lucas of TheRoot.com and Bridget Johnson of PJ Media. So let's go back - we're going back a little bit to the Oscar awards, which were Sunday.

I think, if everybody, you know - "12 Years a Slave" won honors for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress, Lupita Nyong'o. But not everybody knew the right way to say congratulations. During the program, the comedian and late-night TV host Chelsea Handler tweeted, #AngelinaJolie just filed adoption papers #LupitaNyong'o #Oscars, and, congratulations #12YearsASlave go to Africa or buy "Uganda Be Kidding Me" - #UgandaBeKiddingMe @aheadofthecurve - #aheadofthecurve #Oscars. "Uganda Be Kidding Me" is the name of Handler's new book. Now a lot of people were offended by the tweets, but yesterday, Handler was on "Good Morning America" promoting the book. And she responded to - this way to people who that said that this was racist - the way she responded was racist. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

CHELSEA HANDLER: I'm not racist. I date a lot of black people, so that would be a difficult thing to explain to them.

MARTIN: OK, so, Anne, I'm going to ask you to take this first because...

ISHII: I mean...

MARTIN: ...Your site is about race and dating...

ISHII: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And so...

ISHII: Well, I've been to the Olive Garden, so I guess that means I can say whatever I want about Italians. I don't know. It's so ridiculous.

MARTIN: Why is it ridiculous? Some people believe that.

ISHII: I mean, actually, you're right. I get a lot of this, too, from people in interracial relationships with Asian people. Oh, no, this is actually what Asians are actually like, as if they have some insight into an entire ethnicity or racial group because they've been sleeping with somebody, which is completely ludicrous 'cause then men and women would understand each other really well.

MARTIN: Well said. How about that? Demetria, what do you say about that?

LUCAS: You know, Chelsea's excuse is the same thing as people who say, you know, I have black friends.

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: And, you know, anyone of color knows that as soon as someone says, like, oh, I have a black friend, or anyone who might be gay, someone says, I have a gay friend, you know that what's coming out of their mouth is completely racist, homophobic, inappropriate. Like, so her excuse is, you know - it's stupid. And Chelsea is, you know - she's known for saying outrageous things. She likes the attention, and, you know, we're giving it to her once again with this.

MARTIN: You think we shouldn't be talking about it. What should we do, just ignore it?

LUCAS: So, you know, it's an issue that's worth addressing and saying that people, you know, should not say racist things. But Chelsea Handler specifically says obnoxious things to get a rise and reaction. And she goes further and further each time because the bar has to keep being pushed. You know, that's why I guess the site let her tweet, and that's why she says the outrageous and does the outrageous things that she does. I'm very over Chelsea Handler and this inappropriateness of hers.

MARTIN: Interesting. Mikki, what do you think?

KENDALL: I'm actually over this entire genre of comedic bigotry, right? We somehow have this thing. It's not like it's just Chelsea Handler. We've got Sarah Silverman, Lisa Lampanelli, a few others, where their shtick is to say really racist things and then say, but I love black men. Well - and this is going to be a little bit rude - but just because you climb into bed with someone doesn't mean that you become of color by osmosis.

We'll put it that way. Chelsea knows exactly what she was doing. Huff' Po' knew what they were doing by handling her. The reality is that you - like Demetria said, she's just going to keep doing this, and she's going to keep doing this. And the reward for her - she doesn't care if people are upset. She cares that her name is on the radio, her name is on TV.

LUCAS: And we're all talking about her new book, you know. She's not stupid.

ISHII: Yeah.

KENDALL: Right.

MARTIN: Bridget, what do you think?

JOHNSON: You know, I don't think race is taboo at the Oscars or politically incorrect jokes. You have to be prepared to deal with the fallout of those, such as Ellen with Liza Minnelli. But I think one of the problems here was that making of jokes in connection to a movie about slavery is kind of like making jokes about "Schindler's List." It's someplace that you just don't go, and most people in Hollywood know that.

MARTIN: I wonder, though, on this whole question - and I take your point on all of this, I mean, 'cause there's always a dilemma if you're in our field about whether by talking about something, you are elevating it or validating it. I don't think you are, necessarily. One thing I would like to ask if others have an opinion about is could it be that part of the reason that she does date black people is to indulge in her racist stereotypes?

UNIDENTIFIED PANELIST: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I mean, could that be part of it?

PANELIST: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, is that part of the appeal is that, you know - I mean, we - you know that she used to date rapper 50 Cent. I don't know what date...

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...Means in this context - I mean, in the celebrity context. What does date mean - that they were seen at the same place at the same time? I don't know.

LUCAS: They put up pictures on Instagram together.

ISHII: Right.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. There you go.

LUCAS: Exactly.

MARTIN: But I sometimes wonder - and I don't know, Anne, maybe you can speak to this because your site...

ISHII: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Explores some of these issues. Is that part of the appeal for some people is that they're acting on a racist stereotype? And that's why they're seeking out...

ISHII: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Certain people. Certainly, not all, but...

ISHII: Right. And I don't think - one thing we hear a lot is that, you know, they're not doing it consciously or it's just because of the circumstances. It's what I'm surrounded by, or these are the people I know. And I don't think that excuses the necessity for discussion at the very least.

These are things that the object of fetishism or the, you know, in this case, the black man or, in my case, the Asian woman or female has to think about constantly and second guesses the intention. So, you know, if nothing else, I think it's important that they be able to talk openly and honestly about it and be called out when something is incredibly offensive.

MARTIN: I'm still - I'm puzzling over this question of to talk about it or not talk about it 'cause I take your point, all of you who've made the point that this is a bid for attention so why give it air? On the other hand, if you don't challenge some of these perspectives or at least discuss some of these perspectives and say could it be this way? I don't know how it - I don't know. I don't know how it changes. I don't know. Other...

LUCAS: Well, it's a dilemma I have constantly as a writer. You don't want to feed into someone who's intentionally being obnoxious for attention. But at the same time, you do want to cover things that people are talking about. So I get it.

KENDALL: And I think part of it, too is that...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Mikki.

KENDALL: ...Oh, sorry.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

KENDALL: I think part of it, too, is for Chelsea Handler and others, right, this shtick has unlimited shelf life. We're already talking about an issue where, you know, I date black people, I know black people, I know gay people, whatever. Well, "12 Years A Slave," we can look at the actual context of Patsey's life, right?

MARTIN: Right.

KENDALL: He loved her. He wanted her. Didn't stop him from having her beaten. So you love black people. That's great. That doesn't mean that you're not a bigot.

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: OK. Well, this is a bit of a segue here. I'm not sure it's the same order of magnitude, but we'll throw it out there. This is another story that's been in the news. New Jersey teenager Rachel Canning is suing her parents for her private high school tuition, future college tuition, living expenses and legal fees. Earlier this week, a judge denied her request for immediate financial assistance. Canning, who is a teen, says her parents threw her out of the house after years of verbal abuse. But her parents say she left because she refused to follow their rules, which included, you know, a curfew. And a judge is going to sort through some other issues.

I just am - I'm interested in your reaction to this. I mean, crediting the fact that there's always something we don't know about a story like this when it rises to the level of legal case. But sort of social media's already weighed in. And, Bridget, I'm interested in your perspective on it.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and my first response is, as those of us who are still paying our student loans off know, nobody is obligated to pay your tuition. OK, so she loses on this case I think because she's 18. That's an adult. That's where you have to make the tough choices if you encounter hard knocks. She obviously has a dysfunctional family. Lots of us have dealt with a dysfunctional family. Lots of us have been there and have little sympathy. So I think that she just doesn't have ground in this.

MARTIN: Mikki, what do you think?

KENDALL: So I think everyone to write this date down because Bridget and I 100 percent agree. So...

JOHNSON: ...So noted.

KENDALL: ...This is partially my own personal back story. I was 16 when I finished high school. And one of the first things my parents told me was that they would pay for college if I went to the school that they chose for me and major in what they thought I should major in. I joined the Army instead. And I look at this, and I agree with her about the fact that, you know, the high school thing, that there's something really dysfunctional going on. However, there are ways around the fact that this college fund will count against her. You know, we already know that until 24 - and that part is unfair - until 24, she's getting her parents' financial information to get ank kind of assistance for college unless she joins the military, she gets married or she becomes a parent.

Her and the boyfriend that she's currently living with could fix this with a trip to the courthouse. It doesn't even have to be a real marriage. It just - you just have to have been married. She could join ROTC to pay for college. There are options beyond this lawsuit, which I kind of feel like is down to the boyfriend's dad and whatever dysfunction is going on in the other household, too.

MARTIN: Anybody else want to weigh in? Anybody want to take the side of the young woman?

ISHII: I think she has a bid for a good reality show starring herself

LUCAS: Yeah.

ISHII: ...In tiger mom.

LUCAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I'm curious, though, of - 'cause there are all kinds of people who used to have no rights in this society and who now do. And the way that those rights have been renegotiated is in part by taking it to the courts.

I mean, that's - and I just wonder if anybody has sympathy for the point of view that taking it to the courts is our society's way of taking it outside - I'm taking it outside with you. All right. This is what we do instead of fists to cuffs. So, perhaps, does she have a point in saying I feel that I have a serious question here which is I, as a human being, have some fundamental rights. You have the means to pay for me to go, and I think this is your responsibility. And therefore, you should do so.

JOHNSON: Actually...

LUCAS: In terms of high school, I do think that there is - the parents should take care of that, even if she's left the house. I do think if she's going to go to private school, they're still supporting that in some way. She's been in the school for a while. That would be great, and I would understand a legal maneuver in order to make that happen. But college? I mean, it's - college is a privilege, whether it should be or not. It is a privilege in this country.

And you don't get to leave your parents' house and then demand that they pay for you because there are people who are living in their parents' house, and, you know, they still don't get that checks from their parents or the financial assistance from their parents. So the idea that you're no longer there, whether it's by your own free will, you got kicked out or whatever the situation is, you're no longer there, but you're still demanding their resources? It just doesn't add up to me.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and...

MARTIN: I'm reveling in the notion that - I'm still trying to kind of savor this moment of Bridget and Mikki agreeing on something. I just kind of wondered if we could make it last as long as possible. Bridget, you have a final thought on this?

JOHNSON: I was going to say, too, you know, I understand that she's in her senior year. But if she did transfer to public school, she'd probably meet some people who have it a lot harder than her.

LUCAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just as a point of clarification, she's living with a friend. We do not believe that she's living with a boyfriend here. So - all right. Well, we'll keep our eyes on this as well. Maybe it'll emerge that there are facts of which we are not yet aware, and maybe that reality show will be a reality, you know, who knows. Ladies, thank you. Demetria Lucas is author of "A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-To Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Anne Ishii is editor-in-chief of They're All So Beautiful. She joined us from NPR West. Mikki Kendall is a writer and media critic with hoodfeminism.com with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. And Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media with us from our studios in Washington, D.C. with me. Thank you, ladies. Thank you all so much.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

KENDALL: Thank you.

ISHII: Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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