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Material Girl

Updated: Jan 22, 2021


“'Cause we are living in a material world, And I am a material girl”

On boxing day 2020, 14 year old Keyon Harrold Jnr was physically and verbally assaulted by 22 year old Miya Ponsetto, who had lost her phone. Despite Keyon’s father’s pleas, Ponsetto insisted they had a right to demand the youth’s iphone, facilitated by Arlo Hotel’s manager.

I first learnt of this story when the face of my friend, Keyon Harrold Snr, popped up on the BBC news. As a grammy award winning jazz artist, I’d hoped this was a positive news story about his deserved professional success. Of course, the reality of the headline has taken a toll since. If you’ve been living under a rock, Keyon Harrold Snr and Jnr are black, and the footage reeks of racial profiling.

In a roller coaster ride, the hotel’s actions, Ponsetto's “Gayle, enough” CBS interview with Miss King and subsequent arrest - all occurred in the week Police ushered far-right protesters in to storm the Capitol. White supremacy reigned supreme.

So this week, Dr Chikwira and I have worked to unpick the complexity of lived experiences of the intersections of race, gender, perceived class.

Here we have a woman who “passes” as white, leaning heavily on her age, gender and dual heritage as reasons why she couldn’t possibly be guilty of racism and discrimination. We use the concept of racism based on Garner (2016) who asserts that racism includes issues of power, and the social meanings that are attributed to perceived biological differences.

Describing herself as “super-sweet’, the 22 year old woman clarifies that she is, in fact a ‘girl’; saying “I’ve lived probably just the same amount of life” as a 14 year old black boy.

This is important. This is the problem. Ponsetto is a female adult in every area of life; with an ability to vote, drink, reproduce and drive. She positions herself as fragile and incapable of harm or racism. On the other hand, Harrold Jnr, is an innocent minor, with none of those rights or opportunities. Harrold has no criminal record. However, Harrold is *perceived* by their attacker as having the same life experiences as a 22 year old woman. As an aside, Ponsetto also faces public intoxication, drunk driving and motor vehicle charges in California.

Dr Chikwira highlighted the catalyst for the incident; a lost mobile phone, assumed stolen. Ponsetto’s actions represent a disconnect between the material and the human; they had assaulted a child over a mobile phone. It is important to always remember the contexts within which racialisations and racisms occur.

At the centre of the case was a misplaced, presumed stolen mobile phone. Would Ponsetto have had the same inclination to accuse Harrold of stealing the phone if Harrold Junior was a white, middle class young woman? This case is another example of the intersections of race, gender, and socio-economic factors that drive and entrench characteristics about black people – they are all poor and ready to steal our material wealth that they have not worked for.

Hence, race is imbued with characteristics that are produced and reproduced within specific socio-economic power structures.

Ponsetto’s belief is that someone, two thirds her age, has the same ‘lived’ experiences as her. Eight years, more than half Harrold’s age, written off so flippantly. Is it because Harrold is black? Is it because he is male? Or more importantly, is it because Harrold is a black male?

Kay Rufai, founder of the S.M.I.L.E-ing project is addressing the impact these negative perceptions have on black boys here in the UK. The truly infectious catalogue of smiling boys, featured in The Guardian earlier this week, drills home how infrequently this demographic is painted in a positive light. Asking us to “Send Me Inspiring Loving Energy”, allies understand that our perceptions of people, not the people we perceive, as the key cause of discrimination.

S.M.I.L.E is a really thought provoking and motivating project that uses smiles to highlight the barriers young black men face with society’s perception of them. When EquALLIES flagged the significance of the project in light of Ponsetto’s discrimination against Harrold, Rufai notes

“It’s important people see the bigger picture. Ponsetto’s actions highlight the implicit and explicit work that needs to be done. This work needs to be done specifically by non-black identifying people, as the subconscious nature of the negatively racialised narratives surrounding black people, specifically in this case, men and boys, is so deeply imbedded. Even the most well intending, liberal, ‘woke’ white people must do this work, and be more cognisant about how they reflect on these realities when these realities present themselves.”

The pivotal point here being the views, actions and ideas of one individual has a significant impact on others. Rufai is making a positive impact on the boys he photographs and his audience. Similarly, Ponsetto is not alone in holding negative stereotypes against young black men, and forms part of a bigger collective. The tribe’s collective’s entitlement is demonstrated in the New York Hotel and as we’ve just witnessed, leads to death and insurrection. One individual’s actions demonstrate the deeper issues that frame racialisations and stereotypes that locate certain individuals as the ‘other’. The consequences embolden or warn those of a similar mindset.

The impact of this isolated assault rippled out from Keyon Junior, to his family and wider global racial equality community. Painfully reminiscent of the racial profiling of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Christian Cooper. Keyon Harrold Snr noted that had he done more to protect his child, he may too become a victim of excess police violence.

The Hotel Manager and Chain are also impacted. By failing to acknowledge their part in enabling Ponsetto’s actions against paying customers, they could be argued to be complicit in reinforcing certain beliefs and practises that disadvantage others. Currently, there are petitions to boycott the Arlo Hotel Chain. Arlo must now manage the repercussions and support staff in understanding how this is perceived by stakeholders, and how it must be better managed in future.

Her lawyer proposed a defence that her client was afraid of being in a city without access to her phone and contacts. Wearing a cap with the word “daddy’ on, Ponsetto has the physical strength and entitlement to tackle a black child, for *owning* an iphone, but not the sense or capacity to recall a number of a friend or relative.

Does that excuse Ponsetto’s behaviour? This is more than just about a mobile phone and feeling lost without it.

In the age of automation, are we raising generations with so much dependence on objects and so little problem solving confidence, and so little respect for others, that such a chaotic response could be justified?

Self awareness is important to how one uses their gender intersecting with race, age and class (material wealth and the power that comes with it) as defence for one’s actions that disempowers and discriminates against them.

EquALLIES questions;

How do we use labels to navigate daily life?

How much do labels limit or lift our impact at work, home or community?

How can we engage, educate and empower ourselves, and others, to lead inclusively?

You see, Ponsetto can be racist, sexist and react disproportionately to losing material objects. She can erroneously use gender and race to try and present as a victim - immediately undermining valid claims of gender and race inequalities. Yet these errors need not define us. It is our ability to redress the harm caused and to learn from mistakes that will define future success.

Should that not be how we all focus forward, to heal divisions and work well, together?

So let’s learn how we each have a role in identifying and addressing ways through we create and reinforce stereotypes and inequalities. Men, women, black, white, gay, straight, abled and disabled. Whether at work, like the Hotel manager, or at play, like Miya and Keyon, let’s be unambiguous in our ability to engage, educate and empower ourselves and others to address exclusions, discrimination that result in inequalities. .

We’re all Inclusive Leaders, and we all have the capacity to lift ourselves and others to reach higher goals in every stage of life.

But for goodness sake, don’t put material objects above human kind.

Engage > Educate > Empower

Support Kay Rufai's S.M.I.L.E-ing Crowdfunder here.

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