Racist rant a viral shock to our senses - The Buffalo News
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Racist rant a viral shock to our senses

Social media made her a household name. I think, on balance, it’s a good thing.

Three days ago, Janelle Ambrosia was a stripper mom living in relative anonymity. By Wednesday afternoon, she had gone global – for all the wrong reasons.

Ambrosia launched a N-word-laden rant last Friday against a black motorist in the parking lot outside a Cheektowaga dollar store. She apparently was upset that he startled her kids by starting his vehicle. The object of her verbal assault, Narvell Benning, had the presence of mind to record it on his cellphone. It was posted Tuesday and picked up on social media sites. By Thursday afternoon, the 4-minute, 22-second clip had more than 4 million views on YouTube.

The rare public display of blatant racism, witnessed by Ambrosia’s two young children, became the Internet equivalent of motorists rubbernecking as they passed an accident scene. Despite themselves, millions of people just had to look.

Thanks to technology, Earth has become one big neighborhood. A few years ago, before smartphones became seemingly as necessary to daily life as food and shelter, this would have been a private dispute known only to a few. How times have changed. Legions of people now can easily record daily events, and – via social media – have access to an international distribution network. Instead of an isolated occurrence, the Cheektowaga confrontation was discussed at dinner tables around the world. Ambrosia, in a matter of hours, became the poster person for unmitigated, in-your-face racism.

There may be worse ways to make a name for yourself, but – aside from murder, rape or pedophilia – I can’t think of any.

In subsequent hours, she was – on various media sites – alternately defiant or apologetic. She may have psychological issues, given her later media references to being “bipolar.” Whatever her situation, the damage was done.

I doubt that the sudden infamy will, in the long run, be good for her. But it might help the rest of us. It’s healthier for society to get hate speech out in the open than to have it fester in the shadows – or get vented in small circles of head-nodders. Ambrosia’s meltdown, aside from anything else, provoked a national discussion about race. It’s better to look under the rock and see what crawls there than to let ignorance squirm out of our collective sight.

“Something like this allows everyone to see a snapshot of this behavior,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “It reminds us that it’s still out there, in 2014 America.”

This is the way society re-establishes norms, communally self-corrects and adjusts its course of accepted behavior. The condemnation of her words by reasonable people – whether on social media or in countless casual conversations – is ultimately reaffirming, and isolates those who think like her. The support for her – whether in mostly anonymous postings, or in conversation – contradicts the notion that we live in a colorblind society and exposes to the rest of us the wormy underside of America’s racial sensibility. It’s better to know that it’s there than to kid ourselves that racism has somehow magically disappeared.

“This is how culture shifts; this is how we understand what’s acceptable,” Thompson said. “It provokes a healthy discussion and an understanding that this is not all right, that these kinds of words are always going to cause trouble.”

Indeed, Benning – as Ambrosia starts in on him – seemingly recognizes the chance to capture something shocking. He keeps his cool, aims the recorder and documents – for, as it turned out, the world to see – a raw and rare public display of unfiltered racism.

“He’s like a director/anthropologist who comes across something he’s probably previously encountered in life, and wants to bear witness,” Thompson said.

“If so, I think he achieved what he wanted.”

Thanks, then, to Benning, for capturing and sharing a teachable moment. Part of that lesson involves not just scorn for Ambrosia, but sympathy.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com

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