Beyond an afro…

In Uncategorized on December 22, 2012 at 11:19 pm

A couple of months back, Michelle Joni Lapidos was the “WTF, white people?” winner of the internets when Post Bougie and Gawker caught wind of her blog, Before and Afro. For the fortunately unfamiliar, Miss Joni is an NYC-based white woman who, originally, purchased an afro wig for a costume party, and later had the epiphany (rather, a self-indulgent photo shoot in her apartment wearing the wig), that the ‘fro could be the catalyst for a new blog. Thus, Before and Afro was born to “help people all over the world look deeper within themselves so they can master their consciousness and fall madly in love with every detail of their lives.”

On wearing the afro: “it’s not about feeling black… what I actually feel like is ME, understood more clearly. It’s not an alter ego. It’s an amplified ego.” Simply, Lapidos wants to empower others to realize their true, authentic selves while wearing a synthetic wig.Image

After that initial exposure, many critics rightfully called the blogger out for her blatant and unchecked white privilege – not simply for walking around town wearing an afro, but also for attempting to pass off her mockery of Blackness (“Black” hand gestures and contorted lips) as a gateway to self-discovery. Per readers’ suggestions, Lapidos read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” among other texts, and initially thought an appropriate way to show contrition was to wear a blonde wig instead of a black one. Later, after more reading, supposed self-reflection, an NPR interview, and another hedonistic photo shoot that climaxed with her lying on the bathroom floor with her long dirty-blonde hair fanned out in limp defeat, Michelle Joni Lapidos was ready to let go of the wig.

Alas, like a enlightened phoenix rising from the ashes of white racial privilege and cultural appropriation, soaring through the clouds of post-racialism, JoJo found a way to have her “very own fro!!”

Before and Afro has to be one of the grossest examples of cultural appropriation and unchecked white privilege that I’ve ever seen…and I receive both the Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters catalogues in the mail at the same time every month.

Ultimately though, and almost to no fault of the blogger, Before and Afro reveals the fundamental disconnect between whiteness and all otherness.

Looking at race and racial hierarchy, historically, whiteness exists at the top while Blackness falls to the bottom. In reinforcing this binary and the trope that race is a Black and white issue, I am not diminishing or discounting other racial narratives or experiences of those who do not identify as Black or white. Instead, I have adopted famed Black theologian, James H. Cone’s philosophy that the dominant culture must renounce whiteness and adopt Blackness to receive redemption. He suggests that in order for oppression (as Blacks epitomize oppression) to cease, whites (as whites epitomize the oppressor), as a majority, must frame their minds within the spectrum of Black thought and experience. They must begin to shape their lenses from the perspective of the oppressed, rather than oppressor. Cone looks at the atrocities of American Indians, Black-Americans, “the persecution of Jews, the oppression of Mexican-Americans, and every other conceivable inhumanity done in the name of God and country—these brutalities can be analyzed in terms of the white American inability to recognize humanity in persons of color.”

Part of what allows for that continued racial disconnect is consumerism presented to us through mass marketing and mass production. People are no longer people with unique identities, experiences, triumphs and defeats formed by history, family, and location. Instead, the fundamentals of capitalism force us to be seen as products – packaged, sold, and bought. What results from that social system is race (and often gender and class) as performance, escapism, and ill-conceived imitation. Without sacrifice, politicization, or commitment, we can just buy a wig and suddenly feel the empowering spirit of Blackness or more specifically, Black womanhood. And because capitalism doesn’t push us to be responsible or hold ourselves accountable, we can feel victimized and attacked when representatives from the appropriated/mocked culture do not share our enthusiasm.

Consumerist multiculturalism allows us to sample bulgogi at Whole Foods, don Lululemon and aum without speaking to its origins, eat a falafel sandwich at Subway, or “discover Morocco” with West Elm under the assumption that that’s all it takes to be an engaged world citizen. With capitalism and privilege, there are no lessons of community care, community solidarity, or even community understanding.

Capitalism, which enables the consumerist society we experience in the United States, and racial and class privilege tell many white folks not only do they have the right to engage that way, but people of color or socially marginalized groups should not question it. If we do, we are met with “I had no idea!” and if we push the issue, that supposed unknowingness turns into a defensive, “it’s not my/our fault! I don’t think we should blame people simply because they have money. That’s not me at all!” despite signs showing the contrary. We saw these narratives arise from the political right during the 2012 election cycle of “they hate our wealth” and Romney supporters waving “We Built It” signs at the RNC. It takes only a passing thought of indigenous Americans and African and Black American slaves to highlight the absurdity of such a statement. These delusions are the necessary antidotes for one’s internal peace and mental stability when faced with the reality of what is lost when hiding behind the protected status and convenience of whiteness.

Purchasing products that have some sort of racial and cultural significance that is not your own – whether it be a fro, a dashiki, sexy Geisha lingerie, or a vague Navajo print – does not magically elevate consciousness. It’s playing make-believe.

Citizenship to a larger, soul-sustaining community cannot be bought or performed, and thus we must move beyond individualistic, self-interested consumerism that says otherwise. It takes a complete overhaul of how we think about and care for race and racialized people. By relieving oneself from the superficial, short-term comfort of these cultural and racial masquerades, one can begin to imagine, accept, and understand Black folks and other people of color beyond an afro.

Straightening Out the Kinks on the Gabby Douglas Hair Debate

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm


Gabby Douglas, the 16 year-old Olympic gold medal gymnast, had no idea her hair was at the center of a Twitter-led “controversy” that has consumed much of the Black internet world. That is, until a reporter from the Associated Press asked her what she thought about all the negative attention her hairstyle was garnering. She aptly responded, “I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair? I’m like, `I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’”

Miss Douglas asked the right question. What’s wrong with her hair? Nothing. Nearly all bloggers and sensible people who’ve addressed the criticism agree. However, a number of those respondents have admonished the young Olympian’s naysayers into shame and claims of self-hate. Always eager to dig a little deeper and in the theme of hair, I see stopping the analysis there—that these critical Black women all over social media must simply dislike themselves and live in a pressured universe of their own making—similar to looking at split ends to solve a problem, rather than the roots to find the cause.

There’s little doubt that Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary, Good Hair, brought the once-secret politics of Black hair into the public light. Disappointedly, Rock only offered a superficial look into the complexities of those politics, minimizing more than a century’s worth of subtle (and not so subtle) devaluation and delegitmization into comedic fodder at Black women’s expense. And like Rock’s documentary, focusing on a narrative of self-hate and “why you mad though?” to explain why folks would care so much about what Douglas’ hair looks like, lets white supremacy roam free and unchecked.

A white/western/European aesthetic and culture permeate nearly everything we look at—from fashion all the way to the graphics on our dish soap. Disagree? Riddle me this: with restaurants, cookbooks, TV shows, and a readymade food line, why is it that Rick Bayless is the face of Mexican cuisine in the United States?

When choosing the self-hate argument, it’s fairly easy to blame the individual without looking for greater context. An overweight comedian doesn’t make fun of herself simply because she arbitrarily chose to hate her body. A young Latino-American man surrounded by white friends does not arbitrarily choose to make jokes about being Latino just because. Black women frowning and offering hair advice to Gabby didn’t arbitrarily decide that her gelled hair was a point of contention for them. Self-hate comes from societal hate, not an inherent state of being.

We’re in a culture that, at every opportunity, pushes Black women toward not loving ourselves. The images and messages we see reflected back to us often suggest that we must look a certain way, dress ourselves in a certain way, wear our hair in a particular way to be loved and accepted.

Check out magazine covers the next time you’re at the grocery store. See how many you can find that don’t have a model or celebrity with long, straight hair majestically blowing in the wind. Then once you get past the cover, how many Black women do you see in those magazines? And what does their hair look like? It’s usually laid out flatter than Little Richard’s first conk.

Hair, no matter whose head it stems from, is political. It carries meaning—from men wondering why a pretty woman would cut her hair short to tiers of religion that suggest women cover their hair to honor their God. For Black people, hair is even more political and carries even greater meaning because we have to deal with it in three layers: our own personal relationship to our hair, the relationship our hair has with our community, and what our hair symbolizes to the world around us.

Most Black-Americans have been raised to not go out of the house looking “crazy” or embarrass themselves or their community. These little life lessons do not come from Black people’s innate desire to always be kempt (that exists too), but because Black people have always been grouped together as one. The individual represents the whole when it comes to Black folks. As the only Black gymnast competing on behalf of the United States, Gabby and her hair were incidentally misconstrued as a reflection on all of us.

So while white supremacy (and don’t forget patriarchy) skips along telling us that light and honey blonde are as beautiful as Black women can get, we have Black women in one corner mad at other Black women, Black men in another corner side-eyeing our unruly mass of hair, asking “why you don’t wear your hair straight anymore?” and white people in the other corner perplexed, innocently shrugging their shoulders, saying, “I just don’t understand where this is coming from…I had no idea this was a thing! I wish my hair could do that.” All of our attention needs to be directed to the center of the room to see what cultural and institutional systems are invented to distract and divide us.

It’s difficult to demand journalists cover stories that actually affect our wellbeing, or push politicians to act in our best interests, or force mass media to reflect the varied and beautiful dimensions of our society – when we’re all caught up in demoralizing each other because of destructive, propagandistic tools created by capitalistic mass markets (e.g. beauty products, television, film, advertising, magazine publishing). To move beyond criticizing criticism, collectively we must recognize the beauty in ourselves and the beauty in others. Through that universal practice of solidarity can we live up to the title of “champions” and “winners” Gabby positively branded us to be.

Drive-Thru Activism and the Wavering Politics of Protesting Chick-Fil-A

In Uncategorized on May 2, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I originally posted this essay in early May after Chick-Fil-A received its first round of controversy (links below). At that time, Dan Cathy, the CEO and President of the restaurant chain, would not make an explicit statement about CFA’s stance on marriage equality. In July, however, Cathy admitted he was “guilty as charged” for being against same-sex marriages and maintained that Chick-Fil-A’s “values” speak to that. Since that admittance, more vehement and organized protests, on both sides, have taken place.  I stand by my original post and will clarify that I am 100% in favor of marriage equality. However, I would still caution others also in favor of marriage equality to not only exercise their dissent by simply avoiding Chick-Fil-A, but perhaps open the conversation and the activism to greater depths. 


I grew up in a town in Metro-Atlanta where Chick-Fil-A reigns supreme. In fact, as Atlanta is the birthplace of Chick-Fil-A, the restaurant chain kind of rules the state of Georgia, if not the entire southeast. Southerners’ relationship to Chick-Fil-A is unique; it’s as much responsible for helping us grow into strong adults as our mother’s milk. Those phonetic-spelling cows mean as much to us as the glowing In & Out Burger sign means to West Coasters. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert—Chick-Fil-A does not disappoint its loyal patrons. And by loyal patrons, I’m only talking about the heterosexual ones.Image

Though Chick-Fil-A has never hidden the fact that it is a devoutly Christian-based organization—it’s closed on Sundays—the chain has found itself in the hot seat for its affiliations with anti-anything logical (e.g. right to abortions, gay marriage) Christian groups. After one such association was made public, Chick-Fil-A’s President and COO, Dan Cathy, responded, “[W]e will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family. This decision has been made, and we understand the importance of it. At the same time, we will continue to offer resources to strengthen marriages and families.” Simply, Chick-Fil-A won’t directly take a stand against gay marriage or gay people, especially as the chain continues to grow well beyond the South, but it will assist organizations that do.

Popular Internet responses to the chicken enterprise walking that tightrope have ranged from “You Eat Chick-Fil-A Because You Are a Homophobe” to “Chicken or the Gays: Make a Choice about Eating Chick-Fil-A.” While I understand the motivation behind these grand proclamations, I find this approach terribly reductive and safe. It doesn’t account for the circumstantial malleability of human values—our own and others—meaning our social values (the ones we develop based on awareness and circumstances) are fluid and change based on what affects our identity and us directly. For example, if you’re gay (or support gay people and gay marriage) and boycott Chick-Fil-A, do you also protest drag queens with questionable racial politics? Do you stop eating Hershey’s, M&Ms, and Twix because children cultivated that chocolate? Does one oppression equal all oppression, and if so should it be handled as such?

The rigid dichotomy in which protesting Chick-Fil-A has been framed—the “you’re either all in or completely out” mentality held by many of today’s socially-conscious—is nothing short of drive-thru activism. Not simply because we’re talking about Chick-Fil-A, but also because the pervasiveness of the Internet makes it fairly easy to pick up the latest cause, often one that doesn’t require much of us as consumers or social activists, and drive off in smug self-satisfaction because we took a stand for one something…whether or not we let all the other somethings (racism, (hetero)sexism, classism, etc.) slide by. When our social activism is built upon the fluidity of human nature, we stand to trip ourselves up walking over that crackling foundation.

I am not suggesting people shouldn’t protest or boycott Chick-Fil-A because they/we should. I, too, am of the mindset that Chick-Fil-A and WinShape’s (the nonprofit arm of the business) donations to wretched organizations like Focus on the Family are completely harmful and destructive to the progressive and positive sustainability of this country. Focus on the Family and other groups like it, have such a strong lobbying hold that their efforts carry sincere danger. And to be real, though I’m not surprised, I am disappointed that Chick-Fil-A couldn’t just stick to making cookies ‘n’ cream milkshakes and six-pack kids’ meals because they’re so good at it and I miss having that much sugar and sodium in my life!* At the same time, I am not in the business of ignoring the mainstream gay rights movement’s issues with women, gay folks of color, queer identities, and class.

Being an activist, of any kind, calls for constant check-ins and recognition that while we’re fighting one oppression, we may be engaging in another. That doesn’t mean we give up and forget trying to make or advocate for any social change. Instead, we put greater energy and effort into investing and maintaining a community and solidarity with all people—oppressed, marginalized, and otherwise—in our hearts and spirits as much as through our avoidance of two pickles and a bun chicken sandwiches.

*Admittedly, I recently ate at Chick-Fil-A after my thesis defense, but if it’s any consolation, I felt guilty the whole time.