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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

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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.

The Marriage-Industrial Complex

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2012 at 7:39 am

A version of this essay was originally posted at Womanist Musings on January 27, 2012

 

One night I dreamt it was my wedding day. The florist dropped off the flowers in Styrofoam to-go boxes; the caterers wanted to know if and where they could smoke weed before the reception; guests asked me to pour them a Coke; I was overcome with emotion that people I’d never spoken to in college were there to celebrate my big day; and the entire cast of Martin showed up. Finally hitting my breaking point, I cried to Martin that everything was a mess (and I didn’t even know who I was to be marrying). He gave me a hug and in a high-pitched voice mocking me, apparently, he repeated the mantra I’d always given him when things got tough. “Whenever I’m having a bad day, I just put five drops of glitter on my face and everything’s better!”

I woke up to make sure there wasn’t a gas leak in my apartment that would’ve caused me to dream such nonsense, but then I began to process why marriage would even be on my mind. Marriage, and more specifically the politics of marriage is everywhere—with the spotlight unforgivingly resting on Black women. Since Barack and Michelle Obama waltzed through their inauguration, a near obsession has taken hold of mainstream news outputs from CNN to the New York Times about why Black women have such low marrying rates compared to other women.

ImageLargely spearheading that conversation has been Steve Harvey—the thrice-married comedian whose advice errs on the side of Black women should consider dating men 15-20 years their senior. He’s been on Frontline, The Oprah Winfrey Show, more recently, Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show—and he’ll soon begin taping for his own show—explaining to the world what (Black) women are doing wrong and how they can get right when it comes to (heterosexist, outdated, patriarchal) love.

Harvey’s romantic comedy, Think Like a Man, based on his best-selling relationship book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, opens in theaters on April 20, much to the annoyance of many happily single-self-sufficient-“why would anyone listen to this man for anything other than guidance on where to get a double-breasted suit” women. (By default, Harvey originally tailored his message to Black women, but having gained inexplicable success as a relationship expert, his message has since transcended audiences)

To counteract those images of the Obamas, the media engaged in a massive “anti-black woman campaign” to let Black women know that what the First Family has is an “anomaly.” They responded with this statistic: 70% of Black women are single. So for the last few years scholars, scientists, and journalists have been asking “why can’t all these beautiful, successful Black women get married?! Everybody else can!” Theresa Lasbrey calls it “The Obama Effect.” The unspoken message becomes: “Black women, please do not think you’re going to get that fairytale. Your men are in prison, uneducated, and the ones who aren’t only like white women. So there. Go sit down and watch Martin.”

Taking this narrative out of context of Black women for a moment, and opening it up to a larger issue of how we deify marriage in American culture, I recognize that a few things are happening. First, it attempts to make (heterosexual, cis-gendered) women act like hamsters on a wheel—constantly chasing an unattainable dream, dishing out money and developing a complex in the process, with no further gain than where we began. In that framework, women turn to one channel and see Bridezillas; they turn to another and see Steve Harvey telling us to “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man;” another channel says there’s a “crisis” in marriage and it’s our fault; and finally our politicians are saying that we must protect the institution of marriage. The constant that weaves through all of those conversations is that for women to find success in love, we must not hold back in the mental, emotional, spiritual, moral, or financial investment we make to find our Mr. Right. That is coincidentally convenient for publishing houses, the movie industry, media conglomerates, the Religious Right, and you already know—patriarchy—a capitalistic patriarchy—more specifically.

There are two conversations missing on the subject of marriage. The most obvious one is that not every couple can exercise their right to it. Those aforementioned narratives about the current state of marriage distract us from the fact that marriage, as it currently stands, is an unequal and unjust institution. Images of women screaming at their bridesmaids and putting them on diets distance us from the painful reality that an arbitrary system dictates other people’s fulfillment. Seeing dear friends and mentors in loving, committed relationships who only have access to a civil union hurts me on the deepest of levels, but it also forces me to check my privilege as a straight person and do what I can to change things. I would challenge any person or couple who supports gay marriage to not simply state it, but also find a way to make it a reality, whether that’s through donating to an organization like Lambda Legal, stop eating Chick-Fil-A (which has been so hard for me—those nuggets are too good), or simply being cognizant of how much you talk about your wedding plans to your nonheterosexual friends, just out of respect and awareness of inequality.

And finally, mass media appears to be afraid to broach the possibility that many women might be fine with not being married. While I am in a committed relationship, I am also a womanist/feminist/independentist who believes that I can create a lasting friendship, partnership, and space for love without strong-arming my fella into running down the aisle at high speed just so our relationship appears more legitimate to Steve Harvey and others who unquestioningly buy into the marriage-industrial complex.

Marriage is lovely and I hope that we can find a place in American society that allows all people who want to experience it be able to. In the meantime, there needs to be some conversation reform. At its core, marriage is a legally-binding contract. There’s obviously nothing romantic or sexy about that. So instead, I choose to focus on what marriage represents—a deep, evolving love, commitment, respect, and honor of another human being that can offer me the same in return. If we could shift the public conversation on marriage to something like that, instead of the measurement of one’s success at life and womanhood, I might find something more productive to dream about—like the winning lottery numbers.

 

A little validation from the universe: After I finished the original essay, I just so happened to turn the television on to Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers. A segment of the show focused on a young, unmarried couple that had a child together. The “mentourage”—Mario Lopez, Finesse Mitchell, and Steve Santagati—and Dr. Drew argued that once the pair had a child, they lost their chance to be twenty-three and needed to “stand before God” and get married. Clearly frustrated, Maria Menounos, the facilitator, argued “What if people don’t want to get married?! It’s ok!” Naturally she was dismissed by the mentourage because under this latest iteration of patriarchal paternalist rule over women’s lives that the Marriage Industrial Complex has raised, women are not regarded in the manifestation of their own desires and destiny. We are just strapped to a chair and spoon-fed whatever capitalist-patriarchal society thinks we’ll eat. 

 

The Maude Complex

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Originally posted at Womanist Musings on February 10, 2012

Despite what my bio says, I am not just a cultural critic—simply put on this earth to analyze, inform, and hate on all the things that make you happy. I am actually something much more prolific than that. I have been granted a special power that absolves and heals white guilt. Yes, it’s true: I am a race priestess. By divine blessing, I have the power to not only attract white people who need to confess their nonprejudiced, nonracist frame of thinking, but my very essence heals them from the pain and awkwardness that comes with being white and knowing that some white people have done really horrible things to people who look like me.

There was the older white woman who approached me in the “African-American Literature” section at a liquidated Borders. After telling me all about an episode of Oprah with Terry McMillian, she segued into a story about how she’d always been quite liberal and never had a problem with Black people (or gays!).

There was the man at a suburban library who noticed my copy of bell hooks’ Killing Rage: Ending Racism and shared with me his experience of working with young Black men in the army. He explained, “I’m not prejudiced, but I was hard on them because they wouldn’t listen. They saw me being tough as being prejudiced. I don’t have a prejudice bone in my body. I don’t have a problem with black people. Black people are humans too; you all put your pants on one leg at a time…just like the rest of us.”

There was the college professor who chatted me up in the locker room at my gym. She wanted to know my thoughts on why Black people in the 60s didn’t like blues-influenced white rock music. She blamed it on the Civil Rights Movement because, according to her, it taught Black people to be self-sufficient and segregate ourselves.

*My personal favorite* Though he wasn’t quite looking to defend himself in race court, an elderly man saw my friends and I sitting together at a local Red Lobster (I know, but it was my birthday) and was struck by the fact that “all three races [Black, Korean, and Jewish]” were “sitting together at one table!” He’d “never seen that combination before!” Like unicorns and leprechauns, racial integration is such a rarity in America that when one stumbles upon it, he must stop and marvel.

Finally, there was a woman who called in to a radio show I contribute to and expressed her frustration with Black people being so resistant to letting white folks ask them questions about race. Her interest in wanting to right so many wrongs and getting shut down made her feel like “damn if I do, damn if I don’t.”

There are two common links that run through these stories. First, in each of these conversations and dozens of others like them, the white person walks away with an air of self-satisfaction because they have just created an opportunity for themselves to lighten the heavy load that is pretending as though race doesn’t exist and secretly knowing it does. The second link is age. In many of these stories, the individual was past the age of 40; they and I are part of conflicting generations. (That is not to say young people don’t commit racial microaggressions because they do…a lot.) Discussing race as openly as we do today—outside of our close family and friends or liberal arts classrooms—is relatively new. So while these people tell me how they’ve never had a problem with Black people, or what they really think of Black people, or how moved they were by The Help, the root of their narrative(s) is that because it’s now less taboo to talk about race publicly, they are in search of forgiveness for those many years of silence. Unfortunately, for me and many other Black folks, we hold the key to their absolution…or so they think.

The 1970s Norman Lear sitcom Maude lightheartedly encapsulates these experiences. She is well intentioned, but in her eagerness to show what a compassionate and accepting (white) liberal she is, she highlights her own prejudicial thinking. To create a shared space of healing, love, and acceptance—of ourselves and the history we are all unfortunately a part of—I would ask white people (or any other ethnicity that’s not a part of the one they are trying to learn more about) to do a few things:

1.)   Stop referencing The Help. Ultimately, it’s fiction, not an Encyclopedia Brittanica.

2.)   If you’d like to know more about race, Black people, or a particular moment in Black/American history, read a nonfiction/history book. Visit your local library or log onto Amazon and find some books that use citations! The Help (or Mississippi Burning, The Long Walk Home, etc.) may have been your accidental starting point, but you have the power to not let it be the end of your journey to discovering the Black American experience.

3.)   Do not engage Black people with conversations about race if you do not want to hear what we have to say.

4.)   If you are only looking for reinforcement that “you is kind, you is smart, you is important,” please limit your storytelling to other white people.

5.)   EXPERIENTIAL VALIDATION. If you so choose to engage a Black person in a conversation about race, please remember those two words. It is key to building racial harmony. There is truth in our experiences; use them as a lesson, not an act of finger-pointing. If you didn’t do it, most likely no one’s blaming you for it happening.

ImageI am obviously not a race priestess. However, I am one of many, many folks who have made a commitment to fostering dialogues about race productive for all parties involved. I know Hollywood has led a lot of people to believe in the Magical Negro, but none of us are actually magicians. Though it would be nice, we can’t erase the past or make you feel better about what happened. It may sound shocking, but that old man at the library was right. Black folks are human too—we’re just trying to browse the bookstore, workout, and eat cheddar-garlic biscuits like everybody else.

Promoting Black Feminism in Pop Culture

In Uncategorized on January 15, 2012 at 11:15 pm

This post originally appeared at Womanist Musings on January 13, 2012

In an anti-racist feminism course, my then-professor presented us with Allan Bérubé’s essay, “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays.” She asked how feminism presents a similar paradox. As someone who once identified as feminist and then became disenfranchised by the white privilege I saw in many parts of the movement, I reflect on that question often. For me, one of the greatest spaces that highlight the importance of answering that question—of how feminism stays white—is the pop culture feminist blogosphere. In that space I’ve noticed the eagerness to not only crown some pantsless pop divas as feminists, but also simultaneously admonish the thought that other female artists (also pantsless) could ever don the “F” badge.

Beyoncé’s debut of “Run the World (Girls)” last summer was almost overshadowed by sudden cries of “IS BEYONCE A FEMINIST?! SHE SAID GIRLS RUN THE WORLD! SHE’S LYING!” I even fell into this trap by responding to the noise, though Beyoncé has always been vague about how she identifies. Most notable of those dissenters was vlogger Nineteen Percent who kindly laid out all of the reasons why girls do not, in fact, run the world. What was missing from a number of these “Beyoncé is not a feminist” critiques (including my own) was the positive and empowering relationship many Black women have with King B, which plays an important role in some people’s brand of feminism. These critiques that played out online in larger pop feminist spaces seemed to have been looking at Beyoncé as feminist from the perspective of a feminism that strictly relates to gender and patriarchy, rather than gender, patriarchy, and race—among other things. I believe when feminism tethers itself to the former and ignores the intersectionality of the latter, it becomes “white”—because only whiteness as a particular social construction affords the privilege of ignoring the complexities of possessing fluid, simultaneous othernesses.

Rihanna’s powerful response to Eva Hoeke, the shamed former editor of the Dutch magazine, Jackie, who issued a non-apology apology for calling the singer a “n*ggerbitch,” reminds me of the importance of spreading the message of Black feminism equally to promoting a more generalized feminism. Many of the same pop feminist circles that were excitedly hoping Rihanna would wholeheartedly claim feminism and advocate against domestic violence after Chris Brown’s attack—and were offended when she didn’t—were notably absent in recognizing how she defending herself and all other Black women spoke to one of the guiding principles of the movement—love for yourself and for your sisters.

(And as an aside, the current climate of “Black women can’t get married/are too fat/have too high of a self-esteem even though they’re so fat and can’t get married” someone—least of all a pop star—standing up to honor Black women should be receiving feminist praise from all corners. I digress…)

Another missed opportunity at recognizing Rihanna’s possible nod to Black feminism was her response to critics of the “Man Down” video. There are (mostly white) feminists searching for a subversive double meaning in Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and “Bad Romance,” but interestingly avoid the significance of a pop singer being frank with her female fans and essentially saying, hey things that we don’t want to happen and don’t ask to happen, can happen—be careful. This comparison is not to position all pop stars in a battle of “Who’s the Most Feminist,” but to highlight how the politics of being Black and woman and Black feminism are undervalued in the movement—even on a pop culture level. Doing a simple Google search of “Rihanna as feminist” exposes a number of critiques that essentially fall into the category of policing Black female sexuality and Black females. That is the history of Black women working their/our way into greater spaces, whether that space is feminism, American history, or legitimacy itself.

I have not heard or read anything where Rihanna claims feminism or deems herself a feminist. However, I believe there is a strong element of the movement that presents itself in the singer’s work and actions that should not go unrecognized. That is not to say that everything she does or has done should be interpreted as feminist. I’d hoped with so many Black women’s reaction to the popularity of The Help that the larger feminist or feminist-themed spaces would open the door to let Black feminism in and stay awhile. Instead, there continues to be a tepid roof-raising of support for Black feminists who draw the connections themselves. That passerby acknowledgement only allows for mostly white feminists the freedom to remain unattached to the ever present “race issue” while concurrently positioning themselves as allies with no real consequences. Just as every Black woman a part of every wave of feminism has had to ask, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Ain’t Rihanna a feminist? Black feminism and feminism in popular culture and otherwise should not exist mutually exclusive of one another. Instead, there should be a decided cohesiveness between the two that not only acknowledges our shared marginality in a patriarchal society, but also gives us the tools of love and solidarity to combat our oppression(s) as sisters in the struggle.