This piece is part of a series of meditations on race, gender, and sexuality called “Reparative (Re)membering.” It encompasses personal and public memory at the intersection of prose and poetry. This piece is about process and a journey towards a more reparative sense of self and community. It may be disjointed here and there, but the words all connect. You’ll sense it.
On Being Quiet and the Hum…
I have been incredibly quiet. I would like to add “as of late” to the previous sentence, but I might not be entirely honest with myself if I did. It certainly feels like “as of late,” but my memory tells me otherwise.
I think I have become so adept at being quiet that I forget that I do it. I ignore. I silence, very well.
I have been publicly silent for a while. Publicly silent sounds very contradictory, but it feels appropriate. I feel like a very public person. I am out. I talk. I laugh. I engage. I host. I hold space for others and often. I welcome—and I welcome a lot. I reach, and I reach far and fiercely. And yet, deep below me is a quiet ache—a quiet moan, or sometimes, a throbbing and deadening hum.
I never give sound to the hum in public. Maybe it goes quiet during the day or I have learned to not acknowledge and just exist. It certainly gets louder at night. It visits me whether I want it to or not. It stays even when I desire it to go.
I have recently chosen to be conscious of this feeling, this sensation. Not that I have never been aware of the experienced feeling(s). As I approach a third decade of life, I must admit that the sensation has been present with me for almost two of them.
It is an old feeling, an old silence for me. And the feelings have certainly made/make their mark on me—they have manifested through my sense of self and body in particularly ways over the years—either through throbbing and through numbness. And over the years I have responded by either ignoring or reacting through damaging ways to myself. Certain scars on my body remind me of this history when I actually take the time to look—at me.
One response to the feeling that has been most consistent (in addition to ignoring) is writing. Most of my writing has been reactionary—induced by moments of pure need to express, to confess, to make externally concrete. Writing has always been about survival for me.
These days, my writing has become more intentional. I have made space to revisit and edit my writing, voice record somethings, and even share with others (personally and publicly). Perhaps I am beginning to treat my writing as artistry. I now call old journals archives, pages—passages, and entries—pieces. I now desire to use writing to record my process and to tenderly tend to my oldest feelings and sensations.
Admittedly, my oldest feelings and sensations are wrapped within sadness, loneliness, and emptiness. Many fibers in my being prickled at this admission and I must be kind to those fibers and listen, instead of attempting to wrestle and mow them away. Although parts of myself hesitate at exposure, I have decided to continue and share.
In tending to these sensations, I wrote from the body, my heart, and memory. The first piece, “On Loneliness and Want, An Excerpt,” begins with blackness. I wrote about blackness in the cosmic kind of way, in the night time kind of way. I wrote about a blackness that is incredibly personal to me. It is full of memory, and memory is full of resources. This blackness is tied to a little girl that I must learn to claim and embrace. I am sure she calls on me and I am learning to answer her while also still fighting. I surmise that that that little girl helped with the second piece shared, titled “On Self Love.”
So I leave you with two of my most private writings. May they tenderly enter your world as they did/do mine.
On Loneliness and Want, An Excerpt
I am in a dark place—not dark in the kind of anti-blackness kind of way where black is immediately considered all things bad, evil—unwanted. I literally mean dark in a thick navy, a night time blackness—an emptiness.
You know when I was a little girl, say eight or so, one of my deepest fears I felt through my stomach was an imagined nothingness—like the vision of no earth, no such thing as space. It was a blank, black image and I was outside of this pitch blackness—at the center and observing—terrified at the possibility that there just could be nothing—no world, no sky, no beings—no humans, no plants—no dirt, no nothing—not even wind and definitely no sun—not even history or time—just nothing.
I do not know why I had these thought experiments as a little girl. I certainly have not imagined this since. It may have been because there were talks of God and creation. The debate of his existence—always a him—in my head made me think, “Wow—just imagine if there were no God or something—we would have nothing.” For some reason the fear stuck with me more so than the joy of the reality that I had blood in my body and breath to take.
I grew up Lonely.
The imagined emptiness was definitely something I imagined at night. I have one memory—and it could be false and that may not matter because it sticks with me. I am young and on our couch—most of the lights are off and I can barely see my father’s face. He is near. He may be intoxicated. We may not even know we exist although we are so physically close. I am there laying on my shoulder terrified that there could be no world, no nothing to consider.
I am shook.
I may have told my parents and they may have agreed or acknowledged, “Yes, that is scary to think isn’t it, Candy.” It still didn’t help me feel better because the thought was so real, thinking it so hard, hating that it was possible—feeling this imagined nothingness was acute.
I am in a terrible place right now. It is full of light—fluorescent and soft yellows, too. Music rings here—dishes clank here. People, people here. And I feel incredibly far. Not able to be reached. It is a horrid feeling. To be touched gently and not feel a thing while still wanting to feel good, to feel embraced, and you just can’t.
I wish someone would call me right now. I want someone to want me right now. I have a girl in mind and I’m sure I am not in hers. I should get rid of her because of this. It hurts to want. Desire unmet hurts.
And I keep leaving. Keep desiring. Keep wishing. And I run far and far as possible until I get tired and I lay flat in bed with the thick navy across my body—the nothingness settles and sits, cements, and I suffocate. And there is no way to get back until I can find a way to venture and run and wish and desire until I must stay again, locked tugged and become thickened—by whatever it is that really doesn’t have a convenient name.
I don’t want to go home. Funny, whether you want or not—you get pushed out—like birth—home pushes you, forces you out. I don’t want to go my current home, just like the one I left.
I’m looking for a place to fall apart and be ok—arms, breasts, hands around me—an embrace.
Why did I get rid of her? Why does she not count?…
“On Loneliness and Want, An Excerpt”~Merritt, Candice
This piece is part of a series of meditations on race, gender, and sexuality called “Reparative (Re)membering.” It encompasses personal and public memory at the intersection of prose and poetry. This piece is about process and a journey towards a more reparative sense of self and community. It may be disjointed here and there, but the words all connect. You’ll sense it.
“I knew I was fat before I was black. I was black before I knew I was queer. But one thing’s for certain—I have always been fat and not the one that fits.” ~Candice Merritt, journal excerpt, unknown date
“I tell myself stories—all the time, whether I want to or not, whether the body listens or sinks them—the self tells in some way or form. One story is old. It has fallen onto pages, material and imagined ones, in the past months. It’s the story of beauty, of feeling, of desire, of the wishes for it—the craving, the envy, the lack. This is a story of rejection—of self—but not by choice. It’s a story of stories—about the ones we get told, whether we want to hear them or not, rooted in the stories we think we forgot—but the scar remembers anyway. It’s a story about being told you are different, that your body is too hefty, too wide, too dark, too light, too fleshy, too big to fit—not right. It’s the story of being told you are cute, but only in the face or for your kind. It’s the story about expecting to not be chosen, to be let down, to be told nicely (hopefully). It’s the story of not being selected—desired.” ~Candice Merritt, scrap paper excerpt, 06/14/2016
I begin this piece with excerpts of writings that barely get penned and rarely get shared. These scraps of memory, of expression, often get stuffed and enveloped into an old journal, later to be boxed into the closet.
Sometimes I dream that these collected pages will be an archive material for public use. Perhaps, out of a sense of loneliness and desire to be known, I fantasize that I will become an important figure or voice and my papers will be cataloged, accessed, and read. For now, I utilize my memory as a resource and material for self.
These writings reflect some of my deepest insecurities, often shrouded in silence and buried in shame. I have not shared in a while. Thoughts and feelings have been so personal that I have opted to relocate them to a “figure out later” place inside myself, but the body calls—the heart begs to be heard. I must listen. I must tell.
Memory, Desire, and Selection: An Early Encounter
This evening I revisit older, maybe some of my oldest memories. These are memories around bodies—mine and others’—color and shape—but also something around desire and beauty, which applied to all children regardless of assumed genitalia.
Over the past few years, I have come to realize how young I was when a sense of who and what was desirable. By my first year of formal schooling, I could tell you now that I was not considered the pretty type or the attractive mold. I had a keen sense of what kind of a body and color could make the cut.
I remember my first crush. I was about six and his name was Jaron Leak. He shared his first name with my oldest brother—the coolest person around in those days, I thought.
Jaron spelled his first name differently from my brother’s name, but I did not hold that against him. In fact, it fascinated me that his name sounded the same but consisted of different lettering. What made him even more unique was that he had two older brothers with names that began with the letter J.
The naming practice resembled my family’s in which my brothers’ and father’s first name also began with the letter J. I diverged. My J came in the middle.
Jaron and his brothers also resembled each other, and each were light skin like caramel—with tinges of milk and pink. He also had an earring. He was pretty.
I liked him so much. Jaron and I sat at the same table in Ms. Hill’s kindergarten class, and I wanted him to pay attention to me—badly so. I wanted his attention so much that I once deliberately disobeyed my teacher.
Instead of quietly placing my green mini-kangaroo pieces into the bucket after a counting lesson, I threw mine in while looking into Ms. Hill’s eyes after she requested again to not throw the pieces. It was exhilarating and scary to break the rules. I might have smirked at her while I threw.
That move for attention got me put in the corner, and I learned the order of the days of the week fairly quickly. The only visual stimulation on the wall was a colorful poster of the days in vertical order, beginning with Sunday on top. I still think of my days this way.
I quickly ended the get-in-trouble strategy for attention. The best way I could get closer to my crush was through helping him with school work, like practicing numbers, patterns, and spelling.
Helping him was not necessarily what I wanted to do nor did it really accomplish my goals. I do not exactly know what I really wanted to transpire between Jaron and I, but I do remember a strong sense of wanting to be liked in a way that confirmed me pretty and wantable.
Overall, I found the helping strategy kind of boring since I would basically give the answers to him after he did not understand my kindergarten-brilliant explanations. The circumstances I recall is what I would now label “settling.” It was not what I really wanted, but I engaged in the relationship anyway because it was the only way I could feel valuable to him and important enough to get spoken to. This route was also better that staring at the corner of the classroom—isolated, not engaged, and missing my lessons.
I thought the perfect opportunity came to actually get close to Jaron when it came time for the annual school play which told the story of the birth of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
I remember wanting to be selected to be Mary since she was so important and seemed like a beautiful, perfect figure—all dressed in white, smooth, and soft. I also recall many teachers and students talking about Jaron playing the role of Jesus. It felt almost natural that he would be selected. The cutest boy getting the most popular role.
I coveted the role of Mary. The role had to go to a lucky girl, a special one. That girl would get to hold Jaron for all to watch. It would have been bliss in my six year-old mind.
My chances of getting the role were slim. Older kids in the school did not help my cause. Not that older kids were privy to my wishes, but their chatter over who was who and who should be with whom was quite loud in school.
I remember older kids pairing the younger ones in boy-girl couple fashion. Older kids played with us younger ones like dolls, taking us in as play-daughters and play-sons—socializing us early, so that we knew that boys and girls went together to later become husbands and wives and then daddies and mommies. And, of course, the pretty boys only went with the pretty girls. If you were lucky enough, you would have gotten paired with the “leftover” boys—maybe the ones that were too dark or too chubby themselves to get selected by the pretty girls.
My dream to be recognized became just that—a fantasy—an immaterial wish. The role of Mary ended up going to a girl named Michaela, the prettiest girl in the kindergarten class. She was pretty in my mind, and in others’.
She had a beautiful soprano voice all while having pigtails that were always on point. My plats were usually lopsided since I was too tinder-headed to let my mother even get a straight part. My mother would give in quickly to whipping my hair together before the school week began—a practice my aunt Georgia, her young sister, would consistently chastise my mother about—“Dee Dee, why don’t you comb from the roots?!,” she would argue.
In the end, Michaela was perfectly girl—skinny, light, and good hair. She was picked—chosen—while I coveted, wished—envied.
I learned a formative lesson then around bodies. I learned that some bodies do not belong and certainly do not pair with others. I also learned that some girls’ bodies may not physically attract, but what’s “inside”—intelligence, compassion, humor—may have their uses—but are still, certainly not wantable, desirable, nor what we now consider fuckable.
It is a painful lesson and body-story to recall, but the body tells anyway, whether you want to listen to or not.
Thinking Fatness, Race, and Beauty
Decades ago, black folks loudly proclaimed “Black is Beautiful.” But did we really mean fat, too?
I grew up in a household that valued Afrocentric beauty. My mother filled our home with black art and my father filled our ears with black funk and our halls with Parliament sound.
My young self would sometimes stare at the sculptures of women my mother kept around. I would notice the sculptures’ contours, the lines and length. Necks were long; heads were tall; torsos were small; waists were slim. Skin—dark, sometimes ebony.
Paintings of women were brown; faces were smooth; noses, at times, were wide; cheek bones—always well defined. They were Nefertitis—thin black queens.
The other images of desirable black women came from sneaking peaks at my father’s Parliament album covers which were stored in red milk crates. The album covers were “dirty,” and I was not allowed to look at them, but I did anyway until my parents would catch me.
I did not fully understand what I saw in some of those albums. There were aliens, tentacles, ships, feathers, and smoke. I did, however, notice naked bodies. In particular, naked women—black women with legs spread, with larges breasts and wide thighs that stretched beyond the waist line—it was hourglass thickness I saw.
Confronted with these images of black beauty—the respectable and not-so respectable ones—I rarely found me within them even as my body changed over the years.
My body diverged in skin tone, shape, and size. I was lighter than the Afrocentric pictures and my body did not conform to the lines I saw in paintings and sculptures. My arms and torso were wider and I felt that my butt and legs protruded a little too much than what black cultural imaginings desired. I was fat.
As I look back, I value both my mother and father’s choices to premise black beauty and culture in our household. I also understand the necessity of wider movements that call for the recognition of black beauty. Growing up in the United States, I respect attempts that challenge our culture of white racial normalcy. Yet, I, and many others, have still struggled to recognize the intersection of blackness, beauty, and fatness as a critical juncture to contest.
Honestly, I have not thought of fatness as a social category that regulates being as much as I have thought about blackness or queerness. And it has not been until the last few years or so that I have started calling myself fat as a matter of neutral description and/or positive affirmation. My late reclamation has its reasons, and those reasons are embedded in pain.
I grew up fat, and I grew up rejecting the label. Probably not until my freshman year in college, I was explicitly called fat, fatty, fatso, big, biggie, big girl, big mama, big boned, chub, chubby, elephant, hippo, whale, and for some reason—Bertha.
It was not until I dated a woman who considered herself fat, feminist, and versed in fat-activism, that I encountered a connection to my body that I had not before.
There we were, lying in bed, thinking of possibilities and discussing our insecurities in life. It was my first year out of college, and I had no direct sense of what I wanted to do next. I would often joke around about joining the military since I figured that the institution was desperate to take anyone who volunteered to serve during times of indefinite war.
My partner at the time, in an honest response that I considered rude then, but funny now, simply stated “Babe, you are fat.”
I think this would have crushed many of folk, and the word made me cringe, but it did not break me in the ways the word previously had.
Perhaps it was because her hands were holding me and our bodies—flesh, soft, and muscled by time—were touching. Perhaps because her voice was sweet and I knew she loved me.
I did not cry. I did not walk away bleeding and aching like before. I thought maybe she was right—I was fat and that was okay. And maybe, just maybe, my body could be amazing to inhabit and to share with others of my choosing.
Not all moments since then have been as liberating. Images of black beauty remain narrow. We still have thin black queen archetypes and the thick hourglass shapes to confront. Articulations of black beauty (both commercially and in art) have limits, and those limits are painful to confront on the regular.
A fat, black girl struggles to find her color and/or size even when campaigns and artistic productions call for general body and self-acceptance. Corporations will either tokenize our color while only offering certain shapes (mostly white and hourglass style), and our popular black publications and black artists just won’t take beauty to certain places—to bodies deemed too large, excessive, unhealthy, and/or ugly. As such, we are still only rocking thin black queen imagery and/or thicker hourglasses.
Queering Beauty: “Yes, Eat the Cake and Go to the Fucking Beach, Fat Girl!”
I want to end this piece with my struggle—to inject myself with the reality of my fat body and others’ fat bodies. And of all “off” bodies—or just not quite right bodies.
I want to end this piece thinking of bodies that have fleshy wrinkles at the cusps of arms, dimples in our thighs, in the back of our legs—bodies that have varying shades all on one canvas—mixed genitalia—hairy here and smooth there—bodies that have stretched skin near the navel, that have stomachs that rest on the pelvis—material bodies that may use metal to travel—bodies with three limbs, maybe two, or none. Scarred bodies—burned and/or cut. Bodies filled with blood.
We are all queer. Queer, in the sense that we diverge(d). All considered non-normative. Perhaps freakish. Or, in scientific terms—the statistical outlier, anomaly, pathology. Or perhaps the piecemeal ideal—a fetish.
We are all queer—the unimagined, the targeted—the unwanted.
Yet, in the face of a culture that wants to destroy us entirely or devour us for its own means, I struggle to love and inhabit my body. To visit my knees, my calves, my thighs. To make place in my breasts that fall to my sides. To touch and roll my neck and feel the sweat that slides. To love and to pride.
So I end, thinking of myself and others. So I end, thinking of you, Gaborey Sidibe—in your lingerie. I end thinking of you, Mzznaki Tetteh, full and jumping with glee with your partner. I end thinking of you, #BeyondBeauty Campaign, with your visual multiplicity.
I end with the struggle to connect to my own self and its physicality and to those bodies that push the boundaries and/or fuck them up entirely, whether they want to or not.
Raising Black children—female and male—in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive. And in order to survive they must let go. This is what mothers teach—love, survival—that is, self-definition and letting go. For each of these, the ability to feel strongly and to recognize those feelings is central: how to feel love, how to neither discount fear nor be overwhelmed by it, how to enjoy feeling deeply. ~Audre Lorde
How to be –in this world–/…Multiple. Petal/to/petal-Bending. Velvety- /a Dripping Bloom/
How is presence (in this world)…Limited. Metal-to-metal. Wrist bound/Twined- a thirsting bud
“The strongest lesson I can teach my son is the same lesson I teach my daughter: how to be who he wishes to be for himself. And the best way I can do this is to be who I am and hope that he will learn from this not how to be me, which is not possible, but how to be himself” (77).
I return to this essay today for solace and guidance as I think through the social and political conditions my son, a growing young black man, must sift through and navigate without me doing it for him. Like many black mothers and women, I too, carry the fear of my child’s survival in a world seemingly designed to crush his difference should he deter from proscribed paths and/or rigged to destroy his existence entirely should he stimulate a threat just for being perceived as young, black, and male.
Since coming back from travelling to my home for the holidays, I have reflected on my son’s maturation and several family conversations over the years. In doing so, I have become acquainted again with the expectations around my son from both public and intimate spheres. In particular, I have come to realize how much I am invested in trying to protect him from the demands placed upon his body. Here, I am thinking of his body in terms of not only its physicality but also as a larger metaphor for self-expression of his personhood.
I am thinking of the possibilities of how my son can decide to comport, dress, adorn, and shape his body to his desires and/or others. This essay is about how my son’s body, a perceived black and male body, is imagined publicly and intimately. It is about what modes of being are sanctioned and embraced while others must be torn out from silence and reclaimed.
“Man, a cat?! Y’all better get that boy a pitbull!”
When I think of my son, I think of a seven year old boy with sparkling, large brown eyes and wild black hair. I think of a boy who loved helping his grandmother garden and plant elephant ears outside our old, red brick home. He had a green thumb for sure then. I think of a boy with creativity that enjoyed painting and drawing favorite cartoon characters. I think of a boy with curiosity and interest in the greater world around him since he loved to go to the Science Center and see all the new animal exhibits. Overall, I envision a boy with a kind sweetness—one who picked a flower and gifted it to his aunt.
These days, I must remember that my son is no longer seven and now approaches the age of sixteen. He is now taller than me (some say that this is not that hard to accomplish). He has hairy shadows on his neck and face. His voice has deepened, and his chest has somehow expanded. He is also more independent than ever. I try to not take it personally that he no longer wants to spend every waking moment with me. Years ago, I was shocked that he chose to play his game online with friends rather than watch a movie on the couch with me even after not seeing me for a few months. I had to remember as well than I did the same at his age, and also—I still do not want to spend every waking moment with my parents either.
Though my son is not the young boy I often remember him to be, he has not changed too much. These days, I imagine a young man with dreams of becoming a world champion gamer in first person shooters while making sure his cat and gecko lizard share in the glory (he loves his animals). His green thumb may now be trained for the left and right analog sticks, but he will still be up for a family adventure in gardening if we decided to do so. He is also still dazzled and fascinated by fictional worlds of fantastic beasts (and so am I). In the end, my son continues to exhibit the kindness and love of his young self; and I am proud of his growing quirks and his quiet nerdiness which believes that Disney has ruined the Star Wars canon since it no longer includes the extended universe.
I do not want the world to take my son away.
Of course, I am thinking of the physical threats to my child’s existence, but I am also incredibly anxious over the psychic and social ones that he must and will endure throughout his lifetime.
In American public discourses, we often hear of the state violence enacted upon black men and boys which sometimes comes at the expense of obfuscating the queer lives that have been taken by state violence as well. I am not here to pen more to this conversation which I know applies to my son. I write this today to etch a more explicit space to consider how black boys and men are narrowly imagined in the first place—imagined narrowly not just by the majority white society that my son and I find ourselves to occupy but also within our own communities we call “home,” such as our families, neighborhoods, churches, and schools. In short, I am not just afraid of the bullets etched by histories of American racism that could pierce my son’s body; I am also afraid of what might get destroyed within his self as he navigates meanings of blackness and manhood by those closest to him and me.
What are the ideal images of black manhood? What does it really mean to be black and a man?
These are the questions that I find tenuous to answer. The answers are contentious—some are irrevocable—others, incredibly deadly.
The answers to these questions play out often between my family and I; and the racial, sexual, and gendered meanings between us are so important that even the smallest minutiae of life choices come to matter, such as the choice of a family pet. My son has had a vast gamut of pets over the years—from hermit crabs, hamsters, fish, and now cats. One of my brothers believes that my son should not have a cat and that the family needs to get him a pitbull—a kind of symbol of masculine power, protection, sometimes aggression, and also loyalty. The cat, unfortunately, does not make the cut. The cat, a feline, has been cemented as feminine, the one to be chased—passive, finicky, and even untrustworthy. A kind of physical epitome of “These Hoes Ain’t Loyal” sentiment I guess.
My son adores his cat and his cat the same. We got her for his birthday years ago and he chose her because her name was Oreo, a favorite cookie of his, and because she was also black and white. I have had to defend this choice of a pet over the years. For practical reasons, the dog takes more maintenance and we do not have an enclosed yard at home nor at the time did my family and I want to take too much time caring for a dog anyways. Besides this, it is just a cat—a pet that can still teach him responsibility and bonding.
But, I know too well that the association of a cat fails to perpetuate ideas of proper masculinity. For instance, I have had one family member tell me that she would find a grown man “suspicious” if he owned a cat for a pet and would not date him out of fear that he could be “that way.” I find such meanings incredulous and comical, but also feel fatigue at trying to explain that the cat and the dog does not inherently mean masculine and feminine. Culturally, we have assigned meanings to these living creatures and imagined their existence in particular ways. What is threatened when a black man or boy exhibits attachment to this animal rather than others? As such, I cannot muster the energy every time to tell my relatives that if owning a cat means a boy or man is gay, then so what. So, I just tell my brother to just leave him be—if the boy wants a cat, let him have a cat.
After thinking through these conversations, I recently came across a picture of civil rights leader and American Congressman, John Lewis, with his cats during the holiday season. According to his Facebook page, Louis posted a new year’s greeting and wished everyone a safe holiday break. In doing so, he also shared the following photo (seen on the right) of how he spent his break playing with his cats.
I felt joyed when I saw this photograph. The picture reminds me of my son playing in crunchy leaves outside when he was little and also of moments in which he has found joy in the care and company of his pets. I also felt relieved when I gazed at the photograph given my history of conversations and defense of my son’s choice for a pet.
Congressman Lewis is a well-respected, black man. He has historically fought for black civil rights, showing his commitment to black community life; is in a heterosexual marriage; educated; and has been decorated with various honors over the years. I felt relief because a “traditional” black man was seen playing with his cats, and no one questioned his masculinity or sexuality (yet) over the picture.
Although I am not here to push for calls of respectability, I was delighted to witness a respected black male so openly share a moment of play with his feline critters. To me, it reflects a moment of expanding bounds of black manhood. Although my feelings of relief does not question notions of “respect” and “tradition,” the picture provides a kind of visual consolation to my family. The picture, to me, says: “See! A respectable black man can have a cat! The cat doesn’t mean he is gay!”
“No man should be caught dancing like that, nephew”
The question of which pet is appropriate for a black boy to keep remains a historic one in my family. A more recent debate arose at home during this holiday season about the proper way black men and boys should physically express themselves. The conversation centered around professional football and NFL player, Odell Beckham Jr. and a series of videos that show him dancing for fans and with male friends.
Admittedly, football is an important sport in my family. Both of my brothers played it—each did in high school and one did it in college. My oldest brother has had all three of his sons play the sport and has also done coaching. My other brother currently coaches a local little league team. From my perspective, the game is a “proper” sport to socialize young boys and men. The sport values appropriate male-bonding (competition, loyalty, and friendship) and also expressions of aggression and strength for what many consider goals for ideal male body development.
I must also state that I know that the sport to both of my brothers also represents a “ticket out” the “hood” in which my family and son lives. Thus, the question of whether or not my son should or should not play high school football became a heated and complex one when the time came to decide which high school he should attend. Since playing football is not solely about “correct” gender and sexual formation for black boys, the discussion also heavily intertwined with desires about which social avenues should young black boys take in order to achieve safety from poverty and racism in larger society.
I have told each of my brothers that football will not be my son’s only avenue out of poverty and that we should also value his intellect, curiosity, and creativity as well. He currently goes to a high school that does not have a football team and is known for its academics. This comes as a disappointment to both of my brothers, but I am dedicated to valuing my son’s body in a different way. We permit my son to play the sports that are available to him at the school since he does like to be active and does find a way to channel his emotions in the competition and in the physical practices required by the sports themselves. This, of course, still does not stop my oldest brother for finding football teams at other schools for my son to play at since he considers my son’s body as a “football body.”
This kind of looking and interpretation of my son’s body—a forming, black body, coded male—I find limiting in some respects. This narrow view of black male bodies became incredibly clear to me during a holiday conversation between my brothers, my father, and oldest nephew. Traditionally, during Christmas season, my family and I all gather around the television. When both brothers are in the house, sports become the show of choice and my brothers and dad begin to talk shop.
This Christmas, they and my nephew began to talk about playoff scenarios. During the conversation, the recent suspension of the New York Giants player Odell Beckham Jr. flashed across the television. I had no idea of who Beckham was. I heard that he began a fight during a game because another player called him a gay slur. Instead of calling out the homophobic remarks pelted at Beckham, my brother began to verbally confess that he found Odell Beckham Jr. “suspect.” He showed me a video of him dancing in a club with “no females” and another with him and his friend that someone re-posted on YouTube with their written disapproval.
I looked upon the first video and felt elated at the sheer joy and fun that I thought Beckham to exhibit. Of course, I yelled, “YASSSSS!” when I saw it since I thought Beckham was, what I term,”gettin’ it.” The dancing itself looks like a mix of popular ones (Whip and Nae Nae) and Odell is front and center with sparkling silver shoes!
While watching, I felt an instant desire to join, imitate, and celebrate. My brothers, however, felt otherwise. My brothers instead focused on the men present in the video and the one that joins Beckham towards the end. One of my brothers was afraid that he was “backing up” on some dude, and I could not help but feel his disgust and disapproval.
My oldest nephew was present and defended Beckham. He retorted that just because a man dances does not mean he is gay. I agreed with my nephew, but my nephew’s defense came with the unquestioned assumption that any sexual expression outside of a heterosexual arrangement is unacceptable. I concurred and added, “Well, if he is gay though, that is okay.” My brother, however, could only say, “Nephew, no man, especially an NFL player, should be seen dancing like that.”
Reflecting back on this moment, I cannot help but feel my sadness at the constraints around black bodies, especially those around my son, his cousins, and my brothers. Black being continues to be policed quite literally in the broader culture and streets. Yet, communities we call “home” engage in all kinds of policing of black self-expression. In the end, I am left asking: Why do we confine black bodies to certain comportment, sounds, and expressions when we continue to seek freedom in the broadest senses?
“This generation right here today”: Envisioning Masculinities and Plural Expressions
When I think of the elation experienced by Beckham and his pleasure in movement with himself and others, I cannot help but think of black joy and the collective histories of our bodies enjoying rhythm and music. Historically, black bodily expression such as dancing, singing, and hairstyling has been castigated as “evil” and/or “excessive” by dominant white culture even while dominant culture has simultaneously taken pleasure in black cultural aesthetics. White fear and anxiety over the growing popularity of rock-n-roll and hip hop suffices as evidence. American cultural history should make us think further over why white parents worried over Elvis gyrating or over Eminem flipping the bird. Such cultural aesthetics and practices were transgressive of racial, gender, and sexual expectations of which groups of people engaged in low, dirty acts of the body and which did not. Regardless of those who privileged repression and constriction of the body, the fact remains—the body can be a site of pleasure, and many of us across cultural groups have found joy and expression with/in our bodies and with other bodies as well.
My brothers may suspect that men who dance in a “feminine” way reflect a new day and age where black folk are “suddenly gay.” Arguably, gay and queer visibility has increased today, but Beckham’s expression of dance reflects a much longer history of black individuals who have choreographed rhythms and dancing forms with one another and have loved doing so. I do not know why many do not make this historic connection. After all, Soul Train was not that long ago.
Many in my son and I’s intimate spheres must begin to think of masculinity as non-singular and as an ever-changing way of shaping, carrying, dressing, and adorning the body. Cultural critic, Rinaldo Walcott writes that discussions of “black masculinity in the public sphere…assume not only heterosexuality,” but the popular way we talk about black masculinity also assumes one “…coherent black masculinity as well” (76).
This kind of coherency, or recognition of a “true” and only “one” black masculinity, heavily relies on a historic narrative of the emasculation of black manhood usually beginning with American slavery. The story goes: the black man could not be a man since he was another man’s property. He was a victim and now he needs to become a victor.
I write this not to diminish the brutality of American chattel slavery that black beings were subjected to. I problematize this particular narrative of black manhood in history and current day America because it begs the question of how does black masculinity become victorious if we do not challenge what cultural ideas of power and masculinity look like in the first place. What does “fixing” black men and boys look like? What gets excised on the way to establishing the one idea of proper black manhood? Such a question calls us to dig further to untangle notions of manhood from conflations of masculinity with aggression, property, and domination.
As I begin to untangle masculinity with traditional notions of power, I am left with Audre Lorde’s vision for her son, Jonathan. She shares:
“I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self” (74).
As my son matures and considers expressions of manhood and sexuality, I want him to know that to be a man means to embrace all parts of himself even when others tell him to hide or repress those traits deemed “undesirable.” I want him to value kindness and the vast expressions of human emotions (not just anger, happiness, or desire, but also sadness, fear, and more).
I want him to know that should he choose to explore his sexuality with another being, that it be done safely (both in the physical and emotional senses) and in full honest communication with one another. And should he decide to make more permanent intimate relationships, he should know that he must question notions of powerful/powerless and popular representations of human interaction. In doing so, he must practice feeling, connection, openness, and trust—all practices that I work on as an adult in relationships that I value.
Some have said that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith should “get their son” and should not let a boy wear a dress as I heard on a local radio morning talk show the other day. Clearly, “womenswear” serves as a mismatch for the idea of respectable black manhood. Perhaps Jaden will “get away” with this since he has access to more social and economic capital than many other black males, and his body has not been seen being “inappropriate” with bodies considered male. Regardless, many are still confused at Jaden’s fashion expression. Just listen to the conversation about the matter on the The View.
Similarly, the image of Morehouse College alum, Jamal Lewis, also challenges singular notions of black manhood as well. Lewis identifies outside of traditional ways of thinking of gender as simply man or woman. Lewis uses he and she pronouns and does not seek to have a “proper” or recognizable gender definition. As a result, Lewis has faced strange looks, institutional attire bans (women’s attire donned by students was banned in 2009 at Morehouse along with other “undesirable” garb), and probably some verbal scolding for his/her way of expression. I am not going to share the comments I have seen in regards to the Buzzfeed article that featured the photographs and story of Jamal Lewis’ experience at Morehouse College. I will just say that many black voices concluded that Lewis just did not belong at a historically black, all male, institution.
Considering the historic and literal constraints on black bodies and the current narrow holds on how we imagine black men and boys to be, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ photographs against the grain. As I gaze upon their pictures, I tell myself that there is no one way to be black and/or a man. I choose to see black freedom and expression.
For Jaden, I see a kind of quirkiness in the high fashion getup itself. For Lewis, I am reading “fierce.” In each, I am thinking of blackness as multiplicity, beautiful, fluid, and deliberate. I choose to read these black bodies as being in a particular time and moment and not bound by the frames in which they appear then and there. I choose to remember that black bodies have always been monitored, policed, and shackled, and we have always tried to get our being free. As such, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ expression as just being and as representative of a much larger possibility for multiple types of pleasures and self-fashioning with/in black bodies.
As a black queer mother, I affirm these self-expressions. I do not hold these images as the only representations of black male bodies for my son, other boys, and men to aspire to. I affirm these photographs because I want to let my son know that being in this world is multiplicity and complex. It is about bending and resisting that which tries to dry us of our joy and detain our magic. I affirm plural expressions of black being and the various ways many of us have come to name and carry ourselves. In the end, I do it for freedom—for my son’s sake, and my own.
Another week brings another video illuminating a moment of police use of force against a black body. This moment sheds light on a senior deputy in South Carolina violently removing a young black girl from her desk within a classroom at Spring Valley High School.
These videos add to our growing archive of truths that many U.S. communities of color have built through experience and collective memory. Many communities and individuals have learned to draw upon this archive when teaching ourselves (adults and kids) on the dynamics of police and authoritative power and the consequences (many devastating) when authority “feels” threatened and/or disrespected.
Unfortunately, I am not shocked that many have come to weigh in and defend the actions of police officers. After all, our culture demands obedience and compliance to authority figures ranging from parents, teachers, church officials, and police officers.
We must ask ourselves what is at stake when culture demands “compliance” without question, especially when culture demands obedience to powerful institutions that have historically engaged in the enforcement of inequality within our country. Police forces were designed to serve and protect, but in that decree, law enforcement served a particular body of people and protected them from certain “others” deemed undesirable and dangerous. The logic plays out quite nicely in our historic, cultural tropes of “good guys” versus “bad guys”; Cowboys and Indians; Whites and Blacks; etc.
So, to those, such as Bristol Palin, a “redeemed” woman who quickly married to avoid bearing her child out-of-wedlock, that argue that parents are “failing” to teach kids obedience to the law, I write you this short, poetic meditation on race, history, and law for reflection. I title it: “Guilty, Always.”
This past weekend, I attended a close college friend’s wedding. This marks my third straight-identified college friend’s marriage ceremony that I have attended, and I believe out of this group of friends, this was the fifth marriage overall.
It was a grand occasion, and I was happy I could attend with my partner. I do not deny the beauty and detail in flower arrangements, the feastings, and the social reunions that occur. Such weddings so far, however, are a complex mix of emotions for me.
My friends’ weddings display a reality of political and social difference for me. In a space that is emotionally coded as happy, loving, and celebratory, I cannot help but experience kept feelings quietly brewing under smiles and hugs—ones that I have politely siphoned off somewhere near the left of my cortex and at the base of my throat.
For me, weddings often display the products of accumulated wealth, earned and unearned. From the details of silverware choice, napkin arrangement, hors d’oeuvre, to the V-neck lines and wines, I sense a kind of pleasure in my momentary experience of the grand consumption; a kind of longing and desire for both a personal and collective access to the material culture of it all; and also a kind of anger at the silence around the inequities, either known or unknown to those present.
My straight-identified friends’ weddings also represent a ceremonial moment where traditions of past meets its reproduction into the future. Not saying that my friends have gone into the marriage institution lightly, but when my friends, who are now doctors and lawyers, enter into traditional partnerships with men of a certain status (white, heterosexual, and middle-class at least), I cannot help but think of the exclusive political structures and identifications that will most likely remain intact.
Admittedly, I write this piece with hesitation. It has taken me quite some time to sit down and write. But it is because of a social incident that occurred at the wedding, one that I have come to categorize as a personal “nigger story,” that I finally pen this piece.
“Nigger Stories” of Past
“Nigger stories” are a collection of pain for my family, and for a particular group of persons in our country. The stories not only encompass pain but also a kind of archive of social interactions, statements, moments in which a person or persons are effectively stripped of the category human although arguably, they began outside the category when named “black” centuries ago. Something internally happens to the one referred to as “nigger.” Some recognize a kind of misnaming—a kind of awareness of another’s perception of self. No matter what, a reduction occurs and it was/is dangerous.
For me “nigger stories” are part of a larger repertoire of stories my mother and father would share about the history of black folk in America. I feel that the general function of all the stories were either to instill a sense of pride of survival and perseverance through obstacles, but also to instill a sense of appreciation of what our family did have. Both my parents grew up in large families. My mother, the oldest of six, became a teacher. My father, the second oldest of eight, grew up to work a string of jobs. For the longest of time though he was in print work. I never exactly knew what printing meant as a profession, but I know that he worked as a printer for a number of years, often coming home with splotches of blue and black ink on his hands and clothes.
From my mother, I heard more stories about slavery and freed peoples post-Civil War. Maybe as a teacher, she wanted her black children, blood born and those she schooled, to know their history and the structural politics and disadvantages within black life. My mother was particularly keen on teaching the inventions of black people. For the longest of time, my child-mind believed George Washington Carver made the computer, the microwave, cement, and paper out of peanuts. I would sometimes wonder through the day how a peanut, something so tiny and edible, could become made into a machine. The wonderment was a joy, and I definitely wanted to do something creative with my energy and be a part of the wonder of the world.
From my father, I heard more personal stories of how race in America operated within his own life. I have known my father to have a series of personal narratives that he has readily available to tell, like a little story book in the back of his pocket. The stories he shared about race sometimes ignited a sense of indignation like my mother’s, but sometimes they also invoked a sense of disbelief because they sounded too cruel to be true. My father, a mixed-race man of black and Japanese descent, growing up in 1950s and 1960s America, often told his kids of how he had to endure the racial epithets of “jap” in black neighborhoods and “nigger” in white ones. I would often imagine my father as a little boy struggling to find a physical place where we would not be named at all when I was younger. I do not think my father ever did.
One of his stories stands out most to me now because of its linkage between my dad’s experience as a person of color and myself. When my dad worked at a printing company one of the machines at the time had stopped working. My dad in an exasperated tone recounted that a white woman, a co-worker, casually mentioned to my dad and others around at the time that “we should nigger-rig it.” My dad angered during this telling. My dad said that he went to their supervisor about the comment only to have the white woman later come back angry at him stating, “If you have a problem with what I say, you should just say it to my face.” I do not remember what my father did after that moment. He may have stayed silent. I do know that he left that company probably not too long after the incident.
Stories like this one—“nigger stories”—are ones told of white aggression, white hatred, and white violence (physical, verbal, and emotional). These stories I did not want to believe in. I wanted to believe in the fairy tales my dad would recount to me before bedtime as a little girl—ones of bears with porridge and pigs in brick houses—or imaginings of a peanut turning into a computer. I wanted to think of possibilities, not pain.
“Nigger stories” were the ones I wanted to reject because it painted the world as unfair and hostile. I did not want to believe my parents’ personal stories of racism unless it was told in the context of the past—meaning any time prior the “successful completion” of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, any story prior to say 1970, my young mind could make room for as truth since that was how schools taught racism—as a past truth—a truth that no longer existed because our people—black folk—struggled and our country finally granted freedom and equality for all.
Maybe to my child-mind, the white people near signs of “Whites only” in text books or on TV either died because they were old or somehow just turned nice. I did not understand the process of how feelings and spaces of exclusion suddenly turned open to all. Maybe that is how American myth-making works? That explanatory gap was never quite fleshed out to me. I had to make up my own vision of how “progress” and “change” occurred in the political and social fabrics of our society. As a little girl, I envisioned polite white people which I would later in high school call my color-blind approach to “all human beings.” Through this approach, I painted the world as an okay place, a fair place to enter and enjoy.
A “Nigger Story” of Present
I rarely hear the word nigger in its white utterance. Unlike my father and my mother, I did not have to hear the word that often. My mother disliked hearing the word so much, she did not want her kids even saying the re-appropriated and reimagined form—the familial and black use of the word “nigga.” Nigga was a different dirty word. Unlike the cuss words “fuck” and “shit” which my parents said around us more than they probably imagined, “nigga” was usually expressed in moments of anger. For instance, I would not hear my mother say “nigga” unless she was fed up with someone or something—like her saying the phrase “Nigga please” or “Nigga, get it together.” My brothers, however, would say “nigga” to friends in the amiable way when my mother was not around. I chose not to say any iteration because I found the root word imbued with a sense of power and pain I was too scared to touch.
I have only had one or two points in my life where I have heard the word referred to me personally. Once, my first girlfriend’s best friend referred to me as a “NIGGER” in all caps in a live journal post since her friend began to like me and not just her. My girlfriend at the time told me that I should not take the incident seriously since her friend was just spewing her family’s bigotry out of anger. At the time I did not care because I was too focused on being chosen and desired by a girl that I liked. The other moment occurred when I was walking from a public transit station to an internship. A homeless white man walked behind me uttering all kinds of obscenities. The word nigger left his lips a few times. I quickly sped up my pace because I did not know what the man was up to. I chalked up the experience to not a matter of race, but one of mental health access. Maybe I was being too polite with this reading of the event.
My most recent “nigger story” I am most hesitant to scribe about because it occurred in such an intimate and personal way—a kind of cutting pain way that shoots deep within your body. So deeply that the memory makes you question if bridges between friends are perhaps not as structurally intact as you would like. The experience I find shaking and I find myself feeling not just anger but also fear at the potential loss that can occur because of my social and political experience.
This “nigger” utterance was not hushed, quiet. It was not abbreviated to the “n-word” or stated in the transformed way of “nigga.” It was an old way of saying it where you hear the stress most at the end, in the “rrrrr” of the word’s sound. The sound somehow strikes at the political memorials my mother and father built within about black folk and struggle.
The word left multiple times from the lips of a white man–a smart, white man in the oil business in the south of the country–a straight white man who is a husband in our friend group. Maybe that is why I find it so intimate and personal because the man is now a part of the network and relationships we built within our college days.
The exchange happened at my close college friend’s wedding reception. After a dance, I returned to the dinner table with my partner, and I noticed the husbands minus the new groom talking about the republican presidential candidates. I found the moment a kind of social study for me, like an opportunity to peer into the window of conservative political thinking of white heterosexual middle-class men.
In the candlelight glow of the evening and by bouquet centerpieces, I felt their heated discussion of how to best handle the national debt. I wanted to interject not on how to best handle the national debt but attempt to center the discussion on marginalized communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt my desire to interject would break a polite barrier between all parties present because I want people to think about inequality and privilege within our own lives.
Before I interjected, my friends returned and discouraged the husbands from talking about politics. One of my friends said it was not fun and they expressed concern if they were being nice to each other. I think my friends were afraid of the husbands not getting along with one another. For me, I saw it as an opportunity to engage political difference and a moment to offer another alternative to the political scheme of ordering the world—one that seeks equal outcomes and opportunities for all people.
Since my friends, the “wives,” returned, the men left. I headed outside the reception towards the restroom and noticed that the husbands banded together again to continue their political discussion uninhibited. I laughed to myself because I saw this as a way to get away from their wives and continue on discreetly. I became excited because I wanted to join them and talk with them as well. It is only so often that I get to hang out with straight white men with a kind of economic power I sometimes desire. I quickly joined them near the open bar and jokingly told them to go check-in with their wives since they were worried about them not knowing how to play nice together. They laughed and I told them that I differ from them because I think people should talk about politics, and that people can have heated debates and still be friends. Part of my engagement stems from my problematizing of “politeness” as a cultural mechanism to enforce silence around issues of power. Politeness as civility means certain topics do not get voiced. Certain mannerisms and tonalities such as increased voice or hand gestures gets termed “threatening” or “too angry.” And those that engage in this “impoliteness” do not get listened to; their messages gets lost in the fray of an “uncivil” style of discourse and engagement.
I entered the conversation amidst talks of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Syria. I told them I enjoyed the recent 60 Minutes interview with Putin because I heard a perspective on American culture from an outsider’s point of view and because he mentioned that Ferguson was representative of America’s imperfect democracy. My opinion led one husband to ask me if I were communist (implied here to mean terrible) and asked if I wanted Putin to run the world. Of course, I do not want one man running the world. One husband re-interpreted my comment to the perplexed one, rephrasing it for him to mean “she just liked hearing about America from a foreigner’s perspective” but then later added that “I mean don’t get me wrong. I think America is the best. I believe in American exceptionalism.”
For me American exceptionalism is not separated from histories of genocide, enslavement, and labor made cheap. It is a history that we would rather not teach to our children in the country if we are to instill patriotism to future generations. To disrupt the logic of “America the Great” I shared with each of them that I wanted to talk about politics because I think all of us have a unique view of the world and that politics cannot always be captured by the common split of democrats/republicans. I shared with them that I am sometimes off the traditional political scheme and advocate a more radical politics. One husband asked me how, and I said that I often think democrats and republicans both have very neoliberal and racist policies towards marginal communities. Before I could warrant my statement, the perplexed husband quickly interrupted and said “What if I said racism is bullshit?” I quietly thought, “Sure, ok.” He then recounted, “I heard the other day Obama said I couldn’t say the word “nigger.”
(::insert record screech:: Did he really just say that? Yes, yes he did.)
My heart beat quickened at the blatant statement. I experienced a sense of confusion, shock, and restrained anger. The other two husbands definitely took a noticeable step back. He noticed their discomfort and soon called them out saying, “Oh no, don’t run away. It’s okay. I just said the word ‘nigger’. There is nothing wrong with it.” He smiled and looked at me and brushed my arm and said “We ran them away.”
I told him that he could he say the word in certain contexts that could be justifiable–like maybe talking about historic events or maybe reading an old document. He quickly “corrected” me and said that he could say “nigger” because that is what “they call themselves.” He asked, “You mean to tell me, they can use that word, and not me?” I told him that he is white and that word has a historic and present day offense to it coming from him. He didn’t even say it in the familial, black way. I can’t think of any moment in my experience in which a black person has referred to another as “nigger” where the -er is emphasized and not dropped for the -a.
My partner, a white woman, entered the conversation and tried to explain to him. She shared that the word was said while black people were lynched. The perplexed one said that the word is only offensive because someone takes it to mean it that way. He added that he had plenty of black friends and that he knew black people well because he drove “them” to the city where “their mommas” have sat him down and cooked him “fried chicken.” He even tried to justify the use by noting that today we have progressed in the country. My partner rebutted that just because our country has a half-black/half-white president does not mean racism does not exist. Unfortunately, the perplexed husband may have listened to one too many conservative talk-radio shows and/or Fox News segments. He could only say to that point that Obama was “more Muslim than Christian.”
I knew that there was very little hope of trying to get him to understand. I even relayed to him that I think the word hurts personally. At that point, his wife returned and tried to take him away, but he rebuffed her attempts and wanted to keep talking. She encouraged him to listen to me about how the word is hurtful, but he could only retort that he did not call me one and that “black people all feel the same way about us–that we are all crackers.” I looked at him confusedly on purpose and pointed to myself and my partner and said that couldn’t be true since we have a close, intimate relationship with one another.
It did not click with him, and I told him that we are just going to have to agree to disagree. He did not want to accept my bowing out. I think he wanted to convince me of his feelings even though he demanded several times to explain to him why it was hurtful and that he was listening. I told him that he could say it, but in certain contexts it may get him in trouble. He then shared that he would shoot someone if they tried to hurt him for saying it.
I do not know why, but after telling him that we just disagreed, I gave him a light hug. Maybe to signify the finality of our exchange but maybe as a last effort to communicate to him that I meant well. By that time, he definitely had his share of alcohol and his wife was very embarrassed at trying to get him to leave with the others at the reception. After asking if I wanted to continue at the hotel, I told him that we had to return to go say goodbye to the bride and groom. I told him that he could read plenty of blogs and scholarly texts on why words get appropriated to mean something entirely different for a marginalized community. I mentioned queer to him as example. I doubt he soaked it in. My partner and I returned to the reception and I immediately had to breakdown and cry to her because I had withheld my pain that whole time. Maybe out of politeness. Maybe because the exchange was not worth showing my emotion for. Maybe I was just trying to maintain a cool logic through it all. Whatever the reason, withholding the pain definitely wrecked me.
Being an Ally By Overcoming Politeness
As I mentioned before, this piece has been hard to write. Fear of expression is real. In some ways I feel anger at my friends for not calling him out then and there, like I was left to defend myself. I have the memory of one of the husbands repeatedly saying the word nigger while the others silently watched, and I have the memory of my friends walking away from it all.
These situations are never easy to navigate, but I do wish my friends, especially my white ones, could call out a racist statement when it is uttered. Of course, it was a wedding reception and that space is already coded as a polite one–no ill remarks or scenes should be made. Yet remaining silent in the name of “politeness” seems to be a privilege in this instance. To be “polite” and silent meant letting racism, even blatant expressions of it, go unquestioned.
I wanted my friends to be my allies in that moment and in future instances. It means I want them to be able to call out a wrong, but in order to be able to, they must see it. I have always been of a radical politic within this group of friends ever since we forged our friendships in college. I know my friends and I are on different social and political trajectories in life, and we may never use the same language and knowledge base to talk about the world we live within.
I do, however, want my friends to step up and question each other and those that are most intimate with us. That may mean becoming uncomfortable and taking risks in reshaping how we see the world and the politics that shape our physical and social arrangements within our lives. It might mean that my friends push themselves and those closest to them to begin building an understanding of economic and social inequity historically and currently within our country. It may mean that that all of us must begin talking about and taking issues of difference and power seriously. It will definitely mean we forgo politeness to talk about hierarchy and power amongst one another despite our fear, despite the possibility of loss.
I admire Meryl Streep. She has made my Best Actresses of All Time list quite often in my life. She made it when I saw Sophie’s Choice; Death Becomes Her (added this one later); The Devil Wears Prada; and for The Iron Lady, too.
Streep’s latest, Suffragette, however, will not be getting my monetary support nor verbal admiration. Maybe it will be one of those films that I come to consume later through Netflix, or perhaps when I visit home to watch a decent bootleg rendition. (On the real though, my family will most likely go with a bootleg of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visitsince it dabbles in horror.)
“But, you’re a feminist and it’s a women’s rights movie!”
I can hear the push back now for my admittance to not wanting to see the film. Many may think I would and should go out to support a film that tells the struggle of voting rights by women in Britain. After all, I do name myself a feminist, and the film has been marketed so far as a championing narrative of human rights and gender equality. Streep and others have even contextualized the importance of the historic biopic to talk about current day inequities that women face in the film industry.
Admittedly, I was intrigued by the film when I saw an online poster and realized that Meryl Streep starred in the cast. Streep has a kind of Midas touch for me in a film. But, I was still only about twenty percent likely to go out and spend my money on it when I saw the advertisement.
Then, this happened:
The above image comes from an ad campaign for the film featured in London’s Time Out magazine. The image represents all the reasons why I did not want to see Suffragette in the first place. And damn, did this image really sink my twenty percent in a matter of seconds.
Feminist “Origin” Stories as (White) Women’s Voting Rights Movements
Suffragette is not alone in perpetuating a linear narrative of feminist movement history. The main reason why I was only twenty percent likely to go see the film was in part due to how I have been taught feminist history inside and outside academic spaces. More often than not, feminist movements’ “beginning” agitators start with the political campaigns led by white (often-middle class) women in the western hemisphere in the twentieth century.
I have always had a fraught relationship to this kind of origin narrative of “women’s rights” and feminism because there remains an absence of the political activities of women of color. Why do we often start with voting rights as the political birth moment of feminism and women’s movements? Why not start with the political agitation of slave women or women like Ida B. Wells who led a transnational campaign to end U.S. lynching?
These questions began during my undergraduate course Histories of Feminist Thought which structured feminist history in a chronological order. The beginning point of our curriculum commenced withThe Book of the City of Ladies by Italian French author, Christine de Pizan, published in 1405. I recall our class discussing Pizan’s arguments for women’s education, their gifts of virtue, and their capacity for governance. I remember feeling a bit thrilled to find such an old text that argued for “feminism” when it had not been named yet, but something about the lineage of feminism beginning in Europe dismayed me. “Where were black women or any other woman for that matter?,” I quietly thought.
That course continued this trend of producing a limited “feminist canon.” We read Wollstonecraft, Mills, Stanton, Anthony, Grimke, Goldman, Sanger, Woolf, Beauvoir, etc. There were a few glimpses of color, and when we did show up, I always felt that black women were a kind of oddity that stood outside the canon of feminism and “women’s history.” The feeling persists even though scholars have documented the contributions by black women to voting rights campaigns despite their exclusion from the majority of these political spaces (i.e. Seneca Falls) because of their considered detriment to the cause (read: white men were less likely to extend the vote to white women with “others” in the mix. See Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Classfor a historical coverage of the U.S. suffrage and abolition movements and the fissures between each.)
This sense of difference became public one class period when we read selections from Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record. I recall a kind of silence in class when asked if any of us considered Well’s work a “feminist” one. I had my response formulated from the night before. My response to that question required a lot of personal mental gymnastics since up to that point, “feminism” seemed to only consider the plights of (white) “wives” and (white) “mothers.” Unlike my good friend, a white gay male, who shared in class that it was the most decidedly feminist works we had read that semester, I had not come so easily to that conclusion about Well’s political writings and activities.
I recall questioning, as I read Wells’ work, “This text is about the wrongful treatment and murders of black men. How is this feminist?” I feel a bit embarrassed now to admit this, but at the time it was a heavy question for myself to consider. Who was the subject of feminist thought and concern? All the texts we had read prior did not point to concerns beyond white women’s oppression under the institutions of marriage and motherhood. I remember feeling frustrated, angry, and alone that I had to mentally fight to include the lynchings of African American men as a feminist issue. It felt like I lacked access to a language that could assist me in making the connection between lynching and feminist analysis.
After hours of writing and serious critical thinking, I came to conceptualize Wells’ work as an indictment of the controlling sexual myths of African Americans and how notions of white womanhood and white male paternalism interacted to produce white male violence against black male bodies. Analyses of power, gender, race, and sexuality were screaming directly in my face in Wells’ work, and somehow I was very close to missing it in a feminist history course.
This particular shaping of “feminist issues” and “women’s history” in curricula, activist organizations, and popular culture is powerful to say the least. If “women’s history” and “feminism” continue to foreground narratives of white women’s struggle against the legal and cultural boundaries of domesticity, our collective visions and definitions of women and feminism will remain narrow and exclusionary.
Why White Women Were Not Slaves and Why Black Slaves Were Not Women
The structural way we think about “women’s history” brings me back to Suffragette‘s ad campaign. As I look upon these white women wearing bright promo T-shirts donning the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” I cringe with anger.
The phrase comes from a speech by women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) in 1913. Many say that the T-shirt promo takes the phrase out of its historic context, and that’s why it is wrong, but I disagree.
The phrase was wrong then, and it is still wrong now.
This is not an argument over who can refer to slavery or use the word slave. This is just a matter of historic fact. White women suffragists were not slaves by law, and black female slaves were not considered women. To be a woman meant to be human, and black slaves were not human. We were considered chattel—non-human property.
Pankhurst was not unique in equating white women suffragists’ status and oppression to that of slaves. Many white women suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, invoked the imagery of slavery to compare to the institution of marriage. Doing so was quite shocking and inflaming then. White suffragists and suffragettes definitely used the slogan to rally their cause for enfranchisement.
Despite its political utility, this historic conflation should not have been made. The institutions of marriage and slavery were not the same, and each encompassed disparate experiences. The comparison egregiously erases slavery’s process of diminishing blacks’ humanity and the brutal violence that slave persons had to endure and experience under their status as property. It also downplays the social privileges tied to marriage—a conferral of humanity and respectability to name a few.
I sometimes wonder if Pankhurst had other options for a rallying slogan. Maybe the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a woman” was a viable consideration since woman connoted docility and gentility. To me, it seems like many white suffragists were rebelling against the constraints and expectations of white womanhood, but many wanted to keep their status. Of course, I cannot go back and change history, but I wish media campaigners of Suffragette could have thought otherwise.
So Where Can We Go From Here?
It can be quite infuriating to witness this phrase play out again in 2015. So much so, that many of us will get into debates about whose conditions were actually worse off than the other.
I am sure I will hear that white married women were functionally property under law as well. That under the institution of marriage, marital rape was not yet recognized, and that white women did not have legal access to their children if separated from their husbands. To counter, I might hear that white women had privileges accrued to them by notions of humanity and virtue; that they did not experience the physical and emotional hardships of being considered slave labor; and that they were still considered at risk of rape unlike black slave women who were considered lascivious animals.
This is a dangerous place to be for women (feminists and non-feminists alike). Debating who had it worse then or now and whose oppression should come first can do us more harm than good if we wish to build a broad feminist movement or any large coalitional movement for social justice.
No matter what, we need to stop making conflations between our conditions and recognize connections between various systems of privilege and oppression. For example, we have to ask how notions of “good” women interplay with ideas of “bad” women, and how each are a function of powerful systems of thought. How do various divisions (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) work together keep certain men and women from experiencing opportunities that may remain open to a privileged few?
Next, we have to expand our understanding and definitions of “women’s history” and “women’s empowerment.” I envision a culture in which the story of Harriet Tubman’s Combahee River Raid gets mass marketed as a “women’s empowerment” and “women’s history” flick as well as an incredible moment in black history. At the heart of this desire is a vision of multiple representations of feminist struggle and history. Such a vision seeks to break down the very dominant subject of feminist thought and history—the white woman—perhaps even woman itself.
For now I will be continuing to finish Madame Bovary on Netflix this evening. Bovary’s oppression is real and I wish it could have turned out better for all parties involved. As for Suffragette, I can only take so many historic pieces focused on white women’s struggle no matter how well it pulls at my heart strings—no matter if Meryl Streep stars in it.
On September 19, 2015, Viola Davis invoked the words of Harriet Tubman as she accepted the prestigious Emmy award for best lead actress on a drama series. As the first African-American woman to receive the award, she recited:
“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
The image is haunting.
In my mind I see a common black and white photograph of Tubman—stoic and upright—gazing outward. Then, I see a colorful pasture of yellow daisies with thin green stems. I then think of Tubman looking out at Scarlet O’Hara frolicking in Little House on the Prairie fields, questioning: “How could I ever be over there with that woman without having to change her chamber pot?”
It is the image of Tubman’s line and Viola Davis’ invocation that sticks with me. As a metaphor, Tubman’s line invokes overall divisions and separations between white and black women. Yet, the United States circa 1800s makes Tubman’s imagined line in this instance more than a metaphor. Unfortunately, I would argue that the United States circa 2015 makes Viola Davis’ line more than a metaphor, as well.
Intersectionality and Differences within Women
I write this piece in a time where many black feminists publicly continue to push movements for racial justice and gender justice to understand oppression as commonly intertwined, interlocked, or what many have termed “intersectional”—while other black feminists have denoted that the concept of “intersectionality” has lost its punch, and has now become a mere label for many to claim but not necessarily practice (see Racialicious editor, Latoya Peterson’s Washington Post’s opinion piece).
For those of us who are not familiar with the concept or word, “intersectionality” became a term in 1989 deployed by black feminist and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in her article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” In her legal analysis, Crenshaw details the failures of antidiscrimination law to protect black women. Crenshaw cites a history in which black women plaintiffs could not go before courts as representatives of the commonly recognized injured classes of “women” or “blacks.” In those instances, the experiences of the black women plaintiffs could not be articulated under the precedents of “sex discrimination” or “race discrimination” with the former being rooted in white women’s experience and the latter in black men’s. Since the black women plaintiffs’ experience of sex and race discrimination did not follow those of white women or black men, the courts could not recognize their claims and could not compensate the plaintiffs. Crenshaw, thus, advocated for the law, antiracist politics, and white feminist politics to consider social injury occurring along lines of race and gender and not either/or.
Since Crenshaw’s seminal work, intersectionality has become known as the single most important contribution made by feminists and black feminists, in particular. The concept has travelled across various disciplines and fields within the academy ranging from sociology, psychology, history, political science, philosophy, etc. It has also been taken up in various activist circles such as the #SayHerName campaign—a campaign that calls for the attention of police violence against black women. The concept has also been taken up by public critics such as black feminist scholar, Dr. Britney Cooper, who recently wrote that “Black lives do matter–all of them.” In our current call to value black lives, Cooper calls our attention to black people’s experiences of transphobia and homophobia in activist spaces, and reminds us that we blacks are also trans and gender non-conforming, and that black politics as a whole must get on board with this reality. #thatsmysibDrCoop
At the end of the day, intersectionality at its base level teaches us that there are differences within large social categories and that “women’s oppression” goes beyond sexism. Long time General Hospital actress, Nancy Lee Grahn, needed to learn this primary lesson Sunday night when she blasted Viola Davis’ Emmy speech for bringing up race, but celebrated Patty Arquette’s speech for gender equality at the 2015 Oscars. #ReallyNancy
Intersectionality, however, goes beyond understanding individual and intragroup differences. I say however because I want us to consider how intersectionality can be critical to understanding the interplay between large scale stratification and systems of power, such that some groups of women have better material and life outcomes than others (i.e. better health, employment opportunities, education, and wealth.) Here, at the macro-level, intersectionality still packs more than a punch; it’s got a damn uppercut.
Intersectionality and the Residential Segregation of Women
So this leads me back to Tubman and Davis’s referenced line between white women and black women. Of course, Davis’ line is drawn within a context of television and the accessibility of acting roles or lack thereof for black women and other women of color. I am thinking more literal here. I am thinking of a more Tubman kind of line. I am thinking of residential segregation between white women and women of color.
Segregation consists of literal lines between women and residential segregation is still quite prominent today despite the Supreme Court’s overturning of “separate but equal.” Thirty plus years after the Brown decision, I still grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in St. Louis that suffered from de-industrialization and massive white flight. That means the crippled economy of my neighborhood led to the deterioration of businesses, abandoned houses, and low-funded public neighborhood schools. I did not have white friends (mostly girls) until I entered a public magnet high school. The magnet program was designed to attract white parents and resource-laden families who had abandoned the city and neighborhood schools in favor of “county” or suburban public schools and private ones.
None of my white girl friends in high school lived in my neighborhood. They either lived in the south portion of the city, in a gated community, or outside the city in the county-suburb. The segregated line between us was real, and that line was called Delmar Boulevard—the notorious dividing race and class line of St. Louis city.
On my way to Lucy and Becky’s house, my mother would drive south down Kingshighway, and once we crossed Delmar Boulevard, the physical landscape of the city transformed. On my end—the north side—fast food joints, check-cashing/money order places, and liquor stores suddenly ended. After we crossed Delmar to the south side, I would soon notice the large-barred opening entrances of gated housing enclaves that featured large dream homes, then hotels, a theater, and the multi-hospital complex next to vast green spaces which housed the great art and history museums of the city.
It felt like we lived in different worlds along the same road, and our parents knew that. Once I remember my white friend’s father yelling at her over the phone while she took me home at night. It was not past her curfew and he knew I was her friend. Her father, however, considered my side of town a dangerous ghetto, especially after dark. My parents knew of this perception, too, and they often were surprised that my white friends could and would come to our house.
As I look back upon my friendships with Becky and Lucy, my memories are filled with our fun times together. I recall how we enjoyed female punk artists and queer folk bands; how we went to weekly trivia night at the lesbian coffee house on the south side; and then ate at our favorite Vietnamese joint and diners nearby.
At the individual level, intersectionality has helped me think of how Becky, Lucy, and I came from different racial and class backgrounds. It has enabled me to think of how we differently expressed gender and our sexuality. As young women, we knew that we were different and it was important to understand and accept that between us.
Looking back at my friendships with intersectionality at the macro-level in mind, my thoughts go beyond matters of individual differences and questions of identity. At the macro-level, I have to think of the structural differences within our lives—the ones that physically separated my home and community from Becky and Lucy’s.
Why were our neighborhoods so different? The development of locales is far from incidental. Residential segregation is a tool of social engineering. Histories of redlining, housing discrimination, urban development policy, and the continued practices of these policies (although many are illegal) shape who can walk to the local farmer’s market and those who may have to drive more than a few miles for fresh fruit.
The macro-level questions of intersectionality would consider what histories and policies create the disparate landscapes women find themselves in. What history of racism, classicism, xenophobia, or prejudice caused one woman’s neighborhood to become severed into two, so that one now has a larger tax base and a separate public service system while the other’s infrastructure deteriorated? It would also ask how such occurrences constrict and/or erase opportunities for women.
Expanding Feminist Politics
It is important to note that the neighborhoods women and girls find themselves within are not stratified based on a gendered logic of masculine and feminine. Neighborhoods are not divided by women and men, but are often divided by race, ethnicity, and economics. As such, white women and women of color are often not going to the same schools, churches, associations, parks, and businesses.
Feminists must think of the implications of this physical separation of women. First it can explain why a more unified feminist movement remains difficult to achieve. We simply find ourselves in homogeneous intimate spaces and we do not know each other; we remain strangers to one another. To undo this, that requires the work of bridging our social distance which sometimes seems irreconcilable, threatening, or exhausting.
This separation also influences what gets deemed a “women’s issue.” Residential segregation often gets talked about as “race or class” matter only because “women’s issues” are viewed through a lens of sex/gender injury. If we are to envision a feminist movement that truly wants to enhance the life outcomes of all women then mainstream feminists must also politicize issues of segregation and think of various kinds of thought and practices that interlock and intersect to determine who gets a promotion or who continues to clean toilets for a low-wage.
We must utilize intersectionality at the macro-level of analysis when determining what to politicize because fighting for equality between the sexes will do nothing to guarantee that women of color living in impoverished enclaves have better access to health care, education, and employment (being equal to the poor men in these communities will still leave poverty intact). Fighting for equality between the sexes will also not guarantee that women of color will not face police brutality, mass incarceration, or other forms of state violence, such as reduced public safety nets that combat hunger, malnutrition, and job instability.
At the end of the day, feminist politics must expand, and that means that gender equality must also be a battle for racial and economic equity. To put it simply, it means that feminists must work to do away with the physical lines drawn from Harriet Tubman and Viola Davis’ time.
This piece is part of a series of meditations on race, gender, and sexuality. It encompasses personal and public memory at the intersection of prose and poetry. This piece is about process and a journey towards a more reparative sense of self and community. It may be disjointed here and there, but the words all connect. You’ll sense it.
Black Matters: Reparative (Re)membering, No. 1
When I think of blackness, I see images—
historic ones shaped by
in History Books
We were ugly, I thought. I felt.
We had large lips. Odd heads. Wool-ed hair.
We were chained. We were bare.
We looked dirty.
We had no gloss. No airbrush.
We had no brightness. No illumination.
We were rough.
And our words always sounded funny or incomprehensible.
–we were animal.
In elementary school, there was a black history border around the classrooms and in hallways. It showcased our best, most notable—our brightest and most famed. The Named Ones.
There was King, Douglas, Carver, Robinson, and Marshall. Great men. I always, however, purposely searched for the women that sprinkled the timelines.
I only liked one or two images of the women. One was a real time photo of Mae Carol Jemison and the other, a painted face of Marian Anderson.
Mae’s picture I liked best because it was more “modern.” She looked lighter and more colorful like the pictures in other books. Anderson’s photo stuck out as well. She was not as light as I wanted her to be, but she shared my birthday—February 27.
I inspected these pictures daily. They etched in my mind and I dissected them meticulously. I looked at all of their noses (were they too wide or just right); their lips (were they full or narrow); their hair (was it straight or patchy); their teeth (were they clean or crooked), their color (too dark or light enough); and their skin (wrinkled or smooth).
This was a rigorous test of race, desire, and femininity. I did not have those words then. So, Truth, Tubman, Wells, and Bethune always landed on the bottom.
There was another test, however. One that did not rely on notions of desired body parts and bad ones. Perhaps this test wasn’t as painful to administer, but all the sense of immediacy and necessity still went into it.
This test ensued from a sense of magic and numbers. Anderson shared my birthday. The twenty seventh day of the second month in the calendar year. Maybe people born on or around this day were special and important no matter how they looked. Maybe they had something that the others didn’t have and that’s how they got on the wall. For all I knew, Anderson had a photo, and if we shared a birthday, then perhaps I was special, too.
I focused in on this concrete detail. Twos and sevens became added, subtracted, and multiplied to make ones and threes. Letters in names became numbers, and digits began to have connections. Maybe my father’s commitment to the “numbers” played a role in this assessment since he engaged in predictive modeling of the daily lottery using pocket calendars and the backs of spiraled notebooks and legal pads. Whatever the influence, I could create a cosmic connection to the Named Ones.
I admit. It wasn’t a perfect connection, but it was something.
The cosmic connection did not tell me to embrace all black flesh. It did allow me to consider my birth and others a unique event that may warrant recognition on a historic timeline.
A part of myself would like to erase these memories of Little Black Girl Me. They come with a number of affect—among them shame, sadness, and numbness. Today, however, I make use of these memories. I choose not to lay them to waste. Today, I engage in reparative re-membering.
Reparative re-membering is about cataloging, experiencing, and analyzing memories. It is process-driven and may lead to unexpected connections and emotions. It can revive or revise historic narratives in service of a vision to create new narratives of self and place. Reparative re-membering is about making use of memory and making peace with them for self, and if deemed necessary (by you), for others as well.
In a time in which we cry out the value of black life, I think it no less essential that I begin to ruminate on blackness and its varied meanings for Little Black Girl Me and Black Grown Woman Me. Without re-membering, I will never truly be able to unhinge Truth, Tubman, Wells, and Bethune from the bottom, and historic images will continue their silent haunting.
As a starting point, I would like to re-member Little Black Girl Me as more than a point of pain. I would like to also re-member her as a source of creation and expansion of new meanings for blackness and black girlness.
As such, I re-member her and her cosmic connection to the past not as failure—but rather as the work of a creative mathematician. An astrological dabbler. Magic believer and cosmos dreamer.
She is joy.
This is the work of reparative re-membering and it is only the beginning.
White Girl \hwahyt gurl\ verb. -ed, – ing. –tr. 1. To fail to recognize racial privilege: Abigail complained to Brittany that the school should celebrate a white history month since there is a black history month; Abigail just white girled Brittany. 2. To deflect responsibility for problematic behavior: Mindy white girls me every time I try to talk to her about race in America; she says I am just too sensitive.3. To emotionally manipulate for influence and sympathy either purposefully or unconsciously: Maddie began white girling the whole group by crying about black women not listening to her.
Today I would like to describe the sociopolitical phenomenon called “Getting White Girled.” Urban Dictionary has already beat me to the punch with an entry on “white girled.” I thought I was a creative genius when I finally found the linguistic terminology to name the experience of certain social interactions with white women in both public and intimate spaces. Come to find out, “getting white girled” happens on a much wider sociological scale. I am not surprised.
Urban Dictionary touches upon some important aspects of the phenomenon. Emotional gestures for sympathy and the deflection of responsibility can be critical tactics in the practice of white girling. I think the top definition entry deserves more elaboration, and I should contextualize my usage of the phrase.
I situate “white girling” or “getting white girled” in the sociopolitical context of race and gender relations in our country. Specifically, I am referring to a dynamic that can occur between white women and women of color, especially during discussions of race. “Getting white girled” has its own personal contours for me. Let us begin with its origin of use and go from there.
“Girl, I just got white girled”
I recall the first time I used the phrase. It was an instinctual quip formulated in response to an exchange with a white woman co-worker. We worked on the same team in a high pressure environment. At the end of one work day, she requested that I process a form for her. I set it aside for the next business day to complete in the morning. It was not time-sensitive and it was a favor. Before my first sip of coffee the next day, my co-worker came rushing into my cubicle frantically asking if I had completed the form because “I needed that done, like, yesterday,” she stated. ::record screeches::
“First boo-boo, I am not your secretary. Second, we are co-workers. You ain’t my boss. You don’t sign my papers or my checks, so don’t come at me like that, and third–who the fuck you think you are!”
I wish I could have said that, but I didn’t. It was a brief fantasy of black girl resistance to white micro-aggressions. The moment called for another kind of social and emotional intelligence on my part– one that did not involve me getting labeled an “angry black woman.”
So, it really went like this: “[insert nice white girl name], are you okay? Is something wrong today?” While giving a caring look, my co-worker sat down and went on to vent about how stressed she was by work as if explaining her stress was an excuse for treating me like her personal assistant.
I swallowed my anger and lent my ear. I was a great team player that moment. I soon called a friend afterwards and said, “Girl, I just got white girled.” That same friend, a black woman, understood. “Girl, she’s done it to me, too.”
“Getting White Girled”
That exchange was not the first time a white woman has justified their maltreatment of me, and sadly, it probably will not be the last.
There are a plethora of accounts by women of color that detail the failures of white women to recognize their racial privilege in their exchanges with women of color. These experiences have accumulated enough to warrant a termed social phenomenon: “Getting White Girled”
I recently tried to explain the phenomenon to a few of my white co-workers after recounting a story of a white friend who said I was “attacking” her in a conversation. Keep in mind that I was sitting down while my friend and I were having a heated group discussion while she was standing up. No ill words were shared. No objects were thrown. Yet, as soon as my hands gestured in the air and my voice elevated, the words “Now, you are just attacking me” left her mouth. Without hesitancy, a mechanism in my brain switched and sparked the following retort, “[insert nice white girl name]! Don’t white girl me!”
It felt right. It felt just. Of course, that only escalated the argument. We are still trying to move forward from that moment now. As a friend, I apologized for hurting her feelings and explained to her the reasons why that interaction triggered me.
That trigger has a particular history in my experience and other women of color’s social exchanges with white women. Consider the following historic instances:
In a feminist theory classroom, the day finally arrives for the multicultural portion of the curriculum. The class reads a text written by a black feminist writer. A white female student shares that as she read the essay, it felt like the writer was “yelling” at her personally.
At a discussion on race and education, a white woman shares that she thinks that programs gauged for minority students on college campuses are “reverse racism.” I told her I disagreed and asked for her definition of racism. She later accused me of “attacking” her to our director because I leaned forward and asked her a question in an impolite tone.
A white woman once told me that I “always bring up race and beat the same drum” although we both worked at a non-profit focused on mentoring girls from predominantly poor and black neighborhoods.
Across time and various locations, these interactions aggregate and share common themes. When women of color call out white women on their racism, we soon are labelled “angry,” “aggressive,” and/or “impolite.” We become instigators and the perpetrators of social conflict and the emotional pain of white women. White women become victims to “discomfort,” “loudness,” and “anger.” In their distress, tears may shed [white girl cry] and the refuge of others may then be sought or not for validation and consolation [white girl sympathy].
The exchange between former co-host of THE VIEW, Rosie Perez, and Kelly Osbourne showcases this pattern. Perez calls Osbourne out on her assumption that only Latino people clean toilets in Los Angeles. Osbourne gets flustered and then cries during commercial break. People began to rush to help and assure her that she is not a racist. TV producers failed to console Perez and only cornered her to apologize on air and later twitter.
I find it interesting that the flock to protect and comfort Osbourne was seemingly unsolicited. Osbourne even told Perez that she was right to correct her for her statement. Yet, TV producers and executives came to Osbourne’s rescue with the quickness. Perez apologized for being “overly sensitive” and Osbourne assured everyone that she is not racist. Rosie Perez quit and Kelly Osbourne remains comfortably on THE VIEW. The whole exchange deserves its own hashtag: #rosieperezgotwhitegirled.
Situations described above are examples of getting white girled to the fullest. The phenomenon can be perpetrated by the individual white woman or it can become a multi-party affair, especially if a rescuer comes to the scene. No matter what, the phenomenon usually involves a person of color who may have politely or impolitely called out a white woman’s racist remark or behavior and a subsequent unproductive response by the white woman either in the form of accusations of attack, crying, or denial. The product of the phenomenon is usually increased social distancing between white women and women of color and the increased silence and rage within women of color.
“To White Girl or Not to White Girl”/ “To Stay Angry or Get Angry”
So where do white women and women of color go from here? For one, white women please know that it is okay to be called out even if it was not stated in a way that felt comfortable for you. Remember, behind the words of women of color who do share are often times more than just anger. These words also encompass our sadness and disappointment over this historic pattern inside and outside our intimate relationships with you. Give us space to express our pain.
Additionally, ask yourself why should you require a polite tone to listen to words about an injustice. I imagine that this is culturally scripted for many of us across racial and cultural lines. Anger may have never been expressed safely within our families. Or we may have been taught that anger/aggression and femininity should not coexist within the same being. Nevertheless, politeness has a cultural premium and we need to begin to unpack our emotional and political attachments to its practice. In the meantime, requiring people of color to be “nice” while they endure racial injustice only serves to assuage white anxiety and discomfort.
For women of color, we face another kind of choice, and often times, our choices will impact our livelihood, our image, and/or our intimate relationship in some ways. Next time a white woman “white girls” you, you will be tasked with the following option: to get angry or stay angry. Or put it another way: To Nicki Minaj or not to Nicki Minaj that Miley Cyrus woman.
These are not necessarily mutually exclusive choices, but I parsed them out to suggest an outward expression of our anger and an inward silence that rages within. We often have to navigate and exercise both choices based on our circumstances at the moment. At work, I could not Nicki Minaj my co-worker in my black girl fantasy of resistance. I would have risked reputation, a reprimand, or worse, termination.
You may choose to express your hurt openly. You may save your rage for protests or a Facebook rant. You may do it in a diplomatic manner. Maybe it is one of those teaching and healing moments between women of color and white women, like in an anti-racism ally workshop.
Getting angry in the interpersonal sphere presents a risk. You will need to hope that the relationship has enough strength in communication and trust to experience general anger and political anger at one another. That’s a gamble, and some friendships with white friends may not be able to take the tension. If it can, that relationship has some roots, and you may want to consider nourishing its growth.
These suggestions are non-exhaustive, but I share them in the spirit of encouraging understanding across differences. As our country navigates through national dialogues around racism and police brutality we need to recognize the power dynamics that can take place within these conversations between women, feminists and non-feminists alike. This cultural and political climate provides many tactics for derailing critical discussions on race and racism. Let’s make sure that getting white girled becomes less of a phenomenon in these conversations.