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On Azealia Banks and White Gay Cis Male Privilege

10 Jan

Guest Post by Edward Ndopu

Azealia Banks

Rapper Azealia Banks

Recently, the media has exploded with news of a Twitter battle between rapper Azealia Banks and gossip blogger Perez Hilton. After Hilton inserted himself in an altercation between Banks and fellow female rapper Angel Haze, taking Haze’s side, Banks denounced him as a “messy faggot”. She then went on to say that she used the word to describe “any male who acts like a female”. Rumours have since abounded that Banks is being dropped from her record label as a result of her speaking out against Hilton. Rather than taking sides, I believe it is most important for us to examine the context within which this media escalation has happened. Instead of writing off Azealia Banks, herself a queer woman, as homophobic, we should instead be exploring the femmephobia and racialized sexism at play in the public’s response to this debacle.

The public spat between Azealia Banks and Perez Hiton must be understood within a larger context, beyond the binary logic of right and wrong. It is profoundly problematic that much of the cultural criticism framing this fiasco is couched in the “two wrongs don’t make a right” argument. This  narrative rests on the flawed assumption that wrongful conduct on both sides of a conflict functions on an equal playing field. The lens through which we view wrongful conduct on either side (Azealia Banks vs Perez Hilton) must take into account the overarching power imbalances that frame interpersonal experiences of epistemic violence. We cannot dislocate public figures from their sociopolitical locations. The Azealia Banks/Perez Hilton debacle has absolutely nothing to do with right and everything to do with white gay cis male privilege.

White gay cis men have cultural access to the bodies of black women and black femmes, cultural access that black women and black femmes do not have in relation to white gay cis male bodies. This cultural access allows white gay cis men to caricature black femininities, through mannerisms and voice intonations, as rambunctiously depraved and outlandish. It is a form of ontological mockery that reinforces dehumanizing narratives and racist tropes about black femininities. Perez Hilton, who personifies a homonormative politic, has systematically tapped into the cultural access to which I refer at various points in his career. Indeed, the sassy lexicon he, and so many other upper middle class non-disabled white gay cis men like him, employs rests on the commodification and appropriation of black femme identities. Hilton interjecting himself in a social media dispute between two black women, Azealia Banks and Angel Haze, precipitated the Hilton/Banks altercation, which is emblematic of his (problematic) cultural access.

Because our society subscribes to an insidiously misogynistic sociocultural paradigm, to insult someone, notwithstanding gender, is to invoke the feminine. So what better way for Banks to cut Hilton down to size than to call his masculinity into question? The Banks/Hilton feud had absolutely nothing to do with sexual identity (read: homophobia), but rather, gender power dynamics (read: femmephobia). Azealia calling Perez a “messy faggot” suggests an attempt to assert her status as a no-nonsense, hard ass femcee in a largely masculine of center dominated hip-hop industry. Masculine of center queer men, notwithstanding race, appropriate the word bitch. Very often, they use it pejoratively, and with impunity. They’re seldom called out on the ubiquity of their misguided misogyny. Yet, when it comes to Azealia’s use of the word faggot, she’s quickly characterized as homophobic, reinforcing the dominant narrative that people of color are somehow inherently homophobic, to echo Janet Mock’s recent sentiments. Although Azealia Banks is queer, she is not part of a population that would have this slur used against her. That being said, there are other words that are deeply entrenched manifestations of oppression that go unchecked each and every day. Ironically, many gay men who are up in arms over Azealia’s use of the word faggot are the same men who render femme-identified men invisible and undesirable.

Azealia Banks’ career allegedly hangs in the balance and Perez Hilton’s remains firmly intact. She’s now regarded as the ratchet, violently homophobic black woman. By virtue of his white gay cis male privilege, Hilton did not have to contend with the implications of calling will.i.am a faggot several months ago. This isn’t two wrongs make a right, but rather, one wrong is minimized, and the other, pathologized.


Born to a South African freedom fighter mother who fled from the Apartheid regime to Namibia under self-imposed exile, Edward (Eddie) Ndopu is a politically conscious (dis) abled queer femme Afro-politan living in Ottawa, Ontario. Named by the Mail and Guardian Newspaper as one of their Top 200 Young South Africans, he is a social critic, anti-oppression practitioner, consultant, writer and scholar.

Django Unchained and Why Context Matters

6 Jan

django_unchained

Some spoilers ahead, but mostly I’m  just feeling all my feelings…

Growing up, I had to deal with my mother’s love for Westerns. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Outlaw Josie Wales. One of the many joys of expanded basic cable (besides the Cooking Channel, of course) is that I get Encore Westerns. Between that and reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger, I know that when my mama comes to visit she will be thoroughly entertained.

I don’t get her love for the genre. I mean, I get it on one level. I know my mother appreciates a good revenge tale and she likes it when the bad guys grovel at the end. But Westerns? Really? Then again, I unapologetically look forward to watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta and all the iterations of Love and Hip Hop, so who am I to judge? We all hold contradictions, not to mention shamtastic and raggedy entertainment choices.

So, when I saw that Django was coming out during the holidays, I thought this would be something that we could watch together. I mean, I do “enjoy” an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger now and again but I’m not sure that that counts. Django would definitely give us both something to talk about.

I did have some apprehension about watching Django, though. For one, I am not a fan of Tarantino at all. At all. Generally, I find his work contrived, overly self-conscious, and, frankly, boring. Plus, to me he’s like the worst kind of hipster racist, a grown up version of Justin Timberlake desperately trying to affirm his black card at all times, while thoroughly proving himself to be white as hell. The living worst.

But, I was still intrigued by the movie.  As a scholar of African American literature, I’m always interested in how we understand and talk about slavery today.  Besides, I love Kerry Washington with a fiery burning passion and would watch her read the phonebook.  (Too bad she had like five lines in the movie. She did have that lip quiver though. Can’t forget about the lip quiver).

Sex appeal and slavery. Hmm...

Sex appeal and slavery. Hmm…

I ended up watching the movie and it exceeded my admittedly low expectations. I won’t do a formal review here, largely because I think the film has been discussed elsewhere in brilliant ways and who needs to reinvent the wheel? (On that note, check out discussions of the film by Salamishah Tillet and The Feminist Wire if you haven’t already). What I do want to talk a bit about was my movie going experience.

I decided against seeing Django while I was spending the holidays at home in Fort Lauderdale. I anticipated that my little heart couldn’t take it. I imagined some irreverent scene involving slavery and being in a movie theatre filled the laughter of whites who, in their next breath, wouldn’t hesitate to remind me of how postracial we are and how Tarantino has every right to create art as he pleases and how brilliant he is and on and on and on. I figured I might have a slavery flashback and go Nat Turner up in there and that’s not how I’m trying to go out, folks.

Instead of that unfortunate scenario, Mama and I headed to the movies in Atlanta on a Friday afternoon. Since my mother is a stickler for time we got there early and I did a lot of people watching as the theatre filled to capacity. Our fellow viewers were Black—pretty much everyone as far as I could see—and largely grown. I’d say middle-aged and older. There were couples on dates. Clusters of homegirls and homeboys. Church sisters and ladies who lunch. Not the crowd that generally thinks Reservoir Dogs is awesome, interestingly enough.

I immediately felt at ease. I felt like I was at a family reunion where something dubious was about to happen but that, nevertheless, it was going to be ok because my auntie and my mama were there. Weird, perhaps, but true.

So we all sat there in companionable (semi) silence, watching Tarantino’s comedic spaghetti Western slavery action-comedy, cheering when racist slaveholders came to their timely and explosively bloody ends, sighing in satisfaction when Django finally got his girl, and laughing out loud at the absurdly funny scenes involving shit that is generally not funny at all.

This movie will also extinguish whatever love you have left for Leo. Sorry.

This movie will also extinguish whatever love you have left for Leo. Sorry.

Take for instance a scene involving some night riders (aka the forefathers of the KKK). The group arrives to kill Django and his white companion but before they can get to the lynching, there’s a whole discussion about how their outfits (namely the poorly shaped eyeholes on their white hoods) are getting in the way of their appointed task. It goes without saying that lynching is not funny. I mean, really. But laughter reverberated throughout the theater. Not uncomfortable, tinny laughter that rings hollow and dies quickly in your throat. But genuine “people can be so damn foolish,” “you got to laugh to keep from crying” and “ain’t this some shit?” laughter thundered, yes, thundered throughout the theater. I don’t know that I could have laughed during this moment in another theater, but I laughed heartily on that day.

When the movie was over I asked my mom what she thought about it. She said she loved it. She loved that Django went about avenging people for his wife and that all the bad people got killed, especially Samuel L. Jackson’s old Uncle Ben looking ass. For her, it was the best kind of Western. When we went out to dinner that evening she expressed several times how satisfying it was to watch racists get cut down. I could only agree.

F@#% you, Stephen!

F@#% you, Stephen!

So, what’s my verdict on Django? It’s interesting, frustrating, (at times) funny, violent, limiting, problematic, thought provoking…it’s doing a whole lot. I don’t regret seeing it, but it’s not in my top 10 list either. I think it is inciting interesting discussion, but I’m not naïve enough to think that this will necessarily translate to a bunch of nuanced portrayals of Black folk in slavery. What I do know is that my viewing experience was connected to where I saw the movie as much as it was connected to the film’s content and that, among other things, underscores my general ambivalence about the movie.

Have you seen Django? What are your thoughts on the film?

django vengance

A Theory of Violence: In Honor of Kasandra, CeCe, Victoria, Savita and Anonymous

4 Jan

**trigger warning**

A few weeks ago, a young Indian woman went to the movies. On her way home she took a bus on which she was raped and brutally assaulted by six men. We don’t know the name of this 23-year-old student.  We do know that  she was tortured so badly that she lost her intestines and needed numerous operations. Six people – including the bus driver – have been arrested. On Friday, December 28 she died.

I don’t know her name. I don’t have an adequate response, but I feel I should say something. Because I was born in the city where she were assaulted. Because so many, too many, experience such violence. Because I spend most of my waking hours thinking about how we can create a world where women are safe. Because she wanted to live.

●●●

This is both about and not about men. Here are some statistical knowables, true across most societies (just take a look at the extant research at both the global and national levels).

  • Violence against women and girls occurs primarily at the hands of men and boys.
  • Violence against men and boys occurs primarily at the hands of other men and boys.
  • Nations, statistically speaking, commit far and away, the most of the world’s violence via war and conflict. This involves military forces comprised largely of men and boys, who are both perpetrators and victims of this violence.

Gender, then, rises up as an undeniably important variable in regards to understanding violence. And though we might not have a shared understanding of this fact, sex and gender are different and there are more genders than two. Further, people who are gender-non-coforming, genderqueer, trans and/or those who complicate the gender binary experience violence at disproportionate rates.

In my work at Men Stopping Violence, our focus is on ending male violence against women. Far and away the most common first response to my explanation of our work goes something like this: “Yes, violence against women is a problem but, don’t women ALSO commit violence?”

Let me answer that question now: Sure, yes. Women are also perpetrators of violence. As are people of all genders, sexes and sexual orientations. But to refocus the question on women’s violence is to obfuscate the real problem. And that problem is violent masculinity. If all the above data has not convinced you yet, please note: According to the National Academy of Sciences, in the US, “Male criminal participation in serious crimes at any age greatly exceeds that of females, regardless of source of data, crime type, level of involvement, or measure of participation.” I say this not to pathologize masculinity as inherently violent, I certainly don’t believe it is. I say this to move us away from wringing in our hands in despair about a seemingly intractable problem (male violence against women) and move us toward naming the fact that this problem is deeply structural, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism.

The point here is this: violence in general and sexual violence in particular, like all social ills, is best approached with a multi-faceted and intersectional perspective.

●●●

“Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of the individual: it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say someone is “in power” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.” —  Hannah Arendt, from On Violence

What is the function of violence?

Resisting essentialist notions about sex and turning to think about gender, there is something in pervasive understandings of masculinity or masculine identity that accepts if not encourages violence.  This begs the questions: Is masculinity itself violent? Is there a way to be a man/masculine without being violent? What causes violence? What sustains it? These are questions that I think about daily and with my colleagues around the country. At MSV we work with many different men who join in this conversation with us. For us, that involves honing in on the problem of men’s violence against women.

Let me be very clear here, because this is the bulk of my point: we fail at answering these questions if we think of violence as merely a symptom of something else. If you listened to the NRA press conference last week in response to the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, you might be lead to believe that the perpetration of violence is some elusive phenomenon, committed by the criminally insane, or at the behest of video games and violent movies. If you watched some of the Indian coverage of the Delhi gang rape story you’d hear lots of speculation that the young men who perpetrated this gruesome act, must have been intoxicated by drugs. I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment of violence. It’s not merely a tragic happenstance. It is not something only done by those who have ‘lost their right minds.’ Violence is functional.

It is a means of asserting and securing power. When violence targets women in the dark of night it ensures, among many other things, that women stay out of the streets. When violence against trans women goes largely unreported in studies of violence against women, it is tacitly legitimated. When violence against white school children raises a national furor and violence against an innocent black teenager wearing a hoodie doesn’t provoke a national conversation about legislating guns, we can see the fault lines.  When a football player kills his partner and then himself and we find ourselves knowing his name but not hers, we see which victims matter.

Violence is functional and our response to that violence is also functional. Violence is functions by silencing those whom it targets. Let us not forget that most cases of rape and sexual assault go unreported. Let us not forget the stigma that survivors face. In the US only 24% of rape allegations result in arrest, never mind conviction. Whether it is perpetrated by an individual or made invisible by our social, cultural and political institutions, violence has an aim – to remove power and instill fear.

●●●

The numbers can tell us most of what we need to know. But not all. What is lost in the statistical knowables, is the lived reality of women, LGBTQ people and others of us whose stories don’t make it to the headlines. Women’s lives bear out patterns, and patterns tell a story. If we ask intentional questions about trends – we can learn something about our social orchestration. Looking to recent stories, we might learn something about this functionality.

Kasandra Perkins was killed by her partner, a professional athlete, who had threatened to shoot her weeks before he did. No one was able to protect her despite the fact of his threat.

CeCe McDonald, a trans woman, faced violence in the form of a hate crime and for her retaliation was sentenced to serve her time in a men’s prison, denied the right to name a very basic fact of her existence.

Victoria Soto was a school teacher with her students in the classroom one day when she was killed in a massacre by a lone gunman with easy access to assault weapons.

Savita Halappanavar sought refuge from the horror of a wanted pregnancy gone awry at an Irish hospital which (legally) refused to save her life.

And then a few weeks ago a young woman in New Delhi took the bus home one night after watching a movie with a friend and was brutally raped and died, 12 days later, from her wounds.

When something horrific happens, near or far from home, we tend to ask the same questions: Why? How? So, what, then, are the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ in these cases and in inumerable others? There are few actual similarities in these cases, but there are many potential points of convergence: laws that do not protect, credibility that is denied, legislation that is missing, stories that are made invisible. If we are to change things, our belief systems, social structures, and institutional practices must come under the spotlight. And that is because these stories complicate the statistical knowables.

Interpersonal violence usually belies a whole host of social conditions that are hard to qualify and quantify (i.e. privilege, race, poverty, gender, oppression, resistance, wealth, cultural norms, etc.). In this, as in most things, historical context is key. The US has a long history of state sanctioned violence. Consider the genocide of Native and First Nations people, the ever-present legacy of slavery, the internment, without due-process, of those considered a threat, be they Japanese immigrants or detained in Guantanamo via the War on Terror.  These factors complicate our understanding of who perpetrates violence and against whom and why. Knowing the statistics is important. Knowing the stories, unearthing the legacies, speaking aloud the names of the victims and the survivors is just as important.

●●●

Women’s bodies serve as battlegrounds: metaphorically and practically. “Western” feminists look toward the “East” and see beleaguered women facing oppression at the hands of savage (read:black and brown) men. Never mind that staggering and horrific violence happens in the “West.”  Never mind that the US has never taken a stand to ratify the global Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Never mind international conventions, the US is not able to muster the political will to pass the Violence Against Women Act, or gun control legislation. Never mind that we all have remained  unable to effectively address the phenomenon of rape as a tool of war, so as to prevent women’s bodies from serving as the actual sites of war and conflict.

Despite all these facts, in the wake of this story, outrage began seeping out from the US, the UK and Europe (which I am loosely defining as the “West” – the demarcations of and within these places could be a topic of a separate blog post) at the problem of patriarchal “Eastern” cultures. The narrative looks something like this: Those poor women suffering at the hands of those horrible men. We must loudly proclaim our empathy for those people, who either know no better or are unable to live by our enlightened social standards.

This narrative is racist, homophobic, sexist, heteronormative and imperialist.

And to step away from all that politicalese: it is quite simply just wrong.

Violence is global. It pervades all cultures and communities. Yesterday, in a brilliant conversation, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and one of the main organizers of protests against sexual violence in India and Elora Chowdhary, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, joined Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now to talk about the case and the way it’s being discussed here in the US as well as in India. Chaowdhary says,

So, on the one hand, we see in the Western media some reporters taking this moral high ground and pointing fingers and demonizing Indian culture, as though sexual violence against women is pervasive in only certain parts of the world and that it’s somehow reflective of deeply inherent cultural traditions of that part of the world. Of course, what that obscures is that both rape and domestic violence are pervasive in the United States, and domestic violence being one of the leading causes of injury to women, and exceedingly high numbers of rapes that, in fact, mostly go unreported in the United States. So, I think embedded in these kinds of reporting is a certain colonial mindset, of course, there’s a long history of that. And this kind of mindset that women are the measure of the progress of a society emerges from colonial practices, that these ideas were used to legitimize both colonization and also imperialism.

I don’t say all this to discourage global dialogue. Very much the opposite, in fact. We have much to learn from each other, by sharing our struggles and our victories. Such exchange is key to our success. What we cannot abide however is the reductive and disempowering narrative that allows some folks to offer no local, national or global context. What will not help is an essentialist narrative that paints all (or even most) Indian women as victims and all (or even most) Indian men as perpetrators, by virtue of their culture. We must banish these spectres of our colonial legacy if we aim to build an intersectional, transnational and transformative movement to end violence in our communities.

As I’ve said, violence, here in the US and abroad, is functional. Violence against women, is rooted in colonialism and patriarchy, in their varied and sundry iterations.  We’d do well to keep our eyes on that, and work like hell to dismantle the belief systems, social structures, and institutional practices that support it.

Beat to Quarters*: An argument to register

5 Oct

Guest Post by Pat Hussain

Download your own We All Count sticker to personalize!

The 2012 elections will culminate with President Obama being reelected or replaced as President.  Some people have decided to vote in this election; others not to vote.  Whatever your decision I urge everyone who is eligible to register to vote by the October 9th deadline.

Every citizenship right we have has come after a protracted struggle: Pressure created by direct action and mass movement organizing provided the momentum for a successful vote in the halls of Congress, state legislatures, or polling places across the country. Not registering to vote feels like speaking passionately on the issues at hand; but on Election Day, placing our hands over our mouths.

After the Civil War the struggle for equality moved from the battlefield to the ballot box, as centuries old violence and intimidation tactics against Black people continued.  During Reconstruction, in 1866, the Radical Republicans took control of Congress.  Before the War ended, Rev. George F. Noyes had expressed his support of them, and restraint of former Confederates, during a sermon to the Union Army in 1862:

“When a man puts a knife at my throat, and I succeed in conquering and hand-cuffing him, shall I be so foolish as at once to restore him to his former position, knife and all? Let every man’s own common sense answer this question. The idea with some even at the North is that the South is to be acknowledged as an equal nation if triumphant, while, if she is subdued after the great and fearful struggle, she is at once to be invited into a front seat, and at once admitted to all her old privileges.”

In 1867, Congress replaced Southern civilian government with military districts, and enforced the enfranchisement of Freedmen.  Of the 22 Black members of Congress, elected during Reconstruction, 13 were Freedmen; all were Republican.  Of the 1st 20 elected as Congressmen, five were denied their seats.  Others had their terms interrupted or delayed.

At the 1888 Republican Convention, a new faction emerged within their party. Norris Wright Cuney named this group, the Lily-White Movement: An anti-civil rights response to African-American political and economic gains.  Their goal was to eliminate Black progress and get white voters back from the Democrats.  As it grew to an organized nationwide effort, most Blacks were prevented from seeking office.  Democrats and Republicans erected legislative barriers for Black voters: In the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.  George White was the last African-American in Congress for 28 years when he delivered his final speech in the House on January 29, 1901:

“This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people – full of potential force.”

That drought was ended with the election of Oscar De Priest: the first African-American of the modern era and the last Black Republican representative for 56 years.

The 20th Century civil rights movement built on work begun during Reconstruction. Direct action changed and engaged our national conscience as we the people gathered and shone a light on unjust laws, rogue municipalities, and flaws in our Union. Our votes sent those we elected to represent us into the rooms where laws are made and changed.

African-American voting strength blossomed across the South from 1960-1966: in Mississippi – from 22,000 registered Blacks to 175,000, in South Carolina – from 58,000 to 191,000; and in Alabama – from 66,000 to 250,000. The number of Blacks in Congress doubled from five to ten as the 1960s drew to a close. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) emerged from that fertile ground in 1971, followed by the 1976 arrival of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. For the first time in this century, a presidential veto on foreign policy was overridden. When the CBC joined others in opposition to President Reagan, they helped bring about the extinction of South African Apartheid.

History reveals that laws enacted to create justice do not make justice happen. And that political party support, at best, is transient. Further struggle is required to make existing laws function – for example: penalties, criminal charges, and sanctions for noncompliance or violations. The thunder of feet marching and ballots dropping on Election Day; oars pulling together as our boat presses forward. Knowing that our need for justice is immediate, it is frustrating that our progress tends to be incremental. That is why I urge you to register to vote. We need you.

The nautical term is, “All hands on deck.” Something that you say when everyone’s help is needed, especially to do a lot of work in a short amount of time. If you have ever changed your mind, reconsidered a decision, or just like to keep your options open; consider registering. If you do register, you can still decide not to vote.  The decision of whether to vote or not just moves to 7:00 pm, November 6th when the polls close. But if you don’t register, that option, that oar, is left behind.

Rough waters and big waves have kept us from the shores of full equality and have tried to swamp our boat, relentlessly. It has required every tactic at our disposal, some created on the journey, to keep us afloat. Pack both oars: Direct action and the vote. Those who never had the right and those who lost it have needed us to pull that oar for them.

Election Day will mark our progress, lull, or decline; but not the end of our journey. Tsunamis of regressive, racist, mean-spirited political candidates and policies have raised the call for, “all hands on deck.” We need all who are able to give a two-fisted pull toward equality and our own visions of a just world. In the tradition of our struggle, join us.

*Prepare for battle (beat = beat the drum to signal the need for battle preparation).

Pat Hussain is a part of the We All Count campaign and participated in the Southern Movement Assembly two weeks ago in Lowndes County, Alabama. The Assembly brought together 25 delegations from over 40 organizations around the South. Pat is a beloved movement elder and one of six founders of SONG, Southerners On New Ground, an LGBTQ organization working for racial and economic justice. In 1996, Pat co-founded Olympics Out of Cobb County to bring attention to a resolution the city passed in 1993 condemning LGBTQ people. The successful organizing forced the Olympic Committee to remove all officially sanctioned events from the county.

On Anger…

1 Oct

This post does not contain images because I don’t want to animate the stereotype, but in Google image searches for “Sapphire” and “Angry Black Woman,” Michelle Obama was prominently featured.

In a brilliantly provocative paper at ASALH this year, Dr. Gwendolyn Pough invited us to rethink the black woman stereotype of Sapphire, the emasculating black bitch who’s always ready to fight. Pough notes that the “angry black woman” is the least investigated of the stereotypes of black women and the one people are most likely to assume is true. Pough’s paper was a jumping off point for a lively discussion about the political utility of black women’s anger and the questions it raised reverberate in my mind. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, also had the uses of anger on her mind and wrote a piece for Womenetics, imploring black women to get angry and use their intellectual gifts to create the world we want.

Anger has been a really tough emotion for me to grasp. When I was little, my anger wasn’t valid because I was a child. As I got older, the sapphire script was something I actively avoided. It seemed that as a dark skinned black girl, I was always already being told that I was angry. I smiled a lot. I learned to self silence to the point that I don’t even always tell friends when little things hurt my feelings. I didn’t express anger, opting for sadness with no tears, as opposed to righteous indignation.

On a recent flight from Ithaca to Atlanta, I was subjected to additional searching. This included the TSA officer taking my lunch, a burrito, out of the paper bag it was in and swiping the chemical detection cloth over the paper bag and foil covered burrito, putting the burrito into the small tray for wallets and pocket change and running it through the conveyered x-ray machine two times. Needless to say none of the other passengers I saw who had food were subjected to the same. I was livid. Ithaca has a small airport and all the other passengers on my flight witnessed this extra search of my things. I was so flustered, I dropped my hat and it was the other black passenger who pointed to where it was. I was hot with anger and embarrassment but I didn’t say anything. I called a friend and we discussed the incident briefly, coming up with non-confrontational things I could have said like, “Wow, so people are trying to hide things in food now?”  I couldn’t think of anything in the moment. I swallowed the incident down and boarded the plane.

I worry about this now default reaction of mine when confronted with moments like this. While the incident itself wasn’t physically violent, I felt it in my body. I got hot; my stomach churned. I had some kind of internal reaction the incident that left me feeling unwell. This doesn’t happen every time of course but microaggressions are sometimes so frequent, it’s hard to gauge their impact. There are black women and other women of color in my life who have had bouts with or sucumbs to cancer that I link to this swallowing down of the daily assaults on our personhood. It adds up and that ish is toxic.

Sheri Randolph, a panelist with Pough, also mentioned colorism as it related to anger as the people mentioned in the talk, Melissa Harris Perry, June Jordan, Audre Lorde were all lighter skinned Black women whose anger erupted in the public sphere. Was/is there more room for their anger than mine? I try to think of dark skinned black women’s anger in public and how it is read and what seems to be different is the assumption of anger initially. Michelle Obama has perhaps never lost her cool but is always already assumed to be angry. But as an audience member in the room said, “Anger darkens,” meaning any expression of anger moves you further to the dark side of the color line. Both Jordan and Lorde died of cancer though, so whatever room they had was not enough.

One audience member during the session reminded us that because even speaking directly or pointedly as a Black woman is read as anger, many of us hold back and suppress feelings in general. This silence won’t protect us but it seems like it is harming us as well. This blog is a safe space for my anger but I need more than this corner of the internet to unfurl my tongue and release my truths.

Lady Gaga, Beauty, Ugliness and the Call for a Real Body Revolution

27 Sep

Earlier this week, Lady Gaga launched a campaign, via her website, called Body Revolution 2013. An attempt to reclaim the conversation from the folks in the media who were writing about Gaga’s body as seen in a few recent photos, wherein she looks a little larger than she usually does. (I’m not linking to those photos and articles, Google if you must.) Essentially, these (assuredly svelte) members of the media were calling Lady Gaga fat. Gaga, in a missive in which she’s both vulnerable and angry, spoke out about the fact that she’s been dealing with anorexia and bulimia since the age of 15. And as only a global susperstar can, she’s re-energized a conversation about the challenges that young people, young women and girls in particular, are facing as they struggle to accept their bodies in a world that is hateful and cruel. These struggles are both external (how do others perceive me?) and internal (what do I see when I look in the mirror?) and they are nothing new. But a dose of celebrity adds another dimension to this already pressing issue.

Several have written about the potential impacts of a celebrity naming their struggles with eating disorders – some think it’s helpful, others don’t and others find it complicated. There’s something both valuable and limiting about a celebrity like Lady Gaga coming forth. On the one hand she embodies a relatively conventional ideal of beauty, being young, thin and white. On the other hand, it’s notable that these extremely narrow conventions of beauty are insufferable by almost ALL people, Lady Gaga included. I won’t (re)litigate the conversation about the value of her admission here. Generally, I find that anything that breaks into the mythology of celebrity is at least minimally useful, because it allows us to disrupt the damaging messages that come from and through our obsession with fame and fortune as measures of worth. (Here, I mean “worth” the existential sense, as well in the context of capitalism. Lady Gaga is very well compensated for her art, which is entangled with her “image.”) So, yes, a “body revolution” in which we flaunt and expose our “perceived flaws” and  “make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous” in order reclaim our sense of self from the media machine is a good thing.  But there’s something else going on here.

In this charged context, what does it mean to be beautiful? And what does it mean to be ugly? And another question, to complicate the binary between beauty and ugliness, because binaries never serve us well: what does it mean to be invisible entirely? Or hyper-visible?

We, as the social creatures we are, long to see and be seen. And to be seen as valuable, worthy of love, and affection, and deserving of care, personal, interpersonal, social and political. There are many measures of value, and they all depend upon being “seen.”  So, this question, of what it means to see and be seen, is rooted in understanding the pain and agony of people around the world who struggle to see themselves and to be seen by others as valuable. This is about those little girls, who look at themselves in horror and anguish, feeling worthless if nobody calls them beautiful. And in the cases of young girls and women of color, seeing themselves as inherently less valuable. In this context, answering the question “what kind of body revolution do we need?” is urgent. A lot is at stake.

Jessica Valenti’s argument in favor of embracing “ugly” comes from the notion that we must confound traditional notions of beauty and the social value that comes with them. In light of the emergent trend in which young girls get plastic surgery so as to avoid bullying and shame, Valenti argues that there are virtues cultivated from resisting these notions, and embracing the anger and dispossession they engender. We fashion the world in our own image, then, and refused to succumb. I find this argument compelling, to be sure. I am routinely pissed off about the way beauty is defined and described so as to exclude me, and so, so many others. And I certainly derive strength from that rage.

But then, I also have to pause. I notice my discomfort begin in earnest whenever we have conversations about beauty and body image that do not include in intentional analysis of beauty as something that lives right at the intersection of race, age, ability, gender and sex. It’s not an expendable luxury here, to name these things. For women of color, the notion of embracing and seeking the upside of ugliness is a complicated task in the fight against invisibility on one hand and hyper-visibility on the other. Think of how transgender bodies are erased by the various industrial complexes in which we are mired. CeCe McDonald’s very identity is rendered irrelevant when she, a trans woman, is incarcerated and placed in a men’s detention facility. Think about the double-sided scourge of Islamophobia and misogyny that Middle-Eastern and South Asian women face daily. Think about the legacy of slavery in which black women’s bodies were treated as commodities with categorically dehumanized desirability, worth and beauty. Think about the research telling us that women with disabilities are more likely to suffer domestic violence and sexual assault than women without disabilities. Think about the incessant slut-shaming and victim-blaming that characterizes our national conversations about violence against women.

In these contexts, what is the upside of ugly? Or as Lady Gaga beseeches us to, how do we “redefine heinous?” When “ugliness” carries the threat of violence and disenfranchisement, what does it mean to embrace  “ugly?” For a person whose body is dehumanized and positioned as the very definition of undesirable, is it possible to “redefine heinous?” Perhaps, but its not neat. To do so we have a lot to dismantle. To do so we have to dwell in the intersections. Beauty and ugliness are not two sides of a coin, they are the same side of the same coin.

To dismantle them involves thinking through what the other side of that coin is. What does is mean for us to see each other as fully human? And as singularly and collectively valuable?

This project is different than the project of asserting that we are all beautiful in our own way (like those Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” campaigns implore of us). It is different than embracing the character building elements of being seen as “ugly.” It involves conversation about what makes us human and valuable. And it must also include a re-definition of both “beauty” and “ugliness” alike.

Maybe THAT is the body revolution we need.

Pic via.

Starting With A Guide: New models of collaborative scholarship

10 Sep

Back in July, I attended nerd camp, THATCamp CHNM. I learned about the visualization tool Viewshare, created by the Library of Congress. I’m happy to announce the launch of Dr. Stephanie Evans’ “SWAG Diplomacy,” a project I helped her build in Viewshare.

SWAG Diplomacy, as described by Dr. Evans, “maps locations of 200 African American autobiographers who wrote international travel memoirs.” You can click on any country and see all the famous African Americans who wrote about traveling to that place. You can click on a person and discover the places they traveled. You get a sense of the amazing places that Black folks have been and the cross-pollination of cultures throughout the Diaspora. Students can “Start with a guide” and learn more about these prominent historical figures and hopefully be inspired in the process.

Dr. Evans specifically designed a project that would be free and open to the public with the expressed intent of having it used in K-12 classrooms as part of a multi-pronged curriculum. She even made sure that it met the Georgia public school curriculum requirements and consulted other teachers along the way. This is the kind of academic work I want to produce. As we think about how to address the crisis in U.S. public schools, I wonder how projects like this can be a model. How can we create more collaborative spaces across the various levels of educational institutions? I am very proud to have been a part of a project that integrates theory and practice so well.

After completing the project, the fine folks at the Library of Congress were interested in how we created our map. Dr. Evans and I were interviewed about the project and you can read the interview in full at The Signal, The Library of Congress’s blog. It’s work like this that gets me excited about the possibilities of the academy. I got to collaborate with Dr. Evans, fellow Crunk Feminist and Women’s Studies colleague Whitney Peoples, and create a map that has application beyond colleges and universities. This is scholarship!

What projects are you excited about and what’s on your radar as a cool innovative tool for the work you are doing in the world?

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