White Allyship, The Appropriation of Pain, & Difficult Conversations

Posted in Uncategorized on November 18, 2013 by thebibliophile

imgres-15I once told a dear white ally, a long time friend and colleague, that the vigor and near compulsive engagement with race in which he engaged, was simply exhausting to me. I quipped that such a sentiment was saying something, because there is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, about which I cannot apply a critical race theory lens. A culture obsessed with uber-white-skinned vampires with super powers committed to the purity of a rather plain death-desiring teenager? An example of the anxieties surrounding the decline of the importance of white masculinity and the demise of whiteness. The demand for the whitest of white teeth? White supremacy. A reduction in support of public education while privatized models like charter schools are on the rise? A representation of disinvestment in children of color, working and middle class folks, and an example of education’s connection to property values and real estate (see DC’s closing of public schools as a land grab for developers). Holographic Tupac? A belief that the Black body can always be resurrected in the service of capitalism. Critiques of Angelina Jolie’s lips? She has the full lips that so many womyn of color have, it represents a denial of non-white beauty. I am all about the critical racial lens.

Yet there are times, when I simply do not have the energy, focus, diplomacy, or even anger to respond to racism; to apply a critical race lens. When I am simply depleted, in a place beyond exhaustion. There are a good many times when I must apply DuBois’ “double consciousness” to focus and move forward – to simply live – in an inherently racist global economy that is increasingly exercising a great deal of pressure on the most vulnerable of its global citizens – particularly those of African descent (see the Dominican Republic’s recent decision to deny, rescind, and expel children born in the Dominican Republic whose parents are of Haitian descent). There are moments when as a womyn of color, I simply cannot engage in the emotional labor of lamenting and railing against racism. Were I to do so – indicate and battle with every example of racism, discuss racial dynamics with the precision of a text book on race relations, pause to examine or analyze each racialized moment, I would not be able to maintain any kind of sanity. I would not be able to survive. And survival (daring to thrive even, a commitment to my own radical self care) is the one of the greatest rebukes (along with excellence and love) to racism’s deleterious effects. Survival is a resounding rejoinder.

Zora Neale Hurston famously said, “I am not tragically colored…I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” I read Hurston’s declaration, not as a denial of the trauma and difficulties of being a person of color, but rather of the need for one’s commitment to living one’s own life: defying the tangle of structures of racism and sexism, by living well, by living at all, by living with sanity, balance, compassion, and in the service of beloved community. That means that there are times, when I choose to let the racist comment exist without responding; there are moments when I note someone’s racialized interpretation of me (wherever did you get such a made-up name?, why don’t more African Americans value education like your family obviously did? how did you get such nice manners and learn to be so articulate?) and decide that I will smile, nod, and dismiss rather than engage; that there are days when I am a womyn of color discussing the beauty of shoes, how good the Best Man Holiday was, and what book I am reading. In other words there are days, when I am simply me, and not a racial prop.

And increasingly I find that those people who are most chagrined when I don’t engage as the fully-consumed-by-race racial subject appear to be white allies. White allies who require, without fully seeming to understand the dynamic they are recreating, that I act as a a  prop within the racial fantasy of a the perception of they may have of themselves as a “good” and “radical” white person.  I’m experiencing a very new kind of cognitive dissonance in which I would like to shout: I am tired. If you were really my ally, you would allow me to rest. You would talk to your people. You would respond to this moment of racism without my assistance or involvement.

And that is what I think Hurston is advocating for in her instructive and revealing assertion of the importance of keeping one’s oyster knife sharp. Accepting yourself as a half-named problem, a tragic emblem of racism’s evils, at some point works to unravel one’s complex personhood. Hurston is arguing that being Black is not tragic; it is beautiful; it is representative of a stunning propensity for survival and ingenuity; it gestures toward grace; it suggests that pain creates pearls with complicated surfaces and haunting luminosity. Oysters have a fascinatingly simple and yet intricate anatomy. At their center where the gritty silt of discomfort takes root and prepares to evolve into a pearl, that center is hidden. It is a private space. It is its own shelter, embracing a thousand salty grains of hurt and producing a wonder in the dark. There is an intimacy to the violence and imposition of racism – and though my white ally was committed, ultimately, he had his own silt from a different tide to sift through. His hidden intimate places had never tangled with the humiliation of deflecting racial tension for your own physical or emotional survival.

I recognize that being a white ally is not an easy task. Yet, it is far less difficult than being an actual person of color (busy sharpening your oyster knife and dodging racial meteors). And  yet, I’ve noticed a certain appropriation of the pain of people of color, a certain need and desire to beat the racial horse to death so to speak, a certain dynamic in which white privilege and supremacy are invoked through a disturbing claim to allyship, in which the very avoidance of whiteness occurs by calling out the racism of others –  a call that never manages to echo against the white ally. It’s the moment when you are surrounded by whiteness, with a white ally, in which you understand and know that you are the sole person of color and have made a decision not to do any racial emotional labor – and you’re fine with that – but your white ally is intensely uncomfortable in the presence of whiteness and must address the tension. And suddenly, now you are pressed into labor, enslaved by someone else’s need.  In short, there seem to be a great deal of Captain-Save-A-Negro existing in the community of white allies. And that is a painful thing to say.

Almost as painful as watching someone you care about declaiming white supremacy even while taking up your daily struggles as a capitalized property which he uses to gain admission into the stratosphere of hipness that the identity of “true progressive (and even radical) white person” proffers.

So, when my white ally ate grapes without paying in the grocery store and we were surveilled – or more accurately I was surveilled and mistreated – he could decry racism to our multiracial liberal and progressive community about his witness to everyday racism, but at the instant of actual racist action, he could not muster the presence of mind to be self responsible enough to tell the store manager to stop following me, that it was he and not I that was eating produce without paying (in effect stealing). That he was an ally after the fact. An ally in love with the excitable speech of allyship, the catch words of white supremacy, structures of racism, hegemony, and the like, but had no idea how to be an ally in practice. To speak not to educate people of color, but to educate fellow white people – and sometimes (and especially) out of the earshot of a person of color, and without the need to go tell a person of color that you defended them.

He and I have negotiated many similar moments. Like the time he became a little too comfortable with me, so comfortable in fact that he felt no qualms about complaining about how people of color have racial politics that left him on the outside – despite all he had done for “us,” seeming to miss the point that in fact accepting being outside is precisely what a good ally does. Or when we were in groups in which race came up and I clearly didn’t want to discuss or be involved in the conversation – strategically avoided it even – and he would push and push, showing off like a 4 year old who has just learned to tie his shoes: his acumen with the buzz words, his willingness to make other white people uncomfortable, his full understanding. But it was exhausting for me. For all eyes would end up on me – or even more confusingly, I’d feel silenced and depleted – sometimes I just wanted a glass of wine and silliness.  And as a white ally, he never seemed to be able to discern when discussing race actually put me at risk, rather than supporting me.

These thoughts came to me today as I spent time with a white ally who surprised me with the strategies she deployed to offer support in a racially charged interaction. And the strategy didn’t really involve me at all. It didn’t require a look between us. I wasn’t the buffer. And after the interaction, she didn’t make me debrief the moment; reenacting the moment with her voice and heroism at the center. In fact, I had the sense that had I not been present, she would have behaved in exactly the same way. She was comfortable schooling the white folks around her, casually and without grand standing – in an everyday way, not comfortable and longing for me to commiserate with her about racism as if my sole purpose in her life was to be a source of appropriation and street cred.

All of this has led me to think about what white allyship 2.0 or 10.0 might look like. Here is a list of behaviors which such allies might employ:

1. Never ever feeling truly comfortable enough around a person of color to make a joke about that person’s ethnic or racial group, but feeling comfortable to talk about the crazy ish that white people do.

2. Truly understanding cultures of color (Black culture, for instance) enough that you understand the social norms and mores of the culture and thus do not make a cultural faux pas. I.E. talking about race all day even though everyone has gathered to watch the football game and eat good food.

3. Recognizing and talking about their own racial bias – with their own white allies, rather than coming to me as a person of color to express how difficult it is to be a white ally.

4. Never using something they learned from your friendship as a way to gain street credibility within progressive communities or in order to access people or communities in ways that benefit them. I.E. Name dropping you without your permission, borrowing all of your syntax to show people they are “down,”  relaying how you feel about a racial incident to others as an example of what they are hearing from “the community.”

5. Not requiring people of color to engage in the emotional labor of racism.

This week helped me to understand something. That the daily grind of navigating racism, at least for me, generated a kind of maturity that most white allies don’t have to develop. That maturity required me to learn very quickly when and how to pick my battles, to learn the power of my own voice, to learn how to put a person in place around their problematic racial, class, or sexist notions, without lifting more than an eyebrow. There is a certain racial sophistication which I was forced to develop. And a true white ally works toward building racial sophistication and checks any desire or tendency toward appropriating the pain of people of color.

So, back to sharpening my oyster knife.

 

Digital Matters: Voice, Privilege, & the Popular (Digi)lebrity

Posted in Uncategorized on October 13, 2013 by thebibliophile

@ReninaWrites recently reminded me of several pieces that I have, over the years, failed to publish. Who after all, was listening?  My blog was just a place for my fanciful musings on culture, literature, fashion, and race. After a conversation with @ReninaWrites, in which we discussed the role of popularity, marketing, and celebrating in recreating many dynamics of the “real world” in the digital landscape, I mentioned that a few years ago I’d written a piece about just that. But I let it languish; convinced, there wasn’t much I could add to the conversation that many brilliant Black girl, nerds, thinkers, philosophers, and digital afficionados were already kikiing about.

Then @ReninaWrites sent me a very simple tweet: Ok. #PressPublish.  That was more weeks than I care to admit to, however, at last, I am ready to #PressPublish on this piece that speaks largely to the constructions of celebrity that are possible in the digital world. I’ve edited substantially – added pieces that update the essay so that it fits with 2013 – and not 2011 when it was first drafted, worked to make less use of jargon, and to be a bit less convoluted. So…here it goes.

For me, this post began with the thought: do you truly exist in this day and age if you do not leave a digital footprint? Do you matter unless you have a Facebook account, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, or Instagram? Will you be seen unless you can establish a riveting and compelling persona in the digital world, that incites others to want to meet you in real life? in short, if you’re not a (digi)lebrity, do you matter?

This series of questions came to me as I pondered on the number of friends who consistently castigate me for not being on Facebook – and a series of friends who mentioned that if I would just join Facebook then they could hear what was going on in my life better and maybe people would care what I was doing more. Yes, the first instinct may be a neck roll and some choice words, however, a few years ago, I think that this was a very clear sentiment among some people. Unless you left a digital footprint, you didn’t matter. Leaving a digital footprint was what mattered. It mattered, or so it seemed to me at the time, more than the ability to make emotional connections, offer support, and truly listen to friends to build the capacity for a radical community of self care and support. In the last few years, I’ve noticed a distinct turn from this approach to the digital landscape – more disengagement from Facebook – a backlash of sorts. But I have also learned to have a more nuanced understanding of the rich connections which social media can offer.

And I’ve also had the experience of not being seen as important, popular, or properly branded enough to engage with in the digital world. In the landscape of social media, how do we talk about the ways in which we reify pretty politics, class dynamics, ableism, and other forms of privilege. What, I wonder, makes digital engagement, different from the popularity politics that haunted us pre-digital age? In what ways has social media opened the landscape so that the field is flooded with those who may not have always been at the popular table?

I have noticed the rising importance of what I am calling the (digi)lebrity. A (digi)lebrity:

- Wants to make sure that you’re aware of how many followers they have

- Remind you that you can’t build your brand and have a “voice” if  you don’t exist in the digital/social media world – regardless of whether or not you have the time, money, or physical ability to devote to building a digital presence

- Has built a digital empire based on being seen in cyberspace, but doesn’t always necessarily use social media to build beloved community

- Will not favorite, retweet, link, or appear in a photo with or about you unless they have verified that you are at least a rising star on the (digi)lebrity radar.

- When you meet wants you to immediately begin to follow them on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, et al – because this, they feel, is the best way to get to know one another.

Now. Yes. I know. This is extremely reductive. Maybe even unfair. But I’ve noticed how all this digital social building, does not always translate to in-person kindness, grace, or reciprocal relationships unfettered from the notion of brand building. I’ve also noticed that many of the same body, skin-color, and pretty politics that animate the “real” world have infiltrated the digital world. This means that being seen as attractive, popular, bright, shiny, thin, and the nearly hard to attain “cool,” adds to one’s social capital. And if you don’t make the grade? Well, you don’t get to sit at the table. Plenty of incredible voices go unheard because they are not glistened with just the right sheen or lack the special ingredients that make digi(lebrity) possible.

What I’ve noticed, is that we seem to have created a new world order, in which there always has to be something witty to say – something that we have to share immediately and with everyone; that there are plenty of public affirmations and guidance shared on how to be better, but that conversations about the politics of our interpersonal lives is sometimes not top of mind or on front street; that some folks are being drained and used and asked to contribute – but also tacitly asked not to expect to be recognized; that those people who don’t have the “drive” to pursue an internet and social media presence – because they work too many jobs, or don’t have the physical stamina to engage in the kind of tireless building of the digital self which (digi)lebrity requires, end up erased or obscured. And so, what makes that different than the pre-digital age?

There are many things that I find fascinating, exciting, and powerful about the new digital landscape. The fact that there is  Black Twitter, that Black womyn have a voice on social media that feels affirming and brilliant, that there is the potential to speak, be heard, and to hear an echo with a new line attached to your original thought. But there is also the unspoken dynamic of what it means when:

- You aren’t seen as attractive enough for someone to pause and really talk with you

- Or when your lack of a “brand” means people assume you aren’t worth knowing

- Or when we expect people who have made themselves available in the social media world, to make themselves entirely available to us when we meet face-to-face; disregarding any sense of boundaries.

What do we do when popularity and not content begins to dictate who gets to live on the digital hill?

For my part, I’m still thinking through these issues. There is always something nice in knowing that I write to a void. That at least, is one thing I know – (digi)lebrity is not for me.

The Body, Willing & Able

Posted in Uncategorized on October 13, 2013 by thebibliophile

On September 30th, Fox aired episode 4 of its popular show, So You Think You Can Dance, which is now in its sixth season.   During the episode, we meet Jessica Jensen a contemporary dancer who  had her hand amputated a year and a half ago, to stop the spread of cancer.

Cat: So tell me about some of the experiences you’ve had in life….

From Kate Ward at http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20309150,00.html:  Anyway, first off, we had Jessica Jensen, a dancer that Cat branded as SYTYCD‘s ”bravest” contestant yet. (How many times have we heard that?) Of course, even if Jessica wasn’t the bravest, she certainly had gumption. Just over one year ago, the dancer lost her hand to soft tissue sarcoma. And not only does the girl have a sense of humor about her tragedy — she told Cat she made a joke to another contestant about gnawing off her fingers — but she danced beautifully. Strangely enough, Jessica’s strongest suit as a dancer was her upper body. Her gracefulness, and the way she was able to align her body so her missing hand wasn’t as obvious, really impressed the judges, and yours truly. She definitely was lacking in strength in her lower body — you could see her legs shaking while trying to maintain her developé — so I believe Nigel, Mary, and Lil’ C (as guest judge) were smart to put her through to choreography. Perhaps she fell behind, or perhaps the judges realized how difficult it might be to ask other dancers to conform to her disability, but she ultimately was denied a ticket to Vegas. Too bad — the girl had talent, with drive to match, even if she wasn’t close to top 20 caliber.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnLVRQCjh8c

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Z8uwoYut2o

Throughout the show’s run on Fox, the personal narrative has propelled the framing of contestants – acting to bestow them with the title of show “darling,” “underdog,” or simply “not good enough.” That personal narrative is often deeply impacted by the race, gender, ability, and (presumed) economic class of the dancer in question.

Dirty Dancing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpmILPAcRQo

Allison Becker SYTYCD audition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X632A07_njw

Allison Becker/21/Contemporary – She had spinal meningitis as a young child and is consequently deaf, dancing by feeling the vibrations of the music. Okay, they’re clearly picking her for the story, but come on – that’s some story. It totally kicks the ass of that girl last week who had the paralyzed mother. Just sayin’. And Allison’s dancing is surprisingly strong – I wouldn’t ever have guessed that she couldn’t hear the music. I didn’t find her contemporary routine especially interesting, but Nigel loves her movement and her face (while conceding that her technique is a bit weak). Mary is very touched personally by Allison’s story, and they send her on through to choreography, where she excels. Right on, lady.

http://blog.zap2it.com/ithappenedlastnight/2009/09/so-you-think-you-can-dance-season-6-auditions-continue.html

Posted in Uncategorized on October 13, 2013 by thebibliophile

Emotional racism. While I think the discussion, at least here on the show Basic Black, focuses appear narrow and focuses on the impact on people of color, I also think there is an opportunity to speak about emotional racism as having a psychological function in society.

Oh – and I don’t appreciate Dr. Dionne Bennett’s comment about Black people being able to be racist. Blank stare. What she actually seems to be describing is stereotype threat and prejudice – both of which have specific psychological definitions

Really, Glee? Two Months & We Should Be Over Whitney

Posted in Uncategorized on April 24, 2012 by thebibliophile
Image

Amber Riley as Mercedes

Maybe this isn’t fair, because this week’s episode is airing, right now…and I haven’t even seen the entire episode. But, to paraphrase Jerry MaGuire’s love interest “you had me at Whitney.” That is until, Mr. Shuster uttered, “it’s been two months, shouldn’t they be over it already.” Pause. Blank Stare.

Cue singing montage featuring the fab four: Mercedes, Santana, Kirk, and Rachel. Can we just let Mercedes sing this song? No, there is Rachel, somehow being positioned as the lead, even for a song that might give Mercedes an opportunity to take center stage – and I think, exemplifying part of what Whitey broke down. In short, Whitney, though gives much slack for it by some in the Black community, broke down barriers of Black womyn being idolized and centered. Glee has appropriated Whitney.

So, you know what we should be over Mr. Shu…the appropriation of Black womyn.

I don’t like this at all…

In part, because I was truly troubled by last week’s episode, in which the Idol watcher winner was positioned as a Black man who had a female alter-ego (at first) and was truly transgendered. NOW, I support the inclusion of transgendered characters. My beef was how they did not humanize, but caricatured this character. Then they had Quinn in her chair…SMH. The tokenization on this show troubles me.

And the commodification of Whitney; this doesn’t feel like a tribute. I know it is intended to be, but in my opinion it was done in poor taste. Particularly when we have the beauty of Whitney’s going home ceremony as an example of Whitney’s cultural grounding; rather Glee gives us what Whitney was often in the middle of: her pop persona and her very real Black cultural roots.

And lastly, if they would let Mercedes use her full voice, she would outshine Rachel – and frankly NO ONE on the show in my opinion was really up to the standard of singing Whitney – though both Mercedes and Rachel, I think could do it.

Glee this is your last season with me. The identity politics are just too messy – and by messy, I mean problemactic, dismissive, pseudoliberal (read neoliberal), and marginalizing.

Something Pretty

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on April 22, 2012 by thebibliophile

Support East WillyB

Posted in Uncategorized on April 18, 2012 by thebibliophile

Check this out the webseries “East WillyB” and their Kickstarter campaign.

Webseries are offering folks of color so many creative outlets. Love it.

Hear actress Julia Ahumada Grob talk about her involvement with “East WillyB”:

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