Browse Category: Race, Culture, Ethnicity

Define Culture

So… despite my tumultuous relationship with poetry, I recently committed to participating in ‪#‎NaPoWriMo‬ (National Poetry Writing Month), during which the challenge is to write a poem a day. I wrote something earlier this week that I’d like to share.

I’ve been a recluse about my writing lately so posting this publicly is part of my attempt to get back into the practice of sharing (rather than spend so much time lamenting all my writing’s imperfections). I hope to return to the practice the self-love I preach so often, and more regularly celebrate even the smallest of victories, like the fact that this piece of work didn’t need to be perfect to be done.

Note: I’d like to say a special thank you to one of my favorite poets, Idalia, for gently yet firmly nudging me to finish it and to the amazing friends I have who sent me the affirmation I needed to amass the courage to share it. 

Define “Culture.”

Attempt #1:
a simple roll of the tongue;
salt in the wound of history’s affair
with Spanish conquerors
that didn’t burn fast enough in the sun
to save nations from genocide,
or mothers from marrying
their daughters to the wrong ones;
if we define culture to be
a simple roll of the tongue
then I guess the murder of
a millenia of bloodlines
is justified as language preservation.

Attempt #2:
Culture is a cautionary tale;
If superstition were a weapon
then Africa would be considered
a nuclear bomb;
we would never have welcomed strangers
with cocoa beans and open arms
the way our government still does
to D-List celebrities and modern day missionaries, while
rich white housewives on the verge of a nervous breakdown
search for salvation in the smiles of orphans on sale.
If we defined culture as a cautionary tale
told by pale narrators who lack introspection,
perhaps we would have paid attention
when our grandmas told us
they could feel their left eyelids twitching
at the expectation of visitors upon our shores;
perhaps we never would have wished the mermen
who called us moors, “safe passage”
in our native tongues
as they staked their claim
and carved their names
into our homes.

To define culture…

Attempt #3:
A synonym for “Home”
Neither a place or person,
these days, home is a political position
– the privilege of passing through
unrecognized as
an intruder on lands built on the backs of your forefathers.
But to the generation whose parents
cast us across the Atlantic,
raised captive in colonizer lands as cultural orphans
who never learned
to speak their native languages,
– home offers compromise
and forgiveness
to those with even less familiar roots.
A synonym for home…
only ever understood
in absence or disenfranchisement,
in dearth or gentrification,
in silence,
in loss,
in ostracization,
like a place that could never exist
for two queer brown women
and their extended family members
to settle down,
raise a kid,
or join a yacht club.

Attempt #4:
To claim culture
– to testify survival
of a massacre,
a genocide,
a raping of nations.
to dispute discontent,
or belonging
to feign knowing despite
the frenzy of stabilizing
a leaking boat
Culture is a usurper,
a lost turn
adrift from harbor
as fleeting as seagulls
in ocean light
and as slippery
as oysters
in search of
an anchor.

Do you know where you’ve come from?
Or how far you’ve sailed from harbor?
What glass containers of sea water keep your memories of belonging afloat?

 

Dear White Allies: Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson

Earlier today, as I was scrolling through my news feed, I noticed  declarative statement after declarative statement from a number of my white friends either threatening to, or professing that they’d just unfriended several of their white friends based on “wrong,” “terrible,” “racist,” (read: conflicting) views about the grand jury’s decision to not indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown – an unarmed Black teenager – in Ferguson.

If you haven’t been following the story, start with this Jon Stewart recap here.

With each “unfriend” post, I felt myself getting angrier and angrier, wondering how on earth white people (who understand racism) disconnecting from white people (who don’t) was supposed to help anyone.

As a Black person enraged by the blatant racism in Ferguson, I felt involuntarily benched by my emotions; I was too angry, sad, etc to engage on the subject period, let alone with white people who felt differently and required that I engage “objectively.” This stood out to me as a moment in which white allies could come in really handy. So, I shared the post below on my Spectra Speaks page in an attempt to articulate my thoughts and propose an alternative to disconnection: empathic engagement with the “other side” on my behalf.

The post was well received and felt too important not to share on my blog, so here it goes…  After reading I encourage you to share your thoughts — on being  a good ally, on facilitating critical conversations, on connecting with unlike minds — by commenting below.

———-

Dear white allies, this is not the time to “unfriend.” This is the time to “engage.”

This is the time to remember that the outrage you feel can in no way match my own and therefore you have way more emotional capacity than I do to talk some sense into the “other side.”

This is the time to remember that your “solidarity” does not render you powerless; in fact, the entire point of your solidarity is to lend the power you DO have to folks who do not.

And by the way, this is the time to remember that you do have power.

It may not feel like much – your empathy may temporarily make you forget that you’re not like Brown, you’re not “one of us” and that in fact you are still one of “them” – but please try and remember how USEFUL you could be should you decide to be brave enough to speak up to the folks more likely to hear YOU than me.

I’m seeing one too many white people bragging about defriending other white people. I don’t need your condolences. I don’t need rash actions that absolve you of the responsibility of facilitating hard conversations with folks I will never be able to reach.

I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.

My rage as a black person witnessing yet another moment in the endless cycle of racism in the US prevents me from engaging in “level headed” conversations with people who see this terribly unjust Ferguson ruling as just another news story to banter about at the water cooler.

But you, don’t do me any further injustice by claiming to stand in solidarity with me while really (really) excusing yourself of the hard work that is engaging with fellow white people on this issue. Don’t hide behind “being a good ally” without actually doing any work beyond merely echoing my cries of pain, anger, and soul wrenching disappointment.

You’re a socially conscious white person? You don’t share *their* views? It’s disappointing to hear your friends say racist things? You don’t wanna talk to them? I hear you. I really do. But if you don’t speak to “them” who will?

Who will?

(Hint: Not me.)

So before you squander the opportunity before you in an attempt to demonstrate your solidarity, ask yourself which choice would be easier: unfriending the guy who attended your birthday party last year because he posted support of the non indictment OR responding to his post with an open ended question to begin a (likely long and strenuous) conversation?

What would a good… actually, forget good… What would a useful, valuable, effective ally do?

We need you to be brave, now more than ever. Stop with the Unfriending. Speak up.

And to those of you doing this already, thank you thank you thank you.

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

“You only know my name. You don’t know my story…” 

Afrofeminism: The What vs. The How

I’m often asked to elaborate (and in some cases, “define”) afrofeminism. I’ve spoken about how afrofeminism informs my work, explored themes about Love and Afrofeminism series on this blog, and I regularly share afrofeminist perspectives on current affairs and pop culture with my fans on Facebook.

From the work that I do and from the things that I say, I’ve seen quite a number of people over the past year or so been calling themselves Afrofeminists. In fact, just very recently, someone sent me a letter thanking me for offering her a new way to think about her own identity. She asked permission to call herself an afrofeminist because she dug my approach and could relate to most of my commentary, even though she actually had no idea what it meant! It turns out that connecting with people — or even inspiring them — doesn’t start and end with what you are but who you are.

So have I put forth a single definition? No. A single definition (of a single label, among many others I might add) wouldn’t actually help anyone get to know me. I rarely introduce myself using labels; I tell stories, instead… about growing up in Nigeria, about the first time I fell in love, and about the friendships my coming out broke then repaired. I’m so much richer experienced as a complex, whole being than as a cluster of politically correct, ideologically pure sentiments.

“Hi, my name is Spectra, and I’m an afrofeminist”? It would almost feel like cheating: here’s this cute little label that sounds like an amalgamation of afro and feminist, meaning she must have an afro and she must be feminist, and somehow that’s supposed to serve as a shortcut for people to actually get to know who I am. And then, I‘m supposed to gather in large numbers with people who dig the afro and/or the “feminist” and because we totally understand each other, we’ll be better equipped to change the world. Ha! That almost always backfires.

(Don’t believe me? Ask the white “women’s” movement. They still can’t seem to agree on what being a woman means, and are constantly up in arms about which women are being represented, silenced, side-lined etc. Meanwhile, non-women/everybody else is getting away with murder while women are figuring this out).

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists, Blablabla

Now don’t get me wrong; labels can be very useful in facilitating initial connections. But people get so hung up on them, activists especially. And as a society, we’ve become so narrowly focused on the theoretical “what” at the expense of the practical “how” of creating change, we’ve forgotten that change happens primarily through our personal relationships, not just passionate rhetoric.

The use of identity labels (the “what”) to build unity and shared understanding often sidelines the need to actually explore complexities and difference i.e. just “how” said identities intersect and manifest in different contexts; since a single word can carry so many subjective meanings for different people, movements are often stumped or stunted the minute they realise that not everyone’s “how” is the same or — even worse — not even functioning.

The Curious Case of “Allies” In General

If my detest for words and definition stems from anything at all it’s the “allies” I’ve experienced in both my personal life and my work as an activist. I’ve met hundreds of “white allies,” for instance, many of who profess their “consciousness” via some digital channel (e.g. an overly serious twitter bio or utopia-inspired vision statement) or, in person, via some self-congratulatory speech masquerading as a relevant anecdote… especially when surrounded by women of color.

“We white allies have so much work to do,” they’d go. “Women of color shouldn’t always have to be our teachers.” When I first heard this tune, it was music to my ears, and oh boy did I fall for it. It worked every. single. time.

“Oh my god, yes!” I’d exclaim, “Wow – truth! You’re seriously my favorite person right now!” (‘Cause it was my turn to offer music to their ears.) In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.” I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or exposed–in their self-righteousness. In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty, endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn about me.

But, here’s the thing: half the time, I never ever remembered their names, or remembered any of our conversations moving beyond the scope of the burden of racial consciousness they had taken up for themselves as “the good white people.” In fact, it took me quite a while to figure out that most of the “white allies” I’d meet in social change spaces (never – NEVER – at work, or at the grocery store, or in my regular every day life) were only ever “white allies” around women of color, and mainly to seek my/our approval.

I’ll never forget this one time a “white ally” had offered to volunteer at a professional networking event I was hosting for women of color a few years back; she’d insisted that she wanted to “do her part in supporting queer women of color community” by showing up and offering her help. She justified this act of good will with all the right rhetoric too: women of color rarely get this space, as a white ally I’m happy to do labor etc. Honestly, I felt so relieved and grateful for her support. I had no idea that her “help” would become my burden for the entire duration of the event.

It’s as though the minute she walked in, all eager and ready to be put to work, she realised that there’d actually be no more than a handful of white people at the event, and became really uncomfortable. “Oh wow, I’m one of the few white people, here…,” she said awkwardly, as she set down her bag and coat, “So cool.” [Replace with “Fuck! I’m not ready for this.”] So what did she do? This seemingly racially-conscious, well-meaning white ally followed me around like a nervous baby duckling for the entire event.  Yup, the entire event. She was so nervous about being left on her own to mingle and – god forbid – socialize with any of the women of color at the event, that she didn’t give me a single moment to have conversations with anyone else but her. Over 100 women of color attended my event that evening, and I don’t think I was able to really connect with any one of them because I had an over-eager, jittery, nervous white girl all up in my business every single minute.

I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.

But here’s an afrofeminist principle for ya… “Relationships Over Rhetoric”

Don’t get me wrong — not all people who identify as “allies” do such a terrible job. I know dozens of self-identifying “allies” who hold themselves to a much higher standard, and actually practice their values. (Stay tuned, I’m running a series of interviews with them in June!). That said, terming oneself an ally doesn’t necessarily imply this standard. Some of my closest friends and family are the fiercest “allies” I have, but they’d never call themselves that. They’d insist, instead, that they’re being considerate, trying to get to know me better, or, as one of my best white guy friends says, “resisting against the default of being an asshole.” And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’d rather experience people–and their politics–through unlikely, awkward, strained, challenging, beautiful relationships built over time. That way, when we do clash or differ, we love each other enough to express the full range of our raw emotions – cry, yell, storm out – and always return to build the deeper, more intimate connections we need to take on the world together, truly united.

When someone fights for me, I want them to do so because they care about me as an individual – or as someone who reminds them of someone else that they care about – not just as some abstract theoretical concept. I’d rather that the “white allies”, the “straight allies”, the “male feminists” of the world do the work to build authentic relationships based on real love and respect, not just politically correct lexicon and rhetoric.

So, despite starting off as an activist who was really excited about the concept of “allies”, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found less use for words and definitions in social justice; labels like feminists, anti-sexists, radicals, allies etc simply don’t mean much to me anymore. Though I certainly see these ideas/concepts as a way of connecting with others initially, ultimately, relationships that last aren’t sustained by what you are to each other, but  how you treat each other.

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll  experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there — if you dare to be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, an not for show, but for real.

So, screw the definitions; experience the ideas and world views through the relationships we build with people. Let’s commit to living in principle, and remain mindful of the core values that help us navigate our lives in the gray. Let’s embrace ambiguity, and its potential for unearthing surprise and disappointment in equal measure, because only through the natural bombardment that arises when we converse with strangers, can we learn more about the world, and about each other.

10 Books, Films, and Music by Queer People of Color That Would Make Excellent Gifts

Shopping is Personal is Political

For Him For Her... Bullshit

It’s the last (shopping) weekend before Christmas. But if you’re anything like me, braving large, busy malls filled with mainstream goodies fueling the hyper-consumerism evident just one week before Christmas isn’t your cup of tea. Online shopping, despite the lure of its crowd-less aisles, fancy pop-ups, and steep discounts hasn’t proven to be that much better.

Constantly having to decide between clicking on “Gifts for Him’ and “Gifts for Her” irks the LGBT activist in me. Then there’s the constant temptation to forgo spending your hard earned money on holiday shopping (for family members who aren’t as supportive as they should be) altogether and getting yourself, instead, that heavily discounted Xbox with Dance Revolution bundle, flashing obtrusively on the top right corner of your screen just as you’re about to check out… Wait, I’m sorry, this isn’t about me. I digress.

*deletes Xbox Dance Revolution package from shopping cart… (for now)*

Luckily, I don’t have to deal with (most of) the Christmas shopping madness this holiday season. As per  my last post, in an attempt to facilitate important conversations with friends and family about my sexuality (so that I can make it through dinner without bursting into tears… or flames), I plan on giving the gift of media created by queer people of color. Luckily, over the past few years, there’s been a steady release of media that reflects the lives of LGBTI people with complex racial and ethnic identities while navigating a diverse landscape of cultural and religious beliefs.

A List of Books, Films, and Music by Queer People of Color

Any item(s) from the list below would make great holiday gifts to family, friends, or even to yourself. After all, getting our loved ones to accept us whole is as much of an ongoing process as it is learning to celebrate who we are for ourselves, so why not nourish your spirit this holiday season too?

Note: Because my experience is trans-continental, I’ve prioritized media created by LGBT people of color with various cultural, ethnic, racial, and national contexts. Also, if I’ve mis-labeled or mis-represented any of the media producers’ identities below, PLEASE let me know as soon as possible (with source) so I can update! 

 

Pariah Movie

PARIAH (Film)
Written and Directed by African-American lesbian, Dee Rees.

Themes: African-American, Family, Coming Out, Religion, Gender Identity.

This isn’t just another queer “coming out” movie. The main character, Alike, already knows that she likes girls; it’s coming out to her parents while exploring her gender identity (i.e. more masculine/feminine) that makes this one of my favorite films of all time. This coming of age film is packed with moments familiar enough to resonate with even the most conservative: first crushes (and first kisses), father-daughter bonding, mother-daughter loathing, and siblings who remain annoying as hell but will always be there for you. I loved Pariah so much that I wrote about it twice: My Afrofeminist Review and Coming Out as a Nigerian Boi.

Great Gift For: Everyone, really.

Saving Face Movie

SAVING FACE (Film)
Written and Directed by Chinese-American Lesbian, Alice Wu

Themes: Chinese Culture, Family, Career, Marriage

If I had to put my film picks in order, this would really be at the top. Saving Face is a drama-comedy about two young adults, who are driven by their careers and commitment to family, and thus, find love a tad inconvenient. Saving Face strikes the perfect balance between heart-warming and hilarious. I recommended it to my sister when I first came out and it helped her understand my sexuality, not through the white, class privileged narratives of the L Word, but in the context of our culture. Indeed, part of the film is in Mandarin as the lead characters search for acceptance in a small community in Chinatown, New York.

Great Gift For: Siblings

 

Circumstance Movie

CIRCUMSTANCE (Film)
Written and Directed by Iranian-American, Maryam Keshavarz

Themes: Iranian, Family, Religion, Government, Censorship

Two young women find love and attempt to escape their -er – circumstance of family and politics. What I love about Circumstance is that the lesbian relationship, though central, isn’t the only theme (or issue the women have to worry about) in the movie. Hmm, feels like real life, when religious dogma, traditional parents, and an oppressive government regime are equal (if not greater) thorns on the sides of LGBT  people in non-western countries–a reality that quite often goes above my white gay American friends’ heads. In any case, there’s an (awesome) sex scene that may be awkward to watch with parents (so you may wanna go grab some leftovers during that bit).

Great Gift For: American LGBT friends.

 

 

Gun Hill Road Movie

GUN HILL ROAD (Film)
Written and Directed by Latino straight ally Rashaad Ernesto Green

A Latino man is released from prison only to find that his son is in the process of saving up for gender reassignment surgery (i.e. transitioning from living as a man to living as a woman). To cuta a long story short, drama happens, followed by a stereotypical (yet believable) display of machismo, such as forced attendance at baseball games, and an awkward scene with a prostitute. But hey, that’s apparently how to be a “man’s man” (forget not doing things that land you in prison so that you’re around to love your wife and raise your children — that’s for sissies). There’ll be no shortage of issues to discuss after viewing Gun Hill Road, including the trappings of masculinity, femininity, culture as a barrier to individual expression, and really good acting. Says, the LA Times: “… the quietly commanding turn by newcomer Santana — whose outward embrace of an already well-internalized transformation leaps off the screen with equal parts joy, melancholia and bravery — is a standout.”

Great Gift For: Dads, Uncles, All the People with Testosterone in Your Family

 

 

Other Side of Paradise

THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE (Book)
By Chinese-Jamaican lesbian, Stacey Ann Chin 

Themes: Jamaica, Adoption, Family, Womanhood

The first time I saw Stacey Ann Chin speak, I thought to myself, “Damn, I need to be louder!” She’s known for thunderous performances, her constant swearing, her political poetry that takes no prisoners. But, if you’re a writer, you know how much it takes to bleed the way Stacey Ann does anytime she speaks. And when she writes… goodness, there are no words. Her memoir is a glimpse into the circumstances that birthed the beast: growing up in Jamaica, being raised by her grandmother, and the thrill, pain, hilarity, and confusion that comes with discovering womanhood. A must-read.

Great Gift For: Poets and Writers

 

Memory MamboMEMORY MAMBO (Book)
By Cuban immigrant lesbian, Achy Obejas

Themes: Cuba, Immigration, Culture, Family, Gender

So, I’m cheating here; I really want to suggest two of Achy Obejas books. The first, “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?”, is a rich, diverse collection of short stories about a Cuban family’s journey from their homeland to the beautiful and broken promises of the United States, all the while grappling with new ideas of culture, gender, and sexuality. Her second, Memory Mambo, is a full-length novel centered around a familiar, yet nuanced immigrant narrative; Janua, a 24-year old Latina lesbian, searches for an anchor in the terrain of an new country (with a band of crazy cousins–blood and adopted–who keep dragging her into trouble).

Great Gift For: Cousins, Extended Family

 

Zami Audre LordeZAMI: A NEW SPELLING OF MY NAME (Book)
by African-American Lesbian Poet, Writer, and Activist, Audre Lorde

Themes: New York, the 50’s, Working Class Black Women, Class

From GoodReads: “Audre Lorde recounts the first half of her life in an amazing blend of her own poetry, popular songs, journal entries, and memories that are startling in their exactness and fairness. Her ability to recount her extreme loneliness and desire for companionship at being Black in gay scenes, gay in Black crowds and female and working class in the U.S. is a testament to her desire to create bridges…” I started reading this book and had to stop because I began resenting my work for constantly interrupting my love affair with this breathtaking novel about living “life at the intersections”, a subject for which Audre Lorde is well-known. Zami is moving, powerful, and filled with a tender, vulnerable love for humanity, despite its shortcomings.

Great gift for: Black women (who experienced the 50s in the US e.g. older Aunties?), feminists of all backgrounds

 

Ash Malindo LoASH (Book)
Written by lesbian Chinese-American immigrant, Malindo Lo

Themes: Fairy Tales, Cinderella, Love and Romance, Self-Determination

Who doesn’t love fairy tales? This re-telling of Cinderella’s love story is appropriate for ages 8 and up, says Amazon.com, making it the perfect gift for young cousins, siblings, and adult friends alike. Apparently, rather than fall for the prince who rescues her from an enchanted slumber, Cinderella starts a love affair with the woman her evil queen mother sends to kill her. I haven’t read it myself, but after reading glowing reviews I decided to gift myself the Kindle version. Incidentally, an accompanying book, “Huntress”, about Cinderella’s love interest, was published shortly afterwards. And, the author just released the first book in her new young adult sci-fi series. Juicy. Visit www.malindolo.com to learn more.

Great gift for: Young Children, Parents

 

OI AM (Music)
Jazz composition by gay Guyanese-American, Omar Thomas Large Jazz Ensemble

I grew up listening to Jazz, from the smooth of Miles Davis to the soul of Anita Baker to the afrobeat of Fela Kuti–my father’s influence. So when I left home, and became separated from my father, a part of me distanced myself from his favorite music as well… until I met Omar. I fell in love with Omar’s love for classic R&B, soul, jazz, and his talent for bringing those genres together in his compositions, which feel old school enough take you on a walk down memory lane, and new school enough to warrant Ne-Yo’s replacement as the official baby-making musician of the 2000s. “I Am” will be released on January 15th, but you can pre-order now on iTunes. I’ll be getting two copies — one for me, and one for my father, as a reminder that even though we are now worlds apart, our struggles and our love for each other remains, through heart, through life, and through music.

Great gift for: Dads

 

VicciVICCI
by queer Latina, Vicci Martinez

I don’t often have time to watch TV, but I remember when I heard that a queer Latina musician was rocking out on The Voice, a show similar to American Idol, in which contestants compete to be named “The Voice” of America; I looked her up on YouTube immediately and was blown away by the power of her voice (from a relatively small person!). She’s been quoted as saying, “I don’t look the way I sound”, which, though I get what she means, isn’t quite true; she’s absolutely beautiful in her gender non-conformity, and her voice, a reverb of yearning to live beyond measure, beyond bounds. The acoustic version of her new single, “Come Along” is a tantrum of emotions, familiar to anyone who may still be wondering how they survived being a teenager, and — as a member of the LBGT community — how to continue singing for freedom in a world  where your kind of love is seen as an act of rebellion.

Great gift for: Angst-Filled Teenager

 

Discuss! What do you think? Would you consider gifting any of these items to yourself, friends, or family? As an ally, have you read / watched / listened to any of the media above? What did that do for your understanding? Also, I’d love to open up this space for recommendations. Which books, films, and/or music or poetry albums would be great additions to this list?

In Honor of Nina Simone: Why Black Women Must Re-Frame the Conversation about Racism in Hollywood

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the internet’s sensationalized debate over Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone in a Hollywood biopic: How the Light- vs. Dark- Skinned Debate Misses the Point about Black Women in Media.

In summary, my post called for marginalized communities–especially, in this instance, black women– to be more aware of the way the mechanism of racism and colorism in Hollywood too often keeps us sensationalizing debates about Hollywood’s perception of our beauty (and even, as in this case, pits us against each other), rather than embracing the opportunity for us to affirm our collective power as both media producers and consumers.

For me, this debate was yet another moment in the cycle of abuse between the black community and the gatekeepers that control white media; the fact that Zoe Saldaña, another woman of color was getting a lot of backlash (via comments that suggested she was hijacking a role meant for black women, dismissing her self-identification as a Black Latina, not to mention personal attacks against her character etc), was discouraging, to say the least.

It’s one thing to criticize the white supremacist media machine that is Hollywood; it’s another thing entirely for us to let that criticism distract us from seeing how that machine is designed to keep us fighting each other over scraps (e.g. debating over who gets the few lead roles written for women of color) more often than we brainstorm how we can work together to grow and harvest enough seeds to keep nourishing us all.

As long as we keep Hollywood and mainstream media at the focal point of our discussions (and criticisms) around media representation, we will remain stuck in a very unproductive cycle.

Same Ole’ Mainstream Media vs. Nuanced Alternative Media

Case in Point: The New York Times published a story this week, summarizing the debate around Zoe Saldaña’s casting for the lead role of Nina Simone. (Please note: My comments are based on the article published online, and not what made it into print, as I’m currently in South Africa).

Despite being interviewed by the reporter, and sharing my thoughts about the importance of black communities recognizing the ways in which alternative media–and initiatives to produce more black-owed and -directed content–could lead to  better representation in the future, the article didn’t do much at all to move the conversation forward. In fact, it maintained the status quo.

The NYT article‘s framing of the issue was barely nuanced. In a nutshell, here’s how it went: black people are angry because Zoe Saldaña doesn’t look like Nina Simone, here are other examples of black people protesting the casting of light-skinned actresses, Hollywood is racist and will always prioritize profit, oh well.

Panelist, Salamishah Tillet
Source: Wikipedia

Conversely, Huffington Post Live was able to expand the conversation beyond the sensationalized polarity because black women actually led the conversation.

The segment, titled “50 Shades of Black,” featured an impressive panel of five black women commentators, including Ann Daramola, Michaela Angela Davis, Salamisha TilletTiffani Jones, and Gayla Burks.

Further, this lively panel was facilitated by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an academic, activist, journalist, and television personality (i.e. the male version of my idol Melissa Hill Perry). Hence, the collective response to the messy biopic debate was way more nuanced, poignant, and thought-provoking.

Marc Lamont Hill, Huffington Post Live Host

In this case, black women’s voices didn’t just play a supporting role; the panelists had more control over the conversation, the media through which they were sharing  their perspectives, and thus, the outcome.

Even though I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the way the conversation was framed (or even the way it ended), the segment, for me, proved that the more ownership we take of media, the better we have of ensuring that our stories and perspectives are authentic, complex, and representative of the plethora of issues we care about.

Black Women Must Re-frame (Then Lead) the Conversation

In the NYT piece, Cynthia Mort, the director, of the biopic is quoted as dismissing the historical implications of her casting choice by stating, “It’s a Biopic, not a Documentary,” and thus, a creative take on Nina Simone’s life. Her response offers more proof (as if we needed any at this point) of how rampant white privilege is in Hollywood; that a white director gets to use an African-American socio-political icon as formidable and celebrated as Nina Simone as creative fodder with no consequence should be scaring folks into finally moving beyond these cyclical conversations that aren’t getting us anywhere.

So, for instance, instead of a segment titled “Why Does Hollywood Light-Wash Blacks?” (’cause, seriously, we already know the answer to that), how about we as media professionals and activists get into the habit of tackling more action-elicit questions e.g. “How Can Black People Combat White-Washing of Our Images in the Media?”, especially when we have five brilliant black women social commentators on standby? Just a thought.

Cynthia Mort, Nina Simone Biopic Director
Source: NYDailyNews

When I was interviewed by the reporter for NYT, she revealed that she’d spoken to a high end stakeholder in the biopic, who said, and I quote, “Listen, Zoe is hot right now,” as justification for the casting decision.

Need I elaborate? This is — and always will be — about money. This movie will be made, online petition or not. Per my rant on Tumblr,  Hollywood will not suddenly wake up one day and prioritize our authentic histories over their capitalist projects. The situation is not going to change. So, we need to change our strategy. Thankfully, there are others in the media sphere calling for this as well.

Yaba Blay, Africana Studies teacher, scholar, and consultant to CNN Black in America recently commented:

… although I think casting Zoe is a bad move (and disrespectful to Nina’s image and estate), I also think we have to hold “us-folk” accountable. Why haven’t any Black filmmakers made a film about Nina yet? Doesn’t the late, great High Priestess of Soul deserve more than one movie? Or is it only now that a White filmmaker is doing her own thing with Nina’s image that we recognize/remember her legacy? Rather than (or in addition to) complaining, we need to be creating.

Similarly, amidst the familiar stagnant critiques of racism and colorism in Hollywood that were saturating the Huffington Post Live segment, Ann Daramola , stated repeatedly, “Why are we surprised? Why should we continue to expect that Hollywood will tell our stories for us?”

In her post, Zoe Saldaña as Nina Simone is a Reminder to Keep Telling Your Story, Ann offers more than just a fluffy call to action, but calls for strategic investment in black media infrastructure that will give us more autonomy over the creation, curation, and distribution of our stories.

we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and creating them.  We need to create platforms that we own, community-owned media centers that are not at the mercy of funding cycles or internet service providers.

To Ann’s point, if we can accept that we are actually not surprised, and we know that Hollywood won’t change, I think we’d naturally focus more of our efforts on highlighting and supporting solutions, of which there actually are many.

We Need More Than Black Media Producers; We Need Black Media Consumers, Too

Source: Madame Noire

During the Huffington Post Live segment, Michaela Angela Davis highlighted a few of these solutions: AFFRM, an African-American film distribution company dedicated to diverse cinematic images; Image Nation, a film production company nurturing a strong local film industry in the United Arab Emirates; Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving film industry (and the 3rd largest in the world), which produces and distributes films made with very small budgets.

Still, what good are black-owned film production initiatives if we as a community don’t call for more strategic consumption and critique of the media produced by them? What value are we assigning these solutions in the media if we ourselves reduce them to being one-off mentions, tangents in the larger conversation about racism and colorism in Hollywood?

Source: Wikipedia

In a 25 minute segment, a total of about 3 minutes (yes I timed it) was dedicated to highlighting solutions already in place, before getting right back to criticizing Hollywood.

It isn’t enough to simply mention that there are minority film professionals already contributing to part of the solution (i.e. by creating more media). We need more discussions around their work’s value and potential to subvert the power structure in the film industry.

I don’t doubt for one second that criticism of Hollywood plays an important role in keeping Hollywood accountable. I just question how often that phrase (“keeping Hollywood accountable”) keeps our voices restricted to being reactive, when we are way more powerful when we use our voices in service of others; young black women, for instance, who need to know that there is hope for them to have flourishing careers in film and media; older black women who are tired and frustrated with Hollywood’s chronic appropriation and alteration of our histories.

We owe it to each other to more frequently use our voices to highlight our resistance, and use our collective power to increase support and visibility for the projects that will get us closer to the future we wish to see, because it is possible. Here’s how:

  • Black People Are Repeat Consumers of Blockbusters, Why Not Redirect the Dollars?: A quick scan of this study on black movie-goers from BET Networks shows that the black community has way more power than it’s using e.g. African-Americans go to the movies 13.4 times a year vs. 11 times for general market, they’re repeat movie-goers for films they like, and are heavy consumers of alternative media. However, in this same study, when listing the top films supported by black audiences, only 3 out of 19 films featured a prominent African-American character. What would happen if we changed that? What would happen if made it a priority to only support the films we want to see? Think on that.
  • Hollywood Taps into Their 1% and So Should We: When I published my call for more creation and support of black media, the most popular attack at the plausibility of profitable black media infrastructure was limit to capital. That is certainly an obstacle to contend with, but from the recent successes of the Tyler Perry franchise, Steve Harvey’s Think Like a Man, and other projects, not one that’s insurmountable. There is a black middle class and elite in the entertainment industry, creating and leading their own projects, raising millions of dollars for Obama. Let’s not erase their accomplishments by continually perpetuating the idea that there is no capital for projects we’d like to see at all.

There are so many other avenues to explore when it comes to black alternative media, even if for the purpose of mainstreaming that media eventually. So why do the most vocal commentators on this issue keep reverting to the same old conversation i.e. the “problematicness” of Hollywood?

Michaela Angela Davis,
Image Activist and Consultant

As one of the panelists, Michaela Angela Davis noted, the colorism evident via this casting decision is very triggering for black women, who constantly have to defend their right to feel beautiful, appreciated, and respected. I imagine that’s part of the reason it’s been so challenging for us to break this cycle; our feelings regarding the media’s (mis)representation of our beauty and aesthetics have been either continually invalidated, or worse, ignored.

Still, we cannot let our pain keep us lingering outside of Hollywood’s gates, hoping for an apology, expecting retribution, or worse, throwing stones at the few of us who have managed to make it inside. We must embrace the idea that we can be gamechangers, that our collective power is formidable, that we can create media that’s better and more representative of who we are, for the sake of young black girls everywhere, for the sake of  Nina Simone herself. Time to change the game.

Gabby Douglas, Olympic Gold Winner, 16-Yr Old Role Model

Food for Thought: When the facilitator stated that he didn’t want his daughter growing up to think Nina Simone looked like Zoe Saldaña, it would have been incredible to have all those brilliant minds put their heads together and offer, from their various perspectives, ways in which we as community could ensure such a thing never happens.

Instead, via a vote about who each panelist would have liked to see play Nina Simone, the conversation ended with these black women on the bench as spectators of Hollywood’s game.

After such a lively conversation, I couldn’t think of anything more disempowering to end on a note that ultimately suggests to young black girls that Hollywood will always be upheld as the ultimate validation of their voices, their stories, their work. Can we please change this?

Here lies an opportunity for us to commit to handling the next conversation like this differently, to frame future conversations around racism, colorism, and media around solutions, which tap into our power as a community, and send the message to future generations that change is indeed possible

Even though we have very far to go, I believe this conversation was a solid start. Take a look. And let me know what you think.

 


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