About That ‘N-word Jew’ Headline…

Bone-tired, I made the mistake of peeking at Facebook before going to bed. And while physically exhausted, I became jolted into outraged #BLEWISH wokeness.

In one of the Black-Jewish Facebook groups I’m in, Robin Washington, a veteran Black-Jewish activist and acclaimed journalist, posted an Atlanta Jewish Times column with the headline  below:

atlanta jewish times headline

While I wanted nothing more than to log off and get some sleep, I had to express my displeasure–especially since I live in Atlanta. So I spoke up in the column’s comments section and on Twitter:

Atlanta jewish times my tweet

 

As I was fighting off slumber, Washington was fully #woke in all senses of the word, leveraging his considerable experience and expertise to reach out to both the publisher and editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times. 

Robin Washington

Award-winning #BLEWISH journalist, activist and subject matter-expert Robin Washington. @robinbirk

After an appropriate Passover greeting, Washington rolled out a few of his receipts, which include his considerable credentials as the co-founder and first chairman of the Alliance of Black Jews and likely the most published commentator about Black Jews anywhere. He’s been editor, columnist and an editorial board member of major newspapers, and a contributor to The Marshall Project, WGBH Boston, NPR, BET and the JTA/myjewish learning, among many others. Washington is also a research fellow of the Institute of Jewish and Community Research.

Having provided both credibility and context to Jacobs, Washington went in:

I’m saying this not to impress you but to tell you that I know more than a little bit about journalism–and by no standard whatsoever is the headline on the article by Patrice Worthy acceptable. The only possible reason it would be remotely so is if she had referred to the phrase herself in her article. I’ve read it thrice, keyword searched, and it’s nowhere to be found. And even if she did suggest the title to you herself, without that being made 100 percent clear, it is not acceptable. 

And then Washington invited a dialogue:

I’m on deadline tomorrow, it’s Pesach and Shabbat. Nonetheless, I implore you to call me immediately to explain yourselves and begin your apology. B’shalom…

Drake Applause

I think that famously #BLEWISH rapper/singer Drake would approve of Robin Washington’s messages and activism.

 

Here are excerpts of the resulting email exchange with editor Michael Jacobs:

Jacobs: I am not attempting to be patronizing. Nor do I need a lecture on my job as an editor … Patrice chose that headline for her column about herself. Its context and meaning were clear to me, based on the personal experiences she was sharing. Yes, it has shock value, but that’s an accurate reflection of the powerful content of the column. 

Washington: Michael, anyone who writes a hed with the most hateful word in human history does need a lecture on journalism … It is an editor’s job to save the writer from her/himself … Further, the headline is the paper speaking, not just the writer. And with the phrase missing from the body [of the column], you are, in effect, calling her the Nigga Jew … Please don’t patronize me to suggest that after 60 years of living this duality and 40 years writing about it that I am somehow mistaken. I don’t think you understand the severity of this or the outrage that is already happening in Black Jewish circles. 

Eventually, Jacobs emailed back sharing a note of apology he said he’d prepared for the next issue of the Atlanta Jewish Times, in which he explained that Worthy suggested the headline herself, then expressed second thoughts, and nonetheless he persisted:

And I thought, despite or because of the shock value, it was appropriate for the content of the column and the upsetting experiences that have arisen from her dual identity. But before we went to press, Patrice had concerns that the headline might be too much, and I should have listened to her … The decision to use that headline was mine and mine and mine alone, and I regret it. I apologize to our readers.

Soon after, the headline was changed to:

New ajt headline

 

Washington and I spoke with a decidedly more contrite and reflective Jacobs by phone the next day.

Jacobs explained that the story had been posted Thursday afternoon, so by the time Washington and I saw it, it had been up for several hours. Jacobs said he was “glad to get the feedback and appreciate[d] that you’re willing to listen to what happened and that it wasn’t something that was done in an effort to label Patrice or offend people. It was Patrice’s effort to portray how she feels she’s perceived in communities and we wanted to share that. There was nuance lost and it was a bad idea to do it in a headline like that.”

When Washington asked about Jacobs’ plan to publish an apology, he responded, “I will apologize that it was a poor decision and I’m certainly sorry that it was offensive to people, and that it detracted from the content of the column.”

Jacobs and Washington also discussed Worthy’s status at the Atlanta Jewish Times. Jacobs said that she’s a frequent, paid contributor on a contract basis. “We don’t have an open [full-time] position right now, but we’re using Patrice as much as we can. She’s a valuable contributor and has been for some time.” Washington and I encouraged Jacobs to consider more coverage about Jews of Color working not only with Worthy, but other Black Jewish journalists.

Kudos to Jacobs for corresponding with Washington and talking with both of us. After his initial reluctance, he stepped up to the plate and did the right thing in response to having run a slur so damaging and distracting that it all but obliterated Worthy’s otherwise high-quality column and the messages therein, in which she stated:

“My identity garners resentment from those who are comfortable with the status quo because being a black Jew disrupts stereotypes in both communities. People who have never met a Jew tell me about being Jewish or tell me I’m trying to whitewash my identity,” she stated. “I never felt that being black and being Jewish were mutually exclusive.”

When I reached out to Worthy to connect in #BLEWISH solidarity, she politely declined at this time. It’s understandable; she might have lost even more sleep than I did over this debacle, and might be fielding some tough questions and outraged attitudes herself.

One of the bigger and continually problematic issues, of course, is the lack of Persons of Color at the editorial and oversight levels in most of our nation’s media, including Jewish media. As Washington shared with Jacobs, all of us who have been published have had our content and certainly our more provocative headlines changed before publication by a higher-up operating with the big picture and best interests of the media outlet in mind, as well as probable responses from the audiences.

Both Washington and I viewed this through the lens of both nuance and lived experience. We were both part of the movement to diversify our nation’s mainstream media spaces beginning in the late 1960s. Our longtime bonds with the National Association of Black Journalists and Unity Journalists of Color provide a long-term, big-picture view of this kind of “best judgment” issue at editorial levels. When there is nobody with the perspective, expertise and authority to nip a problematic word choice in the bud, these things are much more likely to happen.

Bottom line: we must all be eternally vigilant and prepared to call out problematic words and actions whenever and wherever we encounter them. It’s tough, exhausting, often thankless work, but somebody’s got to do it. I’m grateful for Robin Washington’s leadership and diligence in this case, and pleased that his eloquence seemed to move Jacobs to a higher level of awareness. However, in the Jewish, Passover AND Black spirits of #NeverForget, we certainly can’t rest or relax, even if it interrupts our sleep.

 

When Luv Turns to Hate

As many of you know, I’ve been a super-fan, promoter and cheerleader for the blogger-turned-author and influencer, Luvvie Ajayi ,aka Awesomely Luvvie, who rose to great fame and popularity doing ROFL recaps of “Scandal.” She built that into a golden platform, nabbed a book deal that shot to a #1 New York Times bestseller and has been picked up by “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes for a TV series.

All through this process, I’ve gleefully shared Luvvie’s posts, witticisms and news of her awesome ascension to the big time. All of which led me to this, a post I really wish I didn’t have to write.

Last night, Luvvie shared a FB post that was not only far less coherent and eloquent than her normal style, but overflowing with passive-aggressive hateration towards quasi-identified but unnamed Black and Mixed-race activists. Here’s her post:

Luvvie Ajayi

Some of us are fighting for freedom, while others don’t want freedom, because if we have it, then they will no longer have anything to make them the center of attention. Those people are the ones who wear oppression like coats they refuse to take off, and the very act of being marginalized is what defines them. It is what gives them purpose.

There are some digital activists who tend to profit on the pain of Black and brown people, and they use that as a business model. As in, EVERYTHING is a battle, almost strategically. If they aren’t in the middle of “I just got oppressed” chaos, then they aren’t in their element. When everything is a battle, what war are you trying to win? When you sit in a 24-hour cycle of outrage, it’s easy to become the person who cried “INJUSTICE” wolf.

And here’s the thing. We tend to call out white folks who are out of line when it comes to activism and call out culture, but what about our skinfolks who do the most with the least? Folks who are trading on white liberal guilt in the oppression olympics, and surrounding themselves with peanut galleries of people who assign them genius-ship PURELY because they’re loud and Black-identifying. And then they send these people to fight their battles. One of these people even has fake ID numbers for her group, and sends them on eMissions. Or had. She blocked me when I once asked her (on her wall) if she could stop tagging me to every post she writes, since she says she doesn’t like when people force “trauma” down her throat even though everything she wrote was traumatic and she’d tag 50 people to it.

I’m talking about the ones who will literally ask for “reparations” via PayPal when a white person asks them a question (that shit is weird AF). The folks who give ZERO grace to folks who are actually trying to understand this fucked up web of oppression they benefit from (not to be confused with the white folks who just wanna cry whiny tears of victimhood). The ones who are quick to yell “I’ve been harmed” when they publicly harm people they know in REAL LIFE every week (you got my phone number, B. You don’t have to start a hashtag against me). The people who tell allies who actually want to help dismantle the system that they need to shut up PURELY because they’re white and their voices are automatically trashed. And they do shut up, and clam up, and stay home, because they’ve been told that the fight is not theirs.

These fauxtivists are a problem. Cuz what they do is perpetuate the same cycle they say they’re fighting against. And unfortunately, for us to get free, white folks gotta do this work too. OTHERWISE if it was for US to fix by ourselves, we woulda BEEN done it. It’s not about wanting white gaze, or about begging for white friends or wanting white folks to love us. You ain’t gotta love my black ass, but you can’t say you want justice and MY life is in jeopardy every time I walk down the street.

It’s about building bridges that can lead to real progress. What are we fighting for if we want to turn right around and silence folks the way WE’VE been silenced? What is the goal here?

And what’s interesting is, a lot of the most CAPS CAPS CAPSing “activists” out here are of mixed race descent. I just wanna tell them that they can chill. You don’t have to make up for the lack of melanin in your skin by always using your outside voice, even in situations that don’t warrant it. Tuck in your overcompensation. It’s like they’re performing Blackness based on anger, which is insulting.

Can we have this conversation? And how can we build bridges in the call out culture, that teaches with grace but also holds people accountable. 

It’s not my normal style to respond to such highly personal snark. But I owe it to all of my social media fam since I’ve been such a consistent booster of Luvvie and her work for many years now. I’ve fused my brand and my credibility to hers. And now that she’s chosen to take another route, it’s time for me to un-fuse. So that you’ll fully understand my change of heart, here’s what I need to share with YOU about her post:

  1. As a self-described “wacky wordsmith” and “pop culture prima dona,” her strength is cleverly hilarious pop culture writing. To be honest, because I’m a Boomer, I cherry-pick her posts since many are skewed to younger generations. But I maintain a good overview. And while she reportedly has a non-profit project to raise awareness of women fighting HIV/AIDS, she is a hugely successful pop culture influencer, but by no means an in-the-trenches, doin’-it-for-the-people activist in any corner of Black America. She is a digital entertainer. So the fact that she’s passively-aggressively calling various activists out rather than womaning up and contacting them one-on-one to discuss her grievances lets us know immediately that she’s more interested in click-bait haterade than anybody’s progress.
  2. As y’all know, I’m an old-school Boomer activist, raised up by the Black Panther Party, the movement to end South African apartheid and etc. I was born illegal, integrated a bunch of White schools and have been working for change in both Black and Mixed-race identity spaces for several decades now. First rule of any movement for social change is to know how to prioritize your differences with others working towards the same or compatible goals and how to leave those at the door in the name of unity and solidarity. What Luvvie’s done here is behave like she’s so beside herself at getting a seat in the Big House that her first move is to turn around and burn all bridges to any form of Black person she fears might follow her in to love up on Miz Anne. There is nothing remotely new or unique about this dynamic; she’s not the first and she damn sho won’t be the last. We recognize these movement disrupters for what they are: agent provocateurs. They stir up brief flurries of hype and emotion, but never contribute a single thing to actual change.
  3. Luvvie is also displaying a dynamic with which many African Americans are familiar: the Diasporic national assuming a stance of both natural and inherent superiority, and a better understanding of our situations than we could possibly possess. In other words, her form of blackness gives her license to shit on ours.
  4. Y’all are well aware that I am a HUGE friend and colleague of Dr. Stacey Patton, who has devoted her life to making life better for Black children. And there is a section of Luvvie’s rant that is directed at Stacey–in fact, she has seemingly devoted an entire paragraph to Stacey who, like me, has never done anything except support and promote Luvvie’s work to her huge and diverse audience. Like me and the folks I roll with, Stacey is about the work–beyond 24/7–and her record requires no receipts. She is about changing lives for the better, a serious academic; an acclaimed journalist; an impeccable historian and a woman who will not compromise in her commitment. So Luvvie’s comments about Stacey and other front-line activists simply highlight how she views the landscape from her newly-privileged pop culture perch.  If you know Dr. Stacey, she has books of receipts to roll out, so trust that she responded to Luvvie in her classy, eloquent way, and then jumped back into the trenches of of improving and saving lives. But I will share two receipts: her amazing new book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, and her substantive, resource-rich website, www.sparethekids.com.
  5. In particular (and y’all knew this was the part I’d have to go in about), when she wrote: “activists” out here are of mixed race descent. I just wanna tell them that they can chill. You don’t have to make up for the lack of melanin in your skin by always using your outside voice, even in situations that don’t warrant it. Tuck in your overcompensation. It’s like they’re performing Blackness based on anger, which is insulting. Many folks knew that she was focusing primarily on Shaun King, who writes a column for the New York Daily and does some pretty serious activist work. While many folks trash King for being Biracial and light-skinned and thus not “woke” or real, I’ve been impressed with his policy-driven activism and the tone of his writings. But Luvvie has deemed herself qualified to call out ALL “activists” of Mixed-race descent, trying to crack on our “lack of melanin” and what she considers our “over-compensation,” as if she knows the first thing about being Mixed-Black in the USA. So I guess she’s including anti-slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, footballer/activist Colin Kaepernick, and actor/activists Jesse Williams, Amandla Stenberg and Yara Shahidi. And, while I’m in no way famous or in any way on her radar screen, I take it to mean that she includes me and other Mixed-race activists who aren’t household names but are still putting in the work every day. The question is: why is she coming for us? Perhaps she’s not confident enough in her straight-from-the-Motherland melanin to believe that there’s more than enough room for all of us to co-exist, thrive and even collaborate when working towards our seemingly common goals.
  6. Pause: as some of us Mixies said in response to her Mixed-race “” comment, there are many conversations to be had about our roles as activists in Black and Mixed-race spaces, the dynamics of privilege, rejection, identity politics and all that. But, needless to say, such a flaccid attempt at the blacker-than-thou racial dozens serves no purpose beyond a round of ego masturbation at others’ expense.
  7. Now one of the first lessons one must learn first to survive and retain any measure of sanity as a Person of Color in a racist, White Supremacist context, is to separate the personal from the political. We all have personal preferences, prejudices and biases–these are human nature and will never go away. What MATTERS however is racism–systemic, institutionalized, strategically planned and executed in every aspect of our communities, our nation and our planet–that some of us have committed our lives to fighting in varied and diverse ways. Luvvie seems to have merged whatever her political stance is with an upchuck of personal snark, petty-wopping folks in a back-handed way. What a waste of talent and, more importantly, a huge and influential platform. This woman has fame up the yin-yang and look how she chooses to use it. Take heed: How people behave when they have access to power and money always reveals their true character and priorities. I’m a huge believer in what Mama Maya Angelou taught us: WHEN PEOPLE SHOW YOU WHO THEY ARE, BELIEVE THEM. And given enough time and opportunity, everybody shows themselves sooner or later. I mean, Luvvie’s book is titled I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual.” And as she states on her blog, “It’s basically a book where I tell everyone to get their shit together and you should order it.” Not surprisingly, while I’ve done everything possible to will myself to want to read it, I’ve simply had no interest. Now we know why.

So what I believe is that Luvvie will either thrive or flame out now that she’s hit the big time. She’s articulated all I need to know about her racial politics in her FB post (to which she turned off the comments, BTW). I believe that every word she wrote accurately reflects where she’s coming from, and that’s her prerogative. I understand how she feels about the activists I respect, support and work with, and how she feels about folks like me. Y’all know I don’t waste precious time, talent or energy with clapbacks, arguments or debates–those are for young’uns who think they have all the time in the world and no understanding of what it will really take to work for significant, sustainable change to challenge any aspect of systemic racism.

As always, I am striving to achieve the unity we will need to make this nation and this world a better place. I have no patience for anything that encourages divisiveness. If you agree, please visit my TeamUnity Facebook page and help build the movement to come together despite our various differences. Let’s be about some serious solidarity and join hands to move forward in our quest for racial progress and evolution.

Check My New Column! ‘Hold Up…Who Called the Mixed-Identity Police?’

Fam: I am SUPER-honored to debut my new column in the fabulous Multiracial Media blog run by Sarah Sarita Ratliff and Alex Barnett. Enjoy and be sure to let me know what you think!

Hold Up! Who Called The Mixed-Identity Police?

POTUS and his Mother. Do the Identity Police claim his as our first Black President...or nah?                                      Mama love for the first Black AND Biracial POTUS

Why are so many non-Mixed people obsessed with policing our identities?

Between media personality Crissle, actor Zoe Saldana, TV/film mogul Lee Daniels and zillions of other celebs and civilians, random folks invest mucho energy into trying to tell us who we are, how we’re supposed to self-identity and “choose,” and which tribes we are and aren’t “qualified” to join. (They especially love to do this to us Mixis who are any kind of Black-and).

Exhibit one: This week, Crissle, a Black woman who co-hosts the popular podcast “The Read,” and has appeared on MTV2’s “Uncommon Sense,” “MTV News” “Decoded” and Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” trended by climaxing her Twitter rant against Black men who swirl and don’t reciprocate Black women’s support with a pitiful stab at policing Biracial babies  Read More

 

Prince’s Gift to Multi-Racial People

I was honored when the new blog Multiracial Media invited me to pay tribute to Prince:

Prince coy side eye

            “Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.”                                                                         –Prince Rogers Nelson

Let me get personal for a minute. My (Black) father and (Jewish) mother grew up in North Minneapolis, Prince’s home turf. My father was a jazz musician. He was physically abusive to his last (and longest-running) wife, but thankfully not to my mother. Before 1984, I liked Prince’s pre-1984 hits, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Little Red Corvette,” and I found his cute androgyny mildly interesting, but I was in no way a hard-core fan.

Then I saw “Purple Rain.” I had no idea what to expect. But that movie and the music spoke to me in a way that nothing ever had in my 29 years of life. I saw a representation of my own family onscreen, complete with “inside” local references (that was clearly NOT Lake Minnetonka, LOL) and an energy that had not been portrayed anywhere in all of USA art, culture or history. Ever.“Purple Rain” zapped me to my core and lodged itself inside of my consciousness in ways I hadn’t expected. Read more

Stop the ‘Cute Mixed Kids’ Madness

 stop fetishizing mixed children

For my 6 decades of life, I have been subjected to the “Biracial Beauty” propaganda pretty much nonstop. And I am here to publicly testify that it has continued without pause from the 1950s until today. Unless we do something to stop it, its going to continue to disable and damage any true progress in the movement for equality.

It’s such a popular, knee-jerk trope that if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “Mixed kids are so cute/pretty/beautiful,” I would be in the economic 1%. Even as a tot, I suspected that there was something wrong about that message.

Even in pre-school, this foolishness made me weary.

Even in pre-school, this foolishness made me weary.

See, I grew up in a community with many Mixed kids. Some of us (like my brother) were very-good looking. Most of us were average. A couple of us weren’t all that physically attractive. JUST like other group of people, right?

Except we were all subjected to the “Mixed kids are cuter” propaganda that threatened to skew our sense of reality and feed the widespread delusion that our non-Black Ancestry bestowed a superior level of attractiveness that basically became our brand, whether we wanted it or not.

As I grew older, countless people—White and Black alike—shared with me that they “want to have Mixed babies because they’re so pretty.” I think they were surprised and disappointed when I didn’t encourage the pursuit of that goal

Wait What

I would roll my eyes, shake my head and sometimes hope that those particular people would not procreate interracially because they did not seem to possess the appropriate mindset and attitude to rear a Mixed kid with a strong, healthy sense of identity.

franchesca pic

Check out cultural commentator Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey, a Black woman married to a White man, who has a decent level of clarity on the topic. She challenges the popular notion of Biracial Beauty in its proper context. Click on her name above to watch the video.

Let Us Be Clear: I love being Mixed. I love being Black. I love being #BLEWISH. I love being me. None of which has a damn thing to do with anyone reflexively deeming me attractive because of those things. I’m a’ight looking. As in AVERAGE and completely good with it.

And you wonder why I had attitude at such an early age?

And you wonder why I had attitude at such an early age?

I don’t need to feel better than ANYONE to be happy with myself and my complex complexion and identity. I don’t need to be or think that I represent some form of superior physical species to have a healthy and realistic sense of self.
And
I
Hate
Being
Fetishized.
It is never flattering.
It is never comfortable.
It is never positive.
And it is never welcomed or appreciated. Ever.

i am perfect

What NOT to do. How about we let the child be as gloriously imperfect as every other living being? Nobody needs this kind of pressure!

Because this fetishizing is simply another way of denying our humanity.
The way the humanity of ALL people of color is routinely denied.
It is a way of fishing for something “positive” to say about us to cover up the fact that our very existence makes folks so very uncomfortable.
Because they can’t see us without thinking about what it took to create us.
And that’s just too hard to contemplate, so they try to cover it up with the whole “Mixed = beautiful” propaganda.

Stop Disabling Mixed Kids
Here’s the thing: When anyone–especially the parents/grandparents, family members and other influential adults heap that notion onto Biracial children, they are actually creating a psychological disability in that child–even if their intentions are innocent and well-meaning. AND even if the child is legitimately gorgeous.

Because if the main or only message a Biracial child receives from adults about their identity is linked to their over-hyped physical desirability, the child is at risk of buying into this madness and having it dominate their budding sense of self.

And then–because this propaganda is also spread widely in Black spaces as “Mixed people think they’re so cute,” and variations on that mutually-destructive theme–the child unknowingly steps into an existing hostility that they neither created nor fully understand. But they will feel the full brunt of the obsession.

babies

Hello, Colorism!

I suspect this also makes many Mixed-race people feel confused and like they have to struggle with defining and interpreting their own identities, because the foundation they are given to work with is so very shaky and problematic.

Guess what? When we’re set up as somebody’s oppressive standard of “beauty,” lightness is prioritized over darkness, thin or “keen” features over rounder ones, and hair with the least amount of visible kink is famously referred to as “good.”

And that’s nothing but good old-fashioned racism.

And this is the result.

And this is the result.

Some of us fall for this popular propaganda because, frankly, this world doesn’t often give us much to work with. If nobody in your environment is saying anything else positive about you, then you’re at risk of internalizing the few crumbs they do throw your way, and mistaking those crumbs for substance and sustenance.

Few of us understand the game and how insidious it is, and the need that some folks have to pit us against that part of ourselves that moves us away from “the light.”

everyone loves mixed babiesMaybe the “Biracial Beauty” proponents are hoping that we’ll be so enamored of our alleged physical superiority that we’ll forget about all of the mind-bending nuances, complexities and traumas of racism. Or that we’ll somehow believe it doesn’t impact us, at least not as deeply.

But deep down, most of us know better.
We know that we are NOT cuter/prettier/handsomer or more beautiful.
We have no desire to be defined by our looks.
We are well aware that being Mixed does not make us special.

We get that this whole thing is based on the notion that White(r) is better and Black(er) is worse.

So please stop acting/thinking/believing and saying that we’re:
New.
Unique.
Exotic.
Beautiful. Gorgeous. Cute. Repping some “special” form of beauty.
The answer/antidote to or cure for racism.

end racism have mixed babies“Mixed kids are so pretty” is NOT a compliment. It’s unhealthy and divisive and an impediment to the evolution of the human species. It also sets up People of Color to continue perpetuating a no-win dynamic.

If you THOUGHT you were performing this act of kindness on my/our behalf, I am not just requesting, but IMPLORING you to cease and desist immediately.
Let us be regular.
Let us be average.
Hell, let us be ugly.
Stop making us out to be “more” or “less” ANYTHING.
We’re only human.
Let’s work together to get to the point where we’re seeing and acknowledging each other’s fully-blown, multi-faceted, gloriously flawed humanity.
Stop consigning us to a pedestal that is of no assistance.
We need mirrors that reflect everyone’s truth.
From the soul to the bone to the flesh that covers us all.

On Creoles, Colorism and Confronting our Triggers

Beyonce Formation

By now everyone with media access knows of (and likely has an opinion about) Beyoncé’s new “Formation” video and Super Bowl halftime performance. She dropped the video on an otherwise slow news Saturday, February 6, and on the very next day, she symbolically won the Super Bowl by eclipsing headline halftime performers Coldplay and adjunct Bruno Mars, generating more headlines and conversation than the actual game.

The first wave of responses was a fairly unanimous rave by Black women for the I Love My Black Self, Family and Culture symbolism that season “Formation.” The second, post-Super Bowl, was dissecting Bey & Company’s performance nods to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which shares a 50th anniversary year with the Super Bowl and took root in the Bay Area, near the Super Bowl’s stadium in Santa Clara, California on the day when Trayvon Martin would have turned 21 and the weekend when Sandra Bland would have turned 29 had they not been victims of brutally racist murders.

Beyonce Halftime

When Bey and her gorgeously long-limbed, Afro’d backup dancers with their leather hot pants and fishnets rocked Panther-esque berets, included an X formation in their choreography, and thrust their fists into the air to honor Huey and ‘nem, it sparked praise from a rainbow of fans. It also provoked hostile backlash from the White right wingers, who are so peeved they’re actually planning an anti-Beyoncé protest next Tuesday, February 16, at 8 a.m. in front of the NFL headquarters (345 Park Avenue) in New York City. A Black Bey-hive counter protest is planned as well.

Beyond all the pro-vs.-anti Bey brouhaha, what got my attention was when Dr. Yaba Blay, a well-known expert on Black racial identity and colorism, shared her own responses to “Formation,” in Colorlines, and outed a truth with which many of us wrestle: how to balance our awareness of blatant Black-on-Black colorism when it’s embodied in otherwise enjoyable African American and (at least somewhat) affirming popular culture.

While we all know intellectually that colorism is global and in no way specific to African Americans, it doesn’t lessen the pain felt by those on the receiving end. My own admitted obsession with colorism moves me to call it out and confront it more often than is popular. I feel a strong kinship with Dr. Yaba, a respected leader in this realm, and others who believe the only way we can move past this internalized oppression and dimension of racism is to confront, wrestle with and move through it.

Some of Dr. Yaba’s initial posts about “Formation” were quite celebratory and in-crowd, since she grew up in NOLA. While the colorism in the song/video hit me upon first exposure, I held back on mentioning it because, frankly, I sometimes get weary of always feeling like the party pooper. Plus, I figured that if folks who don’t look like me seem good with Beyoncé’s nonstop flipping and flinging of the long blonde weave, the jarring visual of a smirking, stylish Blue Ivy flanked by two darker-skinned girls with stern expressions and unfashionable attire, and references to mama Tina’s Creole background, I should have a seat and STFU. And nobody else in my feed was bringing it up.

So, bolstered by Dr. Yaba and other politically, culturally and spiritually super-conscious and forward-thinking sistas, I back-burnered my reservations and joined in the revelry, exchanging fiber-optic high-fives over Bey’s celebration of Black noses, hair and Southern-fried genealogy. We were having a fine old time, especially in the post-game analysis of Black Panther, Malcolm X and other activist references. And then Dr. Yaba did what true progressives do—she wrote the Colorlines piece examining her own responses to this multi-layered explosion of messages and symbolism that had the world agog:

Blue Ivy

“While Bey let all the folks who’ve been talking crazy about Blue Ivy’s hair have it with, ‘I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros,’ I can’t help but wonder why the two little girls in the video playing with Blue are significantly darker than her and dressed like old women afraid of the sun while Blue shines, hand on hip, in a sundress.

“I cheer Bey on as she sings, ‘I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.’ But I cringe when I hear her chant, ‘You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma’ about her Alabama-born dad and her mom from Louisiana. This is the same reason I cringed at the L’Oreal ad that identified Beyonce  as African-American, Native American and French and why I don’t appreciate her largely unknown song ‘Creole.’

Yaba pic

Dr. Yaba Blay

“Having grown up black-Black (read: dark-skinned) in colorstruck New Awlins, hearing someone, particularly a woman, make a distinction between Creole and ‘Negro’ is deeply triggering. This isn’t just for me but for many New Orleanians. For generations, Creoles—people descended from a cultural/racial mixture of African, French, Spanish and/or Native American people—have distinguished themselves racially from ‘regular Negroes.’

“In New Orleans, phenotype—namely ‘pretty color and good hair’—translates to (relative) power. In this context, people who are light skinned, with non-kinky hair and the ability to claim a Creole heritage have had access to educational, occupational, social and political opportunities that darker skinned, kinkier-haired, non-Creole folks have been denied. In many ways, among those of us who are not Creole and whose skin is dark brown, the claiming of a Creole identity is read as rejection. And I’m not just talking about history books or critical race theory. I’m talking about on-the-ground, real-life experiences.”

Dr. Yaba wrote from a place that was both deeply personal and political, raising the question of what drives an artist’s aesthetic choices and how we process those choices through the lens of our triggers as well as the historical, political and social realities that cause those triggers to exist. One issue that her Colorlines piece raised for me is how we interpret and respond to the implicit and explicit colorism throughout Black American pop culture and entertainment. I’ve always considered Bey to be colorist—from early Destiny’s Child days when she was clearly positioned as the dominant golden goddess flanked by her brown-skinned court, to the afore-mentioned mane-tossing—yet no more so than most mainstream entertainers and their products. That doesn’t make her exceptional; it simply makes her part of the rule.

Think of all the times you’ve struggled with wanting to simply enjoy and celebrate something “Blackety-Black,” but couldn’t help cringing at the colorism. Insert your own list of never-ending examples, from movies to television series to music videos, advertisements, etc. 

I remember going crazy in 1974 when Stevie Wonder’s iconic song, “Living for the City” was released on his awesome “Innervisions” album. The song went on to win a Grammy for best R&B song (well-deserved). I loved it and jammed to it but was deeply bothered by the colorism I heard in the lyric, “My sister’s Black, but she is sho’nuff pretty…”

innervisionsIt was the “but” that got me. Here I was, in my early 20s, trying to figure out how to get Stevie to change that “but” to “and.” I fussed and fumed about it to my family and friends, all of whom looked at me like I needed to be institutionalized for losing my natural mind. Nobody said it aloud, but I distinctly felt their weary disapproval at my need to point out colorism at every opportunity. I wasn’t yet ready to have that proverbial seat and STFU, but the seeds for those later behaviors were certainly planted then.

lupita most beautiful

From music to TV to movies, colorism is so normative that its absence generates more headlines than its presence. Let’s face it, Lupita Nyong’o’s rapid ascent to fashion favorite and style icon was not based solely upon her breathtaking performance as Patsey in the movie “12 Years a Slave.” And while she is unquestionably gorgeous, her type of look is in no way unique. Lupita fever swept the nation because her fame and deep-Black beauty, grace and elegance leapt over the aesthetics of White Supremacy, causing the fashion and beauty worlds to bow to her visual glory. It made news because she basically looks the opposite of what mainstream pop culture defines as beautiful and desirable. Her brand of physicality is politically charged, though few will acknowledge that publicly. It is her status as the exception that drives the mainstream adoration. Yet nobody is lulled into thinking that her popularity in any way signals a change in the status quo.

Colorism is as embedded in global notions of value and desirability as it is in the Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome dancing through our DNA. And that shows up in most of our arts and entertainment. The sheer dominance of colorism makes it feel normative, which is why I believe more folks don’t complain about or challenge it. To confront something so ubiquitous can be exhausting. Just like fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., being awake to and aware of colorism 24/7 feels like a Sisyphean struggle. It’s so pervasive and all-encompassing that fighting it can feel like a mere drop in the ocean of injustice.

And yet it’s not going to go away on its own…

About that Creole thing…

The other issue that Beyonce’s recent work—and Dr. Yaba’s response—bring to the forefront for me is the question of whether spotlighting those parts of our identity not considered to be “Regular Black” are indicative of buying into and practicing the principles of White Supremacy, or a simple acknowledgement of the many aspects of our complex backgrounds.

For instance, I recently confronted a (former) FB friend when she fussed about a young rapper calling herself “Miss Mulatto,” and the commenters on her thread automatically attached the term “Tragic” along with their presumptions, assumptions and disapproval. Believe me, I am WELL aware of all of the issues around the word Mulatto (deets in the memoir), and how many Black people find it triggering. Hell, some Biracial people find it triggering. I asked the former FB friend why she and her commenters were so upset about the term “Miss Mulatto,” hoping to spark a mutually beneficial and honest dialogue. Rather than respond to my query, she chastised me for my “tone” and blocked me. And that isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this kind of response from Black women on social media.

swirl girl artThat got me thinking about Black intolerance of Mixed-race people self-identifying and self-affirming, even with the use of triggering terminology. Does a young woman claiming “Mulatto” mean that she thinks she’s better than Black folks who don’t have a non-Black parent? Or does it mean that she is simply claiming her entire heritage in a healthy way, albeit with a loaded term?

THIS is the discussion I want us to have, once we’re tired of dissecting “Formation” and King Bey’s various images and messages. I understand Dr. Yaba’s triggered response to “Creole” (the key migratory pattern of Blacks in Louisiana was to my hometown of Seattle, so I grew up familiar with their blatantly colorist dynamics). Yet I wonder whether Bey’s L’Oreal ad, which lays out various models’ Ancestral mixes, and the reference to Bey’s mother’s Creole identity, was intended to promote colorism and send triggering messages, or whether they’re a simple Ancestral shout-out with no other agenda.

beyonce loreal ad

Beyoncé’s L’Oréal ad

Can we ever publicly acknowledge out our “Black and…” lineage without it being interpreted as anti-Black? For instance, if I say I’m Mulatto and a Black person chooses to interpret that as my saying I’m superior to them when that was in no way what I was thinking, feeling or trying to express, how do we address that? What do we do when Black people use Mulatto or Biracial or any variation thereof as a pejorative reference and we’re triggered?

If Dr. Yaba or her equivalent could sit down with Bey and ask exactly what she intended to convey with the colorist imagery and Creole references, how might the superstar respond? If she denies any conscious awareness or intent of the offense, does that lessen the sting? Does that make it less offensive? More acceptable?

How do we measure intention versus impact?

Tina Creole

Beyonce’s mother, Celestine, known as Tina, IS Creole. Is it the acknowledgement of this fact that’s problematic, or the fact that the history and racial dynamics are so loaded in the collective Black psyche that we need to avoid mentioning it because of the potential for triggering very real responses based on societal attitudes?

And if the offender genuinely does not mean to trigger or offend, is it any different than public acts of racism…where the offenders rush to claim that they did not INTEND to be racist, yet refuse to acknowledge the damage they inflicted regardless of their stated intention? Does the absence of intention give us a pass, or is the offense unacceptable no matter what?

I am racially mixed, high yella, Mulatto, #BLEWISH, etc. and each term with which I can describe myself is problematic to somebody, often many somebodies. In choosing how to describe myself, how responsible am I for being aware of everybody’s triggers? Especially since nobody has EVER in my lived experience made any effort to be aware of or keep themselves from using terms that are triggering for me. When I point that out, people of all races insist that their right to expression trumps my feelings, and often respond in hostile ways. They also insist that their beliefs are inherently more valid than my experiences. Ironically, much like White people do when confronted about racism, or patriarchal men when confronted about sexism…

For me, what is problematic about ALL of this is the presumption of superiority, which is always triggering for the person being deemed inferior. While Creole, Mulatto, et al, might not be used to convey superiority, their history makes it difficult to detach that baggage at the gate.

Equally problematic is the presumption of the presumption of superiority which is what we experience when someone presumes that their definition of my use of Mulatto, for instance, means that I am saying I’m better than them versus asking me whether or not that is the case. They privilege their definition over mine, override my intention with their assumption, and choose to focus on mutual resentment.

If we always fall back on our assumptions and never make the time and take the trouble to sit down together and create an actual dialogue to better understand each other and change how we respond, we’ll be in this cycle of hurt and harm forever. Meanwhile, the racists chortle at having us on self-destruction cruise control while they keep winning.

Now what?

My People, for anyone who truly cares about evolution, it is time to move beyond bludgeoning each other with our intertwined pain and take a serious look at how to start healing.

Thanks to racism and its countless manifestations, we are ALL deeply wounded human minefields of triggers. If you tell me about yours and I respect you and care about your opinion, I will probably make an effort to avoid those things that are triggers for you. There are other times when I deliberately aim to trigger as many folks as possible—hence #BLEWISH—to further my own agenda, with absolutely no apologies, justifications, or tolerance of being policed. After all, much of America is triggered and even traumatized by the fact of my very existence and in-your-face refusal to bow to anyone’s labeling or definitions.

As a living human trigger to not just Black people, but people of many other races, I don’t have the luxury of not thinking about these things all the time. And THIS is the conversation we need to have—honestly and authentically—with full knowledge that it won’t be easy or comfortable to wade through these thorny yet essential issues. Everybody is guaranteed to be triggered in the process. Everyone’s wounds will be exposed.

We can’t change what we won’t confront—in ourselves or in each other. When we set each other off, one person’s triggers often activate another’s, until we’re locked in a cycle of responding from our wounds and pain. We’ve been doing that for centuries, with no end in sight.

But I’m tired of this loop. I want more. We all deserve better.

varnette anti colorist sistas

Where do we go from here? Can we agree to work together to figure out how to neutralize or deactivate our mutual triggers and break this endless cycle of trauma drama that we neither created nor truly benefit from?  Can we find a way to be more aware of each other’s tripwires and sensitive to the need to reprogram the internalized racism with which we are all infected? Can we express our triggered pain without activating more? Or do we accept that we’re going to activate each other and endeavor to move past that to a more productive space?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I am committed to examining the questions in a search for solutions. I respect Dr. Yaba for publicly wrestling with, as she said, her own contradictions. I am ready to wrestle with mine. And yours. And–most importantly–OURS.

But this is not an individual exercise. Acknowledgement without action never moved anyone forward. Healing and progress can only come from collective action. This is much more than a song-and-dance or pop culture phenom. This is our lives, our souls, our sanity and our survival. And so I lovingly invite–and challenge–you to get in whatever sort of Formation works for you to begin the process now.

Stop Promoting Racism with Your Tragic Mulatto

 

miss mulatto

So I’m scrolling through Facebook minding my own Biracial Black and Blewish bizness when a Black woman posts subtle snark about a contestant on Jermaine Dupri’s new rap competition show who calls herself Miss Mulatto.

The commenters weighed in with presumptuous slings of #TragicMulatto, along with virtual side-eyes, teeth-sucking and freely expressed contempt at the young rapper’s choice of label. Which made me realize that it’s time to speak up and out against Black people identity policing us. Not because it’s offensive or hurts our feelings, but because when Black people perpetuate the #Tragic Mulatto stereotype and disdain our claims to self-identify, even with the locked-and-loaded, perpetually controversial M-word, they are inadvertently feeding White Supremacy.

Dear Black People:

I am reaching out with love and respect to request that you STOP identity policing us Black/White Biracial people. We are all well aware of the history of folks like us in this country, and throughout the Diaspora of Africans who were enslaved by White people. We know that most Black women were routinely raped by White oppressors, and that many Biracial/Mixed/Mulatto children were born from that horrific trauma. We know this created the hierarchy of light-skinned privilege—as in, often we were assigned to work in the Big House rather than the field—that still exists today. We are fully aware of colorism and how it appears to operate in our favor when in reality it works against us—the Biracial us, the Black us, the global us. Those deeply-rooted, underlying tensions are part of what keeps us from unifying and truly joining forces, working together for the greater good.

So this is a plea to just stop!

What I’ve experienced for the six-plus decades that I’ve been speaking up from my POV is that people in general and Black people in particular (because, truthfully, unless and until the topic bumps up on them in a personal way, few White people pay us much attention or care about how we self-identify), are accustomed to and therefore comfortable with being in charge of our identities.

And the problem with this is?

one drop rule

On the one hand, Black people like to cite the slavery-based “rule” that anybody with a single drop of Black blood is Black to demand our allegiance. On the other hand, a great many Black/White Biracial people are insulted, chastised, challenged and often rejected by Black people in their youth as “not really Black,” or “not Black enough.” When these mixed messages (pun intended) cause us to experience some very real cultural dissonance and/or ambivalence, we are quickly labeled “confused” about our identities. Of course, we’re not the ones who are confused—but you can read all about that in my upcoming memoir.

We’ve never been in charge of the language that is used to identify us in the USA. I grew up with the term Mixed which I still prefer because it is inclusive of any and all Mixed folks, and unlike Biracial, it doesn’t sound like a failed science experiment. I use the term Biracial because it’s popular in the lexicon, but I hate it, mainly because nobody asked ME what I wanted to be called or gave me a list of potential labels from which to choose. Which brings us to the uzi of Mixed-race labels: Mulatto.

I discovered the term Mulatto in my youth, back when research took place in libraries. I loved the musicality of the word, and the feel of it rolling off my tongue. And the first thing I read was that it is said to be a derogatory Spanish term comparing us to little mules, or asses. M’kay. Nothing surprising about that, considering the overall context of enslavement throughout the Diaspora, and the racism that fueled it. I wasn’t insulted; my feelings weren’t hurt. After all, White people the world over believed themselves superior to me and other folks of color. I tucked the word away like a delicious secret, loving its complex, painful backstory as much as its pretty sound.

The history of Mulatto, the caste system it represents (still in full force whether or not we want to admit it), and the rapes that created it make it easy to understand why so many Black people reflexively disdain and push back against the word. It’s painful, it’s ugly and to many, it’s divisive, at least when WE use it to refer to ourselves or others like us.

Interestingly, Black people are okay with using the term when talking about or at us, most always in a denigrating manner. So when a Mixed-race person has the audacity to claim the term and flaunt the specifics of their conception, all kinds of triggers are activated.

not tragic mulatto tee shirt

And the first thing that far too many Black people like to spit at us is the accusation that we are Tragic. I’ve been fighting that stereotype for decades. As a young child, I sent a reprimanding letter and poetic clapback to my literary hero Langston Hughes upon discovering that he was promoting the Tragic Mulatto stereotype. So I have had decades of experience in this realm.  (You can read all about it in my upcoming memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Confessions of a Racial Outlaw).

It seems that the concept of the Tragic Mulatto was created by White novelists and filmmakers in the early 1900s, promoting the idea that we are inherently tragic because we  are only half and not fully White, and defined by the fact that dwe hate and are repulsed by Black people and culture.

The Tragic Mulatto caught on with both Black and White folks, and was further popularized in White author Fannie Hurst’s novel, Imitation of Life, and the two hit movies of the same title—even though the allegedly Mulatto character was told by her Black mama that she was NOT Mixed—her daddy was “just real light-skinned.” But details be damned–the much-beloved stereotype was in full effect.

The problem is that obviously these White folk created and were promoting a super-racist stereotype that has, until the last couple years, been the SOLE interpretation of Black/White people—especially women—in American history, literature, culture or art.

But the mold was set, with White and Black Americans alike swallowing the propaganda of our deep misery hook, line and sinker. This allowed both groups to make prejudicial assumptions about any person born of a Black/White union, while distancing us as inherently problematic, and looking down upon us as naturally inferior. And many Biracial people, not having any other representation or point of reference, end up embracing it for themselves. Racism and White Supremacy shoot and score!

You see, the real tragedy deep down in the hearts and minds of both White and Black  Americans, is that in the present context and discounting instances of rape, our parents CHOSE to come together, were mutually attracted to each other and decided to have sex, knowing they ran the risk of procreating.

 

cheerios family

Cheerios knew that showing a Black/White interracial family would push buttons and create controversy.

Despite many Americans’ claims that they are all kumbaya with Black/White interracial couplings, there is still a lot of resentment and discomfort around the actual fact of it. This is proven when a child comes into the picture, and people immediately start projecting their prejudicial notions, fears and fantasies upon us. Then they want to claim that WE are confused, rejected and Tragic. Mind you, this is a conversation they have only with themselves and others like them. Rarely do they ask us to share our stories, our truths, our realities, or respect our right to self-identify, since it collides with their preconceived notions and rules about what we are supposed to do.

So the FB friend and her friends’ sophisticated, educated snark about a 17-year-old Biracial rapper forcing folks to deal with the realities of her conception and identity by calling herself Miss Mulatto (which seems to me a pretty tame moniker in the overall rap/hip hop genre) reveals a few things:

  1. Most Black people believe they are in charge of identity policing us Mixis, determining what we should be called and how we should self-identify
  2. These same Black people would not like it if we tried to do the same to them
  3. Blacks and Whites are so accustomed to centuries of talking at and about us that the notion of our speaking up is strange and uncomfortable for them. It’s so rare, in fact, that sometimes it’s uncomfortable for us too!

But My People, we are in the 21st century.

It is time for Black people to stop feeding racism and White Supremacy by perpetuating the Tragic Mulatto mythology. While we might not have spoken up in the past, we are here now and we will not be backing down or shutting up. Newsflash: you no longer have to police our identities. We’ve got this. Trust me. You might not like how we go about it, or the dynamics of each individual’s life and identity choices, but it’s time to cross that off your list of what you’re responsible for overseeing. Take us or leave us on an individual basis—based not on what you presume because of some racist stereotypes from days long past—but on the truths, however uncomfortable and seemingly convuluted, that we bring to the table.

If and when we use the term Mulatto, understand that we have our reasons. Maybe ASK us about that rather than assuming you know and comin’ for us based on your assumptions. Chances are, we’ve been waiting a very long time to be invited into the conversations about us. Even if you disagree, it’s past time to turn a monologue into a dialogue.

mutts like me

AND…unless you were upset when POTUS Obama—in his very first news conference after the 2008 election—referred to himself and by extension, the rest of us Mixed folks as mutts, then you are disqualified from getting riled up about our use of Mulatto. (That historic moment is why I’m writing the dang memoir in the first place. Read the first few chapters for FREE! ).

Speaking of POTUS Obama, you might have noticed that our self-identification is not always one-dimensional. We can be Mixed/Biraclal AND Black, or any other thing that suits us. Our doing so does not mean we are in denial, delusional or rejecting any part of ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we think we’re cuter/smarter/inherently better than Black people, despite propaganda to the contrary.

Just as there is zero consensus in the Black American community about whether folks prefer to be called Black or African American, we can all learn to live with the ambiguity and fluidity of Mixed-race identity and the various terms we embrace (with the exception of mutt). Maybe next time, rather than assuming, you’ll ask. Maybe rather than flinging your presumptions at us, you’ll listen when we speak. And maybe you’ll stretch your worldview to accept that one young woman calling herself Miss Mulatto is not proof of anybody’s tragedy anywhere, nor is a threat to the strength, beauty or value of Black people in the USA or anywhere on the planet.

We need you to stop identity policing, because it is distracting us from coming together to work on the far more urgent issues around those other kinds of policing. Let’s not alienate each other when solidarity could mean the difference between life and death. If I didn’t accept it from Langston Hughes, I’m damn sure not gonna let anybody else–icon or mortal–get away with it. He didn’t know any better. I’m willing to invest in the possibility that others can grow into greater awareness and help us move forward.

Because the only tragedies that matter are racism and White Supremacy. And we can never slay those dragons if we’re sweating the small stuff, assuming rather than asking, and contributing to petty divisiveness in service of the forces that refuse to recognize our humanity, no matter what we’re calling ourselves or each other.

Onelove. ‘Nuff respect. Peace out.

TaRessa in red

If you liked (or hated) this, PLEASE contribute to my crowdfunding for the SWIRL GIRL memoir. It is time for ALL of us to tell our truths, share our stories, bring our voices and our visions to the world. Your support would mean absolutely everything!