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.
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:
“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.’
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…”
It 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.
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.
That 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.