On Black Privilege

So a few weeks ago, a friend of mine–T–invited me to join a secret Facebook group of “cool” Cleveland women.

I accepted the invitation and immediately my feed was flooded with all sorts of posts.

I enjoyed most of the ones I read, though I must say, I’m not a big cat person, and I’m not that big on oversharing, so some of them either did nothing for me or turned me off a little. Whatever. No big deal.

Tonight, though, a black transwoman member of the group posted a very angry status that grew into a very intense, lengthy thread about cultural appropriation, bullying, policing, and white privilege.

This women apparently criticized a white member for having dreadlocks in a comment and found, later, that the thread with her comment had been erased.

This made her feel like she was being silenced–that the space wasn’t safe for her honesty in the same way it was safe for other people’s.

Now, the language with which I’m describing the incident, and her post, is the opposite of the language that she used–the angry black member.

She cursed. She accused. She fully occupied her right to be hurt and say she was hurt. She pulled no punches.

She articulated very clearly that she felt the erasure of her comment was an act of discrimination.

This led to a lot of the other women in the group cheering her on, and a lot of other women in the group reprimanding her for being disrespectful and discriminating against the white woman with the dreadlocks.

All sorts of explanations, extrapolations, and extrications followed, much of them revolving around the question of whether white people should be “allowed” to have dreadlocks or not.

This is a conversation that I’ve heard repeated so many times as a Gen-Xer. Because during the 90s, when a lot of young black people embraced Afrocentricity and diasporic black thought and started wearing dreadlocks as a statement, some young white people started wearing dreadlocks, too

And I remember as an undergrad (this was ’94-’98) debating with black classmates about whether white people should or should not be locking their hair–whether they were taking away from the political and cultural significance of dreadlocks by wearing them for fashion or aesthetic shock value.

Not surprisingly, the thread on the Facebook page that grew out of the black woman’s post contained echoes of these same old conversations. Should they or shouldn’t they?

I’m not going to try to answer that question. But I am impelled to explain why some black people are offended by white people wearing dreadlocks or performing other acts that are typically categorized or characterized as “black.”

White people have so much. It’s not necessarily the fault of every white person in America that white people as a demographic fare so much better than every other demographic, but it’s undeniable that they do. They are the inarguable “haves” in our culture.

And black people are largely “have-nots.” We are fewer in number, poorer, less visible, less free, less protected, and less respected.

For many of us, the only things that we have that we feel proud of are our color, our lineage, our history, our belonging to a race and ethnicity that is known (if not credited) for its genius, resilience, and tenacity.

Being a perpetual victim of institutional racism sucks. Being stereotyped as angry, violent, ugly, stupid, lazy, immoral, and inhuman sucks.

Watching as police murder people that look like you and get away with it sucks. Watching as Trump supporters attack people that look like you and get cheered on by a man that may become the President sucks.

We–Americans–talk about white privilege. But there is such a thing as black privilege, and it’s one of the only conciliations that we have for being so brutally oppressed.

Black privilege is being able to talk about other black people in a tone that we don’t allow white people to use, the way that family members do.

Black privilege is being able to use the word “nigger” when we want, how we want, because it’s a word that’s been used to designate us after all, and being able to use that word when whites “can’t” is one of the only exclusive freedoms we have.

Black privilege is having hair that white people don’t have. Color that white people don’t have. Lips and asses that white people don’t have.

It’s talking in a way that doesn’t come organically to white people, having music that speaks to us in the way we speak, and customs that are a product of our history.

These things may seem superficial, but they become extremely important when they are just about all that you have to bolster the way you feel about yourself–when you don’t have a lot of money or material comfort or social status or political power or acceptance or even just tolerance outside of your own community.

And that’s not to say that black people comprise this happy, all-encompassing monolith because we don’t. We do a lot of infighting. We have a lot of drama amongst ourselves. But we also have the wonder of our blackness. We share that with each other.

And there are simply parts of it that many of us don’t want white people to have. Because then it becomes another thing that’s been taken from us.

For so many black people, style–swag–is a very real and reifying force in our lives. We make ourselves into transcendent entities–something more than victims or villains–by walking a certain way, talking a certain way, wearing certain things, and doing certain things with our hair.

No–we can’t lay actual or legal claim to things like hairstyles, but, for a lot of us, they really are statements–ways of showing that we love what has been deemed unlovable about ourselves or we don’t need to look like anything other than the black people that we are.

We know white people have problems, but they are not the same as ours, so when they take our tools of survival and use them for a different purpose, these tools lose something of their power and might I say sacredness. And that feels needless to us.

Again, white people have so much. So many black people can’t help but think, “Why do they have to have that too?”

It’s not right, but it’s not wrong. It’s true. It’s real. We can be very possessive of certain aspects of our culture because they are some of the only positive or affirming parts of being a black person in America.

Being black while other people can’t is our privilege.

We feel as stingy about it as white people feel about theirs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Trump Card

So I guess I have to talk about Donald Trump. Not because there is a shortage of people talking about Trump in the news or on their blogs nowadays. But because I am really deeply disturbed by his political ascension and the possibility that he may become the President of these United States.

I think it reflects an all-time low in cultural and historical ignorance in the country, as well as mass fear, collective self-pity, and rampant narcissism.

I say this because I am convinced that Trump’s most faithful followers–and according to The Washington Post these are poor, white, relatively uneducated men–have feelings about American politics that are rooted in two huge misconceptions.

These are both erroneous beliefs that Trump is feeding with his deceptive, hateful rhetoric about the “disgrace” that blacks bring to the nation and the danger that violent “immigrants” and “terrorists” (a term he uses as loosely as his ability to self-regulate) present to the “American people,” as well as his fallacious claim that America pre-President Obama was “better” for working and middle class people than it is now.

The first is that white men in America have lost a significant amount of their political and economic power to blacks and Mexicans, and it needs to be “restored” (America made great again).

The second is that the absence of Mexicans and Muslims from American society would be no great loss.

If we look at the facts–something that so many Americans seem less and less willing to do when it comes to forming political opinions–then we see that America is no less “great” for white men than it was back in 2008.

Even after eight years with a black man in office, white men still rule America. Out of the 532 members of the 114th Congress, 380 are white men. That’s 71% of the most powerful government body in the country.

We tend to talk about Congress abstractly, but Congress has incredible power over our everyday lives. In some ways, Congress has more power than the President, so it matters who is in Congress and who these people are primarily concerned with helping.

Because the medications we take are developed through research funded by Congress. Safe drinking water is partially regulated by Congress. Electricity is provided to us through federal subsidies and regulations.

Imports come to our country through federal trade agreements negotiated by Congress. The dating on milk cartons is required and regulated by Congress. Other labeling on food, including ingredients and content warnings, is required and regulated by Congress.

The roads are kept up by the federal government in conjunction with each of the states. Congress controls the radio airwaves. Congress funds public schools. Congress funds police departments, the FBI, and the alert system for missing children. Congress funds medical research and hospital construction. Congress guards us against fraudulent advertising (to a certain extent), unsafe toys, and other dangerous consumer products.

The Civil Rights Act, Clean Air Act, Freedom of Information Act, IDEA (for children with disabilities), National Cancer Act, gun control and voting rights were all granted–they are all regulated by Congress.

Medicare, Pell Grants, Project Headstart, and Social Security are all granted and regulated by Congress.

Congress creates and changes federal tax laws. It regulates business dealings between states and between the US and other countries.

So the decisions of an elite group of 532 people–380 of which are white men–essentially control the safety and overall quality of our lives as Americans.

Out of the 50 US governors, 43 are white men.

Whether we realize it or not, the effects of the decisions made by  governors are also ubiquitous in our daily lives.

States fund teacher salaries. They certify teachers as qualified to teach. They set the academic standards for public education. They regulate alcohol sales. They maintain parks and recreation centers. They insure that gas pumps are running efficiently–giving us full gallons.

States levy taxes, too. They issue driver and marriage licenses. They control and conduct voting practices. They work in conjunction with the Fed on setting up courts, building highways, and chartering banks.

In sum, white men have almost all of the meaningful political power in the US.

Now, let’s talk money.

Though Asian men earn more weekly on average than their white, black, and Hispanic/Latino counterparts, white men still earn more weekly on average than black men, Hispanic/Latino men, Asian women, white women, black women, and Hispanic/Latino women.

This means they still hold an overwhelming majority of this country’s economic power.

This is especially true since roughly 76% of millionaires (there are about 3.1 millionaires total) in America are white, and 63% of millionaires in America are male.

The confluence in race and gender there encompasses trillions of dollars.

Need more numbers?

In police departments across the country, the percentage of white officers is more than 30 percentage points higher than the percentage of whites in the actual communities they serve, meaning more white cops police minority areas than minority cops (very reminiscent of the plantation system in the antebellum South with its overseers).

Also, 75% of all police officers in America are white, according to the most recent comprehensive data available.

In the state courts, the majority of judges are white in all but Hawaii.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John G. Roberts, is also a white man, as are three of the associate justices, so that’s half of the court at this time.

The Vice President of the United States is a white man. The head of the FBI is a white man. The director of the CIA is a white man. The head of the US Treasury is a white man.

Roughly 75% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men (13% are white women).

White men comprise about 60% of American gun owners.

About 70% of active duty military personnel are white; 78% of military officers are white; and 75% of the Reserves are white (80% of the officers in the Reserves are white).

Now, this makes mathematical sense, since roughly 223 million Americans are white, more whites turn out to vote than blacks, Asians, and Hispanics/Latinos, and ingroup advantage (the tendency of people to evaluate and judge members of their own group as being better and fairer than members of other groups) and social cognition (the tendency of people to think more categorically about members of other groups, or to stereotype, and to think more individually about members of their own group) are proven psychological phenomena.

The regrettable downside is white people’s majority status doesn’t translate into fair and equal distribution of resources or fair and equal treatment for all people under the law.

Barack Obama might have changed the “face” of the American Presidency, but his effect on the actual power structure in America has been, sadly, just that superficial.

White men are still in charge in America, just like they were in 2008. In 1998. In 1898. In 1798. In 1698. They haven’t been disempowered in the least. White hegemony has not been displaced.

So when Trump tells his followers that he will “make American great again,” he is propagating a lie that white men have lost power when in fact they haven’t.

He is exploiting their fear and capitalizing on their incidental and in a lot of cases overt racism–their fear of white genetic annihilation and retributive disenfranchisement (the fear that minorities will oppress whites in the same way that whites have oppressed minorities if they come into hegemonic power).

Trump is promising his followers that the myth of the American meritocracy will remain a myth–that they can continue to trade on white privilege, nepotism, and cronyism to get and stay ahead rather than having to compete in a true sense–on an even playing field–with black people, indigenous people, Asians, and Hispanics/Latinos.

And when he titillates them with his claims that he will keep Mexicans and Muslims out, he is not only selling them pie in the sky–he’s oversimplifying the roles that Mexicans and Muslims play in American society in order to scapegoat them.

According to research, there are more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the US. Only about 49% of these illegal immigrants are Mexican. Over 8% of these illegal immigrants are employed.

This means they’re a part of our labor force. In fact, they make up 5% of our labor force. They are so crucial to the gross product of some states that if all of the illegal immigrants in Texas were deported, the state would lose 2% of all the money generated within it every year.

Too, half of the hired workers in US agriculture are illegal immigrants, and the majority of them come from Mexico. Without them, the US fruit and vegetable industry would suffer. Milk prices would go up 61%. All Americans would be affected.

“But what about Trumps’s claims that immigrants drain the economy and bring crime to the US?”

Not surprisingly, both of these claims are wrong, too.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, tax revenues generated by immigrants over the last 20 years equal more the cost of the services they’ve used.

In fact, the average American’s wealth has increased 1% because of illegal immigration. Because remember–they’re not just workers, they’re also buyers. They spend money here, too.

The Social Security Administration says that illegal immigrants also contribute to the so-called greater good, to the tune of $300 billion in the Social Security Trust Fund (10% of its total).

A 2014 study in Justice Quarterly demonstrates, too, that foreign-born (first generation) immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans (this includes second generation immigrants) to engage in criminal activity throughout the course of their lives.

You see a similar correlation when you look closely at Muslims living in US and the prejudicial fear that they are or will become terrorists.

Data compiled by the New America think tank on nearly 500 extremists indicted or killed in the US since 9/11–314 militant Islamists and 140 right-wing (white) extremists (including anti-abortion extremists) shows that just 7% of the Islamists were involved in an incident that “came to fruition”–a legitimate act of terrorism–versus 48% of the right-wingers. That’s 21 Islamists compared with 67 right-wingers.

The Islamists could have been less violent because they were being monitored more closely by authorities, who were profiling them because of their religion, ethnicity, and citizenship status; they were stopped in the planning phases of an attack; or they weren’t actually extremists at all, and they were being profiled by the authorities.

Because out of the 3.3 million Muslims living in America today, 77% are citizens of the US. Around 65% of the foreign Muslims in America have been naturalized. They’ve undergone the formal process to become citizens. They’ve deliberately put themselves on the government’s radar.

Also, even though too many Americans think being a Muslim is synonymous with being Arab, and being Arab is synonymous with being a terrorist, two-thirds of the Arabs living in America are Christian. And the Muslim community in America includes Turks, Bosnians, Malays, Indonesians, Nigerians, Somali, Liberians, Kenyans, and Senegalese.

So if we block Muslims from coming into America, we’re not necessarily lessening the threat of ISIS. We’re not automatically protecting ourselves from mass violence. All Muslims are not extremists, and some of the most dangerous, and effective, extremists in America are not Muslim.

They’re young white men.

And this is where the two misconceptions converge.

Poor, working, and middle class white men are mad because they think minorities and immigrants are taking their jobs and government resources, soaking up their tax revenue and victimizing their women and children.

Rich white men (greedy politicians and heads of corporations) are telling them this because in truth, they–the rich white men–are taking their jobs (outsourcing) and government resources (subsidies, loans, and bailouts).

Both groups are scapegoating minorities and immigrants because neither want to admit the truth of what they are doing–either suffering at the hands of their so-called “brothers” or exploiting the shit out of them.

Donald Trump may sound like an idiot, but he’s strategic as hell. He points poor, working, and middle class whites in the direction of minorities and immigrants, so they can’t see just how stratified he is in the oppressive class structure of the US.

He pretends that minorities and immigrants are the enemy when he knows full-well that he is. That the members of the millionaire class are the true enemies of poor, working, and middle class people.

And Trump’s followers fall for this okey-doke because they’re operating at their basest level–on fear–and trying to color-code their problems and solutions–to make them simpler.

The truth is always more complicated than we want it to be, but it’s the truth, and we can only run so far from it. We can only hide so long from it.

Rich white men are the ones hurting America the most. Hoarding their wealth and whipping up the masses against each other by covertly fueling divisive partisan politics.

The sooner we all accept this–and do something constructive about it–then the better off we’ll all be.

Black or white. Immigrant or native. Democrat or Republican.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Black Feminist on the Blame Game

I’m a proud and adamant black feminist.

And ever since I took on that designation, in my late teens, I’ve had a lot of men and women argue with me about how “problematic” it is for me to call myself a feminist as a black woman.

The standard explanation that they give me–for why feminism is so destructive to black life and community–is it emasculates and displaces men.

But the meme that I saw on Facebook earlier today explains why I think black feminism is absolutely necessary:

meme

Black feminism is necessary because it helps black women to see the fallacy in misogynistic bullshit like this.

It helps us to cope with the undue hostility with which so many black men treat us in an attempt to hide from culpability for what they’ve done with their lives and to themselves and their families.

Tonight is not the first time that I’ve read this particular story of the destruction of the black family, in which black women are the scapegoats for black men’s inability to fight effectively against certain destructive influences in their lives.

It’s not the first time that I’ve read this fucked-up fable of what “feminism” did to the black family, but it’s the first time that I’m going to argue against it on this blog. Because it’s untrue.

In the 1950s and 1960s, yes, there were far more married black people than there are now. But we have to look at the factors that contributed to that outside of the absence of feminism.

The church played a much more encompassing role in black life at that time.

College and professional careers were only possible for a small segment of the black community, so adult rites of passage boiled down to getting a job, getting married, and having babies.

Segregation made it so people socialized almost exclusively with other black people, so they paired off almost exclusively with other black people.

Black people made–believe it or not–even less money than they do now, so men and women used marriage to combine incomes and strengthen their chances of survival.

Marriage was much more of a necessity than it is today.

Yes–the feminist movement of the 70s gained women better pay and more work opportunities, making marriage less of a economic mandate and more of an option, but let’s be realistic about how much the feminist movement of the 70s–the mainstream feminist movement–the white feminist movement–really benefited black women. It didn’t do as much as people like to pretend.

In fact, according to the Census Bureau, black women still make less income than white men, white women, Asian men and women, Hispanic men and women, and black men in 2016.

So in actuality we stand to gain more than anyone when it comes to creating two-income households.

This has been true for us since Emancipation.

Because welfare doesn’t make single black women so financially stable that they would discount the prospect of marriage and a two-income household.

According to the statistics, unmarried women receive an average of $337 in monthly benefits compared to $447 for households headed by single men and $420 a month for households headed by married couples.

In all, people on welfare received an average of $404 a month in food stamps, SSI benefits, TANF, or general assistance in 2012.

To be middle class in America–which is what most people–black, white, purple or polka-dotted–desire, you need to make anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 a year, depending on where you live. If you receive $400 a month from the government, you’re only getting $4800 a year. That’s far below the poverty line.

Even if you’re getting other forms of assistance–Section 8, Medicaid–along with the cash, you’re not a middle class existence. You may be benefits rich, but you’re cash poor.

Plus, the capacity to live off most forms of welfare usually only lasts for about 60 months (five years), thanks to President Bill Clinton. It’s not a legitimate replacement for a financially contributing spouse. It’s not a legitimate replacement for a living wage or job.

But we can even step away from the money discussion. We can deal with the whole “independence” thing. Perhaps once and for all.

The story says black women “were told” they were independent in the 70s, and that’s what caused us to separate ourselves from black men–to “remove” them from our homes.

Well . . .

Because of the circumstances by which we came to America, black women have had to be independent. Independence wasn’t some revolutionary concept that feminism introduced to us in the 70s.

Slavery required us to learn to survive without the protection of our men or their participation in family life.

The continual disfranchisement and murder of black men that continued through Reconstruction and Jim Crow made it so that many of us had to play breadwinner either because we could acquire more gainful or steady employment than our men or our men were taken from us by lynching, incarceration, war, and disproportionately poorer health.

Yes–in the 90s, mass incarceration became the most destructive force to the black family alongside drug abuse and homicide. So the story gets at least part of it right. The government has used certain forces, historically, to remove black men from black homes.

The story is wrong, though–I think–in making black women seem complicit in the disappearance of black men from the community through some collective, antagonistic choice to pursue “independence.”

I think black women have chosen survival, from slavery until now, because a certain level of dependence on black men has been impossible, and I think it’s unfair to vilify us for that when we are victims of institutional racism too, and black men have not done everything that they could to avoid certain racist traps or overcome certain psychological and social pathologies that keep them from being as healthy as they need to be in order to function.

I also think the story that black women chose independence and welfare over black men ignores a really important truth about how most black women feel about love and marriage.

Black women by and large want to get married. They want partners. They want co-parents. They’ve been conditioned by religion and tradition. They seek to be socially and psychologically validated by marriage like other women do. You see it all the time in the media–educated, professional cis hetero black women lamenting the fact that they can’t find cis hetero black men to marry.

If independence robbed them of the desire to be married, this tired-ass news story wouldn’t still be circulating like it does.

So the story in the meme doesn’t reflect the reality–that black women are just as conditioned by patriarchy as anyone else.

N0–the story in the meme tells the lie that black women’s independence destroyed the black family–it makes black women the “enemy,” if you will–to cover up for how culpable black men are in helping to destroy the black family.

“Angela Sams” may be who posted the story, but I doubt very seriously that she–or another woman–composed the story, and, if a woman did, she did it more than likely to ameliorate the resentment–male to female–that gave life to the prejudiced lies it tells.

Because let’s be real here: Institutional racism does account for the absence of a huge number of black men from black homes. But if we go back to the 60s and 70s, it was integration that began the noticeable shift away from marriage in the black community.

Once black men were able to go to college and pursue professional careers, they lost interest in getting married (and they still get married later than white, Asian, and Hispanic men or remain unmarried at a higher rate than white, Asian, and Hispanic men).

Once they were able to socialize with women of other races, black men began dating and marrying them (25% of black men that married in 2013 “married out” versus 12% of black women that married in 2013).

Then there’s the personal choices that a lot of men made in the 80s and 90s that took over their lives.

A lot of men chose to use crack  and became addicted and unfit to participate in family life. A lot of men chose to sell crack and ended up murdered and incarcerated. Some men contracted AIDS from bad lifestyle choices and died from the hateful disease.

And we can go back even further and be even more frank.

A lot of black men have simply abandoned their families. They’ve walked away from their women and children; they haven’t been dragged away.

So many men that migrated from the South during the Migration never went back to get their families.

So many black men from Emancipation to now have been invited to leave their families because they were abusive, shiftless, or unfaithful.

In various ways, and through their own decisions and actions, men largely subtracted themselves from the black home, then and now.

The myth of the impeccable black family of the mid-20th century is just that. The black American family has never been the pillar that we’ve wanted it to be because it originated in slavery–it was besieged from its inception.

And it’s also true that the overwhelming lack of father figures has made it difficult for black men to be effective parents. That the lack of married models has made it difficult for black men to know how to be partners.

But these crises within the black community have just as much to do with what black men have chosen for themselves as they have to do with what black women have chosen for themselves.

Again, millions of black men–across generations–have fled their responsibilities, not been pushed out of them.

They have either put themselves, knowingly, in positions where the government was entitled to remove them from their homes, or they’ve left of their own volition.

The misconception at the center of the argument that black women wholesale “removed” black men from their homes in the 80s is that black men are total victims of some unholy alliance formed between black women and white men.

It conveniently glosses over two truths that I think contribute directly to the estrangement of black women and black men.

The first is that victims can be aggressors.

You can be oppressed by institutional racism but then turn around and oppress those that are stacked under you on the social totem (women and children).

In fact, it’s likely that you would because white patriarchy is your model for leadership and “success (For example, black women are almost three times as likely to die as a result of domestic violence and intimate partner violence than White women. We only make up 8% of the population, yet 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to us).

The second thing the story tries to blanket over is the fact that black men can’t have it both ways.

You can’t portray yourselves as devoid of autonomy, agency, respect for women, or intelligent understanding of the black American condition but then blame black women from turning away from you as a source of protection, support, love, or assistance.

By making an argument that seeks to absolve you of responsibility for your role in destroying the black family–that it’s all black women’s fault–you undermine your subargument that the black family needs you.

You make it sound as if you have nothing to offer black women but the opportunity to strap your pouty, powerless asses onto our backs with the kids and our own racist and sexist baggage and try to make it over the proverbial finish-line of respectability before collapsing from prostration first.

You make it sound as if you’re holding a grudge against us because we’ve developed our own set defense mechanisms to navigate the negative effects of slavery while still retaining some level of pride, dignity, and sanity, and I think it’s only natural–it’s only logical–for us to be apprehensive of what you might do to us when given intimate access to our bodies, hearts, and minds to relieve that grudge.

I also think it’s fair to say that you–black men–do just as much deflecting from your choices as black women do.

You’ve done just as much to hurt the black community as black women have done with our entrenched attitudes about the need for self-sufficiency or so-called high-achieving partners.

And of course you have. James Baldwin tells us that dealing with racism’s constant onslaught distorts our personhood in a myriad of ugly ways. Toni Morrison’s whole fictional oeuvre illustrates the ways that racism corrupts the most fundamental of our human characteristics and behaviors.

Morrison has even said, “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly . . .”

Black people love in a lot of mistaken ways because we are wrong about ourselves. We don’t realize how amazing we are. We don’t realize how undeserving we are of the horrible way American treats us. We don’t realize how powerful we actually are to stop so much of the pain we put ourselves and each other through.

We don’t realize that love is the answer to so many of the problems that we have. Love for ourselves and love for each other. Across all those falsely drawn color, gender, class, and sex lines.

And until we learn to talk about what really makes it difficult for cis hetero black women and men to love each other–until we grow brave enough to get emotionally and intellectually naked with each other about our true wants and needs, hopes and fears–our dealings will remain as one dimensional and masturbatory as that fucking stupid meme.

Our homes will never become the incubators of greatness and exultant blackness that they can and should be.

 

 

Pigmentocracy Goddam

I just read on Facebook a few minutes ago a post that begged the question why so many black people are up in arms about Zoe Saldana playing the legendary Nina Simone in the new biopic “Nina” for which the trailer was released last week.

The writer of the post wanted to know, specifically, why these black people were singling out Saldana and attacking her so viciously rather than taking up their issues with the politics, casting, and artistic quality of the film with the director, say, or  casting director or executive producers, all of whom appear to be white with the exception of David Oyelowo and Algerim Jakisheva.

The answer, as I see it, is simple and complicated.

Yes, Saldana’s decision to take the part can be viewed as overly ambitious. Her appearance in the movie can be blamed on a “bad make-up job.” Her acting can be chalked up as plain old bad acting.

Or her decision to take the part can be viewed as contemptuous of Nina Simone’s legacy and Saldana’s darker contemporaries. Women like Adepero Aduye, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Tika Sumpter, and even Lauryn Hill.

These women could’ve played Simone without “blacking up,” which is still problematic even when the person doing it is black (19th century minstrel shows featuring black actors in blackface were just as buffoonish and degrading as minstrel shows featuring white actors in blackface).

Hill might even have been able to sing the songs and eliminate the need for lip-synching.

Nyong’o could’ve brought her academically-trained acting chops and legitimacy as an Oscar winner to the project.

This is what the people heaping disgust onto Saldana apparently feel Simone deserved, if her story was going to be told in film. Casting that allowed her to be portrayed in a much more dignified manner.

I think that these people going after Saldana feel that she should’ve felt the same way–that Simone deserved the best in terms of a story, a script, and a cinematic portrayal.

I think they feel that Saldana put her need to do the role before the existential need for a biography that respects Simone, and doing so was disrespectful.

They feel that she ignored the demands of history and community, and she did so out of entitlement.

That she decided for the black community how Simone would be portrayed in the film because somehow she felt she knew better than the black community how Simone should be portrayed.

I think it’s difficult, too, for her detractors to look at Zoe Saldana–a lighter-skinned Afro-Latino–and not believe that she went ahead and played Simone–wore the make-up and argued vehemently against the early criticism that her casting received–because she doesn’t really appreciate how difficult it is to be a dark-skinned black woman in America.

She doesn’t sympathize with the actresses I named above and how difficult it is for them to find quality roles or important projects in which they can star.

She doesn’t sympathize with the scores of dark-skinned women that idolize Simone and want to see her depicted not just accurately but beautifully on the screen, so they might feel validated. So they may feel venerated.

She doesn’t sympathize with the ways that colorism makes dark-skinned women feel self-conscious about their looks and how that ungodly make-up job plays right into the stereotype of darker as uglier.

This is politically incorrect, but I also think that black people took issue with Saldana’s decision to play Simone against the wishes of Simone’s own family and a large segment of the black community because Saldana is Dominican and Puerto Rican–she is Latino.

When she decided to play the role, it probably seemed to some like she was acting as an outsider–because an insider–someone that understood what Simone means to the black American community–wouldn’t want to play the role amidst the sort of controversy that surrounded Saldana’s casting.

An insider would care about what the family and community wanted.

These critics probably felt, too, that a role as potentially valuable as Nina Simone should only go to an insider.

That giving it to somebody that doesn’t embrace the black community–belonging to it–the way that Simone did–was blasphemous.

Ultimately, of course, the hostility being directed at Saldana came and comes from the realization of what an excellent opportunity making a film about the life of Nina Simone is. And how tragically it was wasted by the white people that created the film.

The reason the hostility is being directed at Saldana, though, and not the white director or producers is because black people expect white people to be obtuse when it comes to making black art.

We expect black people to know better and do better.

Saldana gave several interviews when the news of this film broke last year in which she proclaimed that she is a black woman, and she has been inspired by Nina Simone, and she believes that Nina Simone’s story is an important one to tell.

I think black fans of Simone felt that since she is black and does understand how important Nina Simone is, then she should’ve sacrificed her ego or checked her infatuation and done what was best for the project. For Simone. Simone’s legacy. Not herself.

These fans of Simone wanted a tribute for their hero that wasn’t mired in the same convoluted color politics that held her down and back when she was alive.

And I get it.

Hollywood will make biopics about white women that make mops but won’t bother with stories about the amazing black women that have actually contributed to the culture.

Finally, someone thought to make a movie about one of our most loved and esteemed musicians. But then–shit. They botched it. They made it a fucking minstrel show.

I don’t know that I necessarily fault Saldana for taking the role, but I really wish that she had opted gracefully out of the movie when she got those first inklings of what it was compared to what it should’ve been.

I wish that she’d seen the forest and not just the opportunity to climb the tree.