Policing Black Women’s Emotions and Opinions

The bigger picture framing Nicki Minaj’s frustrated tweets about the VMAs.

Nicki Minaj at the 2010 VMAs. (Photo Credit: Philip Nelson / flickr)

Nicki Minaj at the 2010 VMAs. (Photo Credit: Philip Nelson / flickr)

I’ve said before that there is an unwritten code of conduct that Black women must adhere to in order to be taken seriously, listened to, or even allowed to live.

Most other people will quickly claim it’s the attitudes of Black women that causes us to be dehumanized, but that is untrue. Even when we’re being polite, any disagreement from Black women is treated as aggression. So where and when are we allowed to speak up if we’re being mistreated, when everything we say is considered an attack?

On Tuesday, rapper Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to vent about the VMA nominations. Nicki is by far the most popular female rapper out there right now. She has found major pop success as well. But she has always been very vocal about how Black women in the music industry often don’t get the recognition they deserve for their work.

She’s no stranger to the way the public sees her (and other Black women) either, so in her tweets on Tuesday, Nicki Minaj states plainly her disappointment at her record breaking video for Anaconda being snubbed for Video of the Year. Nicki points out that although her video was a viral success, broke Vevo records, and was even parodied on the Ellen DeGeneres show, her video did not receive a nomination. She also points out that her video was a celebration of women’s bodies, but it seemed that this type of celebration was only acceptable on thinner artists.

Then this happened.

Within the hour, articles popped up all over the internet about a “feud” between the two women, stating that Nicki Minaj had attacked Taylor in her tweets, even though Taylor Swift’s name wasn’t mentioned once, nor had Nicki been malicious towards other artists.

Nicki, in her own words, was pointing out where she saw how misogyny played a part in who was considered worthy of accolades and who was looked over. She was pointing out a complex problem in the most direct way possible. But it seemed that the media wanted to skip over her entire point and instead focus on a non-existent feud between the her and Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift’s tweets did more than just derail a real and important point that Nicki Minaj was trying to make. Aside from being the most obvious case of a hit dog hollering, Taylor’s tweet demonstrated a huge issue that mainstream White Feminism has when it comes to dealing with Black women and other People of Color.

They don’t get that our experiences are different from theirs and often try an chastise us for perceived slights against them, while ignoring the real ones we face. Although Nicki Minaj’s tweets are a criticism of the VMAs, Taylor tries to make it seem as if Nicki is “pit[ting] women against women” for simply speaking about her experience as a thick and Black woman in the music industry.

Instead of understanding that Nicki’s experience as a woman is different from what her own might be, Taylor instead falls back to a very narrow — and White — view of what life is like as a woman.
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My Stormtrooper is Black, Just Like My President

Why John Boyega’s starring role in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will be so important.

It was announced a couple of years ago, shortly after Lucasfilm was officially sold to Disney, that there were going to be new Star Wars films on the way. As the months passed, actors, writers, and directors were announced. While we were all excited about the return of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and everyone’s favorite ‘droids — R2D2 and C3PO — not everyone was entirely on board with J.J. Abrams being brought on to the project. At the time, the movie seemed like it was a long ways away, and something that we shouldn’t get excited for just yet.

Then, in November 2014, on the day after Thanksgiving, a teaser trailer was released. In the trailer we see the usual trappings of a Star Wars film, as well as as new characters, and even a little round and rolling ‘droid by the name of BB-8. The trailer brought a lot of excitement to some, but a certain segment of people were upset. Why? Because of the appearance of actor John Boyega in a Stormtrooper costume. Apparently, they believed very fervently that Stormtroopers are supposed to be White.

John Boyega in Stormtrooper armor in the November 2014 trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

John Boyega in Stormtrooper armor in the November 2014 trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

(Editor’s nerdly note: Canonically, within the movies, Stormtroopers do not have a defined skin color or origin and are never seen without their helmets on. There is no reason to believe they were all White. Their predecessors in the clone troopers of the Grand Army of the Republic were all clones of Jango Fett, played in the films by part-Maori actor Temuera Morrison.)

On April 16th, the second teaser trailer for the movie was released, and John Boyega is again seen in the Stormtrooper armor, as well as in regular clothing and looks to be one of the lead characters in the film. It is still unknown whether or not his character is actually a Stormtrooper or in some kind of disguise (like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” film from 1977).

Why is this exciting? Because the Star Wars films, despite being diverse in their supporting or background casting, have yet to show as much diversity in casting their main characters. Although characters like Mace Windu and Lando Calrissian are iconic and have interesting backstories on their own (if you have time to read all of those books), none of the Star Wars films can even pass the first rule of the Racial Bechdel test. That test being: It has to have two People of Color in it, who talk to each other, not about White people.

While casting John Boyega as a main character alone doesn’t fix the issue automatically, it is a great starting point. Main characters in movies have character growth, personal histories, and, most importantly, storylines that are about them. Those backgrounds generally also imply other People of Color, who can potentially be introduced as well. John Boyega’s character therefore likely means interaction with other POC side-characters, who potentially focus on something other than the usual white protagonists you see so often in films. Especially in Sci-Fi.

This also isn’t the first time this specific actor has starred in a sci-fi role. Many people will remember John Boyega as the critically-acclaimed breakout star of the 2011 film Attack the Block.

That film was much less Space Opera than the Star Wars franchise and instead deals with a group of teenagers from the slums fighting off an alien invasion. That film also has not one but three main characters of color, and a diverse enough background cast that it passes the Racial Bechdel test on multiple occasions with flying colors. Aside from that, John Boyega’s performance as that main character Moses is compelling. He’s the type of anti-hero that many other gritty movies hope to portray.
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Valiant LA Times colonialists reach Black Twitter’s shores

If given a pen and endless amounts of paper and ink (or a computer since I live in 2015), I wouldn’t be able to accurately explain what Black Cool is. It’s ever-changing: a prism that separates into so many different cultures and subcultures. It’s extremely valuable, but the people who make it aren’t considered as valuable. It’s a coveted resource, and it has shaped Pop Culture the world over.

In the age of the internet, Black Cool travels fast. Words that used to take years to become part of the Pop Culture Lexicon now take days. White teenagers and major consumer brands adopt and discard the language like a fad, without regard for its originators or intended use. Black dances, fashion, humor, and much more have all become openly accessible to more than just Black people. That has become both a blessing and a curse.

On the internet, Twitter reigns supreme for disseminating information. The medium is proportionally more popular among People of Color than it is among White people, especially among younger users. Over the past few years more and more attention has been brought to what’s referred to as “Black Twitter.” The way it’s talked about you’d think Black Twitter was one, uniform group, much the way Black people are stereotyped. However Black Twitter itself is a prism, the epicenter of Black Cool on the internet.

And Black Twitter is being stalked.

On July 6th, it was revealed that the L.A. Times hired a reporter to “report on Black Twitter.” The release memo goes on to explain the reporter’s credentials, his schooling and his experience with social media. The memo does not say the exact purpose of having someone report on Black Twitter, other than to “create stories with and pull stories from” the Black Twitter community. Admittedly the L.A. Times could have good intentions, but the way this is being executed is unnerving.

With all of the appropriation that happens on the internet, this seems disingenuous. It almost seems as if the L.A. Times is attempting to mine Black Twitter for headlines. While news media should be looking for stories that affect people of color, and should be hiring people of color to share our stories, hiring one man to cover all of Black Twitter seems sterile. News sites like Buzzfeed — while they too have their issues at times — has multiple Twitter-active Black people on their staff. Those writers organically engage with Black Twitter often and are part of the larger community. Because of this, they have a better idea of when something crosses the line from interesting to exploitative. Also because of this, when they do cross that line or mess up in any way, Black Twitter has an avenue to check them, and many times they listen. It’s not just one person reporting back to a newsroom of disaffected people, it’s genuine, flawed, human interaction.

Black people are people, not animals in a zoo. Black Twitter is not an observatory where you can watch Black people interact in their native habitat, and media needs to stop treating it as such. This attempt to mine Black Cool from Black Twitter, by minimal interaction with it, treats Black people and our culture like a commodity. Black people deserve better representation. We also deserve to have our lives interpreted in as complex a way as our culture is. More than that, we deserve our privacy and the right to keep and protect what we created for ourselves. Our bodies and cultures are not just here for you to study. Sadly, too much of history has involved exactly that. Little wonder that the L.A. Times announcement has been greeted with such skepticism.

"The Colonization of Black Twitter by the Los Angeles Times in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen" (Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy.)

“The Colonization of Black Twitter by the Los Angeles Times in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen” (Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy.)

Zoe Saldana still shouldn’t be playing Nina Simone

Representation is important. This mantra is something that you’ve probably seen and heard a lot all over the internet and from many People of Color in media, literature, science, and many other fields. Twitter alone has sparked so many movements to broaden the diversity: in video games with #INeedDiverseGames, in television shows with #DiversifyAgentCarter, and in publishing with #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

There is an obvious and vocalized need for diversity in everything we indulge in. But despite the calls for it and even with the attempts by different industries to give the people what they want, there are still so many mistakes being made.

A few years ago it was announced that there was going to be a biopic about Nina Simone. (The film made its Cannes Film Festival debut in May 2014 and was recently slated for release some time this year.) The movie, we were told, would be starring Zoe Saldana. This casting choice made many uncomfortable for several reasons.

Issues like Colorism and Eurocentric beauty standards are still a very open wound amongst Black people. Nina Simone was, famously, a dark skinned woman with very “African” physical features. Having her portrayed by Zoe Saldana, a lighter-skinned woman with more “acceptable” features (by White standards), is both insulting to Simone and a dishonest portrayal.

Left: Nina Simone, 1965 (credit). Right: Zoe Saldana, 2010 (credit). Composite image by Arsenal For Democracy.

Left: Nina Simone, 1965 (credit). Right: Zoe Saldana, 2010 (credit). Composite image by Arsenal For Democracy.

Subsequently released pictures of Zoe Saldana during filming showed her with darkened skin, a prosthetic nose, and an afro wig. These added even more insult to injury.

A lot of people will say that Saldana’s blackness should be enough, but that is still dishonest. Hollywood is an industry that already has issues with whitewashing characters of color (i.e. simply casting a White actor) and centralizing White characters in stories about People of Color’s issues. It also has a problem with how it casts characters of color in their films.

Characters that are initially described explicitly in their original novel or comic book sources as medium to darker skinned are cast with much lighter-skinned actors and actresses in the movie adaptations. Characters like Storm in the X-Men (who in the comic books ranged anywhere from medium to dark brown) and Christina in Divergent (who was described as dark brown in the books) are played by Halle Berry and Zoe Kravitz respectively, who are both very light skinned actresses.

People of African descent across the diaspora come in a wide range of skin tones in real life, but it seems that Hollywood only wants to present the section of the spectrum that is palatable to White people. This continues to reinforce the painful social norms, even within Black America, that have often prized lighter skin tones over darker.

In a film about Nina Simone, a woman who was well aware that her Black features were offensive to the White gaze, it’s impossible for the creators to not understand that this would be an issue. Yet the solution that they came to — based on the photos we’ve seen — made the situation worse. Darkening Zoe Saldana’s skin and having her wear a prosthetic nose is akin to, if not blatantly the same as, blackface.

Although the film is meant to honor the late singer, you can’t ignore the original history of blackface and how it was used to humiliate and mock Black people — and explicitly linking the darkest skin tones to other negative tropes. And yes, it was even performed by Black people, putting down those who looked the least like the majority-White society.

To ignore this context when making a movie about a woman whose life was shaped by her blackness — indeed her dark-skinned blackness specifically — isn’t honoring her life and legacy. It’s ignoring it.

Representation is important, but dishonest representations do nothing to break the status quo. It’s not enough to have one small portion of the blackness spectrum — of appearances and, by extension, life experiences — be what represents all of us.

More Than A Hairstyle: The Resurgence of Natural Hair

It’s hard for some to believe that something so simple as hair could be so political. It’s something we all have, and seems to be a topic more fit for fashion magazines than serious debate. However for Black people, the subject of hair can be a very sore topic. From tignons to hot combs to chemical straighteners, Black women have been at best enthusiastically “encouraged” and at worst lawfully obligated to alter or even hide their hair to be considered acceptable in society.

Recently, with the rise of YouTube videos and loads of resources on the internet, many Black women have decided to ditch the straighteners and go back to natural hairstyles. ‘Locs have made a comeback in a big way, but more Black women are increasingly enjoying their unbound hair, in the form of twist-outs, braid-outs, wash-and-go’s, and many other different styles. You can find tutorials on YouTube for specific styles, natural hair care blogs for maintenance, and ever ask for advice on Twitter about dying or temporarily straightening your ‘fro without doing the extensive damage that would happen before.

More and more Black celebrities are also showing off their natural hair to the world. Artists like Janelle Monae and Solange are known for their long coils and have no shame wearing them out in public for all to see.

Solange Knowles proudly sporting natural hair at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. (Credit: Georges Biard / Wikimedia)

Solange Knowles proudly sporting natural hair at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. (Credit: Georges Biard / Wikimedia)

Although more Black women are embracing their natural hair, there’s still a stigma about whether or not it is considered presentable or professional. In 2012, after responding to a racist comment about her wearing her natural hair on television, Rhonda Lee was fired from her job as a TV anchor. In 2013, a girl in Florida was told that she would have to cut her afro or be suspended from school. Last year, U.S. Army regulations that seemed to discriminate against natural Black hair types for female troops also earned a scathing Daily Show segment by Jessica Williams, before they were revised.

Most recently, the French magazine Public referred to Solange Knowles’s afro as “coiffée comme un dessous de bras” which translates into English as “hair done like armpit hair.” The article went viral on Twitter, and user @huegolden started the hashtag #TwitpicYourCheveuxCrepus encouraging people to post pictures of their natural hairstyles. Both English- and French-speaking Twitter users shared pictures of their hair, sending the message to the public that Black hair types are just as beautiful as any other hair type.

But it isn’t just Black hair styles that is the problem; the actual problem seems to be the bodies that the hairstyles are attached to. Earlier this year two starlets wore temporary “faux ‘loc” styles and got two very different responses to them. Kylie Jenner, one of the younger sisters of the Kardashian clan, revealed her temporary ‘locs on her Instagram page and was immediately lauded as a trendsetter for her “edgy” new look. A few weeks later at the Academy Awards, Zendaya, a young Black actress, was mocked for her decision to wear faux ‘locs to the show.

The idea that Black hair is unprofessional, unpresentable, or even dirty stems from racist stereotypes and a complete lack of understanding about Black hair. While you can go almost anywhere and find a salon that works with straight hair, salons that work with Black hair textures are almost impossible to find outside of Black neighborhoods, and salons that work with natural hair and not just straightened Black hair are even more niche. It’s that level of isolation that leaves most White people clueless about and prejudiced against the many different kinks and coils that make up Black hair.

It seems, though, that the tide is turning in favor of natural hair, as more and more women elect to wear their curls out, and more and more companies are coming out with products for non-chemically straightened Black hair.

The Oscars and the Pitfalls of White Feminism

After the initial controversy about the lack of diversity in the nominations for the Academy Awards, you would think that the awards show and everything associated with it would have done a better job of keeping away from controversy. Yet it seems the opposite.

Despite their extensive advertising coverage featuring videos of Lupita Nyong’o, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis being their elegant selves at previous shows and rehearsal recordings — as if to say “Hey! We do have black friends!” — it seems that the show couldn’t help but make one misstep after another. The host, Neil Patrick Harris, opened the show with a very awkward attempt to make fun of just how White this year’s nominees were, and later on baited David Oyelowo into making yet another unnecessary joke about Quvenzhané Wallis’ name. Sean Penn also made an extremely racist joke about Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu that would not have been made about any European, British, or Canadian nominees.

Another terrible incident that happened was some of the comments made about one of the attendees. In an Oscars Pre-Show, Giuliana Rancic made comments about the faux dreadlocked hairstyle that actress Zendaya wore for the awards. In her comments about the actress (which was later revealed to be actively scripted) Giuliana stated that Zendaya’s dreads made her look like she smelled of “weed and patchouli.” Giuliana later apologized for her statements after Zendaya released a statement addressing the disparaging comments. This comes just weeks after several blog posts praising Kylie Jenner and her faux dreads as edgy and innovative.

Although the aforementioned incidents are ghastly themselves, another incident is equally offensive though it tried to hide itself in a positive speech. Patricia Arquette during her acceptance speech called for wage equality for women, a speech that excited many of the folks watching. Backstage, when she received the award and was asked by the press to elaborate, Arquette stated that “men who love women, gays and people of color that we’ve fought for need to fight for us now” (video). She didn’t explain who “us” were, but in her initial speech she was speaking about wage equality for women and in the press conference she seems to be listing the people outside of that group who she believes should be allies, so it’s not a huge leap to assume that in Ms. Arquette’s mind she was referring to White women.

Pictured: Patricia Arquette, file photo. (Credit: HeartTruth.gov / Wikimedia)

Pictured: Patricia Arquette, file photo. (Credit: HeartTruth.gov / Wikimedia)

I’ve written before about what does and does not get to be seen as Women’s or Feminist issues in society, and this is a new case of that classic problem. Wage equality for women is definitely a challenge, but to say that gays and people of color “need to fight” for wage equality ignores the fact that they’ve been doing it all along. Solidarity is important, but you add insult to injury when you ask people who are already working towards change to work harder. Calling for solidarity makes sense, but it’s insulting to demand solidarity from those already showing it and from those who are themselves part of the movement.

Moreover, Women of Color have always had a particularly strong disadvantage when it came to work and wages. Even today Black, Native American and Latina women make less money than even White women, earning $0.64, $0.59 and $0.54 respectively for every dollar a White man makes. In contrast, White women make a total of $0.78 per dollar a White man makes. While that still is unequal, it doesn’t make sense to turn around and tell those less fortunate to help you make it to the full dollar when you may or may not have helped them get only halfway there and seem to believe their struggle is complete.

It’s a shame. In the year 2015, Women of Color, especially Black women, are still not considered part of the movements that should include us. Our fashion and style is considered unique and interesting only when it’s not on our bodies, and our hard work is only used to help folks with more than us to get ahead while we suffer in the background. This shouldn’t be happening — not in media or in any other fields we get into. It’s a shame. It’s a travesty. And it needs to stop.