Monday, December 29, 2014

Hair

The various stages of my hair. Top (L to R): Relaxed, Wig
Bottom (L to R): Weave, Three Years Natural
I was seven years old when I got my first relaxer. 

Spurred on by promises that my "unmanageable" and kinky natural hair would be transformed into the silky, cascading waves of my mother's hair, I happily climbed into the hairdresser's chair and subjected myself to the unique agony of a chemical relaxer. There is no exact natural equivalent to the pain that a relaxer causes, except perhaps fire. After the white paste is applied to roots of the hair (or in the case of seven-year-old Amanda, all of the hair), it must remain there for at least ten minutes (though generally more on particularly coarse hair like mine). After a few minutes, pinpricks of concentrated heat begin to feel as if they are sprouting from the skull itself and then, like hotspots in a forest fire, eventually spread and escalate in intensity and temperature, burning the undergrowth and covering the entire scalp. After a while, comparing a relaxer to the feeling of being burned becomes inadequate. Near the end of the application, the feeling is more akin to serrated knives raking haphazardly across the scalp. Then, after the hair has been rinsed, neutralized, conditioned, dried, and pressed into an ornate coiffeur, dime-sized raised scabs linger on the scalp for a week, making combing, styling, and sometimes even sleeping nearly unbearable.  

I committed to this same routine every six weeks for ten years, clawing at the arms of hairdresser chairs and denying the water in my eyes because I wanted to be pretty. And for myself and many other young Black girls, being pretty meant being White, or at least anything other than Black (hence the reason why Cherokee Indian Chiefs are so frequently found in Black family trees). I cultivated a refined jealousy of other Black girls whose hair had the coveted "bounce like a White girl," particularly as they shook their long, straight bangs and swished their hair down their backs, a feat for me that likely would have involved sorcery and the sale of my nonexistent first-born child. 

But in my petty jealousy, there was an intense sadness and the unshakeable feeling that I was inadequate because my hair simply refused to submit to the acceptable norm of the relaxer. Of course, in my narrowed vision, I excluded the undeniable truth that most Black girls with relaxers had hair that looked just like mine-- hair that was puffy at the roots, snaggly and dry at the ends, and only grew to about chin-length before the relaxer broke it off or an overzealous hairstylist arbitrarily decided it was time for a "trim." 

Relaxed hair is a finicky animal-- a lot of moisture (which is what Black hair needs) makes it greasy, limp, and incapable of achieving the "White girl bounce." However, never moisturizing it after the hairdresser fixes it gives it temporary bounce, but ultimately causes it to break off and split. And from my adolescent perspective, my inability to grow my inherently chemically-damaged hair was a mark against my value as a person. There was nothing I could have done to make my relaxed hair healthy, but every beautiful Black woman I knew had long, straight hair, so there had to be something I could do to fix my terrible hair as well.

Then, when I was seventeen, I broke down crying in front of my parents because I thought my hair made me too ugly to go outside, much less to participate in the prestigious law firm internship that I planned to attend that summer (this was back when I still believed natural hair was unprofessional. My thoughts have since changed). My father's response was to buy me a wig, and for a brief while, I was content. For a few months, my "hair" achieved the long-coveted length and bounce, and I reveled in the compliments that other long-haired Black women bestowed upon me. However, there were downsides to my Secret Wig Life. I lived in constant paranoia that the lace at the font of my wig would reveal itself, and I would be outed as a wig-wearing dupe (not to mention the unarticulated fear that someone, despite my best protective efforts, would snatch the wig from my head). Additionally, the wig was simply too hot. In the summer, it felt as if I was wearing a knitted ski cap on my head, and in the South, that was unbearable. I had finally gotten the glossiness and straightness that I had wanted, but in exchange, I had to live a life mired in fear and discomfort. I had changed my hair, but the underlying issue of my unhappiness with myself and my hair was still there.

Naturally, my next step was to get a weave. 

Now, my hair was even longer and fuller, and it became a favored hobby of mine to run my hands through my "hair" and hold my head coquettishly over my shoulder, loving the way my weave cascaded down my back in smooth, even waves. Finally, I was feminine. At the time, my narrowly constructed conception of femininity and womanhood dictated that hair that was short or kinky could never be anything other than masculine or undesirable, and because my hair had either been short of kinky (or both) for the majority of my life, I believed myself to be excluded from some hallowed cult of femininity. Once I realized this, I knew it was time to take the weave off (this was also compounded with the fact that my edges were quickly becoming a distant memory).

So I cut off all my hair. 

I had been obsessively watching YouTube videos of natural hair gurus before I did the Big Chop, so I was under the distinct impression that upon cutting off my brittle, relaxed ends, my natural hair would emerge looking like a cross between Tracee Ellis Ross and the models for Kinky-Curly Curling Custard (never mind that Ross and the Kinky-Curly models are mixed-race and the most popular natural hair vloggers have significantly looser curl patterns than the average Black girl). What I naively did not expect was to emerge from the salon looking like a stuffed plum, my tiny Afro totally devoid of curls and looking like a fourth member of the Gap Band. The next day at school, I received strange looks from students and teachers alike, and was called "Kunta Kinte," a "slave," and other derogatory remarks. Who would have known that wearing my hair the way it grows naturally from my head would cause such a fuss?

However, as I re-learned how to care for my natural hair, a creature that had not been seen or heard from since early childhood, I developed a form of confidence in and respect for myself that had not been present during all the years that I worked so hard to achieve a limited and impossible beauty ideal. My hair is dense, kinky, shrinks when wet, prone to dryness, and tangles easily. But it is also beautifully thick, voluminous, and can be worn straight, curly, or kinky, depending on the day. My hair is different, and that's okay. It takes courage to be different, courage that I never knew I had. it takes the ability to totally disregard what boys, your friends, and society think of you to live your life the way you want to, the opinions of others be damned.

I take pride in the fact that no one on Earth has hair exactly like mine. It is a unique mixture of different curl patterns, textures, and kinks. It cannot be purchased in a store, and it is impossible to go to a hair salon and request the "Amanda." There was a time when I would have been ashamed to go to class or out in public with my Afro, feeling uncomfortable in my difference and the attention that it drew. But now I could not imagine a life centered around being anything other than different, and if my hair looks so good that people feel the need to stare, then I must be doing something right.

After all, it's just hair anyway.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Let Him Go.

source: someecards.com
As women, we are inundated with images of the narrowly-defined different "types" of men from an extraordinarily young age. We are trained to sharpen our eyes with hawk-like precision to the profile of the elusive banker, lawyer, or doctor with ambition, to harbor a fanatical adoration for the affable and confident jock, and to develop a gradual, acquired taste for the archetype of the nerd (because, as we all know, it is they who shall inherit the earth). Simultaneously, we are warned to be disgusted with the momma's boy, to cultivate a subtle disdain for the perpetual man-child, and to avoid interactions with the much-storied and borderline-cartoonish "bad boy" at all costs.

The villainous figure of the bad boy is peppered throughout our favorite childhood movies, novels, and TV shows, crossing his arms defensively as he leans against a locker or stands entirely too close to you at a bar. He exists as an unusually one-dimensional, motorcycle-driving, leather-wearing, tattoo-having foil for the overly idealized and heroic "good guy," who rescues the hapless female protagonist with promises of faithful love, marriage and white picket fences (since those, of course, are the only significant goals in a woman's life). And at the conclusion of the tale, the bad boy unfailingly retreats back into the recesses of our collective consciousness, existing only as a concrete physical example of what women should not under any circumstances be attracted to.

But what if, in reality, the "bad boy" and the "good guy" are not exactly as they appear?

What if the "good guy," with his perfect smile, impeccable manners, and exceptional grades and ambition, possesses all of the stereotypically villainous characteristics of the "bad boy," but has managed to conceal them beneath a thin, pristine veneer of chivalry and education? What if the good guy, with his brilliantly constructed show of intelligence, charisma, and brittle kindness, is truly everything that a woman should avoid?

We all at some point fall into this trap, developing a complex and unrequited affinity for a man who appears to have all of the visible qualities of a good guy that we have been trained to seek out, but really harbors a set of deeply unsettling and destructive attitudes toward women that we have been convinced only exist in the bad boy. This type of individual can be easily identified by his need to subtly boast about his many accomplishments (better known as a "humble brag"), his tendency to passive-aggressively refuse to see you as his equal (since this type of individual thrives on power imbalances), and his inability to remain in a healthy, long-term relationship.

But he looks like a good guy, and he talks like a good guy, and he certainly appears to be a lot better than the other men in your circle. So you love him, forgiving his transgressions and his arrogance because deep down, you're sure hes's really a good guy. He has to be. He's supposed to be.

I can completely empathize with the undeniably tempting possibility of becoming the "Jay-Z and Beyoncé of the intellectual/medical/legal/(insert other professional field) World" (since every one of us has, at one point or another, harbored some interest in at least temporarily becoming Beyoncé). However, ultimately, that is a disservice to you and any talent or gift that you have to offer. Beyoncé was a talented musician and businesswoman long before she met Jay-Z, and I can say without a doubt that she would continue to be one if the two of them ever happened to part ways (hopefully not). Constructing your goals and your life's trajectory around another individual-- may they be male or female-- is a dangerous and difficult path to take. What if the person whom you have taken the time to elevate to god-like status in your psyche turns out to be dishonest, disloyal, or irrevocably egotistical? What, then, will happen to your goals, which are contingent upon what a single individual thinks you are capable of on any given day?

You have to let him go, and with him, all of the hopes you endowed upon a person who, quite frankly, wasn't worth your time.

Initially, you'll feel that the most tragic and disappointing part of it all is that there was always something you could have done just a little bit better to change how he felt about you (this is yet another one of life's great mysteries-- science allows us to make macaroni and cheese in the microwave in three minutes and thirty seconds, but it has not yet figured out how to prevent the persistence of dickery in our society). But then, gradually over time, you'll make the grand realization that this isn't your fault. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. It wasn't because you weren't pretty enough or smart enough or enough fun at parties (and who decides that anyway?). There will simply always be people who derive joy from the pain of others, and it just so happened that you ended up investing entirely too much time in one of these unfortunate humans.

Any individual who is cruel enough to take advantage of your genuine feelings for them and use those feelings against you as a form of entertainment, a way to reinforce their own ego, or to belittle you is not the type of individual who deserves to have a prominent place (or any place for that matter) in your life. It is ultimately up to you to decide what amount of influence you will allow an individual to have over your life.

And when all else fails, listen to the infinitely wise words of Beyoncé: he was probably the best thing you never had anyway.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

This Blackness of Mine

It is something I can never escape, this Blackness of mine.

I wake up Black, peering through groggy eyes at any new reports of Black men and women being legally slain, their killer's actions justified through the coded language of racism: "Thug," "criminal tendency," "looked dangerous," and so forth, and I casually wonder over breakfast if it will be me today on the news, my parents crying over my body as opposing images of me in a graduation gown and me in a black miniskirt are flashed on CNN and Fox News, respectively.

I go to class Black, often the only slash of pigment in an otherwise pallid landscape, holding my head high and working twice as hard, only to have people ask me if I like to eat collard greens and accuse the slaves of being inept for not freeing themselves.

I walk around campus and the world Black, receiving cold sideways glances as I walk through the aisles of convenience stores, having doors slammed in my face even though biologically, beneath this criminal brown skin, I am a woman and therefore a lady who should be treated with respect under the code of "Southern gentility." I suppose that doesn't apply to me. I am ignored by White classmates, standing with their gaggle of friends, as they are ashamed to acknowledge that they could ever have come in contact with someone like me, a dark contaminant in a pristine world.

I walk home Black, fearing that it is my day to be called a nigger by a drunken boy leaning out of the side of a speeding pickup truck. Of course, it could always be worse. I could be the villanous "dark-skinned male," the curiously anonymous rapist, thief, and carjacker whose description mysteriously matches the appearance of all 2,000 Black men on campus (since we all look alike anyway).

If I ever have children, I will be forced to fear for them always, worrying about losing them not only to the universal dangers of kidnapping, illness, and injury, but also to police brutality and being targeted by hate groups. And there will be absolutely nothing I can do-- no matter how well I dress them or teach them how to speak or move them to "safe" neighborhoods, there is always the distinct possibility that I may have to bury my own children.

And I will die Black, hopefully later rather than sooner (though there is no guarantee), having lived a life mired in racism, prejudice, violence, cruelty, and perceived inferiority, simply because of the genetically insignificant (but socially devastating) differences in the shade of my skin and the kink of my hair. It's enough to drive someone mad.

But it doesn't, this Blackness.

This life that I did not choose, but am incredibly grateful for, has made me aware. I am aware of atrocities and injustice that affect not only subjugated groups in America, but also worldwide (the sufferings of those in Hong Kong, Palestine, and Mexico currently come to mind). I am unafraid to stand for what I know to be right and true because what is the worst that could happen? I could be hated? Persecuted? Abused? Disrespected? Stereotyped? For me and others like me, this is simply a daily part of my reality.

And now, as people of color and other oppressed groups unite to protest the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ryo Oyamada, Aiyanna Jones, and hundreds of others, we are met with opposition and indifference. Such a response is expected from White people who neither have ever or will ever want anything to do with people of color or their unique struggles. Yet, the minimal to nonexistent response from White celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Eminem, and Iggy Azalea (who implied that the slaying of Mike Brown was not "relevant" to her life) who built their brands, careers, and financial empires by capitalizing on the popularity and "cool" of Black culture is highly telling. As Paul Mooney said, "Everybody wants to be black, but nobody really wants to be black."

Just as during the Harlem Renaissance, when curious White tourists ventured into Harlem to patronize the segregated Cotton Club and watch Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and others perform to get the "thrill" of Black urban life, many modern White people proudly blast "Trap" music from their car speakers, try to sag their pants, adopt "blaccents" to varying degrees of offensiveness, and throw "Thug Life" costume parties (see Dear White People) to revel in the most stereotypical and easily commodified aspects of Black culture. However, when the necessity arises for these same individuals to recognize and check their privilege as White people and stand in solidarity with the people from whom they procured much of their success and entertainment, their response is to question the "relevance" of social and political equality or distort the central premise of a protest so that it fits within their narrow comfort zone of racial progress (such as with the substitution of the hashtag #AllLivesMatter for the original and significant #BlackLivesMatter).

It is impossible to force these individuals to recognize the inherent flaws in their beliefs or actions, simply because the nature of White Privilege allows them to live their entire lives without the slightest inkling of what it is like to have one's race function permanently as an unofficial rejection letter, indicator of guilt, symbol of intellectual incompetence or inferiority or death sentence. However, as individuals who are motivated to promote racial equality-- both White people and people of color-- it is critical that we recognize that Blackness and its social consequences are not merely something you can remove at the end of the day or retire from after a long, successful career.

And if someone is unwilling to acknowledge that unquestionable truth, then perhaps it is time that we begin questioning when it became acceptable in our society to profit and derive enjoyment from the legitimate suffering of others.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What Elizabeth Lauten's Criticism of Sasha and Malia Obama Tells Us About the Oversexualization of Black Girls

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston wrote that Black women are "the mule of the world."

Fast forward more than eighty years, and not only does Hurston's sentiment still ring true, but it has also expanded to include the grim reality that Black women are the butt of every joke, the victims intraracial discrimination, and most recently with the comments made by (former) congressional communications director Elizabeth Lauten, systematically denied the respect and creative freedom that non-minority women often take for granted.

This is not the first instance that the children of a sitting president have been the subject of public scrutiny. During the 1990s, Saturday Night Live featured a sketch that mocked the attractiveness of a then-twelve-year-old Chelsea Clinton, and Jenna Bush was heavily criticized during her college years for receiving a misdemeanor for underage drinking. However, Lauten's criticism of Sasha and Malia Obama is different, her sentiments reflecting a long tradition of American society and the Black community oversexualizing and devaluing the bodies of young African American women. From a disturbingly young age (usually ranging from the ages of 5-10), African American girls are labeled as being "fast" or "thots" by older relatives or family friends if their behavior deviates in any way from their perceived "norm" for sexual behavior. Imposing these demeaning sexual labels onto young Black girls essentially robs them of their childhood and the all too important rights to innocence and protection from adult social ills that society traditionally gives to children.

Young Black girls who are not protected from individuals like Elizabeth Lauten or other critics become vulnerable targets for rape, child molestation, and dysfunctional relationships, and when they do become victims of these types of circumstances, they are denied the empathy and help that they need because "she was a ho anyway" or because "she's been fast since she was a little girl." However, society ignores that these behaviors and negative situations are all too often the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy-- if a Black female child is constantly told from the time that she is in Kindergarten to the time that she begins puberty (and becomes sexually active) that she will never be anything other than a "slut" or a "baby mama" (and she is never able to access information or images that prove the contrary), then she may ultimately believe this lie and succumb to the cycle of sexual and romantic strife that has come to incorrectly socially define African American women.

It is clear, naturally, that Sasha and Malia Obama are in no danger of falling into this cycle-- they are respectful, intelligent, and humble young ladies with a supportive and loving family. However, for Sasha, Malia, and thousands of other young Black women (particularly adolescents) who are experimenting with their personal style and modes of creative expression, degrading and racially-charged comments like Lauten's can be devastating because of their ability to stifle creativity and the creation of a unique identity. I have already touched on the way that society labels White female creativity as "avant garde," whereas Black female creativity is labeled as "ratchet or "slutty," and Lauten's criticism of Sasha and Malia's attire-- in which she stated that the girls were dressed as if they deserved a "seat at a bar"-- is an example of that inequity.

Although the trend in modern female progressive thought is to dress for yourself or your female friends rather than for the pleasure of men, this right apparently does not apply to Black women who are interested in expressing themselves through their clothing. Because the Black female body has been labeled and coded as a object that exists solely for public sexual consumption or criticism, Black women have absolutely no right to claim their bodies as their own or to decide (like other women) when their sexuality is or is not off-limits to the public. The fact that Lauten, a low-ranking communications director, felt that she had every right to attack and condemn the teenage daughters of the President of the United States tells us just how vulnerable African American girls and women are in American society.

If even the daughters of the leader of the free world are not free from scrutiny of their attire, sexuality, and identity, then you can imagine how difficult it is for the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This is What White Privilege Looks Like

By now, it is likely that you have already heard about a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury's failure to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager named Mike Brown. Wilson shot Brown a total of six times (including a shot to the head) as he attempted to apprehend Brown for allegedly stealing a pack of cigarillos from a local convenience store.

In contrast, in 2011, after killing six people and attempting to murder former representative Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner was apprehended peacefully and alive. In 2012, after killing twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, James Holmes was also apprehended peacefully and alive and was given the right to a fair trial.

This is what White privilege looks like.

We often talk about race privilege in terms of economic, social, or political inequality, realizing that the institutional nature of racism allows White people a series of advantages that people of color are barred from obtaining. However, the deaths of African Americans such as Mike Brown at the hands of the police are indicative of an additional unexpected consequence of this system of privilege and inequality-- specifically, who receives the privilege of being treated civilly by the police and, by extension, the right to continue living.

Because of widely disseminated stereotypes of Black criminality, police and wider social perceptions of the Black body is that it is a dangerous entity that must be subdued with immediate force, whereas a White body, in its privilege, is left carefully blank of any stereotypes of aggression, criminality, or danger. If this train of thought is followed, Mike Brown, as a large, dark-skinned male whose personal physical aesthetic was as far as possible from the idea of the "safe" (meaning White) physical aesthetic, deserved to be shot six times and left in the street for 4.5 hours because he (and anyone who looks like him) are inherently a danger to society. Yet, we know this theory to be remarkably untrue and racially biased.

It is easy for people of color (particularly African Americans) to work through or ignore the gross underrepresentation of accurate and nuanced images of minorities in the media, films, and on television. The uplift of White people as the aesthetic, cultural, and social ideal within American society is problematic and unfair, but those who are accustomed to not benefiting from a system of racial privilege may simply view this as another benign (though irritating) consequence of White privilege. However, every depiction of an African American thug or a Latino illegal immigrant or criminal (particularly when these are the only available representations of people of color) only reinforces the false idea that people of color are more aggressive, angry, and dangerous than their White counterparts, including White criminals.

It is a widely known fact that the media has the ability to shape the way a society perceives itself and its participants. Thus, when an unarmed Black teenager is shot by an individual who is trained to protect and serve, the immediate socially conditioned response is an unsettling combination of respectability politics and racially-charged language:

"He was probably a thug anyway."
"If he had just pulled up his pants and taken off that damn hoodie, he would still be alive."
"You know, it's not surprising that one of those people acted like that anyway. Officer Wilson is the true hero here."
"Why are we focusing on this Mike Brown kid? We need to talk about Black-on-Black crime!" (while Black-on-Black crime is a hushed-up evil in the Black community, it is imperative that we don't take away from the very real issues of racial profiling and institutional racism that situations like Mike Brown's death reveal)

Statements like these, combined with the $300,000 in donations that Officer Wilson received from supporters and the shockingly violent response (which included tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot gear) from police officers to peaceful protesters in Ferguson, is indicative of the toxic consequences of the immense political, social, and economic power that is associated with privilege. Privilege does not merely consist of a group of people believing that they are superior to others. Privilege also means having the ability to manipulate existing social and historical institutions in their favor to wield that superiority over others. It does not matter whether or not Officer Darren Wilson intended to murder Michael Brown.

The existing system of White privilege already ensures that he is inherently exonerated of all guilt, and that is something worth protesting.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Twice as Good/Half as Much

Papa Pope ain't never lied.
On the show Scandal, Olivia Pope's father articulates, "you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have." Although Rowan's speech is left intentionally blank of direct racial references, it becomes quite clear that the African American Olivia Pope and her father are the unarticulated "us," and the Caucasian President Fitzgerald Grant represents the omniscient "them." Naturally, Rowan's comment extends far beyond the romantic entanglements of Scandal-- they reflect the ideals held by every upwardly mobile Black parent as they reflect on the sacrifices they made, as well as the irritatingly unchanged obstacles that their children will have to navigate within their society.

When I was very young, my father, a child of the Civil Rights Movement, gave me an eerily similar speech, his words likely existing as part of the standard, compulsory education that all minority parents give their children as a guide for how to survive in an inherently unequal society. I comprehended it as well as I could as I had never, prior to my father and I's conversation, considered my bookishness and interest in doing well in school to be connected to any social limitations that had been placed upon me as a result of my race. How could that be possible anyway, when all people were created equal? In my childhood world, rigid with its notions of moral rights and wrongs, what my father said had to be impossible-- or at least unlikely-- because it was only fair and just that equal work would yield equal results, right?

However, as I grew older, I slowly began to learn that my father's words-- as they always did-- rang agonizingly true. For an academic team, I memorized pages of information about sculptures, paintings, symphonies, and novelists, only to be have my accomplishments negated by someone who didn't believe that "that kind of person would know anything about fine arts." As I studied, scraped, and saved for summer internships, scholarships, and prospective trips to colleges, I knew of other (non-Black) classmates who were consistently given such opportunities, all of which were drawn from family histories steeped in wealth, access to higher education, and privilege. It seemed that nothing I did-- all of my studying, all of my networking, all of my skills-- was enough to distinguish me from or push me ahead of those with privilege. I and others like me were essentially like runners beginning twenty feet behind the starting line with no idea of what the track ahead might hold, whereas there were others who were already at the 100 meter mark and had been practicing this exact race for years.

Yet, what is one to do when issues of power and multi-generational wealth make it seemingly impossible for people of color to stand on equal footing with those who benefit from social privilege? It's simple: you work harder. But you don't just work harder in terms of academics-- that's a given. You're also now responsible for molding your entire identity around pleasing others (specifically White people). Here is where the figure of the Compulsorily Polite Negro is born, as well as its close relatives, the "I Only Speak the King's English" and "I'm Not Like Other ________ (insert minority group here)." Together, this family creates a life that is ultimately an elaborately staged performance, smiling through their nearly imperceptible masks as they fulfill their chosen role on stage, and then swear in anger at the absurdity of it all after the curtain drops. But we cannot fault them too harshly for their chosen roles. We all have been (and sometimes still are) in their positions, working to cope with the stress associated with being the assumed sole representative of your race. Or worse, the shame of struggling to catch up with other students whose lives of privilege (summer trips to Europe, parents who have advanced degrees, and grandparents who have set up trust funds in their name) make yours seem somehow inadequate and unworthy (trust me, it's not).

I am familiar with these minority students who are, out of a combination of coercion and desperation, forced into the vague uncomfortableness of living a double life-- one that allows them to assimilate into the world of the privileged, and one that does not. These are the ones who peruse Wikipedia pages of foreign countries that they can't afford to see in person. Or those who speak one language at home and pretend to speak like a BBC Jane Austen production at school. Or the ones who study more than all of their non-PoC classmates and are still labeled as being "smart for a Black/Latino/Asian/Native American kid". These are the ones who rise and rise and rise, though not solely out of a personal desire to succeed (though that certainly is there). These students know, through no fault of their own, that they have something to prove. They grimace silently beneath the falsely constructed weight of generations of academic underachievement, criminality, and economic depression, the threat of that dreaded, inevitable thing-- the mistake-- looming near above their shoulders.

Because when a minority makes a mistake (and he or she will-- despite the curiosity of melanin differences that divide us, we are all human), it reflects not only on them as an individual, but also upon their entire ethnic group. Every mistake a person of color makes is interpreted as justification for decades of discrimination and an unquestionable fulfillment of every grotesque racial stereotype that has ever existed. When a person of color fails, he or she not only fails themselves, but everyone who ever has or ever will look like them.

It is certainly this fear of failing on such a catastrophic scale that can function as a problematic motivation for people of color to avoid failure at all costs in their professional and academic lives, and I wish there was some sort of pithy phrase I could create to aid others in coping with this system. But that is the issue in itself-- it is a system, which has existed long before we were born, that contributes to the continued existence of the need for people of color to be "twice as good to get half as much." And as long as this system of economic, social, and legal privilege is in place, the only thing we can do is work to disprove and dismantle it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What Kim Kardashian's "Paper" Magazine Shoot Taught Us About Black Female Identity

The recent release of Kim Kardashian's fully nude Paper magazine spread was done with the intent to "Break the Internet." And, to an extent, it did, garnering thousands of likes and responses on Kardashian's social media accounts and those who reposted the images. However, on a larger scale, Kardashian's most recent publicity stunt has not truly broken  anything. Rather, it is another piece of evidence that ultimately upholds a series of disturbingly prevalent trends that have developed in American society over the past thirty years.

Kardashian, as a public figure, is often uplifted in society as the ideal in physical perfection, being slightly tan and exotic enough to be exempted from the travails of "basic" Whiteness, but nowhere near brown enough to fall into the categories of racial fetishization and social undesirability that plague Asian, Latina, and African American women. Kardashian's physical form is a perfect composite of all the features traditionally and stereotypically belonging to women of color-- large breasts, a small, curved waist, and large and proportional (more or less, depending on to whom you're speaking) hips and behind. However, what Kardashian also lacks is the "attitude" or "ratchetness" (once again, depending on to whom you're speaking) that is stereotypically associated with African American women.

In short, Kardashian has a Black girl booty without all of the Black girl "drama," and that is what draws men (particularly Black men) to her public persona.

At a recent event that I helped organize called "Black Girls Rise," one of the panelists articulated that African American men tend to praise the appearances of White women with more voluptuous and curvy bodies, placing them on pedestals and using their combined appearance and perceived stereotypical passivity to degrade African American women. This fact, which operates in tandem with derogatory comments against Black women by rappers Yung Berg and A$AP Rocky,  successfully captures the particular breed of misogyny directed toward Black women, generally at the hands of African American men.

Within the wider (non-Black) American society, the African American female aesthetic is either condemned (such as with Rihanna's Lui Magazine shoot) or totally ignored (such as the "Carolina Beaumont" image that inspired Jean-Paul Goude's Paper Magazine spread with Kardashian). This, compounded with the prevalence of easily-lampooned stereotypes such as the "Angry Black Woman," the Mammy, and the Jezebel in American media outlets, successfully results in the severe reduction or total erasure of the Black female identity from American society. But in its absence, the Black female body remains, reincarnated in that of Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, and other White women who are praised for having stereotypically "Black" bodies. Paired with this are the legions of non-Black women who clamor to purchase lip injections, butt implants, breast augmentations, and tanning beds in order to become what society has determined to be the feminine ideal.

In short, society's ideal woman is one who is Black.

But is she really? In these surgeries, cosmetic procedures, and digital enhancements, the fundamental elements of what makes the Black female identity unique and desirable are stripped away to generic nothingness, the basic intricacies of our personalities and ability for complex thought replaced with a falsely enhanced body that is easily marketable in its "safeness" to a wider American society that is wary of Black femininity but relishes the contours of her body. There is no place for the Black female identity, with all of its nuances, intersections, and pressing questions about the nature of inequality, in American society. But there is room enough for her body, carved into pieces and injected and sewn into non-Black reality stars, musicians, and other public figures who offer a "safe" alternative to the stereotypical aggression and "drama" of African American women.

However, African American women are not the only ones who suffer from these generalizations and the separation of the Black female identity and the Black female body. White women, who are equally deserving of respect and equally capable of intellectual and ideological complexity, are often caught in the crosshairs of a misogynistic debate that rages within the African American community. The penultimate threat that Black men make against Black women is to "leave your ass for a White girl," implying that any White woman, regardless of her individual identity or beliefs, is superior to or more docile than her African American counterpart. These sorts of threats and arguments create divisions among women of differing ethnicities and encourage the creation of internal hierarchies based on race rather than sustaining a racially diverse community that is equally invested in confronting issues that affect all women.

It is certainly easy for both Black and White women to develop feelings of distrust or contempt toward each other as a result of the paradigm that has been It is certainly a temptation for White women, as the pinnacle of the Eurocentric beauty ideal, to ignore or celebrate the struggles for agency and respect that Black women face on a daily basis. Similarly, it can be tempting for Black women to disregard possible collaborations with White women or to generalize their identities as a result of hurtful and misogynistic comments made by prominent male figures in the African American community.

However, if we all band together as a group, regardless of race or ethnicity, we may never have to be subjected to the sight of Kim Kardashian's bare behind ever again. And that's something worth fighting for.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Real Her?

Would Toni Morrison twirl her hair to get a guy?
 I didn't think so.
Ladies, we have all been guilty of this at some disastrous point in our lives: you're at a party with your friends, or you're at Starbucks by yourself working on a research paper (which really means you're watching yet another episode of Scandal while dodging judgmental glances from the more pretentious patrons), and a guy approaches you. He's kind of attractive, kind of well dressed, and hey, at least he isn't catcalling you. Clearly, you two are a match made in heaven, so you really can't mess this one up.

Now you have two options: you can engage him in an intellectual dialogue about the fascinating contents of your paper or something else that is interesting, or you can do what every female relative, talk show host, "lifestyle guru," and higher order of plant has instructed women to do since the dawn of sexual attraction-- play dumb.

"Playing dumb" can consist of a plethora of things, each one slightly more degrading and dehumanizing than the last. It can include making your voice unnaturally soft and high-pitched (I personally can transform from James Earl Jones to a chipmunk on helium within seconds), feigning ignorance of a topic on which you are clearly more than qualified to speak (An example of this would be a female astrophysics doctoral student allowing a guy in ironic horn-rimmed glasses to bumble through an explanation of Newton's third law of physics), pretending to be an ideal, conservative future housewife when you can't boil water or stand the thought of children or, God help us all, twirling your hair.

From a bafflingly young age, our culture tells women in thinly veiled language that they must either play dumb or suffer the consequences (I'm assuming that these ambiguous "consequences" somehow relate to dying alone among your highly advanced kingdom of cats). We have been duped into believing that our authentic selves are inadequate and inappropriate for this world, and we are told towe really don't care).
to "hold back" in conversations with men in order to allow them to "take the lead," choosing the topics of discussion and the depth to which they are explored. The apparent goal when speaking to a man on a romantic level is not to display one's true identity and the full extent of one's intelligence, but rather to present a generically feminine representation of a woman, an idea with which a man may become infatuated rather than a woman that he respects and understands. Reticence and being soft-spoken are qualities that are admired in women, whereas being able to lead and carry on a conversation are qualities that men pride themselves for having. The clear difference in the qualities that are praised in each gender creates lopsided, boring conversations in which a woman in a dimly lit restaurant is reduced to nodding passively and pushing up her cleavage while a man rambles for thirty minutes about the complexities of his fantasy football team (

So why don't we change? Why don't all women just stand up and start ranting about Rothko and Newton and Wollstonecraft and Hurston? Why don't we all stop dozing with our eyes open on terrible dates because you've let some guy control the conversation for an hour and you figure there's no point in jumping in now? Why?

It's simple really: because there is nothing more terrifying, humiliating, or soul-crushing to a young woman than seeing the dreaded look of glazed-over boredom (at least, we perceive it to be boredom. It is more likely the shallow anger of incomprehension) in a man's eyes while all of her friends twirl their hair and baby coo their way to a boyfriend or a partner for the night. It can be devastating to hear whispers from the men in whom you are interested that "she talks too much," "she's such a nerd," or, the most agonizing of all, "she's just way too intimidating." It's easy to disregard the ignorance or judgement of anonymous people, but it is much harder (especially as an adolescent or a young woman in college) to maintain an authentic and intelligent identity when it appears to be ruining all of your chances at romantic happiness.

But it isn't. It may not seem that way now (especially since the dreaded "cuffing season," with its gratuitous Instagram posts and public Eskimo kisses is rapidly descending upon us), but the dissatisfaction and boredom you would experience in a relationship with someone who genuinely believes that you are either a) Betty Crocker b) a transplant Valley Girl or c) a chipmunk on helium when you are actually a secret agent and superhero working for S.H.I.E.L.D. (or something like that) is a disservice to your intelligence and unfair to a guy who is deeply passionate about small, furry woodland creatures.

In my experience, I've found that men who will truly accept a woman for who she is are attracted to her intelligence and her ability to carry a nuanced conversation above all else (these special humans have been found at conferences, graduate school prep programs, and academic competitions. So start begging your university for money to travel).

 They may be few and far between, but holding out for one of them will probably save you the embarrassment of falling asleep in your spaghetti on a torturously boring date.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Compulsorily Polite Negro

Our favorite Compulsorily Polite Negro,
Carlton Banks (
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air)
If you're Black in America, you've undoubtedly experienced the same routine: you enter a room in either a professional or casual setting, and you're forced to interact with the dreaded (but seemingly ubiquitous) Skittish White Person™. Or, worse, the Slightly Racist White Person Who Thinks All Black People are Criminals™. Their body tenses up. They cross their arms or graze their fingers over the top of their purse or wallet, trying to verify that their worldly possessions haven't been filched via telekinesis. There is a concerted effort to avoid eye contact at all costs, as if seeing my Blackness in its unfiltered form could, like Medusa, turn an unassuming victim to stone (or, just as terrifying, compel them to purchase a copy of All Eyez on Me). If I am in a store, I am followed, the store's staff eagerly awaiting the moment that the prophecy fulfills itself and the Black girl with the Afro slips an unpaid-for bottle of Kinky-Curly into her purse. If I absolutely must be spoken to (a last-resort conundrum that should be avoided at all costs), it is in a slow, condescending tone, as if in my family's three hundred years spent in America, they never happened to pick up more than a few syllables of the most rudimentary English. 

I am feared, loathed, and intensely and intentionally misunderstood, a dangerous threat to society in my ballet flats and button-down. 

My credentials, education, and identity are irrelevant, decades of hard work and lived experiences becoming obscured and ultimately negated beneath the weight of the stereotypes of Black female hypersexuality and "ratchetness" and Black male criminality. Such a life is one lived in perpetual fear, trapped in the paralyzing anxiety of a "fight or flight" mentality as one strives to cling to the remnants of a unique Black identity while attempting to function in a society that denigrates or fears the stereotypical elements of what is widely-- and falsely-- believed to be the "true" Black identity.  W.E.B Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), best articulates this "sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." One is always on guard, restrained from living the life one deserves because of the constant fear of "what White people think." And, due to the structural nature of institutional racism, this fear becomes legitimate-- what a particular White person thinks of you has the potential to dictate where you go to school, where you work, how much money you make, and sometimes even where you live.

Naturally, the logical response to such stereotyping would be to combat the ignorance of these people by launching into a long, highly articulate diatribe about the complexity of Black American identity, but combating every ignorant person who crosses the street when they see you approaching them is 1) exhausting and 2) futile (trust me, I've tried). Thus, I have noticed that the default response for most Black people (especially highly educated Black people in elite or intellectual circles) is to morph themselves into the Compulsorily Polite Negro. The CPN speaks in perfectly flawless diction, laughs and smiles excessively to alleviate the racial tension that (through no fault of their own) permeates the air as soon as they enter the room, uses an unnecessary amount of "thank you"s and "ma'am"s and "sir"s and "have a great day!"s in a last-ditch effort to convince everyone in the room that no, I am not a danger to society. He or she makes a concerted effort to read the Wikipedia pages on Girls and Fleet Foxes so that the White people with whom they interact will not be subjected to the unthinkable strain of asking about the meaning of Darius' poetry in Love Jones or understanding the musical differences between K-Ci & JoJo and Jodeci. The Compulsorily Polite Negro essentially subdues his or her Blackness to the point of invisibility for the sake of comfort beneath the White gaze and, in extreme cases, expunges every trace of that Blackness altogether.

I will readily admit that I have been (and am still at times) a Compulsorily Polite Negro, believing that, as a minority, my culture was just too obscure or unworthy of attention to truly advocate for or be proud of it while in a White environment. Being polite to the point of obsequiousness is a comfortable space for a minority to exist-- you get to have a couple of White friends (who don't really get you, but it's better than nothing, right?), have a nice career in an office where all of your coworkers are secretly terrified of you, and generally avoid ruffling feathers in order to live a peaceful and curiously unfulfilling life. It's easy, safe, and the way that things have always been.

But is that what you truly want?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Boys Don't Like Me!"

Teenage Amanda, Circa 2009
(Note the Claire's jewelry)
When I was sixteen, my greatest personal ambition was to have a boyfriend.

(To give you some perspective, my greatest personal goals at twenty are to sleep for eight consecutive hours and watch an entire season of Grey's Anatomy in one weekend. My parents must be inexpressibly proud of me.)

 I dreamed of holding hands at football games, taking grainy, obnoxious selfies on my flip phone, and showing off my hypothetical other half on group dates at the local pizza place. For some people, these events were an unquestionable reality of their high school experience, with boyfriends and short adolescent romances coming to them as easily as breathing.

But that is not my story.

I didn't date in high school-- though not for a lack of trying, much to my eternal humiliation-- and as my friends found themselves caught in the overdramatic throes of adolescent love (which featured such emotional turmoil as sitting apart for a day during lunch, catching the respective objects of their affection kissing another girl behind the baseball dugouts, and getting reprimanded for dancing far too close at homecoming), I found myself consistently asking the age-old and mystifying question:

"Why don't boys like me?"

At first, I thought it was because of some tragic, uncontrollable flaw that I had been cursed with at birth (I had been reading Oedipus Rex at the time, so I was quite obsessed with the romantic thought of having a "tragic flaw"). Was I too proud? Too hasty in my actions? Damned for all eternity by a mystic prophecy (most likely)? No, that wasn't it.

Was it because of the way I looked? To be fair, my braces and abundance of Aeropostale clothing, glittery purple eyeshadow, and plastic jewelry from Claire's probably weren't doing me any favors. But everyone else dressed exactly the same way (oh the conformity of youth!), so it wasn't as if I existed as some strange aesthetic anomaly outside the norm of my high school.

Nonetheless, this question plagued me for years as I tortured myself over why exactly the dashing suitors of my high school (and by "dashing suitors," I mean the short, squeaky-voiced, Abercrombie-wearing children who thought that "Deez Nuts" jokes were works of comic genius) chose every other girl on planet earth over me. I racked my brain, attempting to find the one obscure solution that would allow me to transcend the boundary that stood between my current position as the "best friend"-- or, worse, the dreaded "like a sister"-- and my aspired position of "girlfriend," or at least "that hot girl in my economics class."

But then, just as I graduated high school (how annoyingly convenient), I realized that I wasn't the problem. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me.

 And in fact, my close platonic relationships with boys in high school ended up being a benefit to me in the long run. Instead of speaking in the incomprehensible, hazy code of potential lovers, my male friends and I spoke frankly and openly of everything-- school, our plans for the future, what men to avoid, and even other women (it was here that I learned the crucial difference between a "slam piece" and "wifey"). Because they respected me and viewed me as an individual, rather than as a transient sexual conquest, we built genuine and lasting friendships that were uncomplicated by romantic affection or sexual interest.

I have found that often, young women in high school, college, and well into their adult years are conditioned into believing that dating or "finding love" is the penultimate accomplishment that must be achieved at any cost, even to the detriment of one's academic or professional success. In contrast, men are raised to have no such limitations, even being told to either "sow their wild oats" in their youth or eschew dating altogether as they work to establish themselves financially and professionally. The idea of maintaining a relationship-- even a dysfunctional one with a clearly undeserving partner-- becomes so important that all other ambitions (becoming a scientist, or joining the track team, or becoming a self-sufficient individual) fall to the wayside beneath the immense stress of maintaining a relationship that shouldn't have existed in the first place. Love and dating can be fun, positive things that add an extra element to an already complete life. However, they should not enter your life at the expense of your own well-being or personal success.

So focus on becoming the best version of you-- become the captain of your debate team, get elected class president, or break the state record in the 100 meter dash. Men-- if they are truly interested in you as an individual-- will come naturally in time, and in the meantime, you'll have established an entire life that makes you a very, very interesting person (with or without a boyfriend).

Besides, you'll look back in your yearbook twenty years from now and thank yourself for not wasting your time on someone whose senior quote was "2 kool 4 skool." I promise.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Black People Aren't Your Rebellious Stage

"I can't wait to hear what my parents are gonna say when they find out I'm dating a Black guy."

"I'm really looking for a Black girl to twerk on me. They can all twerk, right? Plus they're all really sassy and I'm into that."

"I just want to date a Black guy because I heard that they're, you know, different in bed."

"I'm just looking for my Nubian Queen/Chocolate Morsel/African Goddess/Hoodrat Ridah."


I am a large proponent of interracial relationships. In a world so often dictated by stereotypes or irrational fears that divide people and isolate them within their race/ethnic group/religion/nationality, love is one factor that knows no color and allows people to transcend these fears and view another person as a unique individual, rather than as an anonymous member of a collective. However, just as there will always be the disgusting plebeian who double dips in the salsa at a watch party, there will always be people who enter into interracial relationships for the wrong reasons and ruin it for the rest of us.

Racism, just like everything else, exists on a sliding scale that ranges from simple ignorance of a particular group to an vicious hatred that, while still based in ignorance, is intentional and disturbing in its intensity. People who date interracially for the wrong reasons fall somewhere in between these two extremes, as their intention is not necessarily to indulge in hateful beliefs, but their support for clearly untrue and socially detrimental stereotypes makes their ambitions problematic.

Someone who dates a Black person (or any person of color) with the clear intention of pissing off their parents is not only 1) shallow but also 2) contributing to widely held and untrue notions of Black/minority criminality that exist more so because of the Prison Industrial Complex than any inherent racial inclination toward crime. From the beginning, this relationship will be framed in a way that perpetuates the idea of the "scary" or "dangerous" Black man corrupting the delicate sensibilities of an "innocent" or "virginal" White woman (think of it as a more offensive version of Danny and Sandy from Grease). Never mind that the Black man in question may watch Seinfeld obsessively and wear L.L. Bean duck boots in the winter-- the nuances of his identity have been reduced to the pigmentation of his skin and the negative stereotypes that are associated with it. A relationship like this also objectifies the person of color. They are no longer one half of a healthy, consensual relationship; rather, they are now a trump card to be used in a rebellious White person's adolescent (or twentysomething) conflict with his/her parents. If you really must infuriate your parents, get a nose ring, not a Black boyfriend.

Black women, in particular, are susceptible to the dangers of someone entering into an interracial relationship with someone who has less-than-ideal motives. In the Black community, Black women are generally discouraged from dating non-Black men, instead being instructed to marry "nothing but a Black man" or to wait on their "Black Kang." However, as it is actually statistically impossible for every Black American woman to marry a Black man (especially when you factor in those who identify as gay, are incarcerated, or are already in interracial relationships/marriages), some Black women choose to exercise all of their dating options and explore interracial relationships. Already likely facing criticism from their parents, relatives, and friends for dating a "White boy," Black women who happen to enter into a relationship with someone who views them as an exotic, hypersexual fetish or a sexual conquest before marriage to another White person can be permanently damaged by this experience and retreat back into the dangerous and futile cycle of waiting for the perfect Black man to marry them.

I get that White people are interested in Black culture (it's a lot of fun, especially at family reunions). But buying a Lil Wayne album and saying "nigga" every other word while you listen to Tha Carter III in your Prius doesn't 1) make you an expert on Black culture or 2) give you the right to prey on Black women because a rapper told you that it's imperative to have a lot of "redbone bitches." Black women are not interesting sexual experiences that you tell your friends about or the final piece in your falsely constructed "hood" identity. If it makes it easier to understand, just think of Black women as actual people with unique identities, interests, talents, and body types who just happen to have a little more melanin in their skin and really curly hair.

The objectification of people of color is a very real danger in some interracial relationships, and it has the potential to discourage someone from entering into a healthy relationship with a White person who has a genuine interest in them or their culture (in a non-offensive or fetishized way, of course). However, just as there is a Disgusting Salsa Double-Dipper at ever party, there are people who bring fresh chips and salsa to save the day. If someone you are interested in makes constant references to your race/skin tone/stereotypes associated with your culture, they're probably not the one for you. If they like to emphasize the fact that your relationship is "groundbreaking," "rebellious," "controversial," they're probably not the one for you. If they ask you to twerk, "act sassy," or perpetually joke about how you absolutely must have a weed man named Tyrone, then they definitely aren't the one for you. As it with everything in life, use your judgement. If something feels wrong or you feel objectified then break it off and find someone better with whom you can swirl.

Have you ever felt objectified or fetishized in an interracial relationship? Have you ever seen it happen to someone else? Leave a comment below!



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Love is Not a Weapon

Or at least it shouldn't be.

As children, we are told that it is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast. And yet, in our adult years, we find that "love" rarely consists of all these things and instead presents itself as being spiteful, cruel, and proud. We become disillusioned, fortifying ourselves to withstand the most abject conditions of love and expecting less and less with each unsatisfying encounter. And from these seeds of discontent come the naysayers, bruised by fate as they condemn the notion of soulmates and a life unmarred by romantic dysfunction. And we, the paradoxically naive and weary, believe them because we see little proof of the contrary in our own secret and inharmonious romantic lives.

Perhaps the issue then is not the grumbling naysayers or even ourselves in our own silent misery. Perhaps it is love itself. Or rather, what we delude ourselves into believing is love in its truest form. This false version of love, gaudy and overly expressive in our youth, is what we latch on to, either because we have been conditioned to expect nothing better, or because we are unaware of the elements of its false nature.

Love does not shame or control or condemn-- it is free of judgement, scorn, and antipathy in both of its partners. Love does not force you-- either through obvious or subtle measures-- to stay at home, isolated and weak, when the rest of your friends are out and free to grasp at the threads of their own youth. Love does not look at your body with disdain, frowning against the shallow tickmarks and pinpricks of age and femininity as you struggle to defend yourself at your most vulnerable point. Love does not seek out weakness like a bloodhound or a mercenary, firing quiet and agonizing shots at you and your self-worth until you are reduced to nothingness or a malleable figurine to be rebuilt in someone else's misshapen image.

Love does not ask of you to compromise your dreams, your morals, or your identity and then offer nothing but the hollow justifications of romance in return. When it is not a malicious imitation, love does not allow you to sink beneath everything that you are and all that you thought you could become for the sake of one solitary person. No individual could possibly ever be your life or your world, at least not without leaving raw, unfulfilled gaps within the pieces of your now otherwise occupied existence. The stinging companions of "what if?" and "could I have?" are tormentors that no one else-- not even "him"-- will see or even seek to understand. Your life is and can only be your own, and it is impossible to expect that anyone who wishes to "become" your life has any intentions of allowing you to fully live it.

Love does not demand sex or money or favors before you are comfortable, and it does not rage against you when you find the rare, untainted shreds of courage left within you to refuse. Love does not ask more of you than you are truly able to give. It will challenge you and dance upon the limits of your compassion and trust, showing you gradually how to invest yourself in another. But it does not push you callously over the edge without warning or remorse, comparing you to previous girlfriends and making empty but terrifying threats to leave and take your life with it. And it will take your life, because no one or no thing is truly able to become you without taking full possession of it.

Love is a pleasant addition to an already happy and full life. It does not "complete" you, "fix" you, or bring you to some higher level of human consciousness. Only you can do that. The visible expressions of love, ultimately, reside within another human being who, like love itself, has no authority or God-given right to rule over an individual or make life choices for another person. The people we love (family excluded) come and go, drifting throughout the avenues of our lives in small, insignificant waves. It does not define you, nor does it establish the trajectory of your life. As comfort, know that love, when it is wrong, is only temporary, a meaningless and accidental streak in the larger masterpiece of your life. But you, your life, is forever and eternal, entirely dependent upon your own independent judgement.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Body Politics: The Black Female Body in American Society

       
            Several millennia ago, when I was still in high school and consequently subject to the gross indignity of a mandated dress code, I and many other students began to notice a trend in the students who were typically accused of violating the dress code. They were nearly always black and female. Some were tall, some were short. Some were buxom and curvy, some were flat-chested and thin. However, curiously enough, their Black femaleness was sufficient evidence enough to override their physical differences and incite adult men in positions of power to deem them "too sexy" for school. Simultaneously, the white girls of the school twitched about in miniskirts, Nike running shorts, and spaghetti strap tops that showed more sternum than actual breast tissue (oh, to be flat-chested and young!), never eliciting so much as a blink from school administrators (though, sometimes, the Humbert Humberts of the administration staff would stop a white girl to compliment her on her short dress, leering at her Lolita-smooth legs as she scurried off to class).

          High school is a time when young men and women experiment with style, sometimes striving to see just how far they can push our cultural boundaries with their style of dress and expression. It is also, conveniently, the years when Black girls and women begin to realize that their bodies are indecent, that they are not their own.

          This discrimination extends well into adulthood as Black women (as well as Asian and Latina women, who are subjected to the demeaning stereotypes of the "submissive geisha" and the "hot tamale," respectively) struggle to express themselves within a society that has cultivated an unnatural fear and suspicion of the Black female body.

          A clear example of this in modern pop culture would be the Nicki Minaj/Lady Gaga dichotomy. Nicki Minaj rose to prominence in 2009 as an up-and-coming female rapper within the overwhelmingly male and historically misogynistic (particularly against Black women) hip hop industry. Despite her sponsorship by well-known rapper Lil Wayne, Minaj fielded credibility issues about her lyrical skills and intense criticism from both Black and White media outlets about her eccentric style of dress. At the height of Minaj's album Pink Friday's popularity, Minaj's outfit choices were labeled "ratchet," "trashy," "slutty," "hood," and "ghetto." To add perspective, while Minaj faced criticism for her experimental dress, her White contemporary Lady Gaga was lauded for her "avant garde" and "inspiring" fashion choices (these were comments said about an individual who wore a dress made of raw meat). Interestingly, despite the clear visual similarities between the two women's outfit choices, only one was featured in Vogue, Glamour, and Harper's Bazaar magazine, whereas the other was relegated to MediaTakeOut and other obscure Black publications. Whereas Gaga's near-nudity on several occasions was regarded as a complex feminist statement against the patriarchy, Minaj's skimpier outfits were deemed "unacceptable" and "degrading to women."

          Historically within American culture, negative campaigns against the Black female body began with the origination of the Jezebel trope during the nineteenth century. Drawn from the biblical Jezebel figure, the Black Jezebel of the South was a hypersexualized terror who lacked sufficient control over her raging sexuality. She was a danger to the sexually and ideologically "pure" White female population and would seduce and trap any man- especially a White man- who crossed her path. Of course, this myth was created largely as a justification for the systematic rape of enslaved (and later, free) Black women by slaveowners, overseers, and assorted townspeople, but that tidbit of truth is usually lost within the annals of history.

          Thus, it is important to recognize that there is no scientific or anthropological truth to the idea that the Black female body is any more sexually attractive or destructive than the bodies of any other ethnic group. However, it is this unverbalized logical fallacy that parades through our culture and stifles Black female creative expression. The societal rationale generally goes: when a White woman does something socially questionable with her body, it is immediately classified as creative expression and therefore must be protected at all costs. When a Black woman attempts such a feat, it is immediately perverse and incendiary and therefore must be subdued before it-- or she-- can infect the general population with wanton sexuality.

          The idea that society has a say in the way that a woman may perceive her own body is outrageous enough, but the additional restrictions and criticisms placed upon Black women as they attempt to form their own complex sexual and social identities are biased and dangerous to the progression of society as a whole. The mass shaming of Black female bodies (especially when this shame is placed in direct contrast to the effusive praise bestowed upon Eurocentric female aesthetic ideals) results in the (at least brief) internalization of these ideas for many Black women as they begin to fear and despise their bodies, their sexuality, and their potential to make creative contributions to society. And a woman who is shamed becomes weak and malleable, easily tricked into the throes of mediocrity or the arms of a catcaller who has somehow managed, through crude psychological control, to make her believe that she has no right to her body, her identity.


And how could he be wrong when an entire society stands in haughty judgement behind him?


But he is wrong. And so are the selective dress codes, the suppression of Black female creativity, and the oversexualization of the Black female body.


Besides, my skirts in high school really weren't even that short.

Friday, October 10, 2014

I'm Not Your Sassy Black Friend.

No one other than Black women should
have an "inner Black woman", K?


It's inevitable.

I've been in college for quite some time now, and nearly every time I attempt to forge a friendship with a White person, the same thing happens: we speak candidly for about half an hour, and as I begin to enjoy the conversation and feel more comfortable, I slip into a more casual dialect-- a few split verbs (I can imagine my father's chagrin) and colloquial phrases peppered among otherwise structurally pristine English. In other words, I start "talking Black." Unfortunately, the person to whom I am speaking generally perceives this as an invitation to surreptitiously begin their own "talking Black" impression as well. This generally includes a round of grossly exaggerated "mmhmm girrrrl"s or "yaaas honey"s or "uh uh girlfriend"s or an egregious pursing of the lips in what I can only assume is meant to be a poor imitation of a Black woman (I don't purse my lips?).

From what I have observed, this mimicry has two unique origins: a genuine (if misguided and naive) desire to connect with my apparently foreign and mysterious "ethnic" roots, or, more aggravatingly, a conversation with me is viewed as the rare opportunity to practice all of the funny and "sassy" Black female behavior that they've seen in the media. Both reasons-- no matter how superficially benign-- result in the commodification of my identity and a general distraction from the seriousness of any topic that I may attempt to discuss.

The desire to adopt an artificial "Blaccent" when speaking to me also feels like a violation of my trust. In order to prevent being stereotyped as ignorant or "ghetto" (oh, how I loathe that word), I strictly speak a professional and articulate form of English when I speak to White people on a casual basis. And quite frankly, to do so all the time is extremely draining. So to allow myself to incorporate small elements of my cultural dialect into a conversation with a White person is a rare luxury and a signal that for once, I am not perpetually on guard against racially insensitive remarks or behavior. Thus, to then take advantage of my comfort and my trust by poorly imitating something that is simply natural to me is not only tacky, but also disrespectful as well.

To make my grievance more understandable, attempting to "talk Black" to me would be comparable to me donning a blonde wig, sipping a pumpkin spice latte, and saying "like" every other word whenever I engaged in a conversation with a White person. It is a well-known fact that not all White women are blonde, like PSLs (although they are delicious), or are incapable of stringing together a grammatically correct sentence. We acknowledge that these are false stereotypes of White women in our culture, but the same courtesy has not been extended to Black women.

A White person's decision to imitate a hyperbolized version of me has consequences that extend far beyond their fifteen minutes of personal entertainment or faux Black solidarity. Because I do not have the social or economic capital (yet) to control the way that society perceives me, I and other Black women become apocryphal creatures of lore, shouting from faraway rooftops in dated Ebonics and smacking our lips from the neglected corners of society. My frustration and dissatisfaction regarding my representation in a society that, by simple classifications of gender and race, has placed me at the bottom of its totem pole, ceases to be a legitimate request for change and instead morphs into a comical, directionless breed of anger that can be parodied on a comedy sketch show or an evening sitcom.

The reduction of my complex identity to a few neck rolls and snaps in a Z-formation is insulting and ultimately a disservice not only to me, but also to anyone who would miss out on a potentially stimulating conversation. It may seem harmless to imitate my "sass" (and is it really sass, or is it having a sparkling personality?), but by indulging in a temporary laugh at your new "sassy Black friend," you've lost the opportunity to form a lasting friendship with someone whose interests, beliefs, and life experiences could be surprisingly similar to your own if cultural stereotypes could be cast aside.

Have you ever been the "sassy Black friend"? Or, have you ever tried your best "Blaccent" (it's okay, you can fess up)?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Catcallers: The Bane of our Collective Existence

Black leggings, which apparently emit some sort
of Annoying Male Pheromone
I have seen the seventh circle of hell, and it isn't frozen over or populated with antiquity's greatest traitors. It's outside of a McDonald's at 2 am or lurking silently behind a tree on the quad when you have five minutes to get to class.

"Ay baby lemme get ya number!"

"'Scuse me, I just wanna talk at ya for a second."

"You lookin' mighty fine today girl!" (let's ignore the fact that you're probably wearing your oldest pair of black leggings and a slightly agonized expression)

Your blood runs cold, your pulse speeds up, and you suddenly realize that you're a goner, caught in the clutches of a villain from which there is no socially acceptable escape: the catcaller. 

The obvious, self-preserving response would be to return his crass greeting with a foul hand gesture and even fouler language (fighting fire with fire and all that). But it seems that catcallers have perfected the art of preying on the more generally polite and kind members of the populace who lack the forethought to carry a tube of mace (myself included) and a snappy, eviscerating comeback in their back pocket.

The general cause of this verbal predation is the belief by society that the Black female body can be possessed and claimed by any and everyone. It has no rights, no claims to personal space (hence the constant hair touching, but that's another story for another day), and no grounds to be offended or disgusted by the crass advances of catcallers, street boys, old men, and random passerby. 

When a young black girl is leered at or pinched by an old man (usually either a distant relative or family friend), everyone chuckles at how "cute" the scene is, completely oblivious to the lifelong psychological consequences of having your body preyed upon by someone you are instructed to trust.

When a young black girl is criticized and condemned for being "fast" or "ho-ish" at the age of twelve for having a curvy shape that she cannot control (and this happens quite often with African American girls), it is she who is shamed and becomes ashamed of her own body, not the whistling passerby or the aggressive high school boys searching for an "easy target."

When a young black girl becomes a woman and leaves home to go to college (and is under the false impression that a college campus solely houses respectful intellectuals), she is under constant attack by other Black male students who are already too deeply entrenched in the unique culture of Black misogyny to consider the intellectual substance of a woman when her behind in black leggings is easier to approach. Or she is besieged by the male campus employees from whom she really doesn't want your number with her side of fries. Or, possibly worst of all, there is the legion of locals, lying in wait in the university dining halls, on the campus lawn, or on the university bus system, waiting for the moment to strike on an unassuming freshman with well-intentioned (but horribly misplaced) dreams of an "older man."

So how do catcalling, leering, and poorly constructed sexual advances ultimately affect young Black women? There are two options: either she gives into these advances, opening herself up to a lifetime of baby mama drama, underemployment, and an aura of general misery; or, in order to withstand the constant barrage, she builds up a defense system to make herself undesirable to catcallers. This includes (but is not limited to) the epidemic "perpetual bitch face," becoming extremely snappish or rude with everyone she meets, dressing poorly or in a dowdy fashion, and intentionally or subconsciously gaining large amounts of weight to place a physical barrier between herself and her tormentors. 

Here are the origins of the stereotypes of the "angry black woman," the asexual nouveau Mammy, and the "ratchet" and extremely overweight black woman. Often, these characteristics are adopted by highly educated Black women as well as they adopted these negative external tendencies to ward off male predators as they worked to educate and improve themselves. However, the problem arises that Black women have made themselves unattractive not only to the catcallers, but also to men of all races and employment backgrounds who may have been the perfect spouse. 

The temptation to fully close oneself off against the waves of catcallers and unwanted advances can be overwhelming, especially in college when it seems that that is the only male attention to be received. However, I've found that it is best to try to brush off or laugh off the catcallers in their absurdity and continue working to become the best and most successful version of you. Continue to dress nicely, go to the rec center,  participate in class, and actually smile at people when you pass them on the quad. It may attract a few straggling catcallers, but it will attract a lot more genuinely nice people too. Plus I've found that it actually hurts after a while to maintain the Perpetual Bitch Face. Am I right?

What's your craziest catcalling story? Got any advice for people struggling with catcallers?