How America Punishes The Poor? –Oh Let Me Count The Ways…

In a recent piece called “How America Punishes People For Being Poor” Rebecca Vallas examines the rise of subprime auto loans against the backdrop of predatory economic policies that systematically burden low-income people. Various ways the poor pay disparate costs including (but not limited to): the rent-to-own industry, pay day loans, and the criminalization of homelessness. The piece also touches on smaller yet equally crucial gaps like the cost of groceries, check cashing/bill paying fees, and even the time it takes to complete daily errands relative to higher-income people.

For what it’s worth, I wanted to expand on the piece, and add a little context that helps to book-end the issue.

As always, there are structural roots and cultural by-products.

Recent studies confirm what we already knew: deregulation of the financial sector provides incentive for Wall Street to make risky investments at the expense of workers and the real economy. It rewards bankers for upping their risk-taking without having the cash to cover their bets under the premise that failed investments will be bailed out at taxpayers expense.

While bankers become richer in high-risk volatility, workers rely (and thrive) on stable market conditions. When Wall Street acts in greedy self-interest, the likelihood of economic recession increases; credit freezes up and widespread unemployment is inevitable.

But for poor people, the relationship between risk and greed have micro effects that cost them substantially more. Deregulation also meant that companies could prey on those with credit issues and low-incomes who were considered “high-risk”. Goods and services previously reserved for the middle class (homeownership, liquid assets, lines of credit) became available to the poor once companies realized they could charge them exorbitant interest rates, late fees, and deposits in exchange.

The trickle down effects coincide with the disparities mentioned in the piece.

For instance, the roughly 10 million households without access to bank accounts (now subject to third-party check cashing fees) can traced be to policy decisions of the 80s and 90s. After Congress removed bank restrictions on interest-bearing accounts (i,e, NOW/Super NOW accounts) banks supplemented the additional interest they paid to depositors by charging in other ways. Higher minimum balances were required and fees for stopped payments and check printing increased exponentially. Poor people who couldn’t afford it were forced to cash paychecks at grocery stores, pawn shops, and convenience stores (with similarly high fees) and eat the cost of money orders and other financial services (which Vallas estimates to be $1000 a year for a person making $1500/mo)

This trickled into the rise of subprime auto loans and the rent-to-own industry that promised “no credit/bad credit” financing which often resulted in repossession months into the contract. The customers would typically have made several payments, only to lose the merchandise which could then be leased to someone else.

And it was directly responsible for the infamous subprime mortgage crisis that crashed the housing market in 2007. So desperate to increase the amount of mortgages, banks began relaxing lending standards for credit and collateral; lending to poor (black) people at rates much higher than they could afford.

Even though public officials like Maxine Waters (D-California) brought awareness to subprime mortgages (long before the housing bubble burst) the government would fail to act until the crisis shifted to (white) middle-class families. The net effect of an estimated 12.5 million foreclosures was two-fold: it left poor people even more vulnerable to homelessness and dried up blue collar construction jobs more likely to leave them unemployed.

I think understanding the link between predatory capitalism and deregulation gives a framework for which to link the causes of these systematic punishments with the effects.

And then I started to think about even more ways people pay more for low socio-economic status. Things informed by my lived experiences with poverty that the article missed:

Other Little Known Ways America Punishes The Poor

1. Student loan debt. — It’s obvious that student debt punishes people for lacking the means to pay college tuition of out pocket and discourages class mobility when graduates are saddled with debt. But it’s also worth noting that the waystudent loan debt is classified on credit reports is a likely contributor. Instead of listing all loan disbursements as one collective account, each disbursement is sometimes listed as three separate ones, which is interpreted as different types of debt and is likely to drop credit scores. Then come subsequnet ripple effects: lower credit means less likelihood of finding a high-paying job (many jobs now require credit checks) which lowers the likelihood of paying down loans. Credit scores drop even further, making income-building opportunities like homeownership and entrepreneurship harder to achieve. Income plateaus or decreases proportionate to debt and the cycle continues.

2. Cell phone deposits. — (I know people who have paid upwards of $700 for a two year contract agreement that higher income people may pay $99, or attain for free)

3. Renting homes in impoverished (and racially segregated neighborhoods). — Real estate companies will charge monthly rent that outweighs the total value of the home while still requiring tenants to perform maintenance duties without the benefits of equity. And private property owners will often be slumlords who make tenants eat the cost of repairs.

4. Money Wiring Fees.– Without access to bank accounts that offer free money transfer, poor people resort to receiving (and sending) money via Western Union or Money Gram. The fees increase in proportion to the money you send which ultimately limits the amount of money one can attain when borrowing from family/friends when in financial tight-spots.

5. Prepaid card fees. — Low income people with access to bank accounts also resort to pre-paid cards to pay bills or shop online. These cards (Walmart prepaid, Green Dot, Visa gift) all have an average fee of $5 every time you need to reload money, as well as random hidden service charges.

6. Late fees and reconnection charges for bills. — (I once had to pay my cable bill two months in advance to get it re-connected which totaled approximately $250) Many companies also charge fees for people who can’t afford/don’t want auto-pay, sometimes as high as $10/mo)

7. Shopping at higher priced stores. — The article mentions low-income people paying more for groceries because they don’t have proximity to stores that sell bulk or room to store it. I would also add the yearly cost of the membership at bulk stores (Sam’s Club, Cosco) as well as the higher prices of convenience stores typical in low-income areas.

8. Subsidized housing– Poor people who benefit from subsidized housing pay rent in proportion to their income (typically 30%) but this also means that the more they make, the higher the rent will be. If they chose to work more to earn more money, they end up with less disposable income because most of it will go to rent. If they can’t (or chose not to) work more, the rent remains low but so does their total income. Either way, they can never manage to make enough money to end the cyclical rut of income in/expenses out)

9. State benefits are reduced for poor people who live together– If subsidized housing is not an option, poor people with state benefits might live together to reduce the cost of living expenses by splitting it among roommates. However, individual state benefits among people who live together are considered “household income” and may be reduced in many states.

10. Social security disability income– the application process for social security disability is a long and tedious one that requires applicants to prove a medical or mental ailment that prevents employment. But because the process takes an average of one year (and some longer if applicant is denied and appeals) the applicant has to somehow survive without a pay check while waiting for a decision. To pay for living expenses, the applicant may be forced to take a job despite his/her disability. But if they do, it will be assumed that they can hold a job and their application may be denied.

In my cultural contextualization of it all, I’m reminded of how right James Baldwin was when he said, “anyone who has else ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” A paradoxical truth that speaks to the way class oppression self maintains; by forcing one to work within the constraints of capitalism to combat its negative effects.

That is, we need money to buy things that grant access to middle-class lifestyles and yet we need middle-class lifestyles to buy these things.

Coincidentally, these things are most likely to become the source of predatory loans and cyclical debt. The gatekeeping of class status markers that seems to say: we’ll let you into this world, but you’ll have to pay for it.

And for someone who has spent their life in states of economic enslavement, even the mirage of class mobility—no matter how temporary–is terribly seductive.

You eventually get tired of peering into the store front window from the outside, fantasizing about all the shiny pretty things you wish you had. You will, at some point, decide to go inside; wander around a little bit, try on something luxurious just to see how it feels against your skin, even though you know you could never afford to take it home.

Snoop vs. Iggy Azalea: Beefs, Black Women, and Interracial Relationships

On a personal level, I was mostly disinterested in the recent beef between hip-hop artists Snoop Dogg/Lion and Iggy Azalea.

On a symbolic level, however, I found it to be emblematic of the political dynamics of black men and white women in hip-hop and beyond.

More importantly, I found it to be crucially demonstrative of the ways in which black women inevitably lose in the context of these dynamics. A critique that seemed to be lost amidst bad memes and misguided analysis.

White feminists fell over themselves writing lazy think pieces about the misogyny in hip-hop that ignored the racial and cultural context of the music. Black men derailed conversations about Snoop’s sexism; turning legitimate callouts into rants which seemed to imply that if we couldn’t handle the dog-eat-dog nature of the rap game, we shouldn’t grab the mic. Black women were effectively erased in tug-of-war of gender or racial loyalties.

So business as usual.

If Snoop Lion and Iggy Azalea will represent the figurative marriage between black men and white women in America, this beef might as well be the divorce.

Even in the marital aftermath, black women had to be ones to ask the more pertinent question: where had black men in hip-hop been when we needed them? Or, as @SorahyaM said on Twitter, “show me one time anyone (other than black women) stood up for a black female rapper when she was being dragged.”

As if the epistemological history of hip-hop was lost on them, black men seemed to have forgotten that it was never been a safe space for black women. Rather, than challenge black male misogyny, it was more often an opportunity for it to become more formidable.

Virtually no one came to Nicki Minaj’s defense when rapper Gucci Mane spread sexually denigrating rumors about her on Twitter. Or Azealia Banks when T.I took to Instagram, calling her a “monstrosity of a maggot ass bitch”. Certainly not Karrine Steffans (aka “Superhead”) who was ruthlessly slut-shamed after authoring the Video Vixen series, which divulged the details of her sexual (and abusive) relationships with black men in hip-hop.

Relatively speaking, hip-hop has been a safer space for white women to enter. Even those like Miley Cyrus whose appropriation of blackness (to the point of caricature) was seemingly less offensive because it took gendered form. It was black female bodies she used as minstrel props in her 2013 VMA performance and her video for “We Can’t Stop”. It was twerking–a catchall for black female depravity–she found “risque” enough to live out her white girl sexual empowerment fantasies.

This is still the honeymoon phase of interracial matrimony, when no one is concerned about having not invited black women to the wedding.

Certainly not Iggy Azalea, whose entire capital appeal lies in her ability to commodify black female bravado, without suffering the social consequences of actually being a black woman. She earns her coins making us palatable to the white audience; a way they might encounter our style, beauty, and culture without having to accredit it. Black women then, must act as the subpar backdrop by which her whiteness can be centered and reaffirmed in black femcee spaces. And we become the wallpaper in the house in which we built.

Perhaps life as newlyweds is so blissful in the beginning because both partners have such high expectations of the relationship.

Black men seek white women for all the obvious reasons: internalized anti-blackness, fondness of Eurocentric beauty, or markers of class status. But also as a consequence of male privilege. White women provide the incentive for fulfilling white supremacist patriarchal ideals. Part of the eagerness in which black men seek non-black women is predicated on the belief of their inherent submissiveness relative to black women. Its the grand hope that they will finally crack the color code of femininity that guarantees complete control. Women who can be tamed and groomed properly, who know how to treat a man, who stay in their place, who stay in the back.

The black male role in interracial relationships is often cast (particularly in pop culture) as unbridled racial worship. But black men only really praise white womanhood to the extent that they provide patriarchal leverage.

Snoop came for Azalea because she somehow challenged black male authority in a way that made her whiteness (as it pertained to him in that moment) obsolete. When she failed to perform his idealization of white femininity she became just another bitch.

White women seek black men for other, more obvious reasons. That is–lust, awe, and respect for which their proximity to white men makes them feel entitled. It was easy to see why white feminists could be indignant about Snoop’s sexism and discern Azalea as the only one of its victims who needed to be rescued. They’d witnessed a type of voracious misogyny they never thought they’d be subjected to.

The pedestal of white womanhood is contingent on its physical and moral superiority (relative to black women) which requires patriarchal endorsement. Their attraction to black men derives from the tantalization of danger and sexual exoticism (via racialized myths) but also by their need to solidify female superiority.

Iggy Azalea was offended not only because the source of the misogyny was black and male, but also because it potentially leveled her with black women. When Snoop failed to do his part to uphold the feminine racial hierarchy he became just another nigger.

To be clear, i’m not suggesting the social and structural power of black men and white women to be equal (obviously white women access more) or that those power differences disappear in the context of interpersonal conflict. But I am suggesting a commonality in the ways by which they seek to climb these structural and social echelons on the backs of black women. Moreover, how the mutual subjugation of black women (and each other) become the litmus test for achieving it.

And its precisely the potential to finally wield white male power–more than the proverbial “forbidden fruit”–that makes the black man/white woman dynamic so inciting. The push-pull of abusive tactics and manipulation that fuels any sick love story.

Inevitably though, there comes the divorce. And like any good divorce, it is messy and public: property is divided, daggers are thrown, sides are taken.

During the beef, Snoop recognized Nicki Minaj as a successful hip-hop artist who is “sitting with other female rappers” a diss which implicated Azalea as a less reputable femcee. He did this while caricaturizing her blondeness in a meme which compared her to the film White Chicks (where black actors Shawn and Marlan Wayans disguise themselves as white bimbos).

Ironically, her Barbie image (the very thing black men fetishized) was now a justifiable reason to criticize her lack of realness and talent in the game. It was only when he needed to instigate female competition (using Nicki as the crux of offensiveness) did black women become visible at all.

Azalea’s response to Snoop was pointedly feminist. She tweeted: “women are supposed to sit back and let men shit on them,” then “If we question it, we are ‘emotional’, ‘butt hurt’, or just a BITCH. nothing new tho.” A response made absurd by her history of racist/homophobic/transphobic comments in regards to women. It was only when she needed a (black) scapegoat to frame her victimhood in a misogynistic attack did she illicit Sisterhood.

Upon the demise of their political courtship, it’s as if all the things they once loved about each other become the spawn of bitterness and broken hearts. And black women, of course, must be there to pick up the pieces.

The black man will need us to be the Patient Ex-Wife who held it down when he left her for bigger and better things, so grateful to have him back she’s willing to forgive it all. They will need us–as always–to forge racial allegiance at the expense of ourselves. To help curate black male misogyny because for once we aren’t its primary target.

The white woman will expect us to be the Supportive Girlfriend who listens while she bitches over cocktails about all the ways he fucked her over; hoping to be seen, hoping to finally be let into her super secret feminist club.

Inevitably, the Snoop Lions and Iggy Aszleas of hip-hop will find themselves squaring off for a battle of dominance that neither can ever really win. Like the black men and white women who find new partners to walk down the aisle in search of bigger power, only to end up bitter and empty-handed.

Black women will continue to pose a threat to these unions, for which we must remain silent and invisible for the sake of the relationship. Until they need our help to fix it after it’s gone.

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Mark Cuban’s (Dis)Honest Conversation About Race

If we’re paying attention, white people are mostly quite frank about race. One time in high school, at a cookout, a white girl told me an earnest story about the way her grandmother still refers to black people as “colored.” Another time, a group of white kids sat about a foot from me and openly discussed the racial epithets they’d sometimes think (or say) whenever they’d been cut-off by black drivers in traffic. A few years ago, a white woman in a religious studies class raised her hand and reluctantly admitted to associating all Muslim people with terrorism. At my last job, the white manager warned employees to watch Asian women in the store to ensure they didn’t shoplift. “I’m sorry if this sounds racist” she’d said “but it’s always those tiny Asian ones who steal”

They’d all been, for what’s it worth, “well-intentioned” whitefolk. Some of them were friends, others were wide-eyed liberals on the “right side” of The Fight and eager to Learn. All of them had fashioned themselves as just having been honest.

But incidentally, none of this mattered much to me at the time. Their honesty hadn’t managed to soften the subsequent blows of their words. I hadn’t felt relieved or appreciative of their willingness to be transparent, nor did we join hands in the sudden emergence of post-racial America. Racism did what racism always does: evoked shame, humiliation, and anger; silenced me, objectified me, broke me, victimized me in an act of violence.

Mark Cuban’s honesty, we decided, was somehow different. In a interview with Inc. Magazine, Cuban discussed race on the heels of the Donald Sterling controversy, saying:

“In this day and age, this country has really come a long way putting any type of bigotry behind us, regardless of who it’s toward,” Cuban said Wednesday. “We’ve come a long way, and with that progress comes a price. We’re a lot more vigilant and we’re a lot less tolerant of different views, and it’s not necessarily easy for everybody to adapt or evolve.

I mean, we’re all prejudiced in one way or another. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face — white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere — I’m walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of. So in my businesses, I try not to be hypocritical. I know that I’m not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house, and it’s not appropriate for me to throw stones.

I’ll try to give them a chance to improve themselves, because I think that helping people improve their lives, helping people engage with people they may fear or may not understand, and helping people realize that while we all may have our prejudices and bigotries we have to learn that it’s an issue that we have to control, that it’s part of my responsibility as an entrepreneur to try to solve it, not just to kick the problem down the road,” Cuban said. “Because it does my company no good, it does my customers no good, it does society no good if my response to somebody and their racism and bigotry is to say, ‘It’s not right for you to be here. Go take your attitude somewhere else.'”

Reactions to his comments were peculiar but not surprising. Black and white liberals gushed about his “courage”, hailing him as being a “giant step ahead of most of America.” They’d said his comments, unlike Sterling, contained introspection that he “shouldn’t be punished for.”  That he deserved “credit” for speaking openly. And anyone who took issue with his statement was hindering the “progress” of an “honest conversation about race.”

But let’s look at the context of Cuban’s interview. He evokes the undeniable image of Trayvon Martin without  acknowledgement of system of white supremacy that conditions him to fear “a black kid in a hoodie.” Nor is the racial imagery attached to an understanding of the white privilege from which he benefits; never having experienced racial microaggressions himself. No critique of the racist mythology of black deviance that sanctions the criminalization and murder of people of color. No mention, in fact, of whiteness at all.

He contextualized blackness only within the safe backdrop of race-neutral “biases”; throwing in a tattooed white guy for good measure. The implication of racism existed in an ahistorical vacuum, floating somewhere between white guilt and colorblindness; unweighed by anything that would illicit blame or interrogation, a collective racism with no real oppressors and no real victims.

Mark Cuban’s statement was confessional, seemingly genuine and introspective. It wasn’t dripping with Sterlimg’s maliciousness, nor mentioned racial epithets or even thinly-veiled code words. It failed to evoke the familiarity of cliché racism, so we didn’t read it as such.

Part of this is due to the lack of cultural understanding of what racism actually is. “Post-racial” liberalism continuously conflates racism (the institutional oppression and racial stratification of people of color via white supremacy) with individual prejudices (preconceived notions of another group/person on a social, micro level.) The former requires the presence of power and privilege (of whiteness) to be realized; the latter amounts to hurt feelings at best.

This lack of understanding gives way to misguided conversations about race that often use “prejudice” and “bias” in lieu of words that acknowledge systematic ties to racism. Mark Cuban said “attitude” when he meant “oppression”; he said “entrepreneur” when he should’ve said “white people.”

It’s the same type of willful ignorance around the cultural idea that “everyone is a little racist”, which laughably implies that “all of us” somehow perpetuate and experience racism interchangeably. That racism is an inexplicable colorless disease from which we all suffer, rather than what it is; the social ailment of people of color to which whites are indefinitely immune.

In all the praise of Cuban’s “honesty”, we seem to forget that as obstinate to progress as ignoring racism is, equally counterproductive is white refusal to confront it in any way that requires social, economic, or political sacrifice on their part. What good is an honest conversation if not also an effective one? What’s the value of transparency if it’s the wrong window entirely?

Colorblind post-racialism is exhaustively preoccupied with the discourse around racism, and completely disinterested with racism itself. It perpetually diminishes racial oppression to interpersonal relationships so the presence of white “niceness” and associations with people of color (“my best friend is black”) makes any claims of racism seemingly ridiculous. It couches the “racist” in an inflexible identity instead of behavior; so it becomes about who “is”/is not racist. As if it something you were born, rather than something you can embody at any given time. It laboriously deciphers the delivery and tone and circumstances of racist language and determines it’s merit by arbitrary standards. And as the list of arbitrary standards grow, so does the list of dis-qualifiers for racial offense. It sets a ceaseless cultural trap wherein racism exists but virtually no one or nothing can ever be racist.

We don’t need a running inventory of every racist internal monologue from white people like Cuban. When we said we wanted to have an honest conversation about race, we meant white relinquishment as facilitators and beneficiaries of the racialized structural power that imprisons people of color on a global level and become responsible for actively destroying it. But I guess we should’ve been more specific.

And in this supposed quest for more “honest” conversations about race, why is the open disclosure concept of post-racial progress never applicable to people of color? Why aren’t we applauded whenever we are forthcoming with the ways racism informs our lived experiences, only to have them invalidated, ignored or silenced? Where is our “credit” for our centuries of honesty we have since paid for with our wallets, our freedoms, our blood?

Because white people are almost never actually concerned about racism, but only controlling the ways that people of color are allowed to combat it. They police the means by which we can discuss it (“stop playing the race card”) legitimize it (“I don’t see color”) hold it accountable (“not ALL white people”) and now acknowledge its existence (through uncritical white voices). It’s a way of recognizing racism only as an abstract concept while actively disguising its inception and obstructing the trajectory to its demise.

Mark Cuban did not have a conversation about race in any of the radical ways deserving of praise or recognition. He semantically maneuvered around the very system that allows him to profit from the performance of black bodies; even as he irrationally fears them. He screamed “progress” without abdicating the lofty throne of privilege. And there is absolutely nothing honest about that.

A Feminist Freak: What Sex and Politics Look Like

I love sex.

More specifically, I love kinky sex. I love to get my hair pulled while I’m being fucked doggy style or bent over a knee for a spanking in a Daddy/Daughter roleplay. I am turned on, at times, by submissiveness; being tied up or held down by my partner during a rough pounding. I masturbate to gangbang porn. I like to deep throat on my knees and swallow after I’ve finished. I love the satisfaction of being sore the next day.

I’m a freak. I’m also a feminist. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

The way that feminism and sexuality intersect divide itself into two polarizing ideologies. The first, carved out of second-wave radical feminism, is mostly characterized by anti-sex. It renders sex work, sexy clothing, sexual public display, and pornography (especially hetero/mainstream) as demeaning and objectifying. It implicitly encourages women to detach themselves from conventional ideals of patriarchal beauty and sex appeal; to inhabit a sort of asexuality to be seen for their intellect as opposed to their bodies.

But rather than freeing women, what develops is a form of feminist respectability in which women are expected to present modestly to challenge the male gaze. An ideology that erroneously blankets all female sexual expression as self-denigrative regardless of context, and performs benevolent slut-shaming of its own. It claims to “protect” women from objectification through policing sexuality but only repositions them in a space of objectivity; wherein sexuality is still validated (or invalidated) via patriarchal proximity. It continually “rescues” women from sexual choices with the assumption that those choices can never be made for their own benefit.

The oppositional ideology (embraced by younger feminists) is vehemently pro-sex. It rests on the notion that women are empowered by brazen sexuality; that through nudity, raunchy sexual expression, and masculine sexual imitation, they subvert feminine expectations of chastity and reclaim ownership of their bodies.

But this ideology, too, is ineffective. It mostly benefits cis, straight white women whose privilege allows the adaption of “slutiness” (unlike LBTQ women or women of color) without the stigma of sexual deviance. It automatically conflates sex with power which fails to acknowledge that sex in and of itself is not inherently progressive for women.

Patriarchy socializes women to see sexuality as inextricably linked to reproduction or self-worth. We don’t possess the male privilege needed to sexually operate in heteronormative masculine spaces; to have sex in the mechanical ways in which men are expected. We approach sex cautiously, for pragmatic reasons—fear of unplanned pregnancy (cis), or the threat of danger from unknown partners—but also because it’s entangled with messages of shame, respectability, and male pleasure that hinder our sexual autonomy differently. Our sexual choices don’t always empowering because they’re so often made in relation to men: I want to fuck him, but I want him to respect me or I don’t want to fuck him, but if I don’t he might cheat or he paid for dinner, so I guess I have to fuck him. LBTQ womens’ sexuality is deemed irrelevant altogether unless it can be re-imagined for a male audience. So women generally do not pursue pleasure—as men are trained to do—but negotiate pleasure with the Rules of femininity. Framing sexual liberation as role reversal only recaptures women in equally restrictive expectations of sexual rapaciousness and emotional detachment.

Pro-sex feminists also refuse to critique sex by painting it as “natural” and apolitical; a separate entity somehow untainted by social conditioning and power dynamics. But if we believe that heteronormative socialization is the site of womens’ oppression (as most feminists do) we can’t also hold that private spaces of sex, love, and relationships are somehow exempt from its effects. Sex is so irrefutably bound up in womens subjugation—rape, (social control via sexual violence) reproduction, (state sanctioned sexual control) beauty standards (social control via male pleasure)–that to render it benign and neutral, to claim it’s “just sex” underestimates its weight in dangerous ways.

I think feminist sex is somewhere in the middle. It’s that sweet spot between political prudishness and uncritical hypersexualization. Those flashes of pop cultural lusciousness— Janet Jackson moaning orgasmically in the interludes of a track, or Lil’ Kim bragging about her Head game in the “Magic Stick” or Ciara twerking in the “Ride” video—that conceptualize the potentials of sex-positivity. That crevice of unapologetic libidos and unveiled lust that women can rarely occupy.

Feminism isn’t dogmatic. It’s not reductive to any specific individual behaviors but a collective environment in which women are human and free; so our sex and our politics are able to coexist through the presence of erotic agency.

Agency is what allows me to enter to the un-feminist parts of sex. The ambivalent, politically incorrect, problematic bits of sex without cognitive dissonance. It’s how I can be fully aware of the misogynistic implications of any particular sex act or fantasy with which I engage—to interrogate it intellectually—and simultaneously admit that it turns me on at the most primitive level. I neither (guiltily) ignore my politics nor forfeit the self-care that comes from a complex and enjoyable sex life. Agency is how I make a truce between the battles  of consciousness and self-indulgence, a feminism—as Joan Morgan put it–“that’s brave enough to fuck with the grays.”

The concept of erotic agency also reminds me that submissiveness and powerlessness are not always the same thing. One can take on a submissive (or objectifying) role from a space of power if they also see it as a sexual identity unrelated to the self, to be used for the fulfillment of fantasy and pleasure. The difference between sexual empowerment and exploitation can’t be determined by a woman’s subordinate positioning at any given time, but whether or not she is limited to it, by virtue of gender. If we only ever contextualize feminism in dom/sub binaries, we essentially see domination (and masculinity, by extension) as the only source of legitimate power; that a woman’s failure to be anywhere but on Top is an affront to her politics and her self. But if women don’t have agency, even if they engage in the kind of egalitarian sexual cliches that Good Feminists are supposed to; they are still trapped, still marginalized, still powerless.

And I think feminism has done the work of articulating the many things women don’t want, but we sometimes neglect to think about what we, in fact, do want. How when we have agency in the context of pleasure, it is inherently radical because it rejects the notion that sex has some bearing on our morality, our politics, our personhood; that our bodies and the private things we chose to do with them are still up for public discussion.

When women are allowed to inhabit sexuality in the pursuit of raw pleasure or self-expression–when we can revel in it with utter selfishness without the burdens of shame, censorship, or inhibition, when we can focus on how sex feels, instead of always what it means—that is empowerment.

There’s no real paradigm from which to measure feminist sex because it is tricky and fluid and changes through context–but there are markers of it’s existence.

I know I am having feminist sex when I can unwrap my desire from all of the patriarchal ambiguity, pinpoint it, and act accordingly. When I don’t hesitate to tell my partner how to please me and when or if they’re doing it wrong. When I refuse to fake an orgasm for convenience. When I’m not preoccupied with the way the male gaze perceives my body when the lights are on. When I don’t feel like a slut or a saint or a hypocrite for doing it whenever, however I chose. When I am ultimately fucking for me, and no one else.

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“Dark Girls”: A Critique

I had the recent displeasure of watching Dark Girls, a documentary debuting on the OWN network which discussed colorism within the black community, specifically as it relates to dark-skinned women.

There are many critical pieces on why the film failed to substantially connect colorism within the structural context of white supremacist patriarchy, so I won’t go into detail about that here.

I did, however, want to add a few other things I found problematic about the film and the general reaction to it.

1.) Dark Girls talked extensively about how growing one’s self-esteem can heal the effects of colorism, but failed to see how self-esteem (self-assurance and self-confidence) are largely accessed through privilege. In the context of beauty, our society uses shame as a form of control to perpetuate feelings of inadequacy among marginalized people and maintain the status quo. Shaming certain bodies draws implicit boundaries around appropriate behavior; specifically, who is (or is not) allowed outward displays of confidence. I’ve said before that women are not generally afforded arrogance, cockiness, or self-promotion in a patriarchal femininity that demands humility and “niceness”. When that woman is also deemed “ugly” by societal standards, we use additional shaming tactics to articulate her inability to feel or appear self-confident. We also want shame to be tangible; to visibly identify one’s insecurities, to see slumped shoulders and averted eyes that ensure they know Their Place.

Many dark-skinned women do have healthy self-esteems but the documentary’s unwillingness to show that is partly evident in our comfort with marginal beauty fitting self-loathing narratives, because it is consistent with the status quo. Dark Girls preached self-acceptance and self-love but did not acknowledge how attempts at such are counteracted with shaming techniques. For instance, when fat women exude confidence by wearing clothes typically allotted for thin women and are immediately berated. Or black women who accept their kinky hair texture but are continuously encouraged by others to return to chemical straightening. Self-esteem does not exist in a vacuum; it’s a largely reflective concept that requires some form of reciprocation outside of one’s self.

The distance of black women, especially dark-skinned women, from whiteness places us at the bottom of the beauty hierarchy. It’s short-sighted to demand we feel pride in the very features that fuel our oppression without any structural resistance. Black womens self-image is  shaped by Eurocentrism (both white and male gazes) from birth, and what we will feel about ourselves has largely been determined for us. By current standards, we are supposed to feel ugly and desperately feed the capitalist beauty industry in order to fix it. When we refuse to see our bodies as inherently defective, social backlash immediately follows, trying to convince us otherwise. The film failed to critically examine how healthy self-esteem is afforded only to those society sees as “deserving”, which is contingent on their ability to inhabit beauty norms. We can’t control the distorted ways in which we see ourselves without also combating the distorted ways in which the rest of the world sees us.

2.) The limitations of the Self in the context of oppression also failed to be acknowledged in the film’s framing of black compliance within colorism. Individual exercise of oppressive behavior is usually blamed for social ills or intraracial conflicts without connection to the structural inequalities at work. But even when structure is recognized (as the film occasionally does) our supposed compliance within oppressive strictures is still primarily the problem. Even if we bracket the historical inaccuracies of the “slave narrative” typically used to explain black subservience (seeing as slaves were extremely rebellious) it still manages to oversimplify racial compliance in and of itself.

Compliance in oppressed people and those with power and privilege is inherently unequal. Black people (especially black women) don’t move through the world as autonomous beings with full rights, choices, and options. Our “choices” usually aren’t choices at all, but an avoidance of a more unfavorable consequence. We usually have two options–comply with the dominant system or suffer greater oppression at the hands of said system—and the choice is essentially made for us. Marginalized people do not perpetuate their own oppression as an exercise of free will, but out of the need to socially or systematically survive. We do what we have to do.

Compliance is also not an ahistorical concept; it is lived experiences, not inexplicable “self-hate” that encourage colorism, that teach us one’s quality of life is assessed by color-coded criteria. I don’t mean to suggest that no agency exists, or that rebellion is futile, but rather that rebellion is limited by dominant powers. Modern colorblind racism operates on the premise that black people are now “free” to do anything we want, while strategically devising social and systematic obstacles to ensure that we are not. We can’t frame black compliance as blind submissiveness without also recognizing the limited circumstances that make it possible.

3.) Dark Girls also brought up a problematic connection between black women and Eurocentric beauty. While not explicitly stated, the notion that black women—especially those with dark-skin—seek to imitate white women, was embedded in the film. While white supremacist patriarchy (may) cause black women to see Eurocentric features as more desirable, simply saying black women want to “look white” is a gross oversimplification. Black people have a complicated relationship with whiteness. It is one of both fearless resistance and necessary compliance. As much as white supremacy has dictated our lives, we remain skeptical and averse to it at the same time that we look to it for social leverage. Being “white” remains an insult within our community. Very few of us want to literally inhabit whiteness. Just as whites don’t want to be black (and forfeit racial privilege) but co-opt “exotic” elements of blackness; black women only want to borrow white features to align themselves with white supremacist patriarchal standards.

Light skin, straight hair, and keen facial features are often desired, but the curvy bodies (“thick” hips, thighs, and butt) typically lacking in white women, remain extremely important to black women. The way that gender complicates racism puts black women in a unique position: halfway between the white male gaze and the black male gaze, trying to simultaneously appease both. It requires the strategic cherry-picking of physical elements that balance both patriarchal entities, and leaving the ones that don’t. The tendency to believe that black women desire a total erasure of the black female self erroneously frames our adaption of Eurocentric beauty as inherent “envy” of white women, while ignoring the ways in which we pridefully reject white femininity.

While Dark Girls did succeed in articulating the emotional and psychological pain of colorism through the stories of black women; I just wish it hadn’t missed so much truth in between.

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Michelle Obama And Her Right to Anger

I conceptualize Michelle Obama as a metaphor for modern black womanhood. Not representative of individual black women, but rather the perpetual tightrope walk that black femininity entails. If you watch her closely, you can see her perform the acts of juggling race and gender with expectations of assimilation and respectability. The way she negotiates her identities with the duties of First Lady and the subsequent sacrifices. She embodies an exhaustive catch-22: the controlling images that trap black women with the very tactics they use to escape them.

We can examine this metaphor within the context of Tuesdays ordeal: the First Lady’s confrontation of the heckler who interrupted her speech at a fundraising event.

The heckler–Ellen Sturtz–told the Washington Post that Michelle Obama “came right down” in her face, that she was “taken aback” by her reaction. Reports of the First Lady as “monster” with “unscripted anger” from various new outlets immediately followed. And Nicholas Kristof tweeted that it was “not her finest moment.”

From the other side, supporters applauded the confrontation using equally dominating imagery: claims that Michelle Obama “handled” her heckler, “told her off”, that she “put her in her place.”

The forceful language used to describe her behavior on both sides served as a cultural reminder: black women in America do not have a right to anger.

Black women are aware of how the stereotypical representations of our bodies have made “anger” a colored and gendered term; the threat of the Angry Black Woman and her inevitable consequences. The way she seamlessly morphs us into caricatures, reinterprets our legitimate anger as irrational, negates respectability, and marks us as aggressive, “scary”, and domineering.

White women, although limited by gender, gain access to anger through white privilege, evident in their ability to inhabit it without the residue of historical connotations. Middle-class status for black women is dependent on their navigation of anger in white spaces; to tip-toe around it like a landmine we’re afraid of detonating.

The Angry Black Woman’s proximity to black femininity means that it inherently limits black womens’ ability to be emotionally nuanced.

We never assumed that Michelle Obama may have also felt vulnerable, uncomfortable, or sad the night she was heckled. Our unwillingness to assess anything but anger to her experience absolves her ability to feel anything else.

The essentialism of Angry Black Womanhood creates a restrictive space for emotional expression where anger (and its variants) are the only valid options-both in our assumption that black women don’t feel other emotions, and our inability to recognize it once they do.

So then comes the irony: we arm ourselves with notions of white femininity to eschew the Angry label and run headfirst into Strong Black Womanhood on the other side. Though born out of Womanist efforts to acknowledge our ability to overcome racist/sexist obstacles, the flipside of the Strong Black Woman can be problematic. In adhering to the expectations of strength we implicitly agree that any show of weakness, sadness, or defeat equates to collective failure.

And so black women are caught in an almost inescapable trap; to either using anger as catharsis at the expense of all other feelings, or to mute it entirely behind the calloused posturing of “strength”. Two cultural archetypes that engage us in a bizarre sort of tug-of-war wherein humanity is stolen regardless of who wins.

The personification of anger within a historical context means that it will always present itself in a black female form. To be a mark of authentic black femininity and to feel, even to us, so attached to our bodies that we mistake it for innateness.

The consequences of anger also manifests itself in the further silencing of black women. That whenever we chose to validate the pain (or pleasure) of our lived experiences, it is filtered through oppressive concepts and gets lost in translation. That whenever we exercise vocal autonomy-like Michelle Obama–only to have it mischaracterized as “angry”, it is sometimes easier to say nothing at all.

Just once, in my black female body, I’d like to move through the emotional spectrum as freely as white women often do. I want to identify with notions of strength without it encapsulating my entire being. I wish I could get angry, really fucking angry, and have it mean only that.

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A Female President, Barack Obama, and the Power of Symbolism: A Response to Amy Schiller.

In a response piece entitled The Feminist Case Against A Woman President, Amy Schiller critiques feminist Jessica Valenti for proposing that she would vote for a female president in 2016. In her piece, Why I’m Voting For Her, Valenti essentially said that she was “fed up” with the endless cycle of sexism and thought electing America’s first woman—while acknowledging that women candidates do not guarantee feminist outcome– would be a “hopeful reminder of progress made.”

Schiller’s response essentially argued three points:

1.) Electing a woman as president (for example, Hillary Clinton) would still be a simplistic solution to sexism, as well as an empty symbolic gesture.

2.) That a female president isn’t actually needed for feminist progress because its gains have mostly been realized (using the backlash around Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments as evidence of said gains.)

3.) That a woman in office would do no more to combat sexism than Barack Obama’s presidency has done to combat racism, conveniently quoting Frederick C. Harris as saying:

“…Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting…when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.

Okay. So many problems here.

For one, Schiller largely trivialized the importance of symbolism and visibility.

Symbolism matters. In a country with very specific controlling images and historical connotations that attach themselves to certain bodies, seeing said bodies in spaces not originally reserved for them matters. Seeing someone who looks like you grasp forbidden kinds of power and provide a schematic reference for possibility, matters. The concept of fictive kinship that creates a sense of pride when one of Us has Made It, matters.

Visibility is also an extremely powerful concept. In a culture that sees marginalized people only through peep shows of white supremacist, patriarchal perspectives–that are always obscured through bias–lack of full recognition becomes a marker of second-class citizenship.

For marginalized bodies to enter public spaces and demand visibility not filtered through oppressive gazes–to be seen in any autonomous way at all, matters.

But here’s what also matters:

Barack Obama as the President of the United States has been one of the most vivid confirmations of racism in a post-Jim Crow America.

Folks usually critique Obama for his reluctance to talk about race, and rightfully so. But we usually neglect to acknowledge that while he may avoid explicit racial discourse, it doesn’t mean that no implicit discourse has been made.

Policy-wise, he has done race work: his Affordable Healthcare Act will reduce health disparities for millions of African-Americans and raise Medicaid eligibility. Almost half of undergraduate Pell Grants under the Obama administration were received by black students—higher than any other group. He also signed the Recovery Act in law, which helped keep a disproportionate number of blacks out of poverty through tax credits, increase in food stamps, and funded re-training for the unemployed.

This is not to say that there aren’t numerous policy and social critiques to be made about Obama (there are) and that his symbolism negates those critiques (it doesn’t) but to simply to suggest that covert race work is race work nonetheless—its impacts still the same.

More than that, Schiller ignores the very overt race talk that has been had around Obama. In less than four years of his first term, Obama’s presence managed to evoke centuries of white anxiety and classic oppressive behaviors:

The perpetual Othering of his biracial/Kenyan origins, “exoticized” to the point of fetishism. The commentary on his Negro “inefficiencies” (by conservative and white liberals) while simultaneously forcing him into old stereotypes of black maleness. The assassination attempts, Birtherism, xenophobia, and inexplicable skepticism of his abilities and intelligence. The constant reference to him as “Obama” and refusal to use “president” as an authoritative title-like an eerie homage to Jim Crow, when adult black men were referred to as merely “boys.”

Not to mention the media representations of Michelle Obama that, despite her respectability, always sought to reinterpret her as the Sapphire/Mammy/Jezebel tropes of black womanhood.

Before we could only ask the question, “would a black president in America signal post-racialism?” as a hypothetical.

Obamas now give us a resounding emblematic answer: Hell. No.

And in knowing this, we were able to confront race in a “colorblind” America. It gave the black community an archetype in which to acknowledge, analyze, and vent about racial oppression in a cultural climate that had rendered race invisible.

If a woman is elected President of the United States, the same thing will inevitably happen. We can have an opportunity to confront sexism by bringing it to the surface. We’ll be able to dissect gender roles and patriarchal power dynamics. Evoke talk about the beauty myth, ageism, and the consequences of the male gaze. Analyze female sexuality, madonna-whore complexes, and rape culture. And to examine how these issues manifest differently for LGBT/poor/disabled/women of color–through a lens of instersectionality that is too often abandoned in feminist conversations.

I, like Valenti, don’t have simplistic fantasies about being rescued from oppression by public figureheads and symbolism alone. I don’t cater to the concepts of collectivity that make our individual choices bear representation on the entire group. I don’t expect anyone who shares my identities to carry the burden of social justice on my behalf. And I don’t think a marginalized body in a position of power is inherently progressive.

But I also know that diversity is a threat to the status quo, and that marginalized bodies are (not always, but more likely to) enact policy, discourse, and change that benefit the people who look like them—not because of identity “loyalty”, but because your lived experiences encourage action.

The only people who can truly make the best decisions about matters of oppression are those who actually experience it. After centuries of whites creating the policies that disproportionately affect people of color, doesn’t it account for something when at least a colored body is now making these decisions, regardless of outcome? And after centuries of male paternalism determining what is best for women, won’t it matter that these decisions are enacted by someone that can at least live out its consequences?

Schiller seems to think that minimal instances of collective push-back is sufficient progress, that we should “be happy” with the meager gains we’ve made. That Obama’s inability to eradicate centuries of social injustice within a four year period is somehow evidence of failure. A failure that will inevitably be used to justify the blocking of more black and brown people from the Oval Office in the future.

Schiller’s assertions that a female president will actually “dampen” feminism seems to suggest that a victim of oppression in spaces of power is inherently dangerous, that it only makes oppression worse. But we can also look at how this language of skepticism also warned our ancestors not to defy their own oppressive strictures—not to vote, enter segregated institutions, run for office, boycott, march, speak too loudly, speak at all. And knowing that we are forever indebted, because they did it anyway.

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I Spy Stupid: Zoe Saldana Thinks There’s “No Such Thing” As People of Color?

Generally speaking, I’ve had no beef with Zoe Saldana; but nowadays I think she mostly exists just to raise folks’ blood pressure and prompt collective facepalms. In a recent BET interview, when asked about her racial identity, said:

I find it uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all of the time, when in reality it’s not something that drives me or wakes me up out of bed everyday….I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they can contribute as individuals and not what they look like….I literally run away from people that use words like ethnic. It’s preposterous! To me there is no such thing as people of color cause in reality people aren’t white. Paper is white. People are pink..

Sigh. Girlfriend needs a hug and some psychological evaluation. Clearly, she’s delusional.

We usually hear this silly post-racial rhetoric from white people who think it makes them sound progressive and hip to say they don’t “see race”–despite its empirical falseness and inherent denial of the history, culture, policies, and personal realities inextricably attached to race.

But its particularly interesting when a person of color–who is undeniably affected by said color–embraces color-blindness. Especially someone like Zoe Saldana, a celebrity and actress, whose craft is entirely dependent on visual aspects–namely, her body.

I definitely think Zoe’s comments reveal of lack of understanding of race as a social construct but I also know it benefits her, career wise, to intentionally trivialize the implications of race entirely.

Zoe is Dominican and Puerto Rican. She’s light-skinned with straight hair, a slender build, and a slightly broad nose; she doesn’t phonetically present as any definitive racial category. This essentially gives her a major advantage in Hollywood: racial ambiguity that allows for multicultural appeal.

Her ability to occupy the murky grey areas of “racelessness” is evident in her film roles. She was cast as a Latino women in “Columbiana” and a black woman in her portrayal of the great Nina Simone. What racially homologous actress would have had this option?

Women of color are accustomed to fighting for roles beyond raical typecasting: black women as Mammys/Sapphires, Latino women as hot-headed vixens, Asian women as geishas or nerds, and South Asian/Desi women as unassimilated overachievers.

Zoe Saldana, like other mixed-race celebrities (Halle Berry, Kimora Lee Simmons, Jessica Alba, Shay Mitchell) have the luxury of reinventing themselves. They can negotiate their public image and racial marketability based on what they decide to be that day. And in slipping through the strictures of race, they gain access to more career opportunities, nuanced iconography, and greater recognition.

What’s funny is that even in Saldana’s supposed color-blindness, she simultaneously admits that the subject of race constantly confronts her:

So to all of a sudden leave your household and have people always ask you, “What are you, what are you” is the most uncomfortable question and it’s literally the most repetitive question.

That’s the thing about race, Zoe, even if you pretend like it’s invisible, it inevitably appears. Dude from The Sixth Sense will metaphorically emerge from nowhere, whispering “I see Colored People“.

I think it would’ve been far more interesting if, instead of rejecting the concept of color and race, Saldana questioned why said color and race so profoundly affect the course and quality of our lives. If she had critically examined why the stripping of our ethnic language, beauty, and heritage gets us farther in the world. Why being “insufficiently” black/latino/asian/south asian makes people more comfortable but also more confused. I wish she woud’ve critiqued the way that mixed race people are pressured to self-identity as “one or the other” precisely because of America’s obsession with applying mythology to color, not because we simply inhabit the color in and of itself.

And while I never expect celebrities like Saldana to be the face of radical racial discourse, I don’t expect them to be mouthpieces for stupidity either.

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Charles Ramsey, Black Masculinity, and the Narrative of Villainy

As soon as I’d heard that Charles Ramsey had helped rescue three Cleveland women held captive for a decade–I immediately thought, “Hmm, wonder what irrelevant information the media will dig up to take him out of the heroic context.”

And almost immediately afterward, I had my answer: Ramsey’s domestic violence conviction broke the news, and dominated the coverage.

A black man had gone from Hero to Wife Beater in less than 48 hours.

You see, this is what we do in a culture that makes unearned innocence a trait of whiteness: we create racialized narratives of Heroism and Villainy and reconceptualize images of blackness until they fit neatly into the latter.

Born out of slavery and immortalized by Jim Crow, the racial narrative of the Black Buck is central to our societal illusions of black manhood. One that portrays him as inherently dangerous, violent, criminal, uncivilized, and sexually deviant over and over again. So strong a narrative it manifests itself in the structure of our socio-economic ills: disparate unemployment, racial profiling, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex.

It’s a narrative that even in black mens’ attempt to escape through reinvention–to play chameleons in the engagement of code switching and respectability– somehow always seems to find them.

It managed to find Trayvon Martin, the innocent 17 year-old who was shot and killed in Florida, armed with no more than Skittles and Iced Tea. Rather than join a collective effort to investigate the tragedy and convict George Zimmerman, the media was more interested in fitting Martin within the racial framework of the Thug, Juvenille, or recalcitrant youth. It used allegations of school suspensions, the use of marijuana , and even his Hoodie, to suggest that he was he was more imposing, more threatening, more familiar as the predator than the prey.

And like clockwork, culture began its demonization of Charles Ramsey in order to fit him into the narrative of villainy.

Its usual strategy would be to simply dismiss his heroism by framing him as the Exceptional Negro—the token black whose incongruent with negative stereotypes and is therefore deemed a racial anomaly. But he is working class, politically incorrect, too boisterous, and unassimilated to meet the white status quo, too “authentically black” to fit the framework effectively.

Its next tactic, then, was marginalization. Less than 24 hours after the story broke, he’d already been meme-ified; the video of his interview had gone viral, prompting autotune remixes and GIFS, the original story reduced to a running Internet joke. Identical to that of Antoine Dodoson, whose “hide yo kids, hide yo wife” slogan overshadowed the attempted rape of his sister, the memeification of Charles Ramsey trivialized the experiences of poor women and violence. It became more pressing to giggle at his “ignorance” and diction than to acknowledge the exploitation of female bodies from the neighborhoods we never care about.

Even amidst the mockery, Charles Ramsey’s choice to help the women threatened the racial narrative of villainy. More than that, he managed to perform poignant political commentary. For one, he outright rejected the politics of respectability. He refused to recast himself to satisfy standards of middle-class blackness and dared to bring his identity into a public space.

He also evoked public discourse about racial symbolism. His now infamous statement, (promptly deleted from the media), “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms” forced us to rethink historical images of black masculinity as it relates to white women. Here he was, a dark-skinned wild-haired black man not properly “tamed” by respectability and yet had not–as centuries of lynching tried to convinces us–raped or beaten but rescued a white female body. The juxtaposition of the Black Buck and White Innocence being seamlessly reinterpreted on our TV screens in real time.

Most important, perhaps, was his implicit message about white privilege. In his constant referencing to the “black man/white girl” dynamic, it spoke to his awareness of himself in the racialized narrative of black maleness. That he knew the limitations of his body to move through the world without fear of being the suspect, the criminal, the villain. That even within the context of his heroism he was simultaneously aware of how his identity might erase him from it.

And he was right.

Culture had done what it always does to black people in America: appropriate our failings to racial stereotypes while ignoring the larger circumstances of our oppression. It conveniently revives historical images of blackness even as we try to make space for nuance, and caricaturizes our lived experiences for white amusement.

Charles Ramsey got a chance to create his own racial narrative, but before we could embrace it, it had already been rewritten. Just like that.

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Django Unchained: My Two Cents [Spoiler Alert]

Initially, I hadn’t even planned on seeing the film. I wasn’t interested in seeing a Western, I’m not particularly fond of Tarantino, and I’m always skeptical of a white persons ability to tell an honest story about people of color. But after its hype kept mounting, (along with pressure from friends who sang its praises) I was convinced Spike Lee and I were the only ones on the planet who hadn’t seen this damn movie. So I finally sucked it up and took a trip to the nearest Redbox.

Here’s what I thought:

The Good

1.) It kept my attention. Django’s quest to save his wife–and stay alive in the process– was suspenseful, emotionally engaging, and at times, humorous.

2.) Samuel L. Jackson was brilliant in his performance of Stephen, who was undoubtedly my favorite character, and was FUCKING HILARIOUS.

3.) It was a different cinematic approach to the context of American storytelling about slavery. The film was permeated through Django, who was a slave portrayal we had not really seen before; a rebellious and clever sharp shooter who talked shit, (“the D is silent, hillbilly”) had a little swagger, and was relentless in his rejection of the oppressive circumstances in which he lived. The soundtrack combined with the coolness/badassery that Jamie Foxx translated in his role, carved out a rare modern black heroism that (perhaps) this generation can relate to, and even admire.

4.) Kerry Washington is in it and I have a Fangirl crush on her that I chose not to rehash here for fear of a restraining order on her part.

The Bad

1.) Although Django was a take-no-shit rebel, it seemed as if all the other slaves around him were of the docile, “yes massa” variety. Only Django (with the exception of his wife, Broomhilda) was seen as the “exceptional nigga” who wouldn’t accept his role as the happy slave, content with his circumstances. Throughout the film, the slaves are continuously faced with opportunities to escape, but don’t, for unknown reasons. For instance, when Django tricks the captors of LeQuint Dickey Mining Company into setting him free, kills them, and heads back to CandieLand to finish off the rest–the slaves in the “nigger cage” do not attempt to run away, but instead remain inside, bewildered and stupefied. Then of course, there’s Stephen, the loyal servant who is not only content in his bondage, but joins forces with his white oppressors to keep other slaves in their place and maintain the status quo. He even loses his shit when his master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) is killed.

And although the trauma of slavery may have contributed to internalized feelings of self hatred that made a select few subservient, this concept of the Happy Slave has been exaggerated (in this case, to the point of parody) in historical film representations to blanket the vast majority. Calvin Candie’s monologue about Old Ben’s skull summarized the notions many have about slaves: that they rarely resisted, that they were comfortable, in need of guidance or white authority, and even biologically predisposed to submissive roles.

This is not only insulting as hell, but historically inaccurate. Slaves were documented as arguing, fighting, and sometimes even killing their masters (by gun or poison). They continuously ran away, at times for weeks, and hid in marooned communities. When they did stay on the plantation, they intentionally worked at slow paces to reduce crop production and would injure themselves to debase their property value–some even committed suicide. They stole food and valuables from their oppressors, learned to read illegally, developed their own factions of religion, and instilled a distrust of whites in their children.

In short: they were anything but the well-behaved model minorities largely depicted in Django Unchained.

The Ugly

2.) My biggest critique: The experiences of black women in slavery were virtually ERASED from this film. I get that it was told from Django’s point of view, but Broomhilda (and other female slaves) gave Tarantino the most logical and convenient opportunity to explore her realities but instead she was mostly a prop for the Damsel in Distress and had like three lines. While her physical brutality was somewhat depicted, the film glossed over the most central experience of black female slaves: rape.
The occurrence or threat or sexual assault, historically, would have been part of Broomhilda’s daily experience, but Django Unchained reduces it to the quasi-prostitution of a “comfort girl” instead of what it actually was: slave masters and overseers raping black women in the secrecy of slave quarters then depicting them as inherently depraved so as not to upset their wives–who, by contrast, were the symbols of purity and chastity. The only proof of the masters sexual abuse was the emergence of light skinned bi-racial children (who were also nonexistent in this film).

Black female slaves also faced hardships in relation to family. Pregnant women often gave birth, returned to work within a few hours, and were forced to put the needs of the slave masters children above their own, leaving their families to be raised by other people. As the primary caretakers, they carried the burden of remaining on the plantation for fear of leaving their children or losing them through trade, even while the men escaped. These realities are not only instrumental to the story of slavery but shape contemporary stereotypes of black women (especially that of the Jezebel or Unfit Mother) but are once again ignored in popular culture.

3). The concept of slavery itself was also ridiculously oversimplified in Django Unchained. It was depicted mostly as white hatred and cruelty that led to slavery when in fact, racism was socially constructed to justify slavery. Tarantino reduces it to a matter of white vs. black relationships and overt bigotry. It reminds me of the way that The Help made Jim Crow seem like a 1960′s version of Mean Girls, a matter of white people “not liking” black people (because of irrational ignorance or insensitivity) which is implicitly solved once a “nice” white person is inserted into the story who selflessly helps the black person overcome racial obstacles. (In The Help, it was Skeeter, in Django Unchained it is Dr. Shultz).

But slavery was an institutional form of oppression; systemic racism put in place to achieve astonishing wealth in North America and the rest of the world. It created the foundation for modern economy on a global level, made the South the richest and most powerful region in America, was the direct cause of the Civil War, made a fortune on Wall Street, and is inextricably woven into this countries social and economic history. Yet it was virtually invisible in the larger context of the film.

Whats even more whack is Tarantino’s ahistorical portrayal in which slaves are maimed and killed for no apparent reason; like the infamous Mandingo fights wherein slaves fought each other to death for the entertainment of their masters. But this is beyond ludicrous. Slave masters were not, as Calvin Candie implied, well-to-do white business men who kept slaves around to indulge their sadomasochistic fantasies then would dispose of them whenever they got bored. They were largely working class men who absolutely depended upon the bodies of slaves for their livelihood. Most slave masters had fewer than 20 slaves, each and every one of infinite value, which means killing them all would intentionally eliminate their own profits. That’d be like McDonalds throwing all their “beef” into a fire pit just for shits and giggles.

4.) Tarantino’s continuous depiction of violence also bothered me. Not in a squeamish way, but I always felt like he was referencing his hipster racist delusions; imagining the cruelest things that could happen to slaves (being torn apart by dogs, castration, etc) and realizing them so that a.) white people would feel appropriately guilty and b.) black people would get appropriately angry. The latter would provide the emotional vehicle for the fantastical ending, one where Django kills all the Bad White People (and Stephen) before riding off on horseback with his main squeeze. It used brutality and villainy as the perfect psychological triggers which allowed us to root for Django uncritically. To walk away from the film feeling that justice was served, that black people “got back” at white people and therefore whites can feel better about this pesky little blemish in American history because now, thanks to Tarantino, the score has been settled.

It baffles me why white filmmakers always depict racial oppression in this binary way of good vs. evil and ignore the larger structure. Maybe its their unconscious belief that black/brown people still harbor old feelings of resentment about the past and therefore want “pay back” (financial, physical, psychological) for the treatment of their ancestors (the ridiculousness of reverse-racism comes to mind). But I think there’s a much bigger reason. I think the whitewashing of realities like slavery and Jim Crow get boiled down to race relations because its easier to make a heart wrenching film that evokes white guilt for a few hours than to acknowledge a more difficult truth: that America was essentially built on the backs of other people. People who don’t look like you, people who are perpetuated portrayed as lazy slackers who chose to live on state welfare. To acknowledge that your ancestors exploited the labor of these people for their own financial gain files in the face of everything conservatives like to tell us about this country. That success is based on merits, hard work, pulling yourself Up By Your Bootstraps, never taking handouts, and individualism. It would mean the vast majority of white Americans would have to wonder whether or not the inheritance of land, property, businesses, and wealth was made possible only by the sacrificial bloodshed of black and brown people (yes) or that the poverty, crime, and education disparities may not actually be evidence of an inherent flaw of blackness or brownness but an inevitable outcome of the very bloodshed you benefit from (yes).

And I get that its a film. That’s it fiction, that Tarantino’s a nut job branded in gory revenge-style cinema , and that art does not always lend itself to accurate historical translation and blah blah blah. But here’s the thing: Fiction does not mean being unrealistic, art is not immune to honest political context, and white people don’t get to tell stories about the realities of others without being called out when they get it wrong (as they often do).

The film wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but in retrospect I’m thinking maybe I should’ve saved my Redbox money and Tarantino should’ve just sat this one out.

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