The video you are about to watch is of the most profound ig’nance. My apologies in advance.
“Beauty and the Beat” takes us along on a white girls musical voyage into The Hood where she meets girls with names like “Bonesquisha” who scream from car windows and “Jerome” who want her digits because her “ass is phat”. The video, done by ToddyMobs, has garnered close to four million views on YouTube, and rather than the outrage-infused- social- media firestorm I’d imagined would ensue, people mostly thought it was,well, funny.
Because apparently, it’s not racist if it’s written by a black dude.
Of course, negative stereotypes aren’t as harmful within the context of the black community; as we tend to interpret them as jokes made from a “wink wink” sort of understanding than literally, as a personal attack. But when personal responsibility is neglected, we forget about the White Gaze that perpetually exists in mainstream culture, which takes everything it sees at face value.
It’s not that we should never see the images revealed in “Beauty In The Beat”; that we should always represent ourselves in by traditional, middle-class, heteronormative white standards. But when these images are all we ever see, all of the time; when they are devoid of nuance or complexity to the point of caricature; when there isn’t a valid historical or social context in which to understand it, it’s just—you know, niggatry.
The problem is, much of the time, we don’t even know we’re doing it. When you live as a minority in an unequal society, it is terribly easy to realign yourself with the negative images that are reproduced over and over again. Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry describes this perfectly with the metaphor of the crooked room:
When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women
are standing in a crooked room, and they have to ﬁgure out which
way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some
black women tilt and bend themselves to ﬁt the distortion…To
understand why black women’s public actions and political strat-
egies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading
stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural
constraints that inﬂuence their behavior.
It’s a struggle, as Perry pointed out, to “stand up straight in a crooked room” , to find an authentic sense of sense when you’re looking into society’s fun house mirror version of racist, sexist cliches. Because even when you look and see that your head is too big or your body is too long, you accept it as truth because you can’t seem to find a single other mirror that shows otherwise.
As a result, we often perpetuate, or reproduce negative images of ourselves in two primary ways:
1.) Black people constantly police other black people whenever they demonstrate behavior that falls outside of the acceptable cultural norms. And for fear of being seen as “white”, he or she changes their behavior , realigns themselves with the negative images, and the cycle repeats itself.
2.) As we seek to create a sense of community among one another, we tend to use stereotypes as the very thing that bonds us. Take, for instance, almost any mainstream black comedian in America: eventually, he or she will divulge into the Differences Between Black and White People, where they will inevitably say something like, “remember when you had roaches in the house growin’ up?” and the mostly black audience will laugh hysterically and clap in agreement because even though most of us did not, in fact, live in roach-infested project housing, we want to remain a part of the collective community which has found humor in struggle, and accept that particular struggle as an aspect of “authentic blackness”.
That’s why Tyler Perry films and BET shows are so popular. They both give us an opportunity to carve off a piece of our own little America; a place where we can interact with one another through mutual understanding and fictive kinship, without the burden of code switching or respectability. But at the very same time, they spoon feed a media-manufactured version blackness that ensures we remain two dimensional in the eyes of anyone on the outside.
If “Beauty and the Beat” was done by a white boy, we’d be angry. We’d be flagging the shit out of it and Al Sharpton would be denouncing it on CNN by the next morning. Yet when we take an active role in perpetuating images as blatantly racist and sexist as this, we see it as hilarious, and even worse, the “truth”.
We need to find a way to tell the difference between the crooked room and standing straight up, between the fun house mirror and our own reflections, between cultural “coonery” and an authentic self that is really, truly our own.