Monthly Archives: September 2010

The defensive “reverse” racist

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Oh. My. God. What a fucked-up story. We know about the defensive racists, the ones who say, “I’m not a racist. My best friend is [insert non-white “race” of choice here].” Here, this Apaak character is playing the defensive “reverse” racist. Ew.

Dr. Apaak’s reference to Lydia B. as “blond-haired” has been interpreted in some on-line comments as racist. He said he was not referring to her race, but repeating the description he was given by the concert organizers.

“If you see my record of what I’ve been doing in terms of my advocacy, the issue of racism and speaking out against it has been one of the things that I’ve been doing. So, I certainly indeed apologize that I have made a statement that has been interpreted within that context, but I guess we are all human and we should be willing to apologize when we have fallen short.”

Dr. Apaak also pointed out that his ex-wife is white and his children and current partner are bi-racial.

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Bodies in translation

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Warning – this is a brief missive perhaps full of contradictions that is not about the perambulatics of air travel but about corporeal recognition/misrecognition and translation. And the fact that the body is/may be the seat of all knowledge.

I am one of those lucky (or perhaps if you knew the real circumstances of this endeavour perhaps you would deem me unlucky) people who one week ago was able to be in three countries in one week. I left Toronto on Thursday, was in Rome on Friday night and was in Nairobi the next Wednesday morning. In all of these places my body sought to tune in to the corporeal norms, sought to lunge into the masses and move within the uniformity that was corporealy and consistently being established in each location.  My ventures in these performances were not always free of folly and failure, and I wonder if that has to do more with me as an individual or what the body and perhaps what a black womyns body means in all of these locations. I guess to elaborate more on this and finally get to my point I have to make you privy to these performances….. dang… just don’t tell my mother  and especially not her church going friends..

You see having being regimented into a somewhat Ottawa body uniformity (rather as much as my African (?) womyn body would allow) lets just say my ‘swagger’ was bit diminished.  Ok I wont blame everything on Ottawa as I usually do ( nevertheless I implore you to remember I am NOT from OTTAWA),  it was the multiple coincidences of  school, immigrant life, lots of jobs and other diagnosed frustrations… that also worked to hinder this swagger,… And so for the most part the southern/ ‘tropical’/ rhythms in my hips sounded more like a beginners first violin lesson, choppy, staccato, un-unifom,  rigid, uneasy(?)….

So check it, I am in Toronto and for the first time since my escape from Ottawa, I am seeing lots of people of colour and so my body that in Ottawa that had manifested those violin lessons, was now manifesting itself a little less staccato…a little less opera, a lot more jazz…

Amsterdam airport…. dang… only the airport and I feel like I just joined the ceremonial guard. My body feels rigid as the school chair I sat on…. is this lack of sleep or has the atmosphere given me an early onset of osteoporosis?

Italy… I get of the bus in this seaside town having forgotten crazy Rome airport, and I’m feeling lighter, more mellow mood, less ceremonial guard… more southernity.. I’m getting comfortable until… I see a black woman standing in the night, tight clothes, bleached face, cold in this night, with a countenance sad… so far from home, waiting waiting waiting for whatever will be her salvation this evening…. As I ask my friend if I saw right (he confirms indeed that I did see right).. I can feel my body going from polka dancing group back to that violin…

Interestingly the next evening having followed one of my hosts to partake in the nightlife that this little town had to offer, the course of the evening saw three men try to use their mack to give me some local nightlife and then some. My body is now back to that staccato that was increasingly made defiant by the sight of my sister on the street the night before and I resolve not to in any corporeal way respond to those advances ( if any of ya’ll sisters are from Ottawa you will know that that was pretty hard considering the absence of any kind of this love in Ottawa) because I have yet to discern what a black womyns body means in this location… and I was not going to give in to any man’s black womyn raunchy fantasy.

However  three very strong beers later – beers that somehow have channeled my ancestors back to my body – I have danced the shuffle multiple times in a very small bar on this one street and I am now making my way to the rave space for the ‘ after party.’  My body now thinks that it is a Bahian/Brazilian street party (albeit in the hills of Abruzzo) and so I dance and dance and dance… and kiss and kiss and kiss (the recipient of these kisses did not have as bad mack as the previous three men and also found me when I was manifesting my ancestors and so you really cant blame a sista…) and in a strange way find my body back again…

The next morning, the rigidity has found its way back to my body, the violin still playing in every corner … (although not as loudly and staccato as it is in Ottawa)… and I never hear from my kissing friend again.

Consequently, I begin to think that perhaps I should have been more resilient and protective of this black womyns body (even though my dancing was pretty pg 13, and the pg 13 of the 1980’s and not of the present… and also all I did was just kiss, pretty relaxed for someone whose ‘morals’ are on holiday…) until I could discern what these types of bodies mean in this location…. But… you know at the same time, I really quite enjoyed being in a Bahian street party all by myself in Abruzzo, so should I really care to think about what images I was giving out ?

In reality, as I sit here a week later I still have not reconciled myself to what I should have felt during all of these travels, and especially in Italy. My body now has for the most part attuned itself to this East African vibe, and I have even become re accustomed to seeing people walk with their whole bodies and people dancing with their pelvis’s (life is good yes!). Nevertheless, I also wonder if I am being too naïve in thinking that this abundance of body signals a pervasive self body ownership and comfortability all of the time.

What I take though from this one week of corporeal investigation is that the body, this place of much knowledge, is consistently being recoginsed and misrecognised, read and misread, constantly being translated in idioms that may not be so kind. However, at the same time I see that my own translations of my own body/bodies are perhaps not always valid and rather as a result of my own defiance, experiences… perhaps also of my own fatigue, work, stress and holiday morals…

So the question remains (finally I arrive at my point) should we be having our own street party in our bodies always (even if I truly believe Amsterdam airport gave me osteoporosis)? Or should we work to discern what our bodies mean in every location and then choose whether of not to be ourselves? Should I in a bid to feel my own body forget about the image of my sister in the street, forget about the translation of coloured bodies as well as female bodies in many locations? Or should I always aim to be responsible for the remedying of racialized stereotypes and thus refrain from any corporeal expression that may affirm stereotypes?

I am still torn, for the solution that I am more drawn to, the one that sees me defiantly tackling these translations of the body … may not always allow me to live and make my own translations of my body.

Where are your manners?: Racism and rudeness on True Blood

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I hesitate to post about this, because I don’t want to hear any spoilers as I wade into the series, but I’ve been so struck by a scene in True Blood that I’m going to press forward. I recently watched the first few episodes of the show, intrigued by what I’d heard about its representations of gender and race. Like another show about vampires in a small town, this one stars a skinny blonde woman with powers who’s got a thing for vamps. Unlike that other show, the star’s best friend is a Black woman. (I just have to say that it makes little sense to me thus far in my viewing that these two are friends. Another post for another time.)

Why Tara is an instantly interesting character is that it quickly becomes evident that she recognizes racism and white privilege. We know this instantly, because she’s got a sharp tongue and doesn’t hesitate to make white folks uncomfortable by asking unorthodox questions. In most scenes, the white folks that she catches offguard are strangers to us, one-time characters, so we can easily watch in amusement as they struggle to respond.

In another scene, the one that has captured me, Tara is at her best friend Sookie’s house, along with Sookie’s grandmother and brother. They’ve gathered because Sookie has brought home a suitor of some concern to them — Bill, a vampire. Sookie isn’t worried about him, and her grandmother is easygoing too, more interested in the firsthand historical account he can provide than sussing out any danger he poses. Sookie’s brother, on the other hand, is far from pleased by the vampire in his living room and aggressively questions the idea of rights for vampires.

Tara isn’t thrilled by Bill either. But her line of questioning doesn’t concern Bill’s vampire nature. As the conversation turns to Bill’s memories of Sookie’s ancestors, Tara interjects to ask, “Did you own slaves?” Sookie immediately scolds Tara and gives her a look to let her know she’s transgressed the boundaries of politeness. Bill proceeds to explain he didn’t own slaves, but his father had owned two: a woman whose name he can’t remember and “a young, strong man named Minus.” Sookie’s grandmother then announces cheerily that her history club will be very interested to hear about this, to which Tara retorts, “About slaves?” This prompts another scolding look from Sookie, who appears uncomfortable.

This scene captured for me one way white privilege does play out in the real world. The white people carry on a conversation completely ignorant of how their privilege oozes from every word; a person of colour calls attention to it, and instead of receiving serious consideration and a serious response, she’s peremptorily shut down. Doesn’t Tara know it’s impolite to ask white people if they or they families owned slaves? Doesn’t she know how rude, inappropriate, and irrelevant it is to ask someone about their relationship with racism? How dare she imply any of these white folks are racist? Doesn’t she have any goddamn manners?

Before I wrap up this post, let me just point out that Bill can’t even remember the names of the two slaves his father owned. I mean, it’s not like they were even real people, right?

And did I mention that I don’t understand why Sookie and Tara are best friends? Or even friends at all?

(I’m serious when I say no spoilers. Refrain from telling me about future episodes please!)

white Seattle cop punched a black girl.

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Why I Miss bell hooks

August 2, 2010 by Gina Ulysse · 10 Comments 

A month ago, when that white Seattle cop punched a black girl in the face over a jaywalking incident, I thought of bell hooks. When, with assistance from the Urban League, the girl apologized days later in order to get a reduced sentence and I waited for the public outrage that never came, I realized I really miss bell hooks.

To get a reality check, I talked to my girls. We agreed this situation was seriously messed up and, moreover, there wouldn’t be any Obama beer summit over this one.

I considered different angles on this moment. No doubt, this was about the intersections of race, class and gender. It was also a story about performances of civility and docility. About what is acceptable behavior for a young black woman confronting legitimized white power. But I just could not write it.

Lakia Brown at TheRoot.com came close to expressing my feelings when she wrote that the punch in the face felt like a kick in the gut. But writing about it required that I go to a place where black women know we dare not go publicly (though I tend to go there in my performance work). We dare not go there in mixed company, particularly among white folks with unexamined white privilege–who think that Obama’s presidency means we are all miraculously equal and now live in this purportedly post-racial society.

Each time I looked at the YouTube video of that incident I felt so sick I refused to share what went on in my head and body. Ultimately, I gave up. I had the luxury to decide not to put myself through any more of it, especially after I saw the results of a CBS news poll that asked viewers whether the cop’s action was justified or if it was an act of police brutality. Seventy-three percent of those who voted agreed his actions were justified. Another kick in the gut.

Where was the feminist response to this incident? I don’t doubt for a minute that Black feminists talked about it amongst ourselves. Fact is, we all know only too well there is always a high price to pay for offending white sensibilities. There’s never been a safe public place for our rage. These days, some of us take less risk since the backlash blows can be particularly brutal. This means more conversations with friends–reminders that we are not crazy. But we keep coming back to one question: Where is bell hooks? We miss her.

My buddy KLO–a writer and former student of hooks’ at Yale—said,

[the punch reminded her] of the scene where Sophia gets decked by the white cop in The Color Purple while everyone just stands by looking, too. That punch demonstrates the continuity of black women being put in their place (violently!) whenever they should deign to stand up for themselves. No one likes a strong black woman, right? This is why bell is so important. She stands toe to toe with authority and TELLS IT LIKE IT IS. We know, because she writes about it, that she pays a huge emotional price for speaking truth to power.

bell hooks (née Gloria Watkins), humanist and kickass feminist theorist, has been a fearless cultural critic for more than three decades. For years, she has courageously taken to the front line and, with her academic sword, deconstructed everyday occurrences as evidence of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. That punch brought me back to her essays in Killing Rage: Ending Racism. That punch is another moment that highlights how a black woman’s rage, as hooks wrote in the Killing essays, must always remain
 repressed, contained, trapped in the realm of the
 unspeakable. bell is relevant now more than ever!

I decided to hang in there, respecting the fact that bell is somewhere in Kentucky doing as she must do. And then the Sherrod affair broke out. A dedicated black woman was wrongly discredited by both the right and the left, white and black men, and had to confront power at every level all the way up to the White House. Of course, I found myself wondering … what would bell hooks have to say?

And as the Essence magazine controversy recently unfolded over their decision to hire a White fashion director, I remembered bell hooks’ penchant for pop culture and thought of her essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister,” from Black Looks: Race and Representation.

Essence.com interviewed hooks this year in honor of women’s history month. To the question, “What should Black women be paying attention to the most?” she provided a substantive and critical response. My favorite line from it– “I think the revolution needs to be one of self-esteem because I feel we are all assaulted on all sides”–sums up why I have been missing her presence and insights lately.

Really miss you, dr. hooks. Wish we could get you to come back.

Photo of bell hooks from Flickr user Rainer Ebert, under Creative Commons 2.0.

Do you miss bell hooks? Inspired by this post, Ms. is seeking blog submissions relating bell hooks’ work to current events/pop culture/life. Email pitches to jstites@msmagazine.com.