From EBONY: Black Boys Need Lupita Nyong’o Too

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***Damon’s latest at EBONY on how Lupita’s popularity can have an effect on who young Black boys consider to be beautiful and “crush-worthy”***

From the time I first realized I liked girls (approximately age 8) to the time I entered high school, I had six “serious” crushes. None of these girls were girlfriends–I was far too timid then to make that happen–but each occupied that fantasy space in my heart and on my mind. One was a really good basketball player. Another was a classmate. Two lived in my neighborhood. I met the other two at summer camp.

And all shared the same phenotype: Light skinned, long hair, light eyes, biracial.

I’m not pointing this out to suggest a Black person’s complexion determines how authentically Black they are. Those girls were just as Black as the women I dated as an adult. And, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a crush on a lightskinned woman. Lightskinned Black girls are Magic too. But there’s no doubt in my mind this crush pattern was a direct result of believing only lightskinned girls were crush-worthy.

I’m bringing this all up because, while much of the conversation about the very public praise Lupita receives for her looks focuses on its impact on Black women and girls, there’s another group who stands to gain just as much: Black boys.

As much as we tout how important it is for a young Black person’s parents to instill an appropriate sense of self-worth, self-love, and racial consciousness, family units don’t exist in vacuums. A kid’s peer groups matter. The images they’re exposed to matter. The media they consume matters. And, I don’t think it was a coincidence my young tastes skewed lighter at a time when the vast majority of the young female entertainers considered crush-worthy (Halle Berry, Aaliyah, Lark Voorhies, Mya, Karyn Parsons, Tisha Campbell, etc) were also light. Even the ones who were browner (Tatyana Ali, Ananda Lewis, Chilli, etc) were lauded for their long, wavy hair–a trait usually associated with lighter-skinned women and not one most Black women posses, not by far.

Also, young people are terribly obsessed with social proof. Nothing is cool until there’s a caucus and consensus on what and who is allowed to be cool. As an adolescent in the early 90s, even if you liked the 4th grader who favorite the first Aunt Viv, it was more socially acceptable to crush on the 10-year-old Rachel Stuart doppelganger.

This is where the endless laud and favor given to the beauty of a dark-skinned Black woman with short, kinky hair can make a difference. Just the act of seeing or reading about this universal praise can light a bulb in the head of a young kid already convinced light girls are the only girls worthy of his extra Nowalaters and Valentine’s Day cards.

Read more at EBONY

On The Dangerous Thinking Behind “THOT”

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(The following is from Justin Laing, a Pittsburgh-area educator and activist. This is a version of a piece originally published on his blog, Hillombo.)

I had a thought-provoking and somewhat troubling conversation with a broad range of Black men at my barbershop a couple Saturdays ago. New to me and a few of the men was THOTS — an acronym for “that ho over there” that young people (primarily young men) are using with increasing frequency.

In the course of the discussion, I remarked that the term was terrible and likely to boomerang. A young man responded that what was terrible was that young women do the things that make them worthy of such names. Obviously, there is no mystery in what makes a young woman supposedly “worthy” of that dehumanizing distinction: either engaging in sex with a number of partners that young men determine excessive, or “acting” like you do. And, as is often the case with terms like this, sometimes all a young woman has to do to be referred to as a “THOT” is…exist.

It felt good that the young man later followed up his comment with some empathy, reflecting that there could be a reason for the young woman’s behavior. Interestingly enough, no mention was made, explanation was given, or word was created about the sexual behavior of the men these THOTs are involved with. After all, you can’t be a THOT without willing male partners.

The young man who made the comment was by no means expressing a viewpoint unique to him or even a minority view. We live in a White supremacist, patriarchal culture (literally, rule of the father) so the image and identity of Black women and girls are under regular assault. So, I guess what really struck me about the this term was that it was even more dismissive and dehumanizing than what I normally hear, but it’s important to consider it because the language of youth tells us a lot about where we stand as culture. Who did they learn it from? Also, I have to reflect on why the term might be striking to me when I’m aware of the culture we live in.

There is this term, “middle class subterfuge,” that a former professor of mine taught to explain how middle class people hide their ideas, particularly around power, with all kinds of euphemisms. So, I shouldn’t be surprised at hearing a term like “THOTS” in a community that is largely working class and less prone to euphemisms, but still the dehumanizing language literally sent a shockwave of fear through me. Fear, because we dehumanize classes of people to justify all kinds of things that are done to them, very often violent things, and so dehumanizing women and girls in language is simply a stage in a continuum of violence. And, I have seen on one occasion walking with my daughter at Kennard Field, how the idea that young women are little more than sexual props sits very present in the minds of boys not even 14 years old.

This got me to thinking about where does the desire to prevent male violence against women show up in neighborhood planning beyond well lit streets? When we talk about building on the cultural legacies we often are thinking about supporting our identities in racial and ethnic terms, but what about in gender terms? What kinds of design choices would we make if we wanted to build on a cultural legacy that challenged the thinking behind THOTS? The thinking that leaves women and girls vulnerable to rape and abuse and traps men and boys in ideas of manhood and boyhood that encourages unprotected sex with multiple partners and all of the consequences that can follow when we are still very young.

What part of Master Planning and neighborhood revitalization asks questions about the impact of the environment on the identities of men and boys and how those identities can be engaged with to prevent violence and the dehumanizing of women and girls, even if we are “only” talking about dehumanizing language?

(You can follow Justin at @jdlaing)

Two Thoughts About The Reactions To Pharrell’s GIRL Album Cover

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1. It’s been two years since Trayvon Martin was murdered. A couple weeks since a jury let Jordan Davis’ killer off the hook for murder. Eight months since I watched Fruitvale Station. These and other notable stories about the tenuousness of Black male life have dominated (and will likely continue to dominate) our conversations about what it means to be present in America. Black males are both endangered and dangerous. Threats and targets. Feared and scared. Policed and…privileged.

Yes. Privileged.

This (obviously) does not apply to all Black males. But, for many who’ve, by the grace of God, managed to make it to their 20s, managed to be employable, and managed to stay out of the system, the tides change. People will support and root for you just because you’re a living Black man with a job and a driver’s licence. Someone might even create a job for you. You have social capital. If you brush your teeth, tie your shoes, and can put two sentences together, you’ll likely have romantic options. You will always be included.

This privilege is also tenuous. You’re still a Black man in America, which means it can be lost forever at a traffic light. Or at a movie theater. But it exists. And the mental juxtaposition of possessing this micro-level privilege while existing in a hostile country can be jarring, comforting, and humbling. Sometimes all at the same time. It can also make you a prick.

I thought about this yesterday when reading some of the reactions to Pharrell’s GIRL album cover. More specifically, I thought about how, when I first saw it, I didn’t think anything of it at all. I clicked on a link, said “Oh, I guess Pharrell has a new album” and went about my day. The “Black male artist surrounding himself with racially ambiguous women…again” thing didn’t even register with me.

A small part of this is due to the fact that I don’t pay much attention to Pharrell. I like his music, but I like it the same way I like grapes and pillowcases. The bigger part is due to me just not being as sensitive to the context making that cover upsetting to (many) Black women. I looked at it and saw an artist trying to convey a sexy type of “fun.” Others saw another example of a prominent Black man shunning his sizable Black female fan base and promoting “other” women as some sort of feminine ideal.

Just as I didn’t intentionally overlook how potentially troublesome that image could be, I’m sure Pharrell didn’t consciously want to insult Black women. He’s probably laying in some hyperbaric chamber below a lake right now, shocked at the pushback it’s received. And both my lack of awareness and Pharrell’s lack of consideration is a result of privilege. It didn’t immediately register to me because I’m not as sensitive to those types of images, and I’m not as sensitive to those types of images because I’ve never had to be. Sure, when someone points it out, I recognize it. And, I’ll even join the “yeah..that’s effed up” chorus. But, despite whichever challenges I face as a Black man, having my sexual/physical/aesthetic value and desirability constantly dismissed (or even ignored) — often by the same people I love and support — is something I’ve never really had to deal with.

2. This conversation brings up another point; a point that makes you wonder if a person like Pharrell or Kanye is caught in a perpetual catch-22.

GIRL’s cover features Pharrell and three women in bathrobes. It looks like they’re in a hotel room. Maybe a private home or resort. It’s (somewhat) implied that they’ve either just finished a foursome, or they’re about to go have a foursome. (8:20 am edit: So, according to some comments here and on Facebook, the cover may also suggest they’re just headed to some type of spa. Which doesn’t negate my main point, but does prove I was raised on Cinemax After Dark.) If this is true, they’re his sexual props, and it would qualify as objectification. Maybe it’s not as explicit as “Tip Drill”, but the idea is the same: “I’m a cool motherfucker. So cool that all these beautiful women want to have sex with me.”

With videos like “Tip Drill”, the objectification was the problem. With the GIRL cover, though, the problem seems to be that Black women aren’t considered attractive enough to be objectified. But, sexual objectification is a bad thing. As is using women as sexual props. Right? Or is it only a bad thing when it’s not done tastefully by someone as cool as Pharrell?

I’d try to answer those questions, but I think I just gave myself a nosebleed. Where’s a hyperbaric chamber when you need one?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

On “Yoga Girl,” Race, Writing, White People, And Knowing When Not To Share

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***Yesterday, I had separate conversations with Panama and Maya Francis about everyone’s favorite Skinny White Yoga Girl and the reactions her piece generated. (If you’re not aware of this story, here’s a quick synopsis. Skinny White woman writes very, very awkwardly about feeling very, very awkward about seeing a heavyset Black woman at her yoga class, internet reacts.)

The conversation with Panama and I took place on Gchat. Maya and I also talked on Gchat, but she decided to send me something longer later in the evening. Both the conversation between Panama and I and Maya’s piece are below.***

Damon Young: You saw that yoga piece everyone is talking about, right?

Panama Jackson: Of course, lol. Poor white girl. Opened a shitstorm and was probably as sincere as sincere could be. THAT is an example of white privilege. Macklemore is not.

Damon Young: The most favor-ed comment on XO Jane literally had me laughing out aloud for 10 minutes. I think I even woke up my girl.

Panama Jackson: Yeah I saw that shit…I laughed hard as f*ck too. Thing is…its a weird but honest ass look into how white people feel. To that end, its actually educational. Like this white broad REALLY felt that way. Its white guilt at its best

Damon Young: We want white people to be honest. but we really dont. We just want them to listen and not speak

Panama Jackson: EXACTLY. Shut up and let us think you suck. We don’t care how you feel. But its like…look…I’m f*cking sharing here. THIS IS really how I think.

Panama Jackson: Do you remember some years ago I wanted to put together a collection of essays about race from white and black people anonymously?

Panama Jackson: This is EXACTLY what i’d expect to get from some overly empathetic white folks. Naive but necessary to keep the convo going. And folks are going ham. I appreciate this shit. I mean she needs a good talking to. But that kind of honesty from white people? Priceless

Damon Young: I wonder if people are more upset by the thought or the expression of the thought

Panama Jackson: That’s a good question

Damon Young: I think it’s the thought. Like, it’s great that you were honest and bared your soul and shit. but what the f*ck is wrong with you?

Panama Jackson: Yeah. At the same time…her biggest problem was using race as identifiers. If she hadn’t used race, it would just be body size insensitive, and it doesnt get traction. You throw skinny white girl and heavyset black woman in there? HIROSHIMA.

Damon Young: Thing is, every 25 to 35 year old black chick I know does yoga at least occasionally. Like, literally every single one.

***I received an email from Maya a few hours later***

When I decided I wanted to be a writer, I was 10 years old and had just suffered the loss of my great-grandmother. It was a deeply personal, life-altering thing, one that had me contemplating my own mortality, long before a person should have to think about such things.

As I sifted through her personal affects, I craved something tangible that would remind me of the music in her voice, the firm delicacy of her touch, the way she always knew exactly what to say when it needed to be heard. I wanted to read something that would instantly put her in the room with me.

I took the week off from school in mourning, and when I returned found myself even more invested in my favorite books as a means to escape the sadness that plagued me. At some point in the following months, we learned about the advent of the printing press and the role of the written word for the modern world.

“Words are given greater importance when they are written down,” my teacher said. It was at that moment, that I realized that my byline would become my closest shot at living forever. It was then that I started collecting my favorite quotes from people who’d long since been dead (a practice that I continue even now), and think about the legacies left behind. I thought about what my name, on paper, would mean when I was gone.

Things have changed since then, particularly in terms of what it means to be a writer. Like any writer, I am still a bit self-serving, but more than anything I strive to be an active student of the people, circumstances, and subjects I choose to write about. I write because I never want to stop learning; I write because I cannot see myself doing much else without going completely insane. I write because I’m naturally very nosey, and this is a great way to put it to good use. I write because I think its important to think critically.

Digital media has changed the way we think about writing, and the way scribes go about the practice. What was once an isolated, pensive undertaking is now filled with the loud noise of other people’s thought pieces (which we feel compelled to respond to), deadlines (that come faster than the traditional news cycle), and the crowded lanes of traffic that make up online content. It’s fucking loud in the echo chamber, and there are times that I have to walk away from my computer for a few weeks to figure out what the hell I really think. With a 24-hour news cycle and tweets coming in at 2am, it’s easy to get confused sometimes.

The really intimidating thing about writing in the online space is how quickly (and intensely) readers respond to your world. Most writers, I’d think, don’t read the comments section. I respond to everyone who e-mails me directly, but I never read the comments; it’s like giving birth to your favorite child and the world immediately telling you what an ugly piece of shit they are, and how worthless you are for having her.

In the best case, the forever-ever nature of the internet (thanks, Google Cache!) and the ridicule that comes with it can force a writer to be deeply intentional about the things they put out into the internet. In the worse case, a person will throw shit at a wall and see what sticks.

When a piece falls flat – or worse, when it’s received as roundly offensive to a group of people – there’s an urging to find some greater value as to why it fell flat. We want the failure to mean something. Usually, someone will say that it “helped to start a conversation.” I’ll say now, while everyone is entitled to their opinions, some conversations just aren’t worth entertaining because of the basic expectation that grown people don’t say everything they’re thinking aloud.

It’s easy to fire up our laptops. It’s easy to have an opinion and make it matter because it’s in black and white. Digital media has, in many ways, made us forget (at one time or another) about the labor in our labor of love. The responsibility we have. We owe it to our audiences to not only be exciting, but to be interesting, poignant, reflective, honest, and insightful. It’s not enough to want to live forever; we have a responsibility to push existing conversations forward. To make good art.

If we can’t do that, then we should chop it up Love Jones style with our homies over wine and cheese and whatever other bougie shit we like to do when we’re feeling self-important. Let those conversations help us check our own privileges, assumptions, and naval-gazing. If our names are to mean anything at all, we’ve gotta make sense of the world around us, not further agitate the things we already don’t understand.

My Ode To The Deltas

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They say endless unsolicited ridicule and unprompted shade on a popular blog is the sincerest form of flattery. Who exactly is “they,” and when did “they” say that? Don’t worry. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that “they” said it, and that “they” perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the women of Delta Sigma Theta.

Those familiar with VSB know that I enjoy taking potshots at Deltas. Sometimes it’ll be silly. Sometimes it’ll be about sex. Sometimes it’ll be about standards. Sometimes it’ll even be about the elephant in the room. Which, for Deltas, is often literally a dozen elephants in every room.

And each time it occurs, a very sad Delta will comment; fighting back tears and elephant hair while wondering what I have against her sisters. “Why do you hate us so?” she’ll type on her iPad, pausing for 30 seconds after each sentence just so she can admire her Babar and the Adventures of Badou screensaver. “What did the women of this magnificently brilliant and gloriously sublime sisterhood ever do to you?”

Sometimes I’ll reply with snark. Sometimes I won’t reply at all. But never do I reply with the actual truth: “Everything.”

Perhaps it’s just coincidence. Maybe it’s providence. Who knows? I do know, though, that Delta women have played a very instrumental role in my adult life. In fact, if I were to list the 10 or so women outside of my family who’ve made the biggest positive impact on me, (at least) four or five would be Deltas.

The shade started a few years ago as a subtle shout-out, a wink to the Delta women I knew who were fans of VSB. And, although the jokes would, um, “evolve,” the intent remained the same.

Why snark and shade instead of just a shout-out? Well, I’ve always admired people who can laugh at themselves. In fact, when it comes to friendships, I just don’t have much use in my life for people who can’t. And, one of the reasons why I value the relationships with these Deltas so much is that the ones I know all seem to possess that quality. The nature of the shout-outs are just an acknowledgement of that fact.

Perhaps that — the Delta women I know all seem to be able to laugh at themselves — is also a coincidence. I doubt it, though. Anyone who’d adopt an elephant as their icon obviously doesn’t take themselves too seriously.

Anyway, today seems to be some sort of anniversary or something for them. They apparently are very happy about this. Who exactly is “they,” you ask? Well, they have been called many things on this blog. But beneath all of that, one thing remains true. “They” are “my friends.”

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)