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.

Black And Invisible In Pittsburgh

(The Champ’s first Op-ed at The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. It’s a response to the Post-Gazette’s recent “People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year” — a list whose lone Black representative was a college basketball player.)

“New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., are wonderful cities that can’t resist preening when passing mirrors to remind themselves just how wonderful they are. Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror. It just turns to its buddies and says, “Hey, yinz guys, let’s go have a beer.”

Like many Pittsburghers — native, current, newly transplanted, newly transplanted away — I read the Chicago Tribune’s Josh Noel’s ode to our city with pride. Nodding with every laud, my fiancee and I even gave ourselves cool points for our familiarity with many of the venues Noel name-dropped. (Shout out to 720!)

We felt the same spirit when sharing and retweeting Buzzfeed’s “16 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Is the Greatest City on the Planet” months earlier, and Pitt Girl’s year-end “10 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Owned 2013.”

Although not without its faults, the Burgh has a beauty and character that somehow manages to be both sneaky and striking. It doesn’t just grow on you. It grows in you. And seeing it receive so much national love — so much proof that others finally recognize what’s happening here — is not unlike the feeling a father might have when his daughter’s soccer coach finally notices and acknowledges her hustle.

For black Pittsburghers, though, an annoying bit of ambivalence has a tendency to attach itself to this civic pride. Even as we boast about living in America’s “Most Livable” or “Most Welcoming” city, we question whether it is truly livable for and welcoming to us.

This is largely due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s relationship with its Yinzers of color has always been, for lack of a better term, complex. When you read “Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror,” you can’t help but continue “ … and it doesn’t see its black people, either.”

There are myriad examples I can cite to prove the truth of that last paragraph; some mere microaggressions, some more serious, but none more apropos than the Post-Gazette’s own “People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year” — a piece naming 14 of the Burgh’s burgeoning stars. While the list does a good job of reflecting the city’s occupational diversity, naming one African American — and having that one African American be an 18-year-old college basketball player — is surprising by how utterly unsurprising it was. Basically, it’s typical Pittsburgh.

“As you emerge from the tunnel, you feel you’ve never seen a more majestic little city: old but familiar, with swooping, curving lines, lushly green (in summer) and cut with a deep and expansive racial obliviousness that -spans wide from Point State Park to Point Breeze. This picturesque lack of progress is a sight to behold!”

Now, I’m certain Michael Young the basketball player is a fine young man, and I do not intend to disparage him by saying any of this. But when you have so many talented black artists and black educators and black engineers and black entrepreneurs and black activists and black scientists and black young professionals and black industry titans who contribute to the city’s cultural zeitgeist, neglecting to include any of them on a list like this feels intentional. Not intentionally racist, but intentionally oblivious.

What do I mean by “oblivious”?

Well, let me put it this way: Between contributing writers and editors, there were (at least) a dozen different eyes that had a hand in creating this list. Apparently none of them thought to say “Um, guys. Not to be a stickler or anything, but out of all the black people in Pittsburgh, don’t you think it’s a little odd that the lone black person we named happens to be a basketball player? Feels kinda, um, stereotypical or something, doesn’t it?”

(Read more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Panama and Champ Talk Racism, Sports, The South, and History

This was not the South in the 60s.Champ:  You know, the Iron Bowl—and the SEC (Southeastern Conference) by extension—capturing the country’s attention is put in a different perspective when talking to my dad and uncles, their friends, etc. because none of them f*ck with SEC schools. At least not rooting wise. They all still remember that those schools were the last to have black players.

PJ: Real talk…even my father hates Alabama b/c of that reason; which is why he pulls for Auburn.

Champ: Yeah.

PJ: But that’s kind of a bad argument. Shoot, we all root for former racist sports teamsand you’re mad because one of those professoinal teams was the last to integrate?

Champ:  For him, it’s weird to see black people rooting for teams like Alabama and the Red Sox.

PJ: If you’re going to hate something because of integration you kind of have to hate it all. Somebody has to be last.

Champ: Well,I think certain terms were specifically known for being racist, or lead by racists, rather.

PJ: That much is clear,but that also changed.

Champ: The Red Sox, Alabama football, Kentucky basketball, etc.

PJ: And those racists are no longer there. Sh*t, Indiana basketball may not be “known” for it as much, but they all had the same policy. All of them.

Champ: I can understand not letting it go, though.
PJ: Some were just more upfront about it.

Champ: Especially if you lived through it.

PJ: Southerners are just more honest about their racism. Yeah, I can understand that. I’m just saying that if you lived through that, then you lived thru a lot of racist sports. So if you root for anybody, you’re still rooting for a team that at some point practiced de facto racism. I suppose in some ways, i can understand why you’d root for the first teams to integrate. I’ll say this; if you root for all the first teams to integrate and hate all the last ones to integrate, it makes sense.

Champ: Yeah, but there’s a difference between someone who might have been racist and someone who happily defined themselves by it.

PJ: Because one person said it and another lived it? I don’t really think there’s much of a difference if you only changed because you couldn’t afford not to; which, lets be real, was the case with most sports franchises, college or pro. How does that make it any better? Saying “they weren’t defined by it…” doesn’t mean they were not racist. it just means they didnt go out of their way to state it. They still operated quite happily under those circumstances.  I’m not even sure why I’m arguing this; I get it. I can’t blame anybody for hating the Kentucky’s, Alabama’s, or especially Boston sports. But I do stand by the fact that most schools were happily racist for quite some time.

Champ: That’s true.

PJ: Pro teams as well.

Champ: But some were specifically known for being that way. It doesn’t make them the “most” racist. But it does make them the ones black people are least likely to f*ck with.

PJ: Old black people. But yeah, I feel that. Like I said, thats why my father hates Alabama. It helps that he grew up very close to Auburn, but the hate is palpable. Interestingly enough, I think that’s why I tend to have to toss a lot of that hatred to the side…for certain institutions. Remember, many stores didnt want us shopping there, period. Now we happily patronize those stores. Race creates complicated relationships.

Champ: It does.

PJ: You know whats most telling…Kentucky football was the first one to integrate in the SEC and Alabama wasn’t even last. LSU integrated after Alabama did. I’m looking at this chart and Alabama and Auburn integrated a year apart.

Champ: Alabama matters more, though, because Alabama was Alabama; Bear Bryant and sh*t. (Paul “Bear” Bryant actually claimed he couldn’t recruit Black players because he wasn’t allowed to. When he finally was able to, he opened the flood gates.)

PJ: And sh*t…the Redskins were the last pro team to integrate, but every n-wrod in America rooted for them because of Doug Williams.

Champ: From Grambling State University (HBCU in northern Louisiana)

PJ: Right. My point is…the Redskins were a notoriously racist team that refused to sign black players. Defiantly so. This probably explains why we have so many Cowboys fans in DC.

-PJ and Champ

Kendrick Lamar And Nigga Neurosis

(The Champ’s latest at Complex on Kendrick Lamar, GQ, and the psychology of dealing with racism)

If you don’t get how (Top Dawg Entertainment CEO) Anthony Tiffith found the racial undertones in the piece to be so problematic that he pulled Kendrick Lamar from performing at a party honoring Kendrick Lamar, you’re likely thinking Tiffith was being sensitive. Maybe you, like me, didn’t see any racial undertones in the profile. Or, maybe you also kinda, sorta, did see them. Either way, you probably don’t see what the big deal was.

You don’t get it.

I do not know Anthony Tiffith. Until two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who he was. I do know, though, that he’s Black. A Black American. I am also a Black American. Since we share this characteristic, I’m going to assume his relationship with America is, like many Black Americans, complex. I’m also going to assume that, like many Black Americans, this complexity influences the way he receives, processes, and assesses information. He, like many of us, sees America differently than you do. Not completely differently. We love ice cream and hate hipsters just like you do. But he, a Black American, sees America differently than you do because America sees him, a Black American, differently than they see you. And an effect of this cynical and neurotic relationship that America has with Black America is that many Black Americans return that cynicism and co-opt that neurosis.

 

This, this “nigga neurosis,” has a way of allowing race to color our interactions with non-Black people and/or institutions. Because we’re aware of the context behind both America’s relationship with race and our own relationships with America’s relationship with race, we have a tendency to question whether things (good or bad) happened (or didn’t happen) because we’re Black. Sometimes these things are (relatively) innocuous. Sometimes they’re not.

A waitress is short with me and fucks up my order. Is she just a shitty waitress, or is she acting shittily because I’m Black? Is my credit history or my Blackness the reason I wasn’t approved for that bank loan? Did I earn that promotion, or are they just filling a quota? Did he just randomly walk up and ask me where he could find black-eyed peas, or did he ask me because I’m Black and I look like I would know where he could find some black-eyed peas? Was I stopped…and searched…and “accidentally” shot because I’m Black, or did the officer just accidentally mistake his pistol for a taser?

After a lifetime of this, of training your ears to detect and distinguish racial dog whistles, you get how someone could read a relatively laudatory piece written by a White journalist and find disturbing racial overtones. Even if other Black people don’t see it, we get it. We get why he’s seeing what he’s seeing. We get why he’s upset about it, even if we might not have been. And, we get how an insistence that nothing is there, that this is all in your head, that you’re playing the race card, that you’re overreacting, that you’re being too sensitive, that “since I don’t see what you say you’re seeing, it must not be there” can make you want to shout.

(Read the rest at Complex)

On Busting Your Safe And Inoffensive Thought Bubble

thought-bubble

Unsurprisingly, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has received quite a bit of heat this week for his remarks about interracial marriage and the gag reflex. Some of these responses were, well, great. Some were decidedly less great. But everyone—myself included—said some variant of the exact same thing. (Summarized take: “What the fuck are you talking about?“)

Actually, let me rephrase that. I have no way of knowing that every news site, magazine, and blog that talked about Cohen’s piece said the exact same thing. Just the ones I happen to visit daily. This includes places like Gawker, EBONY, Jezebel, The Atlantic, The Root, Salon, Slate, Clutch, The Grio, and The Daily Beast.

And this is a problem.

If you were to sit down and make a list of the staff bios at each of the places just named, you’d likely find a very diverse collective. Men, women, gay, straight, Black, White, Latino, whatever. A photo of all of us together would look like a reunion shoot for the last 20 years of Benetton ads. ¹

I’m very aware of this, and I like to pat myself on the back for reading opinion pieces and comments at so many different places from so many different types of people.

But this diversity isn’t necessarily meaningful. It’s more theoretical than actual. All of these voices and opinions and takes are coming from the same Northern/Urban/Progressive bubble. It’s an expansive bubble. But, a bubble nonetheless. If a giant flood struck tomorrow and swept Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C. off the map, 95% of the digital magazines I visit would no longer exist.

And, when you’re getting most of your voices and opinions and takes from the same bubble, you end up with a situation like yesterday, where, again, every single blog, magazine, and news site I visited had the same take on the Cohen story.

It probably seems odd that I’d complain about this since I had that same take, but that’s kinda my point. I don’t think it’s a good thing that the places I frequent the most are all agreeable to my feelings and sensibilities.²

And it’s a problem because my situation isn’t unique. There are dozens upon dozens of surveys and polls that’ll tell you we’re becoming more and more isolated with where we choose to get our information from. And while we like to think that we’re too smart to allow this to affect us the same way it affects others (and by “others” I mean both “conservatives” and “people we don’t deem to be as educated“), we are not that smart. No one is.

This lack of thought diversity—which comes as we do what we can to shield out any potentially offensive or upsetting thoughts and opinions—can leave your own thoughts and opinions unchallenged. And few things are more dangerous than barricading yourself in a sea of likemindedness and sycophant. Me having an internet bubble is no different—well, no better—than Joe The Plumber having his Fox News/Drudge Report/Tea Party Facebook meme bubble. We’re both stuck in separate mall food courts. The only difference is that mine has a sushi bar. (And a clean bathroom.)

¹Full disclosure: I’m sure many of you are aware of this, but for those who aren’t, I’m a contributing editor at EBONY.com, so I’m talking about myself here, and I would be in this hypothetical photo. And I would be wearing an I Love Bougie Black Girls t-shirt. 

²Admittedly, the Cohen story may not be the best example of this problem. Not sure if a well thought out and thoughtful counter to the prevailing take is possible here. (Yes, I realize this is the most ironic footnote ever. Thanks for asking, though.)

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)