WordPress Wednesday

brittanica.com

Last week, WordPress Freshly Pressed highlighted a post written by a white female author about “turning Asian” in which she listed a bunch of anecdotal behaviors that highlighted the “strangeness” of Asian people. This post concluded with a reference to the way Asians speak English as “a special regressed level of English.”

It was the second time in less than a month that I had been deeply disturbed by what WordPress staff thinks is the best blogging WordPress has to offer. The first time, the highlighted post was written by a black woman excusing away black face in the fashion industry. Surprisingly, my twitter followers were more upset about the former than the latter even though both seem extremely racist, or internalized racist, to me.

When one of my twitter followers/blogging colleagues took the initiative to contact WordPress about their decision to highlight “racialized posts” on the Freshly Pressed page, the response she received was “what does ‘racialized’ mean?” In other words, not only are the people at WordPress picking posts with racialized and/or racist content as the best of the best blogs on their site but they are not educated enough about diversity to even name what they are doing and own, defend, or change their decisions.

So I decided to help them. Ok, well only indirectly. What I decided to do is document the disparity for all of you and to ask you to link to these Wednesday posts as a way to raise awareness about the problem. Hopefully, instead of getting further marginalized by my blog hosts, this will foster some learning and growth. If not, I’m sure it will make for great publication and presentation material the next time I am asked to present on social media at a conference or write about it for a journal or anthology.

simplyzesty.com

The Project: Every Wednesday I will present several stats related to highlighted posts on Freshly Pressed designed to show who and what is being valued and who and what is being erased.

The Method: The same questions will be asked of, data collected on, each Freshly Pressed post and the information will be made available here in both raw and analyzed form

While I have tried to remain consistent with the questions I’ve asked, the first week of collecting data has raised some important questions about unmarked distinctions in what I have been tracking. For instance do posts that have been marked as “white identified”, ie those that assume a white audience without racializing that assumption in offensive ways, always reflect race or does it some times reflect race and class together? Why did I choose to track sexism but not gender, when both of these seem like salient variables? And when a post is marked down as having photos of white people, should the number of photos be counted? ie if there are 12 photos and only one has a white person in it, then is it misleading to say this is the same as a blog that has 5 photos all of which are of white people? And should a photo be counted twice if it has a white person and a person of color (ie once for a white photo and once for a poc photo) or should there be a third category for mulitcultural photo? It seems to me that these distinctions matter when trying to quantify the identity politics, particularly racial ones, that seem to underpin the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress and ultimately the success of certain bloggers over others and the face of WordPress overall. So I;m still tweaking the questions/data collection process and it will likely look different from week to week until I am satisfied with a core set of questions. What this means is that some sets will not be comparable to others when all is said and done. For blogging purposes however, the key information will remain the same.

So Here is the raw data for week 1:

Every week there are 11-12 posts highlighted per weekday on Freshly Pressed. On the weekend 1-2 new posts maybe added to the highlighted posts for Friday, knocking off 1-2 Friday posts. The number of bloggers and blog posts available to choose from varies but on average there are between 277,000 and 278,000 bloggers and 300,000-360,000 posts from which to choose from. The number of bloggers of color, queer bloggers, female bloggers, etc. is unknown however several of the more recognized blogs from perspectives written by traditionally marginalized authors as well as academic blogs are housed on WordPress.com or wordpress.org vs alternative sites.

Race

When the racial identity of the author was unavailable, it was not recorded.

  1. pictures of people of color: 4
  2. pictures of white people: 29
  3. authored by person of color: 4
  4. authored by white people: 58
  5. colonial gaze: 4
  6. white normative but non-colonial: 7

Gender & Sexuality

  1. reference to wife/husband, kids, boyfriend/girlfriend (hetero): 13 – this item only counted 4 days
  2. reference to partner, bf/gf (same sex): 0
  3. reference to same sex attraction or queer identity: 0
  4. sexist content: 2
  5. image of big women: 1
  6. feminist: 1 (this post was about correcting disparities in women driving stick not a self-identified feminist post)

Content

This category includes data collected specifically because it violated the rules established by WordPress to qualify for Freshly Pressed status. These rules include: original photographs or properly cited and correct use of grammar.

  1. uncited or improperly cited photographs: 12
  2. grammatical or spelling errors: 14
  3. activist posts: 1
  4. product review: 6
  5. travel: 13

Other

This includes things that we found interesting because they stood out from other posts

  1. second reference to “real Africa” in less than a month, this time positively deconstructed
  2. “I was taught the laws are there to protect our freedoms” example of white normative but non-colonial/non-racist stance
  3. posts with pictures of older people: 3

I don’t have enough data yet to make conclusions. However, as you can see, it is pretty clear that the majority of wordpress posts highlight white, heterosexual, authors over the wide range of authors present on the wordpress format. I am also hypothesizing that the preference for artfully illustrated food blogs, travel narratives, and expensive product review tips the scales toward white and upper class authors and that all though today’s Freshly Pressed included a post railing against the baby products industry that there is an overrepresentation of young, urban, white, parenting authors as well. While I expected to see regularly offensive posts based on my random glance over the Freshly Pressed blogs over the past year, which included racial over tones and sexist images, I was surprised to find far less colonial gaze, outright racism, and outright sexism in collecting the data so far.

Mel Gibson Spectrum Disorder

Having recently returned from a mental health seminar abroad, I feel particularly well-prepared to tackle Mel Gibson’s outbursts over the years. In fact, with the help of several colleagues currently practicing in multi-culti or LBT centered facilities around the world, I already have.

You see, a famous therapist presented an in depth study on “the importance of diversity” in health practices at the seminar/conference. Despite his obvious commitment to trying to welcome diverse clients into mainstream services, it became obvious that he had started from the all-too-familiar supposition that emotional reactions to oppression were pathological. In other words, if you are angry because you live in gentrification grand central, or you are acting out in class because you are experiencing all kinds of bullying around your first attempts at gender transgression, it is because you have “maladaptive coping skills” (ie your anger is “inappropriate”). And if you get mad at your therapist, stop treatment, or otherwise try to seek real help by indicating the problem to someone else … oh yes, my friend, you are not only exercising maladaptive coping skills, including triangulation (when you try to get a third party to uphold your “crazy, crazy, fantasy land”)  but you are CRAZY with a capital CRAZ and YYYYYY. (image to left http://www.snoopy.com)

What exactly does this have to do with Mel Gibson, you ask?

You can imagine that several of us were unhappy that once again the “doing diversity” plan was to talk “inclusion” at the same time equality was completely ignored in favor of pathologizing people’s response to a lack of it. So when it came time to do break out sessions, my colleagues and I leapt at the chance to answer the break out session question:

Identify a behavior or disorder that you believe is directly related to diversity issues, locate it on a spectrum,  and explain how you would engage in inclusive therapeutic techniques to ensure that everyone was served.

(note: the new big thing in mental health is to cut down the number of disorders that stand alone and incorporate them into a larger spectrum in order to give people wiggle room with diagnosis and needs.

Also note that this project was an attempt to confront the way the medical model pathologizes difference and reframe it in a way that actually addresses real pathology in our society.)

Our answer “ripped from the headlines”:

unattributed

The Disorder – Colonial Fantasy Syndrome

A disorder in which a member of the dominant culture believes that their experience is normative and any other experience is therefore deviant or abnormal despite evidence to the contrary.

Indicators

Sufferers must meet 5 or more of the following criteria

  1. delusions of grandeur
  2. preference for a world in which the fantasy of their dominance supersedes the realities of diversity in the real world
  3. an overwhelming sense of persecution or victimization
  4. frequent projection (ie accusing others of the acts in which the client is actually engaging)
  5. manipulation of interpersonal relationships for one’s own gain while claiming otherwise
  6. egocentricism often masked as selflessness or self-interested demonstrations of selflessness
  7. characterized by sublimation in which one’s sense of superiority is masked by seemingly altruistic acts toward the targeted group(s)
  8. subset of sublimation defined by hypocrisy in which the sense of superiority is masked by calling out others for same or similar behavior, espec if members of targeted group(s)
  9. desire to belong to a group, see one’s self as, or otherwise engage in elitest or exclusionary practices
  10. engages in emotionally or physically threatening behavior with those who challenge the client’s world view
  11. tendency to blame addiction for incongruencies in one’s worldview or self-image (may or may not be accompanied by actual drug & alcohol dependence or abuse)
  12. willful disregard for the truth when confronted

Spectrum – The Mel Gibson Spectrum Disorder

AP Photo/Ric Francis

This spectrum includes all 9 indicators within its definition and may express itself through racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any combination therein. It is characterized by hypermasculinity distinguishing it from other similar illnesses. This spectrum is also distinguished from other illnesses by the presence of membership in the dominant racial group and most often, the dominant gender. While some believe absence of membership in heterosexuality exempts one from being located in this spectrum, this is unfortunately not the case.

While it is often characterized by alcohol dependence it may also include people who call any of the other 9 indicators addiction in and of themselves.This behavior is seldom a recognition of the problem but rather an avoidance technique designed to evade or minimize responsibility for one’s actions.

Examples:

  1. Michael Richards
  2. John Mayer
  3. Don Imus
  4. Prince Harry
  5. Dan Savage (who was the first blogger to blame black people for prop 8 & refused to intervene when commenters on his blog engaged in blatant racism, including epithets, when discussing the issue)
  6. Moderators at Boxed Turtle – who allowed anti-immigrant threats to dominate a discussion of a homophobic hotel owner (including against all immigrants not just the hotel owner) until I called them out, then allowed people to attack me and threaten my own status in this country, defended their lack of moderation, and then months later quietly deleted all reference to calling INS on all immigrants, me, and all brown ppl everywhere as well as other threats related to skin color or status from the thread.

Treatment Issues

People in this spectrum are often accompanied by enablers who make treatment of the problem nearly impossible. These enablers include people with more mild forms of the same syndrome (like wordpress itself, whose highlight page consistently includes racialized posts about black people and now Asians rather than highlighting posts written by & abt poc or by white ppl who are actually engaged in decolonized praxis rather than hipster colonial fantasy), other related syndromes or disorders like Goldberg Disorder I or II, etc.

Treatment can also be impeded by the ubiquitousness of the disorder across class lines. For instance more widely recognized cases may be defended by the media, perpetuated by it, or erased through it (which directly contradicted Savage’s part in and continued defense of blaming black people for the loss of gay rights).

Treatment

unattributed/redwinebuzz.com

Cognitive Behavioral modification that engages the client in understanding their faulty thinking about themselves, the world, and others and provides alternative modes of interacting with targeted group(s) that do not reflect maladaptive behavior. Ongoing intervention in childhood messages that allowed clients to internalize feelings of superiority, actions of violence to reinforce that superiority, and a sense of victimization by anyone who did not confirm their belief systems so as to remap cognitive processes away from cognitive splitting (when a person believes one thing even when seeing another. Example: they are being arrested because the police officer is female and Jewish not because they are driving drunk).

Ultimately, treatment depends on environmental (revolution), intrapersonal (addressing the whack-a-mole mind), interpersonal (friends don’t let friends drive, write, call, etc. while oppressive), and familial (so you say your dead was a Holocaust denier) aspects. Thus treatment is holistic and active at its base.

Being diagnosed with Mel Gibson Spectrum Disorder should in no way be seen as an addiction. Both the Spectrum and its distinct disorders are a choice not an illness beyond one’s control. People can completely heal from Mel Gibson Spectrum Disorder and their healing will ultimately help heal the world. As such, we must not fall into a pattern of excusing or minimizing the behaviors of MGSD but engage it head on rather. In so doing, we understand that MGSD is the pathology not the people who are often the target of people with MGSD.

Conclusion

Weave Mirror/ D. Rozin

In concluding our diagnosis, we pointed to the many ways that Western Society pathologizes victims of people with Mel Gibson Spectrum Disorder while giving people who continue to embrace the disorder and refuse to change a free pass. John Mayer is a perfect example of this phenomena. While he was under intense scrutiny for several days, he was back to tweeting, blogging, and major ticket sales before the end of the week of his racism incident. He is already being featured in a morning show concert series. Don Imus is back on the air and Rush Limbaugh was never taken off it. And I don’t doubt that my willingness to include Dan Savage in this list will raise the ire of some of my longstanding queer readers.

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So was this post really about Mel Gibson? It would have been easy to link to his “crazy” via TMZ or youtube and laugh and laugh and laugh some more with you all. However, ultimately, it is easy to point at the latest spectacle of oppression. But unlike a train wreck or an accident on the freeway, you can’t just slow down, stare, and then move on because when you do, you are in fact ensuring that the number of people with Mel Gibson Spectrum Disorder grows.

For those unfamiliar with the way MH diagnosis work, you may want to look up the list of symptoms we listed here. The reality is that each and everyone of them is actually included in one or more major personality disorder diagnostic criteria. Yet, that criteria is utterly devoid of oppression work. In other words, you are narcissist if you are self-absorbed, a sociopath if you engage in violence without remorse, oppositional defiant if you attack authority figures; but you are none of these things if you beat your wife, girlfriend, or partner, threaten to lynch, beat up, or kill a person of color, trans, or gay person, or try to get your black, queer, or differently-abled doctor, professor, or grocery store clerk fired. When you are deemed crazy in our society, you are expected to seek out treatment and work your treatment plan. Often when you are personality disordered, you are also highly stimatized as dangerous, violent, and in need of supervision. When you are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. you can simply excuse away your behavior with “I’m sorry you interpreted my behavior that way”,  giving to charity or playing on stage with a differently-abled or young child, or a trotting your gay-black-trans friend, ex-wife, or tweens who pee their pants when you come around. No one watches out for or over you or is warned about you being dangerous. And while the medical model often pathologizes and polices people who do not deserve it (including people with personality disorders who have not been violent or whose violence is contingent on not getting treatment which is exacerbated by the way they are pathologized during treatment) the fact is that in the case of oppressors such labels and warnings would actual shift the medical model toward those people who are in fact violent (emotionally, physically, sexually), unrepentant, and therefore likely to be repeat offenders.

WordPress Fail

The one where I question WordPress’ decision to highlight a Black Face apologist post over the reported 297,850 posts made this am from which they had to choose “Entertaining, Enlightening, and inspir[ing]” content

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have seen more diversity of topics and identities represented on the Freshly Pressed page than I have ever seen on it in the entire time it has been in existence. No one at wordpress.com has commented on this post but they were aware of it (I sent in a link).

UPDATE II: it took 2 weeks before they returned to highlighting racialized posts about black people and 1 month before they started in on questionable posts about Asians; today’s Fresh Press included a post by a white woman entitled “I Think I am Becoming Asian PART ONE” (emphasis mine). The insistence on highlighting the colonial gaze as representative of the top .003% brilliance on wordpress is appalling. If you blog here, please ask why authors who are not writing from this vantage point, you know the other 99.997% of us, are not as intelligent, amusing, or brilliant in the eyes of wordpress Freshly Pressed editors because I think just asking that question will make you wonder about what the focus has been here lately.

For those who don’t know, a colonial gaze is a viewpoint in which whiteness is naturalized, central to the argument about other cultures, assumed of the audience, and used to otherize non-white cultures in ways that are either meant to be amusing or belittling but ultimately reaffirm whiteness as normal and right and everything/one else as “odd”, “weird”, and essentially lesser whether it is the intention of the author or not. It can be held by members of the dominant culture and internalized by those outside of it. It operates in a hegemonic way, ie so widespread that it seems natural and normal rather than a biased and culturally specific way of perpetuating inequality.

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I came here this morning with a list of smallish posts on current affairs and pop culture to write, ie a typical day @ the blog. I remember having something about

  1. oil protests at the White House by women that didn’t get much coverage
  2. the arrest of Joran Van der Sloot
  3. the return of True Blood and the rewriting of Eggs murder as a key plot point

I was going to close with an amusing video first scene on Rachel Maddow’s blog where a fake border check point was set up by a white podcaster to stop people of European decent on the basis of their appearance to prove a point about racial profiling and AZ. It was a tidy little list that I hoped would generate conversation on twitter (where most of my commenters talk back these days) and maybe even here (like the old days).

However, much of my plans fell out of my head when for the second time in just-slightly more than 1 month wordpress highlighted a racialized, if not [internalized] racist, post on its main page.

BBC Asian Network/ Unattributed

For non-wordpress users, when you log in to wordpress you are diverted to the “Freshly Pressed” page which highlights 11 “outstanding posts” for readers. Unlike other blog formats that allow you to do some level of intelligent searching on your own or rotate through a medium list of newly posted material throughout the day to peek your interest, wordpress offers a static “Freshly Pressed” page and then a series of links inside your blog that are somewhat tailored to you like “tag surfer” and “blog surfer.” The difference between the former and the latter two options is that the former is visible to everyone who comes to wordpress looking to open a new blog or logging in to an existing one. The same 11 posts show throughout the day.

Roughly 1 months ago, 4/28/10 to be exact, I complained on Twitter about the trend I noticed in the “Freshly Pressed” section of highlighting content I felt was radically different than what was highlighted in the past. Before “Freshly Pressed”, wordpress highlighted both the most recent posts posted to the site from any blog and also highlighted specific blog posts they found interesting. These posts ranged in content from fluffy tv episode reviews to environmental disasters, race politics to restaurants to try, etc. In other words, it was wide and varied and often encouraged readers to find people like them and people who were posting completely different but interesting content. It also focused somewhat on new blogs so that you always got a sense of who was signing up.

Vanity Fair

In my tweet, I asserted a marked decrease in the variety of posts highlighted at wordpress as well as an over all trend toward a particular hipster perspective. I felt this trend, though certainly reflective of a section of blogs published on wordpress and often interesting, was leaving out a large cross section of wordpress blogs and bloggers. I pointed out that on that day’s “Freshly Pressed” page I had been directed to a blog that linguistically replaced “African Queens” with a white woman who was dating an African; the post in question also staunchly denied white privilege, basic, documented, immigration patterns, and offered up nothing about her relationship while chastising people for critiquing it from a decidedly privilege-ladden and defensive stance. I was appalled. And so were most of my tweeps. In fact it generated a heated discussion which I myself stopped by saying it wasn’t worth all of the energy we were spending on it.

A few hours later, wordpress’ official blog sent out a list of criteria for how they choose their “Freshly Pressed” posts,which included the general guide that chosen posts “represent how WordPress can be used to entertain, enlighten, or inspire.” (emphasis mine) and the specific criteria summarized below:

  1. “Unique content free of bad stuff” – bad stuff defined as “plagiarism, hate speech, fear-mongering, adult/mature content, improperly used images that belong to someone else, spam or content that is primarily advertorial
  2. includes images – especially your own or those properly cited “We like original images (meaning, your own), but if you don’t have any of your own and decide to use someone else’s, be sure you properly credit the original source” (emphasis mine)
  3. tags
  4. typo free
  5. compelling headline

Since this set of guidelines has appeared, I have seen any number of posts on the Freshly Pressed page that do not meet one or more of the expanded criteria for guidelines 1 and 2. They are especially lax with regards to highlighting posts without proper citation of images or adult content (at least twice in the past few weeks I have seen posts highlighted with closeups of women’s breasts or suggestive shots implying upskirt images). They have also on occasion included arch-conservative political posts that are clearly “primarily advertorial” in content.  I’ve actually applauded the inclusion of the latter, not because I agree with them in anyway, but because I thought it showed an effort on wordpress’ part to represent the viewpoints of more of its blogging community. The seeming lack of the commitment to showing a wider range of blogs and bloggers, especially with regards to “identity based” social justice posts in favor of content that directly negates it, is at the heart of my original complaint. In fact, I would argue that the majority of the posts highlighted during the days I logged in for the last month did not meet 1 or more guidelines. But I don’t work at wordpress and honestly, after noting an overall lack of diversity in the authors and the content they highlight (they do seem to gravitate toward posts about Asian food and Asian pop stars but other than that …) I just kept blogging. After all, it is not like their decisions are any different than any other liberal organization around (which means they are guilty not that they are all excused).

It was probably easier for me to shrug off the trend because I have no personal investment in being highlighted. I have my group of loyal readers and I believe in my content enough that I don’t need outside validation. I have also had my previous blog highlighted more than once by wordpress before the onset of “Freshly Pressed.” Not only did that bring in readers I still have, it also gave me faith that the trend I noticed could be reversed at any time and people who write about racism, feminism (non-mainstream feminism), classism, etc. would once again have their numbers reflected in what wordpress highlights. Put another way, I know that people writing about politics from and identity from a social justice standpoint make up a large enough percentage of wordpress blogs that their marked absence from “Freshly Pressed” is both disconcerting and hopefully unsustainable based on the circulated guidelines.

Stern Fotografie/ Karl Lagerfeld

However, this morning, I logged in and saw a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE highlighted in the “Freshly Pressed” section. According to wordpress’ own statistics, there were 297,849 posts besides this one to choose from this morning. That means that wordpress believes a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE is in the top .0003% of its total posts for the day in terms of its ability to “entertain, enlighten, and inspire.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

Done?

If we judge this post on the basis of the circulated criteria it is a whole ball of fail:

  1. it contains an uncited photo that belongs to someone else
  2. while it does not include hate speech, and I do not believe the author meant to be hateful or offensive, it is a post whose primary thesis is that modern day black face in the media, and its current popularity in the fashion industry in particular, is acceptable
  3. the post itself starts by calling up the controversy it is about to examine and then takes a decidedly offensive tack, ie justifying black face (yes I am going to keep saying it), which by definition would make it advertorial by nature

In other words, like so many other highlighted posts in the past year, THE BLACK FACE IS OK POST HIGHLIGHTED BY WORDPRESS THIS AM OVER 297,849 OTHER POSTS DOES NOT MEET WORDPRESS’ OWN GUIDELINES FOR HIGHLIGHTING

What then can we surmise about how this post beat out the 99.9997% of posts to grace every wordpress user’s login page and global dashboard?

  • Was it “Entertaining“? – Minstrel shows brought in a wide audience in their day and were based around the amusement of white people at their own myth – making about the lives, intelligence, sexual appetites, and ability to be a part of society of black folks …

Mammond 1899

The post in question, actually has no stated knowledge of minstrelsy or its history, which is no doubt why it JUSTIFIES BLACK FACE. It does not draw on racist humor that would at least clearly explain the racism behind choosing it as 1 of the top 11 posts available this morning. There is actually no humor, racist or otherwise in this post, unless you find the quoted thesis of the post, listed below, amusing for its pure lack of understanding about how subtlety and hegemony work with regards to U.S. racism:

“Her makeup and hair was well done and she was not dressed, I feel, in a way to construe any negative connotations to the black culture.”

I guess there is something entertaining about seeing Claudia Schiffer’s over the top blond hair (which I believe includes extensions) being completely ignored when the author praises the Halloween-esque Afro she dons in the side image as part of her BLACK FACE because:

“If she had a bad weave … then there might be a problem”

The wig is tacky and she does have a bad weave, but we are trained in this culture to believe white women’s hair is always long and straight and super model white women’s hair is always extra long and thick and straight, while black women’s hair is kinky and short unless they paid for a weave. News flash: from reality tv “stars”, to actresses, to supermodels, weaves are a common part of the job for white women. I can not say for sure Schiffer has some form of extensions in her hair for the image the highlighted author chose, but given the volume of it, I’m inclined to believe she does and that it looks bad.

  • Was it “Enlightening“? Often racism, internalized or otherwise, can enlighten us about how deep racism is in our culture and how willing white people are to search for and then highlight any black person who says what they are secretly thinking themselves, ie:

“The most Schiffer and Lagerfeld are guilty of is not being sensitive enough to the feelings of the black culture.”

I don’t however think illuminating the depths of hegemonic racism is the reason Imani’s post was highlighted today.

Black Friend Gag/Comedy Central

Instead, I think her post was chosen precisely because it does highlight what one or more people making the decisions at wordpress’ “Freshly Pressed” page think about race and racism, ie that black people are too sensitive and that intention matters more than action. Of course, it is a little hard to miss the intentions in the images in question here, but you’ll need to think like a racism apologist for a moment. More importantly it excuses racism and calls out “over-sensitivity” in the mouth of a black woman blogger. It is the classic “see even black people said it” moment that is making my intellectual and personal blood boil.

If wordpress believes there is truth value here, then we have to be serious about the question of “enlightening” content.

Imani argues two things:

  1. Schiffer’s BLACK FACE photo does not have any stereotypically negative content and therefore is not racist – this is presumably based on a classist argument in which dressing Schiffer up as a black escapee from the old tv show Dallas (ie an 80s millionaire complete with shoulder pads and gaudy jewelry) means they are not being offensive. First, class is not race. Depicting her as wealthy does not negate depicting her in a racist manner in the same way that a multi-cultural photo could still be guilty of classism or sexism, or even racism. Second, race and class are intertwined. And while Imani is right to point out that the most stereotypical images of black folks assume poverty, there is also the more subtle class critique of wealthy black people that include “uppity” and “declasse”.  In fact, if we wanted to stretch this analysis to its furtherest point, we could look at the decision to put Schiffer in an Afro rather than braids or puffs in light of the dressing down of First Lady Obama. More likely, though, the image seems to be taking the declasse tactic. In blackface Schiffer’s appearance is at once gaudy, with big flashy jewelry and glittery clothes, and out of time, calling up soap opera divas of the 80s rather than modern business women and economic powerhouses.  Schiffer’s white photo on the other hand, shows her in a classic black suit emulating a madonna-esque power ensemble of sex and money. (You should note the original image is sexist; it replaces Schiffer’s shirt with a black leather bra. Nonetheless she is the picture of modern vis a vis the outdated and gaudy attire of her “black” counterpart.) These images operate on multiple levels, calling into question the class attainment of black people on the basis of race while also sexualizing white women and therefore subsequently desexualizing black ones.
  2. Karl Lagerfeld, the photographer, didn’t have enough black models to use so he made do. “maybe it was the lack diversity in the people involved with the photo shoot” – Imani has no way of knowing who was at that shoot therefore her argument has no basis. More importantly, there are a bevy of black models available and like any other photographer, if Lagerfeld had wanted a multicultural shoot all he would have had to do is call the agencies and request models from the various races he wanted to represent. The same people who represent Schiffer also represent Brazilian, African, and Asian models for sure and probably also Latin American, Latina, Caribbean, and Black British or Black French models, so he would not have even had to make two phone calls to have a multicultural shoot. The bottom line is Lagerfeld chose not to use models of color because his goal was to produce BLACK FACE and that decision is part of a growing trend in the modeling industry right now that at its heart is incredibly racist. Racist because it erases the presence of women of color. Racist because it takes jobs and money from women of color in order to keep it in the hands of white photographers, designers, and models who will not complain about the racism in the images. Racist because often the images themselves rely on racist stereotypes both subtle and covert. RACIST because it calls up a history of oppression whose antecedents are still readily felt especially in the fashion industry.

Not only is the information Imani includes incorrect but she also edited out pertinent information I found only after writing this post while looking for images to illustrate it.

  1. Schiffer actually appears in both BLACK and ASIAN FACE – something Imani does not mention until the very last sentence and does not depict
  2. the photoshoot was done for a conservative German magazine which regularly peddles in racialized fantasies

This information would have been not only enlightening but also added much needed depth to our understanding of what is actually going on in the controversial images. It would also have undermined Imani’s entire thesis without having to do the kind of work I have done here to show its holes.

Stern Fotografie/ Karl Lagerfeld

The full spread speaks to the convergence of sexist, racist, eroticism that is entirely missing from Imani’s analysis. Where I writing this post as a response to her and not to wordpress, I would take time out to deconstruct each of these images for that content and focus on how overt racism and sexism are making a come back as the interlocking tools of choice to express racial fears across the West.

In other words, if we define “enlightening” as something that gives us new, in depth, or profound information this post fails on all accounts because it’s naivete about race, racism, and racial history make its argument wholly unfounded and unsupportable except in the minds of racism apologists. To be fair, Imani never set out to analyze the photos but rather to excuse away people’s reactions to them as racist. But to do one, you ultimate have to successfully do the other.

  • Does it “Inspire“? – it inspired me to rant for 30 minutes in this post and on twitter and encourage people to retweet wordpressFAIL citing racialized thinking as often as possible, but again I don’t think that is what wordpress meant.

Harem Fantasies/Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse Collection/ BBC

Forgive me while I do something I tell my students not to do when writing a paper. According to Webster’s Dictionary, inspire means:

1 a : to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration b : to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on

Divinity aside, this definition argues that there must be something deeply meaningful and moving in the posts highlighted by wordpress. And yet the only thing this post gives us is a racism apology from a black woman who actually believes that a famous photography did a black face photoshoot because he couldn’t find models of color to use …

I am not inspired, I am heartbroken.

For all the work we have done to teach people about oppression and how to analyze, organize, and decolonize around it, we still have young black women justifying their own oppression due to a lack of knowledge and white people justifying their own unexamined uber-subtle beliefs about race through them. Worse, in the last 4-8 years of teaching I have seen a profound failure to understand subtlety, history, or basic critical thinking (ie the ability to look beyond the surface image or first reaction to the deeper meanings and connect them to other information from the past and present) on the rise amongst N. American students. This lack of critical skills relates to any sort of analysis not just oppressions work which is always hard the first time out. I believe the problem stems from the “No Child Left Behind” testing culture of middle and high schools. As so many have already proven statisically and ethnographically, testing culture has thrown out critical thinking for “the right answer” and learning how to deduce it without having to think or engage beyond the flattened out multiple choice options presented students.

I am concerned about how a seemingly arbitrary decision about education has translated into such a wide gap in the ability of younger people to deconstruct huge systems of oppression and what it means for the perpetuation of racism, sexism, etc. Couple this with the TX textbook controversy, attempts to shut down multicultural ed in AZ and underfund/combine/dismantle ethnic studies, women’s studies, and queer studies at the university level across the country and a pattern of planned ignorance seems to emerge that raises any number of red flags. This planned ignorance is then reflected in the increasingly polarized conversations that neither look at facts nor evidence on and off the internet.

Part of mural in London c 1966/ The Latest.com

In the midst of these large battles, blogging was once a way to write back to abusive power. It was used by many to highlight the perspectives, experiences, and analytical skills of people largely left out or ignored by mainstream media, publishing, and academe. As blogging mainstreamed however, the ability for counter-revolutionary voices receded. Now Ashton Kutcher’s fart tweets, Huffington Posts paid posts, and Shock Jock’s witch hunts receive the bulk of attention while people blogging for the sake of writing what is not available or not available in any large and tranformal way anywhere else get relegated to niche.

WordPress has a unique opportunity as one of the largest sites hosting blogs or providing software to independent hosts. As of this morning, there are 293,224 people blogging on wordpress. People who have been repeatedly highlighted on “Freshly Pressed” have received book deals, speaking engagements, invitations to cover important national events, exclusive interviews, and even regular tv commentary spots. In other words, WordPress has the opportunity to highlight a wide section of the population and influence their ability to speak to much larger audiences as well as gain mainstream legitimacy. When wordpress decides to ignore the bulk of its social justice bloggers who blog about racism, classism, sexism and the like in favor of identity neutral, hipster funny, and occassionally sexist or racist posts it makes a critical decision to work against not only a portion of its writers but the social justice I still believe the people behind wordpress would say they support. When it highlights a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE, especially on the heals of promoting a post erasing black women and denying white privilege a month earlier, one has to question exactly what the real criteria is for “Freshly Pressed” and exactly what kind of influence wordpress is aligning itself with. WordPresss itself has failed to live up to its own guidelines for highlighting posts and this instance it has done so in the service of racialized thinking if not straight up [internalized] racism and as a 5 year veteran of the wordpress blog I call Bullshit.


BHM: Rutina Wesley and Her “True Blood”

I recently included Rutina Wesley on a list of potential up and comers in “young Hollywood” in response to the Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” edition that includes no women of color. Wesley was born in a working class area of Las Vegas to a Vegas Show Girl mom and a tap dancer father; thus, dance was her first love. While Rutina’s most famous character to date is an under-educated young black woman whose bitterness defines most of her life and relationships,  Rutina herself is a classically trained actress/dancer with a degree from Julliard and a summer study at the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts in London. Anyone who has spent time in Las Vegas schools knows that both official and unofficial tracking occurs for youth of color, particularly young women of color, so Rutina’s success was no doubt guided by the myriad of Las Vegas teachers bucking a system, dedicated parents, and her own amazing intelligence and will.

Wesley  no doubt channeled her early educational experience into her role as Reyanne, the strong female lead in the 2007 film How She Move. Her character was an aspiring medical student who had lost one of her siblings and was forced to return to the neglected public school of her youth after her family fell on hard economic times. The story centered on her sense of duty to herself, her family, and increasingly the community she left behind in the hopes of a better life. And as she defends herself and her dreams, she also helps others discover their own potential and re-discovers her own. The film centered a black female experience that recognized the humanity, intelligence, and struggle of black women abandoned by districting/red lining. By including not only Reyanne’s story but that of her female friends who were left behind, and the hopes and dreams they struggled with supposedly in her shadow, How She move moved beyond a narrative of exceptionalism to a subtle critique of gendered life in low income urban centers that work to pit women and young girls against one another and reduce them to exploitable objects. Wesley also pointed out that the character has a strong mother who is constantly encouraging her dreams . Unlike other films about young black girls that often show emotional absent or drug addicted black mothers, How She Move made sure not to vilify black motherhood while keeping the realities of working class/subsistence level existence fully centered.

How She Move also attempted to update the urban dance film genre that had largely left black women behind for stories about black male dancers and/or interracial relationships between black men and white women or between Latin@s and Anglos. Unfortunately, the market for the dance movie had already reached its saturation point and so Wesley’s work failed to reach a wide audience. However, the film was a unique addition to black herstory precisely because it centered an African American woman dancing in a male dominated competition who struggled with the dual oppressions of gender within the scene and racialized class issues within society at large. The story was not just a dance vehicle that showed off Wesley’s considerable dancing talent and played off of some half true half-imagined version of the hood, but rather a critical look at the complex negotiations of talented young black girls trying to thrive in a world that is riddled with racism, sexism, and classism from within the community and outside of it. Wesley’s performance in particular helped elevate the low production value of the film out of the realm of typical MTV exploitation film.

Where Wesley’s proud African American girl character failed to resonate with audiences, her problematic turn as Tara Thornton in True Blood has captivated them. Like the women reviewed in the previous post on The Vampire Diaries, Rutina Wesley’s role on True Blood is important partially because it integrates a genre that is increasingly devoid of racial diversity. Unlike the women on the Vampire Diaries however, Tara and her family are much more stereotype than counter-stereotype. Despite this fact, however, it is interesting to note that Tara has far more sexual agency and overall power vis-a-vis the supernatural men she encounters than the far less stereotypical Bennett women.

The Story (Note I am told that the tv show varies widely from the books which many black readers have called openly racist, & so we are focusing on the story as told by the show)

The Thorntons and the Stackhouses are neighbors in Bon Temps, a small, somewhat backwood, Louisiana town. The young girls in both families are drawn together because they are both poor and outcasts. People in Bon Temps think Sookie Stackhouse is slow because they don’t know that when she gets that glazed look in her eyes it is because she can hear their thoughts not because her own have stopped working. Tara, on the other hand, is stigmatized by her quick temper and her alcoholic mother who make the townspeople both suck their teeth and avoid her. In a desperate attempt to find friendship and safety the two girls bond and are best friends. This friendship is meant to tie the Stackhouses and the Thorntons together throughout the show, but as we shall see, it seldom resonates after the first season.

During season one of True Blood, we are introduced to Tara through an internal dialogue in which she is raging at the ignorance of the people she has to serve in her working class job and the town itself. As her raging grows louder, she has an altercation with a white customer who asks her for help finding a rake. Instead of helping, Tara launches into a verbal tirade followed by her accusing the woman and her supervisor, who fires her over the incident, of being racist. This scene solidifies the point of view of the show, which is decidedly eurocentric. Not only is Tara the stereotypical angry black woman, her rage has no explanation in this scene. She’s just angry because she is angry. Worse, when she gets caught raging and refusing to do her job, she cries racism. Thus the scene follows a narrative of the white imaginary in which racism is a figure of the black imagination; we are in a perpetual inexplicable rage that causes conflict and confusion amongst the poor white people just trying to go about their day, and if we don’t get what we want we just pull out our huge deck of race cards. Not is this ridiculous but even its profound disservice to both the character and black people in general, the scene’s ultimate conclusion with Tara losing her job proves how very useless such a card would be if in fact we had them.

As if this is not bad enough, soon after Tara is fired from her job we are introduced to her mother, a stone cold, fall down, drunk who quotes the Bible at her daughter while beating her. Like Tara, Lettie Mae Thornton is a stereotype born straight out of the Moynihan report, which referred to the female headed households of black families as a “tangle of pathology” and “fundamental source of weakness” (Moynihan: 218-19). Where Sookie Stackhouse was raised with a doting grandmother who teaches her morality and kindness, Lettie Mae is a violent and angry woman who barely swims up from the bottle long enough to tear her own child down. And we are told that part of what binds Sookie to Tara is the desire of the Stackhouses to protect her from drunken beatings in the night.

This vision of black female pathology is mediated only once in the first season, when Lettie Mae is seen to ask Adele Stackhouse to care for Tara because she cannot. In these scenes we are introduced to a mother who actually does care about her child’s emotional well-being but recognizes that her own disappointments turned to addiction prevent her from meeting those needs. It is a story, when divorced from racism, with which we can empathize. On the one hand. Lettie Mae is an addict who recognizes that in her addiction she cannot parent but her child still needs love and care. On the other, Lettie Mae is one of two main characters who is black and female and one of two who is completely dysfunctional in stereotypically racist ways. For most viewers, the brief scene that allows us to see the former is forever eclipsed by the hegemonic nature of the latter coupled with the writers utter failure to provide any back story for Lettie Mae’s behavior or any counter narrative of black female normalcy in the show. Worse, the writers have Tara Thornton telling Sookie how much she wished she was a Stackhouse and lived with them. The Blue-eyed doll of Morrison has been replaced with the blue-eyed live action figure of True Blood.

Tara is also enthralled with white men in season one; and while interracial dating is normal, unless your John Mayer, Tara’s obsession seems more about the character’s racialized self-hate brimming just below the surface than her desires. Thus she has a long time crush on Jason Stackhouse, the town slut, that is intimately mixed up with her feelings about her mother and the Stackhouses as refuge. Unfortunately for Tara, while Jason will sleep with anything that moves in Bon Temps, he apparently is another one of those guys with a “David Duke penis”, because no matter how much Tara throws herself at him, he does not even notice she is alive. While this could easily play out as an issue of desire in which Jason thinks of her as an official sibling, Jason’s entire character hinges on the fact that he doesn’t care who he sleeps with as long as he does not go to bed alone. This should make Tara easy pickings and yet it does not.

When Tara is given the opportunity to build real love near the end of the first season, it is with one Sookie’s cast offs, Sam Merlotte. In the early days of their relationship, Sam makes it very clear that his true desires lie with Sookie and Tara’s self-esteem is so low she is willing to be the Jezebel in waiting. But Sam is not a bad man, and soon he actually develops real feelings for her that her anger management issues promptly punish and try to destroy. The message, Tara is unlovable. Like the myth of the angry black woman who works men to death with her constant criticism and mood swings, Tara oscillates between rage and judgment with Sam, refusing to let him in. Their interactions are scripted to highlight her dysfunction vis-a-vis his attempts at understanding rather than give us a complex portrait of a young woman broken by abuse re-learning to love. Again the racial overtones of this relationship never allow it the depth it deserves in which come to understand the particularly brokenness both Tara and Sam seem to share.

As if to reinforce the idea of black female pathology in True Blood, the season also includes a backwoods swindler, also played by a black woman, who tells both Tara and her mother that they have demons inside them. It isn’t racism and classism in a small southern town that is making them angry and broken, it is the evil inside them. Worse, in season two, that evil will be externalized in such a way that the entire town is at risk. And part of what makes Tara and her mother at risk for both being swindled and actually possessed by a real demon, is their ignorance. That ignorance is  seemingly embodied by their belief in syncretic African inspired religion in these scenes which the show about supernatural beings depicts as sham.

Lest we miss the non-verbal cues that black people are ignorant, Tara is also a school drop out. Early in the show, Tara actually explains:

School is just for white people looking for other white people to read to them. I figure I’ll save my money and read to myself.

I don’t think there is any black person in the world who thinks this way about education. In fact, since slavery black people in the United States have struggled to get equal access to education, first risking their lives to teach each other to read and write on plantations and then risking them again to start or attend freedom schools, forcibly integrated schools, and panther schools. North American history is littered with broken, bruised, bombed, and even lynched bodies of black educators and their white allies. However, Tara’s belief that education was for white folks resonates with victim-blaming school of thought that argues black people are responsible for their own lower test scores and educational attainment because they do not put enough stock in the importance of education.

Season Two

The hope that the Thortons might get better in season two is quickly dashed by the slavery-reminiscent opening scenes with Tara’s cousin Lafayette which set the tone for the entire season.The backwoods scam, aka the mock African syncretic religious service,  Tara and her mother participated in leads to the rise of an ancient evil creature that feeds on people’s excess. Maryann Forrester, aka the Maenad, introduces violence and sexual abandon that threatens to tear the town apart.

While the whole town is under Maryanne’s spell, Tara and her mother bear the brunt of her abuse and like everything else it is tinged with racialization. Though Lettie Mae has found Jesus and subsequently sobered, she begins the season by telling Tara that she is unlovable and must move out. Like the audience, Tara is incredulous at her mother’s lack of maternal care and unrelenting judgment in the face of all the care Tara has given her in life. And though Lettie Mae tries to make up for it, even being the first to notice that Tara needs help and to seek it out for her, Maryann is there as a constant reminder that Lettie Mae is a failed mother. Several episodes are filled with Maryann, played by white actress Michelle Forbes, viciously tearing into Lettie Mae for being a bad mother, a pathological abuser, and a failed human being. The vehemence with which these scenes are written and acted was hard to watch as they dripped with unchecked racialized self-righteousness that we as the audience are supposed to overlook precisely because of how bad a mother Lettie Mae has actually been. Yet, these scenes do not mirror those of a woman defending an abused young women but rather smack of race hatred in which Maryann’s innocence and authority are assumed for no visible or explained reason. Her anger and constant derrogation far exceed her knowledge of the events or her actual support of Tara. Nor does her behavior enable Tara to find her own voice, define her own abuse, and confront it. Instead it silence and entraps her. Yet Tara drools on at her surrogate mother in the same way she once did with the elder Stackhouse. Again, the opportunity to actually explore abuse survivor narratives and resolution or conflict within abusive natal families is lost to uphold the overarching narrative of black pathology. Sadly, this is only slightly tempered by the fact Maryann is completely pathological herself since this is revealed long after she tears into Lettie Mae unchecked.

On the postive side, Tara’s sexual agency is a critical part of the show. In True Blood, in general, much of the story lines and the characters identities are tied up in who they have sex with, when, where, and how. Tara’s character is no different. That very fact is somewhat revolutionary since black women are often depicted asexual in movies and television in which they are not the main characters, and some times when they are the main characters. While the show has been extremely timid in its depiction of black gay male sexual relationships on the show, Tara’s character ensures that there is some equity in the depiction of heterosexual relationships on the show. (I discuss the good and the bad of homosexual relationships on the show in a different post.)

Until Maryann begins messing with her, Tara’s sexual agency shows real progress from her first introduction in Season One as the only unrequited Jason Stackhouse groupie to an adult relationship with series newcomer Eggs. Tara chooses who she likes and with whom she sleeps. And once she gets over Jason, she also ensures that her sexual needs are met even as she tries to figure out her emotional ones. Where she is played as purely unlovable in her relationship with Sam, she develops the ability to discuss her feelings and her needs and work on needed compromises in her relationship with Eggs. Eggs willingness to do the same, makes the relationship between them one of the most mature of the entire season and the show in general. It also a pleasant counter narrative to the stereotypical depiction of black couples as non-existent or violent, but only for a while.

Unfortunately, Tara’s relationship with Eggs is also marred by Maryann’s racialized interference. While she manipulates all of the townspeople into having sex against their will and in perverse ways (someone actually has sex with a tree at one point), she takes perverse pleasure out of making the black characters in town mix their sex with violence. Thus the same woman who dares to position herself above Tara’s mother because Lettie Mae beat her, has Eggs beat Tara while she watches. Worse, she uses magic to make Tara laps it up and beg for more. They are the only couple to whom Maryann makes this happen. In other words, the director and writers subject the audience to drawn out domestic and sexual violence scenes between Eggs and Tara in which Tara plays objectification loving black female to Eggs violent black male. Also, while all of the couples engage in sex acts forced upon them by Maryann’s presence, no other couple is depicted in increasingly bestial rape scenes in which the female partner has expressly said no before hand.

Maryann also uses this same magic to have Eggs kill people for her. Despite being able to manipulate anyone she wants and having the entire police department at her disposal, as well as being superhuman herself, Eggs is the only person she manipulates into committing murder. The number Eggs has killed under her sway is never revealed but several scenes imply there are many victims. When he discovers this, he goes to confess and is murdered by Jason Stackhouse who, of course, thinks he is a violent criminal. Like the underlining narrative of the show itself that perpetually connects black characters with violence, Jason’s white normativity makes him assume that Eggs is violent and so he shoots him. The tragedy actualized far too many times in real life in North America is played out in close up for True Blood viewers’ entertainment, just like Tara’s rape and brutal beatings.

Sisterhood?

And where is Tara’s best friend when all of this is unfolding? In season One, Sookie Stackhouse actually steals Tara’s boyfriend, not because she wants him but because of a sense of entitlement. Even though Sookie is dating Bill and has no desires for Sam, when she finds out about Tara and Sam she has the nerve to ask him if the relationship is real. For some unexplained reason, she just can’t wrap her mind around why Same would date Tara instead of pine for her. And though she has never actually dated Sam, and does not think the relationship he has with Tara means anything, she actually gives Tara permission to continue dating him. Again, some how she seems to have the right to decide what is real and what isn’t and who her black best friend can and cannot date, even though she was already doing it at the time.

Why does Sookie have the right to judge their relationship, let alone give permission for it? And if she has given permission than why does she ultimately take Sam back like a pair of borrowed socks she sees on the floor of Tara’s room? Asking these questions requires a racialized lens that subverts the centrality of the main female character of the show in order to see how identification with her excuses both patriarchy-serving gendered competition between heterosexual women and gendered racism that erases black women’s desires in order to not only privilege white women’s desires.

When Bill leaves town, Sam not only comes a runnin’ but Sookie takes Sam back first as an interested friend and then as a lover without ever asking about the impact on Tara. Like the friendship that Stefan Salvatore has with Bonnie Bennett, black women’s agency only matters to these sympathetic main characters in as much as it does not get in the way of what they want or feel they are entitled to. And like so many other shows where black people simply fade into the background when included at all, Tara disappears for several episodes while Sam and Sookie hook up. When she re-enters, there are no recriminations for Sookie’s behavior nor judgment for Sam. Tara simply agrees with Sam that they had nothing going on anyway. Tara’s decision serves two purposes, to reinforce the idea of her character as unlovable, which is underpinned by her low self-esteem and subsequent inability to fight for her relationship, and to re-establish racial hierarchies that permeate the narrative of the first season. (It should be noted that this narrative is not only present between black and white people in Bon Temps but also in the subtle differences in which white and Creole characters are developed, so that racial hierarchies in the show follow distinctly colonial gradations that place upperclass European whiteness at the top even as the narrative centers a working class white female character.)

Now ask yourself, why does Sookie think she has the right to give Tara permission to date Sam but no one thinks Sookie should ask Tara before she sleeps with her boyfriend?

Sookie is also absent in Season Two when Tara is seduced by Maryann. While this is due largely to her trip out of town with Bill and a completely separate story line that unfolds as a result, Sookie is in town when Maryann arrives and Tara is Sookie’s roommate when she leaves town. Before Sookie leaves town she registers several red flags about Maryann and does attempt to get Tara away from her influence. However, just like how Elena’s obsession with Stefan causes her to put him first at a critical moment for the Bennet women in Vampire Diaries, Sookie’s obsession with Bill ensures she does not follow up with Tara before it is too late.  She does not ask Tara what is going on and does not call to check on Tara prior to when Sookie gets kidnapped and has her own showdown to deal with. At least Elena Gilbert actually does look out for Bonnie Bennett most of the time. Even when her self-absorption costs Bonnie’s grandmother her life, Elena eventually goes over to check on Bonnie and will likely lend her comfort when the season returns. Sookie shows no similar compassion for Tara until it is far too late. And if the promos for the third season are any indication, her lack of compassion based on the centering of her own desires and the negation of Tara’s only deepens as the series continues.

When Sookie finally does return to Bon Temps and is alerted, by Tara’s relatives, to the Tara’s demise, Sookie is positioned as the Angel on high vis-a-vis Tara’s demon possession. Like a bad Beneton ad, Sookie pours out the light while Tara growls black eyed. Sookie manages to save Tara through some untapped magical goodness inside only to stand in judgment of Tara’s commitment to save Eggs. She seems horrified that Tara wants to go back for Eggs as if the life of her black boyfriend is some how less relevant than the life of either Bill, who Sookie has risked her life for on more than one occasion, or Sam, who Sookie will risk her life for before the end of the season.

Ask yourself how many times Sookie has put her life on the line for Bill or Eric, neither of whom were under the spell of a woman forcing them to beat, rape, and kill people. Why is Eggs life less important?

Like Maryann, Sookie also has harsh words for Tara’s mother, who, in recognizing the equal humanity of black characters to white ones, is swayed by tara’s argument that somebody must save Eggs. She judges Lettie Mae’s need to bond with Tara after so much abuse with complete disregard for both the underlining repositioning of black subjecthood, ie black lives matter, and the reality that while Sookie was off making sure Bill’s friends were helped, Lettie Mae was the only one who was trying to save Tara from Maryann. The irony is lost on her and is written in such a way as to ensure it is also lost on the audience. Just in case, they also have Lafayette tear into Lettie Mae with complete disregard for Eggs’ life or Tara’s love.

It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance to watch these scenes and imagine Sookie as Tara’s savior both in terms of the action of the season and in contrast to Tara’s caretaking of Sookie when her grandmother dies in the previous season. Like Bonnie in the Vampire Diaries, Tara takes the friendship to heart in ways that Sookie fails to do. While some of this is about the intoxication of new love Sookie feels, much of it is inexplicable when you add up the amount of abuse and abandonment Tara has been left to deal with in the wake of limited to no support from her best friend.

Conclusion

The depictions of black womanhood on this show are offensive at best and at worse they underscore much of the negative stereotypes about black women in N. American society. If you couple the depiction of black women with the stereotypical images of both black straight and gay men in this show, it isn’t hard to understand why the producers chose to include historical footage of a Klan rally in the opening credits despite no characters in the Klan on True Blood. The juxtaposition of depraved and abusive black women with magical white women caretakers whose sexual agency is always to their benefit, plays out like a bad John Mayer interview. Gone from the adult world of vampires is a real commitment to sisterhood in action, though still present in word. And while the black family in True Blood has survived two seasons while the black family in Vampire Diaries is hanging on a thread, it is clear that to truly enjoy True Blood one has to divorce it from any critical race and racialized gender analysis.

At the same time, Rutina Wesley and Adina Porter, who plays Lettie Mae, turn in powerful performances as mother and daughter. Both infuse the characters with as much critical gaze and irony as they can. In less capable hands, both of these characters would be even more offensive. Instead Wesley and Porter constantly raise the bar and attempt to re-center the gaze while working with material which I would argue is decidedly anti-black female personhood. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not, but I do know that Rutina Wesley has consistently shown the acting chops to do much better things in the future and the popularity of True Blood can only help to make that happen.

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images

  • How She Move/MTV/ 2007
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • Fan Pic/hyrulebranch
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2009
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2008
  • True Blood/HBO/2009

BHM: Queering Rap

So I owe you one for yesterday . . . know this is not my area, but like I said these posts are about challenging my knowledge as well as yours. 😀

In mainstream feminist analysis of rap music, rap is the villain in which black thugs demean and debase both black and white women. The music becomes the emblem of a narrative in which black culture is more misogynist than the dominant culture and black men are more violent than other men. Thus the actual misogyny of much of rap music is filtered through the engendered racism of mainstream society in ways that erase the misogyny of mainstream culture both in its relationship to rap music, in which white male fantasies of masculinity are grafted on to those of black males ones in order to create a product that is then emulated in the sexist and misogynist encounters between white male suburban youth and their white female suburban girlfriends, and other forms of gender based abuse and inequality that exist outside of any rap or hip hop narrative.

Racial filtering also masks the libratory power of certain kinds of hip hop. Not only has hip hop been credited for giving voice to the forgotten urban slums and the plight of black youth within them, it has also been the source of feminist talk back. While there is nothing liberating about having a credit card swiped through a black woman’s cheeks none could argue that Queen Latifah’s “Lady’s first”(featuring Monie Love)

or Salt’n’Pepa’s “She Thing” were anything but feminist anthems.

In the former, there is a very clear narrative of black female empowerment that places it within a context of strong African and African diasporic women. Its unfortunate use of war footage and imagery to show women reclaiming Africa could also be reclaimed through the lens of previous African queens who once ruled vast empires across the content. It’s not a metaphor I would choose but certainly one that still pays homage to a female power narrative. The video also does something different with female sexuality, at once avoiding the spandexed “big butts” for clothes expressing black pride and putting forth a queer aesthetic. While I think the later was unintentional, it certainly could be credited as one of the moments in Rap video that paved the way for queer artists.

Salt’n’Pepa’s video played more clearly into an existing narrative of sexualized imagery on the screen. However, the used it in a similar vein to the soundtracks of the black exploitation films in which the image may put forward a standard narrative but the music decidedly critiqued. Thus they appear in shorty shorts and low cut tops in almost every frame, but all the while singing about how women can be anything they want to be and have the right and the strength to define their own lives as independent women:

It’s a she thing, and it’s all in me (It ain’t nothin’ but a she
thing,
I could be anything that I want to be baby

….

Go to work and get paid less than a man
When I’m doin’ the same damn thing that he can
When I’m aggressive then I’m a bitch
When I got attitude you call me a witch
Treat me like a sex-object (That ain’t smooth)
Underestimate the mind, oh yeah, you’re a fool
Weaker sex, yeah, right, that’s the joke (ha!)
Have you ever been in labor? I don’t think so, nope
I’m a genuine feminine female thang
Can you hang? Ain’t nothin’ but a she thang

(Salt’n’Pepa “She Thang”)

Not only do these lyrics put forward an empowered female anthem, they raise traditional feminist issues like equal pay, sexual agency, and misogyny. In another part of the song, they also pay homage to Peggy Lee’s “I’m a woman” reminding all of us that ultimately feminist theory always references across difference even tho we traditionally teach it as separated by various identities to the disservice of the movement(s).

Even now, my students who know Latifah as the Loreal woman and Salt’n’Pepa for their degrading reality show, still manage to find these and other feminist lyricists from the black female rap world to bring to class year after year as an example of feminist music. And yet feminist Hip Hop artists are astutely aware of how their voices are edited out of mainstream feminism as part of an anti-feminist industry:

They say it hurts
“It hurt when you talk like that”
They say it hurts
“It hurt blacks”; they talk back
They say it hurts
“It hurt women in rap”
They say it hurts
“It hurt. We rap back”

We gots a Message”

~Shayna “Sheness” Israel
12/19/07

In this excerpt from 3X a LADY CREW, a queer feminist Hip Hop group out of Bryn Mawr, undergraduate scholar Shayna Israel reminds that decolonizing theory opens the possibility to see the “message” in the music and other arenas that have been sworn off as feminist no fly zones. Taking her feminist praxis seriously, Shayna teaches high school and middle school students how to express themselves and critique the inequalities in their lives through hip hop, spoke word, and creative writing.

In fact, feminist hip hop has always been a place for girls and women of all ages. Prior to her hater turn, 14 year old Roxanne Shante, for instance, made it big with songs critiquing male rappers who sold out the message of poverty and oppression for money. She also was one of the youngest successful artists to rap about catcalls on the street and to break down not only the male privilege involved but also the hypocrisy of “shiftless” men hooting at women and girls trying to get an education or go to work.

What has been largely absent from both male and female hip hop artists work is a question of heteronormativity and hyper-dominant-heterosex.  Thus power shifts from largely misogynist male gangsta fantasy to dominating/dominatrix heterosexual female ones. Often hidden are those heterosexual rap songs in which mutuality (be it vanilla or kink) are centered. This again is as much an issue of marketing as anything else, in which mainstream commercialization of rap requires the selling and buying of racial stereotypes: violent black men and angry black women putting their sex out there for mainstream consumption and misappropriation. Even more hidden are those rap artists who are using rap as a revolutionary form from which to critique heteronormativity and heterosexism.

mzfontainandfriends

(MzFontain and friends)

While we have had many books and articles discussing the revolutionary power of rap as an art form for critiquing poverty, racism, colorism, classism, colonialism, and other major political and social forms of oppression no such cache has been given to those books and documentaries that look at the ways female artists around the world have claimed rap as a space to voice female empowerment and critique sexism nor to voice same sex desire and critique homophobia and hetersoexism. While documentaries on women in rock can be found in almost any women’s center or women’s studies library, very few stock either Nobody Knows My Name , which is about the unacknowledged female artists in the industry, or Pick Up the Mic, which focuses on the growth of “homohop” and queer artists. What is lost in this erasure is in fact the black (and global) feminisms, especially queer ones, within rap music.

“I’ve got you Babe” – Mélange

In this ode to her son and her family, young queer artist Mélange Lavonne expands the growing genre of rap expressing love for one’s children and family and places it decidedly within a queer narrative. Her song is particularly important in the post-prop 8 era in which it simultaneously critiques homophobic constructions of the queer community as predatory and racism that edits out both black and bi-racial families from the mainstream depiction of queerness.

Though relatively new, Mélange Lavonne’s contribution to the rap scene promises to be significant. As an artist that started out with a debut album devoid of homosexuality, she had developed a “mainstream” audience who then followed torontoshowjune07her to her sophomore album in which she is out and her subject matter includes critiques of homophobia and heterosexism. The shift was not only one that Lavonne credits for her own empowerment but also helped expand the audience for “homo hip hop.” She also wants to start her own label to make sure that other young women have access to an industry that feminists have rightly labeled notoriously sexist.

Artists like Shante Paradigm are also shifting the image of hip hop at both the lyrical and structural level. Her own music combines issues of gender, sexuality, race, and popular culture from a decidedly feminist lens. She is also the co-founder and Exec Producer of Peace Out East Festival, an east coast hip hop festival for queer rap artists.

Black queer feminist rappers not only discuss sexuality but also issues of gender oppression and racism. Artists Kin4Life breakdown such themes as environmental racism, black male misogyny, and other issues in this impromptu rap for an interview in 2008:

Their work also tackled issues of emotional abuse, healthy vs. destructive relationships, and desire. They are also important to the genre because their videos highlight empowered femmes not just studs.

Other artists, like J P.O.W move the discussion into spiritual connection between women and the connections of blackdjpow women across the diaspora. Her song Earth Walker with Las Krudas (amazing Afra-Cubana hip hop artists) mixes languages, sounds, and forms in order to explore the power of African diasporic women on this earth. You can listen to many of her songs at her myspace page: here.

While most of these artists are young, we cannot forget the woman who is largely credited as starting the movement: Missy Elliot. While she has never explicitly addressed her sexuality, it is common knowledge that Missy plays on the home team. Her work with many of the mainstream rap and R&B artists in the industry has exposed all of them to a competent, successful, black lesbian rapper. That exposure and her own success as an artist have no doubt opened space for others since.

The influence hip hop has had on feminist and queer thinkers and spoken word artists is not limited to African badboysAmericans, all though it does come out of a particular African diasporic his/her/hirstory. If this was not black history month I would obviously highlight some other key artists that I have featured on this blog before. And while I have focused on some big name artists here, I hope that some of these others are people you do not know, since the point of these posts is to highlight the lesser known women in our shared histories. Other artists that I was unable to feature but that may be of interest: MZ Jonez (Shayvonna Jonz), Dr. P, E-cliff, Dalyrical, BOI Sha, Mz. Dyzihre, and Feloni, and so many others.

Obviously this post is simply scratching the surface. For more information on queer artists check out: