How to Become White Famous

With Jamie Foxx’s new Showtime comedy series on tv this past fall, it’s got me thinking abut what it takes to become “white famous.” You know, when a person of color in the entertainment industry goes from just being known and celebrated by their communities to being super-famous and widely celebrated because white people “discovered” them. (It’s kind of like how Columbus discovered America. Actually, it’s just like that.)

There are so many examples of entertainers of color who have achieved white fame—Beyoncé, Jackie Chan, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx—I thought it’d be interesting to look at some common threads that pop up when entertainment by or about people of color suddenly makes it big among white folk.

So, here are a few tips on how to become white famous:

Tell a story about famous white people.

White people love nothing more than to read/watch/listen to stories about themselves. They love their accomplishments. And if you can manage to make their stories even cooler than they actually are, all the better. Ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the musical Hamilton. He retold the story of one of the many white founding fathers in musical form with rap and R&B and presto! white people the world over lost their shit. Many of the rest of us knew Miranda from his show In the Heights—it also had rap and salsa and even some Spanish. But nah, that was about colored people living in a colored neighborhood; it wasn’t white famous material. When he tells the story of a famous white guy, he can even go so far as to remake the entire cast of characters with actors of color and white people still fall head over heels for it. (Well, not all of them. A group of white performers tried to sue the show’s producers early on for “discriminatory” casting.) The key, though, is that the entire story is about white people. (In fact, the only actual character of color in the show is Sally Hemings who makes a minute appearance during a Thomas Jefferson number at the beginning of the second act.)

Tell a story about white people being “reverse oppressed” by people color.

Not only do white people love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves, they love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves being “reverse oppressed” by people of color. It lets them cross their proverbial arms in self-satisfaction and say, “See, they don’t have it so bad. We don’t treat them any worse than they treat us. We all are hurt by racism.” Ask Kumail Nanjiani, the creator and star of The Big Sick. His film is about how he fell in love with a sick white woman and bonded with her family while his Pakistani family and community, in all their backward non-Western ignorance, refused to accept the interracial relationship. White people loved this film and are really mad that it wasn’t nominated for any Golden Globes. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s got ignorant, stereotypical brown people, with extra points for the overbearing maternal brown women characters. It’s got the innocent heart-rending love of a beautiful white woman, the prize of any brown heart. It’s got the kind, accepting, well-meaning, super-progressive white family full of support and racial utopian-kumabaya-why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along “color-blindness” (apologies for the ableist language here). My goodness, people, the white woman is sick! And the brown people are so unaccepting of her! The film is based on actual events, so it’s horrible that Nanjiani’s partner had to suffer so much with her health. Nevertheless, with the caricature brown folks and the up-play of white sympathy, it is a white person’s dream romantic comedy.

Tell a story about people of color being oppressed and then rescued by the timely arrival of a couple “white saviors.”

Yes, this is still a story about white people. Look, do you want to be white famous or not? But in this case, you can actually tell a bit of the story of race oppression. The only caveat is that you’ve got to include at least one, preferably a few, white saviors to rescue the poor oppressed people of color from their degradation. Some of the best examples of this aren’t actually created by people of color but they do feature people of color as the main characters and have helped catapult some of colored folks’ careers, so that’s something. Basically, take any slavery movie—Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, whatever—make a spectacle of the real degradation and violence of slavery, then add a well-meaning, abolitionist Quaker or two and you’ve got yourself a white famous hit. It even works for other time periods. Like, The Help wouldn’t have been so white famous without the sweet Emma Stone character to help the help tell their stories. Oh, thank goodness for kind white women! Or in the modern-day tv show Longmire that centers on the story of a Wyoming sheriff who often leaves his jurisdiction in the white world to invade life on the local Crow and Cheyenne reservations and lay down the law in aid of the poor natives. What would we all do without a strong white man to take charge of us! White people love stories like this because they can completely ignore their complicity in the ways of the “bad whites” and only identify with the grace and goodness of the “good whites.” Every white spectator reads/watches/listens to these stories and immediately sees themselves as the Quaker, the sweet young journalist, the fair and impartial lawman. It’s a sure shot to white fame.

Finally, if all else fails, tell a story full of racist stereotypes…BUT dress it up as irony.

Nowadays, even in this political climate, white people know they shouldn’t say or do blatantly racist things. They know better. And even when they mess up, they know they can always rely on irony and high humor to save their white skins. But what they enjoy even more is when they’re given the opportunity to enjoy some good old-fashioned racist humor without feeling bad because hey! it’s ironic! There are just too many examples of this to even go through them all. Apu, the supposed South East Asian convenience store owner from The Simpsons. Anything starring Jackie Chan. Madea from practically all Tyler Perry movies. (I know what you’re going to say about that last one: Hey! April, I thought Black people loved Tyler Perry? How is that white famous or even racist? Please. We pretend to love Tyler Perry the way Black folks pretended to love shuck and jive minstrel shows back in the 1830s. That kind of unabashed coonery has always been and will always be for “massa’s” amusement.) White people know they shouldn’t sing the “We Are Siamese” song from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or “What Makes the Red Man Red” from Peter Pan, by the same company (Disney has always been hella problematic, y’all), but they figure they can laugh all day as thick-accented Jackie Chan kung-fus his way through rush hour with loud-mouthed Chris Tucker cooning it up at his side. These caricature characters of color are no problem in the name of modern-day irony. And mega-bonus points if you can combine these racist stereotypes with white characters from other types of marginalized identities. So Gloria, the young, buxom, heavily accented, shrill, money-grubbing, violence-prone Colombian wife of a wealthy old white man is totally fine because she plays opposite the old white man’s gay son and his husband. It’s totally fine, everyone, they’re a Modern Family. Also, irony. Ha.

As you can see, it’s not too difficult to become white famous. The formulae are pretty clear. The challenge, though, is staying white famous. Thing is, you can’t stray too far from the scripts. Remember when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade and white people suddenly remembered she didn’t belong to them? Yeah. They didn’t like that much. Of course, Queen Bey had already built up so much white fame that it didn’t faze her profile at all. But still, entertainers of color walk a fine line and have to be careful. In any event, if you’re aiming for that grand prize of white recognition, I hope these tips help. And good luck. Remember, though, us folks of color still see and love you. No matter what.

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Making Space

Some friends from church and I recently read an essay by Christian theologian Henri Nouwen called “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.” (It’s a really good piece if you’re the Christian type. Though I will say that Nouwen always breaks my heart because of how he considered his faith and his queerness to be sources of conflict and struggle.)

Anyway, in it, he talks about how spiritual discipline isn’t supposed to be about control but about making space for God to do the unexpected. And he goes on to say that this discipline or space-making begins with solitude. Not loneliness. But clearing out one’s mind, heart, spirit, life to allow for more centeredness and communion with God.

I’ve really been struggling with making space this past year. I’ve fought to do the work I do while maintaining my self-care. I’ve tried to be who I am for others, while still maintaining the identity I hold for myself and my Creator. I have by no means figured it all out. Nor do I expect to, really. But I do feel like this season is a good time for me to really strip away some things to make space for God’s presence and unexpectedness in my life.

So, I’ll be taking a step back for a while to engage in some spiritual solitude. You won’t find me on Twitter or on my blog. (But if you’re ever in my area and want to get together in person, I’ll always be game for that!) I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone. Probably until the end of the year. We’ll just see where God takes me.

I’m very grateful to have all of you in my life. And I wish you the very best this winter season has to offer. Take good care of yourselves.

Floetry: Be still 

Sitting quietly and still until the dust settles

Until the roaring and thundering fades

Peering into the gentle waves, I can see the bottom so clearly

Straining my ears to the sudden quiet, I hear the whisper of the still, small voice 

And imagine:

All that dust, all that noise 

Comes directly from me;

I stir up the tempest with my fears, anxieties

With my desperate attempts to scratch my way to truth beneath the surface 

With my desperate attempts to scream my way to a perfectly pitched calling

It is I who obscures 

When all You ask is that I be still 

And know You 

What’s Legal Is Not What’s Ethical

I’m at an archival tour for a health sciences special collection at an institution that will be unnamed, and I am extremely uncomfortable.

My group and I have been shown patient records for children and senior citizens and immigrants and transgender and intersex people from as recent the 1980s. Some of these people are still alive. I may have passed them on the street on my way in.

My group has heard a lot about how HIPAA is not being violated and how legal counsel has okayed this practice and that practice. We’ve been shown some signed forms. But I still feel incredibly gross about all this. It’s exploitative and wrong. It may be legal, but it’s certainly unethical.

Did these patients understand how their personal materials would be used? Did they know that in 2017, a group of scholars would be pawing through their procedure images and notes and photos? Are they okay with that? I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone knows. And that’s the problem.

I’ve talked about this before and others have talked about this, but I just had to share. I don’t have anything else to add really; just the same thing I’ve been repeating over and over:

WHAT IS LEGAL IS NOT WHAT IS ETHICAL AND VICE VERSA.

Please, fellow library and archive folks, let’s be more thoughtful, more critical about our work.

One of the only records I felt comfortable seeing and sharing. An autopsy report from 1918 during the flu epidemic.

Floetry: I love walking through graveyards 


I love walking through graveyardsThe dead don’t say much

Don’t get me wrong 

I didn’t say they don’t say anything

I said they don’t say much

They understand the value of silence 

Of time

They’re in no hurry to explain accuse exculpate 

There are no arguments debates soliloquies 

Just quiet

And the occasional whisper 

A reminder to honor the dead

And the living

And time

Open Access Week 2017: Launch of LIS Scholarship Archive

This Open Access Week, I’m proud to help spread the word about a new platform for sharing library and archive work, the newly launching (as of October 25) LIS Scholarship Archive, or LISSA.

Screenshot of LISSA landing page

Set on the Open Scince Framework platform and with the support of the Center for Open Science, LISSA is meant to be a place for providing secure, easy, and most important, open access to the broad range of materials that information workers produce—everything from data sets, to posters, to image collections, to oral history files, and yes, even traditional article preprints. In addition to welcoming a broad range of materials, we also eagerly welcome submissions from library and archives workers and students of all types, from the public library circulation clerk, to the archive and museum studies student, to the early career special librarian. Our hope is that LISSA can become a repository for those who otherwise do not have access to one.

In particular, we are proud to be providing a service alongside the longstanding and internationally renowned  eLIS preprint server. While eLIS has long provided a place for depositing traditional LIS scholarship, we look to provide an option for a broader range of works.  We look forward to possible future collaboration with eLIS in sharing the LIS disciplinary repository space.

On behalf of our steering committee—which I admit is for now very North American, but rest assured we will be working intentionally to lead with more global inclusivity—we invite you to check out LISSA and consider using it as a home for your information work.

For more info, find us at lissarchive.org.

Floetry: That was a good book

I’ve recently gotten back into my poetry writing. So I’ll be dropping some lines in here for you all from time to time as the Spirit moves. 

****

“That was a good book”

I read that book and now I just wanna eat it

Cram it in my mouth and chew sop it up with a biscuit

Roast it on an open spit drizzle it in gravy plough right through

Rip it apart page by page at the spine and suck the marrow dry

Take the binding soak it in broth get a good stew going

That book was so good I wanna dice it up fine slice mince sprinkle it on some chips serve it with carrot sticks

I devoured it with my eyes my mind but that’s not enough it was a really good book 

Open my center pour it in I wanna start it all over again 

Columbus Day 2017: Tear It All Down

Today is Columbus Day, but I’m in the midst of a social media break so you won’t see this post until much later. Still, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and it’s really come to a point where I’ve got to get the thoughts down.

I just eavesdropped on a white woman talking about her family’s participation in the New York City Italian-American community’s Columbus Day celebrations. (Columbus Day became a holiday in the U.S. initially as a way for marginalized Italian immigrants to celebrate their heritage.) There will be protest by native folks and allies against the settler colonization and genocide that Christopher Columbus represents. In the words of this woman, “I get it, but I don’t get it.” Then, she proceeded to give all the usual trite arguments:

  1. It’s a celebration of Italians in America, not Columbus per se (though he was Italian in America and a genocidal one at that).
  2. You can’t judge historical figures by today’s standards of morality.
  3. I supported the taking down of the Confederate monuments, but where do we draw the line?
  4. Blah, blah, blah.

I don’t mean to rag on this woman. She’s only saying what many other well-meaning, white, liberal Americans say. But this thinking is the very epitome of why we will likely never decolonize and dismantle white supremacy in the country (or anywhere else really).

White people are just too married to their own supremacy and privilege. Even the well-meaning, so-called “liberal” and “progressive” ones.

Over the last few months with all the hullabaloo about taking down Confederate monuments, so many well-meaning liberal white folks took to their thinkpieces to explain why it’s the white (do I mean “right”? Is that really a typo?) thing to do to take down the Confederate monuments, and why it’s okay to leave monuments to other well-known slave-owners and native murderers because of “all the good they did in founding our great country.”

Huh. Cue thinking-face emoji.

What “good” did they do? For whom? What “great country”? For whom?

Because from where I sit, I see native peoples being chased by dogs and teargassed for trying to protect the sanctity of their (and all of our) water.

From where I sit, I see black athletes, whose very bodies are owned by wealthy white men (sound familiar?) being castigated and Black-balled (quite literally) for engaging in peaceful protest against state-sanctioned, racist violence.

From where I sit, I see Spanish-speaking, colonized Americans, Black, Brown, and every shade in between, being left to die of thirst and disease in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in their living history.

But yes, let’s please preserve the racist legacy of the racist people who built this racist country. By all means.

I say tear it all down. I say this as a proud American who wants to be even prouder of her country. I say this as a Black woman, most of whose ancestors didn’t choose to be here, but here we are, so deal with me. I say this sincerely and unequivocally.

Until we’re willing to, figuratively and literally, tear down every vestige of our nation’s racist, white supremacist history—from Washington to Jackson to Tr*mp—we will never attain the equality and equity we like to talk so glibly about. We need to confront our history and our present, and then we need to tear it down.

Until then, enjoy your ridiculous parades and bank holidays. I’ve got better things to do.

 

Pipeline as Meat Grinder

I just got off a group videoconference with members of We Here, a collective of librarians of color who gather every month online to chat about issues related to being one of only a few in a profession that’s 88% white. As we were talking, the topic of diversity initiatives, recruitment, and retention came up (as it often does). I’ve written quite a bit about our profession’s diversity initiatives in the past, but in the course of this conversation, I had a new thought:

Me: Y’all. Listening to this conversation makes me think that the so-called pipeline, when it comes to diversity, isn’t a pipeline at all but is actual a meat grinder. *shudders*

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“Der Fleischwolf bei der Arbeit” which I’m pretty sure is German for “white supremacy meat grinder for diversity” (just kidding…a little); by Anfuehrer on Flickr.com, CC-BY-SA 2.0

It’s true. We take people from marginalized backgrounds and shove them into the meat grinder we call a pipeline. We churn them up in diversity residencies and diversity temp hires and diversity programs and diversity trainings. And then we spew out little white-sized (no, that’s not a typo) chunks for our organizations. We tell them to be people of color but not too much color. Be disabled but not too disabled. Be native but not too native. Be queer but not too queer. Be poor and working class but not too poor, not too working class. Just be a good little chunk with just enough quirk to make our organizational diversity look good.

Finally, we congratulate ourselves on how diverse we’re making our professional sausage, with no regard to the identities and backgrounds these folks held before they entered our grinding pipeline machine.

No wonder so many of our most talented leave the profession after a short while.

We assume that assimilating folks from marginalized backgrounds into our professional sausage is enough. We don’t work on our inclusionary practices or organizational cultures. We don’t work on providing systemic, long-term professional and personal development support. We don’t work on changing the ways we think about and treat people historically oppressed people in our workplaces. All of that is just way too hard. So meat grinder, it is.

I’m sick of the meat grinder mentality. We’ve got to do better. Many of us are starting to make those changes in our organizations from recruitment to staffing and leadership training. But we gotta do more. We’ve gotta do so much more.

That’s it. End of blog post. I’m not giving you any solutions here because quite frankly I (and many others) have done that already in other places. (Hello, click on all the links I put in this post for a start.) But also I’m not doing it because that’s not my job. This black woman is not here to save you. Save yourselves. Do the work. Go.

On Antifa and Social Justice Struggle

The anti-fascist resistance groups that have been fighting the public displays of hate and oppression of white supremacists and other Trumpsters have been declared “domestic terrorists.” Apparently, some of their tactics have involved violence. I don’t know, I haven’t been keeping tabs on all their actions. But I have seen all the finger-wagging hot-take think pieces from both sides of the political divide.

And to be quite honest, I just don’t care.

I don’t care what or how Antifa is fighting oppression. I’m more interested in the age-old narrative emerging here in which the oppressed are only allowed to fight oppression in ways deemed acceptable by the oppressor. This is a tone-policing tale as old as time.

When Nat Turner led one of the largest American slave rebellions in the early 1800s, both slaveholders and so-called abolitionist allies alike decried his use of violent “terrorizing” tactics. It got people seriously thinking about how to end slavery, though. The Black Panther Party, which instituted the free breakfast program for kids and fought against police brutality (yeah, how are we doing with that nowadays?), was deemed by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Today, Black Lives Matter is constantly undergoing similar scrutiny; and it constitutes an explicitly peaceful movement, despite the oppressor’s determination to characterize it as otherwise.

That’s the thing, though: it really isn’t about whether there’s violence or not. Even peaceful movements get denigrated as divisive and dangerous. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed how many times for his peaceful, nonviolent interventions? How long has it been since Colin Kaepernick has been out of a job because he took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against black people?

Here’s the real deal: the same folks who decry the violent acts of Antifa were the exact same people calling for us to uphold the First Amendment free speech rights of the white supremacists marching on Charlottesville. White supremacists who plowed a car into the crowd of anti-racist counter-protestors, killing a woman and injuring many.White supremacists who waved guns and shouted violent epithets at these same counter-protestors. As I’ve said before, free speech only applies to certain folks.

So, you’ll excuse me if I refuse to care about what Antifa has or hasn’t done. You’ll excuse me if I choose to take those finger-wagging hot-take think pieces by so-called liberal allies and toss them right into the rubbish bin. Because I know what they’re really saying.

Violence against oppression is just as bad as violence within oppression.

Translation: I’m all for anti-oppressive praxis as long as it leaves my privileged comfort bubble intact.

Thing is, fighting oppression is messy. It’s not always going to be done right or peacefully or with perfect grace. And that’s okay. It’s still vitally worth doing. As Frederick Douglass has been done told us all:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

“West India Emancipation” speech (1857)