Doctor Who and the #WhiteGaze

There may be some spoilers in the post. But it’s still probably important for you to read anyway. I’m just sayin.

I’m supposed to be relaxing, sitting on my couch, catching up on some Doctor Who (yay for a lady doctor!).

Instead, I’m sitting on my couch, coming down off a rage- and trauma-induced panic attack, writing on my blog.

The third episode of this latest season of Doctor Who is about Rosa Parks and the American South in the 1950s. Like, a time and place where my parents were born, where my grandparents and great-grandparents and many great-aunts and uncles lived and struggled under the menacing gaze of Jim Crow. Many of them made it out. Many more didn’t. In so many ways, it was a time that feels like foreshadowing of today with near-daily tales of Black death at the hands of a white government. For us, it’s guns. For them, it was mostly nooses. For us, it’s hashtags. For them, it was the obituary section of the local Black newspaper. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Thinking about this continuing racialized trauma affects me emotionally, spiritually, physically. Historical trauma is a real thing. Historical trauma that continues to translate itself into new forms and perpetuate itself in new violence is a real and terrible thing. The early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., the struggles of Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and my ancestors affects me. Their work means something to me. Particularly in this dumpster-fire, shit-pool of a world I live in now, I hold up the perseverance of those who came before me and it is sacred. It belongs to me and mine. It is not for casual consumption.

So that is why it enrages, infuriates, terrifies, traumatizes me to see that work and that struggle pranced about on screen for my fellow geeks, mostly white, to consume and enjoy. The only Black main character left on the show (after they killed his grandmother in the first freakin episode–spoiler alert) gets shuffled around 1950s Alabama by a nice white lady alien and an old white man like it’s just no big deal. He nearly gets strung up for trying to hand a white woman her dropped handkerchief. He nearly gets strung up again for sneaking into a whites only motel. He nearly gets strung up again for sitting in a whites-only restaurant. Each time blithely led there by the white characters who are able to roam freely through this Jim Crow world. (The Brown woman main character doesn’t suffer as much but does get a taste of life on this side of time and space: though she’s Southeast Asian, everyone keeps referring to her as Mexican…like it’s an insult.) The Black man has his very existence threatened again and again, and it’s nothing but collateral in the more important mission of maintaining control of the space-time continuum.

When the time travelers do encounter the eponymous star of the episode, the main focus is on the white characters running around town setting the stage just right so she can have her famous moment of resistance on the bus. Yes, she’s there as an important figure of history, but only provided the nice white lady alien and her old white man companion and their two coloreds can keep all surrounding events in line to allow Mrs. Parks to fulfill her historical role.

Rosa Parks is reduced to a character in a sci-fi show (Dr. King also makes a cameo), a modern-day Black man is tossed into the degradation of the Jim Crow South in the U.S., the struggles and heartbreaks of a people are paraded on the screen—all to entertain an audience. A white audience. Because the setting of the historical narrative, introduction of the characters, and insouciance with which the subject is dealt all suggest that it is the story of an “other” being told for the benefit of an audience that would otherwise have no connection.

It’s the white gaze at its very finest. And I am so not here for that.

So, I’ve quit that episode and I’ve pounded out my frustration on the keys of my laptop in this blog post and I’ll find some other way to relax tonight. But watching my history trotted out as fodder for an alien show? No fucking thank you.

My Fire, This Time

I’m reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time finally for the first time.

It’s beautiful to see my reality reflected in someone else’s words, even over the distance of several decades. In some ways, it’s disheartening to see how little things have changed; but mostly it’s empowering, just as it’s always empowering to connect to the ancestors’ wisdom for how to make it through to another day of struggle.

photograph of a single candle flame up close

“Still” by roujo via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his short book of two letters, Baldwin says some things that really sync with my current reflections on life in this white supremacist patriarchal world:

In a letter addressed to his nephew: There is no reason for you to try to become like white ppl & there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that THEY must accept YOU. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that YOU must accept THEM.

and

In a self-reflective letter: There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white ppl, still less loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.

This makes me think about conversations I’ve had with family, friends, and allies lately. How I’ve grown past the point of wanting to bond with white people or even be a part of their world; how I’m now just struggling with them for the right to live my life, equitably, fairly, without their censure or policing or gaze. Free in my physical body. Free in my mind. Free in my spirit. To be my whole Black woman self.

It’s hard.

The thing is, it’s the so-called Nice White Folks™ who do the most damage, who stand most in the way of my freedom. Baldwin calls them “the innocents.” The ones who don’t believe they’re doing any harm, who hardily support “diversity” and “inclusion” and “multiculturalism.” As long as it doesn’t cost them anything. They’ll eat our food and learn a bit of our languages, steal our music and watch our tv shows, peer avidly into our lives as a form of “cross-cultural exchange” because doing so is free. They cede no power or privilege in treating us, the very real physical traumatized fact of us, as exotic anomalies for their amusement.

That makes me tired.

I’m tired of allies treating my presence, my very reality, as a problem that needs solving. As if I’m little more than part of a clogged pipeline that just needs a little adjustment over here, off to the side; again, not costing them anything. Sprinkle a little scholarship money here, a program there, some assimilation over here…it’ll all be fine; I just need to stop being “bitter” and “angry” and “divisive” and start being filled with gratitude for my generous white saviors. Who still have not been cost anything.

Yeah, well, I’m done with all that. I’m with Baldwin. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter if they like me or accept me or want me. It doesn’t matter if they understand me. I don’t have to continue squeezing the wholeness of my Black womanhood into tiny bite-sized, white-sized parcels that they can swallow. Because nothing will ever change that way. Nothing can ever change until they’re willing to accept the cost. There’s a price to be paid for the undoing of their privilege, for the dismantling of their so-called supremacy.

And how many of them are really ready to pay?

My Trauma is Not Your Thought Experiment: On Oppressive Empathy

When it comes to anti-oppression work, I have a problem with empathy. Or rather, I have problem with the ways in which people with privilege and power enact so-called empathy. The ways in which it always seems to demand a centering of their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences in a narrative that otherwise should be about the trauma they enact, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, on the oppressed.

Here’s what I mean.

A couple months ago Zoé, a beautiful Black woman with a lot of powerful things to share, tweeted a story about having a conversation with another Black woman about racism in different national contexts. It was a life-giving session of shared truths and traumas, as often happens when women of color are blessed to be in honest communion with one another. After their trauma-baring and sharing talk, a white man sitting nearby turned to them to thank them for their words and to let them know that he had been listening and that, as a doctoral student studying issues of race, he now felt he had a lot of great material to think about for his dissertation.

Just like that, the experiences of these beautiful, powerful, oppressed-but-not-diminished had been reduced to fodder for yet another white penis-wielding Ph.D (as if there aren’t more than enough already). Their lived, embodied, emotionalized, spirit-driven experiences, their moment of sacred womanist communion, had been befouled by the soulless exploitation of the white male gaze.

And yet, this dood undoubtedly felt he was paying Zoé and her companion a compliment. Undoubtedly, he felt he was exercising the very epitome of racial and gendered empathy.

The very same day Zoé shared these tweets, I had my own run-in with what I’ll call oppressive empathy. I was attending a symposium on the use of archives in the sciences and one of the sessions was being led by a white woman from a medical archive. Let me begin by saying that this white woman was a very Nice White Lady™, and I bear her no ill-will. But she and some of the others in the group messed up, so I’m going to tell my story and share my truth nonetheless.

For this archival activity, we were asked to engage in a practice of historical empathy, a classroom-based thought experiment that has students conceptualize of a historical figure’s actions within the context of that figure’s imagined thoughts, values, and beliefs as demonstrated by evidence from the period. Walking into the activity, I was sincerely hoping that we’d be activating our historical empathy to connect with some otherwise erased or forgotten voice in historical medicine. After all, a major theme of the symposium had been to discuss archival silences in the sciences and methods for surfacing oppressed narratives.

However, for this activity, we were handed a copy of a speech given by a woman doctor at a professional conference for women doctors in 1910. The archivist had us read a portion of the speech about the latest advancements in medicine and public health, then she began to lead us in the thought experiment. We were asked to imagine that we were attendees at the conference and that we’d be having lunch with the speaker later in the day so we’d need to be familiar with her work.

At this point, even before the traumatizing portions of the activity, I already felt bothered and uncomfortable. Even though the portion of the speech was fairly innocuous, I suspected I knew where it was headed. Also, everyone else in the room was white and could readily imagine themselves as early 20th century doctors attending a professional conference, regardless of gender. I, on the other hand, struggled to see myself, as a Black woman, being permitted to earn a medical degree at the time, much less being welcomed by my white peers in a professional setting.

At this point, the archivist had us read the succeeding portion of the speech, and sure enough, I’d known exactly what was coming. The speech goes on to talk about the “purification of the race” against the “over-proliferation” of other races. Yep. I sat back, already feeling cut by the professional rehashing of my historical trauma in the presence of my white colleagues, when the archivist then asked us to imagine how we would broach conversation with the speaker during lunch. “Bear in mind that just calling her racist isn’t going to be very effective. So how can we connect with her by better understanding her current beliefs and values in context?” the archivist asked us.

What followed was essentially a discussion about reaching out to and empathizing with those who espouse hate-filled beliefs, values, and practices. My white colleagues eagerly embraced the experiment and conversation. In particular, they extolled the way the activity allowed them to disengage from their currently held beliefs and identities to reach out to someone across history. They also readily related the activity to learning to reach out to the many unabashedly parading their hate today. I sat back and disengaged; the emotional trauma of witnessing the historical violence that was enacted against people like me being treated as an academic activity was too much for me.

After the activity, I approached the archivist to suggest that she make space in future iterations of the activity for the identities and emotions of students not able to take a distanced, “objective” approach. I also encouraged her to include a practice of historical empathy for the victims of this doctor’s beliefs and values. We’d been asked to show empathy for this white woman whose professional work was based in white supremacy, oppression, and hate. But what about those she denigrated? What about those erased from her contemporary narrative? What about those doing work that spoke against this oppressive “product of the times”?

Black and white pencil sketch from an 1800s magazine showing a number of Hindi women sitting for a picture with two white men

These are the types of women doctors for whom I’d like to exercise historical empathy. “Women doctors being trained to care for women patients,” The Graphic 1887, Wikimedia Commons, PD

The ability to disconnect from this kind of oppressive history is a privilege. The ability to disconnect from your identity to engage with an oppressor is a privilege. The ability to disconnect from your emotions and values to engage with someone else’s hate is a privilege. And that privilege sits at the very crux of oppressive empathy.

My trauma is not your thought experiment. And if that’s what you need to exercise empathy, then perhaps you need to reexamine your anti-oppression praxis.

Coming Back Out of Africa

I’m sitting in the Heathrow airport on my way home from a week and a half spent in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. In the last half hour, I’ve seen more white people than I’d come across in the last ten days straight and my heart sinks within me.

Guess my “race vacation”–a key treatment for race fatigue–is over. It was magnificent while it lasted.

Photo of a sunrise from an airplane window

Sunrise during my flight from Johannesburg to London, April Hathcock, CC-BY-NC

It’s been over a decade since I last visited the African sub-continent, and I’d forgotten how essentially life-giving and invigorating and renewing it can be to spend time in a place where my Black body is the norm and not seen as an anomaly. To be somewhere where everywhere I look, I see faces that look like me and mine. Everyone I encounter could be an aunty or uncle or cousin. To be automatically greeted as a long-sought prodigal daughter with “Moni! Muli bwanji?” and to witness the confusion on the speaker’s face when I respond in English that I’m not Malawian and don’t speak any Chichewa. Even if I couldn’t always follow the conversation beyond a child-like greeting, it still filled my heart with joy to be approached right away as though I belonged. (And inevitably, Aunty So-and-So would eventually say, “Well! You must learn Chichewa for when you come back!” Not if but when.)

And yes, there were painful and frustrating parts, too. I was there visiting my sister and spent time with some of her muzungu (“white/foreigner”–I love that in Chichewa, the word for “white (as in race) is synonymous with the word for “foreigner” or “outsider”) global health colleagues. I witnessed the differences in the way she–as the only Black non-Malawian in the group–built relationships with the local folks, as compared to the ways in which her white colleagues approached the people, culture, and work. In other contexts, as well, I saw neo-colonialism and white supremacy rearing its ugly head time and again. But I also saw how my Malawian cousins rise above that oppression, took what they needed from the patronizing hands offering, and continued working with joy to build back their independence and self-sustaining strength. The colonizers might have thought they were calling the shots, but the Malawians were definitely getting their own brand of reparations for centuries of the rape, genocide, and enslavement of their people and their land.

But, like their cousins whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage and Reconstruction and Jim Crow–all of which are the direct predecessors to what we are now surviving in the police state and industrial prison complex–the Malawians are finding their own way to joy and fulfillment. We always have been a hearty people. That’s why our diaspora has lasted so long, reaching so far and wide.

So even as I sit in the business class lounge of the Heathrow airport (Look, my ancestors! No Middle Passage for this Nubian daughter. No sitting at the back of any transport. I ride up front with the massas and missuses; and their precious lily white young ladies have to address me as “Madam” and serve me tea!); even as I endure the scrutiny of the white gaze–always wondering if I know where I am, if I really belong–even with all of this, I sit quietly in my corner with a smile on my face and joy in my heart that can only come from knowing what it is to spend time in a place I can always call home.

Ndakondwera kukudziani, Malawi! Tionana. I’ll be back to see you soon.

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.

Hamilton and the White Gaze

After shelling out way too much on a ticket about a year ago, I finally went to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton last week. It was amazing, of course. And yet.

I have such conflicted feelings about the experience of sitting in an audience that looked like this:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 6.40.36 AM

Tweet of emojis about what it felt like being the only POC in my section at Hamilton.

Here I was at a f-cking brilliant Broadway show that borrowed heavily from black musical traditions, written by a genius of a latinx man, with a cast full of people of color, and all of it, all of it, taking place under the laser focus of the ever-present white gaze.

Especially given the period-ness of the piece and the references to black enslavement, it made me think about how white slave owners, like Washington or Jefferson, used to make their enslaved folks perform songs and dance from their native traditions for the amusement of white folks on the plantation. Even today the white gaze voraciously lays claim to the cultural heritage of us “others”: white people designate their “spirit animals” as they sit back and listen to jazz, rock, or pop and contemplate checking out the latest film featuring ancient traditions from this or that culture that has been white-washed beyond recognition. Yet, for many, never once do they stop and reflect on the cultural appropriation taking place to make their chosen entertainment possible.

“It must be nice, it must be niiice…” to be able to use your gaze to claim ownership to the creations of others. To mark that territory as your own just as surely as your ancestors planted flags in inhabited lands and killed the native “scourge” in the names of their kings and queens.

All of this felt so real to me sitting there with all those white folks, watching this amazing show that showcased so much of what people of color bring to culture, and sensing that so much of that simply bounced off their privileged white bubbles. To my dismay, my seat-mates sat stone-faced while I rejoiced openly at all the sampling and references to music my people have created, most of which I recognized right away. (Except, good grief, I don’t know where I was when Biggie released the “Ten Crack Commandments” cuz I didn’t catch that one and my sis had to set me straight. Forgive me, y’all.) I cried “Amen!” when Jefferson got called out on his ownership of slaves and watched as the folks sitting next to me shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I hooted and whistled, much to the annoyance of those around me, when someone successfully spat a particular witty and fast-paced set of lyrics. I groaned out loud when a character said or did something stupid, thereby catching side-eye from those to my left and my right.

To them, I was disrupting their enjoyment of this show on the “Great White Way” (oh, so much loaded into that phrase)—this show that was their show, created for their amusement. Just made me shake my damn head.

I wish I had millions of dollars—with the gentrified ticket prices to this show, it would take that much at least—to buy up the Rodgers Theater and hand out tickets in my Harlem neighborhood (“Hey, neighbors! Did you know Hamilton lived right up the street? You can still visit his house. Also, this show is great!); “In the Heights” that Miranda has always called home; in Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy where Biggie grew up (well, what’s left of his neighborhood given the rampant gentrification of Brooklyn); in the Bronx where hip hop was born; throughout all the communities of color in this city that witnessed the actual events on which Hamilton is based. “Folks, come on in! Feel free to whoop and holler and dance! Make some noise! Enjoy! Relish in seeing folks who look like you on stage. Live the experience. See what it’s like to finally recognize yourself in the story of a Founding Father. Delight in this brilliant show. ‘History has its eye on you’…but maybe, just maybe, this can be a moment for you to enjoy outside the white gaze.”