What you see is not always what you get. This is news to no one, so why is still such a problem?
The past few days I’ve been watching my sister’s show The Grapevine. It’s a one-of-a-kind program, offering a round-table discussion by Black millennials on popular issues in our society today. The topics vary from episode, and the panelists are as varied in their opinions as you can get. I do recommend that people watch the show, not only as a shameless plug for my sister and her production team, but also because shows like this, produced by and directed by Black people – especially Black women (!) – are important for future generations to see. Shows like this demonstrate that Black people are capable and quite willing to comment on popular culture, that it is okay to harbor opinions on the world around you, even if these opinions are unpopular, so long as you are willing to engage in a dialogue. There is only good which can come from unlike-minded people meeting together to discuss issues, coming to the table, hopefully, with the understanding that no opinion is completely right or completely wrong.
What I am going to talk about today will likely be the first of a long string of threads, spread out over time as I get my thoughts together on the messy topic of gender expression in general and masculinity / masculine culture in particular. This thread has as its impetus an episode of the Grapevine on Caitlin Jenner and the issue of transgender dating. The cast was somewhat split on the issue of when a transwoman should “reveal” their transness. One of the cast members – a cisgender man – found the idea of someone “masquerading” as someone else to be inherently offensive, especially someone whom the man found initially attractive.
normcore [n/adj] – a unisex clothing trend and cultural aesthetic which encourages plain, unremarkable dress and thoroughly rejects the commercial preoccupations of modern contemporary fashion.
I began the process of changing my aesthetic about two years ago, after I remarkably and rather frightening lost thirty-five pounds my first year in college. Prior to that seminal, life-changing moment, I had paid very little attention to what I wore, mostly because I saw clothes as a way of hiding my body instead of embracing it. I haunted my high school in baggy college sweatshirts or loose button-downs in order to keep eyes away from the folds which jiggled and shook as I walked. When I got to Swarthmore, my aesthetic mostly remained the same until it became necessary for me to buy new clothes, thanks to my shrinking waistline. Women began to remark that I actually looked good in jeans, which prompted me to buy several pairs immediately thereafter. I grew tired of the hoodies which I had worn in high school and began to wear sweaters which accentuated my newfound figure a bit more as I slowly got comfortable in this new skin of mine.
The summer after freshman year, I made the largest amount of money my young mind had ever experienced, and I of course went mad buying things that I did not need in the process of reinventing myself. Every few years or so I would have this urge to make myself anew, to completely reconstruct my identity, my aesthetic, to match my changing mind and mentalities. So I bought a shit ton of clothes which I do not wear now, all in the process of trying to make myself into someone whose reflection I could actually stand to see.
On the rise of white supremacy and white activism on college campuses, and the great social unrest which is brewing between the White race and everyone else.
For the past few months, I’ve been keeping tabs on a subreddit called /r/WhiteRights. It’s fascinating stuff, and I do recommend that you check it out. The forum is a space for white conservatives and not-so-closeted racists to discuss their feelings of isolation and frustration within contemporary, liberalized American society. They often post links to articles written by questionable news sources, highlighting the negative aspects of African-American, Latino and Asian life in a way which seeks to uphold their own views of America’s failing social structure. The subreddit is growing quickly, although I suspect that many of the subscribers – or, if you’re like me, lurkers – are simply there to see how backwards these people are. Arguments about White Genocide and calls-to-arms to vote for Donald Trump all have their own space and time in this bizarre yet not clandestine corner of the Internet.
We are now at the dawn of a new racial conflict in the United States, a struggle which will extend to all aspects of our ordinary life. It will be prevalent in our political system, in our economic dealings with foreign nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in our social self-cognition of ourselves as a mixed and homogenized people.
A thread was posted in the WhiteRights subreddit a couple of years ago asking why such a subreddit exists. One eloquent redditor responded via a quote from a presidential address given by Bill Clinton on the increased number of immigrants in the United States, echoing, fearfully, that the loss of the majority race in America’s urban sectors meant the loss of white social dominance. This is the central point I will seek to discuss here, to the best of my ability – the fear of White Americans at becoming other.
I joined an online gaming community on New Year’s Eve, 2007. I had wanted to be a part of a community after having a hard time transitioning to life in middle school. I was twelve years old, obese and very much alone. All of my friends had gone on to a different school in Maplewood, leaving me and a few of the stragglers who lived in the other town to go to South Orange Middle School. I remember one day the gym teacher saying that the school was once called the Pink Palace because of its state-of-the-art design and interior courtyard, but years of disrepair had transformed its coral-colored masonry into a Pink Prison. That description perhaps encapsulates my experiences there during sixth grade, that awkward threshold time between childhood and adolescence which one expects to last a year or two, but actually persists until you one day have the clarity to realize that growing up never ends, is a slow process, is everlasting.
I wanted to find friends who liked the same things that I did, which happened to be Pokémon, of all things. I don’t even remember liking Pokémon that much before joining the forum, but after spending years in that community, I learned just about everything there was to know about the rather expansive video game franchise. Yet, I was attracted to the friends I had made through our mutual interest in Pokémon the most. They were perhaps the closest people I had in middle school, and I told them everything, despite never having met them, despite knowing that they too left behind their computers to join their real-life friends every once in a while. I would find myself yearning to contact them, counting the minutes and the laps at football practice before I could come home and sit down at my computer and talk to them on AIM for hours on end about all sorts of things, telling them secrets which I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others in person, in the real world, with whom I had relationships which were more tangible and more fleeting than with these well-known strangers, people with whom I could have a casual encounter at a shopping mall and never realize that they carry with them the most intimate fact of my private life.
This was my introduction to the internet world, a sense of community between like-minded people looking for friendship and comradery. I can remember my mother’s concern at my frequent usage of the computer, at my laughs directed towards or in response to no one in the room. “Who are you talking to?” she’d ask, and I’d say my friends, only for the confusion on her face to persist, if not thicken into a scowl. I used the internet to find people who were like me, or at least, felt like me, and this was before I was aware of the social media landscapes which now dominate every facet of life. These forums, oekakis and websites served as the foundations for my understanding of how communities function, or are supposed to function. They existed within their own separate realm, were governed by their own separate laws of reality, but still cultivated part of my young developing character and persist as archives of my presence on the internet to this day.
Language is ubiquitous. It is the metaphorical glue which bonds us to one another, the ability to send thoughts and ideas across spaces. Through language we are able to have civilization, for it is through the production, proliferation and interpretation of information that we are able to learn from one another.
When I was younger, I used to wish I could speak a different language. For years I tried to teach myself various tongues, all of which were chosen relatively arbitrarily, without realizing that I existed within a language reality that I was trained to never acknowledge.
A year ago I was fortunate enough to take a class called “Language and Identity in the African Diaspora.” The class was the first linguistics class that I’ve taken at Swarthmore. The course discussed the ways that language acquisition and socialization affect the performance and interpretation of the Black identity in Africa and the Americas. Interestingly enough, as I was taking “Language and Identity,” I was also taking a History class on the Gullah/Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. I did not expect the two courses to overlap when I originally picked them the semester before, and over the winter break I mostly forgot about the classes entirely. At the time, I was about to start my second semester of French, as well.
alterity [n.] the state of being “other” within a collective imagination.
I didn’t realize I was other until I got to high school, and even then, the otherness I experienced was somewhat unorthodox. Blackness, as it is often constructed within the homogenizing gaze of whiteness, is synonymous with poverty. The black experience, as we see it on television, is the experience of rags-to-riches drug dealers, elite athletes from Compton and exceptional intellectuals cradled by violence. These are not fallacies – these are archetypes which exist, which are real and hold legitimacy, but they are also the authentic images. These are the images which are believed to be the truth of Blackness – Blackness as poverty, Blackness as economic dilapidation. Authenticity is a strange phenomenon, for no one really gets to say what is and is not authentic. Yet still, there seems to be this notion that one image – that of the Wire, for example – is real, while other images – those of the Cosby Show or Blackish – are not. Within this framework, I became aware of the fact that I was not as I appeared. I was exceptional because I hailed from a two-parent household in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. I carried with me throughout high school a bitterness which I could not describe or understand, for in that bitterness was a constant sense of conflict whose roots lie in my own ambivalence, in my own irreconcilability.
It wasn’t until I got to college when I realized that the metrics used to determine what Blackness is and should be are entirely hegemonic, entirely constructed and entirely dangerous. It was also in college – perhaps the furthest away I was from everyday contact with working-class Blacks, to be quite honest – that I realized that the perception of the Black experience was not a racist presumption with stereotypes, although the American imagination is often riddled with false and base interpretations of the realities of the subaltern. Millions of Black people lived in poverty, a reality I did not experience until I got to college, a reality I did not have to experience because it was so removed. But I have talked about this already, and talking about it more is only stroking a patchy beard.
The source of otherness comes from an established understanding of normality in the public imagination. The phrase “imagination” is important here, for we are all part of a collective imagination through which ideas and images are constructed, encoded, decoded and deconstructed as a community effort. This effort transcends race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We all play our part in the collective imagination of the United States, whether we consider ourselves Americans or not.
I enjoy watching documentaries because it offers all the information of a book without the labor of reading. Of course, reader, you may be saying “reading is not laborious” but for some people, like me when I was younger, reading was a source of stress. I struggled to read at the paces of my peers, which deterred me from reading altogether. Yet, I was inquisitive and sought to find information through other media, including documentaries. Considering my somewhat heavy course load at Swarthmore, I’ve been watching documentaries in order to augment my readings. In my spare time, instead of watching a tv show on Netflix — which I also do — I’ll put on a documentary which is relevant to my coursework and continue the learning process without straining myself by reading.
Below are five documentaries for students of Africana studies that I’ve watched through online platforms like California Newsreel, a site for which most colleges and universities hold a subscription.
1. Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (1994)
Director: Anne-Laure Folly
Femmes Aux Yeux Ouverts (Women with Open Eyes) is a Togolese documentary which discusses contemporary issues facing West African women. Topics include the traditional roles of African women and the construction of the masculine and feminine identities within Senegalese, Beninese, Burkinabé and Malian contexts. The film discusses, above all else, the issue of excision or female circumcision, the process of removing the “unpure” clitoris from young women, and its ramifications on the psychological development of West African women. The film is a must-watch for people interested in gender & sexuality in West Africa as well anyone seeking to study African society and culture.
The film can be watched through Films on Demand, a video streaming service which offers subscriptions to hundreds of colleges and universities.
2. Color Adjustment (1992)
Director: Marlon Riggs
Marlon Riggs is a titan African-American documentarist whose works cover an array of topics, from sexuality to Blacks in media. Color Adjustment highlights the presence of Black actors in television, progressing from the early representations of Black people by whites in radio and film and the consequent addition of Black actors for television adaptations, such as in Amos and Andy. It then progresses through shifting audiences and representations as television progressed into the 1960s, 70s and 80s, stopping at the Cosby Show, a show which sought, among many things, to dramatically address the representation of African-Americans in television. Color Adjustment is a must-watch for anyone studying the presence and representation of African-Americans in media, as well as the construction of racial identities.
Color Adjustment is also available through Films on Demand.
3. God Loves Uganda (2013)
Director: Roger Ross Williams
A more recent documentary, God Loves Uganda discusses the role that Christian evangelism has played in the cultural, legal and social development of Uganda. The relationship between (North) American evangelism and Uganda’s anti-homophobia laws is explored, along with the pervasive strain of Islamophobia at the heart of many Christian missionary agendas in Africa. Definitely a fascinating watch for anyone interested in gender, sexuality & legality in Africa, religion & African society and the role of Christian mission in African history.
The documentary is available on Netflix.
4. 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets (2015)
Director: Marc Silver
Covering the story of the murder of Jordan Davis, a seventeen year-old African-American high school student by Michael Dunn, a white man, 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a harrowing documentary which combines excellent storytelling with the misery of an ongoing, unresolved and nearby issue of violence against the Black body. The documentary was the impetus for two pieces on this blog, titled Armed & Dangerous, and opened by eyes to the ambiguities of stand-your-ground laws and the pervasive notion of Black criminality within the American conscience. I definitely recommend this film for anyone interested in African-Americans in the American justice system, racial violence, and cultural imaginations.
The documentary is available on HBO Go.
5. The Language You Cry In (1998)
Directors: Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serano
The Gullah are a unique group of African-Americans living on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Renowned for their sweetgrass basket-weaving and tradition of storytelling, the Gullah also are distinguished by their unique creole language. The presence of African retentions in the Gullah tradition were essential towards rewriting the popular narratives of “the Negro past” or the lack thereof. The Language You Cry In tells the story of a funeral dirge retained by Gullahs that was traced back to a tribe in Sierra Leone, effectively drawing a tangible connection between contemporary African-Americans and the African continent from which they hailed. The documentary is touching in its desire to undo accepted ideas of African-American culture as “ahistorical” and is imperative for students interested in studying African-American or Gullah history, African cultural retention and music & culture.
The documentary is available on Films on Demand.
I plan on watching more documentaries during my winter break, so I’ll probably add a follow-up to this post. Stay tuned!
tw: racial violence; On the necessary use of violence in regard to one’s self-defense and the inherent social issues which comes with the perception of danger and the Black male.
At night at Swarthmore, where the campus is relatively poorly lit, it’s rare for people to say hello to me. As we are approaching one another, my face shrouded by a hoodie or hidden in the darkness, students look at me, squinting their eyes in order to attempt to identify me, but in finding that it is too dark – and that I am too dark to be seen – they look away. There is a certain terror I see in their expressions, for they cannot recognize me as Xavier, as fellow student. They see in me a black male figure, and all the roles similar figures play in the American imagination.
Black men have become symbols of violence in our culture. We are seen as dangerous in our very existence, and must bear the weight of the burden of the epidermalization of contempt which is the immediate response of those whose paths we cross. This fact incensed me to no end during my first year at Swarthmore, having never experienced this form of fear before. I did not see myself as scary because I knew that I was a good one. The clothes I wore, the way I walked and the words I used revealed immediately that I posed no threat, although the assumptions that someone’s hostility can be boiled down to outward appearances is obviously dubious. Yet still, it continues to be a menace to the lives of several million, for it is has been the justification for countless murders, all in the name of self-defense.
token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.
I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.
A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.
“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”
down – (adj.) not identifying directly with a particular struggle because of a perceived difference in identity yet still possessing an interest in a community or in the issues which this community must address.
What does it mean to be down? Downness can be understood as a rendition on allyship, although I don’t really think allyship is a very helpful term, considering that everyone has an opinion of what an ally should and should not do. For one, there is a pervasive notion that allies should not speak unless spoken to, which is inherently false, for many of the people who have been the strongest advocates for the liberation of other peoples had to speak up, for the people who required emancipation either were too marginalized to do it themselves or too fooled by the hegemonic structures that be to care. Downness is a consciousness of one’s own space and the space which is afforded to and denied to others. Let’s use an example: a Korean-American teacher who chooses to instruct a unit on Black History in her predominately black, working-class ninth-grade American history class is potentially helping a group of students better understand their historical relationship to their community and to their country. Her allyship appears in the form of her willingness to educate her students on materials which are relevant to their own understanding of themselves.
This teacher is down in this example, for the teacher has not become lost to the effects of cultural blindness. She operates with the understanding that although her subject matter is at a distance from her – although that distance, ultimately, is up for further discussion – the material is still relevant to the way that a group of people of a different identity perceive their reality, and consequentially, how she perceives her own. She is in no way obligated to teach this information, but her choice to do so, understanding the importance and implications of her decisions, ultimately signals her devotion to the cause, existence and progress of her students.
It seems to be easier for persons of color to be down with other struggles. In the United States, the Black freedom struggle seems to be emblematic for the masses of colored people who similarly seek their liberation from the clutches of white racism. The integration of Black studies curricula into the academy at the end of the 1960s saw the birth of Latino/Chicano studies, Native American studies, Middle Eastern/Arab studies and Asian studies programs, and eventually, Queer/Sexuality studies programs. So often in the creation of POC coalitions, at least at Swarthmore, students of color turn to Black students, who supposedly have a history of organization, of community, of shared and open struggle.