A few musings on racial diversity in tech

dyed eggs

The lack of diversity in tech has been a persistent issue well before I began my career in journalism, but it seems discussion of the topic has lately reached a fever pitch. Right now, I’m doing some research on the rise of startup hubs and its impact on diversity in tech, so I was interested to read this post at the New Yorker about Silicon Valley’s “race problem.”

Among other things, the New Yorker article details how the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz has made several steps to heighten its sensitivity to the issue of diversity. Tristan Walker, the African-American founder of one company featured in the story, was previously an entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz. And the firm recently brought on Allison Munichiello, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Lean Startup Conference, as a partner focusing on “communities and diversity.” The firm’s efforts have already yielded some successes: it has invested in Walker’s consumer-goods company (aptly named Walker & Company), as well as a company called Proven, co-founded by a Chilean immigrant, which makes a mobile app for recruiting restaurant workers.

Despite those efforts, I was put off by a few details. First of all, I don’t think Tristan Walker is the most instructive example of Silicon Valley power brokers becoming aware of the opportunities in communities of color. Before being named entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, Walker was the director of business development at Foursquare, which though not based in Silicon Valley (but in New York, which is rivaling California’s tech prowess more and more) is still a marquee name in the land of tech startups. He already had ample access to the industry’s resources. But are investors willing to bet on talented entrepreneurs of color who aren’t yet on the inside track?

Secondly, I noticed in the article a persistent conflation of hip-hop culture and black identity. There were repeated references to rappers and hip-hop initiatives—hosting a talk with Steve Stoute, enlisting Nas as an investor in one of Andreessen Horowitz’s portfolio companies, visiting Henry Louis Gates at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive—as part of Ben Horowitz’s outreach to black communities. But hip-hop is not the sole driver of entrepreneurial ambition in black communities, and it’s misguided to use the former as a proxy for the latter. In fact, black entrepreneurialism predates hip-hop by many decades, if not centuries, as noted by the New Yorker’s reference to Madam C.J. Walker. Simply adjusting one’s “pattern matching” to account for a few people who look like Jay Z is an incomplete solution to diversity, at best. At worst, it may end up pigeonholing black entrepreneurs who identify more with other facets of black culture.

Curiously, the New Yorker article—as well as many of the discussions that I’ve seen, whether in magazine articles, on social media, or in conference panels—doesn’t address recruiting minority tech talent in an obvious place: historically black colleges and universities. There is much hand-waving about the need for Silicon Valley to expand its networks, but I see little evidence of outreach to the organizations that have historically aided networking among black professionals, including HBCUs, Greek organizations, and civic groups such as Jack and Jill and the Links. That omission squanders valuable opportunities to expose talented students and workers to entrepreneurial paths. One cultural factor that I believe even advocates for diversity in tech may overlook is that blacks (and Latinos) often face greater pressure to pursue “safe” careers in areas that have traditionally yielded success in their communities: medicine, law, dentistry.

I sincerely hope that Silicon Valley’s efforts toward greater racial diversity go beyond the surface. But it looks like investors may simply be relying on figureheads and stereotypical tropes rather than actually challenging their assumptions of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.

Update: Tristan Walker responded to this article via Twitter. Here’s what he had to say:

Indeed, organizations such as CODE2040, Black Girls Code, and Close the Divide Project are working to address the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Much of their work focuses on the “pipeline” problem—the low number of blacks and Latinos skilled in computer science—which is a separate, though equally important, issue from how minorities currently in the industry are regarded by potential investors and employers.

As Walker points out, Andreessen Horowitz is one of CODE2040’s partners. So I find it interesting that in an article about “addressing Silicon Valley’s race problem,” we hear a lot about Steve Stoute and Nas, but nothing of, say, recruiting students from HBCUs for internships. Most of the supposed efforts to address diversity that are mentioned in the New Yorker article are cosmetic solutions, at best. Perhaps the writer simply glossed over Andreessen Horowitz’s other work in this area; indeed, the venture firm’s sponsorship of events and programs to boost minority participation in tech is briefly noted in one sentence.

However, I’m not convinced that the New Yorker is solely to blame. As a business journalist, I know that companies and organizations—particularly well-financed and highly visible ones like Andreessen Horowitz—are quite deliberate in how they present themselves, and they will do everything they can to ensure that their press clippings align with their carefully scripted narratives. So I’m hard-pressed to believe that Ben Horowitz waxed at length about diversifying the pipeline of tech talent and scouting for potential investments in new areas, but somehow all of those comments were left out.

Moreover, even the outreach efforts described in the article are limited to his own network:

Horowitz told me that he recently started an African-American “network” at Andreessen Horowitz. (“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it out loud,” he said.) Made up of prominent black figures drawn largely from his own address book, the network includes everyone from hyper-connected C.E.O.s to rappers to entrepreneurs. [emphasis added]

Many aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to conquer Silicon Valley, especially those of color, face roadblocks because they lack the connections to gain entry into the networks investors like Horowitz operate in. Yet Horowitz’s solution is to rely upon those same closed networks to diversify his pool of potential investments. That limited approach is exactly what yields tokenism: finding a few brown faces to fit the bill without examining why so few people of color gain consideration in the first place.

If organizations such as CODE2040 are working to address systemic issues such as the lack of diversity in the talent pipeline, does it matter if firms such as Andreessen Horowitz take a cosmetic approach? I believe it does. It doesn’t take much funding to start an Internet company, but rapidly scaling such a company into the likes of a Google or Facebook requires significant capital. Those who are systematically overlooked by investors thereby face dampened prospects for their businesses’ growth. Even skilled technologists of color, whose numbers CODE2040 seeks to increase, aren’t immune to the effects of that bias.

Beyoncé’s contradictions as a feminist

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
Queen Bey. (Photo by Tony Duran/Parkwood Pictures Entertainment)

Why is Beyoncé so polarizing? This post over at Salon sums it up so well:

We don’t trust each other. But we need each other so much. That’s a scary place to be. And in comes Beyoncé, ripping off the band-aids to wounds that we have become conditioned to avoid rather than to confront and to heal. When she invites us to say FTW, “I woke up like this,” she invites black female vulnerability into the picture. It is an invitation to whip out our arms and legs and hearts, to flex, to stunt, to revel in our flawlessness. And to show our scars. It requires trust.

If you are an incessantly single professional black woman who is living out the realities of those statistics that are merely news fodder for everyone else, it is hard (if you’re straight and/or into masculine-identified folks) not to watch Beyoncé embracing her hubby around the neck on the video for “Drunk in Love,” without longing for that kind of touch in your own life. If you’re a 30-something feeling the pull of your biological clock, the video “Blue” featuring a laughing and ebullient Blue Ivy will make your ovaries scream. If you’re a dark-skinned black woman with a certain kind of fraught history with light-skinned black women, the video for “Pretty Hurts,” and the kind of empathy that it urges for light-skinned Beyoncé might just be rage-inducing. And if you are particularly sensitive to the ways that black women come for each other, then hearing Beyoncé instruct bitches to bow down, might just take you over the top.

Beyoncé means a lot to us. She triggers a lot for us: about desire and beauty and skin color politics and access and being chosen and being the cool kid. Because representations of black female subjectivity are so paltry in pop culture, the mainstream doesn’t know that we struggle with this kinda shit, too. Nerdy girls resent the popular pretty girls. We grow up to become feminists who are beautiful in our own right, to critique patriarchy and challenge desire. And we have a sort of smugness that says, the pretty girl who gets the guy can have all that, but she can’t be radical. That Beyoncé would even want to means she has stepped out of her lane, and lanes matter greatly.

How do we make space for black women’s awe and admiration and jealousy and desire and fear? How do we acknowledge that we have spent so much time debating whether she gets to be a feminist because the power to say who is in and who is out is in fact power? And in a world where it seems black women rarely can have it all, determining who gets to do and to have, matters.

I personally think Beyoncé is as valid a representation of (black) feminism as the fictional character Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal. They both embody feminism in complicated, sometimes contradictory ways–but, seriously, isn’t that true for anyone who purports to be a feminist?

As I said on Twitter, the issue is that there are so few non-stereotypical depictions of black women in popular culture that those who do break through those stereotypes, including Beyoncé, often bear much too heavy of a load.

Appropriation v. appreciation

Painting by artist Charlie Roberts
Gandolph, Charlie Roberts. (Photo via Saint Heron)

I just came across a cool post on hip-hop and the visual arts at Saint Heron. Really interesting stuff, but this quote from one of the interviewed artists, Charlie Roberts, is pretty off-putting:

I’m a White guy who loves rap and makes rap, so maybe I am a little too close to the question to answer it, but I have noticed that most of the handwringing in the press about these issues (i.e. Miley Cyrus) comes from the White media. It feels that hip hop and rap have opened up a lot in the Internet age, with regards to race, gender and sexual orientation.

Appropriation isn’t a matter of simply borrowing from another culture—it’s taking practices from another culture without showing respect. That lack of respect is especially evident when such appropriation is simply a vehicle to money and (greater) fame (e.g. Miley, since she’s already been used as an example).

Also, the issue here might not be that Roberts is white, but rather that he’s a rap artist. Rappers didn’t criticize Miley Cyrus, and haven’t criticized similar acts of appropriation, because they themselves often profit from gross stereotypes of black culture. Before they can speak out against this, they themselves have to look in the mirror.

Make no mistake, though: the issue of cultural appropriation isn’t an invention of the white media. Plenty of people of color are speaking out against it.

Redskins: a sorry tradition

Washington Redskins flag

The New York Times‘ William Rhoden recently wrote a column condemning Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for refusing to rename his team.

A new model for civil rights: Obama at Morehouse

The crowd at Morehouse College's commencement.

On Sunday, President Obama addressed the graduating Class of 2013 at Morehouse College, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate. (You can find a transcript and video of his speech here and here, respectively.) His speech, while seemingly well-received by his audience at Morehouse, has drawn criticism from several commentators, including Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, whose work I greatly respect. He and others argue that Obama’s Morehouse speech reflects a tendency of his to scold black audiences on personal responsibility while failing to address flawed policies that harm black communities. I’d like to submit a rebuttal to their claims.

It’s true that in many of his addresses to black audiences, President Obama discusses the importance of personal responsibility. I have no problem with this: there’s much value in getting “real talk” from someone who has shared experiences (e.g. having to overcome personal adversity and discrimination). This is why Obama’s address to Chicago in the wake of Hadiya Pendleton’s murder is different from his address to Newtown after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: inner-city Chicago, like inner-city black America at large, deals with drugs, gangs, and gun violence on a regular basis; suburban Newtown does not. But I also believe that “real talk” must be balanced with a recognition of the institutional obstacles black Americans in particular still face. Focusing solely one or the other, as many left-wing and right-wing activists often do, generally ends up in empty rhetoric.

That said, every speech must be tailored to its particular audience. For a college commencement ceremony, an occasion marking the beginning of one’s independent journey into the world, I think an emphasis on what one can do personally to be successful is quite fitting. And in the context of black communities, where personal shortcomings are often magnified by structural adversity, it is especially appropriate. Furthermore, Morehouse prides itself on the archetype of the “Morehouse Man,” someone who is both a pillar of his individual community and black society at large. And, as Obama noted, industriousness is a core value of the Morehouse Man:

I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”

In fact, one thing I liked about President Obama’s speech was it that reflected upon black America’s history of resilience and achievement by citing examples specific to Morehouse, both past and present. This is, in my opinion, what saved it from becoming yet another stern lecture wrapped up in a black history lesson. (In contrast, the First Lady’s commencement speech at Bowie State University was much less successful.)

Yet Obama is full aware that how today’s graduates participate in their communities in order to carry out the Morehouse tradition will—and must—look different than the efforts of previous generations. Increasingly, civil rights initiatives require both intra- and inter-community efforts.

This notion, incidentally, is also what informs President Obama’s own policy initiatives. Some of his critics from within black communities—among the most prominent being Cornel West and Tavis Smiley—have derided this approach. They have argued that programs such as the Affordable Care and Jobs acts aren’t enough to address the dearth of employment that specifically plague black Americans. But in his Morehouse address, Obama lays out a two-pronged strategy for contemporary activism. I cite the following passages in particular:

So, yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or if you can also find some time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need black businesses out there. But ask yourselves what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent just on making money—rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.

Some of you may be headed to medical school to become doctors. But make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too. For generations, certain groups in this country—especially African Americans—have been desperate in need of access to quality, affordable health care. And as a society, we’re finally beginning to change that.


And finally, as you do these things, do them not just for yourself, but don’t even do them just for the African American community. I want you to set your sights higher. At the turn of the last century, W.E.B. Du Bois spoke about the “talented tenth”—a class of highly educated, socially conscious leaders in the black community. But it’s not just the African American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you.

At the government level, President Obama aims to shape and execute policy that realizes fully fleshed civil rights—not just theoretical rights but tangible access to the resources that all productive citizens need—for Americans of all races. But at the grassroots level, he implores the Morehouse graduates, and by extension, black America at large, to bolster those efforts by becoming role models not only for their own communities but for the nation. By serving their neighbors through their specific callings, he suggests, they can change and inspire America as a whole.

In other words, President Obama is calling for a new, radically inclusive approach to activism. Previous civil rights movements have been self-contained: while often inspired by and patterned after those of other groups, they served the interests of one specific community. But Obama is challenging today’s young adults to finally realize a society in which successful figures of color are considered exemplars for America as a whole, not just for people of color in America—and, ultimately, a society in which “civil rights” is immediately understood to be rights for all. In the wake of challenges to affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act, that’s an important message.

Art and engineering: they’re closer than you might think

The Dream Series. (Courtesy Designs By Dash)

In judging people’s talents, we often make a rigid distinction between the “right-brained” (the creatives) and the “left-brained” (the geeks). But those labels are artificial, and nowadays, those boundaries are as blurred as ever.
Durell Coleman hopes his new company, Designs by Dash, can thrive in the margin between art and tech. So far, he’s off to a promising start. Coleman has raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter for his company’s first product, the Dream Series: a set of laser-engraved wall maps, inspired by his travel to Nicaragua as a mechanical engineering student at Stanford.

Coleman says the reign of smartly designed tech, first championed by Apple but now evident in products from Google Glass to the Pebble smart watch, prompted him to start his company. “There’s been a shift from engineering to art,” he explains. “There’s a lot more thinking about how to make things more aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly. Designs by Dash is the reverse: taking art and moving to incorporate more engineering into it.”

With the Dream Series, Coleman sets out to merge art and technology through the manufacturing process. He first draws the landmasses for each map in Adobe Illustrator and uses a CNC laser to carve those shapes into acrylic glass. But the final production of each map is done by hand. Coleman arranges the individual cutouts onto backlit panels of acrylic glass to produce pieces that are at once industrially designed and manually assembled.

Coleman has a master’s degree in industrial design, but he wasn’t originally drawn to art. Through his first company, Project Spark, he sought to develop affordable power generators for the developing world, and he was accepted into StartX, Stanford’s business accelerator. But the renewable energy market proved tenuous, and Coleman put Project Spark on hiatus. In the meantime, he pondered the question of producing affordable yet functional and beautiful products. What if he approached the problem from the opposite end of the spectrum: producing inspirational art with a functional purpose?

The concept of engineering-inspired art isn’t new. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí have used common products to explore the connections between industrialism and art. That theme continues to resonate in the art world today. One recent reminder of this is Carl Swanson’s profile of Jeff Koons in New York magazine. Swanson describes how Koons’ works are meticulously manufactured, so as to bear virtually no traces of the human hand.

Few items, however, are designed at the outset to serve as functional art, though they may acquire that label retroactively. The company closest to achieving the union of art and engineering may be Apple. (The iPod, after all, found its way into MoMA.) But there’s a big difference between elegantly designed products and items made chiefly for aesthetic appeal. In the tech world, function still takes priority over form.

With Designs by Dash, Coleman seeks to break that hierarchy. By doing so, he believes, he will be better equipped to design products that elegantly serve real-world needs. “The laser maps,” he says, “are just the first step in the process.”

Update: Durell Coleman’s company is now known as DC Design.

Thoughts on the #PyCon debacle

The crowd at PyCon 2013
The crowd at PyCon 2013. (Photo by Ed Schipul)

So yesterday, I caught wind of all the uproar regarding Adria Richards at PyCon. (Recap here.) There have been several low points regarding women in tech and minorities in tech, at which I have shaken my head and sighed, but for some reason, this incident has particularly troubled me.

At first, I agreed wholeheartedly with this cogent take by Amanda Blum, in which she argues that the whole sequence of events is a total loss not only for the participants but also the tech community as a whole. But then I read these rebuttals, which made me rethink my position.

I believe that I, personally, would have sought to address the jokes directly with the men first. But then, I don’t work in the tech industry (although I do talk to a fair number of people who do, by nature of my job). I’m not exposed to the particular set of microaggressions—seemingly minor slants that over time compound themselves into a giant wound—that Richards, apparently, has been subjected to. I can, however, relate to the dilemma of how to respond when certain microaggressions simply become too much—and the inevitable backlash that comes from those who proclaim that you’re simply turning a mountain into a molehill.

Toward the end of my junior year at Yale, our campus tabloid (yes, we had such a thing) published an article entitled “Me Love You Long Time,” which supposedly sought to explore—and lampoon—how women of Asian descent are fetishized. But all it did was reinforce stereotypes of Asian women as sexually submissive (“they’re easy”), and it even included a crass reference to Hurricane Katrina as its kicker. I’ll never forget that line: “Asian girls are like New Orleans levees: they only stay tight for so long.”

The article, rightly, outraged a significant group of students. Especially problematic was that it was published and distributed on the same week that high schoolers who had been admitted to Yale were visiting campus. The article had also come on the heels of others, albeit in different publications, that reinforced stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans. (For instance, one newspaper comic expressed incredulousness that an Asian-American student would run for student council—don’t they spend all their time in the library, it asked.) So in response, Yale’s Asian-American Student Association (AASA) organized a protest, in which students would wear black clothing and gags and be silent for the day, even in class. Some participants, like me, chose to participate in class discussions but wore black in solidarity.

The day of the protest, the university also held a forum for students and faculty to address the article and the reactions it had garnered. And what comments did we hear? That we needed to lighten up—it was only a joke. That the truly bad thing was the pushback the members of the tabloid’s staff had gotten—not the ugly stereotypes their story had reinforced or the impact that might have on women of Asian descent on campus. But of course, all these are par for the course when pointing out incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. What really stuck with me happened months later. That summer, I went to London as part of a university-sponsored internship program. I stayed in a flat with three roommates. One day, three of us were having a conversation, and the AASA protest came up (I don’t remember how). One of my roommates said something to the effect of, “What they did should be reserved for actual political protest.” In other words, the response was too extreme.

I remember countering that we were in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: no one paid attention when people had written letters to the editor in response to past articles that reinforced stereotypes. (I remember it even being suggested that the tabloid in question had a history of publicly mocking criticism from others, so a simple letter might even backfire.) It was only when we went nuclear—for lack of a better term—that the issue came to the forefront in a serious manner.

So I sympathize with Adria Richards on the call she made. I may have made a different one, but that in no way excuses the subsequent retaliation she has faced.

That said, the question remains: why am I so worked up over this particular situation? Maybe it’s because as a black woman, I have a keen understanding of how intersectionality (in this case, race and gender) can play out in instances such as this. But I think it’s mainly because as a business reporter, I play some role in exalting companies and individuals that too often uphold the culture that produces sexist and racist debacles such as this. It makes me uneasy.

Last words: some insightful (and less rambling) posts on the situation:

Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost

“Let me get this out of the way. I don’t like Adria Richards.”

A Few More Thoughts on Adria Richards

Rachel Sklar: The Firing Of Adria Richards Looks Like Kneejerk Appeasement To The Troll Armies

Apparently We’re Not Ready to Be Adults About Anything

How Adria Richards Spoke For Me

Thinking About Adria Richards and Other Black Women In STEM Fields

A Woman Walks Into A Tech Conference

Why Asking What Adria Richards Could Have Done Differently Is The Wrong Question

Some Of Us Are Brave, Honest, & Transparent: The Adria Richards Edition

On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

Sexism in tech is like an onion–it has many layers and makes people cry

Terrifying, Escalating Sexism

On PyCon

In Defense of Adria Richards and Call-Out Culture

Adria Richards and Donglegate – Right or Wrong?

Because black women’s hair can never just be

Women with natural hairstyles, enjoying each other's company.

So I just finished reading this post about black hair and the Olympics at Racialicious, via the blog’s Tumblr. I was going to leave a comment, but it turned into a mini-essay, so I’m posting it here. Let me just say from the beginning: I have little patience for people’s prescriptive notions of how black folks should present themselves, even when they’re well-intended, as in the post at Racialicious. Contrary to popular belief, not every black woman has a neurosis about hair, but sometimes I feel we like to project that onto black women by default.

Before I launch into my essay, let me excerpt a relevant portion of the Racialicious essay:

Beyond my skepticism about the practicality of a skull saddled with multiple packages of Indian Remy in elite competition (and a testament to our excellence is that we still slay), I am concerned about the witness it offers of our esteem, the invidiousness of European beauty standards, and the message our adaptations to them send young black girls interested in sport. I am saddened that so many of us equate looking our best with extension-assisted styles. Must we weave, wig, braid in extensions before we hit the pitch, track, mat, slough? I don’t buy that the ubiquity of yaki is about convenience. Show me the receipts. Only thing that accounts for our epidemic edge-sacrifice is history. We been making our way up the rough side of the mountain since the Middle Passage. Let’s have an honest conversation about what we do not because the world is watching but because we are, would-be Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryces and Sanya Richards Rosses. I’m not proposing a ban on sew-ins but having a conversation about our wholescale investment in them even in the most illogical of circumstances.

Certainly, I understand these concerns: “the witness it offers of our esteem, the invidiousness of European beauty standards, and the message our adaptations to them send young black girls interested in sport.” However, at the end of the day, I think elite athletes are going to, and should, wear their hair however it feels most comfortable to them. Appeasing image-conscious black folks should be the furthest thing from their mind when they’re on the track, the field, or the court.

To dive in a little deeper: I think we, as black folks, should stop expecting public figures to craft their physical image to uphold our standards of black pride. Ultimately, while this piece has a much nobler purpose than the (very few) petty comments on Gabby Douglas’s hair, it’s just another variety of the same syndrome. Vanity is a complex thing. There are all sorts of reasons why someone might favor wearing a weave, and it can’t all be boiled down to “She thinks white is right.” There’s an ugly history behind many of the hairstyles black women favor, but there’s also a tradition of creativity, community, and industriousness, which are on full display in barbershops, salons, and hair shows. It’s not fair to throw out the latter to emphasize the former. Using someone’s hairstyle as a proxy for their level of racial self-esteem is simply wrongheaded. Though the author is not doing that explicitly, she is doing so implicitly: why else would you fear that Sanya Richards-Ross is sending black girls a bad message, except for the assumption that Richards-Ross wears a weave because she hates her natural hair?

I think that we should, by all means, challenge Eurocentric standards of beauty and question our own motivations behind our beauty regimens. But there’s a difference between questioning those motivations and assuming what other people’s motivations are. When you posit that weaves or otherwise “unnatural” (whatever your definition of that may be) hairstyles inherently send would-be athletes a bad message, then you’re only further politicizing what should be an arbitrary style choice. Isn’t it ironic that that’s the exact same thing that so many black women with natural hairstyles decry?

Who are you calling a “mammy”?

Black domestic worker cleaning a fireplace

I was hesitant to comment upon The Help, which received a fresh wave of criticism leading up to the Oscars. But then yet another post on the film, authored by Kimberly Foster of For Harriet, happened to appear in my Tumblr dashboard:

Last year, Davis’ lauded work in the film adaptation of The Help propelled her back into the spotlight. The magnificence of her portrayal of Aibileen is unquestionable though the film itself has been poked, prodded, and picked apart particularly by concerned black audiences and academics.

Pushback against the film forced Viola to take the defense.  In an interview, she told Tavis Smiley all the way off saying his disdain for the film was a mindset that’s “killing the black artist.” Davis was nothing if not beautifully eloquent in her assertion that “the black artist cannot live in a revisionist place.” You couldn’t help but nod along as this brilliant Black woman argued her case.

Davis, of course, fails to take into account that Aibileen occupies the most loathsome of revisionist locales. Historians have noted that the tale of Minnie and Aibleen are not even close to accurate depictions of life in the Jim Crow south.

The most intelligent criticism of the film is based not on the fact that the women play maids but that they play mammies. Maids, you see, are real women whose stories deserve to be told with dignity and without shame. Mammies are fictive martyrs whose love for their white employers eclipses the economic and often sexual exploitation domestic workers endure(d). The Black women of The Help are the latter.

I only went to see The Help after my mother (whose mother–my grandmother–once worked as a maid in the Jim Crow South) urged me to go see it. Having seen the film, I have to disagree with the assertion that the characters of Aibileen and Minny are “mammies,” rather than maids. First of all, the very premise of the film refutes that notion: if mammies, as the Association of Black Women Historians defines them, are so contented and loyal to whites, why on earth would this film’s so-called mammies co-author a book that defames their employers, even anonymously? Personally, I found the characters to be refreshingly three-dimensional and un-stereotypical. And contrary to Foster’s argument, the film did address economic exploitation: one of the subplots involves a maid striving to earn enough money to send her son to college–and the unjust consequences of that effort.

In her post, Foster mentions Tulane professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, who has been one of The Help’s most vocal critics. Though I am generally a fan of Harris-Perry, I think her criticisms of the film miss the mark. One of her grievances, for instance, was that Skeeter’s date got as much screen time as Medgar Evers’ assassination. Well, Medger Evers is not the focus of this film; there has already been a film devoted to his assassination and his widow Myrlie Evers-Williams’ subsequent pursuit of justice. But the film is devoted to the economic and racially exploitative dynamic between black and white women in the South, so of course Skeeter gets more screen time. And Skeeter’s date has significance, in that her suitor embodies the ultimately harmful ambivalence of many Southern whites during that period: he doesn’t have anything against black folks, but to him, any acknowledgment of his peers’ exploitation and maltreatment of their domestic workers is simply causing trouble.

That’s just one point, but I think it’s emblematic of much of the criticism of The Help. Here’s Foster, again, distinguishing “maids” from “mammies”:

Mammies are fictive martyrs whose love for their white employers eclipses the economic and often sexual exploitation domestic workers endure(d).

I’ve already pointed out how the film addresses economic exploitation. But this excerpt illuminates the unfair burden I feel is often placed upon films that address some aspect of black history: they’re expected to be an all-comprehensive guide to that period. No, The Help doesn’t touch upon sexual exploitation of domestic workers. But should it have attempted to catalog every bad thing that happened to black maids in the Jim Crow South? That would have made for a very convoluted film. The Help is ostensibly about relations between black women and white women in the South, and I think it did well in addressing that scope.

It also strikes me that few, if any, of the high-profile critics of The Help actually lived through Jim Crow. I didn’t, either, which is why I was open to reactions from people I knew who did live through that era. The general consensus I’ve gotten from them is that it rang true. I also must note that Myrlie Evers-Williams wrote in support of the film. I think many black filmgoers have become so accustomed (justifiably) to negative, stereotypical portrayals that often we immediately look for flaws and fail to appreciate nuance.

All that said, I am glad that Foster’s criticism is directed toward the film itself. I’ve seen a lot of vitriol and schadenfreude directed toward Viola Davis, including in one of the comments on her post at For Harriet. But in the end, I must push back against the notion that a black actress is required to represent black women in some prescribed way, based on a few people’s notions of history and stereotypes.

It’s hard out here for an aspiring magazine staffer

A writer's office.

So a former intern at Harper’s Bazaar is suing Hearst for not paying her. It’s unclear from the reports whether she accepted the internship knowing she wouldn’t be compensated; I would expect so, since unpaid internships are pretty common in magazine publishing.