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.

If I were a clueless blogger

Latino teenagers in Lynch Park, Brooklyn, in the 1970s. contributor Gene Marks wrote a silly post yesterday entitled “If I Was Were a Poor Black Kid.” (The original, incorrect grammar in the headline has since been corrected.) The basic premise of the post is that the solution to colored folks’ problems is for their progeny to do really, really well in school with the help of newfangled tools like Evernote and Khan Academy. (Oh, and Spark Notes. I’m sure English teachers did a collective facepalm reading that bit.) There are obvious issues with this simplistic take, but rather than waste my time outlining them all, I’ve highlighted a few responses.

The problem is that Marks seems to think it’s okay to require black kids to be “special” to “succeed.”

Kelly Virella, “If I Were the Middle Class White Guy Gene Marks”

If I was a rich white dude* I would first and most importantly work to make sure I actually saw what it’s like to live as a poor black kid myself before I wrote a condescending column about how we should solve “our” problems.

Jeff Yang, “Opinion: If I Were a Rich White Dude”

*Note: Yes, the grammar here is also wrong.

Update: I’ve come across even more great posts, below:

How in the world can this man create this checklist of things and not realize that he’s requesting that kids do something extraordinary simply to not continue to be in poverty: forget their surroundings.

Elon James White, “Why Forbes’ Column Crossed the Line”

It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings–to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Muscular Empathy”

If I were a rich white motivational speaker, I would first and most importantly make sure that I ignored all historical and social facts about the group of people I was addressing.

Jesse Taylor, “If I Were a Rich White Motivational Speaker”

Brown vs. Board of Education is the most misunderstood Civil Rights case of them all. This was NOT about integration, not about the chance to hold hands with white kids on the playground and attend the same classes. It was about black schools, black businesses and black neighborhoods given the EXACT SAME RESOURCES as their white counterparts, but that somehow got lost in the movement.

Chris Stevens, “Forbes article proudly parrots bootstrap mentality”

There’s also a great round-up of responses at Racialicious. Update: And another one from a Forbes staff writer, who correctly concludes that Marks is trolling.

And from Twitter:

Black in America, Silicon Valley edition: thoughts

Black women in tech gather for discussion

Last night, the much-ballyhooed Black in America 4, which followed the participants of the NewME Accelerator, finally aired. (I caught the 11 pm re-airing after catching up on violin practice and refusing to watch the NY Jets get blown out in the second half of Sunday Night Football.) It generated some advance controversy, courtesy of Michael Arrington (more on that here), but in the end, I thought it was a solid take on the challenges for black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Some random thoughts:

  • I would have liked to learn more about how the accelerator was put together, especially given the pretext that blacks lack influence and stature in Silicon Valley. Despite that, NewME seemed to have a solid set of advisors.
  • That said, what was the real point of Vivek Wadhwa’s talk? All I got from the documentary was “black entrepreneurs should get white frontmen for their companies” and “black folks don’t support each other.” The second point is valid, but I really hope there was more meat to his talk that CNN just didn’t show.
  • NewME co-founder Angela Benton has a really inspiring story: from teenage mother to Web entrepreneur. The documentary makes note of the difficulty of her and Wayne Sutton (the accelerator’s other co-founder) having to leave children/family behind to work on their startups. There has been discussion around whether motherhood is a barrier for women in tech, and I wonder if family concerns are a similar issue for blacks in tech. Plenty of people argue that youth is an advantage for entrepreneurship: there isn’t as much risk in failure because founders rarely have family responsibilities. But that isn’t really true for a lot of black and Latino 20-somethings. And even those without kids of their own may have other family members to support.
    *Note: this is a class issue as much as it is a race one, but of course, race and class tend to be closely linked.
  • In hindsight, it’s really a shame that the Michael Arrington bit got the most attention leading up to the air date, because it was by far the least insightful segment. He was unprepared and made clueless (and somewhat offensive) remarks, but then I wasn’t impressed with Soledad O’Brien’s questions to him, either. Given the scarcity of black tech entrepreneurs, I don’t think asking who Arrington thinks is the “#1 black entrepreneur” was bound to yield a useful response. (Though it is still ridiculous that he couldn’t name any black entrepreneurs at all–really?)
  • I’d really like an explanation of how even the organizers of the accelerator were unprepared for the dragon’s den at the Google event. I agree with Navarrow Wright, one of the panelists at the event, that entrepreneurs should be ready to pitch at any time, but there is a difference between speaking one-on-one with a potential investor/advisor/customer and having to make a formal pitch on stage. Does Y Combinator or TechStars spring this on its participants?
  • Also, I’m curious what it was like for Benton and Sutton to run the accelerator and work on their companies at the same time. How much support/advice were they able to give the others?

If you saw BIA 4, what did you think of it?

The Stephen Colbert of tech

Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report"

“I don’t see race.”

That’s Michael Arrington’s response to the CNN Money post regarding his statement that he doesn’t know a “single black entrepreneur” in the upcoming Black in America 4 special.

In all seriousness, though, I agree with him that Soledad O’Brien’s question “Who would you say is the #1 black entrepreneur?” was a gotcha. I’m not a big fan of the Black in America series on CNN, and this dust-up is exactly why. Sensationalism wins out over providing any real insight.

That said, I’ve recently heard/read a pair of anecdotes about TechCrunch summarily dismissing pitches regarding black entrepreneurs. (One of them, regarding NewME Accelerator, the subject of the BIA special, is here.) So I’m not 100 percent convinced that TechCrunch and Arrington just aren’t hearing from any black folks.

However, in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t matter all that much. I’ll have to co-sign NewME Accelerator co-founder Angela Benton: ignore the drama. Better yet, come up with ways to encourage black people to get into tech, wherever they are. Hint: most of them won’t be in Silicon Valley.

Thoughts on the Huck Finn hubbub

Still from 1920 film of Huckleberry Finn
From the 1920 film. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

My friend Kuong recently asked me what I thought about the decision to censor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by replacing the words “nigger” and “injun.” (You can probably guess my opinion from the previous sentence.) After I wrote back (just a while ago), I figured I might as well post my thoughts. Here they are:

I think taking “nigger” out of Huck Finn amounts to bowdlerizing the novel. Writers use words purposefully, so changing them does have an impact on the text’s meaning. In the case of Huck Finn, the term “nigger,” which connotes inferiority and unhuman status, is used repeatedly as a deliberate contrast to Jim’s true, upstanding character.

“Slave” does not have the same impact, because it does not capture one of the unique elements of American slavery–that it sought to dehumanize slaves on the basis of race. This was not necessarily the case in other slaveholding societies, in which slave status was not determined by race. This is a meaningful distinction and is one worth discussing in classrooms. Of course, this means that teachers must be capable of discussing these nuances. But if they’re not capable of doing so, then they probably shouldn’t be teaching the novel, whether it’s bowdlerized or not.

(I am not well versed on the history of “injun,” so I can’t speak on the impact of that word. However, I find it interesting that nearly all the uproar over the work’s integrity or offensiveness has been focused on the word “nigger” and not “injun,” which many also consider a racial slur. I think that says a lot about how (little) we think about Native American issues, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

Beyond etymology, though, I think it’s harmful to assume that students of color–and students in general–won’t be able to understand or appreciate the usage of “nigger” in context and that they will automatically be offended. In fact, if I were a high school or college student presented with this edition, I’d be insulted. (Just like I was when I read some argument that To Kill a Mockingbird was racist and offensive to black people–seriously? How presumptuous of the writer, who is not of color, to speak for black people.)

I do recognize the good intention: to shield students from the pain associated with the word. However, I see one glaring irony here. Many students probably hear “nigger” regularly in music lyrics. Many black folks use the term themselves in reference to each other. Clearly they understand the importance of context: there’s a big difference between a group of guys hanging out and calling each “my niggas” and someone calling Rep. John Lewis a “nigger” for supporting the health care bill. And there’s a big difference between reading the word “nigger” in a historical novel and reading a letter that refers to you, personally, as a “nigger.” Let’s not underestimate students’ ability to make that distinction.

Also, I can’t help but point out that plenty of black writers, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, have used “nigger” liberally in their work. Yet I don’t see any arguments for bowdlerizing their work or banning their texts from the classroom. I think we should think long and hard about sending the message that it’s OK for black people to use a certain word, but that word becomes offensive if anyone else uses it. That’s a pretty problematic double standard. I do think there are important questions of ownership and license to be addressed in regard to racial terms, but I don’t believe the distinction is nearly as cut-and-dried as “only black people can say or write this word.”

All this controversy surrounding Huck Finn, I believe, says a lot more about adults’ inability to speak honestly about racism rather than any concern about students’ education or emotional well-being. Most white folks recoil at the term “nigger.” But too many have no qualms talking about how they avoid black neighborhoods, or how black people are less desirable hires because of affirmative action, or how the rude men on the street are always black. I think we focus too much on words themselves rather than the thoughts and meanings behind them–which is what English class should be about.

Responsible writing, stereotypes, and data

African American family playing a board game

This week has been very busy, with us closing our November issue, and I’ve already fallen short of my goal to blog at least once a week. Oh well. When I finally had the time to catch up on some of my favorite non-business blogs, I noticed a lot of discussion involving a campaign called No Wedding, No Womb. I immediately disliked the title, because it calls to mind a very annoying Beyoncé song: you know, the one accompanied by a dance routine ripped off from Bob Fosse.

But beyond that, the whole campaign rests on the weird notion that black women, unlike everyone else, don’t consider the consequences of pregnancy outside of marriage and that, somehow, just airing the idea that “you should raise your child in a committed relationship*!” will change things. (‘Cause we’ve never heard that one before.) It’s pretty fogeyish, in my opinion. Notice I didn’t say “conservative” or “reactionary.” There are fogeys across the political spectrum.

Another aggravation is that the data around this topic are frequently miscontrued. In fact, it really annoys me that stats are tossed out so cavalierly, not just regarding this particular issue, but in general. One series of instances that irks me—especially since Inc. covers it in the October issue—is OkCupid and its OkTrends blog, which has released incredibly deep insights such as that black women aren’t desirable and that Protestants don’t write good. Of course, they give no information about their sample sizes for particular demographics, which is why several observers have raised their doubts. But ultimately, that doesn’t matter, as long as the company can make bank. CNN has even made a running franchise out of the practice.

Anyway, back to No Wedding, No Womb: I believe the campaign is well-intended. But given that black women have become the media’s second-favorite punching bag lately (Muslims are still tops), I just have to say: its participants need to do better than this.

*Although the campaign is called “No Wedding, No Womb,” apparently it’s not going for “marriage at all costs,” like another infamous campaign targeting unwed black parents.

Do black entrepreneurs just need better ideas?

Man and woman looking at laptop in office

This Huffington Post story on black entrepreneurs and angel investment caught my eye a couple of days ago. I was particularly struck by the interview at the end with Lauran Bonaparte of Lauton Capital Group. In her response to the last question, she made a couple of statements that contradict what I’ve heard from many investors I’ve interviewed (primarily for Inc.’s Elevator Pitch column):

Q: If an entrepreneur stems from a background of poverty, poor education and the relational family is similarly situated, what steps can they take to overcome those types of challenges in getting their idea to a level of funding?

A: Wow. That’s a great question. I believe, in my experience, it’s all about the idea that you have. If you have a great idea and a great concept, you can overcome poor management in a myriad of ways. […]

While Bonaparte’s contention is that good ideas generally prevail, most investors I’ve spoken to and read have been quick to point out that they invest in promising people more so than even promising businesses. And how do they determine who is promising? By looking at who’s in their inner circle. Therein lies the rub for black entrepreneurs—most are nowhere in these investors’ social networks, so they have to work much harder to convince them to take a leap of faith. Women entrepreneurs face a similar (though perhaps not as stiff) dilemma, which has been discussed in many columns and conferences.

I also find curious the notion that good ideas outweigh poor management, given that there are several companies (e.g., eBay, Yahoo) that have lost their luster due to leadership woes. One prominent example is a little site that predated the likes of MySpace and Facebook but now is pretty much forgotten, at least in the U.S. (Otherwise known as Friendster.)

Often it seems to me that blacks in the entrepreneurial field are reluctant to bring up mentions of any barriers to success, for fear of sounding like whiners. I totally understand this concern. But it often ends up with them dismissing obvious points, such as those above, or worse, throwing out stereotypes about black people’s laziness. Thankfully, Bonaparte does not do the latter, but I’ve seen egregious examples along those lines. One horrendous guest post on The Black Snob, a blog that I otherwise enjoy, comes to mind. Many years ago, Inc. committed a similar sin—and it was rightfully lambasted by Earl Graves, the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, for doing so.