Solange Knowles may be Beyoncé’s younger sister, but that doesn’t mean she’s content to stay shadowed in a corner.
Yes, Solange may not be a household brand, but I can’t help but think that she prefers it this way. This level of celebrity allows Solange to directly critique anti-blackness and white supremacy in America without the fear of public backlash that could destroy her pop culture bankability.
Beyoncé, who rarely gives interviews, may not take a publicly vocalized stance on issues of social justice, but she often makes her support known through financial support. Earlier this year, Queen Bey and husband Jay Z donated $1.5 million to the Black Lives Matter movement, in addition to other civil rights organizations. In the beginning of the summer, she gave around $82,000 from her Formation World Tour to assist the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. People may criticize Beyoncé for not literally speaking out in a blunt, unapologetic way like the actor Jesse Williams is prone to do. However, this has never been a part of Beyoncé’s handling of her image as an entertainer or member of pop culture royalty.
In the case of Solange, she utilizes social media in a form that her older sister avoids. Her Twitter and Instagram, along with her website, Saint Heron, routinely confront racism and the country’s impulse to uphold white privilege.
I can only wish that I’d grown up with someone like Solange as a public figure who is so insistent on protecting Black girls and women. On her Twitter, Solange recounted an unpleasant and highly uncomfortable concert experience in New Orleans. Solange, her husband, and her eleven-year-old son, Julez, attended a Kraftwerk concert at the Orpheum Theater. The audience at the electronica concert was not diverse: Solange noted that the overwhelming majority of patrons were white. When Solange danced to a song, a group of white women told her to sit down. Solange refused, and the women threw a lime at her.
To the naive reader, this story may seem nothing more than an unfortunate incident to be chalked up to rude and drunk concert attendees. For Black girls and women who understand what Solange meant by the term “white spaces,” it’s affirmation of a long-known truth.
To be Black in white spaces means that you are suddenly blessed and cursed with hyperawareness, injected with the X-Men ability to interpret not just outright racism but malevolence cloaked in a cloudy layer of passive aggression and microaggressions. To be Black in white spaces means that you are both the designated ambassador of your entire race and no one at all, invisible, with an interchangeable face. In an essay titled “And Do You Belong? I Do” and posted on Saint Heron, Solange elaborated on her Tweets. She wrote:
It usually does not include “please.” It does not include “will you.” It does not include “would you mind,” for you must not even be worth wasting their mouths forming these respectable words. Although, you usually see them used seconds before or after you.
You don’t feel that most of the people in these incidents do not like black people, but simply are a product of their white supremacy and are exercising it on you without caution, care, or thought.
Many times the tone just simply says, “I do not feel you belong here.”
Anti-blackness is not solely relegated to overtly hostile or malicious displays of bigotry. There are numerous ways to make someone feel as though they don’t belong, as though their safety has been compromised. Later on in her essay, Solange wrote, “You constantly see the media having a hard time contextualizing black women and men as victims every day, even when it means losing their own lives….You realize that you never called these women racists, but people will continuously put those words in your mouth.”
White people who have deluded themselves into believing that they are progressive liberals often tout the phrase, “I don’t see color.” They frequently follow up with something along the lines of, “I don’t care if you’re black or white or green or blue,” ironically disproving their point, as they classify minority status as akin to alien foreignness. I didn’t grow up in the South, but that doesn’t mean I’m a stranger to racism, and to feeling like my blackness, my “Otherness,” doesn’t fit into my very white surroundings. The institution of whiteness ruled that my identity wasn’t authentic enough, that my blackness was dependent upon adhering to a narrow vision of blackness as defined by the white gaze. Boys who I deemed the love of my life have accused me of being too sensitive, of imagining things, of seeing fire where there isn’t smoke. That’s the clever trick of white privilege: the combination of willful ignorance and lack of lived experience imagines equality where it does not exist.
I don’t believe that silence is a beneficial defense mechanism. In a society where being Black is punishable by death, silence only aids white supremacy. Solange recognizes that silence does not encourage change. She also realizes that she can use her public platform to connect with other Black girls and women and make them feel less isolated and alone.
Solange recently interviewed actress Amandla Stenberg for the February 2016 issue of Teen Vogue and spoke to that feeling of unquantifiable kinship between Black girls. She noted, “There’s a secret language shared among black girls who are destined to climb mountains and cross rivers in a world that tells us to belong to the valleys that surround us. You learn it very young, and although it has no words, you hear it clearly.” Knowing this language has made it possible for women to produce safe spaces in the midst of uninhabitable land. It’s a sense of higher consciousness, the look that transpired between the only other Black woman and me in my graduate school writing class, the exchange that prompted me to grab the open seat next to her. A feeling of anchoring myself. It is less a shared code of pain than it is a show of solidarity.
Anger is often viewed as destructive. Solange challenges that idea, arguing that anger can be a healthy, even necessary response to unfathomable atrocities ranging from the physical to the emotional and mental. While Beyoncé seems to filter her frustrations through subversive tactics that are primarily based on a nonpersonal, business-first sensibility, Solange participates in racial politics via personal reflection.
The media may deem Solange “crazy” for speaking out, as is often the case when Black people refuse to be complicit in racially motivated abuse. Solange is not exposing anything new or revolutionary, but her comments are viewed as such due to America’s legacy of deep denial. In the closing part of her essay, Solange remarks, “We belong. We belong. We belong. We built this.” Anger is testament to this mantra, a reminder that blackness is not validated by trauma.
Although I don’t remember much about 1996, I do remember the Summer Olympics. I didn’t have much interest in Swimming or Track and Field. Rather, I was transfixed by the Women’s Gymnastic Team.
The Magnificent Seven, as they were dubbed, consisted of Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Moceanu, Jaycie Phelps, and Shannon Miller. I was in awe of their discipline, strength, and endurance. The ability to twist and contort the human body was more than a sport; it seemed like an elite artform, magic powers for only the chosen few.
To an eight-year-old black girl, Dominique Dawes was a revelation. The whole team was an inspiration, but nineteen-year-old Dawes provided a reflection of myself. Black girls could not only do gymnastics, but they could make it to the Olympics. Writer Morgan Jerkins noted on ESPN that Dawes “showed them, as well as the rest of the world, how black women could move and excel in traditionally white spaces, even if they had to take flight to do so.”
Naturally, critics hid their racism behind euphemisms. A 1995 LA Times article reported that people worried that Dawes didn’t have the “right look,” that her legs were “bowed,” her knees were too “knobby,” and her “hair was too askew.” In other words, Dawes was too Black. Fortunately, Dawes defied her critics and made Olympic history. She was the first Black woman to win a gold medal.
There have been other gymnasts that have broken barriers since Dawes, namely Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. Douglas became the first Black woman to win gold in the individual all-around category. Watching her in 2012 brought back memories of the fascination and pride cultivated while watching the 1996 games. Unfortunately, Douglas was not spared from racism and discrimination. In a Vanity Fair profile, her mother, Natalie Douglas, is unflinching about the racially motivated hostility and vitriol that has followed her daughter’s luminous athletic career. She told the magazine that the parents of other gymnasts were unwelcoming and that they “looked at her as a pariah, an alien, a single black bank employee making around $45,000 a year in the midst of affluent white families headed by doctors and lawyers.”
The racism didn’t stop as Douglas dove into her training at Excalibur Gymnastics in Virginia Beach. Douglas said that other gymnasts stole her clothes out of the locker room and made derogatory comments, such as calling her a “slave.” She was teased about her nose. A gym staff member criticized the “flatness” of her nose and advised Douglas to get a nose job.
When she competed at the Olympics in 2012, social media was buzzing not just about her incredible talent, but her hair. For Black girls and women, natural hair is more than a sore spot. It’s not “just hair.” If we are as “colorblind” as we are to believe, why is Black hair such a source of derision? Even those who claimed to support her weren’t without strong words of disapproval for Douglas’s seemingly “unstyled” hair. Speaking to The Daily Beast, twenty-two-year-old Latisha Jenkins said, “I love how she’s doing her thing and winning. But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She representing for black women everywhere.”
Assuming that Jenkins is a Black woman, I understand her point about Douglas acting as an official representative. On the other hand, I find it extremely disappointing and frustrating that any time a Black woman is the first in her field and/or the only Black woman in her field, she’s forced to take on the role of spokesperson of her race. Even achieving something as extraordinary as Olympic gold is not enough to cause her athleticism to be judged solely on her skills. Instead, something that should be minor, such as her hair, becomes the basis for how she performs a display of acceptable, complimentary blackness.
As a Black woman who took cheerleading and gymnastics for years, I didn’t find any fault in Douglas’s gelled and pinned ponytail. When you’re flipping your body around the floor and attempting to land difficult tricks, you don’t want to be worrying about your hair. You want all of it out of your face. Making sure that your ponytail is pretty is the last thing on your mind.
Douglas’s 2016 teammate, powerhouse Simone Biles, has recently faced the same sort of admiration and backlash as Douglas. Biles is the first female gymnast to win three straight World Championships. In a New Yorker profile, writer Reeves Wiedeman echoed the sentiments of Biles believers, confessing, “I felt as if Isaac Newton had written a different set of laws on her behalf. She flew higher, spun faster, and landed more firmly than anyone else.”
Yet in a sport such as gymnastics, it seems that there is no real way to “transcend” race, to borrow a well-loved phrase from white supremacy apologists and naive fools alike. Last year in Belgium, Biles became “the first woman of color to win an all-around title at world championships.” Most likely motivated by bitterness, jealousy, and racism, an Italian gymnast vented her frustrations to the Italian media. Eighteen-year-old Carlotta Ferlito said, “I told Vanessa [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.” It’s not hard to read between the lines. Ferlito’s ignorant remarks remind me of white people who complain that affirmative action is racist against white people. Yet by attacking Biles, Ferlito only exposed her own racism and, by extension, the racism within the sport. White bodies in gymnastics may be nit-picked and harshly appraised. However, many people regard them as the standard, regulating Black bodies to the undesirable Other.
Whether it’s books or movies or sports, representation matters. Being exposed to Dominique Dawes at a young age encouraged a subconscious appreciation for the beauty of my body. With enough practice and patience, maybe I could bend gravity to my will. Like Dawes, maybe I could grasp such athletic glory, to defy the expectations attached to my short stature and compact build. It’s disheartening to see Douglas and Biles make headlines for instances of racism, but their presence is important, providing a beam of hope and light for all the Black and brown girls watching them take the world by storm.
To be a black woman online is to realize that any minute, your safe space can be compromised.
The anonymity of the internet enables Red Pill fanatics and basement-dwelling trolls to spew hatred without serious repercussions. When the general public talks about the need to combat online bullying and harassment, the discussion rarely includes women of color. Black women should not have to accept racist, misogynistic violence from faceless cowards lurking behind egg icons. The threshold of harassment that black women face online, especially within the context of social media, is beyond tolerable. It is toxic and menacing, abuse ranging from doxxing (exposing a person’s personal information, including home address, telephone number, etc.) to death threats.
Take for example the abuse from racist Twitter users aimed at Ghostbusters actress and SNL cast member Leslie Jones. The Ghostbusters movie recently premiered, and angry fanboys were feeling extra vicious. Jones faced a seemingly endless barrage of racist attacks. She retweeted the insults in hopes that Twitter support would ban the users. Unfortunately, support turned a blind eye to the mounting abuse. One user compared her to a gorilla, to which Jones responded, “I don’t understand.” Another troll with an icon of a stick figure in an SS uniform said, “She’s extremely ugly.” The collection of usernames and accompanying icons were just what one would expect from an army of human garbage.
Understandably, Jones quickly lost the motivation to expose her attackers. Fans, costars, and Ghostbusters director Paul Feig expressed support for Jones. Twitter user @MarissaRei1 started the hashtag #LoveforLeslieJ in order to combat the cruel, crude, and ruthless abuse. Although it was comforting to see people stick up for Jones, it’s disappointing and disheartening that such hatred could go unmonitored and unpunished. Do we really want to condone and encourage an online culture that permits the daily dehumanization of black women?
When dissecting pop culture, the obvious racial bias is magnified. There’s no shortage of white knights for white women. Writing for The Guardian, Ijeoma Oluo noted, “Many other women of color – especially black women – on the internet face the same abuse that Jones is now facing, and we will tell you that this isn’t a harmless prank, this isn’t about hurt feelings or even the sting of a racist comment.” She added, “This is a deliberate campaign of abuse perpetrated on us to keep us off of the internet, and it needs to be taken seriously.”
In a 2014 study conducted by Women, Action, and the Media, the group gathered 811 reports of harassment on Twitter. Out of the 161 serious cases cited and reported to Twitter staff, “Twitter wound up taking action on only 55 percent of those cases—most frequently, they suspended accounts temporarily.”
Earlier this year, Twitter announced that it would be implementing a new protocol to deal with online harassment. Nick Pickles, Twitter UK’s Head of Policy, said, “This comes from the top of the company – safety is never finished.” Unlike the US, the UK has laws that “offer users some protection against more extreme harassment and several people have been jailed.” Twitter’s publicly documented efforts to deal with online toxicity almost seem hollow. Considering the fact that online abuse of women has become the expectation, rather than the exception, such a promise feels like an empty-hearted effort to placate those who demand stricter and swifter retribution.
Although I obviously do not have the same global platform as Jones, I’ve faced online misogynoir. Whenever I write about race, I’m met with instant backlash. Not all of the responses I receive are cruel, but it’s too easy to remember the negative. No matter the type of essay or article, from personal essay to pop culture commentary, the racists are angry that I dare even to speak up. In real life and online, I’ve been told that I’m “too sensitive” or that I’m the “true racist” for rightly naming my enemy. In the eyes of the racists, white supremacy is a nonexistent institution, just as the American Dream is possible for anyone willing to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.
When Jones experienced racism, some Twitter users recommended that she take the high road and simply ignore the abuse. Why must black women be expected to turn the other cheek? Perhaps it has to do with the stereotype of the Strong Black Woman. But if studies have proven that racism can have a dire impact on a black person’s mental and physical health, why aren’t these rampant incidents of abuse take much more seriously?
In an interview with Alternet, an African-American woman with more than 116,000 Twitter followers said that she switches her avatars in order to get some relief from the trolls. With the icon of a white man, Sydette noticed a drastic difference in user interaction. She observed, “As a white man, that was the most fun I had online in terms of actually getting to talk to people and not be insulted by them.” Sydette added, “People thought I was wrong, people thought I was ridiculous but nobody thought I was stupid. I received fewer slurs and people were a lot more interested in my thought process than when I was anything else.”
As a black woman writer, my work is never separated from my gender and/or racial identity. On the other hand, my racial background is a vital part of my personal identity. I would not be the person I am today without the acknowledgment of my roots. I fiercely protect and defend my ethnic heritage because for too long, I was made to believe it made me worthless and ugly.
Before taking a break from Twitter, Jones said: “WTF!! These people hate themselves. You have to hate yourself to put out that type of hate. I mean, on my worst day I can’t think of this type of hate to put out. I don’t know how to feel. I’m numb. Actually numb. I see the words and pics and videos. Videos, y’all. Meaning people took time to spew hate.…Like no shame or compassion for human life. It scares the fuck out of me!”
Social media can be an inspirational tool when in the hands of the benevolent, and an extension of our culture’s legacy of racism when under the control of the malicious and malevolent. Until Twitter makes good on their word to take drastic disciplinary action against these vile attackers, black women are forced to make the choice between staying on social media and not backing down against very real, very disturbing threats or retreating for the sake of sanity and self-care.
If there’s one female rap artist who has maintained an unapologetic dedication to authenticity and personal vision, it’s Missy Elliott.
Although some members of the younger generation seemed to be unaware of the legendary MC, producer, singer, and songwriter until her 2015 Super Bowl performance with Katy Perry, Elliott has been instrumental to the evolving narrative of hip-hop.
Following six years off the air, Hip Hop Honors will return to VH1 with an all-female showcase intended to “applaud the women groundbreakers and innovators who led a movement and rose to the top of a male-dominated genre to make their voices heard.” In addition to Elliott, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Peppa will be honored. The recognition and accolades for Elliott are more than deserved. She is a five-time Grammy winner with record sales amounting to over 30 million albums worldwide. Notably, she is currently the only female rapper to have all six albums reach RIAA platinum certified.
Elliott’s success has never relied on chasing trends. Her longevity is based upon her resistance, even outright refusal to adhere to narrow expectations. She fashions bravado out of the weird, surreal, cartoonish, and avant-garde.
From the very beginning of her career as a solo rapper, Elliott has utilized unforgettable visuals that embrace a brand of femininity and sensuality that dismiss the male gaze. Who can forget Elliott’s striking video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” the lead single from her 1997 debut album? The video contains all of the traits of a classic 90s hip-hop video, from the signature directing style of Hype Williams and the fish-eye lens to the loud neon color scheme and plentiful array of cameos, including Lil’ Kim and Puff Daddy. One of the most memorable outfits showcases Elliott in a shiny black inflated trash bag, big hoop earrings, and dark sunglasses attached to a sparkly headpiece. By donning such an outfit, Elliott eschews the notion that a woman in a hip-hop video must appear sexually enticing and be as close to naked as possible. Instead of presenting herself as passive arm candy, the trash bag outfit is an undeniable means of subversive control within a heavily male-dominated industry.
This isn’t to say that Elliott is in favor of a hierarchy of female sexuality. Rather, artistic choices such as the trash bag outfit challenge the idea that the traditional video vixen aesthetic is the only acceptable form of female sensuality and/or beauty. In other words, Elliott may not have the body of peers and past collaborators such as Trina, Lil’ Kim, or Foxy Brown, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to hide in a corner. Similarly, Elliott wears a Mega Man costume in the video for “Sock It 2 Me.” She’s not a femme fatale or a part of the scenery. She’s a superhero, an advanced android, a nonhuman fighting machine.
In an article for Dazed, writer Kat George points out, “Elliott, a pioneering woman in hip hop, wasn’t looking for the approval of the court of popular opinion…she wasn’t looking to be a trending hashtag. We often give artists like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé applause for championing body positivity, because as ‘curvy’ women of colour, they’re presenting an ‘other’ in a predominantly skinny-centric, whitewashed industry.” Elliott’s feminism may be cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned pop culture titans, but I would argue that the rapper’s philosophy of body positivity involves elevating all body types and not just the 36-24-36 bust-waist-hip ratio deemed the only radical antithesis to white, supermodel, high-fashion thinness.
Even if she hasn’t outwardly labeled herself a feminist or appeared on stage in front of a huge, blazing FEMINIST sign at the VMAs, Elliott’s music has always been about championing women and disavowing sexist double standards. Take for example the still-relevant track, “She’s a Bitch,” from her 1998 album, Da Real World. The song addresses the fact that women are punished for being assertive or aggressive. A woman in a position of power is often viewed as a “bitch,” while her male counterpart is given a free pass on his behavior. He never faces a fraction of the scorn and scrutiny as the woman and is simply regarded as confident and self-assured. He’s just a man being a man, whereas the woman is believed to have violated some archaic rule of femininity and decorum.
Elliott raps, “She’s a bitch / When you say my name / Talk mo’ junk but won’t look my way / She’s a bitch / See I got more cheese / So back on up while I roll up my sleeves.” Elliott takes the word bitch and reclaims its razor-sharpness as a badge of honor, a marker of indomitable strength and capitalistic prowess. In a conversation with Interviewprior to the release of the song’s music video, Elliott said, “Music is a male-dominated field. Women are not always taken as seriously as we should be, so sometimes we have to put our foot down. To other people that may come across as being a bitch, but it’s just knowing what we want and being confident.”
Is financial independence the key to feminism? It may not be the end-all, be-all, but it’s linked to freedom from the oppression of a male-dominated society. The motto of autonomy via financial prosperity is a theme that repeatedly pops up in Elliott’s work. An obvious hit is “Work It,” from 2002’s Under Construction. Elliott’s swagger encompasses the demand for sexual satisfaction to money as a means of individual empowerment. She declares, “Girl, girl, get that cash / If it’s 9 to 5 or shakin’ your ass / Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thing/ Just make sure you ahead of the game.”
Not only can money provide empowerment, but so can sex. Songs such as “One Minute Man” take the stigma out of a woman’s need for sexual satisfaction by critiquing a man’s supposed bedroom skills. In “Hot Boyz,” a man’s attractiveness is dependent upon his ability to provide not only in the bedroom, but in terms of material goods and reputational clout. Elliott asks, “What’s your name, cause I’m impressed / Can you treat me good, I won’t settle for less / You a hot boy, a rock boy / A fun toy.” In the context of Elliott’s lyrics, men are never the center of her world, but they can serve as fun stepping stones or pleasurable distractions.
Without Missy Elliott, there would be a noticeable void in both hip-hop and R&B. Her latest single, “WTF (Where They From),” proves that Elliott’s creativity, though seemingly dormant since 2005’s The Cookbook, never left. The single, produced by longtime friend Pharrell, feels as fresh, energetic, and funky as anything on her previous albums. As she said in an interview with Billboard, “Unfortunately, breaking news, there is only one Missy.”
Beauty comes in all forms, but the institution of white supremacy demands that whiteness is the ideal.
When Lil’ Kim posted new pictures to her Instagram, people immediately noticed a glaring change. In addition to the blonde lace front, Kim’s complexion was noticeably whiter, almost ghostly pale. The iconic rapper and former Junior M.A.F.I.A. member looked like a complete stranger, unrecognizable when compared to the images of her in memorable videos such as the color-coordinated “Crush on You” and later hits such as “How Many Licks” and “No Matter What They Say.”
Filters and careful photo editing may have exaggerated Kim’s startling new look, but this transformation didn’t happen overnight. Over the years, Kim has revealed that her low self-esteem and low self-worth stem from the unconscious belief that blackness is undesirable. Like many young girls and women, Kim absorbed the poison of racist beauty standards. Although Kim has never confirmed to using skin-whitening or bleaching products, one cannot help but read between the lines. The pictures shared on Kim’s Instagram feature a person miles away from the woman who hit MTV’s VMA red carpet in a lavender wig, sequined jumpsuit, and matching pasty. In one display of irony, Kim is wearing a “Black Girls Rock” t-shirt. She’s got long, flowing, light blonde hair, her skin is several shades lighter, and her nose is slimmed down, probably contoured with heavy makeup. She looks like a combination of Kim Kardashian and Faith Evans.
In an interview with Newsweek, Kim reveals that an early age, she felt like she wasn’t good enough. Citing her father’s rigid standards as the source of her anxiety, she says, “It was like I could do nothing right. Everything about me was wrong–my hair, my clothes, just me.” This set the stage for Kim’s feelings of inadequacy. Later on, she says, “All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough–even the men I was dating…Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.”
It seems that Kim has been unable to break free from ideology that cherishes whiteness and dehumanizes blackness. The seed planted in early childhood thrived on a succession of loves who upheld a color-struck hierarchy. The sexism and racism of the music industry only allowed such self-loathing to expand, burrowing deeper.
Notice how Kim mentions that her ex-boyfriends favored women who were the “long-hair type.” She’s not talking about black women with long hair. She’s actually talking about whiteness, or specifically, physical traits that denote whiteness. White beauty standards vehemently reject natural hair. Despite the growing number of black women who have put down the hot combs, straightening irons, and relaxers, natural hair is still viewed as “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” Black girls are sent home from school or threatened with expulsion for wearing their hair natural. Black women working as news anchors are criticized for wearing their natural hair on air. Mainstream society upholds the notion that wearing natural hair is a punishable act.
These racist standards are blazingly apparent when the fashion industry trips over itself to praise white celebrities for sporting familiar black hairstyles such as “boxer braids” (aka cornrows) and dreadlocks. Thus, when TV characters such as Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder are shown removing their wigs and/or weaves, it’s groundbreaking. When Beyoncé calls out “Becky with the good hair” on Lemonade, she’s calling out the lie that kinky hair is ugly. The term “good hair,” when used in earnest, is carved from the language of white supremacy. Having good hair means that your hair is as close to straight as possible. Having good hair means you are reflecting white beauty rules.
When people on social media wonder why Kim “looks like a white woman,” they ignore the fact that through personal experience and unconscious influence, Kim has learned to view whiteness as a marker of superiority. In an article for The Huffington Post, Zeba Blay notes, “Like millions of dark-skinned women, [she] has been socialized to believe she is ugly and unworthy because she is not white or light…The difference between Kim and so many others who struggle with this specific kind of low self-esteem is that Kim has money and access to doctors willing to indulge and encourage her need to change herself into a different person.” Kim’s Instagram picture is the result of that money and level of access, not the aftermath of a spontaneous, irrational decision. It’s not that Kim simply wants to be white; she wants the acceptance that whiteness promises.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye shows how the desire for whiteness is mentally, emotionally, and psychologically destructive. Pecola, a young black girl, yearns for blue eyes. In chapter 3 of the novel, the narrator notes, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” Pecola is fixated on blue eyes because she thinks that they are not only beautiful but also pose the opportunity to escape herself. Blue eyes would literally transform her perspective. She would shed the struggles of her current state of existence. For Pecola, blue eyes signify freedom from blackness.
Kim has fallen into the same trap as Pecola. Self-love seems impossible when external forces fuel their survival on your self-hate.
At what cost has Kim become a sex symbol? Only she can truly answer that question. However, studying the trajectory of her image can provide some unfortunate and disturbing truths. Instead of mocking Kim, we must remember that our society created this pursuit of whiteness. Over at Mic, writer Michael Arceneaux reflects on what led Kim to this dramatic image overhaul and wonders, “If everyone had played nice, would Kim have stopped doing this to herself? Kim is continuously uploading pictures of herself online that depict her as lighter and lighter in appearance. Kim wants us to see her this way.”
One can only hope that Kim has finally found the validation that seems to have eluded her.
Rihanna has gone from Good Girl Gone Bad to bonafide style icon, pop culture heavyweight, and international superstar.
In the past few years, she’s successfully turned her name into that of an influential tastemaker, a woman often imitated but never duplicated, who does what she wants, when she wants, without fear or worry of judgment or disapproval.
The release of her eighth studio album, Anti, marks a decidedly different direction in the Rihanna sound. In an interview with Vogue, she admits, “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40. But I felt like I earned the right to do that now.” Anti, unlike previous albums, doesn’t settle for a theme-driven package of perfectly produced pop bangers and radio-friendly tunes. From the SZA-featured opening track, “Consideration,” to the Drake-aided, dancehall-infused “Work,” Riri’s Anti prefers the visceral power of atmosphere.
Despite the variations in style and production per song, the album’s overall intent is to conjure a certain mood. Whether she’s venting frustrations with overwhelming love affairs gone wrong or lust at first sight, the album wields Rihanna’s voice as both weapon and refuge. In a poem written by Chloe Mitchell exclusively commissioned for the album, Mitchell’s words provide an unapologetic mission statement:
I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood.
It is simply because what I want to say,
what I need to say, won’t be heard.
Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.
What I choose to say is of so much substance
That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.
So my voice is not my weakness,
It is the opposite of what others are afraid of.
My voice is my suit and armor,
My shield, and all that I am.
Writing for Billboard, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd notes in her review of Anti that Rihanna “exists on the languorous edge of Carefree Black Girlness, all Instagrams from Saint Barts and red carpet stunting and relaxed dismissals of thirsty men pretending to know her.” Rihanna, both the brand and the public persona, does not thrive on attention, but rather the seductive thrill of self-fulfillment. Her image is not necessarily about accessibility or even likeability, but unabashed ownership of the self. She is not concerned with role-model status. On the contrary, obeying such strict demands would compromise her sense of authenticity. The Rihanna brand doesn’t just advocate independence, because independence without the foundation of self-fulfillment is a hollow achievement.
The concept of the Carefree Black Girl seems to have been born from social media and (Black) Tumblr culture. In an essay for Refinery29, Jamala Johns explains, “There are varying ways in which the title is bestowed, but a common tone connects everything. It’s the freedom and exuberance of simple moments and pleasures: clutching flowers, enjoying the company of your equally stylish friends, reveling in creative endeavors, and even finding the ethereal beauty in not-so-carefree moments.” She adds, “For women of color, such basic depictions continue to go underrepresented.”
The Carefree Black Girl attempts to soften and humanize the crushing, insular cage of the Angry Black Woman. The Carefree Black Girl is radical in the sense that she does not submit to the expectations dictated by the establishment of white supremacy. The Carefree Black Girl realizes that pain is a part of life, but she does not drown under the weight of struggle. The Carefree Black Girl searches for freedom and self-fulfillment beyond society’s paltry offerings. She seeks what white supremacy routinely denies her: the ability to radiate inner peace despite the harsh cruelties of everyday life. This does not mean that the Carefree Black Girl is not allowed to feel self-doubt, anxiety, fear,or disappointment.
Anti is as joyous as it is melancholy. Tracks such as “Desperado” and “Never Ending” showcase the unraveling of romance and the portrayal of love as a force of destruction and ruin. In the world of Anti, to be in love does not promise salvation. Love itself is often two-faced, a fight for domination and control. “Desperado,” which samples background vocals from “Waiting Game” by Banks, talks about a lover who is on the run and the prospect of escaping with him. Rihanna sings:
If you want, we can be runaways
Running from any sight of love
Yeah, yeah, there ain’t nothin’
There ain’t nothin’ here for me
There ain’t nothin’ here for me anymore
But I don’t wanna be alone
It is not love that motivates this unexpected union, but the tortured desire to run away. Similarly, “Never Ending,” written by Dido and Paul Herman, contemplates the mixed emotions of opening one’s heart after a devastating breakup. She sings:
They’ll never understand
This feeling always gets away
Wishing I could hold on longer
Why does it have to feel so strange
To be in love again, be in love again, be in love again?
Love is not portrayed as a magnificent source of pure happiness and freedom, but an unpredictable and mysterious enigma with its own agenda. Anti’s vision of the Carefree Black Girl is not superhuman or inhuman. She is complicated and vulnerable and does not sacrifice self-awareness for the comfort of oblivious denial. Billboard notes the moody peaks and valleys of the album’s sound, declaring, “Anti is evidence that being America’s foremost Carefree Black Girl is a beleaguering endeavor, one destined to land a bad gal in a bout of depression now and again.”
Looking inward is not always pleasant, and the truth is not always flattering, but self-reflection can act as a healing salve and serve as a defensive barrier against the antagonistic violence of white supremacy. Rihanna’s Anti is fueled by the basic principles of the Carefree Black Girl ideology. Yet listeners cannot discount the unflinching chameleon nature of the album or the fullness of its emotions. Anti presents the idea that the Carefree Black Girl is not about blocking out negativity or distress, but about using these emotions to achieve self-actualization. In other words, Black girl, in all your contradictions, you are enough.