Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Graying Rainbow

By Guest Contributor Scot Nakagawa

Image via edgeboston.com

Image via edgeboston.com

I love my culture, my people, my so-called slanted eyes, tan skin, and black, now greying and thinning hair. I’m not short. Other people are just tall. I’m one of those people. I like being me. I am a child of Hawai’i, raised in the intersection of two great peoples–Japanese Americans and Native Hawaiians. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

But, while I love who I am, I’m not always so in love with who I’m not. I often feel like not being white is both a gift and a curse. The curse is in how I am often treated by white society as a person of color. The gift is that the kind of treatment I face provides me with a bit of perspective on just how callous, even cruel, our society can be to people for totally arbitrary reasons.

Take aging, for instance. I know more about the social stigma attached to aging than most 51-year-olds and have paid attention to it for decades. My sensitivity to the issue is not the result of greater empathy or generosity when it comes to dealing with older people. I think about it because, as an Asian American gay man, I’ve been old for about 20 years now. Aging has been on my mind for a while.

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The Celebrity Dating Narrative

Brian Musso and Heather Headley.  Image via mychoicetolove.com.

Brian Musso and Heather Headley. Image via mychoicetolove.com.

Yes, there is a celebrity dating narrative, and it goes something like this:

Performer type–and it usually focuses on people who are actors and musicians by training and profession, not reality-TV stars or usually “internet famous” folks, who are still seen as outliers in the entertainment system–dates, mates, and marries someone, usually another performer type or someone in the showbiz industry. Usually the couple involved are cisgender, heterosexual, of the same stratum of star power, and the same race and/or ethnicity. If they met on the set, so much more romantic.

The more closely the performer hews to this narrative, the higher their prestige and paycheck.

How does it make itself known? Watch what happens when it’s followed–and it’s disrupted.

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Searching for Cicely: The Blanding of Hollywood Beauty

In the narrative surrounding the Emmys on Sunday, Kerry Washington was cast as a modern-day Diahann Carroll. But all the talk about the history of African American women in television, sparked a question in my mind: Who is the modern equivalent of Cicely Tyson, the dark brown-skinned, naturally coiffed sister who earned nine Primetime Emmy nominations and three wins? Is there room for such a woman–a black woman whose appearance defiantly contradicts the prevailing beauty standard?

My apologies to fans of Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling, but I swear I can’t tell those two actors apart. Andrea can attest that I refer to them as “the random Ryans.” To me, the pair are illustrative of a modern bland and homogenous entertainment beauty aesthetic.

When I was a little girl the 70s, Hollywood favored gritty realism. Studios intentionally cast actors as disparate in their physicality as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino and Robert Redford; Barbra Streisand and Ali McGraw and Tyson. No one blinked at a show like All in the Family, starring two middle-aged leads, or its spin-off, The Jeffersons, whose female lead, Isabel Sanford, was more than two decades older than her TV partner, Sherman Hemsley.

But the age when actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason could serve as headliners in films seems to be long gone, replaced by a narrower expectation of appearance–all hairless, bronzed and white-toothed. A Tom Cruise versus a Kris Kristofferson. If female, lithe and blonde and young–always the appearance of young, even for women who truly are in middle-age. Can you imagine a modern actress of any age volunteering to play aging and washed-up, as 42-year-old Bette Davis did in All About Eve? And if the way into the Hollywood spotlight has diminished, you can be damned sure that women of color will be left out in the cold.

If hyper-mainstream prettiness is paramount when casting, then where does that leave Black, Latina, Asian and Native women, who still struggle to recognized as attractive within the confines of the eurocentric beauty standards? Kerry Washington is beautiful and talented, but what of beautiful and talented black and brown women whose appearances don’t fit so neatly into the ideal–who aren’t young and petite and honey brown with long, silky hair. Would America still be shipping “Olitz” if Washington possessed a different look? If she were browner or nappier or closer in age to Tony Goldwyn, who is 53? (Some particularly odious Scandal fans and Olitz ‘shippers already shade Goldwyn’s real-life wife, Jane Musky, an accomplished production designer and art director, for looking her nearly 60 years. The logic goes that such a handsome man could never be truly in love with an older woman–even one who has stood by his side for 26 years. He must certainly be nursing a “thing” for the younger, more conventionally pretty, Kerry Washington.)

Viola Davis said last year: “I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time.” When I look at the actresses who are cast and feted as up-and-comers, I don’t see many Marsha Masons, but I see even fewer Violas or Cicely Tysons or Esther Rolles or Isabel Sanfords.

The same can be said, incidentally, of a different sort of artistry–fashion. Forty years after American models of color turned out Paris, as part of a 1973  benefit to restore Versailles, one of those models, Bethann Hardison, has to lead a charge against designers who only want their supermodels super white.

Had Kerry Washington snagged an Emmy on Sunday night, she would have been the first African American woman to take home an award for lead actress in a drama–and for a role that positions her as one-half of an interracial couple, including the POTUS, no less. I suppose this is progress. But I can’t help thinking that in 2013, despite gains, Hollywood is an even more hostile place for women of tremendous talent, who would have once been celebrated.

Slouching Toward Feminism

By Guest Contributor Deesha Philyaw

Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was raised to see the world in Black and White.

This manifests itself as an ingrained wariness of White folks, built in for the purposes of self-protection when I was bused from my working-class-on-the-decline neighborhood to the suburbs, beginning in first grade. My handful of White school friends notwithstanding, this was an us-versus-them kind of black and white. No one else–religious minorities, other racial and ethnic minorities, and people in other marginalized groups–was really on my radar in any meaningful way until high school. Even then, I heard friends and relatives use slurs against Asians (the least offensive reference was “Orientals”), “foreigners” (everyone who wasn’t identifiable as Black, White, or Asian), “sissies,” and “bulldaggers.” But I never used those words myself. Even as ignorant as I was, maybe I had a gut feeling about the ugliness and the harm in those words. I don’t know. 

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Image courtesy of All About Uni on Flickr

In 1989, I took an Amtrak train from Florida to Yale with my neighborhood friends’ warnings ringing in my ears: “Don’t turn White!”  In a panic, I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X from cover to cover during the train ride. In New Haven, I bought a fiery poem by a poet with an Egyptian name from a street vendor. I posted it on my dorm room wall right next to my bed, before classes even started.  I had to protect my Blackness. Don’t turn White!

By contrast, I’d grown up hearing a different warning given to girls who attended the HBCU that I’d considered attending: “Don’t get pregnant.” This school had a notorious reputation for “turning out good girls.” The lesson: At a Black college, I’d have to worry about sexual matters, but at a predominantly White institution (PWI) I only had to worry about race.

And worry I did, from the moment I stepped onto campus, overdressed for the occasion and the August heat, in a long-sleeved cobalt blue knit sweater set, matching shoes, and white tights. Immediately, I was aware of the differences between myself and the other Black women students. They wore cute cut-off denim shorts, flip-flops, and funky t-shirts.  By the end of the next day, I would note the class, regional, religious, speech, and cultural differences as well. Just like that, everything I thought I knew about Blackness went right out the window. If I wasn’t “them,” and if I didn’t exactly fit in with “us” in this new place…who was I? Turning “White” was the least of my concerns.

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“Don’t You Like Children?”

latina-mom-and-daughter

By Aimee Thorne-Thomsen

“Don’t you like children?”

I can remember the question like it was yesterday, instead of almost 15 years ago. I had met my friend’s boyfriend for the first time, and we were just etting to know each other. He didn’t understand how I, a young happily married Latina, didn’t have children. I guess he couldn’t fathom any plausible reasons why I might not have children at the age of 25 except that I must hold them in contempt.

“Yes, I do like children. I especially like them in the morning with a little salt and pepper.”

I tried to respond by poking fun at the ridiculousness of the question, but I was offended. Deeply offended. Who was this guy to make assumptions about me, my thoughts about children, and the responsibilities of mamihood*, as if my only value, my only contribution to society and my Latin@ community was to bear and raise children? I was confident enough in myself to know that I had value beyond my reproducing abilities. Yet I was stung not only by the lessening of my value because I was not a mami, but also by the invisibilization of all the other ways I helped to parent.

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Accessories for Billionaires: The Latest Foolishness on Love and Black Women

Star Wars creator George Lucas and his wife, businesswoman Mellody Hobson

Star Wars creator George Lucas and his wife, businesswoman Mellody Hobson

Unmarried Black women don’t need to prove their worth and desirability.

I wish it went without saying that female singleness is not necessarily evidence of some fatal personal flaw. But the why-the-hell-won’t-anyone-marry-the-Black-women industrial complex is relentless. And if the number of otherwise smart folks circulating an article called “Billionaire says black women are for grown ups” all up in my social media timelines last week are any indication, the unusual focus on Black women and marriage–built on sexism, racism, and the idea of black female inferiority–is making a whole lot of us happy for crumbs.

The article, from a website named Baller Alert, is one of several reports in online media outlets targeting Black readers, particularly Black women in interracial relationships, that quote businessman and investor Ben Horowitz, who is married to a Black woman, as saying, “Billionaires prefer Black women. They are loyal and guard your interests. Black wives are for grown ups.” Horowitz has since disavowed the statement, allegedly given during an interview with Kola Boof for Beyond Black and White.

The Baller Alert article, like several others, goes on to list famous pairings of wealthy White men and Black women, including George Lucas and Mellody Hobson, David Bowie and Iman, Wissan Al Mana and Janet Jackson, and others.

More and more everyday billionaires are dating black women. While thousandaires and athletes have chosen to date “others” it seems that more and more wealth men (notice I didn’t say rich) are dating women of color. Billionaire Ben Horowitz was said to have been quoted as saying  “Billionaires prefer black women, they are loyal and guard your interests. Black wives are for grown ups” which led me to research billionaire men dating black women. So don’t worry women. Your skin may not be light enough to snag a rapper, but you can still snag a billionaire business man. Just remember that to attract a billionaire you have to be Educated, have you own career/interests and have ambition. No dumb door knobs over here ladies!

Here are my concerns about this article and the general rejoicing that has accompanied Horowitz’s alleged proclamation:

Stereotypes, even positive ones, are still problematic.

“Black women are loyal.” Some of us are; some of us are not. Some black women make wonderful wives and partners; some are the stuff of nightmares. I know this because Black women are human beings, and human beings are complicated. We can no more be summed up by a word like “loyal” than we can by “sassy” and “strong.” Race and gender bias that decides all Latinas are “hot” and Asian women “demure” (positive attributes in the patriarchal gaze) is still race and gender bias. This is no different.

Black men who date interracially are not dooming Black women to spinsterhood.

The Baller Art article says, “While thousandaires and athletes have chosen to date ‘others’ it seems that more and more wealthy men (notice I didn’t say rich) are dating women of color.” Individual Black men and women, like all people, should be free to create unions with partners that best complement them, regardless of color. Of course, African Americans are not immune to the centuries of anti-Black bias in our society, and some men (and women) who date outside of their race do so for all the wrong reasons. So what? The fate of Black women does not rest on the romantic choices of individual Black men. And even if we assume that it does, the vast majority of partnered Black men (like men everywhere) are with women of their own race.

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Loving Mr. Gaines and Abilene

By Andrea Plaid

Forest Whitaker in The Butler.

Forest Whitaker in The Butler.

Here it goes: I love Forest Whitaker’s butler, and I love Viola Davis’ maid.

I don’t like The Butler or The Help, really; both films are textbook examples of the histrionic, sanitized history (especially the recent history of US race relations) that serves as Oscar bait. For all of that, though, I love Whitaker’s character Mr. Gaines and Davis’ Abilene for the reason Dr. Martin Luther King (played by Nelsan Ellis in The Butler) stated: historically, Black butlers and maids were subversive, not subservient, because by being hardworking and trustworthy they belied white folks’ racist notions of Black folks being lazy and criminal.

Whitaker and Davis made similar choices in characterizations: Both hold their characters’ emotions in their eyes, which lent Mr. Gaines and Abilene, respectively, interiorities that move beyond mere stoicism. Both display the “two faces” to full effect–one face that offers a smile and appropriate silence and responses to White people, and the other face a fuller expression of life, opinions, and emotions to other Black folks, away from the white gaze. That duality allowed them to do their jobs under racism’s duress while protecting their souls until they could get back to the relative emotional safety of their segregated communities. Both actors show the utility of the tactic in one-on-one interactions with White people, which, according to the movies, may have allowed them to tell their own stories and share opinions that created more opportunities for African Americans and moved race relations forward. And both actors also show the tactics toll on their emotional lives and connections with their own families. At the end of both The Butler and The Help, both drop the tactic and, in the process, retain and expand their dignity into their lives and activism, be it in not accepting another domestic job, in the case of the latter, or joining their child’s activist efforts.

I know the conflict between Mr. Gaines and his activist son, highlighted in trailers for The Butler, put off quite a few people from seeing the film. But I also know that sort of conflict was real between generations and that it stemmed from respectability politics–a veneer of propriety that Gaines Senior donned with those two faces to represent us every day and that Gaines Junior attempted to dismantle by working with King and the Black Panthers. The younger Gaines ultimately walked away from the Panthers, because he couldn’t stomach the violence the movie suggests was the cornerstone of the group’s ethos, though he stayed in progressives politics like the anti-apartheid movement. Mr. Gaines eventually joins his son at the protest, after years of the indignity of not getting paid equitably and watching and living the turbulent changes in US race relations. Gaines the Elder left the job because he couldn’t stomach then-President Reagan’s apartheid-enabling stance.

Viola Davis in The Help.

Viola Davis in The Help.

But, as my mom says, white folks’ racism has paradoxed* us. Whereas some Black folks who took domestic jobs saw the positions as a way to optimally display our humanity by quietly defying stereotypes to the white folks we interacted with in our otherwise de jure segregated lives, white folks took the behavior (the more obsequious of the “two faces” Mr. Gaines’ mentor taught him to employ in order to keep his job and his dignity besides) as a totalizing stereotype, namely that the best kind of Black folks were (and still are) subservient ones, and that any Black person who “deviated” from that trait was a “bad Negro.” That employing the “two faces” was a professional–and even an activist–tool and/or philosophy is wiped out in this paradoxing because, well, Black folks are also stereotyped as not smart enough to think tactically or philosophically. That’s partly why the white people supporting the racist structures in the South, in Washington, DC, and all points in between and beyond, considered Dr. King such a threat, even as some folks nowadays see the civil rights leader as, at best, a milquetoast and, at worst, ineffective.

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