Y’all are Mean as Hell to People You Don’t Find Attractive

Header image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your access to love.”

I’ve noticed a theme in the social media posts of certain marginalized and multiply marginalized people on social media regarding their social lives. (I’ll define “certain” in a bit.) These posts are usually along the lines of “Fuck [privileged group], I’m only dating/hanging out with other [identity I have] people from now on.”

So trans people might say “fuck cis people, I’m only dating/hanging out with other trans people from now on,” while disabled people might say “fuck the ableds, I’m only dating/hanging out with other disabled people from now on.” I often hear nonwhite folks say “fuck white people, I’m only dating/hanging out with other people of color from now on.” Most common on my social media timelines is Black people saying “fuck non-Black people, I’m only dating/hanging out with other Black people from now on.” You get the gist.

It’s very true that being in relationship — any type of relationship — with people who have a type of privilege that you don’t can be incredibly draining, and I applaud people for setting the boundaries they need in order to thrive. However, sometimes these people look down on their fellow marginalized folks who don’t set the same boundaries for themselves.

Besides being wrong — not everybody needs or even wants the same boundaries as another person — it’s also misinformed. They assume that everyone who shares a certain marginalized identity has the same amount of choice when it comes to their social, romantic, and/or sexual lives. The fact of the matter is, not all of us do.

I’ve noticed that most of the people who post those kinds of statuses benefit from desirability politics. They’ll be light-skinned Black people, or thin disabled people, or “pretty” [read: having European features] nonwhite people, or “high-functioning” disabled people [read about why functioning labels are harmful], et cetera. The fact of the matter is, some marginalized and multiply marginalized people don’t benefit in the same way.

Image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your access to friendship.”

I know so many marginalized and multiply marginalized people — particularly those of us who don’t benefit from desirability politics — whose friends and/or romantic interests are primarily people with different identities than ours. We can’t limit our options for who we socialize with because most people limit themselves so that we are not an option in their social lives.

My friends often poke fun at me for having “bad taste” when it comes to romantic interests. The people I find attractive apparently aren’t all that good-looking to the average person. Apparently, being attracted to people who aren’t the most conventionally attractive is embarrassing.

Apparently, believing that people who don’t fit racist, ableist standards of beauty and comportment are deserving of love is something to be ashamed of. It’s something I deserve to get made fun of for.

Like I said before: some marginalized and multiply marginalized people don’t benefit from desirability politics. Some of us feel unlovable.

Due to our world’s intersecting, overlapping systems of oppression — including, but not limited to, colorism, fatphobia, anti-Blackness, ableism, and misogynoir — some of us may quite literally be unlovable to most of the population.

And it’s the rest of y’all’s fault — because y’all prioritize a person’s desirability in determining whether they deserve friendship, love, and compassion. Y’all prioritize a person’s desirability in determining their worth.

It’s to the point that I get really upset when my friends talk about their romantic and/or sexual relationships around me. I shut down and turn inward, the same way I do when I have a panic attack. I get jittery; my breathing gets shallow; I don’t interact with the people around me or the conversation that’s going on. I start to reflect on the fact that I haven’t had certain experiences — the fact that I am not afforded certain experiences — because I am average-looking, “weird,” awkward, and neurodivergent.

Image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your access to compassion.”

I’m still relatively privileged when it comes to desirability politics. I’m not dark-skinned. I’m skinny. For the most part, I can pass for neurotypical/non-disabled. But as soon as my mental illnesses decide to go H.A.M., people — generally white/non-Black, neurotypical, light-skinned, and/or conventionally attractive people — drop me quick as fuck. Y’all put up with people like me until you remember that we are unable to live up to those racist, ableist standards of beauty and comportment that y’all value so highly — that y’all value over the fact that everyone, every damn person, deserves grace.

I don’t want a bunch of comments on this post that say “But you’re beautiful, Jo!” or “You are lovable, Jo!” This is not me fishing for compliments, or even trying to boost my self-esteem (cuz no matter how close we are, y’all can’t do that for me). This is me asking y’all to really evaluate why y’all are willing to be kind to some people moreso than others. This is me asking you to examine who you are in relationship with.

Who have you found yourself attracted to? Who do you do favors for? Who do you spend time around? Whose GoFundMe campaigns do you share? Who do you extend grace to when they’re being “difficult?”

Are they all white or light-skinned? Are they all non-disabled? Are they all skinny? Are they all around your age? Are they all conventionally attractive? Are they all “charming?” Do they all enjoy doing things like going to clubs, being in large crowds, or other activities that are inaccessible? Are they all “talented?”

Who do you find yourself getting annoyed with? Who do you find yourself ignoring on social media or on the street? Who disgusts you? Who do you find yourself cringing at? Who are you short with?

Are most of them Black? Are most of them fat? Do they “behave oddly?” Are most of them autistic and/or neurodivergent? Are most of them dark-skinned? Are most of them “ugly?” Are most of them disabled? Are most of them elderly? Do they have access needs that you don’t have?

Are we just too “difficult” to be around?

This post is me saying you should interrogate your proximity to desirability and change your socializing habits accordingly. This post is me saying you should interrogate who you find worthy of grace. Do that shit, immediately. Because right now, y’all are mean as hell to people you don’t find attractive.

Image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your worth.”

“Cringeworthy” Is the Least of It: White Hamilton Fans Are Racist as F*ck

[Header Image description: the original Broadway cast of Hamilton: an American Musical getting ready to take their bow at the end of a performance. Source: Tampa Bay Times]

This piece contains a CW/TW for a discussions of racist violence, structural anti-Blackness, cyberbullying, and brief mentions of sexual assault (particularly against Black women).

Last Friday, the filmed performance of Hamilton: An American Musical was released on Disney+. Over the last week or so, criticisms of the musical’s historical inaccuracies, problematic casting, and its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda have resurfaced. Other critics focus on the fact that Hamilton and everything surrounding it is “cringe.” One thing that few people discuss, though, is how incredibly racist the musical’s white fans are. As a Black person and a former member of the “Hamilfandom,” I can’t let that go unmentioned.

I spent most of the summer of 2016 on Tumblr, where I had a relatively sizable platform for a seventeen-year-old: at my peak, I had well over two thousand followers. However, as is often the case for Black people online, plenty of followers bring plenty of vitriol — and in mid-2016, I was dealing with plenty of anti-Blackness from white fans of Hamilton.

As a teenager, I spent most of my time in online “fandoms,” or communities of superfans. At the time, Tumblr was the prime host for fandom culture. There are fandoms for anything you can think of, from BBC’s Sherlock to classic rock to manga. I was in many fandoms, including the one for Hamilton.

A major problem with fandom culture is that it’s incredibly and often violently racist. In “bandom” — the megafandom for pop punk bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy — I was threatened and even told to kill myself on more than one occasion for pointing out anti-Blackness from fans and the musicians we idolized. In late 2015, I left bandom specifically due to rampant anti-Blackness.

However, Hamilton was a whole different beast. As soon as I listened to the musical’s two-and-a-half hour long soundtrack in early 2016, I was hooked. I immediately followed Hamilton-themed blogs and started reblogging gifs of the musical. After a week or so, I thought to myself: “Wow, the Hamilton fandom is great! It’s not racist at all like bandom.” Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

The first racist thing I learned about was the slavery fanfictions.

[Image description: A screenshot of a Hamilton fanfiction entitled “A Slave (Thomas Jefferson x Reader).” The description is as follows: “You’re a slave, you’ve been a slave for almost your whole life, but only now life has started to get worse for you. Your owner has started to abuse you and beat you, yet one day a man in a magenta suit walked into your life and changed it. Can love be an option for a slave?” Above the description, the author notes that this fanfiction “might get deleted.” Source: Wattpad]

Yep, you read that right. If you don’t know, fanfictions are pieces of literary fiction written by fans for whatever piece of pop culture they’re fans of. Whatever there’s a fandom for, there’s fanfiction for. Fanfictions are often explicitly sexual — including these. White Hamilton fans were out here writing actual fanfictions about actual slavery. Like, literal, actual, forreal fanfictions about chattel slavery. Those are just what I found on the first couple pages of Google. On Archive of Our Own (AO3), a popular fanfiction host site, there are 71 fanfictions tagged as both Hamilton and slavery at the time of this writing. There’s far more on other websites like Wattpad, Tumblr, and Fanfiction.net. I stopped searching for more after this because I almost started crying.

According to one Black former member of the fandom, white authors would create enslaved original characters for their fanfictions or even write “self-insert” second-person works where readers would interact with the fanfiction as if they were an enslaved person hooking up with their owner.

It should be common fucking sense not to write romanticized literature about slavery and the sexual abuse of enslaved people. But even if these white fans somehow didn’t realize that, they were informed of such by Black fans; however, more often than not, they defended the stories. While some of these fanfictions were taken down due to backlash, many are still online.

Another Black former fan said that they were “bullied out of” the Hamilton fandom in 2017 because they told other fans to stop romanticizing the sexually abusive relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. They reported the following incident to me:

“I told them how sally hemmings was a child and Jefferson raped her so its not something to romanticize. 3 different people came at me talking about ‘its just a story’ ‘respect people’s ships’ ‘youre whats wrong in the fandom’ [sic].”

This fan received a death threat for daring to criticize the romanticization of sexual abuse.

Hamilton fans also wrote fanfictions about the cast members themselves in addition to ones about the historical figures they portrayed. Both heavily fetishized nonwhite cast members and the characters they played onstage. White authors played into many racist tropes, including: the “black brute/big scary Black man” when talking about Okieriete Onaodowan and his character Hercules Mulligan; the stereotype of Black men having oversized genitals with Chris Jackson and his character George Washington; and the general hyper-sexualization of Latinx cast members and the figures they portrayed. White fans would often call Miranda, who is Puerto Rican, “papi” in both fanfictions and conversations online.

There are even more problems with Hamilton fanfictions in addition to racism. At the time of this writing, 36% of Hamilton stories on AO3, or nearly five hundred fanfictions, were tagged with the warning rape/non-con. (“Non-con” is short for “non-consensual.”) Even more fanfictions do not put this warning because authors downplay the lack of consent and claim that their stories only portray “mild dub-con,” or “dubious consent.”

This meme sums up how I’m feeling. [Image description: screenshot of a Tumblr text post that reads “I just wanna say from the bottom of my heart yikes” overlaid on a picture of actor Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr. Source: Tumblr]

The fandom has a problem of denigrating Black fans’ perspectives on anti-Blackness. When Miranda — who is not Black — was recorded saying “nigga” in 2016, many fans jumped to defend him, even after Black fans expressed discomfort and explained why he shouldn’t say it. White fans assert their right to cosplay Hamilton characters even when Black fans explain why it’s problematic. (Miranda specifically intended for all of the musical’s major characters to be portrayed by people of color.) White fans also justify all-white productions of the musical and rationalize whitewashed fanart of Hamilton characters; there was even an entire Tumblr blog dedicated to calling out such fanart.

A Black fan had this to say about racism and anti-Blackness in Hamilton fanworks:

“art, fanfiction…and other types of transformative works included, do not exist in a vacuum. they’re part of the real world. a world where antiblackness, American history, glorification of the Founding Fathers, the downplaying of slavery, the erasure of historical black figures…are real things that hurt real people. [sic]”

source: Tumblr

When Black fans called out this bullshit, we — including and especially minors — were harassed and had our blogs reported en masse by white fans who were usually in their twenties and thirties. One Black former fan, who was in the fandom from ages twelve to thirteen, experienced microaggressions and said that they were “too scared to put [their] race out there” due to the fandom’s reputation for anti-Blackness.

[Image description: screenshot of a tweet that reads “who are your top 3 rappers? normal people: tupac, biggie, jayz. me: george washington, alexander hamilton, thomas jefferson” overlaid on a picture of Hamilton cast members onstage in costume. Source: Twitter]

Hamilton fans disparage rap and hip-hop culture, as seen in the meme above. Though this tweet was posted by a Black person, similar rhetoric is employed by white fans. They say “other rap music” is too violent and/or misogynistic for their tastes, but Hamilton is more palatable. After Black fans explained why this is racist, white fans got overly defensive.

They ignore or erase the roots of the musical styles in Hamilton, particularly that hip-hop was borne out of the struggles of Black people in the United States and that Miranda was specifically influenced by this music. The musical number “Ten Duel Commandments” is a play on The Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Ten Crack Commandments,” and there are many references to classic hip-hop and R&B songs throughout Hamilton.

A non-Black person of color reported that when Congressman Hakeem Jeffries said “if you don’t know, now you know” on the House floor earlier this year, she mentioned that it was a Biggie quote; however, a white person jumped in to note that “it’s also from Hamilton.” Miranda utilizes that line in the musical, but it is a clear reference to Biggie. The person of color went on to say:

“the fact that there wasn’t really an appreciation of the fact that the lyrics in Hamilton [were] often borrowed from big hip hop influences felt…wrong to me. Lin[-Manuel Miranda] borrowed that lyric from Biggie and I guess the fandom not appreciating the influences shows that there’s not really an appreciation for the genre…it feels like they don’t wish to actually take time to learn about what the art consists of.”

In addition to these trends, there is a ton of general racism in the Hamilton fandom. In 2017, there was a now-notorious incident of race-faking in which a white American fan pretended to be Asian and defrauded dozens of people out of money. Fans mixed up Black members of the cast who look nothing alike. Fans would infantilize Phillipa Soo — the only Asian-American actor in the original main cast — and lighter-skinned male cast members such as Miranda and Anthony Ramos and the characters they played. At the same time, they hypersexualized Black women and darker-skinned members of the cast — such as Jasmine Cephas Jones and Daveed Diggs — and their characters.

One white fan showed their ass by saying this:

“if you had told me last April that in a year’s time I would be finding a thirty six year old Puerto Rican with a beard [Miranda] adorable and a black rapper with an afro [Diggs] attractive, I would have never believed it”

Source: Tumblr

Racism was so prevalent and accepted that Black fans made a bingo card for it.

The “white hamilton fandom bingo.” The tiles are actual trends and incidents in the Hamilton fandom, including tone-policing of Black fans, sexual fetishism, and cyberbullying attacks on Black minors. Source: Tumblr

The thing is, this stuff isn’t just “crazy fans”; this racism is buttressed by the fact that the musical makes idols out of the founding fathers, who in addition to being racists, were slaveowners/slave traders (yes, including Alexander Hamilton himself) and rapists. This romanticization is not “just a musical” and therefore inconsequential; it allows for (white) fans to do the same not just in the fandom, but in the world. The musical allowed white people to fall in love with and literally stan the founding fathers — no different from what happens in your typical revisionist high school U.S. history classroom. Daveed Diggs, who originated the role of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, had this to say on Charlie Rose in 2016:

“When we meet Jefferson, his house is being prepped by all of his slaves. People don’t talk about that at all…the audience still falls in love with [Jefferson]. And that’s very telling.” [emphasis not mine]

Daveed Diggs (Source: Charlie Rose)

A Black former fan reported that they were told the following by a white fan:

“they [enslaved people] were LUCKY TO BE SLAVES OF SUCH GREAT PEOPLE [the founding fathers].” [emphasis not mine]

Because the musical casts nonwhite people as fundamental figures in American history, white fans have convinced themselves that they can’t be racist because they’re fans of a piece of art made by and for people of color. However, as we very well know, being in relationship with nonwhite people — or being a fan of a nonwhite celebrity, or thirsting over nonwhite people — does not automatically make a white person antiracist.

[Image description: screenshot of a Tumblr text post that reads “me: *is bitter but also right* overlaid on a picture of the Hamilton cast onstage. Source: Tumblr]

I actively used Tumblr from eighth grade through my first year of college; it was then, in 2017, that I left Tumblr, the Hamilton fandom, and fandom culture (mostly) for good. Tumblr and fandom life saw me through my most developmental years. The Hamilton fandom was, no cap, the most racist space I have ever been in. (I went to a private school in the South that didn’t fully integrate until 1976 and I now attend a university that only exists today because of a massive slave sale, so that’s saying something.)

This isn’t just fandom drama. This isn’t just kids being mean or cringeworthy. This is real, violent racism that many people, including and especially children, are forced to deal with mostly on their own. In case you don’t know what it does to Black kids to spend their formative years surrounded by unchecked racism, I’ll tell you: it causes deep-seated insecurity, self-doubt, and self-hatred, just to name a few harmful things. It’s not that I don’t want kids to be in fandoms anymore; I don’t want their niche interests and friends ripped away from them. What I do want is for fandoms to stop deluding themselves about their racial progressivism and undertake and employ antiracist principles.

When people bring up questionable or problematic aspects of fandom life, the prevailing response is “well, fandoms are bad anyway.” While there’s definitely a lot that needs to be unpacked about fandoms and wider stan culture, the response to “I am experiencing violent racism” is never “well, just stop interacting with those people! Boom, racism solved.”

So long as there are nerdy kids, there will be fandoms. So long as people are made fun of for their niche interests, there will be fandoms. It doesn’t matter what you think about the legitimacy of fandom life; the fact of the matter is that Black kids are literally being threatened and told to commit suicide simply because they are Black and demanding respect. Are you telling those kids that you don’t care that they’re facing violence because you think the thing they spend all their time on is stupid?

Racism anywhere is a symptom of the fact that racism is literally everywhere; we can’t just ignore it in fandoms because we may think they’re frivolous. Telling an individual to leave a racist institution will not make that institution or racism itself crumble. It takes a lot of work to tear down racist structures, and if we want an anti-racist society, we’re all going to have to put in that work.

There are many, many things wrong with Hamilton: An American Musical that have been discussed already. However, we can’t ignore the fact that one of those problems is the fact that thousands of white fans are utilizing the musical as yet another excuse to go out into the world and be racist. We can’t critique Hamilton without also talking about the fact that its fans are not simply cringeworthy, but actively and violently racist. I hope we can finally have that conversation.

6 Movies to Watch for the Race War (and What Not to Watch, Too)

So, the race war is finally poppin off. In moments like this, people turn to pop culture to understand what’s going on. Twitter has noted that The Help is trending on Netflix in the US. This is disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising. White people love feel-good movies about race; however, the point of this moment isn’t to feel good. The ultimate goal is a revolution of not only the massive, overarching structures that impact our lives, but a revolution of how we treat each other.

I’d like to emphasize that all Black lives matter, especially Black women, Black queer and trans people, fat Black people, disabled, mentally ill, and chronically ill Black people, Black immigrants, Black indigenous people, and Black Latinx folks. People who fall into one or more of these groups – including myself – are oppressed not only as a result of our Blackness but as a result of other identities. We are left out of dialogues about Blackness, womanhood, queerness, transness, body positivity, disability, mental health, illness, immigration, indigeneity, and Latinidad.

I would like to remind the rest of y’all – cishet Black men, non-Black women, White Gays™ (and white lesbians and trans folks), non-Black body positivity influencers, white disabled people, non-Black immigrants, non-Black indigenous and Latinx folks, and everyone else – that none of y’all would have the rights you have today without the Black people in your demographics, and none of y’all will ever be free unless you fight with us for our liberation, too. Abolition means killing the cop in your head and in your heart – that requires challenging and unlearning the anti-Blackness in yourself (and in your family, friend group, and wherever you notice it).

Below is a list of movies that can help you make sense of anti-Black racism and many of the ways it manifests, both overtly and covertly. Not every movie about race is gonna help you understand why Black people are so damn frustrated, so I’ve made a list of movies that won’t help you understand this critical moment. I’ve also included some movies to watch with caution – meaning they aren’t terrible for right now, but you should probably do some extra research around their topics.

I’ve listed where you can watch these films online, but check if your local library has Overdrive or your school/institution gives you access to Kanopy – you can likely find them for free there as well!

Films You Should Definitely Watch

Screengrab from Do the Right Thing shows characters Mookie, Sal, Vito, and Pino standing outside of Sal’s Pizzeria at night.
  1. Do the Right Thing (rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)

This Spike Lee classic demonstrates that just because you work with Black people or have Black friends doesn’t mean you can’t commit anti-Black violence. The film artfully shows how tensions boil over in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood in the late 80s on the hottest day of the year. In a time where Black people’s frustrations are leading to actions some people call “counterintuitive” or “violent”, this film makes it easy to see how seemingly small acts of antagonism come to a head.

Screengrab from The Watermelon Woman shows Diana and Cheryl standing in a video store, surrounded by racks of magazines and VHS tapes.
  1. The Watermelon Woman (free on Criterion Channel, or free with Amazon Prime)

This film by Cheryl Dunye follows a budding Black lesbian filmmaker in the 90s who is trying to track down information about “The Watermelon Woman”, an early Black film actress. It tackles sexual fetishism of Black people, Black queer (specifically, lesbian) erasure, and stereotypes of Black people in American film. Like Do the Right Thing, it shows that being in relationship with Black people – yes, even sexual or romantic relationships – does not automatically make one anti-racist.

Screengrab from Get Out shows main character Chris in the foreground, with a line of well-dressed white people in the background.
  1. Get Out (rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is about a Black man who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be super racist; it’s how they go about their racism is the surprise. This film shows how professed liberals (the girlfriend’s dad says he “would’ve voted for Obama a third term” if he could) can still have a visceral, deep-seated hatred of Black people and Blackness. This film also shows how non-Black people of color maintain anti-Blackness: an Asian man is shown participating in what viewers later realize is a modern-day slave auction.

Screengrab from Fruitvale Station shows a line of young Black men, including Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, sitting on the ground of a train station with two police officers standing over them.
  1. Fruitvale Station (free on Tubi, or rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)

Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the true story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed Black man killed by police on January 1, 2009 in the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. The film, starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant, follows him going about the Bay Area on the last day of his life and how a series of happenstances led to his brutal killing (though of course, all blame lies with the cops who participated, as well as the inherent anti-Black racism of policing).

A monochrome headshot of James Baldwin against a solid lime-green background.
  1. I Am Not Your Negro (free with Amazon Prime)

This documentary is a filmographic take on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript tentatively titled “Remember This House”. Inspired by letters and notes from the author’s life in the mid-70s and featuring archival video material, it connects the Civil Rights Movement to issues Black people face in America today. It reminds us that no matter how far we’ve come in the last fifty years, we still have a lot of work left to do.

Screengrab from The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 shows Angela Davis, wearing a red-orange turtleneck and sporting an afro, being interviewed by a white man, who is facing away from the camera.
  1. The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 (free to everyone on Amazon Prime Video)

This documentary, shot by Swedish journalists, shows the timeline of the Black Power movement in America over the titular years. It contains footage of many significant figures in the fight for racial justice, such as Angela Davis, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Huey P. Newton, Dr. Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, and others. The film tackles issues relevant to these people and their respective groups, including the Vietnam War, COINTELPRO, and the burgeoning War on Drugs.

Films You Shouldn’t Watch (at least, not for any helpful information)

Screengrab from The Help shows two white socialite women walking, being trailed by their Black domestic worker, wearing a maid’s uniform and looking overworked.

The Help

Do I even need to explain why you shouldn’t watch a period drama about subservient Black people to understand why Black people today are fed all the way up? The “mammy” archetype of Black women who are loyal caretakers/domestic servants to white families has gone on far too long. If you want to learn more about the mammy archetype and see pictures of actual women who were in this position, check out Dr. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders exhibit Framing Shadows.

Promotional picture from The Blind Side shows a young Michael Oher (portrayed by Quinton Aaron) next to his adoptive white mother (portrayed by Sandra Bullock), sitting on the stands of a football field.

The Blind Side

The Blind Side, which fictionalizes the story of professional football player Michael Oher, is the epitome of the “white savior” trope. It tells the story of his childhood in poverty and subsequent adoption by a well-to-do southern white family. This trope consists of poor Black people with no agency to help themselves who are rescued from their misfortune by nice white people. We don’t need white people to save us, y’all; we can liberate ourselves.

Screengrab from Green Book shows Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) sitting across a picnic table from his white chauffeur (played by Viggo Mortensen).

Green Book

Here we go with another white savior film. The title is inspired by the Negro Motorist Green Book, a historical guidebook for Black travellers that listed hotels, restaurants, and other establishments across the country that wouldn’t refuse them service on the basis of their Blackness. In this movie, Don Shirley, a Black musician, takes his copy of the Green Book and his white chauffeur on a tour of the Deep South and Midwest. The film portrays Shirley and the chauffeur as close friends and confidantes. The film was notably objected to by the real-life Don Shirley’s family, saying that it misrepresented and made overly sanguine the relationship between Shirley and his chauffeur.

Screengrab from BlacKkKlansman shows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) looking over at his white detective partner (Adam Driver), who is looking at a small card with KKK imagery.

BlacKkKlansman

This Spike Lee film dramatizes the story of Ron Stallworth, the first Black detective in a small Colorado town in the 70s. Stallworth attempts to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the KKK along with one of his white coworkers. This movie is straight-up copaganda – media that tries to make us feel sympathy for or kinship with police officers and tells us that ultimately, they’re trying to do good and keep society safe. I’d like to reiterate that policing, police departments, and individual officers are inherently anti-Black, and that all cops – even the Black ones – are bad.

Screengrab from Harriet shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, peeking out from behind a tree.

Harriet

Y’all really can’t let Ms. Tubman rest in peace, can you? I don’t care whether or not this movie was good – the fact that Cynthia Erivo, who not only is not a descendant of slaves, but also has a history of mocking Black Americans, plays the legendary Harriet Tubman is reason enough not to watch it. 

Films You Should Watch with Caution

Screengrab from The Hate U Give, showing Starr (Amandla Stenberg), looking fearful, with her hands in the air and facing outward.

The Hate U Give (rent/buy on YouTube)

This movie is based on a YA novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, which was pretty good for being the first major YA book about police brutality, but wasn’t amazing overall. Its conversation around respectability politics needs a bit more nuance, and it has copaganda (the protagonist’s uncle is a cop, though he is critiqued). However, the movie falls into typical Hollywood colorism in their casting of Amandla Stenberg (above) as the protagonist Starr, when the original book cover depicts Starr as an dark-skinned Black girl with a ‘fro. I think it serves as an entry point for young people into the conversation about police brutality and anti-Blackness, but it needs to be paired with further conversations and readings about how these systems of oppression play out in real life.

Promotional graphic for 13th shows modern prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits in the foreground laid over a photo of prisoners wearing striped uniforms from the early twentieth century.

13th (available on Netflix)

Ava Duvernay’s documentary explains how mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex came to be as a result of a loophole in the 13th amendment to the US constitution – the amendment that abolished slavery. Featuring interviews with Angela Davis and Bryan Stevenson, it challenges us to think about why we consider such egregious restrictions in freedom to be a normal part of our society. Unfortunately, the film does not take an abolitionist stance; however, I think it’s important to understand the history that led to such violations of human rights being legal.

Don’t Forget About Us — A Disability Justice Review of Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture

Rating: 3.5/5 stars (but still worth a read)

Short version: While the book provides novel insight into how we can care for people instead of utilizing shame, its core principle hinges on a myth that indirectly says that disabled/ neurodivergent people cannot be nurturing in the way the author outlines as the “right” way. If readers utilize a disability justice lens and additional readings (provided at the end) about disabled wisdom and diverse manifestations of emotional intelligence, I believe the book can still be helpful in learning how to be more nurturing both individually and as a culture.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars (but still worth a read)

Short version: While the book provides novel insight into how we can care for people instead of utilizing shame, its core principle hinges on a myth that indirectly says that disabled/ neurodivergent people cannot be nurturing in the way the author outlines as the “right” way. If readers utilize a disability justice lens and additional readings (provided at the end) about disabled wisdom and diverse manifestations of emotional intelligence, I believe the book can still be helpful in learning how to be more nurturing both individually and as a culture.

Ableism – which can be defined as disdain or outright hatred for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill people – is present in everyone and all aspects of society. No person or group, no matter their identities, is exempt from recognizing and unlearning their ableism.

All too often, disabled people are left out of social justice work. Somehow, because we have more or different access needs than “the average person” and we (rightfully) become frustrated if those needs are ignored, we are unable to do “the real work” of activism. Because we aren’t “normal”  – because we can’t be out in the streets for hours or we’re unable to complete a task as expected due to a flare-up, we aren’t “good activists”. Of course, this is bullshit.

The core concept I have learned from disability justice is simple: every person is different. Not in the trite, “we’re all the same on the inside” way – I mean that no two bodies or minds are the same. We all have different needs and methods of approaching tasks and challenges. We all understand and express things – such as emotions or frustrations – differently. We are all different, and as long as they aren’t harmful, all of those differences are valid.

However, we tend to stigmatize people whose differences are more apparent than others. Nora Samaran’s book Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture makes it clear that the author not only believes in, but actively perpetuates the idea that there is a “normal” and “right” way to approach the work of transformative justice and making our world a more caring, nurturing place. This hinges on an ableist belief that is repeated throughout the book: that the ability to be nurturing relies on “attunement” to “subtle, nonverbal cues” (pp. 27-28). Again, this is bullshit.

There are many neurodivergent people in this world who are not attuned to “subtle, nonverbal cues” who are still incredibly loving, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent. There is a prevailing belief that autistic people cannot empathize with others because they do not understand common nonverbal cues in the same way as neurotypical people. On the Autism FAQ section of their blog, Lydia X. Z. Brown answers the question, “Do Autistic people have empathy?” Their answer perfectly sums up my issues with Samaran’s assessment of what qualifies as nurturance.

One of the…characteristics of Autism is a deficit in the ability to understand nonverbal forms of communication — including tone or pitch of voice, word choice (such as idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors), facial expressions, body language, and other subtle communications…most Autistic people have a hard time accurately expressing their own thoughts, feelings, or opinions using nonverbal forms of communication. We also have trouble identifying the emotions of others based on subtext or body language.

Lydia X. Z. Brown

The inability to produce and interpret nonverbal cues does not prevent someone from having emotional intelligence; insisting otherwise is ableist, full stop. So long as we continue to prioritize “subtle, nonverbal cues”, we will ostracize autistic and other neurodivergent/ disabled people and perpetuate the ableist myth that someone must produce and read a certain type of body language to be able to communicate well with others.

Clinging to socially accepted nonverbal cues also adversely affects nonwhite people in the West. In many other cultures, it is offensive to look elders or superiors in the eye. Speaking as a Black person, our cultural idioms and body language are often read by non-Black people as “aggressive” or “threatening”, even though it’s how we’d interact with loved ones.

Prioritizing “subtle, nonverbal cues” hinders the development of the ability to make explicitly clear our feelings, frustrations, and discomfort. Being able to communicate these things in a way that everyone can understand is far more important than producing them in possibly unreadable ways. Being able to tell someone – in language they understand – that they’re harming you or making you uncomfortable is a very important part of emotional intelligence. Insisting that someone communicate in a certain “normal” way is not empathetic or emotionally intelligent.

In Chapter 3: “Turning Gender Inside Out”, the author presents a dialogue between her and Serena Bhandar, a transgender woman. Bhandar critiques parts of the book by saying “we reproduce this assumption that there is a cis[gender] audience that is primary and a trans[gender] audience that is secondary. We should be prioritizing them differently.” (p. 53) Mainstream society reproduces the assumption that there is a primary able-bodied population and a secondary disabled population. This is demonstrated when organizations ask people to convey their access needs after the event is already planned, or when we refer to certain methods of communication used by disabled people as “augmentative and alternative communication.” Augmentative and alternative in relation to what? Why are we saying that ablebodiedness is “normal” and that anything else is an “alternative”? Why do we ostracize certain ways of existing?

I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt; I really do. Disabled people are often perceived as “unlikeable” for pointing out everyday ableism like what I have pointed out in this review. On page 106, Samaran asks: “How long…would you retain your sanity while speaking kindly and asking for harm to stop and having it seem as though you had not spoken at all?” I’d like to flip that question for able-bodied/neurotypical readers: how long would you continue to be “likeable” while asking people to stop being ableist and they make it seem like you’re being disagreeable? How long would you keep being “likeable” if your identities weren’t even an afterthought – if they weren’t a thought at all? How long would you try to be “likeable” if people acted like you were an asshole simply for existing?

I believe that if someone were to read this book and implement its practices without the knowledge and lens of disability justice, they would inadvertently reproduce ableist maxims about which methods of communication are “normal” and “right”. They might think a neurodivergent person is harmful because they cannot read and reflect their nonverbal cues or because they communicate in scripted phrases, repetition, or “abnormal” physical action such as stimming.

We need to keep in mind that disabled people are not harmful simply because we move through the world differently than most people expect. Disabled people have a culture all our own, complete with the expectation that communication styles work for everyone, or as many people as possible. Saying that our methods of communication are not valid or emotionally intelligent is not nurturing – it is ableist and harmful. In social justice work, we cannot leave anyone behind; disabled people must be included and listened to in bringing about the emergence of nurturance culture.

Supplementary readings:

  1. Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, (2018).
    1. Chapter 2, “Crip Emotional Intelligence”, pp. 69-73 (can also be read here)
    2. Chapter 7, “Cripping the Apocalypse: Some of My Wild Disability Justice Dreams”, pp. 122-135
    3. Chapter 8, “A Modest Proposal for a Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered by Disabled, Femme of Color, Working-Class/Poor Genius)”, pp. 136-148
    4. Chapter 17, “Protect Your Heart: Femme Leadership and Hyper-Accountability”, pp. 213-224
  2. Brown, Lydia X. Z. “Ableist bullshit targets nonspeaking autistics/autistics of color. Also, the sky is blue.Autistic Hoya. (29 April 2017.)
  3. Berne, Patty. “Disability Justice – a working draft.” Sins Invalid. (9 June 2015.)
  4. Sequenzia, Amy. “Non-speaking Self Advocate on Communication.” Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network. (2 August 2012.) 
  5. Brown, Lydia X. Z., et. al., eds. All the weight of our dreams: on living racialised autism. DragonBee Press, (2017).
  6. Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice.” Leaving Evidence. (12 April 2017.)

normal girl [poem]

I am
A normal girl.
I get acne where my glasses rest against my cheeks and
I don't shave the places I can't reach
Most of the time, I don't shave at all.
I am
A normal girl.
I have long conversations with my friends and
Every so often, those relationships end
Sometimes, I end them myself.
I am
A normal girl.
I get self-conscious when I’m high and
I’m scared to talk to guys
But I’m more scared to talk to other girls.
I am
A normal girl.
I feel uncomfortable in dress-up clothes and
I hate heels with pointed toes
Usually, I wish I could’ve dressed like the men.
I am
A normal girl.
I get happy when people call me “he” and
I really don’t care which bathroom I use when I just have to pee
And occasionally, I’ll get weird looks.
I am
A normal girl.
I browse the male section for button-downs and
People probably look at me funny while I’m rummaging for discounts
But the truth is, I often wish I were a boy.

Photo credit: Scott Brown

Violent Delights Have Violent Ends

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

Racism and racial tension are the undeniable issues at hand in Spike Lee’s seminal feature Do the Right Thing, which culminates in a race riot between Black residents of a Bed-Stuy block and a white business owner in the area. Much has been written on the more blatant displays of these themes, such as police brutality against residents of the block or hostility between non-Black business owners and their Black customers. But what about more subtle interactions which heighten racial tension and eventually lead to the film’s violent climax? A flirtatious exchange between Sal, the Italian-American owner of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and Jade, a young Black woman and sister to the only Black employee of Sal’s, is one such subtle example.

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

As a rich jewel in Ethiope’s ear.

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 5

The Bed-Stuy block which serves as the setting for Do the Right Thing is a veritable hurricane of activity. A cast of characters with larger-than-life personalities, funny names, and signature habits lend the neighbourhood its rich, if eccentric, personality. Jade – sister and sometimes sidekick to protagonist Mookie – is the tranquil eye of this storm. It seems easy to overlook her stability; after all, she is one of few “normal” people in the film. However, Jade’s apparently straightforward character does not make her flat – in fact, it makes her a force in and of herself.

Jade seems to serve as a foil to her older brother; she rarely and briefly takes center stage. One such instance is when she pays a visit to Sal’s: Mookie’s place of employment and the only white-owned business viewers see on the Black residential block. She dresses for the oppressive heat of the day, wearing a pink wide-brimmed hat and a brightly colored sundress. When she enters, it seems as though (almost) the entire establishment breathes a little easier – especially Sal, the restaurant’s white, middle-aged owner.

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate

And in my temper softened valor’s steel.

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 1

Sal is more than a little hotheaded. He harasses Radio Raheem about his omnipresent boombox and gets into it with Buggin’ Out over the restaurant’s all-white “Wall of Fame”. He keeps a baseball bat behind the counter, yells at his sons-slash-employees to complete tasks, and speaks sternly to Mookie about slacking off on the clock.

When Jade enters, Sal’s rough exterior immediately softens. In the screenplay, it says that “a very noticeable change comes over him”. He stands up straight, his voice gets quiet and calm, and he speaks graciously of Mookie as an employee. Sal, who up until this point remained unfazed in the face of the block’s oddities, cannot seem to hide his infatuation – and the entire shop notices.

As Sal talks to Jade (“I’m gonna make you somethin’ special, somethin’ very special”), Mookie and coworker Pino share an exasperated side-eye; it seems that this flirtation is a pattern. Pino, Sal’s violently racist son, has been at odds with Mookie (and every Black character) throughout the film. Here, though, they are united: this little romance violates not only moral, but racial boundaries; it cannot and will not happen.

We eventually see Sal sitting in a booth with Jade, where he compliments her on her eyes. (From the screenplay: “Vito, Pino, and Mookie look on, watching Sal have the time of his life.”) After a while, Mookie grabs Jade and all but drags her outside and around the corner, where he tells his sister that he doesn’t want her in Sal’s anymore. She insists that her interactions with Sal are “completely innocent”, and Mookie responds with “All Sal wants to do is hide the salami.” Much like a Shakespearean play, desire is a point of contention and an exacerbation of existing tension that leads to the climax. In Do the Right Thing, all interactions are racialized; it is only natural that desire is racialized as well.

O me, what fray was here?…Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 1

White people love to claim that their romantic/sexual desire for or relationship(s) with nonwhite people makes them progressive and anti-racist; however, Sal’s thirst for Jade is an exemplary refutation of this claim. Sal still calls Black people “nigga”, antagonizes Black customers, allows his son to be violently anti-Black, and is friendly with the white cops who aggravate the block’s tensions. Sal, despite being mostly genial, is still unquestionably a racist white man.

Every interaction in the film is portrayed as a splash of gasoline on the neighbourhood’s unrest and therefore as another reason for the eventual race riot. At first glance, the interaction between Sal and Jade seems like a random, relaxed interlude in an otherwise uneasy atmosphere. Upon further study, it becomes clear that this scene is much like the others: a compounding factor in the racialized disquiet of the block.

In media about racial tension, interracial desire is often utilized as a catalyst for racial violence. How is the exchange between Sal and Jade any different? Their flirtation may not have caused the riot that left Radio Raheem dead and Sal’s Famous Pizzeria a burned-out husk, but it certainly did not help the existing tension that manifested itself as uneasiness at best and outright hostility and physical violence at worst. The dalliance between Sal and Jade was a minor scuffle, yes; but it was still part of the larger war.