A Letter to My Tumblr, Ten Years Later

Header ID: This is a screenshot of my Tumblr microblog as of September 6, 2021, nearly a decade after I first made an account on the platform. The blog’s background image is the famous painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. The sidebar says “nerdy ass bitch from da souf” and has my name, pronouns, and age. You can see one post I have “reblogged,” or shared, which reads: “‘tumblr is free btw’ maybe for you. this app has cost me everything.” The post is by user 2007xbox360.

2021 has treated me pretty well thus far. I graduated from Georgetown University; I did a fellowship at UC Berkeley; I’ve been contracted to give workshops on restorative justice, disability justice, and anti-racism; I started grad school, pursuing an MFA in creative writing. At this juncture in my life, I find myself wondering: what were the formative moments that turned me into the person I am in now — a person some might call moderately successful?

ID: A photo of Jo at his college graduation. He’s standing in front of a banner with a picture of a statue. He’s wearing a purple dress, white socks, purple rain boots, and a black graduation cap and gown. He is looking down and adjusting the gown. Picture credit: Jacqui Brown

When I ask myself that question, my mind goes to my family; influential teachers I’ve had; VOX ATL, a teen media outlet whose staff I joined in high school; and the supportive and culturally rich Episcopal church I grew up attending. I think about the friends I’ve made, the opportunities I’ve had, the public libraries I practically grew up in…the list goes on.

I also think about Tumblr. I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that site — and I mean that both positively and negatively.

Tumblr is a microblogging platform, which means that your account — which users call their blog — shares characteristics of both a typical social media profile and a proper blog. Tumblr blogs can be customized like MySpace pages: you can choose and/or code your own theme, add music, et cetera. They can be accessed as their own websites if you type [your username] dot tumblr dot com into the address bar. You can create your own posts and “reblog” (share) posts from other users.

You can’t talk about Tumblr without discussing its culture. Its heyday was in the early to mid 2010s; the site’s popularity went down after the porn ban of 2018. Tumblr was the place to be for online fandom culture. (Fandoms are communities of superfans; they’ve existed for quite a while, but have really popped off with the omnipresence of the internet). There are fandoms for video games, books, celebrities, television series, and even for historical periods, such as the American Revolution.

Tumblr was also known for its social justice bent. I remember having a conversation with my sister Jheanelle when I was in high school when she was shocked that I knew the word “cisgender” and understood the difference between gender identity and sex assigned at birth.  Jheanelle is ten years older than me; by this time, she’d already been out of college for a few years. She said she didn’t learn these concepts undergrad or later, while I’d learned them from Tumblr as a teen.

This is what the Tumblr dashboard — affectionately known as the “dash” — looked like as of February 2014. The dash is the site’s timeline, from which users can create and reblog posts. ID: a royal blue webpage that shows options to create and share posts as well as user functions such as seeing your number of followers or your recent activity. Source: Amazon

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tumblr lately because I turned twenty-three in September. As I embark on my Jordan Year, I find myself reflecting on my adolescence — an adolescence which was primarily spent in an online world that I curated for myself. In that world — which revolved mostly around Tumblr — I made and lost friends, achieved mild fame, and even got death threats. Most importantly, I figured out who I was — who I am. It all started ten years ago, when I turned thirteen.

It was 2011 and I was in the eighth grade at The Westminster Schools, Atlanta’s premier private educational institution. Most of my classmates were rich and white; I was a Black scholarship kid who had to leave my side of town at 6:30 AM to get to school every day. Many of my classmates already had iPhones, but my trusty red LG slide-up phone didn’t have internet access.

In middle school, I ran cross country and track and was on the swim team. [Take note of the student in the top left of the image working on a silver MacBook.] ID: Jo at age thirteen, running on a red track. She wears a white singlet, green shorts, and gray sneakers. Behind her are people in the stands.

That year, each student in the middle school received a MacBook to use for our work. Westminster absolutely sucked in a lot of ways for me as a Black lower-income student, but giving me my own laptop is probably the most significant thing an educational institution has done for me.

Being middle schoolers, we did childish things with our newfound access to technology: we took silly selfies on Photo Booth; we played games during class; we passed digital notes, undetected by teachers. By the time we got our laptops, many of my friends were already thirteen, and some redshirted kids were even fourteen by then; they were eligible for social media accounts on many platforms. I was always younger than my peers in K-12, since my birthday is a couple of months into the school year. My slightly older friends would scroll through Tumblr during class, but I felt left out; so in September of 2011, as soon as I turned thirteen, I created an account.

I think I can safely say that that decision — seemingly minor at the time, and probably seemingly minor to most people — is what set the current events of my life in motion, probably moreso than any other thing I did of my own accord as a kid.

I didn’t find Tumblr too interesting at first. In fact, I barely used my account for three months. If you go back to the very last page of my blog, where the oldest content is, you’ll see that around my birthday in 2011, I reblogged posts about The Hunger Games and some cringey, early-2010s memes. After that, there isn’t much for a while. That December, Jheanelle came home for Christmas, and I told her that I’d recently made a Tumblr. Something about conversation made me decide to give the site another try; it was all downhill from there.

From that point — December 2011, when I was thirteen years old — until around my nineteenth birthday in September 2017, I used Tumblr nonstop. I’d access the site from my laptop in my childhood bedroom (and later from my first college dorm), the mobile app on my phone at school, clunky old computers at public libraries, a distant relative’s desktop in Trinidad, and in stolen moments when I had wifi while visiting family in Barbados.

Throughout my teenage years, I often used Tumblr from when I got home in the evenings until midnight, if not two or three in the morning. I only did the homework I had to literally hand in and, being a dorky teenager, I didn’t really hang out with friends unless we made explicit plans. I didn’t even read physical books after ninth grade unless they were for class (which, being the daughter of a librarian, is notable) — fanfiction served as my literary entertainment. I barely even watched TV and I didn’t have any video games (again, librarian mother), so that wasn’t part of my life either.

Weirdly enough, I was still a “good student.” (Before college, I was always that kid who didn’t have to try very hard to get A’s; this article about school-age girls’ typical experiences with ADHD does a good job of explaining why.) In eighth grade, I captained one of Westminster’s teams at the national quiz bowl tournament. (Quiz bowl is kind of like Jeopardy!, but in teams.) In the fall of 2012, I began attending Southwest DeKalb High School (SWD), my zoned public Magnet school; the racism, long commute, and lack of financial aid at Westminster made attending untenable. At SWD, I continued to be an active member of the quiz bowl team; I also won awards for mock trial, took AP classes, and participated in multiple honor societies, including being the president of one.

In twelfth grade, I was SWD’s STAR Student, an award given to high school seniors in the state of Georgia with their school’s highest SAT score. I am pictured with Donna Lowry, an Atlanta journalist, at the DeKalb County STAR Student ceremony. ID: Jo is wearing a navy blue dress and black-and-gray polka-dot cardigan. She holds a certificate and stands next to Donna Lowry, a Black woman with short, straight brown hair who is wearing a black dress and black-and-white blazer.

This is all to say that I have no idea how I kept up a “good” academic record, robust extracurricular life, and an all-consuming internet habit. (In my last semester of high school, I read a 123,000-word fanfiction over the course of about twelve hours. I stayed up until three in the morning two nights in a row to read it and somehow woke up at seven to go to first period calculus.) I’d talk about Tumblr sometimes at school, and some of my friends had accounts as well, but I don’t know that anyone besides my mother knew just how much of my life at that time was spent in a digital space.

To people who aren’t inclined towards social media like I am, the question is always this: what do people who spend so much time online actually do? Well, it’s not just mindless scrolling, and it’s not nearly as “antisocial” as many people tend to think twenty-first century technology is. My life as a teenager was heavily centered around the fandom communities; just as with IRL communities, sometimes they were healthy spaces, and sometimes they were quite toxic.

It took a while after making a Tumblr to really get into fandom culture. In April 2012, Jheanelle — a veteran fangirl — sent me a LiveJournal link with every video of One Direction (1D) from their time on The X Factor, including their auditions, video diaries, performances, and behind-the-scenes clips.

The very first post on my Tumblr, from September 2011. ID: a screenshot of my Tumblr blog with a post that says “6 more days until Panem October!” with a gif of Josh Hutcherson saying “Oh. My. God.”

As a teenage girl in America in the early 2010s, I was in the target audience for the musical group; however, I’d managed to miss out on the hype. That day, though, I devoured every single video on that webpage, sitting in my room and staring at my school-issued laptop the whole afternoon. I was immediately enamored with this endearing boy band. I knew there was a significant fanbase on Tumblr, so I started following 1D-themed blogs and reading (shitty) fanfiction on the site.

I was in the 1D fandom from April 2012 until early 2014, which covers my last month of middle school through my first semester of tenth grade and transitioning to a public high school. Fandoms — and, by extension, Tumblr — truly became my whole life with “bandom,” the mega-fandom for pop punk bands such as My Chemical Romance, Twenty One Pilots, and Panic! at the Disco.

I’d always liked this type of music because Jheanelle and our sister Jacqui were in high school during the golden era of pop punk of the early to mid aughts. In typical younger sibling fashion, I thought anything my sisters liked was automatically the coolest thing ever — including emo bands. After they went off to college, I commandeered their Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park CDs, playing them on an old Walkman that I found in Jacqui’s old bedroom — which, by that point, had become my bedroom.

In the seventh grade, a boy I had a crush on (one of the few Black boys in my grade at Westminster) texted me the following without context: “shut up and let me see your jazz hands/remember when you were a madman/thought you was batman.” I googled it and learned that these were the lyrics to a new My Chemical Romance (MCR) song. When MCR broke up in March 2013, I heard about it — through Tumblr, of course — but I wasn’t in the fandom just yet. I don’t remember exactly how I got into bandom, but by the end of May 2014, right after the end of my sophomore year, my blog had transitioned from 1D to being covered in gifs and pictures of pop punk musicians.

That year, I started joining “nets,” short for “networks,” which were small groups of Tumblr users who were connected by an appreciation for one random aspect of their fandom, such as the ever-changing hair of Josh Dun (the drummer for Twenty One Pilots) and Gerard Way’s (former lead singer of MCR) “Weekend Pancake Report” skit. Nets were essentially online social clubs; we’d have (virtual) movie nights, (virtually) play Cards Against Humanity together, and we’d always like and reblog each other’s selfies. I made a lot of my friends in bandom through the nets I was in.

I reached five hundred followers on Tumblr around Halloween 2014, soon after I turned sixteen. On a Sunday in February 2015, I was sitting in church when I got an idea for a playlist: upbeat pop punk songs that are perfect for singing along at the top of your lungs. I uploaded the playlist to 8tracks, a social-media-slash-music-sharing site that was all the rage with Tumblr kids in the mid-2010s.

A screenshot of the 8tracks pop punk mix that propelled me to mild Tumblr fame. ID: A screenshot of a playlist entitled “sing until your lungs give out” on 8tracks. The cover image for the mix is a picture of Fall Out Boy member Pete Wentz performing onstage.

I promoted the mix on Tumblr and it got…pretty popular. I started gaining an audience at a rate I’d never experienced. (Tumblr sends users an email whenever someone follows them; after posting this, I got an email just about every day with new followers by the dozen.) My post about this mix soon got to over four thousand “notes,” a combination of likes and reblogs. It had taken me over three years to get to five hundred followers, but less than six months to double that and reach a thousand. Relatively soon after, I reached two thousand; at my peak, I had over 2,300 followers. This is the biggest audience I’ve ever had on social media, and I was just a sixteen-year-old emo Black kid.

2015 was my Tumblr zeitgeist. In March, I made my own net: the Trohman Thirst Network, dedicated to Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman. By this time, I was fully in the “skeleton clique,” the 21p fanbase. I still remember when they dropped “Fairly Local,” the lead single off of Blurryface, their second major-label record; it was uploaded to YouTube with no warning late on a Monday night in March. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, celebrating the new era on Tumblr (in fandom, “era” refers to a specific album cycle) with my fellow members of “the clique.”

Soon, though, the cracks in my tenuous relationship to this mostly white fandom and musical genre began to show. Earlier, around Christmas 2014, a net I had just joined didn’t realize that I was Black and tried to call me out for using a variation of the word “nigga.” In April 2015, just as I was starting to stan the band All Time Low, lead singer Alex Gaskarth went on an “all lives matter” Twitter rant in response to the Baltimore uprisings catalyzed by the police killing of Freddie Gray. (Needless to say, my days of being an All Time Low fan ended then and there.)

Blurryface dropped the next month; one of the songs on the album, “Lane Boy,” included the lyrics “I wasn’t raised in the hood/But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness.” Many Black members of the skeleton clique, myself included, thought these lyrics were a bit weird, since both members of 21p are white boys who grew up middle-class in Columbus, Ohio; but, as stan culture dictates, we brushed it off because they were the “band that saved our lives.” However, our unquestioning loyalty to 21p — and my devotion to bandom and pop punk in general — finally shattered in June 2015.

21p has faced lots of criticism over the years, most notably for singer Tyler Joseph’s tweet in the riotous summer of 2020 where he mocked people who asked him to “use his platform” to promote racial justice. However, the aspect that most critics miss — which is imperative to understanding 21p and its two members, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun — is that they are both products ofwhite, Midwestern evangelical Christian households and are still heavily religious as adults. Christian themes are very prevalent in their music and can be most explicitly heard in the track “The Judge.”

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-gender couples could marry each other anywhere in the country, and many bandom musicians tweeted their support. However, the official 21p Twitter account and the members’ personal pages were silent. We were a bit suspicious given the band’s background in a religious creed known for its homophobia. Some fans tweeted at the band with their concerns; in response, Tyler Joseph posted some notes app statement that essentially said he didn’t have the capacity to publicly support same-sex marriage.

The ensuing fallout caused a mass exodus of fans from the clique, myself included. Everything that had bothered me about 21p — and bandom writ large — suddenly rose to the surface. Why was I spending my waking hours stanning a bunch of white men who clearly didn’t give a fuck about my identities as a Black, queer young woman? I sold all of my 21p merch through Tumblr, including a ticket I’d bought to see them live that autumn.

On August 31st, 2015, I started hosting “21p roast nights,” which is what I like to believe was the hallmark of my time on Tumblr. The skeleton clique is a rabid fanbase; any criticism of 21p gets you dragged. Since I had a large platform and was one of few visible Black people in bandom, I hosted these virtual roasts to give other critics of the band a safe space to air their grievances. It worked like this: a couple of times a month, people would send an anonymous criticism/roast of 21p into my ask box. The messages ranged from insults to disappointment to earnest questions about the band. I would post these messages publicly on my Tumblr, often with answers or commentary, sometimes without. That way, I could weather the flack from the clique, while people who didn’t have many friends on the site wouldn’t have to deal with it.

ID: A screenshot of an anon message I got on the first 21p roast night I ever hosted.

I had a ton of fun with these roast nights. I was utilizing my platform to help people feel more welcome in bandom. Even though it was mostly “anon” messages (because people were fearful to publicly criticize the band), it really felt like a community. It was in this, though, that I learned an eternal truth of being a multiply marginalized Black person on the internet: more visibility comes with more scrutiny and, therefore, more violence.

I got far more supportive messages than I did angry ones, but I couldn’t fully avoid the vitriol of the clique: more than a few people sent me (anon, of course) messages saying that I should kill myself since I dared criticize their favorite band. I learned something that continues to follow me in my life: to non-Black and especially white people, I’m always gonna be the “angry Black girl” that people either love or hate (and sometimes, they love me until I call them out on their bullshit, and then they hate me).

For a few months starting in late 2015, I floated around Tumblr without a fandom. Then, in February 2016, I went to Barnes & Noble with a gift card I’d gotten for Christmas and noticed that the soundtrack CD for Hamilton: An American Musical was on sale. The musical was just starting its cultural takeover at the time and, while I knew next to nothing about Broadway, it had also taken over my Tumblr dash. As a lifelong nerd for US history, I was definitely curious; so, I bought the CD.

I listened to the two-and-a-half-hour-long soundtrack when I got home and I was immediately hooked. The 58th Grammy Awards, where Hamilton took home the prize for Best Musical Theater Album, happened to be that night; actually seeing the cast perform a song from the musical with choreography and everything only made me love it more. Soon, I was deep in the “Hamilfandom,” and my Tumblr reflected that: throughout the spring of 2016 and into the summer, my blog was all Hamilton, all the time.

I remember thinking this exact thing to myself soon after I joined: “Wow, the Hamilton fandom is great! It’s not racist at all like bandom.” But, like with pop punk, the anti-Blackness of this fandom (and the anti-Blackness of the musical and its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda) soon reared its ugly head. I’ve written quite a bit about how absolutely fucking racist the Hamilton fandom was, which you can read about here. The racism and other ridiculous bullshit of that fandom was just too much to bear and, by the time I started undergrad in August of 2016, I’d mostly left the Hamilfandom.

My mother and I at Georgetown University’s New Student Convocation in 2016. ID: Jo and her mother, both Black women with short hair and glasses, hug each other and pose for a picture. Jo is wearing a pinkish-red dress, a black graduation gown, and is holding a booklet. Her mother wears a monochrome checkered shirt and blue denim pants.

My very last fandom was also history-related: it was the fandom for the AMC television show TURN: Washington’s Spies. I wasn’t nearly as active in this fandom as I was in my previous ones. I shared fanart, followed the cast on social media, and liveblogged (the Tumblr version of livetweeting) episodes as I watched them, but after my bad breakups with both bandom and the Hamilfandom, I was pretty much over it when it came to fandom life. While I have been a superfan of things in recent years and dabbled in reblogging gifsets and fanart (like for Hozier or The Umbrella Academy) haven’t properly been in a fandom since TURN ended in the summer of 2017. With the end of TURN also came the end of my time on Tumblr — at least, the end of it being my entire life.

In mid-2016, a bunch of my friends from the Hamilton/history fandoms had started a group chat on Twitter, which they invited me to join. At this point, I’d had a Twitter account for a few years, but I basically never used it. Because of that group chat, though, I started using Twitter much more and have made quite a few friends on the platform. Twitter also allowed me to stay in touch with my friends from Tumblr after many of us, myself included, left the site over the course of the late 2010s.

Tumblr and fandom culture definitely changed my life; however, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. In addition to the racism from people online, my internet usage also caused a significant strain in my IRL relationships during my teenage years, particularly with my mother. While you’d imagine most teenage girls fight with their mothers over boys and going out with friends, my mother and I would fight about the fact that I was spending my adolescence cooped up in my room, staring at a screen. She often says that the laptop literally “felt like a wall between us.”

Besides contributing to emotional distance between us, she was also worried about what I was up to online all the time. I have two older sisters, but they went off to college in the mid aughts; they didn’t have the unfettered access to technology that I had as a minor until they were well into their twenties. While I am my mother’s youngest child, she has expressed that she essentially had no idea how to raise me in the technological landscape of the time. She told me that she felt like she had “relinquished parental control” and even felt as if she “could no longer be a proper parent.”

Earlier this year, we had a long conversation about her anxieties related to my usage of technology as a teenager, and she revealed quite a lot that she had worried about telling me earlier. She told me that she had “no idea” what I was doing online all the time and just had to hope that she raised me with enough sense that I wouldn’t do anything to put myself in harm’s way; despite this, though, she said that as a parent, “when you don’t know something, your mind goes to the worst place.”

She thinks that it’s probably easier to raise kids now than it was to raise a child my age — those of us born on the cusp of Millennials and Gen Z — because omnipresent internet and social media wasn’t as brand-new as it was when I was in middle and high school. Us “Zillennials” were on the “front lines” of figuring out now only how to balance our IRL and online lives but also how to balance privacy with being yourself when the whole world could be watching. To her, kids around my age “were the guinea pigs” for a life of ubiquitous internet access.

With all that in mind, I can’t change the past. My teenage years were shaped by and around Tumblr and my experiences on the site, and I have no way to alter that fact.

I learned who I am on Tumblr. I learned I am a person who loves being online. I learned that I am queer and gender non-conforming from Tumblr. I learned that I don’t fuck with capitalism or US imperialism on Tumblr. Ultimately, I learned that this world is much larger than my family or my school or my hometown; this world is much larger than me. I learned that I will never be alone if I just look hard enough — that there will always be people who can relate to my experiences, even if, on the surface, we seem totally dissimilar.

I met some of my closest friends on Tumblr, people who remain best friends to this day. (Harry and Tessa, whatup!) One person I met through the Hamilfandom has sent me a Snapchat nearly every day at 4:20 PM since we were both in that fandom back in 2016. (I send them a snap at 4:20 too, at least on the days that I remember before the clock turns to 4:21.) I still make many of my friends online today, even though I barely use Tumblr. Many of the people I talk to every day are people I initially and/or mostly socialize with online, whether through Twitter or Instagram.

Today, I am a burgeoning communications professional, having had multiple internships and jobs related to strategic communications and social media — I learned those tangible skills on Tumblr. (Deadass, I took a single one-credit social media workshop my sophomore year, and it was all things I already knew from being online all the time as a teenager.) My mom speaks highly of my skills in comms, and I always have to remind her that those skills came from the same internet usage that caused most of our fights when I was in high school.

Being a Tumblr kid also prepared me for the (physical) social distancing of the COVID pandemic. I’d been socializing with people across the country and the world since 2014, so I already knew how to maintain friendships with people when we couldn’t be in the same room. While my extroverted friends who only ever hung out with people IRL were left floundering in March 2020, my social life continued apace, practically unfazed.

Lately, though, I’ve been nostalgic for my Tumblr days. Last November, “Destiel Putin Election Night” happened on Tumblr, where memes about the show Supernatural, the 2020 election, and Vladimir Putin’s rumored resignation all converged, making for the literal funniest thing I have ever experienced. When it came time for my final winter break of undergrad this past December and January, I got back into Tumblr for the first time since September 2017. Unlike my teenage years, though, I just use Tumblr a few times a month when I feel like it for less than an hour at a time; it doesn’t take up my entire waking hours.

I might be the type of person some people would call “chronically online,” but TBH, I want to reclaim that label. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything else; I love who I am. To my internet friends, to my teenage self, and to Tumblr, I say: thank you. Thank you for helping me become Jo. I wouldn’t be myself today without y’all.

It’s Time to Replace the Phrase “White-Passing”

I’m real tired of the phrase “white-passing.”

I’ve been over it for a long time. It feels like a lazy shorthand for an experience that should be discussed specifically and in detail. Besides that, people are using the idea of “passing” incorrectly and extrapolating it to other identities when it has a very specific origin.

The concept of “passing” was created during chattel slavery in the land now known as the United States to refer to mixed-race people with Black heritage who could move through the world as if they were white. People who passed received legal, economic, and social rights that were warranted simply by being white in America. Black people who were unable to pass could not access these rights or even a level of humanity that came with being perceived and received by society as white.

Passing as an idea specifically concerns Blackness in relation to whiteness. There was no such thing as any other race “passing for white” and there was no such thing as Black people “passing” for any other race. Passing for white had not only social benefits, but also institutional benefits: people who successfully passed could vote, own property, and even be presidents of “elite” universities.

However, passing had a negative side. The “tragic mulatta” archetype was a literary trope created during the antebellum period. A tragic mulatta (or mulatto, if the character was a man) was a mixed-race woman with Black heritage who successfully passed for white. However, this character would inevitably lead a life of despair and catastrophe because she could never fully make peace with her Black heritage. You can learn more about this archetype and read about examples of it here.

It’s more than fine with me if Black people continue to use the term “passing” — after all, it has a very complex sociohistorical significance to us. And, in my opinion, we are the experts on what “passing” means — each part of the process — and what it means when you don’t pass. However, if you’re not Black and talking about Blackness — yes, both parts — keep the term “passing” out ya mouth. It don’t make sense for anybody else to use it any other way.

Not to #gatekeep, but the nature of passing — as a word, as a process, as a social experience — is very particular to the construction of Blackness and Black people in the present-day United States relative to whiteness. It simply doesn’t make sense when people generalize it to other identities.

I understand why people have attempted to extend the concept of passing to other racial/ethnic identities (such as Latinidad or the myriad of groups from the SWANA region, which stands for Southwest Asia and North Africa) and social identities (such as “passing for cisgender” or “passing for nondisabled”). We should have language to discuss what it means for a marginalized experience or heritage to not be recognized by society. However, the word “passing” is not the way to do it. I don’t have the solution for talking about that experience with other social identities, but using different terminology is possible: for instance, the use of the word “masking” in the autistic community.

Despite its historical significance, I believe that the term “white-passing” has lost its utility. In my opinion, words and phrases that were coined for a specific reason — even when they were created and/or embraced by marginalized people themselves — can and usually do become outdated at some point. This can happen for many reasons: co-optation; misuse; the loss of need for such a phrase; general changes in language and terminology.

One notable example of a term losing its utility is the word “tr*nsvestite.” It was embraced by many people who, in the present day, would be referred to as transgender or gender non-conforming. The organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) was founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two prominent nonwhite self-identified drag queens; they provided resources to homeless queer and trans people in New York City. While Rivera and Johnson embraced the word “tr*nsvestite” as members of the community, it is now widely understood to be offensive.

“White-passing” is in a similar boat — while it isn’t considered offensive, it certainly is no longer useful. First and foremost, it’s not descriptive enough. What does it mean to pass on different levels: individual, interpersonal, and structural? Second, the phrase is reductive of the experiences of people who physically appear to be white but have a non-white parent or parents. It collapses many different experiences and relationships to both whiteness and non-whiteness under one (very flimsy) umbrella. Lastly, it’s an incomplete phrase. What are the effects of being “white-passing” for that person themselves and what are the effects of the existence of “white-passing” people for the world around them — including both white people and the nonwhite community they come from?

People do not consider what it means to be “white-passing” in different settings. Folks tend to think that if someone is white-passing in one place, they will always have a certain experience of race and ethnicity. However, what constitutes race — on all levels from individual to systemic — varies with context. Being “white-passing” means different things to different communities in different places.

Earlier this year, I interviewed my friend Gia for an assignment. Gia is biracial, with one white parent and one Black parent. From kindergarten through eighth grade, Gia was the only Black student at her school; due to this, she was always seen as Black, despite her very light skin. She said that while she is “white-passing in some instances, [she] was not white passing in this instance.” She explained by saying that “My Blackness depends on the amount of whiteness around me. Compared to their whiteness, I wasn’t the same type of white as them — I experienced racism because it was in comparison to whiteness.” During our conversation, she said that being white-passing is “contextual” and discussed the significance of hair, particularly to Black women. She said that her “biggest indicator of Blackness is hair” and that changes to her hairstyle — such as having braids versus straightening her hair — often changes people’s perception of her race.

In the present day, when it is said that a person “passes for white” — or any identity, for that matter — it is implied that these identities are absolute and immutable. (This is because we have divorced the context of “passing” from its roots in chattel slavery, when it was known that to “pass” was the result of deliberate and tangible actions.) Many identities that we consider central to our existence are constructed and vary depending on context. What constitutes who is “disabled” is constructed, just as what constitutes a “woman” is constructed. Racial categories, however, were even more deliberately constructed than other identities. Whiteness was created during the era of colonization and chattel slavery to be the default, the norm. It meant having access to opportunities, citizenship, and, ultimately, power. Race, and especially whiteness, are not grounded in science or reality; they were invented by humans to provide legitimacy to the oppression of those deemed nonwhite.

[I would like to make it very clear that I am not saying that race simply doesn’t exist; as sociology’s Thomas Theorem says, situations that are defined as real are real in their consequences. In this case, though our conception of race was and is constructed, the consequences of race are very real.]

The phrase “white-passing” also locates whiteness and its privileges squarely within the individual rather than incorporating a lens of how it operates in our wider society. When we say a person is “white-passing,” we are saying that their whiteness travels with them from situation to situation; it ignores how a person’s whiteness can fluctuate with context, such as in Gia’s story. We have to recognize that, for many people with nonwhite heritage, they may or may not be received as white depending on the conditions at hand.

A man may appear to be white upon first approach by a law enforcement official. But if that official asks for his identification, and that identification displays a name such as “José García,” Mr. García may no longer be “white” to that official.

A woman may appear to be white while exercising in an all-female gym. When putting back on her regular clothes after her workout, she also puts on a hijab. To many people who see her wearing her hijab while outside the gym, she may no longer be “white.”

A student at a high school that is >95% Black is thought to be white by their peers, the vast majority of whom are Black. When they go on to attend a predominantly white institution (PWI) for college, their peers, the majority of whom are now white, correctly assume that the student is biracial. In a majority Black environment, the student was “white”; however, in a majority white environment, the student was no longer “white” to most of their peers.

Let me give a real-life example. At a meeting for a community organization which I was a member of, we were dividing ourselves up into small discussion groups based on racial identification. There were groups for white people, Black people, and non-Black people of color. One member was having trouble deciding whether to join the group made up of white people — which, if solely based on appearance, they could have joined — or the group made up of non-Black people of color, which, if based on certain personal experiences, they also could have joined.

At some point, this person began to cry as they told us about the racism and Islamophobia their family — which is from the SWANA region — faced when they were a child, which deeply affected and traumatized them. When this person is with their family, they are not perceived and received as white. But, now an adult with their own life, they would appear to be white while going about their day, on public transit or at the grocery store. However, that doesn’t wipe away the experiences they carry with themself. While this person does have skin color privilege, they still have emotional trauma due to negative racialization that would not immediately be recognized just from looking at them at that particular moment.

There is quite a bit of discourse on social media, particularly on Twitter, about “white-passing” people like the folks described in the previous examples. Many people who participate in this conversation say there is “no such thing as being white-passing.” I generally agree with them, for the reasons I stated earlier: the phrase “white-passing” is ambiguous, unhelpful, and has been divorced from its historical (but still relevant) origins. However, I halt when they say that people who would be called “white-passing” are “just white.” There is a difference, even if it is contextual and, at times, seemingly trivial. We must be precise with our language if we are to have conversations about race and find solutions to racism that really work.

In general, I’m just tired of people who do not have the experience of being Black in America utilizing the concept of passing. When non-Black people talk about “passing,” they’re just talking about the physical appearance of an individual. They typically do not consider the interpersonal experiences of that individual and how structures and institutions treat that individual. Passing is deeper than how one looks; it’s about your treatment by society and the things you receive as a result of that treatment. It’s about access.

I believe that the term “white-passing” has reached the end of its utility. It’s time to say what we really mean: access to whiteness.

What does it mean for an individual to have access to whiteness? First, instead of saying that whiteness is a fixed characteristic within an individual, it tells us that whiteness is a socially constructed mechanism. It also tells us what happens when a person can be read as white: not simply that they are “passing” for white, but that they can access and therefore utilize the powers and privileges of whiteness. Lastly, it implies that an individual’s whiteness isn’t a constant, but rather, it fluctuates; they may or may not access whiteness depending on the situation.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying white people — white people with two white parents, white people who would never, ever be [negatively] racialized — should start using “access to whiteness” as a euphemism to describe themselves. Y’all just white, hun. Don’t try to gloss over it.

I am also not saying that people with access to whiteness do not have to reckon with their skin color privilege (not to mention their privilege under texturism and featurism, too). Our communities still have to do the work of unlearning eurocentric standards of beauty, which affects not only who finds you attractive, but also systemic processes such as school discipline and sentencing in a court of law. People with access to whiteness must always be cognizant of their privilege and ensure they’re not taking advantage of it to contribute to the oppression of people darker than them.

“Access to whiteness” is a better term because, unlike the concept of passing, it can be extrapolated to non-Black racial and ethnic groups. It at least begins the conversation about the effects of being perceived and received by society as white. The phrase also talks about whiteness rather than being white — that is, it demonstrates that whiteness is a constructed, subjective concept rather than a fixed characteristic. In addition, “access to whiteness” locates racial categorization (and the benefits that accompany being categorized as white) within social structures and processes instead of a singular person and their physical traits.

“White-passing” is the past; leave it behind. “Access to whiteness” is my proposal for the language we need in order to have conversations about how to bring about a more equitable future.

Jo can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

The Illusion of Black Patriotism

Header image description: Olivia Pope, the main character and anti-heroine of the ABC show Scandal, stands in the Oval Office. She wears a red and black shawl and black pants and has her arms crossed over her chest. To her right there is a navy blue flag bearing the seal of the United States, and in front of that flag is the Resolute Desk. She stands in front of a window with gold curtains.

After Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, many people — Black and white alike — believed that this country had finally become a postracial society. To them, his election to the highest office in the nation proved that Black people really could do anything we put our minds to. Thomas Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal” had finally come true.

Except Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist and Black people were still being murdered simply for being Black while Obama was in office — showing that America was founded on racism and continues to operate based on racism. The idea of America as a postracial society is and has always been nothing more than an illusion.

Postracialism is the myth that Black people have achieved social equality with whites, meaning that race is no longer a salient factor in social relations and we no longer have to worry about racism. The disproportionate violence faced by Black people in this country has shown that postracialism is a total fabrication; however, this hasn’t stopped writers, showrunners, filmmakers, and others from peddling this fairy tale to the American public.

Over the last decade, über-patriotic Black political characters have become a staple in American media. This makes sense when you remember that Obama’s meteoric rise to political fame hinged on him proving to “Middle America” (AKA, centrist/right-wing white people) that he’s just as proud to be American as they are. Emblematic of this trend is Hamilton: An American Musical, which casts nonwhite people to play the founding fathers onstage. This musical has led to problems — more specifically, white people thinking they can’t be racist because they like a musical with a mostly nonwhite cast — but I’ve already talked about this quite a bit. There were also the characters of David Estes, a CIA higher-up on Homeland, and David Palmer, a Senator and later the president on the series 24.

Even more popular was the ABC show Scandal (2012-2018), which featured Olivia Pope, a Black woman who worked as a “fixer” for the rich and powerful of Washington, D.C., no matter their political leanings. Less mainstream but very well-known in its own right is a Hamilton fanfiction entitled Quid Pro Quo (known by fans as simply “QPQ”), which presents the characters from the musical as political figures in modern-day D.C. Both Scandal and QPQ include Black protagonists who love their country and fall squarely within the seemingly dichotomous two-party system. But, as I’ll explain, these characters just…don’t make sense.

Image description: A promotional photo for Scandal which shows many of the main characters lined up, apparently at the Lincoln Memorial. They wear all black, except for Olivia, who is front and center. She wears a black and white coat, black pants, and carries a black purse. Credit: ABC

I’m sure y’all know about Scandal, but here’s an overview just in case: Olivia Pope is a Black woman who, through PR expertise, makes problems disappear for her influential clients. Before the start of the series, she was the Communications Director for President Fitz Grant III, who is white, male, and a Republican. She’s also having an affair with Fitz, which is the titular scandal. Olivia is self-assured to the maximum and gets what she wants from everyone she asks something of, from her employees to powerful white men. Her race is rarely brought up onscreen. Cheryl Ann Lambert said that “Scandal presents an environment with no discernible sociocultural identity…The minimization of race in Scandal tends to normalize the idea that post-racialism is realistic and desired.” 

Before I get into QPQ, I have to explain how Hamilton fanfictions work. (Also, I’ll refer to fanfictions as “fics” because, TBH, nobody ever says the whole word.) The difference between a Hamilton fic and a regular American Revolution fic (which, yes, those do exist) is that in the former, you’re supposed to imagine the historical figures as how the actors in the original Broadway cast of the musical look. So, instead of imagining George Washington as some old white dude with dentures, he’s supposed to look like Chris Jackson, who originated the role in the musical. Make sense? Cool.

The very short summary of QPQ is that George Washington (who, again, is Black) is a preeminent U.S. Senator and Alexander Hamilton is one of his staffers and also his sugar baby. Political shenanigans ensue. That’s basically the entire plot. Now, QPQ isn’t just any Hamilton fic — it is the Hamilton fic. It is the most popular work in the “Hamilton — Miranda” fandom on Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction site, if you sort by “bookmarks” (the function by which users save works to their personal library). If you sort by “kudos,” or likes, it’s the fifth most popular work in the fandom. It has over 100,000 hits and counting — basically, if you are or ever were a Hamilton fan, it’s virtually impossible to have never heard of QPQ.

What Olivia Pope and QPQ’s version of George Washington have in common is that they’re highly successful political figures in twenty-first century D.C. who happen to be multiply marginalized Black people (a Black woman, in the case of Olivia, and a Black gay man, for Washington). They live in high-end areas of D.C. that have very few Black residents — Olivia lives in Georgetown, which is only about 6% Black, while Washington lives in Cleveland Park, which is about 9% Black. Both characters seem to be unconsciously isolated from their Blackness, even if other people around them recognize that they are Black. I have a running note on my phone of the times Scandal actually brings up race; in the 47 episodes of the first three seasons, Olivia is explicitly mentioned to be Black four times. In 34 chapters and 123,027 words of QPQ, Washington’s Blackness is mentioned only once.

Image description: A photograph of some of the core members of the original Hamilton cast; namely, Daveed Diggs, Chris Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Leslie Odom Jr. All of them are Black except for Miranda, who is Latino. When reading Hamilton fics about the founding fathers, this is what they are supposed to look like. This photograph actually inspired part of QPQ. Credit: The New York Times

In “Divas, Evil Black Bitches, and Bitter Black Women: African American Women in Postfeminist and Post-Civil-Rights Popular Culture,” Kimberly Springer wrote that professional success for Black women is often to the detriment of not only their self-esteem, but also their racial identity and affiliation. In other words, Black people who climb the professional ladder seem to forget they’re Black. Due to respectability politics, desire for white validation, and the general lack of Black people in fields such as medicine, tech, and national politics, the Black people who do “make it” either sacrifice or are forced to give up connections with the larger Black community for their career.

In Scandal, Olivia has a few Black people around her, but no Black community. There’s her father, Eli, who is often her onscreen enemy; her on-again off-again boyfriend, Senator Edison Davis; two of her employees, Harrison and Marcus; and a White House security guard, Morris. The most Black people she’s ever been around was in a 2015 episode called “The Lawn Chair,” where a cop shoots and kills a Black kid in a Black neighbourhood. Olivia goes to said neighbourhood just to try to ease tensions on behalf of the White House; she has zero connection to any of the Black people or the neighbourhood itself and shows no interest in forging connections with them. Her Blackness is secondary to her relationship with Fitz and his administration. In QPQ, the only Black people in Washington’s life are his wife/”beard,” Martha, and two of his employees, Aaron Burr and Lafayette. (There’s also Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, fellow members of Congress, but they’re political and personal rivals, not friends or supporters.)

D.C. has historically been known as “Chocolate City” due its high concentration of Black people and culture. I go to a PWI in D.C. and Black students here still manage to connect with the Black culture of the city, including attending Howard’s homecoming every year. I mean, shit, even Frank Underwood, a white Congressman in House of Cards, manages to go to a BBQ restaurant regularly and is ostensibly good friends with the shop’s Black owner, Freddy. How do Olivia and Washington somehow have no connection to any Black community in one of the Blackest cities in the country?

Image description: The signpost of Freddy’s BBQ Joint, a fictional Black restaurant in D.C. in House of Cards. Frank Underwood, a white Congressman and House Majority Whip on the show, regularly visits the restaurant and has a personal connection to Freddy, the Black owner of the shop. Credit: Netflix

Despite rampant gentrification, Black people remain the largest racial group in the District at 47% of the population; we face disproportionately high violence from law enforcement. According to The Guardian, in 2016 — the year QPQ was written and Scandal was in its fifth season — D.C. law enforcement killed five people, all of them Black. Black people are at even higher risk for violence from law enforcement in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area because it is under the purview of multiple local, state, and federal agencies. In QPQ and Scandal, however, Washington and Olivia fully trust these agencies and are unconditionally protected by them; their Blackness is never an issue with cops.

In his paper about the pitfalls of a white liberal approach to racism, Nicholas Oviedo-Torres writes: “White liberalism requires some form of denial of the reality of one’s full role within the racial hierarchy, which includes a denial of one’s full role as an oppressed member within the hierarchy.” When Black characters such as Olivia and Washington deny their reality, they “view other Black people as ‘the other,’ despite never being accepted by white people.” In Season 2, episode 11 of Scandal, Cyrus, the white male chief of staff, says to Fitz — while Olivia isn’t around, mind you — that his mistress “is not exactly a hue that most of your Republican constituents would be happy about.” Basically, Olivia’s race is relevant to others, even if it’s not relevant to her.

It’s clear that both Olivia and Washington comply with a neoliberal approach to life and politics for the sake of their careers. In the singular mention of Washington’s race in QPQ, he says: “I’m a black Democrat from Virginia…I can’t be a radical if I want to stay in office.” The blurb for the fic describes him as “a war hero”; he is very proud of his military service and it’s even mentioned in Chapter 2 that he voted for the PATRIOT Act. In Scandal, Olivia will do anything for “the good of the republic,” from rigging presidential elections in favor of a Republican candidate to literally killing people. Her one guiding moral is to ensure that the American experiment lasts as long as possible. Both of these characters are unequivocally patriotic, and, like Obama, proud to be Americans, despite the racially unjust foundations of the United States.

Image description: The first inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009. He wears a red tie and black suit; his right hand is raised and his left hand rests on a bible held by his wife, Michelle, while he takes the oath of the office of the President. Credit: Los Angeles Times

The history and present of this country show that being both Black and patriotic is more than a bit contradictory. When he wrote about his concept of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois posits Blackness and Americanness as diametrically opposed. He calls these identities “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” In sum, to embrace Blackness is to be un-American, and to be truly American is to be anti-Black. Sure, the world has changed quite a bit since Du Bois wrote this in 1903; I’m sure he never imagined a Black person becoming president a century later. However, I believe his words remain true, despite the social and political progress that has been made. In a 2017 article called “The Paradox of Black Patriotism,” Micah E. Johnson wrote about “potential tensions and nuances between allegiance to race and allegiance to nation”; I agree with this sentiment.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a bit of #BlackExcellence here and there. However, I often wonder what the costs of success are for Black people who are making waves in their respective fields. Black faces in high places seem great at first, but, as many people have written, mere representation won’t save us. Trying to prove that we’re just as American as white people won’t save us either, as the advent of the Movement for Black Lives under Obama’s presidency demonstrated.

It’s not surprising to me that both Scandal’s Olivia Pope and Quid Pro Quo’s George Washington were incredibly popular Black characters who were incredibly patriotic and lived in a seemingly postracial society. Nevertheless, I think postracialism and Black patriotism are not only inefficient, but unnecessary. I’m real tired of this trope; Black people shouldn’t need to love an imperial nation to attain success. Thanks, Obama.

Git Back, Git Back, Git Back: The Nonexistent Racial Politics of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

Header image description: A promotional photo for season 2 of The Umbrella Academy, which shows the seven adopted Hargreeves siblings standing in front of a black background with a white vortex. They each wear sunglasses that reflect an image of what they’re dealing with that season. Allison, the lone Black sibling, stands on the far left; her yellow sunglasses depict a civil rights rally, and you can see a Black person holding a poster that says “FREEDOM NOW.” Most of the others are white; the two other nonwhite siblings are Diego, who is Latino, and Ben, who is Asian. [Credit: Netflix]

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of The Umbrella Academy.

A few notes: (1) This article is about the racial politics of the television adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, not the original comics. (2) I asked friends and colleagues to contribute their thoughts to this piece before I wrote it; they are all nonwhite. I didn’t ask specific questions; I just asked for their thoughts about the “racial politics” of the show. (3) Both seasons of the show so far were filmed before actor Elliot Page publicly announced that his pronouns are he/they; his character, Vanya, is referred to by she/her pronouns in the show. Because the showrunners have not yet said what Vanya’s pronouns will be in future seasons, I refer to Vanya with they/them pronouns in this piece.

Now I want you to tell me brother

What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

Now if you was white, should be all right

If you was brown, could stick around

But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back

Big Bill Broonzy, “Black, Brown, and White” (1938)

Once I finished my finals in December, I had exactly six weeks for my winter vacation; like any good twenty-first century college student, I spent the entire break binge-watching television. I managed to get through The Wilds on Amazon Prime, season 4 of Riverdale, Shondaland’s Bridgerton, and even rewatch Avatar: The Last Airbender for the fifty-leventh time.

I also watched both seasons of The Umbrella Academy. As a *ahem* “reformed” emo kid, I’d been meaning to read the original comics for years now, and when I heard that Netflix was creating a TV adaptation, I was determined to watch it at some point. (The comics were written by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance fame.)

The TL;DR premise of the show is this: at noon on October 1, 1989, forty-three women around the world gave birth, despite not being pregnant before that morning. Reginald Hargreeves, an eccentric billionaire, adopted seven of these children and trained them to use their superpowers so that they could save the world from evil. Instead of naming them, Reginald numbered the children from one to seven; they eventually received names from their mother (who is an android). The basic rundown of the siblings and their powers is as follows:

  1. Number One — AKA Luther — super-strength — white man
  2. Number Two — AKA Diego — metal telekinesis — nonwhite Latino
  3. Number Three — AKA Allison — mind control — Black woman
  4. Number Four — AKA Klaus — able to commune with the dead — white man
  5. Number Five — no AKA — able to jump through time and space — white teenage boy
  6. Number Six — AKA Ben — able to turn himself into a monster — Asian man — died as a child in a mission, but Klaus summons him regularly
  7. Number Seven — AKA Vanya — believed to not have powers for most of season 1, but in reality can bend and control waves of energy — white person

In the comics, all of the Hargreeves siblings are white; this was changed for the show. I guess Netflix must have a bit of sense, because they didn’t make the same mistake as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (You send golden tickets all over the world and only white kids find them? C’mon, now!) Still, most of the seven siblings are white, including the group’s leader, Luther.

Of course, the leader character was gonna be a white boy. They wouldn’t dare have a PoC [person of color] be a lead in what they hope is a show that will bring in majority white audiences…In fact, when we look at the folks who get the most screen time, or the longest plots, Diego, Allison, and Ben get crumbs compared to Five, Vanya, Luther, and Klaus.


In season 1, which is set in 2019, race is never mentioned. I assumed that it would be like most colorblind adaptations, where race isn’t a thing. As I said in my last blog post, I like a good colorblind production — emphasis on “good.” I’m not saying The Umbrella Academy handles race badly, but they certainly don’t handle it well. The show’s racial politics are simply nonexistent.

Image description: A season 1 promotional photo. The siblings, from left to right, are Vanya, Five, Allison, Luther, Diego, and Klaus. Ben is not pictured. [Credit: Netflix]

The showrunners seem to have made certain characters nonwhite without much thought; namely, Allison, Diego, and Lila (who I’ll get to later). Or, as my friend Heejin put it, nonwhite characters were “slapped on for the Netflix version and it really shows.” It doesn’t really matter in season 1, because race never comes up. (Though, as Heejin sardonically noted: “ah yes…their multiracial adoptive family that has no racial tension because racism-is-over™.”)

The show is very clearly written by white people and the diversity of the cast isn’t necessarily bad in my opinion (unlike Hamilton), but there’s nothing substantial that the show attempts to say. It just feels like the new characters of color are tools for a white writer to say “look, diversity!”


However, race comes to matter in season 2 because the siblings have gone back in time to 1960s Dallas. As soon as Allison lands (literally) in that context, she unknowingly walks into a whites-only restaurant and is subsequently harassed and chased by a group of white men. She finds refuge in a Black hair salon that doubles as a meeting spot for the Southern Justice Coordinating Committee (SJCC). [Side note: is this the Hollywood version of “just change the answers a little bit so it doesn’t look like we cheated?] In the two years between her arrival in Dallas and the start of season 2, Allison has become an integral part of the civil rights movement in the city. Or, as Klaus very dismissively puts it: “Allison has been very involved in local politics.”

Before I move forward, it’s important to be aware of the fact that Allison, as a leader of this civil rights group, is light-skinned; as my classmate Iyanah said, the latent colorism is “its own mess.”

Also, throughout seasons 1 and 2, Allison and Luther seem to be romantically interested in each other. (Yes, they are brother and sister, and refer to each other as such.) This swirl incest storyline was brought up by four people who contributed their thoughts to this, and we’ve all agreed it’s weird AF. Jenna has a theory as to how the showrunners approached this little plot point:

Luther and Allison’s relationship can go to hell. They knew damn well if Allison was white they wouldn’t try it. Black women and white men have the most distance from each other socially so they hoped the audience would be virtually incapable of perceiving them as siblings.

Image description: A screenshot of a gif from the season 2 finale, which shows Luther giving Allison CPR. In this particular fan-made gif, the creator slowed it down and isolated it from the context of the episode, so it just looks like Luther is kissing her. We’re not gonna talk about it, we’re not gonna talk about it… [Credit: Netflix, vanyahargreaves on Tumblr]

A former classmate said this about season 2: “At first I thought we were supposed to suspend belief that racism existed…but one of the plot points was the Civil Rights Movement.” Another friend said that because this is a fantasy show, she didn’t think it would tackle any complex or serious storylines; it was weird for civil rights to become a “focal point” of the second season. As that classmate said, there’s a “disconnect” between the colorblindness of season 1 and the focus on race and racism in season 2.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: the civil rights storyline is incredibly clumsy. Zan, a former classmate, accurately pointed out that the civil rights movement in the show is an idealized and glossed over version of the actual, historical campaign. The refrain of the SJCC is “honor and dignity”; in other words, “don’t beat these crackers’ asses even though they deserve it.” My friend Khalid noted that “the show disregards other movements for civil rights that weren’t as nonviolent.”

In the third episode, Allison’s [Black] husband, Raymond, is being beaten by a racist white cop after a failed sit-in at the same restaurant Allison accidentally walked into earlier. When Allison uses her mind control powers to get that cop to leave him alone, Raymond sees her in a negative light despite the fact that she literally saved his life. Zan said that besides being unrealistic, this only serves to further the belief that Black people aren’t even permitted to use force in the name of self-defense.

Throughout season 2, the other Hargreeves siblings actively ignore the fact that Allison, their sister, is facing racist violence. Adora, a student at my university, said it was unrealistic that her siblings would be “walking [around] freely while Allison is fighting for her life.” The lack of involvement of her siblings — or any non-Black people at all — in the SJCC’s campaign implicitly tells viewers that fighting racism is the onus of Black people and Black people only. Besides being irresponsible to signify such (especially considering that this season premiered in the summer of 2020…), it’s also completely ahistorical: the real life Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the organizing home of leaders such as the late John Lewis) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the organizing home of Dr. King) were intentionally multiracial coalitions.

Image description: A screenshot of a gif of season 2, episode 1; it shows the characters Lila Pitts, who is South Asian, and Diego Hargreeves, who is a brown Latino. [Credit: Netflix; shesnake on Tumblr]

The second season of The Umbrella Academy also includes a conversation about proximity to whiteness that, while unintentional, is emblematic of our society’s racial mores. Though Allison is not the only nonwhite character, she is the only one who faces racism. (This is just more fuel for my theory that when the race war finally does pop off, it won’t be white people versus people of color; it’ll be niggas versus errbody else.) Her brother, Diego, is a nonwhite Latino; however, his race is rarely mentioned, despite the fact that they are in the American South in the Sixties. In episode one, a newspaper calls Diego “a man of Hispanic descent,” while in the season finale, a news anchor mistakenly refers to him as a “Cuban exile.”

At the beginning of season 2, Diego is institutionalized in a mental hospital (the staff of which regularly harasses and violates its inmates) because he’s been stalking Lee Harvey Oswald, trying to stop him from shooting JFK. Two things: (1) since when do nonwhite people go that hard for the Kennedys? (2) The normalized ableism endemic to this show…whew, chile. That’s a whole other article right there.

In the hospital, Diego meets Lila, a South Asian-British woman whose sexual tension with him from her first onscreen moment is cringe-y, to say the least. (I have thoughts about this relationship too, but I’ll just sum them up with this: while searching for images of Diego and Lila to use above, I mostly found shipping fanart and gifs. My face was set in a grimace the whole time I was scrolling.)

As far as viewers can see, the hospital has no Black patients; yet, somehow, a nonwhite Latino and a South Asian woman can be there. Later in the season, viewers also see Lila at a bingo game with a bunch of old white people (in Texas! In 1963!); she is the lone nonwhite person in attendance. Nobody comments on her presence. Yes, legalized racial segregation in the United States very specifically targeted Black people; however, it also applied to non-Black people of color. Acting like these characters would be sharing facilities with white people is plain incorrect.

Diego, Lila, and their sexual tension get into hella misadventures during the season. As my friend Kodie said, “literally Lila [is] darker than Allison, running amok [in] the early 60s, and Diego was clearly brown too.” Many people I spoke to brought up the fact that the total lack of discrimination faced by the only other brown main characters is ludicrous. Make it make sense, Netflix!

Diego and Lila freely waltzing around 60s Texas?? Hello?? They are Not White. It’s like the writers knew they’d hit backlash for not bringing up race in the show so they used Allison & said, “Hmm, Black people…I think we’re good here.”

Image description: The Hargreeves siblings in the season 2 finale. From left to right: Klaus, Ben, Five, Vanya, Luther, Diego, and Allison. [Credit: Netflix]

I’m just scratching the surface of this show’s questionable handling of race. The people I spoke to brought up much, much more that didn’t fit in this article, but is no less relevant. The fact of the matter is this: we do not and have never lived in a postracial society; therefore, race, when addressed in popular culture, must have a clear, responsible, and contextual set of racial politics. Unfortunately, The Umbrella Academy falls quite short of this target.

As Big Bill Broonzy said more than eighty years ago, and The Umbrella Academy demonstrates in season 2, if you’s white, you’ll be alright; if you’s brown, stick around; but if you’s Black…you might as well git back.

Am I still going to watch any and all future seasons of The Umbrella Academy? Absolutely. (And not just to thirst over David Castañeda as Diego, mind you.) Maybe it’s because I love messy television, but I’m still curious to see where this show goes in season 3. And, for some reason, I’m hopeful for Allison’s character in future episodes; she deserves better treatment than she’s gotten thus far.

Beyond Tolerance: Golden Shovel in Honor of Dr. King

Header image description: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Riverside Church in New York City. He stands in front of a small podium and a microphone. There are three white men sitting at a long table behind him. On the wall of the church behind Dr. King, there is a cross; on a table underneath the cross are two tall candles with an open bible between them.

My favorite Dr. King speech is “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” It was delivered on April 4, 1967 — exactly one year before his assassination — at Riverside Church in New York. I love it because it gets at the core of what was (and still is) wrong with the United States: racism, unnecessary poverty, and a love of violence. In the speech, the civil rights leader speaks out against not only the war in Vietnam, but “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

This speech is a far cry from the watered-down, centrist, passive version of MLK typically “honored” on his namesake holiday. It’s explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and pointedly directed at war hawks and liberal enablers of the military-industrial complex. Besides that, it also calls for us to love and respect all people regardless of who they are. While right-wingers and white supremacists like to utilize that logic to tell us we should respect their “beliefs,” Dr. King meant that we need to love and respect people half a world away, American or not.

A few days ago, I wrote a “golden shovel” poem in honor of the holiday and this particular speech. A golden shovel is a poetic form where the last word of each line is taken from a poem, song lyric, or some other quote. In my golden shovel, found below, the last word of each line spells out two of my favorite quotes from Beyond Vietnam: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” and “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.

You can read and listen to Beyond Vietnam here (I highly recommend it if you’ve never read or listened to the speech before), and you can learn more about the golden shovel form here.

beyond tolerance: a golden shovel in honor of Dr. King

No matter your political predilections, you are still a
Person who is white. Therefore, there will come a time
Of dissonance between your doctrines & deeds. It comes
If you choose comfort over compassion. It comes when
You embrace pernicious parts of whiteness, when silence
Benefits you better than your privilege-rich voice. That is
The point at which you have committed an act of betrayal.

And when that hour is upon us, I can tell you that we
Will no longer be able to continue as we currently are
A state where we who are Black are constantly confronted
With the unchangeable truth of who you are, tasked with
Bearing the violence of your whiteness. At that point, the
Entire energy of your entitlement will surface: that fierce
Flood of your social authority. You will try with urgency
To prove the depths of your acceptance, the totality of
Your tolerance. That point is always; that point is now.

You can share this poem from my Instagram or Twitter.

Bridgerton Isn’t “Colorblind” At All, Actually

Header image description: A banner showing the main characters of Bridgerton in a garden. Two of the characters are Black, while the rest are white. They all wear the dress of the 19th century British elite, indicating their elevated socioeconomic status. Image credit: Netflix

If you’ve been on Twitter since Christmas, you’ve definitely heard about Bridgerton. The show is the newest member of the Shondaland empire and is the company’s first production following Shonda Rhimes’ deal with Netflix. Bridgerton is notable because it’s set in the high society of 1813 England and, well, Black people are included in that society.

On the surface, Bridgerton seems like a pretty typical example of a type of nontraditional casting known as “colorblind” casting, where the race of an actor is not necessarily considered in auditions. Well-known examples of “colorblindness” on the stage and screen include Hamilton: An American Musical, Riverdale, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (the 1997 version with Brandy).

Each of these productions does “colorblindness” differently. For Hamilton, the only aspect of race considered is that all of the main characters — except for King George — are intended to be nonwhite. In Riverdale, characters that were white in the Archie comics — such as Veronica Lodge and two members of Josie and the Pussycats — are played by nonwhite actresses in the show. In the 1997 Cinderella, it seems as if race was fully ignored in the casting process.

People have expressed a myriad of problems with “colorblind” casting. Obviously, racists don’t like it because they’re racist, but we can ignore them. Historians worry that nontraditional casting leads to misunderstandings of history and papers over historical racism, while many nonwhite people note that it often feels contrived or forced, that it can be dangerous to ignore race, and that this style of casting often seems to absolve production companies of social responsibility in regards to race.

Personally, I like a good “colorblind” production — emphasis on “good.” In my opinion as both a history buff and a nonwhite cultural critic, it can be fun to see a period piece with Black people in corsets and French-style military uniforms, type 4 hair done up in fancy, intricate styles. It’s fun because the audience is able to forget, even if just for a moment, the way nonwhite and specifically Black people have been excluded from so much of society. To me, it’s a respite from the status quo of lily-white productions of classic or historical tales. “Colorblind” casting doesn’t imply that race and racism don’t exist; it’s merely a twist on what is typically done.

Image description: the main characters of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. From left to right, you have Cinderella (played by Brandy, a Black woman); Prince Christopher (Paolo Montalbán, who is Filipino); Queen Constantina (Whoopi Goldberg, a Black woman); and King Maximillian (Victor Garber, a white man). Image credit: Disney

In my opinion, Bridgerton does not do the whole “colorblind” thing well — at all. Here’s the thing: any type of nontraditional casting is pointless if it just reinscribes stereotypes. And the show in question unfortunately does just that.

In the world of Bridgerton, most dark-skinned actors portray side characters and/or servants. One exception (kind of — he only appears in episode two) is the late Duke of Hastings, Simon’s father, who is played by a dark-skinned actor; he is pictured on the right here. However, he is irredeemably ableist, cold-hearted, and downright mean; all in all, an undeniable antagonist. The other exception is that Lady Danbury, a protagonist, is portrayed by a darker-skinned actress. All of the other Black main characters — Simon, Queen Charlotte, Marina Thompson, and Madame Delacroix — are played by light-skinned actors.

That’s all to say that Bridgerton isn’t really “colorblind.” Sure, it ignores race in terms of historical accuracy, but it certainly doesn’t ignore color — that is, skin tone. When nontraditional casting only uplifts the more privileged in a marginalized group — in this case, Black people who are privileged under colorism — it only serves to reinforce ideas about who is acceptable in that group.

Bridgerton further undermines their “colorblind” world when they inexplicably decide to explain why the racial mores of the show are so different from what we know was historically the case. In summary, Black people have been included in the high society of 1813 London because King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, is a Black woman. Somehow, by marrying Charlotte, the king integrated England, made interracial marriage and procreation okay, and totally destroyed racism, all in one fell swoop. If you can’t tell by my tone, their “explanation” doesn’t make sense at all.

Image description: Queen Charlotte’s court in Bridgerton. Queen Charlotte herself (center) is played by a light-skinned Black woman, while two of the people standing behind her — who never get names — are dark-skinned Black women. The other two women are white. The two dark-skinned Black women and one of the white women hold Pomeranians. Image credit: Netflix

Does Netflix think their Black viewers are Boo Boo the Fool?

It’s been fifty-six years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 here in America and us niggas are still dealing with the same old shit. Does Shondaland really expect us to believe that in the fifty-two years between the marriage of George and Charlotte and the setting of the show, none of those hoity-toity crackers even blink twice at Black people thinking they’re equals? Attitudes do not change that quickly, and if you think otherwise…well, you’re probably white. (It should be noted that Chris Van Dusen, the creator and showrunner of Bridgerton, is a white man.)

If you’re gonna do nontraditional casting, you might as well go all out. It doesn’t have to make sense and it definitely doesn’t need to be explained — that’s kind of the point, tbh. If y’all ignored race in the casting process, then let your viewers (try to) ignore race while watching your show. We can bond over our collective thirst for Regé-Jean Page (Simon) without you bringing up racism, please and thank you.

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. As of October 2021, over five hundred works in the Hamilton fandom on AO3 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.

One of my friends, a non-Black woman 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. My friend 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 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 foolish?

Racism anywhere is a symptom of the fact that racism is literally everywhere; we can’t just ignore it in fandoms because we 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)

Header image description: A large, off-white banner held aloft on a city street, which reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in all-caps, black bold text.

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.


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.


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.)