Today, I had planned on discussing the birth and death of Elizabeth of York. Alas, I feel as though I must discuss Beyoncé’s performance at the 2016 Super Bowl before it and its civil rights message loses cultural focus.
First, a celebration of one’s heritage and ancestry only seems to be problematic in America when black people do it. Irish people (and anyone with an “Irish grandmother”) go bananas on St Patrick’s Day and no one blinks. People forget that this wasn’t always the case. St. Patrick’s Day celebrations used to be a disgusting display by the lower classes that Americans frowned upon. All those parades came from newly rich Irish folk (who were NOT considered white people) noisily and raucously declaring their pride in their marginalized ethnicity.
Happily for for those of use with Irish ancestors, the Irish have become “white” and since the later half of the twentieth century when we party in mid-March, the rest of America parties with us. We are so white that no one suspects Barack Obama of being “un-American” because of his Irish ancestry. That is some serious white, y’all.
Now, let us discuss the critiques of her performance’s message. Criticism which is flowing the most freely out of the mouth’s of white males middle-aged and older. Criticism that, I might add, is at a pitch of near-hysteria. Seriously, I kept expecting someone to clutch his or her pearls and faint from a mixture of chagrin and horror that Beyoncé makes sociopolitical and cultural statements with her music.
We’ll use Rudy Giuliani’s critique of Beyoncé’s performance as the model for this pearl-clutching, since few people have said anything that didn’t echo or restate these central tenants of terror (I highlighted some words that have a lot of what sociolinguists call connotation. For example, fat v/s curvy or burden v/s load or smell v/s stink or ambitious v/s ruthless; obviously words can have roughly the same meaning but are meant to evoke very, VERY different responses. Ever noticed that only women’s voices are called “shrill” and our shouting is referred to as a “shriek”?) . Giuliani said,
“I think it was outrageous. The halftime show I thought was ridiculous anyway. I don’t know what the heck it was. A bunch of people bouncing around and all strange things. It was terrible … I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive. And what we should be doing in the African-American community, and all communities, is build up respect for police officers. And focus on the fact that when something does go wrong, okay. We’ll work on that. But the vast majority of police officers risk their lives to keep us safe … I mean this is a political position, she’s probably going to take advantage of it. You’re talking to middle America when you have the Super Bowl, so you can have entertainment. Let’s have, you know, decent wholesome entertainment, and not use it as a platform to attack the people who, you know, put their lives at risk to save us.”
To paraphrase, his arguments were 1) Ewwwww look at her do dances and stuff that will/have spread out from the black community and will/have become popular with a white audience; just like rock and roll and rap music! 2) The ungrateful wench is totally attacking cops who risk their lives to save hers!
Okay, raise your hand if you cannot grasp that “decent wholesome” entertainment for “middle America” means “respectful of authority and palatable to middle-age and older white people”? If you raised your hand, go take a introductory sociology class because I cannot explain it all in one blog post using words small enough.
I’ve seen the video (afterwards, because I do not give a tiny poo about the Super Bowl) and I saw many things calling for resistance to racism and the need for police to understand black lives matter too and thus cops should not shoot black people willy-nilly, but I did not see any suggestions or implications that the solution to these things was to commit violence against police officers. Which makes me wonder: why is insisting black lives are important and police officers who kill unarmed black people should be subject to review seen as synonymous with “attacking” all cops? Isn’t this like saying that women who want rapists to be judicially punished and held accountable for rape hate all men? When women want equality we call ourselves feminist, but feminists are accused of hating men all the time simply for wanting to be treated equally. Wanting equality is constructed as an attack because it is an attack on systemic issues, not the individuals within a system, yet the real goals of social justice seekers are elided by the false rhetoric of “attack”. The message of Black Lives Matter:
“that black lives are currently undervalued relative to everyone else’s, and the country needs to recognize that to bring an end to the disparity … Suggesting that Black Lives Matter is about going after individual police officers further reflects this misunderstanding — since the movement focuses on the systemic issues that influence individual police officers. The movement wants to fix the policies that lead to the overpolicing of black communities and the implicit dehumanization of African Americans. Under this view, it’s not the individual cops who are to blame for disparities, but the system that pushes them to act out in unequal ways. So targeting individual officers does nothing to achieve the movement’s broader goals, and in fact may detract from them.”
More to the point, it is far right white groups that kill cops rather than Black Lives Matter activists. The people who are deliberately targeting the police are too often middle aged white men, but the police continue to see black men as more dangerous. That means that cops are more likely to shoot unarmed black people AND more likely to be shot unawares by white people. It would behoove law enforcement to understand the sociocultural conditioning that skews their perceptions; it would make them safer and better able to serve the community.
Giuliani’s problem is that he, like his fellow elderly white pundits, is seeing the performance, as Mark Twain said about James Fennimore Cooper, “through a glass eye, darkly.” That glass eye is the eye of white fragility. White fragility is “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” In short, many white people freak out if they are asked to think about race or what it means to be NOT white.
For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.” In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people. The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.
Because white people think ONLY bad people can do racist things, or racism is only found in actions, to have to think about systemic racism means someone is calling them an icky racist! They know racist/racism is bad, but they don’t understand what it actually means. Racism is not merely thinking one set of humans is better than another set, or that some humans are lesser. Racism, as understood and defined by social scientists, is:
“a host of practices, beliefs, social relations and phenomena that work to reproduce a racial hierarchy and social structure that yields superiority and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others. Racism takes representational, ideological, discursive, interactional, institutional, structural, and systemic forms. Despite its form, at its core, racism is constituted by essentialist racial categories that turn human subjects into stereotyped objects, and then uses those stereotypes to justify and reproduce a racial hierarchy and racially structured society that limits access to resources, rights, and privileges on the basis of race.”
So, simply by being white — even a really REALLY poor white person – can allow you to benefit from racism even involuntarily and be unintentionally racist if you aren’t aware and you don’t strive to overcome it. This means that in America a black person can be prejudiced toward whites or even a bigot, but NOT racist because black people as a group do not have the collective power to enforce a racial hierarchy lessening white people.
Racism also stems from the power and wealth of collective groups:
“power based—and flows from power to lack of power … Racism is directed from majority to those not in the majority and has its roots in economics. In China, for example, racism would be directed from Han Chinese to any of the other 55 ethnicities. Instead of “white” privilege, China has “Han privilege”—same concept—and from Tibet to Xinjiang (where the Uyghur people live), there are protests, sometimes violent, over Han economic domination … The concept of white privilege confuses and frustrates many white people, especially people who don’t perceive themselves as being in a position of power … Racism is more subtle than bigotry, and the concept of “majority” privilege is far more subtle than racism.”
It only seems “outrageous” to celebrate blackness and decry systemic racism and say black lives matter if you are beset with white fragility. Release your fear, Giuliani. People used to think that Italians were scary threats to society too, and the Italians sure enough protested against the fact they were being killed because their ethnicity was deemed naturally violent and dangerous. Italians celebrated their heritage – especially through Italian entertainers and singers, just like Beyoncé –until it became ‘okay’ to be of Italian decent … okay enough to even become mayor of NYC!
(Perry Como and Frank Sinatra)
Not all criticism of Beyoncé’s performance came from white men, of course. Most noticeably, there is the dunderhead that compared Beyoncé’s performance with a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan because it evoked the Black Panthers. Um, no. This is what is known as a false equivalency.
First, the Black Panthers never said that black people were superior in any way to any other ethnic group and had members of the group who WERE white; the KKK maintains that the WASPs are superior humans above all other humans. Secondly, with the exception of a handful of questionably-proven murders, the Black Panthers were defensive rather than offensive. There are no incidences wherein Black Panthers went out and found white people to kill because of the color of their skin. The KKK, in contrast, is a terrorist organization which murdered many people via lynching and bombs and whose murders are so underreported that it is impossible to know exactly how many people they slaughtered. Unlike white supremacists, the Black Panthers never lynched a pregnant woman and cut out her baby alive and stomped it to death. Moreover, unlike the KKK, the Black Panthers actually helped people. The Black Panthers provided free breakfasts, free health care, free ambulance service, and a food pantry. What does the KKK give back to communities besides terrorism, theft, and sexual assault? Furthermore, the Black Panthers have never followed in the KKK’s footsteps of infiltrating the police in order to get away with murder.
The final critique levied at Queen Bey is that she has appropriated the nightmare of what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans for her own purposes. I disagree. Katrina’s effect in NOLA had some profound racial elements that fit Beyoncé’s narrative of calling out systemic racism. Black people were disproportionately left to die, disproportionately killed by authorities ‘helping’ in the aftermath, disproportionately remain homeless, and are disproportionately unable to regain their economic footing again after the floodwaters receded. Beyoncé, standing-in as a marker for blackness in her video, has the “right” to criticize that.
For black activists and people who study cultural phenomena like racism or people who just want racism to stop being so freaking systemic, Beyoncé’s performance and new music video is a call to arms … but not in the way people like Giuliani fear:
Formation, is a different kind of resistance practice, one rooted in the epistemology of (and sometimes only visible/detectable to) folks on the margins of blackness. The political scientist Cathy Cohen talks about activism at these margins, the kind of deviance-as-resistance built and cultivated at the margins of respectable blackness. Formation, then, is a metaphor, a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance. It is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins–woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant–before an overt action. For the black southern majorettes, across gender formulations, formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement. To be successful, there must be coordination, the kind that choreographers and movement leaders do, the kind that black women organizers do in neighborhoods and organizations. To slay the violence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy, we must start, Beyoncé argues, with the proper formation. The proper formation is, she contends, made possible by the participation and leadership of a blackness on the margins.
This is not the first time a Beyoncé Super Bowl performance has instigating teeth-gnashing among the more conservative part of the populace and some feminists. Her 2013 Super Bowl appearance was denounced as “too sexy” and hand-wringing ensued. Beyoncé is frequently “too sexy” to be anything but scary to people who are uncomfortable about a black woman owning and flaunting her own power and sexuality.
As I mentioned in The Jezebel Effect:
Beyoncé Knowles was called a “whore” and “trashy” because she danced provocatively with her own husband on stage at the Grammys (Harmsworth, 2014). As a woman, Knowles was not supposed to be openly and actively sexual even with the man she has society’s theoretical blessing to sleep with. According to Focus on the Family — a far-right conservative organization that both decries feminism and yet assures women that being married is a feminist thing to do because it empowers women — a husband’s sex drive is “God’s gift” to his wife and “it is right and godly to claim your husband’s sexual desire as a potent source of influence in your marriage” (Slattery, 2009). Okay, so Beyoncé was right and godly like a boss, right? Nope. She was too sexy.
Beyoncé, with her unapologetic commitment to civil rights and feminism along side her unabashed sexuality as a black women, is the embodied intersection of all things terrifying to a white patriarchal culture. No wonder she is a lightning rod for complaints every time she drags race/gender skeletons out of the sociopolitical closet and dances with them.