Soul-less

I was skeptical about Pixar’s Soul. I love animated movies, but watching the trailer and seeing the Jamie Foxx-voiced lead, Joe Gardner, morph into a little glowy orb thing gave me a stomach ache. Soul looked as if it would be yet another animated movie in which a BIPOC character spent a major portion of the film not visible as a BIPOC character but as an animal, or an object, or whatever.

I read a little about the film before seeing it – very little because I hate spoilers. (There are, in fact, spoilers coming up, so be forewarned if you haven’t yet watched the movie and hate spoilers.) I did that recon because I wanted to know what other folks were saying about this “mighty morphin’ BIPOC” crap. Some were sharing the same disappointment and concern that I felt after seeing the trailer. Others were talking about how hard the filmmakers had worked to not fall into those traps. I remained skeptical.

I read excellent pieces by Monique Jones (Shadow and Act) and Andrew Tejada (Tor). I even found a Change.org petition.

I knew I was going to watch the film, but I still had a stomachache about it. My bits of research did nothing to resolve my doubts. A good friend called with a rave review – so beautiful, what a great story, such amazing animation. I still had doubt. I raised the issue, and they said they didn’t think it really applied to this film. Which actually made me more doubtful.

Okay, before was just a casual heads up. This now is an official SPOILER ALERT. If you keep reading, you’re absolutely getting spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So I watched the film. And it is beautiful, and the animation is amazing, and the story is good … ish.

Yes, Joe Gardner turns into a little glowy orb thing pretty early on in the film, really early. And I gather from some of the pieces I’ve read since watching the film that I’m supposed to be charmed by the fact that – after a brief time in the “soul world” – I get to see the Black man on screen again and see him for the remainder of the movie. I’m supposed to be charmed … or perhaps lulled into acceptance/acquiescence/inability to see what’s actually going on. Yes, I get to see a Black man on screen again …

Except not. When the body of the Black man returns to the screen, the man himself – the magical essence that makes him Joe – is in another character’s body and Joe’s body, the Black man’s body is inhabited by … wait for it … a white woman. I’m serious. We do get to hear the Black man because his soul winds up in the body of an animal. We get to see the Black man’s body – moving awkwardly and with the voice and thoughts and ideas of a white woman. Just typing it makes me tired.

All of the significant moments the Black man experiences in this section of the movie – which is, of course, the bulk of the movie – are  worked through and experienced by the character called “22” who’s voiced by Tina Fey. If you watch the trailer, most of the moments in which “Joe” is shown having a moment of joy or a significant realization are moments when Joe is actually not Joe. All of those moments and realizations are happening for 22. Yes, Joe – in his furry, animal form – is there to observe these experiences, but he is removed from the direct experience himself. This is most telling in an important scene sham-Joe (Joe’s body without Joe’s soul inside) has with his mother. It would mean so much more for Joe to be the one speaking, for Joe to be the one having that moment of understanding with his mother, for Joe to be the one embracing his mother. Instead, real-Joe gets to watch 22 have a beautiful moment. When real-Joe acknowledges his mother at the end of the scene, of course she’s not paying him any attention because she’s focused on sham-Joe and, even if she were looking at real-Joe, all she would hear would be animal noises because real-Joe’s soul is bottled up in an animal.

And then there’s the fabulousness of 22 deciding not to give Joe his body. Yes, the white woman decides that she’s quite comfortable living in Joe’s body, thank you very much, and isn’t interested in returning it to him. Yeah, that.

Joe does get back into his body and gets to spend some time on screen as Joe’s-soul-in-Joe’s-body. There is a return to the soul world in which we, of course, lose Joe’s body again. And then comes a brilliant bit of original writing, a kind of plot point we’ve never, ever, ever seen before: Joe decides to give up his body all together to help 22. It’s clear that I’m supposed to be moved by Joe’s sacrifice. Joe is that good, that giving, that heroic. No. I mean, I was moved … to being totally pissed off. Joe is going to sacrifice himself so that a white woman can go enjoy her life? Really? Haven’t enough Black bodies been sacrificed? Even just in the past year, forget about decades and centuries of history.

Back in October, Kristen Acuna wrote about the work the filmmakers did to avoid racist tropes:

“We were unaware of that [trope] as we started, but we certainly became aware,” Docter, who’s also Pixar’s chief creative officer, said […]

“My hope is that when you see the whole film, there is plenty of Joe on screen,” Docter continued. “I think we have over 50 percent on Earth that follows Joe’s life, his places of where he goes, people he’s with, and then the other part is in the soul world.”

Yes, sham-Joe is on screen for the majority of the movie. Sure. But sham-Joe is just that. We get to see a non-Black person move through the world wearing a Black man’s body like a costume. We see sham-Joe interact with the Joe’s friends better than Joe has interacted with them. We see sham-Joe live Joe’s life more fully than Joe. It’s pretty aggravating.

There are other annoying things about this film. There’s the ham-fisted microaggression of another Black man being mistaken for Joe – He’s Black, get it? That’s comedy! – and then being terrorized as a result of that botched identification. And the entire story arc of the hunter from the soul world who comes to earth to capture Joe is problematic. The character, Terry, is a little too slave-catcher-y for my tastes, bringing to mind John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet.

Soul frustrated and disappointed me, but I have to acknowledge that some parts of this movie are pleasing. Some of the ideas about how our souls develop and how our personalities are shaped are great — at turns funny, a little wrenching, thought-provoking. Some of the animation is stunningly joy-inducing. When Joe (real-Joe) plays the piano, the sequences are gorgeous. His hands, especially, are everything I could ever want and more. I read about how Docter worked hard to capture pianist Jon Batiste’s playing style so he could create it for Joe, and I give him full marks and extra credit for the finished result.

Those pieces of the film that are stellar actually make me more annoyed with the film as a whole. The time and attention taken to create them is clear. The filmmakers wanted to be sure to get them right, to wow us with just how right they got them. (The simply perfect animation of a samara fluttering down from a tree and into sham-Joe’s hand is quietly extraordinary, beautiful.)

All that care and attention … and not once did someone think it might be a mistake to have the body of a Black man inhabited and controlled by a white woman? Even if, as Docter said in interviews, the filmmakers were unaware of the issue of Black animated characters disappearing from center stage almost as soon as they arrived, surely someone in this current world we live in should have seen the tone-deafness of having a white woman take over the body and voice of a Black man. We’re years into the constant barrage of news stories showing white people white peopling, showing Beckys and Karens raising the alarm when they see Black men doing nothing more egregious than talking to their wives at local brunch spots.

And yet, the care taken to create Joe’s beautiful piano playing, his gloriously long and graceful fingers, his nearly tangible joy in the music … that same care couldn’t be extended to the embodiment of the primary character?

Soul isn’t a “Black movie,” isn’t a film that delves into the Black experience. It is, instead, a movie about learning to value yourself and your time, about living your life fully. It is a movie about all of that, and the central human character is a Black man. His Blackness isn’t key to the unrolling of the storyline. His Blackness simply is. And that’s great. Black characters written as multi-faceted beings going about the business of living their lives, unburdened by the stereotypes they’ve been written into forever is excellent.

Soul isn’t a Black movie, but it is, too. It wants to take advantage, with a kindly nod and wink, of the double connotations of its title. And it for-sure wants credit for the gentle dive into showing some aspects of Black community – the barber shop, the tailor shop. So, not claiming to be a Black movie, but … trying hard to be one all the same.

Whether Soul is considered a Black movie or not, Joe’s Blackness can’t be ignored. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet learned, colorblindness isn’t real, and pretending to be colorblind is insulting, is racist, is hurtful and damaging. True acceptance of others isn’t about being able to magically not see the things that make them different from us. It’s about seeing those differences and having them not make a difference. So Joe’s Blackness, while not a plot point of this film, can’t be ignored. Joe’s Blackness is. We want to be able to watch his everyman story play out, and we need to see that his Blackness is in good hands, that the filmmakers understood their responsibility for Joe’s Blackness.

They didn’t. At least not fully, not enough to see some glaring missteps.

Docter said he was unaware of the disappearing-animated-BIPOC problem. And I find that easy to believe. BIPOC folks have been aware because we’re the ones it’s happening to, ours are the faces and bodies that are being disappeared. Docter has had the cozy privilege of not having to pay attention to such “details.” He has been able to simply watch and laugh as a frog or pigeon or llama or whatever bumbles along through the film instead of the BIPOC character whose story is supposedly being told.

I can play along and believe that Docter didn’t know about this pattern of erasure. But it’s also true that he was made aware of the issue and still didn’t take enough care to avoid errors like the ones written into this film.

And yes, as part of his efforts, Docter brought in Black folks – writer, director, various consultants – to work on the film. Soul was already three years into it’s five-year development. It’s great that Black folks were brought in to work on this film The fact that there weren’t already Black folks involved is a red flag, but it’s also true the lead character wasn’t a Black man in the first versions of the story … I want to believe that the moment the character became a Black man, someone looked around the table, saw all non-Black faces and said, “Oh, we need to do something differently here,” and set about to shake things up.

Kristen Acuna’s article about the effort to avoid racist tropes includes this comment from Kemp Powers, a Black filmmaker who joined the Soul team:

“This film is that first effort. Keep in mind, I was invited on as a writer and then made a partner as a co-director. And, it’s a sad reality that there haven’t been many Black people in general in positions of power in animation,” Powers noted. “Just in the couple of years that I was at Pixar, I watched the number of Black animators and Black story artists increase. I just love the fact that rather than just talk about it, Pixar was moved to action and I can speak to that having witnessed it.” (Acuna. Insider, October 2020)

It’s easy for me to believe that much (all, I really should just say all) of the gorgeousness of the portrayal of Black people in Soul exists because of the inclusion of Black creatives on the film crew. Still, I was left feeling that those creatives were brought into the production to serve, in part, as shields. When folks like me raise concerns about the movie, those creatives will be shoved in our faces and we’ll be reminded that they — the some-of-my-best-film-crew-friends-are-Black Black folks — thought the film was okay, so we must just be overreacting and seeing bias where there isn’t any. Again.

Soul is beautiful, and it has a lovely message in the end. It also left a bad taste in my mouth.

Bedtime for Becky

(This is something I wrote early in February and then decided not to post. I was okay with my decision not to post. The moment for this commentary had passed, I had moved on to other things. Then this afternoon I was on the 4 train headed downtown and overheard a group of older white women saying some problematic things, and I decided to pull this piece out of my “dead drafts” pile and go ahead and post it. Also, I say “older” white women, but I, of course, have no idea what I’m talking about. I guessed them to be 60s and up, but they could have been closer to my almost-60 age. I’m posting it as-is, as it was when I wrote it: unfinished and chock full of disgust.)

So Monday, or as I like to call it: Old White Women Show Their Whole Asses Day. Yeah. First Barbara Ehrenreich, followed in quick-step succession by Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter. All of them coming out from behind the screens of their feminist, social justice respectability, flinging off their filmy veils and revealing their bright, shiny racism in all its bare-assed fabulousness.

Thank you all.

I’ll start by saying that no one is required to love Marie Kondo, or even like her. You’re certainly not obligated to read her book or watch her Netflix show or tidy your home. If nothing about her or her work sparks joy for you, that’s perfectly alright. Your life will continue apace, and so will Ms. Kondo’s.

But here’s what you are required to do. You are required to resist sinking into the pillow-soft comfort of your deeply-seated racism and colonizing xenophobia. No one needs to see or hear that mess. Punto. You don’t like Marie Kondo. Fine. If you don’t have reasons to dislike her other than 1) her foreign-ness, 2) her audacity to speak her own language, or 3) her physical appearance matching some old stereotypes you have about Asian women … than keep your thoughts to yourself.

And if you choose to show us your racism, don’t try a) to delete your ugliness without comment and b) replace it with further ugliness and then c) not respond to any of the much-deserved criticism you receive but instead d) try to reposition your ugliness and claim it was meant to express something else entirely and then e) tell everyone who isn’t buying your dainty pile of bullshit that they clearly can’t take a joke.

Oh look, Barbara: you did every one of the “don’ts.” Score!

Pollitt and Showalter had nothing to add to the xenophobia, but they slid so easily into exoticizing Kondo, describing her in just about every infantilizing, diminishing stereotype of Asian women.

I’m not surprised that criticism of Kondo fell so quickly into racism. How could it not have, given the steaming dung heap that is our white supremacist society? I’m not surprised, and still Ehrenreich, Pollitt, and Showalter surprised me.

And that’s my fault. I was surprised because I’d let myself be lulled into a false sense of safety, let myself be fooled into thinking their feminism had any room for women of color.

Every time I think I’ve girded myself against the scourge of White Feminism, I find myself pulled back in … and disappointed as thoroughly and painfully as every time before.

Now, for everyone fixing their mouths to tell me that Marie Kondo is, in fact, pretty and little, and pixie-like, and what the hell is wrong with anyone saying what is quite obviously just a statement of truth? Your “words have meanings” argument doesn’t go far enough. You’re absolutely right that words have meanings … but they also have history and context and carry the weight of their use to perpetuate oppression and othering and dehumanization. And you don’t get to have the meaning without the history and context.

If you wanted to describe me — a tall, fat, Black woman — as a pretty little pixie, there would be no backstory of stereotyping you’d be tapping into. Even the tiniest and most fairy-like of Black women haven’t been typecast in this way, which is precisely why it would probably never occur to you to use those descriptors for me. Describing me as a pixie might even make you sound interesting, turning all the pixie images on their heads. (Yes, I think I will assume this descriptor from this point forward, brand my self as “PixieGriot” instead of GirlGriot. Absolutely.)

So you could mess with people’s heads by calling me a pretty little pixie. But to attach those words to Marie Kondo when the fairy-like, submissive, pocket-sized Asian woman has been a stereotype for as long as there have been white people aware of Asian people … well, that’s not edgy and interesting. It’s just problematic. And, just as we don’t believe any of these jackasses currently in the news saying they didn’t know blackface was racist (looking at you, too, Gucci … you and your blackface mugger clothing), we absolutely don’t believe you when you say you didn’t know there were stereotypes about Asian women that your tweets were mirroring perfectly.

When I talk about white people needing to come get their people, this is one of the kinds of messes I mean. (Don’t think I don’t want you to come collect the assholes in blackface. You know better than that.) I expect white allies to come, gather these women and sit them the hell down. I expect allies to help these women a) shut the fuck up, b) understand and acknowledge why the things they posted were problematic, c) craft and post a real apology, one that doesn’t shift blame or pretend it was all a stupid misunderstanding.

This is easy allyship, but so important. The amount of time POC have to spend dealing with this kind of crap is ridiculous. Hearing or seeing these kinds of ass-out comments takes an emotional toll on us, too. If white folks stepped up and did the work with their fellow white folks, we could avoid all the stürm und drang these moments gin up.

We — people of color — are exhausted from this shit. Completely and utterly exhausted. Because it never stops coming at us. Ehrenreich, Pollitt, Showalter, and Neeson get attention because they’re high-profile, because they had audiences before their big racism reveals. For POC, it never stops. We don’t just get the scandal-mag headlines when a famous person steps into the spotlight. We get the daily slaps in the face from the myriad non-famous people around us.

I cannot help but think there’s no way any of this is news to white people. And yet, every time one of these signal posts of hate flashes on, there are white folks who are expressing shock, who throw up their hands and exclaim about what year we’re in and how can this be happening.

Yeah. Here we are. It’s 2019. And white folks — young, old, men, women — all out here showing their whole asses. And the hand-wringing and exclamations of shock only serve to tell me how much “good” white people don’t stay focused on this work because they don’t have to, how easy it has been for these good people to move on or not notice at all because none of these thousand cuts touches them. The shock and outrage tells me that folks have chosen not to pay attention.

So come on, good white people. Goodness isn’t good enough. And you know this. You need to gather your people. Embrace them. Lovingly take them in hand. Help them see their errors and learn a better way. White feminists … well, you have an even tougher job, I won’t lie. But that’s all the more reason for you to step up, to take on this messy and necessary work. (And remember, it isn’t the job of Black folks and folk of color to do this gathering. Racist yobs can’t hear us, can’t get past their defensive anger to understand anything we say. No. The intervention has to come from white people. There are POC who are willing to do this emotional labor — on exquisitely rare occasion, I am one of them — but that still doesn’t make it our job. No, it remains 100 percent the job of white people.)

Please note that I’m not only asking for white folks to call out problematic, racist fellow travelers. No. Because calling out isn’t the answer. It isn’t enough. Barbara Ehrenreich was swiftly and roundly called out. But she needed more than that. She needed someone to love on her, tell her with calm kindness all the ways what she tweeted was fucked up. Without that caring, out-of-the-spotlight attention and correction, we get Ehrenreich’s string of progressively worse tweets. We get her digging further into her mess.

We are only halfway through February, and this month is already awash in bullshit, already requires hip waders.

And then I decided not to post. There were so many excellent articles written about this mess, I set this piece aside. And then today, I sat in a subway car near six white women, friends who’d been into Manhattan for a nice lunch and a gallery show. One remarked on the fact that the rest of her afternoon would be spent on housework:

Woman 1: “Whoo! Don’t I wish I had that little Kondo bitch boxed up in my closet! Watcing her clean my house would definitely spark some joy!”

<laughter, from all but one woman>

Woman 2: “I seriously can’t stand her self-righteousness. If we needed some child-sized baby-woman to tell us what to do, we’d have asked for it long before now.”

Woman 1: “Yes, but a box in the closet would be great. I have an empty shoe box she could curl up in.”

<laughter, from all but the same one woman>

Woman 3: “She could fold something up tiny and use it for a pillow. All the comforts!”

<laughter, from all of the women>

Which was when I knew I’d have to come home and find this old essay and post it.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

It’s March, so it’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! Twelve years and going stronger than ever. Click over to read a few slices, see what that eclectic group of bloggers is up to. And maybe write some slices of your own this month!

original-slicer-girlgriot

______ while Black, Pt. 2

In a video he posted this morning, Kevin Fredericks (Kev on Stage) talked about the Starbucks “incident.”* He does a great job saying so many of the things I’ve been thinking. But his description of the calculus he has to do as a Black man isn’t only the way Black men have to be in the world. This is a necessary thought process for Black people — how do I make sure these random white folks around me don’t think I’m a threat? I have this conversation with myself all the time.

In 2015, the first year I did the 24 Hour Project, part of my worry about being out all night was that someone would see me walking around and think I was trouble. To fight against that, to make myself look more harmless, I actually dressed up — wore. a. dress. and tried to look more “girlie” — in the hope that looking cute would keep me from being perceived as a criminal. I made myself look more like a possible target for an actual criminal in an effort to protect myself from racial profiling.

People told me I was silly to do that, that I was spoiling my own good time. They don’t see the looks I see on people’s faces when they see me approaching, don’t see the way white women pull into themselves when I step into the elevator with them, don’t see the way store clerks watch me when I’m trying to shop, don’t see all the ways I am told over and over that I don’t belong in a space, that I look like danger, that I am feared for simply existing in my skin.

Do Black men have this worse that women? Yes, I believe that. I believe it because I see the constant encouragement provided in the news, the encouragement to see Black men and boys as beasts, as super-powered monsters driven by bloodlust. I believe it because I have seen that some of the people who respond to me with fear and suspicion adjust their racism once they see me and realize that I’m a woman — my height and size often confuse people, keep them from seeing the obvious ways in which I don’t present as a man.

Yes, Black men and boys have to find ways to navigate these situations just so, and have to do it on a many-times-a-day basis. But Black women — including those who are perceived as women from the first moment — are targeted and killed for being Black in numbers as horrifying as the numbers for our brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, etc.

Kevin talks about the things he does to help white people see that he is “safe” — meaning, not a danger to them. This is a inner monologue all people of color have to have in relationship to white people … and, sadly, one that Black folks need to have in relationship to anyone who isn’t Black.  Because our racist society has conditioned non-Black POC to align themselves with racism, to look at me and see someone who plans to shoplift or be loud and angry or make trouble for them in some way.

As I wrote last night and have written many times, I am tired. Not just tired of these incidents, of seeing police menacing Black folks who aren’t doing anything other than trying to live their lives. I’m tired of the ease with which white folks call the police when they know full well what calling the police can mean. The Starbucks statement said the store manager never wanted those men to be arrested. I call absolute bullshit. You don’t call the police in that situation because you are looking to de-escalate something, because you want to make sure everything stays calm and quiet. You call the police because you are afraid of Black people and you want the cops to come and take care of them for you. If that means an arrest, you’re fine with that. If that means a beating, you’re fine with that, too. If that means one or both of those Black men gets shot, gets killed, well, so be it.

I am so. damn. tired. Why can’t we just live? Why is it so hard to just let us live?

There is so much work to do in this country, so far we still have to go. But this right here — this comfort white folks feel unleashing law enforcement on Black and brown folks — this has to stop now. Today.

__________

* I put that in quotes because Starbucks released it’s lame apology, the horror show in their Rittenhouse Square store was referred to as an “incident.” I want to be crystal clear: there was no incident until Starbucks staff created one. Nothing at all was happening in that coffee shop. A racist employee made the decision to turn a nothing day into one that had the potential for violence and death.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Considered Chattel

Considered Chattel
(An erasure of a Times Magazine article on Black maternal and infant death.)

When black women were considered chattel
babies died so often
parents avoided naming children
before their first birthdays.
Black infants in America,
more than twice as likely to die
as white infants,
a racial disparity wider than
before the end of slavery,
when black women were considered chattel.
In one year, that adds up
to more than 4,000 lost black babies.
For Black women in America,
an inescapable atmosphere
of societal and systemic racism
can create toxic physiological stress.
And that societal racism
is further expressed in a pervasive,
longstanding
racial bias in health care,
dismissal of legitimate concerns and symptoms,
that explain poor outcomes
even in Black women with the most advantages.

A toxic stress
triggered the premature deterioration
of the bodies of African-American women,
as a consequence of repeated
discrimination and insults.
The black-white disparity in the deaths of babies
is related not to race
but the lived experience of race in this country.

For black women, considered chattel,
something about growing up in America,
the bone-deep accumulation
of traumatizing life experiences
and persistent insults
is not the sort of stress relieved by meditation
and “me time.”

Black people are treated differently
the moment they enter the health care system.

You can’t convince people
of something like discrimination.
You have to prove it.

Black women were considered chattel.

Disrespect and abuse in maternal care —
being ignored, scolded, demeaned,
bullied into having C-sections —
something structural
and much deeper in the health system
that expresses itself
in poor outcomes and deaths.

Chattel.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Cultural Awareness as Deflector Shield

I adored my auntie. I am, as it happens, an auntie my own self, a role I absolutely adore filling. Yet still, there is my absolute distaste at hearing white folks use this term in relation to Representative Maxine Waters.

Since my essay about Maxine Waters was published last month, I’ve been thinking about the most popular, annoying reactions I’ve seen. A lot of people on a lot of different threads had a response similar to one of these:

“Oh, in my family, we call all older women and men “aunt” or “uncle” as a sign of respect, even if they aren’t related to us.”

“Oh, in the [fill in your not continental American cultural background here] culture, the term is used to show respect.”

“Oh, that seems like an American thing. In my country it’s totally different.”

“Oh, my students from [name any other country in the world] call me “auntie” all the time, and they mean it respectfully. I like it.”

“Oh, you can’t assume everyone has the same understanding of that term as you do.”

“Oh, if you tell people not to say “auntie” you could be hurting their feelings because it means something else in their culture.”

Did you notice a pattern? I saw the same thing happen over and over. The moment one person posted one of these “what about this other culture” comments, there are suddenly a bunch of replies from other people talking about the traditions of other countries and cultures and how interesting the similarities or differences are … and suddenly we’re having a whole other conversation that has nothing to do with what I was writing about.

Feh.

On almost all these threads, someone eventually stepped in–and then stepped in when it happened again and then again … because of course–and pointed out that these discussions were missing the point. And some of the Cultural Awareness people were able to hear and understand that. Others really struggled with it. Hard.

And I’m feeling the need to shine my light on why seeing that “other culture” conversation kept springing up drove me nuts.

People seemed to want to be sure everyone understood that “auntie” doesn’t have a negative connotation round their way. Fine. But you know what? The word doesn’t have a negative connotation right here, in the States. It is a term of love and respect, a term used for elders we care about, whether they’re in our families or not. Same meaning and use as in whatever other culture you heard about or studied or lived in during your gap year or whatever. Same.

That’s the point.

The term has always been familial, has always been used to show love and respect. Subverting that meaning and use of the term was surely one of the reasons the term was chosen for this distinctly American, disrespectful use. My essay draws that line, specifically states that using “Auntie” was a way for polite-seeming white people to speak impolitely to Black women, it allowed them to sugar-coat their disdain, their insult, their race prejudice with a kind-seeming honorific. They subverted “Auntie,” made it ugly.

So, if you read the essay, it should have been easy to see that there was no need to call out the traditions in other countries. None at all. And yet there were all those comments, again and again and again.

Here, I’ll insert the other, somewhat-related comment I also saw quite a bit:

“Oh, I’ve never heard this use before so when I say it I am, obviously, not using it that way, so there’s no problem.”

It’s easy for me to believe people wouldn’t have been aware that they were hearing “auntie” used in a demeaning way, but they’ve surely heard the term used for Black women–because, hello, they must absolutely have heard of Aunt Jemima. But even if you never knew there was some nasty history attached to “Auntie,” I’m telling you that there is, I’m telling you exactly what that nasty history is. So yes, you could have called Rep. Waters “Auntie” before you learned the backstory, but now that you know the backstory, why would you still want to use the word? If I’m saying I feel a way hearing that word in your mouth, why would you still want to use that word?

To get back to everyone else, making the case for using the term today because it’s used respectfully in another culture is just as insulting. In some ways, it’s actually more insulting. If I tell you there is a very specific use of the term that is particular a) to this country and b) to white people and Black women, and if I tell you that hearing white people in 2017 refer to a Black woman using this term makes me feel a way … one thing I’m not asking is for a cultural awareness lesson so that I can learn how other peoples use that word and why I shouldn’t only associate it with negative ideas. And by telling me all of that, you are letting me know either that you missed the point of my essay entirely, or you are intentionally harping on this side point to move the conversation away from racism.

Guess which one I think you’re doing.

I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to hear about the tools of racism and to learn that you’ve been using one of them when you didn’t realize it. And I imagine it’s much easier and far more comfortable to deflect, to resist the focus on something ugly and wax poetic about an alternative story that makes you feel better.

I get all of that. I’m not here for it.

I’m always talking about how white folks need to step up and do their work. Feeling uncomfortable? That’s part of the work. White people need to “suffer” through the few moments of feeling Ill at ease and hear what’s being said. My essay wasn’t an attack or an accusation. It was me letting people know how I hear the word “Auntie” when white folks use it in reference to Rep. Waters. It was a request that white folks stop using the term. It was an opportunity for folks (maybe primarily white folks) to learn something about this country’s history–because I decided to trust that people really mightn’t know about that bit of ugliness in our national past. And it was an opportunity for white people–once they learned about the derogatory use of “auntie”–to make the decision not to continue saying something that could be hurtful.

I’m going to extend my benefit of the doubt a little further and say it’s likely that most of the people talking about the ways other cultures around the world use “Auntie” aren’t fully aware that they are trying to change the subject and turn the conversation away from the sticky discomfort of talking about racism. I’m being this generous because I know that many of the ways white folks deflect to insulate themselves from having to deal with racism are unconscious.

Let’s forget racism for a minute. Suppose you were in a meeting that included a person who smacked you really hard across the head every time you saw them. You decide to say something about this awful smacking crap, and you hope that saying it in the group will finally get this person to stop because the group will rally around you and condemn that violent behavior.

You say, “You know, I have to tell you that it’s really painful and enraging when you smack me in the head.” And that person nods and says, “Oh my God, have you ever noticed how 2-year-olds can be slap-fighting one minute and then kissing like crazy the next?”

And, before you can point out that this has.not one thing to do with your point, someone else says, “Oh, my partner always gives me a little slap on the shoulder when she walks up to me. We call them ‘love taps,’ and I really like it.”

“Oh, my partner and I have love taps, too!” another group member says. “I thought that was just our little thing. How funny that you have that, too!”

And suddenly everyone is talking about love taps and the boy who pulled their hair on the playground in kindergarten who proposed after college … and the issue of you being assaulted by your colleague has been disappeared.

Frustrating as hell, isn’t it? Frustrating as hell.

To be most clear: the sidelining of my point about white people and “Auntie” is like this disappearing of calling out your colleague’s violence.

Does it seem like a lot to ask white folks to change their behavior, to sit down and listen when someone tells them something they’re doing is hurtful, silencing, derailing? It shouldn’t be, but clearly, it is a lot to ask … and the truth of that is maddening.

Yes, this is another one of those moments when I say a whole lot of stuff and then just say, “I’m tired. Beat to my fucking socks.” Because … yeah.

I’m glad a lot of people read my essay–more people than have ever read anything else I’ve ever written. That’s a wonderful thing. I just wish more of them had allowed themselves to actually hear what I had to say.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!