Spoken word artist Joshua Bennett has ten things he wants to say to a black woman, and I’m not sure I want to hear it.
I’ve happened upon Bennett’s YouTube video and I see that hundreds of thousands of viewers have already clicked play.
I’m curious, and dubious. Haven’t I seen more than enough of these user submitted monologues and their hurtful diatribe masquerading as “advice” on how black women can become less flawed?
Yes, I’m defensive, despite the fact that whatever Bennett’s message is, it is probably not directed at me.
As a “mixed” woman who did not inherit my black father’s genetic code for brown skin, I exist in a narrow category of African Americans for whom the “racial” identifier “black” is hesitantly (at times begrudgingly) applied. Despite my stubborn insistence on claiming my “blackness,” the truth is, I have walked through life experiencing the privileges white skin affords one in America. Privileges I am acutely aware of due to my proximity to brown-skinned family and friends whose social interactions differ so greatly from mine.
I’m sure there are some privileges I’m clueless about because they are conferred when I’m not paying attention to how brown I am not.
But sometimes I am paying attention.
Like recently when I sat with two four-year-old brown girls to watch Disney’s latest princess movie, Tangled. And, no, this won’t be a rant about popular culture’s preoccupation with the pretty white girl and her extra-long glistening blonde hair. I can discuss that image with my girls, no problem. I can confirm to my little ones that Rapunzel is bright, brave and beautiful under her blonde tresses, and in the next breath I will rave about how smart, sweet and stunning my girls are beneath their brunette twists and braids.
As a mother of four brown-skinned daughters, I have become quite adept at explaining how the Creator made us all with varied skin tones and physical features that are a perfect reflection of the Universe’s awesome diversity. In our discussions, brunette does not trump blonde. Long and straight isn’t more perfect than tightly kinked. Vanilla is delicious. Chocolate is delectable. It’s all good. It’s all beautiful.
I can do that conversation. No sweat.
But there are times when the Media are so blatant and brutal in their bias against black women that it knocks me back a few paces and I have to regroup.
Like when Psychology Today publishes “scientific” findings on why black women are the least attractive on earth.
Or when the Los Angeles Times Magazine honors the 50 Most Beautiful Women in Film, and omits stunning black women who apparently are too brown to be visible.
Or when First Lady Michelle Obama must publicly defend herself against accusations she’s an “angry black woman.”
Or when filmmaker George Lucas spends his own money to make an amazing film about the black Tuskegee airmen of WWII, omits the black wives, and focuses instead on a love story featuring a Portuguese woman. (By the way, George, there were Tuskeegee Airwomen, too.)
With the exception of a rare few (most of whom are very light skinned), black women are not celebrated in mainstream American culture, or held up as role models for American children to cherish, respect and emulate.
Having said that…
We are twenty minutes into Tangled, these two little brown girls and I, and we are getting to know and love this feisty Rapunzel, and we are celebrating her escape from the tower, and she is led by prince-to-be Flynn Rider into a dark den of disgusting, mean , lawless outcasts, and…
Disney flings this dagger at my little loves:
Flynn Rider: You smell that? Take a deep breath through the nose. (He inhales.) Really let that seep in. What are you getting? Because to me, that’s part man-smell, and the other part is really bad man-smell. I don’t know why, but overall it just smells like the color brown.
There wasn’t one human being among the hundreds who worked on this picture who read/saw that scene and said something like,
“Um, won’t there be little brown children watching this? Won’t this movie be around, like, forever, and should we equate the skin color of millions of children who will watch this with ‘really bad man smell’?”
And, what might this moment have to do with white privilege?
It has everything to do with having the privilege (or not having it) of raising daughters in a society where their skin color will be publicly celebrated. Where it will be held up as something beautiful and worthy of admiration and protection. Where it will not be referred to, even indirectly, as something really bad smelling.
Before you watch Joshua Bennett’s poem, watch this excerpt from Kiri Davis’s brilliant film A Girl Like Me, and ask yourself what is going on in the heart and soul of this little girl at marker 1:36. What messages has she already received about being a black girl, and from where are they coming? Who will counter those messages with beautiful truth?
I must admit, when I clicked on Bennett’s YouTube video, “10 Things I Want to Say to a Black Woman,” I steeled myself for what I suspected would be another disgruntled man giving “advice” to black women on how to be less “angry” and more “lovable.”
Not even close.
More than 70 years have passed since Dr. Kenneth B Clark and his wife Mamie designed and conducted the “doll test” to study the psychological effects of racism on young children.
They showed four dolls, identical except for color, to black children ages 3 to 7 and asked them questions to determine racial perception and preference. When asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it, leading the Clarks to conclude that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred.
In 2005, 18-year-old filmmaker Kiri Davis recreated the Clarks’ experiment with 21 young black children, and included footage of the testing in her short film A Girl Like Me. The stunning and disheartening results mirrored those in the Clark experiment so many decades earlier:
“These children, even though they’re 4 and 5 years old, they’re kind of like a mirror and they show exactly what they’ve been exposed to by society,” Davis says. She hopes her documentary will help people see how subtle messages—like those in the media and through product marketing—continue to affect children.
Knowing our children will be bombarded with negative images that can undermine their ability to look in the mirror and admire what they see, we must remain ever diligent to ensure that they are receiving daily as many affirming messages about their beautiful selves as we can give them.
Removing terminology like “good hair” from our conversations is a great place to start in preventing the erosion of our children’s self esteem. Not using or allowing the words “black,” “African,” and “nappy” to be used as insults in our homes is also a must. And, while we’re at it, one truly powerful way to give our children positive feelings about themselves is to read, with love, uplifting stories that feature children whom they resemble. Here are 10 books parents, teachers and librarians highly recommend:
It should be noted that these are excellent books to read to all children, regardless of their ethnicity or skin tone. The messages in them are universal, and the positive exposure to brown skin as something to celebrate is a lesson every child can ultimately benefit from.
This is where the breaking down of old barriers and old stereotypes begins.