♥♥♥ Michael Jackson died on June 25th, 2009, but not before gifting the world with his amazing talent–and not before he faded before our eyes into a white-skinned man.
Today, as Katherine Jackson is mourning the absence of her incredibly gifted son, I find myself thinking of Trayvon Martin’s mother, who will never know what contribution her young son might have made to the world because a paranoid neighborhood watchman judged Trayvon guilty of simply “walking while black.” Though their lives may seem to have little in common, both of these American sons were born with brown skin–and both suffered the undeserved consequences of living in a society in which brownness is so often misjudged, disrespected and devalued.
“Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of bein’ the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came”
-Michael Jackson, They Don’t Care About Us
Though we have made many strides in race relations over the decades, this deeply-ingrained fear/loathing of brown skin in America leads many to wonder if the King of Pop would have risen to such heights if he had remained brown. Sadly, it seemed as though the whiter Michael’s skin became, the more the world loved him. Some even forgot he was ever a black man.
Whether due to a medical condition or by his own intention, Michael escaped his God-given brownness, while Trayvon was made a target by it through the eyes of an overzealous gunman who saw that brown skin and interpreted it as a threat.
Michael once sang,
“Before you judge me, try hard to love me. Look within your heart then ask, Have you seen my childhood?…the painful youth I’ve had…”
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.
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.”