Rioting, Darkness, & Who’s Responsible in the Fight for Justice

Recently, in light of the hotly debated conversations around police brutality and the effectiveness of rioting as a form of protest, I re-posted the following quote from a Mother Jones article on my personal Facebook page. It was from a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at the American Psychology Associations’ annual convention in Washington, DC, in September 1967. He said:

“A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.'”

Many of my Facebook friends liked this quote, understood it, and shared it. But inevitably, there were those who wanted to know, “What about personal responsibility”?

Despite the mountains of research and whole fields of scholarship designed to educate the public about the many deep and longstanding social, cultural, political, and economic inequities that exist, there remains an alarmingly large population of people who refuse to recognize systematic oppression and the myriad ways it impacts the lives of individuals who are marginalized by it.

When it comes to structural racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates once said, “There’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix.”

Every single plague people attempt to use to pathologize the “black community” (poverty, lack of education, etc.) has its roots within white supremacist attitudes, behaviors, actions and policies. Not only were these challenges created by white supremacy, they are upheld by it today.

But it’s not JUST about white supremacy. I would take Coates’ quote a step further and point out that there is also nothing wrong with women that the complete and total elimination of patriarchy/sexism won’t fix. There is nothing wrong with LGBTQA folks that the complete and total elimination of heteronormativity and homophobia won’t fix. There is nothing wrong with poor people that the dismantling of classism won’t fix. There is nothing wrong with differently-abled people that the dismantling of ableism won’t fix. These systems of oppression work together and reinforce each other, making both the understanding and implementation of intersectionality absolutely critical.

And yes, those who make the personal responsibility argument are correct, to a certain degree. On individual levels, we do have and can leverage our personal power. People are incredibly resilient. And while no one surmounts their challenges alone, (although the illusions of meritocracy and rugged individualism would have us believe so) many people have had enough collective support, resources, love, and/or inner strength to pull themselves up out of some incredibly bleak and traumatic circumstances.  Those who call for personal responsibility are correct in their assertion that we should recognize and develop our personal power, using it to gain as much clarity and autonomy as possible and helping others do the same.  At every turn, we should remind ourselves and others how powerful and durable the human spirit is and how people have and will continue to beat extraordinary odds.

But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of fixing this world by addressing the attitudes, polices, practices, and socio-cultural structures that make marginalized people have to struggle so hard to live, be seen, recognized, loved, and treated like human beings. The reality is that there are both very intentional and derivative conditions greatly impacting the ability of all people to access opportunity, resources, support, education, health and quality of life. For as much as personal responsibility cheerleaders profess to be for and about humanity, I have to seriously question the credibility of anyone who claims to be for the well-being of the individual, while feeling no responsibility to recognize or dismantle the systematic oppression that constantly threatens and undermines that well-being for so many people.

That darkness that Hugo referred to is the big and pressing problem, not the people struggling to survive in it. And while the highly problematic use of “lightness” to denote “good” and “darkness” to denote “bad” is not lost on me, for the sake of brevity, I’ll use Hugo’s metaphor for now and save the unpacking of that for another post.

When we see an individual struggling anywhere, we need to be willing to ask ourselves how and why this person has been failed by the collective. We can’t continue in the long tradition of pushing this world towards progress, justice, and peace by failing to recognize our responsibility to one another.

So how do we address Hugo’s metaphorical darkness? The first and most powerful step in dismantling anything is seeing it. Naming it. Calling it exactly what it is. In the naming of a thing, you disarm it.  It is weakened tremendously by that very act. (This works on the darkness that exists in us on an individual level too, our “shadow”…but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)
This is where the personal responsibility camp drops the ball. Their failure and unwillingness to recognize the darkness is exactly what allows it to thrive. By concentrating their energy on critiquing how effectively people are navigating the darkness versus working to dismantle it, those who focus solely on personal responsibility debilitate collective efforts and impede the fight for social justice.  In all their motivational attempts to individualize struggle and promote a narrative of meritocracy, they fail to see how their denial of systemic oppression only strengthens it. The darkness of oppression and systemic inequality derives its power precisely from its invisibility; from people’s unwillingness to call it what it is. Thus, it grows unchecked, pulling its strings, working its machinations, and impacting our lives in ways that only increase our confusion and struggle.

Natasha Thomas-Jackson is a social justice activist, writer, artist, and the co-founder/executive director of RAISE IT UP! Youth Arts & Awareness, a nonprofit agency that promotes youth engagement, expression, and empowerment through performance, literary art, and social activism. RAISE IT UP! has been featured several times on National Public Radio (NPR) and Natasha’s writings have been published by the John Hopkins Center on Genetic Research, AlterNet, and the Black Congressional Caucus. Currently, she is working on launching a new site as part of a feminist collective and working on a book. 

Natalie Gyte on One Billion Rising: Another Feminist FAIL

When many black feminists abandoned the term feminism for what they felt was the more culturally-appropriate womanism…I remained.

While I fully understand and support my sisters who feel that the racism, classism, and general elitism of mainstream feminism indicates the need for a new and much more inclusive movement, I feel all the more responsible for holding feminism accountable and challenging the movement to uphold the lofty ideals that it espouses. Women of color were and have always been an integral part of the feminist movement since its inception. Early pioneering black feminists such as Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth understood and addressed both race and gender in ways that revealed a profound understanding of the intersectionality of oppression. Much of why I still call myself a feminist is in honor of the work that these (and many other women of color) have contributed to this movement. I feel a strong obligation to carry out my feminists foremothers’ call to shape this movement into one that can unflinchingly address issues of privilege and power within its own institution. I do this while holding a very warm regard and ideological affinity for my womanist sisters. The differences between us are largely semantic.

However, there are days when I get so fed up with  feminism’s persistent inability to address its own internalized issues that  I gaze over at the womanist camp longingly and wonder if they have room for one more…

I most recently considered becoming a defector when I read Natalie Gyte’s scathing critique of Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising campaign on Huffington Post. On Valentine’s day, I tweeted in support of One Billion Rising which, according to its website:

Invites  ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this (gender) violence. ONE BILLION RISING will move the earth, activating women and men across every country. V-Day wants the world to see our collective strength, our numbers, our solidarity across borders.

Essentially, One Billion Rising aims to raise awareness about global gender violence by staging simultaneous dance protests around the globe. Women and men are urged to organize demonstrations.

Not long after I tweeted my support of One Billion Rising, one of my favorite followers sent me a link to this article by Natalie Gyte entitled Why I Won’t Support One Billion Rising. Gyte opens the article by briefly explaining what One Billion Rising is and highlighting the quiet reservations that many “grassroots activists” have about the campaign.

The primary issue with One Billion Rising, according to Gyte,  is its refusal to name patriarchy as the root cause of gender violence. She  hypothesizes that this  is due to campaign’s  intentional inclusion of men and the apparent desire to appease them. Gyte then  goes on to use MP Stella Creasy’s (an ardent supporter of One Billion Rising) as an example. At an event where she was speaking about the campaign, Creasy stated that “violence is not a gender issue;  this affects our societies as a whole.”  Gyte cited this as further proof of the campaign’s attempt to jockey for male support and favor  by refusing to cite patriarchy as the culprit.

However, I take several issues with this premise. In interviews about One Billion Rising, Ensler has repeatedly named patriarchy as the root cause of gender violence. One example is this interview with Democracy Now and here on the Women’s Media Center website.

And despite Gyte’s very surface rendering, Creasy’s assertion that violence affects us all is not a denial of gender violence but a sentiment that broadens the conversation.  Men are impacted by violence both as perpetrators and, yes…as victims. In any oppression, there is damage to both the oppressor and the oppressed. There are ramifications for men who carry out violence against women – even if they are not aware enough to detect them. Masculinity that is defined by domination, hyper-aggression, and violence is a grossly stunted and incomplete masculinity to be sure.  Also, when we consider the many young women and men who are victims of homicide here in the streets of the US or who are being sent to die in endless wars abroad, Creasy’s assertions that violence affects us all makes perfect sense.

Gyte’s second issue with One Billion Rising is best summarized by the following:

“In asking women to dance in order to overcome violence and rape, focus is displaced and root causes are overlooked, it completely diverts the world’s attention away from the real issue of gender based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance. It’s like saying to survivors ‘Ok, you’ve been raped, but you can overcome it if you come together and dance for 20 minutes on Valentine’s Day… Eve Ensler says so…’. It’s patronising and it denies not only the causes of violence, but also the devastating and long lasting effects. Thus, a campaign with unprecedented media fire-power has failed to achieve anything other than to create a façade which will have no effect whatsoever upon the global pandemic which is gender based violence.”

Despite the fact that Gyte is obviously dubious about the both the intention and effectiveness of One Billion Rising, in a subsequent paragraph, she grudgingly acknowledges Ensler’s success at spearheading programs that have proven to be effective:

“The fact is that Eve Ensler’s other charitable organisation, V-Day, has raised money for some effective work on the ground; running educational projects, re-opening refuges and safe houses. These are the activities which have actual effect. However, instead of continuing to focus on and raise money for such essential services, it seemed important to Ensler (or some PR guru at her end) that a high profile, notoriety-gaining campaign be launched. I don’t see why it can’t be enough to do essential grassroots work. Why has such a huge PR campaign, with ‘a message from Eve’ videos plastered everywhere, been necessary?”

It was very clear to me from the beginning that One Billion Rising was not meant to be a program.  It was a campaign. And while campaigns can most certainly be the catalysts for the creation of new programs, a campaign is, essentially, a connected series of operations designed to bring about a particular result. The goal of this campaign, like most campaigns, appears  to be chiefly about raising awareness, gaining support from those who have influence, and finding creative ways to be visible and impactful.

Gyte’s dismissal of the importance of these elements  in creating change seems short-sighted. Social change comes about through the understanding of and an appreciation for a multi-faceted approach. Within this holistic paradigm, grassroots activism, legislative reform, protests, demonstrations, programs, and media campaigns all have their place. Also, as a person who has created a youth arts and social change organization, I am a passionate advocate for art as as a powerful tool for personal and social transformation. I have literally seen my students initiate their own healing process by addressing their personal traumas through song, poetry, and dance. I have seen them evolve into community leaders through their involvement with community art. Despite Gyte’s implication that there is little value in this kind of creative catharsis, there is research that that tells a much different story. And even if it were true that the arts are ineffective in this regard,  Gyte (by her own admission) acknowledges that this is only one aspect of Ensler’s work, which has included successes.

The last, and in my opinion the most troubling aspect of Gyte’s critique of One Billion Rising lies in the intersection of race and class. Gyte asserts that many women of color take issue with the campaign and even goes so far as to quote two women (one Congolese and one Iranian) who refer to the campaign as “insulting” and “neo-colonial.”  Gyte evokes the white savior concept when analyzing Ensler’s work and the cherry-picking of these two women to act as spokespeople smacks of tokenism.  It feels like Gyte uses the Congolese and Iranian women as tokens and mouthpieces for her own issues with the campaign….and Ensler. She goes on to state:

“Eve Ensler has reportedly spent much time in the DRC in the build-up to Valentines Day. I really wonder under what premise she is there? What goes through her mind?  Does she think that her shared experiences of abuse make her a kindred spirit to Congolese women? That her presence will bring about comfort? Change? Does she really have such an inflated sense of ego that she simply must jet set around, visiting One Billion Rising hubs?”

Did I happen to mention that Gyte is white? Oh, I didn’t?  Oh, how the plot thickens. She also works for the London based Women’s Resource Centre which “provides services to and campaigns on behalf of some of the most marginalised communities of women.”

Wouldn’t it be safe to say that this is truly the ironies of all ironies? A white woman who works for an organization (headed by an equally white woman) that works on behalf of marginalized communities of women deciding to write an article on behalf of women of color criticizing another white woman and her organization for…wait for it….attempting to speak for women of color/marginalized women? Gyte’s writing of this particular article does not posit her as a “passive voice” as she claims but does firmly place her in the very space that she is critiquing. I simply couldn’t read this article without being put off by the blatantly personal tone and the rampant hypocrisy.

Let me be frank, the White Savior concept is very real.  It has been written about and discussed extensively. Most recently, I wrote about it in reference to the Kony 2012 movement in a previous blog post. But I take issue with Gyte evoking it in this context not only because of  her own racial and economic social location but also because I think One Billion Rising is different than Kony 2012 in a number of  ways.

For one, Gyte’s assertion that despite Ensler’s shared experience of abuse, she could never be a “kindred spirit” to Congolese women is a false one. True, Ensler is not African. But she is a woman and one who has experienced gender violence….just like women everywhere. In that way, there is a shared oppression that could create a bonding with all other women – yes, including those of color…surprise.
Yes, racially, Ensler is able to move within the framework of power and privilege, but Ensler’s social location when it comes to to gender posits her within the same space as these Congolese women. Bonding can and should occur in these spaces.

And yes, I know that there are some women who take issue with this campaign. I think many of those issues are valid. I think One Billion Rising, like any initiative, could benefit from some constructive criticism. But Gyte’s criticism felt anything but constructive.  It’s also important to know that are many women of color and economically disadvantaged women who not only support this movement and have organized around it, but who were also involved in the planning and implementation of it. I look at One Billion Rising and see diversity along race, class, national origin, class, orientation and belief systems. And while there is always definitely room for improvement and critique, I think feminism does itself a great disservice when every attempt is met with cynicism and when we refuse to talk about the ways in which race, power, and privilege intersect with competition and personality clashes. How envy can seriously distort our perceptions and taint our work.

The future of feminism rests upon its ability to address these internal issues with integrity and honesty. When I look at young women, I see many of us espousing principles and living lives that are very feminist, but refusing to adopt the label. When I ask other women why they stop short of calling themselves feminists, most of them cite feminism’s rigidity, its inability to wrestle its  own racism, classism (and other isms) into submission, making “men” and not “patriarchy” the enemy,  and the co-opting of the same patriarchal approaches that we claim to be against. The inability of Gyte to see her own issues while projecting them on to  another woman colleague  is typical of mainstream feminism. It is this blindness that drives women away – women of color, younger women, economically disadvantaged women – basically, any woman who lives outside the very white and affluent construct still being upheld by the current feminist movement.

For the time being, I will continue to identify as a feminist, primarily because I’ve always appreciated a good fight. But I’m going to seriously need us to get it together ASAP because that womanist camp is looking more and more inviting by the minute.

Until next time…

My Feminist Card Is Snatched Again – Blame Lupe

So, hiphop artist, Lupe Fiasco was thrown off the stage at a pre-inauguration event following an  anti-Obama rant… and the Twitterverse exploded.

As to be expected, there were were a slew of staunch supporters, a bevy of vehement detractors and very few who fell in between the heated debated that ensued. My timeline alternated between those who viewed Lupe as the heroic, revolutionary, protagonist and those who dismissed him as an attention-seeking, “stunt-queen” only interested in advancing his own cult of personality.

Lupe-Fiasco-Ft.-MDMA-I-Dont-Wanna-Care-Right-Now-Lyrics (1)

I have been, and continue to be, a fan of Lupe Fiasco – for a number of reasons. Following the inauguration debacle, I tweeted in support of his actions. In the barren and arid landscape known as modern, mainstream, hiphop – Lupe is the ONLY artist of his kind right now. And while it’s true that there are a number of extremely talented underground artists who make progressive and socially-conscious music, Lupe is the only artist with mainstream visibility even attempting to address social and/or political issues – and for that, I am grateful to have him on the scene.

But people were heated. How dare he dishonor the President? At his own inauguration? What arrogance! Without going into the many criticisms I have of Obama’s policies and the increasing frustration I experience when progressive liberals attempt to silence my criticism, I chimed in with my support of Lupe and insisted that he was doing exactly what I expected an artist/activist to do. He was using his talent and visibility to raise awareness and spark protest.

That’s when everything about my work, my being, and my commitment to social justice and feminism was thrown into question. Some of my followers were outraged. How could I, as a self-identified black feminist, support a man who had demonstrated his obvious patriarchy through songs such as the controversial “Bitch Bad”? How could I stand in support of a person who didn’t even vote? Surely, I was just another example of a sister was so full of internalized sexism and androcentrism that I was willing to put aside my own gender interests to support patriarchy. Surely, I could not take seriously the man who compared Obama to Bush and didn’t even take his ass to the polls! Perhaps, I wasn’t a real activist or feminist…just an internet poser armed with nothing more than fiery rhetoric and 140 characters.

Moments like this always remind me of why I am a feminist…and why I, some times, hate feminism.

Feminism is just like any other movement. People get into it. They get passionate. Then passion unchecked morphs into this hideous brand of self-righteousness. Pecking orders are established and fangs come out. Individual perspectives are held up as ultimate truths and people who reject the official narrative and challenge us to address the nuances become reduced to symbols of what’s wrong with the world. This type of gladiator-style, movement-building is not exclusive to the feminist movement. Far from it. It happens everywhere. And what I hate most about this paradigm is that it leaves no room for the abundant number of mistakes that it takes to thoroughly delve into anything significant. If you want to be considered a productive and valuable member of said movement, you have to have it all figured out…right now. Because if you don’t,  someone who has convinced themselves that they do have it all figured out is waiting to swoop down on you and snatch all those ill-gained titles and labels that you have falsely adorned yourself with.  At some point, these all-knowing arbiters have attempted to revoke my “woman/feminist”, “black” and “activist” card whenever I had the audacity to express my own opinion or stray from the approved, boiler-plate, bullet points of the movement.

This kind of kill or be killed, activist-death match, climate doesn’t leave room for all of the things I like about movements: collective support and inquiry. I want the kind of feminism that, when I stumble, falter, or am just genuinely searching for some clarity, there is someone there, ready to offer insight. I want to know that I am in a movement with comrades, not vultures. The notion that there are people who are waiting, at a moment’s notice, for me to fuck up so that they can use my apparent incompetence and ignorance as a testament to their own intellectual prowess and sheer awesomeness seems brutal. These movements (feminism included) that tout love and humanity as their foundation – acting in ways that speak largely of ego, competition, and fear is exactly what turns people off, leaving them disillusioned and disappointed.

With his song “Bitch Bad”, Lupe Fiasco attempted to spark dialogue  around issues of gender, culture, language and perception. Many feminists, myself included, took issue with Lupe’s problematic framing of accountability and womanhood in the song. A quick Google search of “Lupe/Bitch Bad/Feminist” will yield all kinds of goodies that can provide additional context for this post.

Despite my issues with Lupe’s approach, it was obvious to me from both his interview statements about the song and from the content of the video itself, that this was his attempt (misguided as it was) to bring a serious discussion to the table.  Criticism ensued as a result.  Then, what started off as valid, constructive, criticism took an all too familiar trajectory – it devolved into personal attack. The proverbial baby was thrown out with the bathwater, as we dismissed Lupe’s attempt at addressing gender issues wholesale.

What bothers me most about this whole “fiasco” (ha!) is that, in these instances, we feminists miss a wonderful opportunity. Here, we have a  black, male, hiphop artist attempting to address, through his music, the very complicated issues of gender, representation, sexism and language. When does that EVER happen? Given the nature of mainstream music today, one could argue that this conscious decision on his part to sacrifice radio airplay and mainstream popularity to address this topic demonstrates a commitment to the cause, no? Was his execution perfect? Absolutely not. Lupe operates under the same social conditioning that we all do and like all of us, he makes moves based on what he knows and where is at any given time. In the many years that I have spent dedicating myself to exploring and attempting to live my social justice principles, I identify more with Lupe in this instance than I do with the so-called enlightened experts.

I am always suspicious of any person who proclaims that they have completely thrown off the shackles of their social conditioning. I think that’s bullshit. Social justice is the kind of work that requires a constant internal and external adjusting. There is an ebb and flow to the information and messages that we receive from our cultural programming. Being committed to social justice means a constant questioning of your self and of your world. It means an on-going examination of what may have seeped into our unconscious mind  – a persistent commitment to looking for and rooting out the prejudices, biases, self-loathing, and assumptions that constantly slip under our radar. It requires a constant vigilance that never ends. It’s a work that, if it is authentic, is never done. There are always new levels of consciousness to be reached. Always new ways to be be better lovers, friends, neighbors, contributors, parents, messengers, healers, communities. Always.

I am no better than Lupe. I have not always had the answers before I embarked on the exploration of an issue that was important to me. Sometimes, I just set out with a heart full of good intention and a deep desire to be the change I wanted to see in the world….and little else. I have attempted to be allies to people who had to school me on what that actually meant. Lucky for me, they wanted me to succeed. Do Lupe’s intentions matter to us feminists? Was “Bitch Bad” really a conscious attempt to further oppress women? Or did he -with limited awareness, limited exposure, and embedded patriarchal ideas about womanhood –  attempt to address an issue that was much bigger than he realized? Isn’t this where us feminists (men and women alike) have an amazing opportunity to provide our brother with the tools that he needs to be an informed and, thus, effective ally?  Isn’t this time where we pull him aside and give him the education he will need to make his next foray into deconstructing sexism a successful one? Or do we get more satisfaction from having another victim – another opportunity to showcase our superiority and further isolate the feminist movement by demonstrating it to be a bitter and unforgiving space?

I have spoken about it in past blogs and I’ll speak to it again. but it was bell hooks who first introduced me to the concept of “loving critique.” Our criticisms are so much more powerful when they are rooted in a genuine desire to see all of us grow – individually and collectively.  How can we progress in a climate where people are afraid to take steps or take risks without fear of attack? How do we encourage a space where authentic inquiry and exploration and, yes, fucking up – are not only a part of the process…but encouraged as a means to find the answers? Fear creates paralysis. In order for feminism to remain relevant, we have to allow people to fall and we have to assure them that when they do…we won’t be there waiting to laugh or snatch their card.

Yes, we could summarily reject Lupe’s vision as lacking and myopic or we can  provide the kind of knowledge and resources necessary to help him see the panorama. Conflict provides us with opportunities to work through our entanglements around perspective and strategy, while still honoring the fundamental beliefs and shared values that attracted us to this work in the first place.

If supporting Lupe (in both his awkward, and ultimately, failed attempt at feminism and his not-so-awkward protest stunt at the Inauguration) means that I am somehow less of a feminist…I’ll take that. As I get older, labels matter less and less to me. If your movement only consists of the loudest and most assured voices, then it’s probably not the space for me either. I am always full of questions. I will get it wrong more often than I get it right. Strangely, I find peace in that.

What I do know is that while labels and categorizations come and go, I have been and will always be deeply committed to radical and transformative change. I will always attempt to love people by viewing them as the complex beings that they are. My commitment to seeing the many layers of a person allows me to disagree with a person’s specific actions while not losing sight of their humanity. I understand that I do myself and others a serious disservice when I love in ways that fractionalize and oversimplify.  We live in very polarized times where there are many incentives for taking shortcuts in our relationships with others, for reducing people to symbols that reflect our fears insecurities. I will continue to try to avoid that trap. But when I do make the inevitable mistake and fall in, I hope that my allies will be there to lift me up and remind me of who I am. What informs my work as an activist, as a feminist, as a human being has nothing to do with labels and everything to do with the very real emotional and spiritual connection that I have to the work of liberation – within myself and on this planet.

I will continue to support voices like Lupe’s. Voices that don’t waver when they ask us to live up to the rhetoric we so often espouse. Voices that are anti-war, anti-oppression, anti-imperialism. Voices that are persecuted for stepping out of line, straying from the script and acting out at inconvenient times.  When and if I ever have the opportunity to meet Lupe, I will thank him for his commitment to social justice, commend him for his lyrical genius, and then question him about his views about gender and women. Our discussion should be reflective of a healthy movement – one where there is enough room for love and challenge, support and accountability. We deserve that.

Why Did Invisible Children Fail to Address the Most Important Criticism?

Yes…the Stop Kony movement ran through cyberspace faster than a mono outbreak at junior prom. Viral, indeed.

And as it pummeled through the Internet at breakneck speed, being re-blogged, re-tweeted, shared, and passed along indiscriminately by Good Samaritans and media-hungry celebrities alike, it was stopped midstream by the Kryptonite of everything instantaneous and surface – the Kryptonite of critical analysis.

Someone(s) stopped re-tweeting, re-blogging, and sharing long enough to say, “hey…let’s check this group out first. Let’s see what they’re about. Let’s check their facts. Let’s see how they use their money. Let’s seriously deconstruct both the tone and the subtleties of this video.”

And then came the flood of criticism. Apparently, Invisible Children, the non-profit organization behind the video and the digital campaign, had some serious questions to answer. Questions about their fuzzy financial practices, super hero photo shoots, glossed over information, oversimplification of a truly complex issue and their relationship to/portrayal of the Ugandan people.

In response to the criticism, Invisible Children released a statement that addressed almost all of the issues – their financial practices were sound and in compliance with 501(C)3 requirements and standards, they stated. Yes, they knew Kony was no longer in Uganda, but he had committed major atrocities and was still a powerful threat, they argued. True, much of their money went to film-making, travel, and administrative costs, but all of those activities fit well within their three-fold mission, they insisted.

Their response, resolute and self-satisfied, seemed aimed at quelling what they considered to be the most pernicious criticisms. Now that it was done, they could get back to the very critical business of making the invisible…visible.

However, Invisible Children was absolutely silent on what I think is the most critical and fundamental question raised about their efforts – the question of whether their work is shaped by and helps to perpetuate a white supremacist/colonialist attitude and approach. On this critical matter, their silence is deafening. 

I get it. White liberals who have dedicated their lives to “helping” people of color have a hard time seeing, let alone addressing, the benevolent racism that can undermine even their best intentions. How can they be racist when they want to help so badly?

What they often fail to realize is that white supremacist attitudes, mostly unconscious, can often be at the heart of these efforts. As a person who has spent a significant amount of time in community organizing, I have witnessed white consultants parachute into communities of color armed with their dissertatations and urban planning savvy, ready to identify the problems and solutions – despite the fact that they may have very little experience in the cultural space that they have just stepped into. But experience-schmexperience – they don’t have to have intimate knowledge of the community. They have degrees, credentials, and validation from institutions that assure them that they are equipped to be saviors. They’ve read books, done service-learning projects and listened to lectures. Of course, they get it.

I have seen these consultant-saviors either outright ignore or invalidate the knowledge and insight that already exists in the community… in the residents who have lived and seen the cycles come and go. I’ve witnessed the direct experience and wisdom of community leaders trumped by the good intentions of paternalism and benevolent racism.

Invisible Children’s failure to address the white supremacist critique unquestionably jeopardizes the effectiveness of their mission. How can we truly work for liberation and equality when we fail to examine and acknowledge the ways in which our social conditioning could potentially taint our cause? Social justice work necessarily involves internal reflection and the willingness to acknowledge and confront the personal demons that may stand in our way.

See, I understand that rooting out social conditioning and vigilantly deconstructing the cultural reinforcement of racism, internalized sexism, classism, ableism, and homophobia is an ON-GOING process for social justice workers. One enters into this grueling but deeply transformative work knowing that the work is never truly done. I understand how ignorant, arrogant, and pretentious it would be for me to declare that I have somehow been able to rid myself of all of these “isms.”  The only thing I can (and will) do is to continue to make this work a priority. That’s all that I ask of Invisible Children. That’s all that we can ever ask of anyone – that they continue to TRY to be free and loving human beings in a world that often makes that that extremely difficult to do.

With that being said, Invisible Children may not be ready (or even see) how their video and/or approach might propel the white savior/supremacist myth. I get that. If they don’t see it – they don’t see it. However, as long as they have been doing this work, I find it hard to imagine that they haven’t come across this concept. I have to imagine that somewhere, somebody, has questioned their authenticity, their skin, their western agenda. I imagine that they have stumbled across this accusation before.

And their silence in the face of this recent criticism reeks of denial.

But what would a response about the questions regarding paternalism and white supremacy look like?

I have tried to imagine the founders of Invisible Children as good people – people who mean well but who, like so many of us, haven’t delved into their deepest assumptions, fears, and conditioning enough. I try to imagine how they would respond in a way that authentically addressed their lack of experience in racial self-reflection AND their desire to grow in this area. In my head, their response would sound like this:

My-Wishful-Thinking- Hypothetical-Invisible-Children response:  

“As for the criticism around issues of white supremacy and our campaign, we must, with all transparency, admit that this is an issue that we can’t address right now. Theoretically, we understand that the history between people of color and white colonizers has greatly impacted the socio-global landscape. We understand that in many ways, there are many nations who are still trying to wrest themselves from under the heel of white supremacist attitudes and policies.  We understand that when white people decide that they know what’s best for people of color, that we are revealing supremacist  and disparaging attitudes about the very people we are trying to “help.” And while this makes for a softer, cuddlier, and more benevolent racism — we understand that it is still racism, nonetheless. 

What we have not done yet, is truly reflected on how our personal attitudes and approaches either contribute to or deconstruct that painful legacy. We simply need to examine ourselves more.  Of course, we can operate from a place of privilege and emphatically deny that subtle racism is present in our work. We can laugh it off and roll our eyes at the very real and valid suspicions about our motives. But we understand that to do so would make us less effective in our mission, in our desire for social equity and humanitarian change….and in our commitment to being authentic and evolving human beings. Therefore, when it comes to the criticism around THIS particular issue….the criticism of whether we are (consciously or unconsciously) exercising privilege and evoking white supremacist attitudes and strategies – we have to honestly say that prior to now, we have not been equipped, educated, or brave enough to tackle this question. But now that it has come to our attention…and because we truly care about being both an authentic organization, a true ally to people of color, and genuine human beings…we will take the time to research and reflect. Hopefully, we will emerge from the process with firm answers that will benefit the world…and ourselves.” 

Am I asking too much?

I don’t expect the founders of Invisible Children to be perfect or to have it “all figured out” when it comes to these things. What I do expect is what I expect of anybody who makes such egalitarian claims – that they be willing to frequently mine their own hearts and psyches in order to weed out the barriers that hinder them from being what they so vehemently claim to be. I need to know that misguided as it may be, that their hearts are in the right place.

Perfection? No. Authenticity? Absolutely.

Why I Can’t Be Silent About Politicizing Beyonce

I was on Twitter recently when one of my followers tweeted about a course called Politicizing Beyonce that was being taught at Rutgers. I was floored.

“Please tell me that is NOT the name of the course,” I quickly tweeted back, hoping it was some kind of hoax.

“That’s the name of the class,” she responded matter-of-factly. I quickly logged of Twitter and ran straight to Google. And there it was. Politicizing Beyonce was all over the net. From Huffington Post and to Bossip, everybody was talking about the concept of Politicizing Beyonce and interviewing Kevin Allred, the doctoral student and lecturer who had launched this very controversial idea.

I was pissed. In 2010, I submitted a workshop abstract to New York University’s Show and Prove Hip Hop Conference entitled, Politicizing Beyonce: Analyzing the Intersection of Race, Sex, and Representation.

As a committed feminist and founder/executive director of a youth social justice agency with a particular focus on media and pop culture analysis, I am very fascinated with Beyonce’s ability to polarize popular opinion. Whenever her name comes up in a room full of feminists, a clear divide becomes apparent. To some, Beyonce is problematic – a woman who uses her talents to perpetuate patriarchal norms and sexist definitions of womanhood. From this perspective, she symbolizes exploitation and objectification. But there are also feminists who applaud Bey as a beacon of female empowerment. These women have often pointed out Bey’s insistence on touring with her all-female band, Suga Mama. They point out the thread of empowerment that runs through a good number of her songs and the drive, talent, and intelligence that has defined her meteoric rise to top of her profession. I love Bey’s ability to set a conversation on fire like this. And it isn’t just with feminists. I see the same response with the youth I work with – and in any setting where she comes up as a topic of discussion. Beyonce is ubiquitous. Her work is layered and nuanced, and thus, she’s necessarily controversial.

My hope was that the conference would provide a great opportunity to gauge public response to Politicizing Beyonce. Thus, I submitted the following workshop abstract in May 2010:

Abstract for Politicizing Beyonce: Analyzing the Intersection of Sex, Race, and Representation

Why Beyonce? There are numerous answers to this question. The most obvious answer is that as an artist, a symbol and as a woman, Beyonce’s influence on the hip hop generation raises critical questions about sex, race, and representation. Whether she’s on our radio, television, favorite article of clothing, or movie screen, “Team Beyonce” has worked hard to etch her brand on our collective psyches and wallets.  There’s also the fact that Beyonce is a polarizing figure who elicits devotion and derision in seemingly equal measure.  As a symbol, she sits at an intriguing socio-political and cultural intersection for many women, creating shifting divisions between those who consider her a beacon of female empowerment and those who view her as a complicit tool used by the male power structure. One thing is certain, whether we love or hate her, we can’t escape her. Beyonce is nothing short of ubiquitous, which makes her the perfect subject.

Politicizing Beyonce is a multi-media journey via interactive dialogue, interviews, and performance. Through the cultural iconography of Beyonce, women scholars, performers, activists, fans, and critics explore female representation and the implications for the hip hop generation.

A few days later, I received an e-mail from the conference committee stating that the abstract had been denied. I was bummed but I had already had some misgivings about submitting a very pop-influenced idea to a hip-hop conference anyway.  While the rejection didn’t feel exactly great, I was OK with it. I was convinced that in a different medium Politicizing Beyonce was a concept that would blow up. In a collaborative effort with Ankh Media group and my husband, I began the planning stages of creating a documentary.

Artwork I created for the Politicizing Beyonce documentary.

So, when I heard that Rutgers was offering a class by the same title and with a similar concept, I immediately went into research mode. What I found was that Kevin Allred was quickly becoming a media sensation. I even had a friend call me because she had heard it on the Ricky Smiley morning show and wanted to know if it was connected to the work that I was doing. I felt years of research and planning evaporating before my eyes as I watched the story gain momentum. It felt like a death knell to the work that I had so seriously invested in. I felt anger and despair.

And I had to wonder, was this all just a crazy coincidence? The more that I considered all of the factors, coincidence seemed less and less likely. The name Politicizing Beyonce was one that I had put a lot of thought and intention into. Was it possible for someone else to come up with the same name? Absolutely. When I considered the likelihood of it, I had to consider some other factors – like the proximity of Rutgers and NYU. What were the chances of a concept being submitted to one university and then, shortly thereafter, popping up as a course at another university approximately 30 miles away?

And then there were the striking similarities between the descriptions given by Allred in his interviews and the abstract I had submitted. While his work seemed to point to a greater field of exploration – utilizing other black women writers and artists – what was striking to me was some very particular wording that was to describe the course. In an interview featured on The, it read:

“The course description reveals that students will explore the ‘Run the World (Girls)’ singer’s alter ego Sasha Fierce, the extent of her control over her own aesthetic and whether her racy image is a demonstration of female sexual empowerment or complicit with gender stereotypes.”

My abstract:

“…between those who consider her (Beyonce) a beacon of female empowerment and those who view her as a complicit tool used by the male power structure.”

This congruence of factors led me to believe that this was not a “coincidence” and that I had both a personal and political responsibility to speak out about it. However, I was also aware that I had to treat this like any other area of my life – with intention, awareness, and mindfulness.

And at that point, I took some time to listen – to my head, my heart, and those closest to me. I consulted with my mother, my friends, my husband, my mentors. I meditated. I thought. I researched. And from these very meaningful conversations emerged a strategy. My first step was to contact the submission committee for the NYU conference. I wanted them to confirm that they received my submission in May 2010. They confirmed that they had and would be willing to corroborate, if need be.

I knew that my next contact had to be with Kevin Allred himself. This call was a lot less easy. I was angry but I also wanted to be fair. I could not shake the feeling that he had some kind of access to my concept – or at least my title. But I also knew that I needed to open to whatever his side of the story was. I had to allow the conversation to be guided by something more than my outrage.

After much research, I was informed that Allred could only be reached by e-mail. E-mail was not my preferred method of contact. I preferred the immediacy of telephone. I wanted to hear his voice, his tone; I wanted to listen for signs of authenticity. I wanted him to hear my voice. But e-mail was all I had. I sent Allred an e-mail sharing my concern about the possible misuse of my intellectual property. Within 20 minutes, he had responded both by e-mail and by voicemail.  In both, he was very apologetic. He assured me that he had never laid eyes on my abstract and that his use of the title was inspired by his work and discussions around gender and representation. He also indicated that the recent reports were misleading and that Politicizing Beyonce was not a current course offering at Rutgers, but that it was actually a class taught in fall of 2010.

This added another layer that made coincidence even less probable. Apparently, Allred and I had thought of the exact same title and similar concept, submitted it to two universities within very close proximity to each other, in the exact same year.

Before I called Allred back I wanted to do some fact-checking. I went to Rutgers website and accessed their 2010 catalog. Although, it verified that he had taught a class there, it did not indicate what the name of that class was nor did it have a syllabus or course description.

Given the fact that I turned in my abstract description in May 2010, I consulted with a friend of mine who is a professor at a university. I asked her how feasible it would be for a professor/lecturer to come across a concept in May, develop it, and have it available as a course offering by September. Without knowing the particulars about Rutgers’ system, she indicated that at her university, and generally speaking, it was very possible.

When I called Allred his voice was friendly, alert and somewhat cautious.  I was very candid and transparent about my initial anger, my concerns, and the feeling that my work had been stolen. But I also let him know that my goal in contacting him was not to fight, accuse, or point fingers but to rather get an understanding as to what truly happened. He stood firm by the notion that he had not had access to my work and that he thought the name choice was safe because his Google search on it had yielded no results. He was civil and apologetic. And while I couldn’t fully embrace his assertion that this was all some kind of “crazy coincidence”, I appreciated the way that we were able to respectfully dialogue about such a contentious issue.

The possibility of reinforcing one another’s work came up as an option. A class and a film are two different mediums. Allred expressed a willingness to acknowledge the work that we had been doing on the film in any future interviews he gave about the class. While we came to no clear conclusions, we did agree to put some thought into it and reconnect very shortly.While I still was not (and am not) convinced that this is some “crazy coincidence”, I was willing to explore what collaboration might look like.

Today, I came across this Allred interview:  In it, he clearly identifies himself as the creator of the Politicizing Beyonce concept and there is absolutely no mention of my work or our conversation.

I write this blog with the best of intentions. I write this blog to challenge the system and the cultural norms that tell women (especially women of color) that silence is always the best response.

Needless, to say, I think it’s time that my side of this story is heard.

B(e)GM Artist Profile: TUNDE OLANIRAN

I’m coming to the conclusion that if you’re intuitive and observant enough – you can always tell who the artists are when you step into a room.  Creative souls are not just creative when they’re making a song or painting a picture. Their artistry, innate and authentic,  is not something that they turn on and off. It IS, literally, their existence.  And it is this delicious co-mingling of life and art that grabs our attention – that fascinates and challenges us as witnesses.

And whether they’re performing or not…there is always performance involved. Artists are ALWAYS performing, in some capacity. There is something utterly intoxicating about the way artists move in this world. How they keep you suspended in a place of anticipation – never knowing if your next moment with them will become a song. How every conversation you have with them can become a canvas. How they seem forever wedged in that that perplexing place of potentiality. How NOTHING escapes their powers of creation and re-creation. Not even you.

I’ll be the first to admit that my definition of artist is one that is loaded…and demanding. There are times when it feels like the need to be moved by an artist – as opposed to being merely impressed – is asking too much.  Sometimes, I wish I needed less. But just when I get to the point where I’m ready to throw in the towel and lower my standards, I come across an artist who won’t let me. An artist like Tunde Olaniran…

In his latest  project, The First Transgression, Tunde continues in the tradition of eroding boundaries and blending concepts/sounds in ways that have become his signature. For those who are familiar with his previous solo album and albums with his bands taste this! and Stereoluxxx, we understand that much of Tunde’s appeal as an artist is his willingness to challenge the status quo. The son of a Nigerian father and African-American mother, Tunde’s approach to music is one that you might expect from a man who grew up in 3 different countries and was exposed to a wide range of musical styles and messages – the son of activist and an immigrant. In many ways, Tunde seems built to traverse cultures and stamp out a unique brand of musical expression. He could, indeed, be described as a futurist, etching out a delightfully infectious, foreshadowing of tomorrow’s music…today.

The First Trangression contains 3 songs (with 1 remix) and is the first installment in a series of 5 EPs (the next one will be released in March 2012). The First Transgression is an intense (albeit, short) journey through enlightened lyrics layered over dark, insistent, tracks. The stark contrast between the album’s deeply philosophical themes, Tunde’s velvety voice and the gritty, lo-fi production, is sure to confuse and, possibly, irritate listeners who like their music formulaic and easily defined. Slavish devotees to corporate-pop music aside,  the album is a boon for those of us who appreciate music that not only sounds REALLY good but also forces us to grow – on multiple levels.

Whether it’s  the existentialist exploration of duality and balance on the first single, Cobra, the destructive allure of toxic relationships on User Manual, or the fighting rebellion of Tiger Balm, this EP packs a small, but mighty, punch. Its brevity acting as both a gift and a curse – the first hit that will inevitably have you coming back for more.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who recognizes the sheer genius that is Tunde Olaniran. Recently, he was featured as an Artist of the Week on MTV Iggy. One of his videos was featured on and one of his songs can be found on the Just Wright soundtrack featuring Common and Queen Latifah. He has also performed at SXSW and has toured Europe. And it’s not just the bigwigs who are taking notice, Tunde has built a growing reputation with his fans as an electrifying performer, giving thorough attention to every aspect of his stage show from lighting, to choreography, to visuals – Tunde’s DIY ethic is a testament to the notion that passion and creativity can (and often do) trump big budget spectacle. Every time he steps on a stage, it is obvious he is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing – effortlessly, yet meticulously, stepping into the roles of  iconoclast, innovator, provocateur… artist.

What’s most exciting about Tunde and artists of his caliber is the anticipation of what’s to come. One can only imagine the terrain that Tunde will carve out for us…what boundaries he will obliterate…how he will invite his listeners into his artistic AND personal evolution in ways that will inevitably enhance our own.

Whether you love him (as I truly do) or hate him, being exposed to the magic and chaos that Tunde Olaniran brings to the musical landscape will push you to think, re-examine, and shift. You may find yourself unexpectedly falling  into sonic territories you previously avoided. You might find your worldview shifted by lyrics that promote both internal and external analysis. You might begin to see that the lines between the political, personal, psychological, cultural are not as distinct as you thought they were. Whatever the case, you will be changed. And in that way, you really can’t go wrong.

Tunde Olaniran really is a win-win situation. All the way around.

For more info about Tunde Olaniran or to purchase his music, check out the links below:




On MTV Iggy:


Wedding Vows: The Remix

When my husband and I got married, we decided to ditch the traditional wedding vows. Intent upon entering a union that was was strictly defined by our own individual and collective needs, we abandoned the oppressive and contractual language so prevalent in traditional wedding vows, and opted to go with vows that TRULY meant something to US.

Almost 2 years into our marriage, and I still think about these vows on an almost daily basis and really think the sentiment and intention expressed in these vows, is what keeps our marriage, fresh, dynamic, and full of mystery and fulfillment. They are:

1) Will you place a high premium on the bond of friendship that you have with your husband/wife, and strive to afford him/her the space and freedom necessary for him/ her to continue walking his/her individual path?

2) Will you be attentive to the spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional desires of both yourself and your wife/husband, striving always to never put the needs of one over the needs of the other, but rather working together to ensure that both parties feel honored?

3) Will you invest all of your energies into your wife/husband, forsaking all others and thus realizing the tremendous potential that a life long commitment has to offer?

4) Will you embrace your wife/husband in both her/his highest moments of self realization and in the midst of her/his darkest internal conflicts, realizing that in both paths, she/he can be born anew through the freedom of love’s unyielding yet flexible bonds?

5) Will you commit to a life long evolution of self, thus ensuring that your mutual growth will stave off stagnation and ensure continued interest, mystery, and discovery for the sake of both yourself and your husband/wife?

6) Will you utilize this union with your wife/husband as an opportunity for mutual growth and expression, taking advantage of opportunities to correct every misconception that the two of you ever had about yourselves and each other?


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