I think the time has long passed for adding socioeconomic status to the categories of affirmative action, but it must not and cannot be viewed as a replacement for race. Poverty is not a proxy for race, and to pretend that it is would eradicate the initial rationale for affirmative action—to correct for society’s demonstrable biases against people of color regardless of their socioeconomic status.
The murder some years ago of Bill Cosby’s son by a white racist who later bragged about the shooting to his friends shows how feeble the Cosbys’s great wealth was in protecting their son against this ugly virus. The recent news that black graduates of prestigious colleges and universities feel they must “whiten” their résumés to hide their blackness demonstrates how little effect affirmative action in its original iteration has today, and how our current substitution of “diversity” for actual race-based affirmative action has rendered the latter almost useless. How many of our colleges count students from Africa and elsewhere toward their “affirmative action” goals?
So bring on socioeconomic status. And while you’re at it, bring back race-based policies—you cannot get beyond race without going to race.
~Julian Bond, Chronicle of Higher Education,
“Reactions: Is It Time for Class-Based Affirmative Action?”
December 17, 2009
December 16, 2009
November 8, 2009
Though I’ve yet to see Chris Rock’s Good Hair, I have been following a lot of the blog chatter as a result of it. What I have heard very little of, however, is the fact that Black women are not the only ones to “perm” their hair. I find this lack of discussion especially interesting given that Rev. Al Sharpton, himself the sporter of a perm, apparently makes an appearance in the film.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this post commenting on the top Black Man Perms of all time, by a blogger who always wanted a man-perm but was to be forever kept from this fashion statement:
So, in my disappointment I turned to the study of man perms. Over the last twenty years, I have studied man perms extensively until I have emerged as an expert. And it is with that authority that I present you “The Greatest Man Perms of All Time: An Evolutionary History by Max Reddick.”
Of course, I’m a little ticked that Prince does not rate the number 1 man perm. I mean, surely he belongs ahead of Snoop!
October 29, 2009
The past few months have seen a constant string by the mainstream media of discoveries about Black people. I use the word “discoveries” in the same sense of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of what we now call the United States of America. Of course the land mass already existed. Of course other people were already living on it. And indeed, others from other places had previously “discovered” it.
We Black people—like the land mass and folks living there—did not become that interesting, that open for analysis, that ripe for exploration (and exploitation) until others discovered us.
There have been other times when attention has been focused on Black people and all things Black. But the most recent interest is the direct result of Barack H. Obama and his family.
I am sure someone has the data:
The number of news stories on interracial marriages and multiracial people pre- and post-Barack Obama (e.g., “Should we call Obama ‘black’ or ‘biracial’?” NY Times).
The amount of discussion about Black people’s (men, women and children) hair pre- and post-Barack (e.g., re: his barber), -Michelle (e.g., “Why Michelle’s Hair Matters,” Time Magazine), and -Malia (e.g., re: her hair style during a trip to Russia).
The level of fascination about Black women’s bodies pre- and post-Michelle (e.g., “First Lady Got Back“).
We have even been exposed to the shocking!yes,shocking! news that the First Lady has Whiteblood!yes,whiteblood! in her genetic ancestry.
Now comes the latest (for the moment) oddity of the Obamas: their marriage. Of course, married presidents are not something new. But according to the writer of this New York Times Magazine cover story, “the Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before.”
The entire article is worth a read. And in fairness, I cannot blame the media for being somewhat fascinated by, or at least interested in, the Obamas. What’s there not to be interested in?
But I suspect that with this NY Times Magazine story may follow a rush of articles trying to figure out What is going on with marriages between Black professional men and Black professional women? … to uncover the truths about What forces are challenging these unions in the 21st Century? …to declare that the Health and Future of The Black Family is dependent upon these Black Marriages! …to headline all manner of other questions, and problems, and observations about a demographic that—I am sure it will seem—sprung up out of nowhere. I would like to supply some perspectives from one woman involved in such a fascinating Black Marriage, so as to save some writers some research effort when it comes time to produce these news pieces.
* I have been half of a Black Marriage for almost as long as Michelle and Barack. (They’ve got us beat by almost exactly 1 year.) Our circle of friends include other Black couples who have been married as long or longer than the First Couple.
* “The centrality of the Obama marriage to the president’s political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union….” Though my spouse’s and my marriage is not a capital-P political one, that we are both Black and married (to each other) seems to be very political in some people’s eyes. For example, my spouse has had Black women in his workplace act warm and friendly toward him after previously being cold and aloof once they find out that his wife is Black. Part of our “brand” very much seems to be that we are individually successful, individually well-educated, and yoked to each other. Like the Obamas, we have learned to deal with and even embrace this.
* We’ve dealt with those imbalances that come from managing continuing educations/training, jobs, a marriage, and two children. Like the First Lady, I have usually been the one who has had to put something on hold, take up some slack, slide something to the back burner, make some extra adjustments. Many women of many different races deal with this. However, the racial component makes things that much more interesting for me. For example, I once had a fellow mother at a private school where our daughters attended express surprise when she found out that (a) I had an advanced degree and (b) my husband was a physician. (I suppose, when she heard that we both worked, that she assumed we were what was euphemistically called a “scholarship family.”) She—a stay-at-home-mother—asked me why I didn’t just stay home, as she had done. Further, she couldn’t understand why I did not hire a nanny to help me with my twins when they were younger as she had with her twins. That was not a very pleasant conversation after that, and as a result, this woman avoided me for the next two years.
* Black married couples have all sorts of married models they are drawing on for inspiration. I know part of the fascination with Michelle is that, unlike her spouse, she grew up in an “intact” family. Both my own spouse and I spent our childhoods in such homes. And in my case, both my parents had advanced degrees. There was nothing necessarily “unique” about this upbringing. Once during the run of “The Cosby Show” a White colleague on a college campus expressed how “unrealistic” the family was. I probed her to explain to me what made the family such an inauthentic portrayal of Black life. (You can probably guess where the conversation went from there.) I certainly knew of Black single mothers, or men who had second (or third) simultaneous families. But I also had “traditional” couples to draw from, and those are the ones that have informed my own relationship ideas. (Not to mention my relationship models that were “non-traditional” same-sex couples…a different story for a different day.)
When she interviewed for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, her baby sitter canceled at the last moment, and so Michelle strapped a newborn Sasha into a stroller, and the two rolled off together to meet the hospital president. “She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,” recalls Susan Sher, who became her boss at the hospital and is now her chief of staff….
* I can relate. Because of my spouse’s schedule at one time, I was the one rolling around a stroller, alone, with two little babies strapped in. But this comment by Mrs. Obama’s old boss reminds me of an additional element to all this that I never quite got used to: Frequently people assumed, just by the sight of me, that I was a single mother. Once, a colleague I had known for just a few weeks told me that if there was anything she could do—anything at all—to help me out, to just give her a call. This, because she had “so much respect for what it must be like for a single Mom.” Another time, a woman pushing her child-filled stroller on the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me stopped to comment. “Are they twins? My hat is off to you! You are one strong sister to be able to raise two by yourself.” (The first woman was White; the second was Black.)
* I cannot relate to complaints from some of my married friends (of any race) about their husband’s lack of help around the house. In addition to working full time my spouse also cleans and cooks. He even does little girls’ hair so long as what is required is a basic symmetrical afro. I once had a woman at an academic conference tell me that this was because we were a Black couple and Black couples are a lot more egalitarian than White couples and White men had a lot to learn from Black men. (You might be able to imagine where that conversation went from there.) Once again, the way that we have organized our lives, our parenting, and our household has become political. Yet our arrangements are really just what work for us. We do not join each other in a round of “I (She) Am (Is) Woman, Hear Me (Her) Roar” following a joint clothes-folding session or after tucking our children in bed at night. Things do not always go smoothly. There are “bumps,” as Michelle Obama said about her own marriage, and yes they are pretty continuous. But in general, things are good.
I often find it strange that I sometimes feel disloyal or embarrassed for saying so.
* “…Parenting in the White House is more complicated….” Actually, Parenting-While-Black is complicated enough already. The biggest challenges my husband and I face as a couple have less to do with us as individuals or a couple, and more to do with our roles as parents. As my battle conversation with my children’s school personnel over their decision regarding the President’s back-to-school speech illustrates, raising Black children in the USA can, indeed, be life on a battlefield. There are some negative things my children have faced that I thought were over with. There are new negative things they’ve faced that have completely bewildered me. They have also, however, been fortunate to be exposed to a similar diversity as I was in my parents’ 70s college-era environment. (Alas, not so much now as when we were in the Twin Cities.) Life as a Black couple parenting Black children is challenging—but not all gloom and doom.
As the great experiment of the presidency rolls on, the Obamas may finally learn definitive answers to the issues they have been debating over the course of their partnership. The questions they have long asked each other in private will likely be answered on the largest possible stage. They will discern whether politics can bring about the kind of change they have longed for and promised to others, or whether the compromises and defeats are too great. They will learn whether they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough. And even if they share the answer with no one else, the two will know better if everything does in fact become political — if their marriage can both embrace politics and also at some level stay free of it.
Then, in three or seven years, the president’s political career will end. There will be no more offices to win or hold, and the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more — this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.
The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”
* In the end, that is what it is about with my own Black marriage, too. A belief in the long-range. A faith in the this-too-shall-pass. That to some my spouse and I are considered an anomaly, an outlier far beyond the normal data points—none of that matters. It should not make me feel more special than anyone else, or less “authentic” than anyone else.
There is no Black Marriage. There are Black Marriages. And mine is just one of them.
October 21, 2009
As this blog is not even a year old yet, it may be too soon to do a re-post. But I think this post is an appropriate one to re-examine given my little piece of fiction from yesterday on the subject of humor. (And for anyone who read Part 1, Part 2 is on the way. I know you just were on the edge of your seats waiting to find out about the lady with the clown make-up!)
I first posted this February 19th, just weeks after Barack Obama’s historic innauguration. Considering all that has gone on since, it seems like a lifetime ago. It also seems like there has been a lot less political humor, and a lot more incivility and anger—on all sides of the political spectrum—than I hoped for or think is healthy. What do you think—of these two examples of political humor specifically and the state of political homor in the “Obama Age” generally?
(Also possibly of interest, the follow-up post, “Ur, hoa evr, doin it rong…“)
Humor in Post-Post-Racial USA: Ur doin it rite, akshully
WASHINGTON—A majority of African-Americans surveyed in a nationwide poll this week reported feeling “deeply disturbed” and “more than a little weirded out” by all the white people now smiling at them.
First witnessed shortly after President Obama’s historic victory, the open and cheerful smiling has only continued in recent months, leaving members of the black community completely unnerved.
…According to the poll, more than 92 percent of African-Americans have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of beaming Caucasians in their vicinity, as well as a marked rise in the instances of white people making direct eye contact with them on the bus, engaging them in pleasant conversation, and warmly gazing in their general direction with a mix of wonder, pride, and profound contentment. All respondents reported being “petrified” by the change.
“Yesterday, I’m pretty sure the cashier at the Giant Eagle winked at me,” said Eddie Wilkes, a Pittsburgh resident who described himself as “not a politics person.” “Then she said something about what a happy day it was and tried to bump fists. The whole thing gave me the willies”…
Discussion here before about the complexities and challenges of joke-making in this so-called Age of Obama. Joke-tellers everywhere may find themselves walking a thin line between forging new paths in comedic observation and retreading old paths of racist humor. Joke-listeners everywhere may find themselves challenged with their reactions to such jokes. When is offense and indignation justified? When do we allow ourselves to lighten up?
The above Onion satire is, in my opinion, a good example of a hopeful direction in this comedy and is well worth a full read.
Why it works: Like many Onion pieces, this one has an air of borderline (at least) plausibility. Polls like this are taken, names of people and organizations are real and familiar, and the behavior described is not wholly unbelievable. The joke can stand as an observation of the (perhaps temporary) goodwill and brother-/sisterhood towards humans that seemed to sweep many quarters of the country in the time leading up to election night right through inauguration day. Viewed deeper it also subtly pokes fun at the notion of a “post-racial America”: Blacks and Whites still have different views of the same phenomenon, some Whites are still clueless as to their impact on people of other races. The simple regard for Blacks’ humanity is shown simultaneously as previously missing from much interracial contact and likely just a blip in such interactions.
Who might find it especially funny: Some Blacks who have experienced these kinds of reactions might be especially inclined to laugh uproariously at this piece, similar to how I reacted the first time I explored the Rent-a-Negro and Black People Love Us websites. Others who are fighting the feel-good idea/myth/wishful thinking of a post-racial world might also find the piece humorous, regardless of their race and ethnicity.
Who might have problems with it: Some people may take offense at how the butt of the joke is mainly White people and, perhaps more specifically, the largest segment of White people who supported Barack Obama during the campaign (urban, well educated, young). Obama-age humor will be particularly prone to having a “strange bedfellows” quality to it. In this case, both some Black people—both who did and did not supported Obama—and some White conservatives and others who did not vote for Obama may be laughing. But for different reasons.
Let’s try another one. This one is from the popular user-generated Pundit Kitchen site. It depicts a loving moment between the Obamas. Michelle is saying, “Let’s play Naughty Nurse meets the President again.” Barack responds, “Okay, but this time I get to be the President.”
Why it works: Classic comedic reversal of expectations. Because Barack is, in fact, the President—and, is male—the initial assumption from the first line is that when the two play this game Michelle is the “Naughty Nurse” and Barack is “the President.” Of course, the second line throws this expectation on its head.
Who might find it especially funny: Someone who feels that Barack Obama is too “soft” and Michelle Obama too “manly.” So, this might be funny to some detractors of the Obamas. But also, the joke might be funny to someone who believes in the empowerment of women, the positivity of sexual expression, gender egalitarianism, or other such notions. Particularly the empowerment of Black women, the positivity of sexual expression in Black couples, etc. Again, different segments of people will be laughing for different reasons.
Who might have problems with it: Someone who is troubled by what they see as the sexual fetishism that seems to be directed toward this particular President and First Lady, and the racial overtones involved in it. Black women as sexually loose and emasculating, Black men as sexual studs, etc. Also, some feel that this type of joke-making about the leader of our nation is inappropriate no matter who is in office. The presidency should be held in high esteem, according to this view, so this kind of focus on the President’s sex life is disrespectful and inappropriate.
Me? I find both of these examples extremely funny. Hard times are here, with harder times to follow. We’ll all get through them a lot easier if we are able to laugh at ourselves, each other, and our leaders.
August 20, 2009
July 27, 2009
President Obama has stated that he hopes “Gatesgate” can become a “teachable moment”:
My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called a teachable moment where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity. (Source)
I am not sure where the term “teachable moment” originated from. But I was first exposed to the term when I was a preschool teacher about a half lifetime ago. What it meant then in that context was that—though a good teacher carefully creates and executes lesson plans for children that are age appropriate, engaging, and high in educational content—the excellent teacher is flexible enough to take advantage of those once in a blue moon opportunities to teach something not originally in the plans. So, for example, yes we may be in the middle of a week-long lesson on colors and shapes. But on Wednesday when the children excitedly discover a bird’s nest with freshly laid eggs right outside the classroom window, the lesson changes to one on birds…baby animals…which animals fly, swim, and walk on land…etc.
The main point is that in the preschool classroom, teachable moments are driven by the needs, interest, and motivation level of the students combined with the presentation of a unique opportunity.
Given my background, it is understandable that I judge teachable moments by this metric.
So. Does/can Gatesgate be a useful and informative teachable moment?
First: the Interest Test. Presumably, there is a lot of interest in this case. Almost a morbid curiosity in some cases. So perhaps it passes the “interest” test. But interest to who? Who is going to be “taught” by this incident? The officer? The professor? The President? Police forces across the country? Communities across the country? The public at large?
In my preschool classrooms, although the bird’s nest is generally interesting (at least temporarily) to all the children—due to novelty, proximity, rarity, or other reasons—in a couple of days the children’s attention span has started to ebb. Jamahl is still highly fascinated—and will be for the rest of the school year. Claude, however, had moved onto other interests the day after the discovery. Miriam, whose mother is pregnant, is interested—but for very different reasons than other children not expecting a new baby brother or sister. DeAnte and Cesar and Brie become most fascinated by the dead baby bird with its guts spilling out all over the playground lawn that appears on the Monday after the discovery. That Monday Vanessa—who had been highly interested—is now more interested in cars as a result of the new one her uncle bought over the weekend…
So, too, in today’s public sphere around race. “Interest” is fleeting, multifaceted, multi-sourced. So on second thought I would have to conclude that we are really not that interested in “having a conversation” about race. Some of us are interested in airing grievances. Some, in getting others to come around to our way of thinking. Some want to use these “conversations” to further spew racist poison. Many of us will be interested—even open to true conversation—but only until the next shiny interesting quasi-news story comes along to steal away our attention. Some are pretty beat down and have little hope of things changing for the better so, hey, why talk more about it. Plenty of folks just want “race” to go away….
Now for the second test. Is this Gates incident a True Opportunity? Is Professor Gates really the right poster child for a demonstration on the evils of racial bias?
As one blogger has commented, Professor Gates’ experience and its aftermath may be yet one more example of “All the victims are male and all the oppressors are White.” Those of us decrying racism have little rhetorical capital when the only incidents worthy of protest are when victims are Black, heterosexual, and male. (And—in this incident—upper middle class, highly educated….a “proper” Negro.) And when the oppressors are White and male. And bonus points for a White male police officer—the most favorite buggaboo of affronts to Black civil rights.
Then there is the ambiguity surrounding the case. I do not doubt for one minute that race played a big part of the professor’s and officer’s interaction. I fully recognize how police can abuse their power, and that the ranks of police forces across the country contain out-and-out racists as well as those who experience subconscious racial bias.
But I think that class was the compounding factor. Is it possible that police officers in Cambridge have to put up with elite, privileged, self-entitled college folk all the time? Yes, I think so. I also think testosterone compounded things even more. This was a male-on-male thing as much—or more than—a Black-on-White thing.
Adding to the gray area was the outcome. Professor Gates—thankfully—suffered no physical injury, no loss of property, no loss of life. Yes, dignity is important. But it is not clear that the opportunity here is the best to provide that important lesson about race. If anything, it makes the (presumably) working class, lower paid, public servant the injured party. Can you imagine being lambasted in the international media by the President of the United States?
If this is a teachable moment, then it should be about how we, in a free society, want our rule of law to be carried out by those entrusted to protect us. (See here and here, for example.) It should be about the boundaries of State power, including police officers, and what offenses count as arrestable and freedom-limiting activities. But that, actually, is an even bigger conversation than race. It gets to the very heart of how we see our democratic society. What a boring conversation, in contrast to the high drama and titillation of race and racism…
I say all this as someone who has held something of an intellectual crush on Professor Gates for many years. I was consumed with envy and awe when a grad school friend got the opportunity to meet him after one of her family members was profiled in his African-American Lives 2. I love his intellect, his sense of humor, his somewhat sly smile. Even his cane gives him that extra flair, that je ne sais quoi, that is just appealing to me, an academic geek (and proud of it). I do not have a bone to pick with Dr. Gates—in fact I freely admit that I felt for him because I see myself in his same socioeconomic class and his arrest brings home even more how much a Black man or woman with a PhD is still “just” Black first.
I also say all this as someone who has never signed a petition in support of a Black male death row prisoner, or Black male taser victim, or Black male supposedly railroaded-by-police “innocent” bystander. My reasons for this lack of overt support are many and deserve a separate blog post. But suffice it to say that I am in the camp that would like to see more support for the victims of Black-on-Black crime and injustice, than the far fewer in number victims of White-on-Black crime and injustice. And I would definitely like to see more Black compassion for Black female lives and bodies—at least as much as wee seem to have for Black male lives and bodies.
Finally, I also say all this as someone who has supported and followed President Obama ever since he was a young, unknown Senator with a funny name just making a speech on a national big stage. I believe most of the criticisms of him range from par for the course (e.g., he has taken on too much) to the ridiculous (e.g., he is not US-born). He is in a unique position of walking a racial tightrope, and in all cases he will generally be damned if he does and equally damned if he does not.
In this instance, however, I think this “teachable moment” is for President Obama and President Obama alone.
In my preschool classroom, that was a definite no-no. It is great if I just happened to be a bird enthusiast, had a closet full of bird teaching materials that I have been just waiting to use, and that this dovetails wonderfully with the children’s interest and with the unexpected arrival of the bird and her nest. But it is not OK if I try to manipulate interest or opportunities to satisfy only my own needs.
This may be one case where the teacher is teaching for the benefit of the teacher.
President Obama needs a win. He needs to make up for what some are reading, charitably, as a mis-step and others are reading, with relish, as a tool for a potential upset come re-election. He is probably interested in recapturing the glow from his widely acknowledged groundbreaking speech on race from the campaign. (Which, it is important to note, was also forced upon him through a “teachable moment.”) He is motivated to maintain the sense of balance, the air of racial objectivity, that he likely feels he needs as the first non-White president of the United States. He is also likely motivated to bring this incident to some closure. It was not in his original lesson plan and he wants to get quickly back to health care and other “real” issues.
I hope, for the President’s sake, that the menfolk-downing-beers-in-the-White-House move works out. But this is not a teachable moment for the country on race. Perhaps we will have one at some point. But this ain’t it.
July 21, 2009
What if he was not Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr?
What if he was not a preeminent Harvard professor?
What if he was not almost 60 years old, of average or below average height, with a visible disability?
What if his home was not “well maintained” in a “nice” Cambridge neighborhood?
What if the incident had not happened at 12 noon, but 12 midnight?
What if he could not have provided identification in a timely manner?
What if he did not have a high profile attorney to filter all subsequent inquiries and release all statements?
What if the police had not been forced, through public embarrassment, to drop all charges?
The true outrage is that if any or all this had been the case there would not be nearly as much outrage.
June 22, 2009
This blog post is about a movie I saw recently with my 9 year old daughters, starring Eddie Murphy as a father who learns to love his young daughter—and in the process, rediscover his own humanity—via imaginary princesses in an imaginary world.
This blog post is about a young father I used to see at a bus stop in St. Paul, MN, standing with his toddler daughter in all kinds of weather, her pink and lavender Dora the Explorer backpack slung around his shoulder and his jeans hanging below his hips.
Or, this blog post is about the way that the MSM cannot get Black fathers right.
Well, all that is a mighty tall order. Let’s start with the movie and maybe I can work in some of the other points. This will be somewhat of a random ramble but I’ll see what I can do.
If I told you it was a Nickelodeon film…if I told you it came on the heels of another movie about an adult male (starring another, this time White, comedian/actor) prospering at work due to the imagination of a child…if I told you it was yet another movie about divorced adults behaving badly and the children who must bring them to their senses…if I told you the female “lead” (and I use the term loosely as in this movie, like many starring men, the women do not have a whole lot to do) looked an awful lot like Mr. Murphy’s own ex… If I told you all that you might imagine that “Imagine That,” starring Eddie Murphy, would not be a movie you should go see.
I myself only saw it because the grandparents wanted to take the daughters and invited me to go along. I expected to get a few winks in the comfy theater chairs and wake up in time to agree with my girls what a good movie it was.
Instead, I found I couldn’t take my eyes off of the movie. I had been thinking a lot about Black fatherhood, see. And in this movie Murphy’s character is struggling with being a Dad. Struggling in a real way, I thought. He doesn’t “get” his daughter. She touches things and bothers things and piddles around when it’s time to go and doesn’t seem to listen to him. And she has a blankie that she refuses to give up, because it is her means to talk to her imaginary friends. All this is getting in the way of him being a superstar financial investment professional, in line to become the new boss—if only he can outperform a rival with a sexier ethnic heritage (American Indian) with unorthodox methods who the White higher-ups, colleague, and clients seem taken with.
That’s enough of a set-up.
BMW (Black Men Working)
The first thing that struck me while watching the Murphy movie was how infrequently in films we get depictions of upwardly mobile, well educated, high income Black folks who are just people. In some movies (cough***tylerperry***cough) upper income people are bad guys or sell out buffoons or symbolic of all that has gone wrong with The Black Community. In other movies they are merely the best friends or sidekicks to the main White character.
Remember when Eddie Murphy’s movie “Boomerang” came out? I remember reading a couple of reviews by White critics that lambasted the film for its lack of realism in depicting a virtually all-Black high income professional world. (I doubt that these same critics fault any of Woody Allen’s movies for depicting an all-White NYC, but that’s another story.) As if movies have anything to do with what is “real.” As if it is so hard to imagine Black folks with high profile jobs working with other Black folks.
I have been talking a lot about Black women in workplaces. I know that Black men have similar, but also different challenges with dealing with competing masculinities—White, other Black, and other non-Black men of color—at work. By now we have all heard of the research about “baby-faced,” non-threatening-looking Black men doing better as CEOs than other Black men.
I knew a Black man once who was a top executive at his university. Everyone knew him, as he had become kind of a public “face” of the institution. He once mentioned to me that when he is walking around campus after working out at the gym, dressed in t-shirt and sweat pants, the same White people who would readily say hi to him were he dressed in a suit or walking astride the president, did not even recognize him. In fact, they averted their eyes when they caught a glimpse of his big, tall, dark chocolate body coming towards them. He laughed off his comment. I did not know him well enough to be able to tell if there was anger or sadness or anything else behind the laugh.
I know another professional Black man. At first he was only the second “of color” person of any gender at his job. The first was a Black African man. Then a man from India was hired. An admin assistant said, “Have you all met? Now there are enough of you to have a minority association here!” Regarding the first-hired guy, this man was frequently called by his name. No matter that the first spoke with a Nigerian accent and the other, a midwestern pattern, or that the one was very dark skinned while the other was brown-skinned, one was very tall and the other medium height, one had worked there for years while the other only a few months. Oh, but they were both bald, so…
I suppose Barack Obama has a “baby face.” I have written here before how I believe he bends over backwards to be self-deprecating to put people (especially White people) at ease. That’s a lot of time wasted, IMO, that he could be doing other things with his personal energies. But he is well aware of what he has to do. People have a hard time imagining a Black man as a top advertising executive, or financial investor—let alone POTUS.
“Will you be my Daddy?”
I do not know what it is about male stars turning to family/children’s movies at critical points in their careers. But I must say, I am all for it. (Remember, this is coming from someone with two kids.) We’ve seen it with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, with Adam Sandler, with Eddie Murphy, even with Ice Cube. In these movies these men are fathers, or otherwise are caretakers to children. They must overcome former tendencies—with selfishness, with workaholism, with womanizing, with partying—in order to “grow up” and “be a man.” The pathway to this personal growth is children. (Again, the women in these movies are largely absent or at least non consequential.) I have not seen anyone hailing these movies as tackling important issues of gender, or Black fatherhood, or anything else. But I think that is a mistake. I think these movies are trying to tell us something about how some men may be feeling about their roles at a certain point in their lives.
There is a song out that I absolutely despise. It’s by, I think, Twista—the cat that rapid fire raps—and features hook vocals by a female vocalist. She sings, “I need a Daddy. Can you be my Daddy? …Come and make it rain down on me…” I am pretty sure that she is singing to a potential romantic partner and not a potential actual father figure. The song irks me for too many reasons to go into here. But I do think it points out a twisted (pun intended) view of fatherhood as a symbol. Only recently has a wider spread conversation started about the effect of fatherlessness on Black girls—after much public agreement from all quarters about its effect on Black boys.
Are grown women looking for “fathers” in their beds? Are grown men looking to be “fathers” to grown women who they are having sexual relationships with? From the song I gather that part of the role played by the potential Daddy is mainly that of protector, pleasure giver, and financial security blanket. So with at least two out of the three, we’re back to the upwardly mobile professional Black men. Our music is full of images of Black men providing protection and financial security through rapping and gray/black market entrepreneurship. No critics say that is unrealistic. We can easily imagine that. We do not have as many models for Black men being social fathers to little girls, providing that same protection and financial security. That is, I guess, harder for us to imagine.
As I mentioned in the intro, when I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, I used to pass by a certain bus stop early each morning as I drove my daughters to school. At this bus stop every morning, no matter how cold or how much snow was on the ground, was this young brother with a toddler-aged little girl. I thought about them and especially him every time I passed by. He was, as I said, young and Black. He was always dressed in the latest “urban” fashion: bubble jackets and sagging jeans and expensive looking sneakers, and baseball caps for every day of the year. If I saw him on the street without the toddler I would probably make all sorts of assumptions about him.
But there he was every single morning. Along with his fly gear, he also frequently sported the little girl’s backpack over his shoulder. At the stop light I’d watch him, backpack over his shoulder, holding the little girl’s hand. I would watch him and wonder why it is so hard for me to imagine someone like him. I do not know, actually, if he was the girl’s father, or older brother or uncle or whatever. I do not know where he went or what he did after he dropped the little girl to the day care center or child care providers or his mother’s house or her mother’s house. But for, probably, an hour or so each morning—whether it was 82 degrees or 20 below—he was this child’s protector and provider.
I try to superimpose the image of that young brother on other young brothers I see on the street, dressed in urban fashions and looking very un-baby faced even as I know they are practically babies.
Imagining Black Fathers
By the end of Eddie Murphy’s new movie, he has gained the love and respect of his (formerly) estranged little daughter. I have noticed that in movies with female leads about career and family, the women often have to give up one to have the other. But in movies about male leads seeking this balance, the one actually leads to the other. Eddie’s character has a new relationship with his daughter and becomes the big boss—despite acting in a way that is considered highly unprofessional (= not putting work first) in his workplace. I do not know how real this is for men. Maybe male work-family fantasies have not reached the same conclusion as women’s have—that “balance” is not incredibly realistic, or even desirable, or it at least involves a redefinition of the word.
(Or maybe we women are being led to believe that only we need to give up notions of balance all together and get back to being subservient to men. But that’s another blog post.)
Maybe in the next Eddie Murphy family flick he can explore both sides—Black men embracing fatherhood in their workplaces and Black women embracing motherhood in their workplaces. Or, even more worth the price of admission, maybe Eddie can co-star with Arsenio Hall or Adam Sandler as romantic partners balancing fatherhood and work roles—along with their roles as ex-husbands to women…and sons to mothers and fathers…all in the context of navigating their relatiopnship with each other.
Wow. Imagine that!