Thursday, August 8, 2019

Let Us Have Our Things

Hot Girl Summer. Bonnets. Brown Skin Girl.

What do all of these things have in common?

They were created by Black women but later capitalized and co-opted by non-Black people, at the expense of both the creator and those who it was intended for. 

Rap sensation Megan Thee Stallion created the phrase “Hot Girl Summer” as a part of her “Realer” album release and as an ode to her fans, who she calls “hotties”. Her listener demographics consists almost entirely of Black women, which is clear from concert footage as well as her social media following and engagement. This became glaringly obvious to me at the XXL Freshman Class 2019 Concert I attended in New York. The fervent screams in the audience for Thee Stallion to show up were not coming from 16-year-old white girls who came with their boyfriends, no no. They were coming from young Black women, including myself, who were sorely disappointed when Megan couldn’t make it due to bad weather. However, numerous companies, corporations, and white women are using the phrase “hot girl summer” in Instagram captions, ads, articles, and memes -- the list goes on. Yet how many of those companies, corporations, and women can name more than 5 of Megan's songs without looking? How many know what the phrase means, who pioneered it, or why she even calls herself “Thee Stallion”? How many actually make way for and support Black women, Black models, and Black businesses with their dollars? While having a “Hot Girl Summer” isn’t explicitly exclusive to Black women under Megan’s guidelines, it was something created amongst us, for us. There is something to be said about non-Black women and companies continuously appropriating styles and vernacular created by Black women under the guise of “inclusion” while they remain deaf to including and supporting us in their marketing and spaces. In a recent episode of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford and her colleague had to unpack what “Hot Girl Summer” means for some of their clients, but more importantly why people feel so threatened by Black women enjoying themselves. It’s not a meme and was never intended to be: it’s an unapologetically proud Black female-led movement in a world that antagonizes us. The good news is that Megan is in the process of trademarking the phrase, so hopefully by the time she releases “Hot Girl Summer” feat. Nicki Minaj on August 9th, companies will profit no more -- that is, without compensating her first.

In recent news,  Sarah Marantz Lindenberg, a white Canadian women, “created” the “Nite Cap” citing that she wanted to create a fashionable silk head wrap that could preserve hairstyles and prevent breakage. Sound familiar? Not only did she call these basic bonnets “nite caps”, she’s selling them for $98 a piece when I could just go to my local beauty supply store and purchase 2 for $5. Bonnets have been a staple of the Black community for ages, stemming all the way back to the African continent and before American slavery. This is not to be confused with bonnets that pilgrims wore tied under their chins, with a brim framing the face to protect them from the elements. For Black people, “bonnets are now worn as crowns”, drawing attention to our heads and revealing our faces. As Gia Peppers explained, it wasn’t always like that though; the growing presence of the bonnet and durags in media is slow progress towards normalization of something we have been vilified for for so long. Still, schools have put dress code policies in place for parents to drop off and pick up their children, targeting Black mothers who show up in pajamas (like any other parent) donning bonnets.This is about race, yes, but also its direct connection to institutional gatekeeping, access to capital and intellectual property, who reaps the benefits of such, and who doesn’t.  UNC alumna Leah Asmelash wrote an article for CNN dissecting the argument and unveiling the lengthy, racist history that has prohibited Black folks from getting rights to their creative property. For Sarah to claim that she created the bonnet or nite cap or whatever you want to call it, is blatant dismissal of Grace Eleyae, Isoken Enofe, and thousands of bonnet brands created by Black women and honoring our heritage. Although she issued an apology on the company's Instagram and the site is still up and running, time will tell if their “new approach” will involve putting Black women and Black dollars at the forefront.

Lastly, “Brown Skin Girl” is a song that Beyonce made for brown to dark skin Black women. Not for women of color, not for all brown women, not for lighter skinned Black women -- but specifically for brown to dark skin Black girls. Citing Lupita Nyong’o, Kelly Rowland, and Naomi Campbell, how much clearer could she have been? Whether it was to provide clarification, show appreciation to fans, or both, Beyonce eventually posted a video on Instagram of darker Black women from as little as 5 years old celebrating their melanin. In a world that is built on one’s affinity to lightness and whiteness and an obsession with eurocentricity, this is monumental. As a first-generation Nigerian, I know the phenomenon of bleaching has been in my parents’ home country for years and has pervaded across the continent; my mom can remember her peers using lightening creams when they were in secondary school. Just months ago, Blac Chyna went to Lagos to launch a bleaching cream line. Young dark-skinned Black girls can tell you themselves what it’s like being referred to as “burnt”, “manish”, “unattractive”, which are comments that even stem from our own community. However, it’s not just the words that hurt; there are real world, systemic inequalities perpetuated by colorism, such as being reprimanded more in the classroom, serving longer prison sentences, etc. Despite all of that, this song is a celebration of brown skin Black girls and in hopes that one day, we can stop perpetuating colorist ideals in our community. While we are not the only group that experiences colorism and anyone can appreciate the song, compromising who these lyrics are intended for is disrespectful to the experiences of darker-skinned Black women.

Many say that Black women should be flattered that we have such an expansive cross-cultural impact. However, the commodification of our culture without proper compensation, representation, and accreditation to Black women is not flattering in the slightest. If you’re not actively supporting us, amplifying our presence, and making a way for us, this is simply another form of cultural appropriation. While appropriation is frequently seen as an individual’s personal choice, it is also intricately laced within our capitalist system at large, begging the question of where privilege lies within it and the preservation of our cultural capital.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Order in the Court: Kim K & The Greater Good

On June 25, Kim Kardashian West released her shapewear line "Kimono," officially launching a passion project of hers that she says has been 15 years in the making. Kim named her skin-tight, nude lingerie pieces -- the antithesis of the kimono's function and purpose --- after the centuries-old Japanese garment. Additionally, she was vying to trademark the term, effectively allowing Mrs. Kardashian West to once again appropriate and profit off of a culture that is not her own and reinforce white gatekeeping in the fashion industry.

Lest we forget, she is doing this all while completing a four-year law apprenticeship under the direction of Erin order to to advocate...for marginalized individuals.

According to The Fashion Law, the mayor of Kyoto, Japan wrote a letter to Kim K asking her to rename her product, and it worked. However, as I scrolled down my Twitter feed, my attention was brought to yet another company post from KKW Beauty. This time, it was an advertisement for her new body collection, where an ethnically ambiguous model can be seen applying generous amounts of a body foundation to their skin. Although the replies were funny, the laughter was short-lived as I thought about all of the other things that could possibly go wrong.

Blackfishing, the phenomenon in which non-Black women (typically white women) cosplay and/or emulate Black features, is an immediate concern. This issue goes much deeper than surface-level self-tanning lotion, literally and figuratively. The KKW body foundation is much more viscous, similar to that of what I'd put on my face, with 7 ranges from fair to deep dark. While many cited that this could serve as a breakthrough product for women with psoriasis, vitiligo, and other skin pigmentation diseases, there seemed to be a lack of questions posed about the message Kim is sending out. The primary one being, what do we as a society benefit from this?

Under the guise of showing that people are capable of change, that not all celebrities are entitled, or whatever may have inspired this new chapter of Kim K's life, she enrolled in law school, setting social media ablaze and instilling a redemptive and forgiving spirit in the hearts of many. Some Black men were even caping for her, saying that she was doing better than organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement after having successfully met with Donald Trump and worked towards granting Cyntoia Brown clemency.

However, going to law school does not negate all that she has done wrong, continues to do wrong, or will do wrong.

It does not negate the fact that Kim Kardashian and her family treat Black individuals in their social circles like accessories, replacing them after every "misstep" as we have seen from the Jordyn Woods debacle. It does not negate the fact that the Kardashians are patriarchy princesses, pushing products and creating publicity narratives to feed off the insecurities of women instead of holding the men in their lives accountable. It does not negate the fact that the Kardashians continue to disrespect almost every racial group, especially Black women, while simultaneously trying to “be black”.

Kim can go to law school. Kim can get another surgery. Kim can make another tape. But how do those things, whether it's her whiteness and fame profiting of the tireless work of Black activists or bashing Black women to make a buck, contribute to the greater good? Kim is selling products the expense of these marginalized groups she is ostensibly learning how to defend -- and her cultural tone-deafness persists. Is it possible that we can start buying more from minority-owned businesses and support actual pioneers? Is it possible that we can live in a world where skin diseases are normalized and people don't feel the need to cover up their authentic selves? The answer lies with you, the consumer.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Ruth Spills All: Spain Edition

A friend once told me that man plans and God laughs. This isn’t out of spite, but rather because He knows something better lies ahead, something that you could not have possibly fathomed. 

No truer words have ever been spoken.

I am so incredibly fortunate to be studying abroad for a full semester in Spain, visiting monuments older than the United States, distancing myself from the stress of Carolina, and finally living on the same continent as my extended family in England. However, I’ve refrained from writing about the experience because of the changes, both internal and external, that I’ve been processing. The insatiable perfectionist in me wanted this reflection to be flawless – but there’s no such thing as the perfect article or the perfect experience. With less than one month to go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to reflect on some of what has happened so far: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Admittedly, one of my fatal flaws is being a serial planner. My preparation process for this five-month trip was filled with anxiety, excitement, as well as in-depth investigating. I asked the few students of color who had traveled to Spain before me which region was best to go to, what to pack, what to expect, and ultimately, I chose Andalusia. While I could’ve gone to Madrid, a city I might have enjoyed more because of its metropolitan modernity, the primary purpose of studying abroad is to study, whether it’s through experiential or classroom learning. 

That being said, UNC in Sevilla is one of the few programs I saw that ensured that my courses would transfer properly and I would receive credit towards my general education classes and Hispanic Studies minor. The program also had a built-in homestay, which meant three free meals, guaranteed opportunities to practice your Spanish, and a safety net in the case of emergencies (i.e. your host family). After committing to the program, I went to a pre-departure conference with 25 or so other students who were also headed to Spain, where previous travelers told us all about their adventures abroad. A student mentioned that no matter how prepared you think you are, you literally cannot brace yourself for the physiological changes you will undergo when you arrive. I scoffed.

But she was right.

Upon my arrival in Spain, I tried to purchase a new SIM card. After fumbling through my conversation with the sales associate, I managed to get one, but iMessage wasn’t syncing properly. I couldn’t message my friends who had Androids and couldn’t call anyone back home, only via FaceTime or FaceTime Audio. When I did text my friends with iPhones, my “number” came up as our family iTunes email address. Nothing has changed since then, but luckily, several other students were experiencing this so I knew it wasn’t just me. 

After marching down to the Vodafone shop some days later and making an unsuccessful trip to a secondhand Apple store for assistance, I was fed up and decided to get drinks with a few friends to decompress. 

No pasa nada. It’s whatever, you know? People can reach me through social media, email, and WhatsApp. I’ll be fine,” I lied to myself, in a weak attempt to brush off my worries. 

Type A Ruth did not plan for this, but there was literally nothing I could do to fix it. I was forced to “look on the bright side”, a reductive little saying I typically roll my eyes at. Despite constantly inhaling secondhand smoke, I’m alive, I can communicate with my family through WhatsApp, and I’m drinking in Spain. That's enough to be thankful for.

I’m not just in Spain though. I am a Black woman from the United States in Spain. How I navigate this world and how I maintain my safety as a Black woman is of utmost importance to me. There’s a unique interplay between the privilege I have as an American citizen abroad yet the global anti-Blackness I still witness and experience. Thankfully, I don’t feel the impending threat of being gunned down by police, but at times, I wonder who's around me that I can depend on and will tacitly understand my struggles, my needs, etc. My friend Aitza, a UNC alumna who is now teaching English in northwest Spain, added me to Facebook groups for Black people living here – Ghanaian, African American, Jamaican, British Nigerian, you name it – in order to help foster a sense of community. My program director, a Black woman, was even able to give me braider recommendations when I asked.

Yet in a week, I might see only five people who look like me: African men selling counterfeit designer bags on the streets, offering packets of tissues at roundabouts, or helping people park their cars. And that’s it. This wasn’t surprising at all, as I had done my research before coming and thought I knew a little bit about the racism here and Spain’s small Black population. What I did not know is that I’d receive stares from locals daily, that I’d see costumes at Carnaval so horrible that my stomach would turn, or that I’d have to argue with my professors weekly over colonization apologetics and why blackface is objectively racist no matter the country. 

But alas, I’ve been able to turn this into a bit of a game, staring back at older white Spaniards who stare at me or simply provoking my problematic teachers every now and again for a good laugh. Occasionally, I feel like I’m back in high school, which is somewhat unsettling. I attend classes in the same building, rotating from room to room with other American students – minus the overtly, aggressively racist classmates I encountered when I was 14 to 17 years old. 

In my free time, I’m volunteering at Sevilla Acoge, an organization dedicated to helping refugee and immigrant families integrate themselves into Sevillan society without erasing their cultural identity. I work with six to eight-year-old children twice a week serving as a teacher’s assistant, and it has been a joy to be with these kids and watch them progress each day. The way they struggle yet shamelessly ask for help has taught me so much about myself and my resistance to doing just that. My heart soared when I met one of my students’ parents, a Nigerian woman who spoke English. Every Tuesday and Thursday when she comes to pick up her children, we start chatting away about jollof rice, shaku shaku, and the prospect of taking her kids back home. 

Naturally, my respect for immigrants is remarkably high, but since my time here, it has only skyrocketed. My parents are Nigerian immigrants who left their homeland to provide a better future for me, my brother, and my late sister. While they were well-educated and knew English, the fact that they took such a leap of faith – sacrificing everything, traveling to a country where they knew no one, unsure about whether they would one day return to Nigeria  means so much more to me after my time in Spain. I can barely handle spending 5 months in a foreign country eating an unfamiliar cuisine and speaking a language that's not my native tongue, but that has been my parents’ reality for years now. 

Although my Spanish has certainly improved and I am more confident in my speaking and listening abilities, I don’t know if I would consider myself fluent just yet. When I initially came to Spain with my knowledge as extensive as SPAN 260 (and a having taken a whole semester off from speaking), I felt this looming need to depend on everyone around me, not only for safety reasons but in order to complete basic tasks. Being the introvert I am, I arguably value my autonomy and independence above all else. 

Within my first week of staying in Spain, I rode the tram to the city center, Plaza Nueva, put in my headphones, and walked around by myself with Google Maps as my personal tour guide. I couldn’t handle the feeling of being trapped. I live in a room half the size of my dorm shared by me and another UNC student, and I take showers in a space the size of 4-8 concrete tiles on the floor. Not to mention the fact that if it’s too early in the morning (ex. I have an international flight at 9 or 10 AM and need to shower at 6 AM), I have to manually increase the temperature of the generator, wait for a few minutes, then toggle with the tap to finally produce hot water. At one point, my well-meaning host mother suggested I shower at the gym because I was taking too long. I nodded my head, but was internally seething with rage. My showers, the most relaxing parts of my day, were now being policed. 

It was suffocating to report home for every single unseasoned meal, with no choice but to eat it. The first day I arrived, I was reeled in with chicken curry and rice, only to later be disappointed with cauliflower, cream of zucchini, and bechamel. Our Ukrainian housekeeper comes every other day, and her meals are hearty and flavorful. However, when she's not there, it's an extreme hit or miss for me. While my roommate loves our host mother's cooking, my African taste buds find it bland. It's a stark contrast to the culture I had grown up in where if you can't stomach spicy food, you might as well starve. The very McDonald’s that Americans chastise for its unhealthiness became a safe space for me. I, the child who generally hates cooking, even asked if I could cook my own food –  to which my host mother replied casually with, “No no, comes lo que comemos.” 

Eventually, I took solo trips to visit family in London, friends studying abroad in other parts of Europe, or around Spain by myself. These trips helped me stay a bit grounded and  physically remove myself from the situation. I knew I came here for three reasons: to take a break from Carolina, to improve my Spanish skills, and to continue my academics. That’s all I asked for and I’m getting it, so why am I so pressed? 

The oversimplified answer is because it’s just not the way I thought it would be.

My complaints are valid, yes, but aren’t my expectations? I wasn’t expecting siesta to become a source of both extreme love and hate nor was I expecting to have such difficulty finding basic things (lint roller, hand sanitizer, a water bottle, etc.), but leaning into the discomfort is good, they say. 

After the numerous situations that I’ve managed to wriggle my way through (ex. scrambling to print out documents at the nearest copistería before close, navigating the Paris metro system, or when my phone stopped working and I was almost stranded in London, etc.), I feel much more certain of myself and my abilities. While she’s still hyper-conscientious and a little hardheaded, the girl that was once scared of everything can now say she's visited 7 countries outside the U.S. That girl is me. From attending London Fashion Week to visiting the Louvre in France and booking a weekend getaway to Portugal, I’m realizing that so much lies within me. 

I can’t say that I loved every second of this, that I would ever do this again, or even return to Spain, but I am finishing this race. And I’m better for running it.