Dear Brown People: Stop Saying the n-word, Start Saying Black Lives Matter

It isn’t my place to speak for black people, but I believe it is my responsibility to ensure that I am an ally and confront the wrongs in my own community. This article is for brown [read: South Asian] people who have likely grown up in similar scenarios as those I have faced in my family and community. We profit so much from black culture and black resistance, and never take the time to acknowledge and understand this. It’s our duty to advocate for our brothers and sisters, and correct our actions and the actions of those around us when micro and macro-aggressions occur.

With that said, it’s time to stop saying the n-word, and start saying black lives matter.

Now, I’m not excused from any of this racial fuckery. I used to say the n-word. I rapped it. I sang it. I spoke about how its use by coloured people was okay. I know, I know. I was shit, okay? The key phrase here is “I used to”. The person I was greatly participated in micro and macro-aggressions  in the past, but I’ve been educating myself about my wrongs, and have been working to correct them for a while. The beautiful thing is that we can all learn to be better to one another.

Data from the 2011 NHS survey: 49.1% of Toronto's population is a visible minority, or part of the indigenous population.
Data from the 2011 NHS survey: 49.1% of Toronto’s population is a visible minority, or part of the indigenous population.

Being an ally to all POC is a never-ending process, but the self-reflection, advocacy, listening and learning can help us inspire change at a grassroots level. Be there for blackness like blackness has been for you. Start with the n-word.

I grew up in a diverse area of Toronto. This meant that I was constantly around people who shared my skin colour. Our melanin gave us something in common. It meant we weren’t white, and didn’t experience the same level of privilege.  Now, being brown amidst the whiteness of North America means a number of things:

  1. You will never quite “belong“.
  2. You will “belong” more than other POC.
  3. You fit in with the model minority myth.
  4. Your brownness will be held above blackness.

While each of these points work in tandem to promote white power, I’m mostly concerned with the last one. Many of the South Asians I know succumb to the racism we’ve been taught through whiteness. In an effort to fit in with the model minority myth, we are quick to shit on black people, even while we participate in and consume black culture. Let me give you an example of my own shittiness. (Please bear in mind that God’s been working on me ever since!)

I once created a Facebook event for my friends. I crafted a witty event description with all of the necessary details – but that description came complete with Biggie lyrics that used the n-word. None of my invitees thought it odd, until one of my black girlfriends saw it. She immediately told me not to use it. Here’s where I get shittier.

I said no. I said that I didn’t think it was a problem because:

  • “They were just lyrics!”
  • “I understand your struggle! We’re both discriminated against!”
  • “No one else is offended!”

How messed up was that? How much privilege did I display? How oppressive was I? I didn’t talk to a single black person when trying to understand why my position wasn’t okay. Instead, other people of colour and white people helped convince me that I was never in the wrong. While engaging with black culture (Biggie), I neglected to respect black people. I oppressed my friend further, thus becoming a part of the whiteness that I should have been acting against. Deleting the lyric to make my friend feel more comfortable wouldn’t have been a difficult thing to do at all!

Although I removed the lyric in the end, I did so grudgingly, without understanding the need for real allyship and solidarity. This article is a direct result of my micro-aggression and need to apologize for it. Thank you my friends, for helping me learn to be better, and not letting go of me in the process. I’m sorry for every instance in which I’ve done you wrong,  and hope that I can continue to overcome any and all of my oppressive behaviour.

South Asian Black solidarity.jpg
Alliance of South Asians Taking Action members stand in solidarity with the #blacklivesmatter movement. 

Brown people need to realize that we are guests to black culture, and need to respect it and understand our place within it. Whiteness pits POC against one another; we are entered into a hierarchical system where we all come after the whiteness at the top. When we, brown people, don’t work to stand up for or support black lives, we align with the oppressor, and work against the people who fought for our right to belong here on a “politically equal” playing field. Whiteness doesn’t give a shit about people of colour. Why do we work so hard to gain acceptance from it? We constantly put down other POC and stereotype them to bring our own culture closer to whiteness, but the truth is we don’t need it. Instead, our own means to success should revolve around supporting one another to break free of whiteness and the internalized hatred of self that it brings.

Whether it’s you, your friends, or your family, anti-blackness needs to be spoken against and challenged.

The n-word is not our word. We did not endure the suffering that black bodies have been through to be here. We don’t get to reclaim it. Instead, we can show our support for blackness and black culture by speaking up against inequality, and participating in black healing when we are welcomed. We need to be allies and confront our own racism. Whether it’s you, your friends, or your family, anti-blackness needs to be spoken out against and challenged. When POC work together, we can begin to dismantle the oppressive whiteness around us, and additionally participate in healing and decolonization of self.

We must actively make an effort to confront the racism in our own communities. This is a never-ending process – trust me, I’m still working on it. Start with simple changes and actions, and build up from there.

Stop saying the n-word. Start saying black lives matter.

 

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Coldplay and Cultural Appropriation

January 29th saw the release of Coldplay’s music video for their song Hymn for the Weekend. The backlash and praise was quick to come- how could it not be? Stunning visuals of “Indian life”, Coldplay members covered in Holi powder, and Beyonce decked out in Indian attire. On paper the video sounds like a dream come true. On screen, it screams of cultural appropriation, exoticism, and the limiting view of India that the world is constantly exposed to.

Cultural Appropriation is when one culture takes elements from another culture. The definition becomes further nuanced when you incorporate different aspects of history, and positions of power in the world. This has a lot to do with imperialism and colonization. When Western cultures take aspects of other cultures that they have colonized and belittled for centuries, it is considered cultural appropriation. It is not appropriation when a young Indian boy wears a t-shirt and jeans. Indeed, British colonialists wanted to assimilate and force Indians to be more like them:

lord-macaulays-address-to-the-british-parliament-on-february-2-1835

A young Indian boy wearing a pair of jeans is just a part of a system that has served to put him, his ancestors, and his predecessors down for years. He’s part of the same system that lets Coldplay create videos of India, and paint it with one broad brush.

Hymn for the Weekend exoticizes India in extreme ways. Sadhus walk through lush green forestry, little Indian children run through the colourful alleys of slums with large smiles on their faces. People dressed as Hindu Gods are on every corner, and Chris Martin takes colourful taxis as he looks on in wonder at a land so different, so magical, so spiritual.

Give me a break. 

India is so much more than a Hindu country. We’re Muslim. We’re Christian. We’re black, brown, yellow, white. With over a billion people, India is a land of diversity. There is agriculture, there is business, there is an Indian tech scene that is absolutely booming. There are also many negative things to deal with like corruption, pollution, caste and race issues, and even patriarchal issues. These images don’t fit with the Western stereotype of India as a land to “find yourself” (think Eat, Love, Pray), and thus are never represented in Western portrayals of India. You can see the romanticism of India in the words used to describe the video:

Hymn for the Weekend makes it seem as if Indian people have all the time in the world to coddle Western travellers and cater to their needs, which is not the case. Yes, visit India if you want to see what it is about, but don’t expect this one-sided look at the country. If there is anything to learn about any culture or peoples, it is the individualism in all of them. We don’t all live in slums and celebrate Holi every second of the day- it actually happens once a year!

Beyonce and Coldplay are those that we see in the video, but there is an entire team at fault for not recognizing the way this video might be portrayed. Beyonce wears Indian attire in a stereotypical manner, and uses mudras, Bharatnatyam hand formations, in order to convey “Indian-ness”. Her costume goes further with a headdress, and mehndi on her hands. With many different cultures in India, we dress differently in each one. We also have multiple dances! Beyonce, while basically Queen of the world, is still appropriating. She doesn’t get a pass if someone like Miley Cyrus doesn’t. With all the wrongs committed against black culture in terms of appropriation, and Beyonce’s self titled feminist position, it’s sad to see her disrespect another culture in this way.

Appreciation vs. Appropriation

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 3.21.30 PMThere is a lot that could have been done to make this a better video. Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor made a cameo for two seconds, and could have been in the scenes with Beyonce. If both were dressed in South Asian gear, Beyonce would be in a place of appreciation. There would be noted invitation because of Sonam Kapoor’s presence. Sonam could have even played the Bollywood actress Beyonce was meant to represent to truly pay homage to Indian cinema. When people start putting down Indian culture in order to bring Beyonce up, you know something is wrong with the way the culture is being displayed.

Scenes of Indian life could have been more versatile, rather than displaying the one tired image of Hinduism and Holi. Again, India is more than a magical Hindu land where Westerners can attain spiritual awakening. Hymn for the Weekend works like a poorly made tourism video that showcases one aspect of the country.

I get it though. I really get it. The song is bomb. The video is well made. Beyonce is basically my Queen and she can almost do no wrong. This doesn’t make it any less upsetting though. A lot of people are reacting poorly, and others see no fault in the video. Many of these people are actual Indian citizens, and others are Non-resident Indians. As an NRI, I’ve had to deal with the oppression and racism of white privilege all of my life. Knowing that this video will make the people in my life see India in a one dimensional view is hard to deal with. I’m not a stereotype. Neither is my culture.

The racism and oppression of Indians from India is different- it’s deep rooted in Indian psyche, things that make Indian people feel like their skin and culture isn’t good enough. They don’t have to deal with white people and Western ignorance on frequent occasions. Finally seeing what is meant to be a positive portrayal makes Indians feel good. I get that too. Neither view is incorrect, but some may experience the negative end of the spectrum a bit more.

 

Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the Erasure of Borders

bajrangi-Bhaijaan-afqf
Salman Khan stars as Pawan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan

There are few Bollywood movies these days with the power to move me. Bajrangi Bhaijaan was one of them. Salman Khan played Pawan, aka Bajrangi, an Indian Hindu man hellbent on getting a 6 year old Pakistani girl (Munni/Shahida) back home after she was lost in India. Spoilers abound- beware!

I’m a sucker for stories that deal with India/Pakistan and Hindu/Muslim relations. When I was younger, I knew little about the long history between India and Pakistan, and let my Hindu parents’ prejudices rub off on me- a story that is probably relevant to many South Asian children. Pakistan and Islam went hand in hand, and they were the enemy. As I got older, I gained knowledge about a history grounded in colonial relations. I watched movies like Veer Zaara, read books like A Train to Pakistan. All signs pointed to one thing. These boundaries and histories were fabricated, meant to tear us apart. We were all the same. The overcoming of internal prejudices that took me years was portrayed in a 3 hour movie.

A map of India and Pakistan
A map of India and Pakistan

Hindus make up 78% of India, while Muslims are a minority at 14%. Similar numbers can be found in Pakistan, a state created for India’s Islamic population: 96% Islamic, 2% Hindu. Prejudices run deep and strong in Indians and Pakistanis, and especially run deep in Pawan. For the most part, it was his learning through Muslim bodies that helped him overcome the differences we’ve been taught to see in each other. These tender moments had me bawling like a baby!

Munni when she first sees Pawan.
Munni when she first sees Pawan.

Getting Munni back home wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the fact that she was unable to speak. Pawan had to get her home based on the way they learned about her story and identity. When he loses her as she heads into a mosque, he learns that she is a Muslim and not a Hindu as he first suspected. When he has to go into the mosque, he reveals his own outdated Hindu stigma- he acts as if he is in a place defiled, and says that Munni has cheated him. A grown man says that a 6 year old girl cheated him. I rolled my eyes too. Rasika, his Hindu Brahmin love interest played by Kareena Kapoor, shames him for his thoughts. She calls his prejudices garbage, saying that castes and classes mean nothing. Munni reveals her innocence and dSalman-Harshaali-Malhotraemonstrates love and equality when she runs straight to Pawan once she is finished praying. As she hugs his waist and smiles one of her adorable smiles, you can see the breakdown of barriers in Salman Khan’s Pawan. Munni doesn’t see the difference between them, and Pawan begins to realize that the things that are different (such as religion) are not traits that make them enemies. This hatred is taught, and it is lacking in Munni.

As a Bollywood film, it is important that Pawan is a Hindu, and not a Muslim man. The majority of India needs to be able to see through their own eyes when watching Pawan’s journey unfold. It is ironic, and yet completely sensible that this character is played by a Muslim-Hindu actor. Salman Khan is a powerful and popular actor in India, and captures hearts everywhere, whether they are Hindu or Muslim. While his film has blown box office records, I wonder if it has broken down internal prejudices.

Partition displaced over 12 million people, and 1 million died in the ensuing chaos.
Partition displaced over 12 million people, and 1 million died in the ensuing chaos.

The British ruled India by a simple method: divide and conquer. They divided religions and cultures, and caused strife and animosity between people who had lived peacefully as neighbours for hundreds of years. Partition was the dismemberment of a country at the hands of a white man.  He drew a line in the sand, and severed cities, landscapes, and heads from bodies. Over a million people lost their lives.

Interestingly enough, we see the same sights, and the same people in both Pakistan and India; this was first revealed to us in Veer Zaara’s “Aisa Des Hai Mera“. The countries are one and the same. Indeed, the place where Munni reveals she is from is Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Kashmir is a metaphor for India and Pakistan. It represents the history of something that used to be whole. It is the Maulana Sahab, played by Om Puri, who tells Pawan that Munni may be from the Pakistani Kashmir. He also houses them in a Mosque, and helps hide and protect them from the cops- Pawan’s mission is a noble one regardless of his Hinduness. Pawan is reluctant to stay in the building after passing the night there, when he finds upon waking that it is a mosque. He demonstrates a pathetic Hindu fear of pollution- this is similar to the treatment of lower castes in Hinduism (a now abolished form of governance). The Maulana and Munni both help him overcome this. For Munni, Pawan is willing to go into the mosque; his love for her trumps all Hindu-Muslim ignorance. When parting ways with the Maulana, Pawan’s Hinduism is confronted yet again. He offers the Maulana a hand to shake, and in turn the Maulana envelops him in a hug. When the Maulana offers the parting words “Allah Hafiz”, Pawan nearly raises his hand to reply in the same manner- but he checks himself and joins both hands in prayer. The Maulana takes a second, and then asks what the Hindu parting is. He says “Jai Shree Ram” to Pawan with ease. It does not belittle his Islamic Bajrangi Bhaijaan Hands Foldedfaith- and Pawan stares on in wonder. Even Chand Nawab (a reporter travelling with the pair) and Munni bow and join hands with ease when Pawan stops to pray to a monkey, an incarnation of Hanuman (Bhajrang Bali). The story teaches that the differences between them do not define the relationships they share. Pawan slowly learns this as he sees the way Muslim people interact with his Hindu religion without hurting their faiths.

When Pawan is being released back across the border, he turns to Pakistan and its people once more. He raises his hand in the adab gesture, finally overcoming his prejudice and becoming comfortable with his faith. As he crosses, Munni runs to find him and call to him one last time. The miraculous happens- she is finally able to speak due to the prayers of Hindus and Muslims. Her first words are “Mama”, and then “Jai Shree Ram”; the former means maternal uncle, and the latter is a Hindu greeting. When Pawan and Munni meet for the last time, it is in the middle of the border crossing, in the river. They embrace, and Pawan throws Munni into the air. My tears flowed freely, and I hoped that the prejudices of our day and age would flow away just as swiftly.

Can Bajrangi Bhaijaan stop all prejudice? No. But it can serve as an inspiring start for Indians and Pakistanis everywhere.

Round Table Talks: Nicki Minaj to Sandra Bland. (Abridged)

Please click here if you’re interested in reading the post in its entirety.

Imagine that the many problems in the world are strands in a spider’s web. Tiny threads come together to create a scene that is larger than life, and every strand has an impact. Indeed, movement felt in one part of the web to individual strands will create vibrations that reverberate in other parts- the entire web will shake when a problem arises. This is the analogy that mattered when I sat down with my friend Amba to discuss Nicki Minaj, and watched the conversation turn to Sandra Bland and more.

Bhumika: Let’s be real here. We both know that Nicki Minaj was right to call out white privileged media when Anaconda got snubbed. What were your initial thoughts on hearing the story?

Amba: My initial thoughts were solely about Nicki. My thought process was thus: “yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss”. That reaction was for one of the industry’s hardest working people standing up to say what needed to be said about how the VMAs and MTV in general simultaneously commodify black contributions to society while devaluing it.

Nicki Minaj has won the BET award for Best Female Hip Hop artist 5 years in a row.

Bhumika: Agreed. As a female, and a black female at that, Nicki has had to work her ass off in order to gain credibility as a rapper. Hip hop and rap are known as black forms of music, but in this instance it almost felt like she wasn’t being celebrated for her contributions. Nicki spoke to the way black culture is valuable, but black women aren’t. Why do you think Taylor Swift injected herself into the conversation?

Amba:  She inserted herself because she, like many white female entertainers and many white women in general, cannot comprehend a black woman’s struggle in any way shape or form. They are often incapable because they see a focus on black women’s issues as pitting people against each other because it is something they themselves cannot relate to. They cannot understand that they are often the perpetrators of these micro aggressions against their “sisters”. So the tactic used here is to accuse the offending “angry black woman” of being anti feminist, or of attacking women in general.

Bhumika: Taylor Swift lacks the ability to view things from an intersectional standpoint. She tweeted “Maybe one of the men took your spot” at Nicki. In the world of white feminism, intersectionality does not exist; it doesn’t consider that culture, ethnicity, religion, and race matter in the grand sphere of equality. To me, Taylor seems to see it in this way. She automatically jumps to the idea that women shouldn’t be pitted against one another, but that men might be the culprits here instead. She doesn’t even take into account that Nicki is speaking to the unfair treatment of black women as a whole.

When the media got wind of all of the excitement on Twitter, they painted Nicki as a villain, and Taylor as the victim. This was done through the wording, and through the pictures used. How do you feel about the fact that a black woman, when speaking about a relevant issue to society, was painted as a “bad guy”?

Amba: I feel unsurprised, as did Nicki in her immediate reaction to the depiction. Prominent black celebrities and twitter personalities chimed in quickly as well. Notably, Janet Mock immediately pointed out that the pictures used were in poor taste, and replaced the wacky Nicki picture with a poised pose, and Taylor’s demure picture with a zany shot.

Black voices, especially black women’s voices, are silenced in many ways. The easiest is to invalidate their words by suggesting that they and everything they do are a joke. Nicki specifically has long been a target of this because of her sexually provocative lyrics, clothing, and her loud makeup and hair. The easiest way to dismiss legitimate voices is to make all black people into a joke.

Bhumika: In the grand scheme of things, I think the invalidation of black voices is a huge problem. When you reduce an entire group of people to a caricature, their experiences and struggles become a non-issue. This is heavily tied to white privilege, and white people, as they have the power to speak and silence these issues. As we speak, voices are erupting on social media asking for #justiceforSandraBland. She knew her rights, she was an advocate for black lives, and now she is dead. When black voices are dismissed as irrelevant, black bodies are as well.

Places like Twitter can erupt in moments like these, but groups in positions of power can limit their interaction and ability to change anything. They have power at grassroots levels, but not in places where systemic racism occurs (or can be changed for that matter). When Taylor Swift offers an apology to Nicki (which she did on Twitter), the conversation is meant to be silenced. This perpetuates the problem, because these are things that shouldn’t be silenced. Taylor Swift didn’t react to the way black bodies and women of colour are marginalized. She likely won’t.

Amba: Denying the value of Twitter or social media spaces in general is denying the world that we live in. Twitter and social media as a whole absolutely have the power to effect change, and the discussion is not, was not, and cannot be silenced by Taylor Swift deciding it is done.

Invalidating black voices means that black people are rendered partially invisible in society. The only visible image of black people in media is negative: criminal, hyper sexual, deviant, degenerate, absentee parents and out of control children. All of these are smashed by actual facts and statistics, but those things are rendered invisible in this hypervisibility of faux tropes.

This leads even the conscious media viewer to questions that aren’t even posed, before the media is even skewed. What should Sandra have done to avoid being killed? What did she do to bring this on herself? Was she high? Was she a criminal? We ask (or are led to ask) these questions because the right answers will fit her into the negative trope that Americans are taught. Existing outside of that trope is hard to understand.

Nicki Minaj exists outside of that trope. She is articulate, she is powerful, she is successful. She is unquestionably in charge. All of those things need to be erased and invalidated to fit the trope that American media (and american society) is comfortable with.

Nicki Minaj will not be silenced, but mainstream media will stop discussing this issue because Taylor swift has attempted to close it. People will continue to discuss it, and theorize, and pontificate, and generate meaningful discussion. It will take a hundred more Nicki Minaj’s who immediately call things out as they happen before it is even acceptable for Black people (esp. Black women) to have voices in our society. And even then, that’s assuming that eventually white people wake up and smell their privilege- a grand and generous assumption.

Bhumika: Nicki’s “Anaconda” broke Vevo’s ‘most views in 24 hours’ record. It was a pop culture phenomenon, inspiring memes, artwork, and even Ellen Degeneres, who produced her own Anaconda video. Why didn’t MTV consider it relevant again?

Round Table Talks: Nicki Minaj to Sandra Bland.

Imagine that the many problems in the world are strands in a spider’s web. Tiny threads come together to create a scene that is larger than life, and every strand has an impact. Indeed, movement felt in one part of the web to individual strands will create vibrations that reverberate in other parts- the entire web will shake when a problem arises. This is the analogy that mattered when a friend and I sat down to discuss Nicki Minaj, and watched the conversation turn to Sandra Bland and more.

Amba is a small town girl turned fellow Torontonian. She eats, sleeps, and breathes online, and so she was the perfect person with whom to discuss Nicki and Taylor’s Twitter debacle. She is a critical drinker, a heavy thinker, and all around opinionated lady. The latter is my favourite part- especially when our opinions seem to agree, as they did on this occasion.

Bhumika: Let’s be real here. We both know that Nicki Minaj was right to call out white privileged media when Anaconda got snubbed. What were your initial thoughts on hearing the story?

Amba: My initial thoughts were solely about Nicki. My thought process was thus: “yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaassssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss”. That reaction was for one of the industry’s hardest working people standing up to say what needed to be said about how the VMAs and MTV in general simultaneously commodify black contributions to society while devaluing it. It is an old pattern, as old as slave labour.

Nicki Minaj has won the BET award for Best Female Hip Hop artist 5 years in a row.

Bhumika: Agreed. As a female, and a black female at that, Nicki has had to work her ass off in order to appear relevant and gain credibility as a rapper. Hip hop and rap are known as black forms of music, but in this instance it almost felt like she wasn’t being celebrated for her contributions. Instead, white women who utilize the black form are being celebrated. We can talk about Iggy, or Mylie, but that would deviate from this discussion. Nicki spoke to the way black culture is valuable, but black women aren’t. Why do you think Taylor Swift injected herself into the conversation?

Amba: I would love to say that Tay Swift inserted herself because she was mistaken, or confused, or even simply a bad person. But she didn’t, wasn’t, and is not. She inserted herself because she, like many white female entertainers and many white women in general, cannot comprehend a black woman’s struggle in any way shape or form. [I interjected here to add a succinct “SLAY”] They are often incapable because they see a focus on black women’s issues as pitting people against each other because it is something they themselves cannot relate to. These individuals usually invoke men as the common enemy because they cannot understand that they are often the perpetrators of these micro aggressions against their “sisters”. So the tactic used here is to accuse the offending “angry black woman” of being anti feminist, or of attacking women in general, or of attacking them personally.

Bhumika: But she assumed Nicki spoke about her. Do you think this was an okay assumption to make?

 Amba: I think that from Taylor’s vantage point, anything addressing the VMAs, MTV, music, or the music industry at all is personal, because she felt a sense of entitlement to her right to fair play. When there is any suggestion that something was unfair in a white women’s favour, they cannot comprehend. They feel personally attacked. They feel defensive…Taylor had no reason to think Nicki was calling her out. She had every reason to know that she benefitted from the unfair advantage that Nicki was describing in her post. And that is why she responded. Nicki did not mean Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift knew that the specific type of privilege benefited her, and she reacted. That is why Nicki was so in the right to say that she didn’t mean Taylor at all… but that she “should speak on this issue”.

Bhumika: Taylor Swift lacks the ability to view things from an intersectional standpoint. She tweeted “Maybe one of the men took your spot” at Nicki. In the world of white feminism, intersectionality does not exist. This is why second and third wave feminism came to be. White feminism, often considered first wave feminism, doesn’t consider that culture, ethnicity, religion, and race matter in the grand sphere of equality. To me, Taylor seems to see it in this way. She automatically jumps to the idea that women shouldn’t be pitted against one another, but that men might be the culprits here instead. She doesn’t even take into account that Nicki is speaking to the unfair treatment of black women as a whole.

When the media got wind of all of the excitement on Twitter, they blew up with news about the fight. Many media outlets painted Nicki as a villain, and Taylor as the victim. This was done through the wording, and through the pictures used. How do you feel about the fact that a black woman, when speaking about a relevant issue to society, was painted as a “bad guy”?

Amba: I feel unsurprised, as did Nicki in her immediate reaction to the depiction. Prominent black celebrities and twitter personalities chimed in quickly as well. Notably, Janet Mock immediately pointed out that the pictures used were in poor taste, and replaced the wacky Nicki picture with a poised pose, and Taylor’s demure picture with a zany shot.

Black voices, especially black women’s voices, are silenced in many ways. The easiest is to invalidate their words by suggesting that they and everything they do are a joke. Nicki specifically has long been a target of this because of her sexually provocative lyrics, clothing, and her loud makeup and hair. It can even be tied to the era of blackface and minstrel shows evolving into the modern vision of a clown; the trademark makeup of over-lined lips and large nose mirror minstrel show depictions of black people. The easiest way to dismiss legitimate voices is to make all black people into a joke.

Bhumika: In the grand scheme of things, I think the invalidation of black voices is a huge problem. When you reduce an entire group of people to a caricature, their experiences and struggles become a non-issue. This is heavily tied to white privilege, and white people, as they have the power to speak and silence these issues. As we speak, voices are erupting on social media asking for #justiceforSandraBland. She knew her rights, she was an advocate for black lives, and now she is dead. When black voices are dismissed as irrelevant, black bodies are as well.

Places like Twitter can erupt in moments like these, but groups in positions of power can limit their interaction and ability to change anything. They have power at grassroots levels, but not in places where systemic racism occurs (or can be changed for that matter). When Taylor Swift offers an apology to Nicki (which she did on Twitter), the conversation is meant to be silenced. This perpetuates the problem, because these are things that shouldn’t be silenced. Taylor Swift didn’t react to the way black bodies and women of colour are marginalized. She likely won’t.

Amba: Denying the value of Twitter or social media spaces in general is denying the world that we live in. Mike Brown’s murder would not have been global news if not for Twitter specifically. First hand video circulated via Twitter. Doxxing racists has resulted in real people losing their jobs. President Obama has used both Twitter and Tumblr as spaces to engage in meaningful discussion with the people. Twitter and social media as a whole absolutely have the power to effect change, and the discussion is not, was not, and cannot be silenced by Taylor Swift deciding it is done.

Invalidating black voices means that black people are rendered partially invisible in society. This happens to all minority groups, but for African Americans it is hard to imagine such a large group being invisible. This invisibility is sometimes perpetuated by their hypervisibility in other lenses, such as Fox News’ news that paints only stereotypes and lies (because they have no legal obligation to report the news). The hyper visible image of black people in media is negative: criminal, hyper sexual, deviant, degenerate, absentee parents and out of control children. All of these are smashed by actual facts and statistics, but those things are rendered invisible in this hypervisibility of faux tropes.

This hypervisibility of the “Phantom Negro” leads even the conscious media viewer to questions that aren’t even posed, before the media is even skewed. What should Sandra have done to avoid being killed? What did she do to bring this on herself? Was she high? Was she a criminal? We ask (or are led to ask) these questions because the right answers will fit her into the “Phantom Negro” trope that Americans are taught. Existing outside of that trope is hard to understand.

Nicki Minaj exists outside of that trope. She is articulate, and she is powerful (financially and in terms of cultural following). She is successful. She is unquestionably in charge. All of those things need to be erased and invalidated to fit the trope that American media (and american society) is comfortable with.

Even black people and black women discussing Nicki Minaj are being invalidated: “why aren’t you talking about Sandra Bland?”. If we discuss her death “why aren’t you talking about other deaths?” and if we discuss other issues, “what about our troops?” And that generally leads to “if you aren’t patriotic, go back to where you came from”. Such a basic, circular, illogical tactic should be laughable but is actually common.

Nicki Minaj will not be silenced, but mainstream media will stop discussing this issue because Taylor swift has attempted to close it. People will continue to discuss it, and theorize, and pontificate, and generate meaningful discussion. On this issue, and on the murder of Sandra Bland. And on the murder of black trans women. And on misogynoir. And on many other topics. And all of those discussions will be invalidated by lumping them together in a generalized “black twitter” joke. Their use of memes, a popular song, AAVE, whatever it is, they will be dismissed by mainstream media. And it will take a hundred more Nick Minaj’s who immediately call things out as they happen before it is even acceptable for Black people (esp. Black women) to have voices in our society. And even then, that’s assuming that eventually white people wake up and smell their privilege. Which is a grand and generous assumption.

Bhumika: It’s crazy to me how the invalidation of black voices and bodies can be felt in so many instances. I think that it’s up to us as the people, and as allies to make sure discussions like this continue to take place, regardless of whether white media decides it isn’t relevant. By listening to grassroots discussions and trying to empathize with others and understand their pain, we may be able to aid them, and work together to push rights that result in equality.

Nicki’s “Anaconda” broke Vevo’s ‘most views in 24 hours’ record. It was a pop culture phenomenon, inspiring memes, artwork, and even Ellen Degeneres, who produced her own Anaconda video. Why didn’t MTV consider it relevant again?

A Kritikal analysis of Kanye’s “Heard ’em Say”

kendrick-lamar
Kendrick Lamar released ” To Pimp a Butterfly” on March 15, 2015.

A few weeks ago, my social media channels where all abuzz with a story about Kendrick Lamar. In an effort to engage his students, a teacher named Brian Mooney started teaching Kendrick alongside a book called The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. The story picked up, and Kendrick heard about it- it is truly a fairy tale from there. Kendrick visited the school, listened to the students’ cyphers, freestyled with them, offered his own insights, and even held a concert for the entire school. Kendrick talks about wanting to use his celebrity for good, and kept his word without hesitation.

The whole trip started with a single blog post that Mooney wrote, entitled WHY I DROPPED EVERYTHING AND STARTED TEACHING KENDRICK LAMAR’S NEW ALBUM. Mooney talks about the parallels between English and Hip Hop music, and how easy it is to relay the messages of the classics through Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. He is right. The complexity of rappers’ wordplay and their multiple meanings is what draws me to rap in the first place. It is the re-challenging of privilege that ignites fires in my blood, and raises goosebumps on my arms. I was an English student, and critique and analysis have since become a part of the workings of my mind. Inspired by Mooney, I have tried to write a short analysis that he might have written or seen in his mind’s eye.

If you ask me who my favourite artist is, I will tell you time and time again that it is Kanye West. The man is a rockstar, and an absolute genius. Heard ’em Say, while one of his more mainstream works, is beauteous in its critique of cycles of poverty and institutionalized racism for people of colour. Kanye’s lyricism isn’t always complex, but it is provocative, as seen on lines such as “And I know that the government administer AIDS“. He isn’t afraid to say what is on his mind, as seen in the Hurricane Katrina fundraiser clip.

Part of the reason why I love Heard ’em Say so much is that the video is as thought provoking as the song. We follow Kanye the cab driver, and a little boy and his mother. The boy packs his suitcase with the help of his grandmother and mother, who both have cigarettes in their mouths. A trail of heavy, perpetual smoke follows the boy and his mother as they get into Kanye’s cab, and travel through the city. The animation comes alive with Kanye’s lyrics, and the boy’s eyes are drawn with exaggerated largeness as he looks at advertisements of diamonds and jewelry, exhibiting his impressionable mind and social sense to copy what he sees around him.  As the woman runs into the gas station to buy lottery tickets “that are put just to tease us”, the boy picks up the cigarettes that his family members chain smoke.  He throws the lit match out of the window into a puddle of gas, and the car erupts in flames. Both the boy and Kanye pass on. This scene is accompanied by the following lyrics:

My Aunt Pam can’t put them cigarettes down
So now my little cousin smokin them cigarettes now

His job try to claim that he too n*****ish now
Is it cause his skin blacker than licorice now
I can’t figure it out, I’m sick of it now

Heard ’em Say offers critique on cycles of poverty and racism when Kanye talks about how “where [he’s] from the dope boys is the rock stars, but they can’t cop cars without seeing cop cars”, which demonstrates that hoods and ghettos don’t give people much to aspire to. Being able to provide for yourself or your family by any means necessary is necessary. Unfortunately, enforcement for change comes in the form of police brutality and harassment, instead of in the form of better education to stop cycles of poverty, and knowledge about privilege to help people of colour love the skin they’re in.

In the beginning of the video, a rich woman and her pampered pooch exit Kanye’s cab. When he asks for his tip, she flips him a nickel, exhibiting her privilege and expectations from Kanye- he owes her. The rich stay rich as the poor must hustle for meagre earnings; “Before you ask me to go get a job today, Can I at least get a raise of the minimum wage?

The little boy’s blackness will detail and define many aspects of his life without his having asked for it, which we see in his death in the animation. This is an all too relevant moment in 2015-  young black men are being killed because the colour of their skin is viewed as dangerous. His mother is left to deal with anguish on earth as the boy moves on. We are able to see death as the only equalizing moment for all lives, and the boy’s wide and impressionable eyes are gone as he does not have the ability to see the world and try to understand it. A world that works against him has taken that from him.

This is the type of conversation that a single hip hop song can bring into the classroom. Just imagine what the entire Hip Hop genre could accomplish. Back to Mooney for more of that.

The Decapitation of the Buddha.

The appropriation of Eastern religions by the West is nothing new. In the 1970s, “hippies” were drawn to Hinduism the way they were drawn to ganja– there is even a Hindi song about it. These days, globalization has made our world even smaller, and Westerners are able to easily access information on Eastern cultures, traditions, and religions (Hinduism and Buddhism for the most part). The popularity of the two cultures has risen with the popularity of yoga and Western ideas of Eastern spirituality. Unfortunately, the popularity of these ideas have stripped Buddhist and Hindu religious icons of the respect given to them by actual followers of the religion. Focus on Buddha demonstrates his decapitation in the name of aesthetics and “spirituality”.

Gautama Buddha
Gautama Buddha

Buddha was from India- a prince named Siddhartha. He renounced Hinduism and went on his own path when he was unsatisfied with some of the teachings of the broad religion. Thus, Buddhism was born, and with it a great spiritual leader.

Neo-religious and Western pagan traditions have begun severing Buddhist traditions from their religious fabric. People choose the parts that they like, and discard the rest in their efforts to appear or be “spiritual”. For the most part, it is the aesthetics that are pleasing: the mala beads, and the icons. These icons include Buddha and Budai- many people may be hard pressed to tell you the difference between the two. This is because Buddhism has been ripped from its religious foundations, and turned into a trendy aesthetic decor item.

Buddhism population percentage.
Buddhism population percentage.

There are over 8 million Buddhists in India, and over 70% of the Sri Lankan population is Buddhist. The religion spread widely in the Eastern Asian countries, and that is where it is most popular. Countries with over 90% Buddhist populations include Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar/Burma. These people practice Buddhism as a religion, and it is also a part of their culture. The two are necessarily intertwined. Unfortunately, many Buddhists face persecution because of their religion at the hands of others. In 1963, a monk named Thích Quảng Đức even burned himself alive to protest the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam. He was willing to die for his people, his religion, and the teachings of Buddha. Buddhism is important to followers of the religion in ways that you or I may never understand, as we are not Buddhist. However, we can empathize with groups by showing solidarity and respect to their cultures and historic figures. The Western world needs to learn this in regards to their use of the Buddha as a prop.

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Thieves would cut the heads off of Buddha sculptures and statues to sell illegally. Purchasing Buddha heads is a part of a disrespectful history to Buddha.
A walk into any home decor store in Toronto will reveal the cultural appropriation of Buddha and Buddhism. Shelves are lined with Buddha statues and heads for sale. Put them on a table! Leave them in a corner on a shelf to give you “positive vibes”! Put them outside on the floor of your garden as an ornament! Just don’t use them for prayer. Don’t use them for what Buddhists use them for, and disregard the respect that they give to these idols. Buddhists place their idols on elevated surfaces, and lower themselves when praying. Using Buddha for merely aesthetic purposes disrespects traditions that are thousands of years in the making.

An unlikely comparison arises in the way we approach Christianity, and the figure of Jesus. When we think of him, we recognize him as a part of that religion- people do not [usually] use Jesus as a prop, or as an aesthetic device. While many may not see this as a form of respect, it is one; we allow Jesus to exist within the Christian/Catholic faith and do not divorce him from those traditions. Furthermore, one would never consider decapitating Jesus for aesthetics, nor would it be considered a sign of respect if it was done- could you imagine a Jesus head tucked into a corner of a garden? Why should the treatment of Buddha be any different from the treatment of Jesus? While I compare the respect given to Buddha and Jesus, I wish I didn’t have to. As global citizens, we shouldn’t have to understand how to respect the traditions of an individual from one religion by way of comparison with another. It is something we should already realize.

The way the West views the East participates in a tired tradition of Orientalism. It is an ignorant view of the world, and extends itself to the way that people with more power and privilege- the West- decide how they will conduct their relationship with the East on their own terms. When borrowing traditions and cultures, shouldn’t they be respected and utilized in the ways they have been used by people within those cultures? In this manner, how is the use of Buddha as a prop okay?

There is a lot of grey area in the question of cultural appropriation, and it’s not always easy to understand right from wrong. The best one can do is understand how privilege exists within their daily lives, and ask ourselves (or others) if it’s okay to use cultures that we have not interacted with or are a part of. If you cannot believe in Buddha as a Buddhist, or (though some would disagree) as a pagan might, ask yourself how the Buddha validates your existence. Can you receive the same “positive vibes” by engaging in acts that do not disrespect cultures and cultural icons? If so, try to follow those paths instead, and become an ally to other ethnicities as they look for equal footing in a globalized world.