Bird of Paradise is a charming, engaging memoir from hip-hop journalist Raquel Cepeda that mixes emotional personal history with a reporter's quest to decipher her racial identity. Officially released today, it's a great read.
Cepeda is one of a handful of women who were prominent in the glory days of hip hop journalism. Feminist hip hop fans will recognize her name from the masthead of Russell Simmons' now-defunct One World, and as the editor of the anthology And It Don't Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years.
In the first part of the book, we get to watch Cepeda grow up in New York City, the daughter of two immigrants from the Dominican Republic. A child of divorce who finds community with Latinos and African Americans as hip hop's progenitors, Cepeda is a tomboy who inherits her farther's sarcasm. Even as she takes tennis and piano lessons, young Cepeda is not shy about cursing out anyone who crosses her. Her infrequent vulgarity, just like her Spanglish, is delightful to read.
As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn't stop to consider why most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one of her friends innocently asked "Why do you have black dolls?" And she didn't know quite what to say.
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called "Why Do You Have Black Dolls?" to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn't know was that her mother felt so strongly that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. "My parents made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes," Samantha Knowles says. "We didn't have exclusively black dolls, but we had mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of conversations with my mom, and she would say, 'Oh, you don't know what I had to go through to get some of those dolls!'"
Scarlett O'Hara and her mammy in Gone with the Wind.
With their Oscar wins last night, Django Unchained and Lincoln have taken their places in the top-tier pantheon of Hollywood's slavery films. As Official Slavery and Jim Crow Epics, both films have the full support of the Hollywood machine, enjoying obscene budgets and lengths, and use the power of image and story to re-create the history of the eras. They also both, in my opinion, absolve the white majority of guilt for upholding systemic labor exploitation.
Slavery and Jim Crow Epics are a whole mini-genre in Hollywood. These films are often released in an important anniversary year and rake in the box office dollars, and often wind up hindering meaningful conversation about the legacy of slavery. Whether the films employ benevolent omission or base humor, these versions of America's racial history continue to write African Americans out of the scene.
Here is a brief history of America Slavery and Jim Crow Epics, from 1915 to the present.
Using racial stereotypes for laughs in marketing is nothing new. Even these days, many people don't seem to notice the casual racism of some marketing campaigns—especially when their culture isn't the one being used as a punchline.
Case in point: Cibu International's line of hair products with names like "Miso Knotty Detangler" and "Geishalicious Shampoo." Many of Cibu's product names lump together food and martial arts references from different Asian cultures. But the worst are those that play on creepy, fetishizing stereotypes about Asian women, such as "Miso Knotty Detangler" and "Geishalicious Shampoo." In one image originally posted on Cibu's Facebook page, a naked Asian woman is pictured on her knees, hands behind her back, eyes downcast with the words "Seduced by Geishalicious" written underneath.
Concerned individuals made Cibu International and its owner Ratner Companies (which also owns Hair Cuttery, Bubbles, Salon Cielo, Salon Plaza, and Colorworks salons) the target of an online petition, demanding they change the name of the products. When people posted their complaints on the company's Facebook page, some fans of the products dismissed them, replying: "Can't anyone find anything better to do?" and "playing the race card as a knee-jerk reaction is dangerous and offensive." In another thread, a fan quipped: "Me love you long time!"
We were skeptical that Cibu would change its ways, but contacted the company last week to ask for an explanation of the clear racism in its marketing. To our surprise, Director of Public and Community Relations Diane Daly replied with a statement last Thursday: "We have decided to embark on a process of transitioning out of the current product names and reintroducing them with new names."
Victory! As the company moves forward, we hope that the voices of Asian Americans are sought out and heard.
While Cibu's is just the most recent example of a hair-product peddler employing racist stereotypes in its marketing, Cibu's racism has plenty of company. Below are four other examples of problematic hair product marketing, from old campaigns to new ones.
As a person who must be in the know, I started to Google Shirley Q. Liquor to see what I could find. I learned that Shirley Q. Liquor is played by Texas comedian Chuck Knipp, who describes his drag character as "an inarticulate black welfare mother with 19 children." Her fictional kids children have names like Orangello and Chlamydia and she also drives a Cadillac. Stereotypes abound! As I kept watching Shirley Q. Liquor's videos, the tropes continue. Shirley is overweight, loud, and—everyone's favorite—sassy. To my eyes, his performances are incredibly racist.
As a Black woman, these stereotypes still hurt and in many spaces I feel I have to live them down. I have been called "an angry Black woman" while expressing opinions and I've been told, "Don't name your kid one of those Black names." On the flipside I get the ideal compliment, "You are so articulate!" It's like living the live version of "Shit White Girls say to Black Girls."
These things change the way I behave, the people I trust, and the ways I express myself. I want to be seen as whole person. And I feel thrown back by performers like Shirley Q. Liquor. Was I surprised there was a performer out in the world who plays on Black stereotypes for laughs? No. Was I surprised that there is a White man who performs in blackface, calls it drag, and is able to book shows at gay bars? Yes.
When I received the course guidelines for the first year of my Master's here in Denmark and Germany, I immediately Googled my future professors. I was disappointed to learn that all except for one were white men (this has since changed – we have a woman and another non-white man, rejoice!).
Granted, the European context is very different from the American context and there are a wide array of factors that come into play, but still, disappointment is a valid feeling. My disappointment did not last too long, as I was pleasantly surprised when one professor turned out to be well-read in social movement media.
Fast forward a few months. In one course on politics (sidenote: taught by three white men) the course was covering the BRIC's (For those unfamiliar with the silliness of academic acronyms, "BRIC" refers to rising global economic powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China.) In my course, complete with classmates from 45 different countries (though predominantly European), several classmates brought up the fact that though we were discussing the BRIC's, we were reading texts from professors in the US and Europe, but not from the countries being referred to.
In my last post, I explained my love for the new anthology Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Using personal narratives, empirical studies, and scholarly essays, over 40 different authors discuss the challenges faced by academic women of color in higher education. I emailed with Seattle University School of Law Professor Carmen G. Gonzalez about what it's like to put together such a meaty and long-overdue book.
How did the idea for this book come about?
CARMEN G. GONZALEZ: As women of color who have managed to survive and thrive in academia despite formidable obstacles, we (the co-editors of Presumed Incompetent) felt a need and a responsibility to create a public dialogue about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of workplace bias women of color experience.
In my last post, I wrote about (relatively) recent moral panics and the way they fixate on the foolish, experimental or wholly fabricated hedonism of teenagers or young adults. For this post, let's take a brief look at some of the notable, intoxication-related moral panics of the past.
It doesn't surprise me that Snoop took the opportunity to engage in a little product placement, though he's also joked about pot brownies on Martha's show. What's more interesting is that Landy's deal with Snoop appears to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. References to cognac started appearing in hip-hop lyrics as early as the 1990s – somewhat, it seems, to the surprise of cognac makers. Previously the brandy (named for the region in France where it's made) was marketed to older, upper-class and upper-middle class white folks, at least in the U.S.
After a few years, the stodgy, slumping cognac industry seized on the trend and started enlisting rappers for endorsement deals; right after Snoop was shown pouring yak into mashed potatoes, Hennessy released a special edition cognac to celebrate Obama's inauguration.
African-Americans probably don't make up the percent of the market that some cognac makers claim. But the cognac industry continues to court African-American customers heavily, and rappers are still coveted spokespeople for luxury booze (even if they're also, uh, shilling for Hot Pockets).