I Don’t Understand “This is America”: Maybe That’s the Point

I somehow managed to miss the cultural whirlwind that came with Childish Gambino releasing the music video to his song This is America in 2018. I knew about it, I knew people talked about it but I had mostly skipped over the song because to be Childish Gambino just means Donald Glover and Donald Glover means Marshall Lee the Vampire King and that one guy in Community; a show that I had never watched but knew about thanks to my inner circle. It wasn’t that the song was offensive or worrisome to me with the limited context I had for it; it just didn’t float into my usual musical sphere of French house DJs and sad music by hot Japanese men. 

When I finally did the video due to Youtube Music’s aggressive autoplay feature, I was at first watching mostly just sort of overwhelmed; nearly to the point of disliking the video. The initial act of shocking violence via a gunshot delivered to the back of a man’s head took my breath away in a way that very few pieces of media can. Thanks to a childhood and teenage years spent desensitizing myself to sex and violence; I was shocked to feel so viscerally unsettled within seconds of the video starting. 

Now, I want to cover a few things immediately. I do “understand” the message behind the song and video. The video perfectly explores the shock and fear that comes with being black in America; a version of violence that lurks around every corner. The uncertainty that comes with large gatherings and public spaces, the rightful and generational fear of the police, the loss of life and the capricious nature of existence and the utter lack of value to a black man’s death in comparison to a white man’s. I understand racism, violence, trauma and fear. 

I suppose overwhelmed is still the best word that comes to mind. I spent so much time trying to understand the video and the many influences it draws from. Glover’s moments are so exaggerated and othered that he almost feels like a Sambo stock character, the pants he wears to evoke the uniform of sharecroppers and those who worked the fields, the different guns used and the specific act of violence against a church choir. There’s an unsettling nature to the tonal dissonance that comes from following up a shooting with a dance and there’s always something uncanny and strange about that slapped on grin Glover has that can and does quickly turn steely and frightening. 

When I say I don’t understand This is America, it’s mostly rooted in that despite playing it multiple times, knowing the lyrics (and having done most of this before deciding to blog about it) and seeing the music video multiple times; I don’t know if I like the song yet. It isn’t that I don’t get the references or don’t get the fear or the message, I just don’t know how the song makes me feel yet. I’ve struggled with my place and my blackness for years and while I absolutely feel the heavy burden of generational trauma and the weight of systemic oppression, I’ve always been very open and up front about my privilege. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a neighborhood that’s constantly shot up and full of police. I don’t know what it’s like (until recently) to know what it’s like to have a neighbor raising chickens and clothes hanging outside on makeshift lines and boards on some of the windows. And while I feel the dread and fear of every single shooting that happens to an unarmed black person; because of the luxuries afforded to me, that violence is a distant boogeyman rather than an oppressive force literally and figuratively standing on my neck. 

I’m almost glad I waited to find this music video. As violence against unarmed African-Americans only grows, distrust and misinformation spread and you can’t believe what anyone says and can only rely on what you see in front of you and the lenses we all have thanks to our life experience. 

I find that I like the song most when it feels almost like the information given by a loving black grandmother. Lines like “Get your money, black man” feel like something my aunts would tell me and honestly, have told me during the days I was willing to give out my talent for free rather than know and feel my worth and ask for payment for the things I was doing to enrich the lives of others. When the tune is cheery but still with that edge of having to be careful and sly to stay safe are when I like this song most. I appreciate the choice not to have the group of children dancing with Donald Glover not be shot because the entire time the video ran I was waiting for him to turn one of the many weapons on them and my heart just wasn’t ready for that. I grew up in the shadow of Columbine and I have seen too many children die that way after being told time after time, bloodshed after bloodshed, that this would never happen again only for it to happen again. The tonal changes feel just like real life code-switching that many African-Americans have to do just to survive in this world; switching easily from how we talk “proper” to fit into the patriarchal rigors of white hegemonic society and the more informal but yet deeper way we speak to each other about our pain, our fatigue, our generational trauma and hopes that one day things will indeed be better. 

I’m rarely left wondering like this anymore. As a seasoned media critic, there are few things that have me continuing mining for meaning and more importantly, continuing to search myself and form a damn opinion. Despite how many times this song comes up in my queue, I am never sure whether to skip it or play through: again, I am not sure I even like this song. I respect it, for sure, but that sense of dread and discomfort is still present. I don’t “get” this song but I also don’t “get” racism, sexism, the patriarchy and misogyny. I don’t get how someone could kill someone else just because they look different or want to suppress an entire group. I don’t get these things and maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is to continue to examine these senseless things and figure out why they are so ingrained in society despite being so damn needless. 

An Entirely Too Complicated Discussion About Race and Picrew

I’ve been a very vocal supporter of representation in media.I’ve paneled on the importance of having one’s skin color, religion, orientation and more represented in the media they consume be it comics, movies, television and more. But when I’ve had these conversations, I’m always quick to say that we demand representation in Western media and to many, I give Asian media a pass. There are indeed methods to my madness; Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries on Earth. For many of the religions that are minorities in the United States, they are minorities in Asia (hence the fetishization of Catholics and Catholicism in anime and manga). And, to be very real here, most of Asia still has incredibly conservative and strict views about homosexuality, transgender rights and more. It’s one of the reasons why yaoi is so odd as far as “representing” queer people since it’s mostly coming from a place that has strict sodomy laws and continues to fetishize and trivialize the lives of gay men.

To summarize, I just can’t hold manga and anime to the same standard I hold American media as far as representation goes. There is no excuse for an American comic book movie to have no black people in it. There is no excuse for a television show to not have queer people in it. There is no excuse for an American book to feature protagonists and characters of different body types, races and religions. I can’t ask Japan to represent me: a small black Catholic queer.

Picrew is an avatar creation generator that is Japanese and is incredibly popular. I started noticing these elaborate avatars being made by people and noticing variations on the same format. In fact, there’s a very famous Picrew template that features pride flags and has a huge variety of skin tones, pride flags and colors and gender and presentation options. Picrew is great for someone like me in that I have a great visual eye and style aesthetic but I could not draw a straight line if you threatened me. If you’ve seen some of my newer icons and branding online, those are all Picrew creations. 

Picrew is full of fun generators that allow users to make icons, avatars and more. I love Picrew but there’s been something that I’m very aware of: not all generators accommodate skin tones like mine. I don’t have this issue with many of the Western avatar generators: I’ve even found some that are pretty dead on. But every once in a while, I’ll click on a auto-translated title hoping to find someone in the options for skin tone that look like me and I just can’t find them. Some have no options at all for different skin tones while others have one option for “brown” that are either way too light for me or way too dark for me. 


I’ve always had an odd relationship to my skin tone: I’m not so detached that I don’t feel black but I’m lighter in tone than most of my family and in comparison to some of my friends, I’m also usually the lighter skinned one. There’s a lot of colorism within the black community that tends to favor lighter skinned black people and a resentment from darker skinned black people against folks like me. In all fairness, we’re the more represented of the entire group so I can understand the resentment while also being hurt by it.

There’s a strange dysphoria that particularly comes to finding a Picrew generator that has one or two options for brown skin tones and neither fit. I rarely feel dysphoric whether it comes down to gender or race but to see a generator that has either a tone far too dark or far too light, it’s almost painful. I had a similar moment playing Pokemon Sword when I began to question if I was truly as dark as my character is. I’ve been honest about me using skin-lightening productions for hyperpigmentation but recently, I stopped because I was spotty and far too light. I looked like a bad Monique Heart highlight job because of the bleaching agents in the cream and it caused even more pain about my race, my skin and my skin tone. After a few weeks of cocoa butter and vitamin E oil, I’ve been able to get back on track to what my tone is and now I’m even more concerned about the concealer I was matched to. What is my skin tone? What am I? How black am I? 

These questions are new and are frankly distressing and recently have come about from a silly avatar generating website.

On the flip side of that, there is a euphoric bliss to finding a match to my skin tone and making an avatar or icon just like me. It’s incredibly fulfilling to look at an icon and think “Yes, this is it. This is perfect.” I’m proud of most of the icons I’ve made and I do swap them out every once in a while just because as of this time, I’ve made quite a few of them mostly just for fun. Picrew became a way to work through my desire for kawaii avatars and icons without having to commission someone. As a long time lover of anime and kawaii culture, it’s nice to have chibis and bishojo and anime-inspired icons that do in fact look like me.

So by now, you may be asking: well, what do you expect? You did just say that you can’t ask more of Asian creators. To that I say, fair point. I do maintain that I cannot ask Asia to represent me; I can also say that it’s been sad to not be seen or represented in a medium I love so much. What’s even more interesting is seeing some of the generators’ creators mentioning that they have no intention of adding new skin tones or such after people ask for them which to me goes beyond simple ignorance and moves into full on intolerance. It’s one thing to not think of darker skinned people due to a lack of exposure and another to entirely just wish to not acknowledge them at all after people ask for more options on a generator that is popular. 

So what do we do? Well, Picrew is great even though it’s a little memetic at this stage to have a Picrew avatar (several even made an appearance in Contrapoint’s excellent video on Canceling). If you are of color: commission artists. There are plenty of artists all over the social internet who would be willing to accept a commission for an avatar or icon. Start drawing! Every once in a while, I’ll sketch out stuff: you’ll never see them because they’re bad but sure, I’ve done it. 

It took me years to feel proud of my melanin. It took me years to reconcile my blackness while being an otaku and lover of Japanese media and culture. It took me years to feel even a little bit confident in my skin and not finding avatars that match my skin or creators that refuse to acknowledge that darker people even exist seemed to push some of that progress back to nearly the same place I was as a teen that almost delighted when my great grandmother said she was happy I wasn’t a “darkie”. 

Not finding a skin tone that matches mine in Picrew seemed to bring up every moment of internalized racism I have kept in my body for the last two decades. So here is where I soft revise my statement. I do still think that, if you are a person of color, queer person, religious person or similar looking for representation in Asian media: abandon all hope, ye who do weeb stuff here. But can I also say that it is detrimental, painful and unnecessary for creators to actively and continue to ignore people of color as their media increasingly becomes global?

I sure can. 

Cultural Gentrification and You: Your Story, Your Style

“The point about pop culture is that so much of it is borrowed. There's very little that's brand new. Instead, creativity today is a kind of shopping process—picking up on and sampling things form the world around yo.png

Amber and I were having another one of our famous talks. We were discussing life and history as always but I was then quickly reminded of a recent style trend that dredged up every negative feeling I had about 2017: snowglobe nails. Now, if you are fortunate enough to not know what these are, I’ll take a moment and let you find out a little more about this “style” trend.

Now, this is extra. Really extra. Why do you need to turn your nail into a snowglobe? But it immediately reminded me of a trend when I was younger: back in the day of velociraptors and chunky blonde highlights. In my high school, black girls did extravagant nail designs all the time. But back in those days, the black women that did such elaborate nail art were considered to be ghetto or tacky. Now they’d be the stars of popular Instagram accounts and Youtube tutorials.

This is cultural appropriation and gentrification. It’s when things that were once maligned due to its attachment to minority groups without admitting to any of its history and sanitizing it for the sake of popularity.

We’re going to go over a few examples that particularly earn my ire.


Voguing

If you’ve watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, you have a base concept of what Voguing is. It’s a dance move that was popularized by Madonna in the 80s and is rooted in a the traditions of ballroom drag which was formulated and perfected by drag queens and gay men of color. Voguing is throwing shade with body movements but when Madonna popularized it at first she paid tribute to the LGBT community. She admitted that drag queens and queers of color did it better than her and featured them in her music videos and on her tours.

But as time progressed popular culture associated the act with Madonna more and more and less and less with the queer people of color that inspired and created the dance move. Voguing is an important part of the LGBT community and is a secret language to queer people all over the United States. And with Drag Race now in the popular lexicon, more and more people are aware of Voguing and are not aware of the fact that it is rooted in decades of ballroom drag. It was not something that started in the 1980s and it was not started by white pop stars. My breaking point was watching the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars and one of the guest judges (Vanessa Hudgens) had the audacity to say she was very into voguing now. Like it was a recent phenomena. Like it was something she just discovered. It exhausted me and I still roll my eyes at it every time I hear that comment.


Hair Trends

Now, I’m relaxed. That is an important aspect of black culture, I was told that my natural hair was not pretty and that I was not likely to be hired or desired if I retained my natural hair. But since forever, folks have felt it necessary to try out styles that were created by black people. Dreadlocks come to mind. Dreads are often times maligned when black people wear them for a myriad of culturally insensitive reasons. Dreadlocks are a hairstyle that formed with the Rastafarian culture and religion. They happen because of the kinky nature of black hair. So when a black man or woman has dreads, it’s often times political, spiritual and important. When a white woman or white man does it…well, let’s just say it leaves a lot to be desired. Again, the locks in dreadlocks are formed because black hair is naturally a little kinky, that sort of texture just doesn’t really exist for many others but that stereotyping does not exist for a white woman at Coachella in dreads. So while Zendaya wearing dreads gets a racist comment out of an E! News hostess, a white person in dreads is just eccentric and “worldly”.

The same can be said for many of the trends in hair braiding.

I got my hair braided a few times when I was younger and mostly for those times when I would be away from my usual hair stylist. Braids were a way to protect my roots from breakage. But when I had braids I was as far as the world saw any other black girl with box braids. I didn’t feel pretty with braids and I still look at those photos with any positivity. I can still remember the hours in the stylist’s chair and the pain associated with getting your hair done.

But when a Kardashian braids her hair, heaven helps us. Now, it isn’t appropriative because some form of braiding is almost as culturally universal as Bigfoot, but it is disappointing that something is typically seen as a negative for one race while it’s fresh, cool and edgy for another.

The last hair trend I’ll cover is weave, extensions and wigs. I’m a cosplayer and I spend a lot of time in wigs and I’m a very handsome blond.  But there’s a special relationship black women have with their hair and that means that many of my sisters in melanin have hair that they were not born with. And back when I was young in ye olden days, they were dissed for it. My great-grandmother was a snake of a woman but her wig collection was enviable. And as soon as I started collecting wigs, my aunts immediately made comparisons between my love of hair that was not mine and my great-grandmother, Ida. But let a celebrity throw on a neon wig and she’s a trendsetter.  

Long weave is a staple for many ethnic communities in the United States. They became an important way to express style for many black women and for some black men.

And that does not mean that all my brothers and sisters with hair not their own do it right. And many  of the criticisms of my think piece will be on “ratchet” and “ghetto” individuals. And while yes, there are plenty of folks who are not the pinnacles of fashion or design, the double standard is real and exhausting.


Being “Extra”

Now, in hindsight, I realize I’ve been extra my whole life. From the velvet jumpers to the always perfectly done hair, I’ve been extra since between it was a word used to describe people and not food. And back in my day, I realize now, that many of the girls and ladies I went to school with back during the days of raptors were extra as hell. Weaves that were several feet long, nails that sparkled like the hot white sun, velour tracksuits and purses that cost more than my rent payments. Today, that woman is extra. Years ago, that person was ghetto. And the big difference between what made a person “extra” versus “ghetto” was often tragically, race. Being extra is seen as a thing mostly now done by white people but comically, it’s something that many queer people and people of color have been doing easily for decades.


Speaking of queer people and drag queens, let’s take a small sidebar to talk about appropriation of language.

Queer people made up our own language decades ago. Shade, vogue, work, look, trade and more all mean something very different to the average gay man or drag queen. This language was created first and most importantly out of safety. Moons ago, being a gay man was not a fashionable thing to be and these codes and secret languages kept gay men and women safe from a hostile world. This secret language kept gay people alive and safe during the AIDS epidemic, during Stonewall and during the rough and tumble conservative eras in American History that you won’t learn about in history class. And as much as I love RuPaul’s Drag Race there’s been an entire generation and section of the populous that gets to “speak Drag Queen” without any of the background knowledge about it. And what’s even more frustrating is watching a woman at Walmart say “YAS, QUEEN. SLAY!” while also refusing to let LGBT people have the save civil liberties they deserve.

You don’t get to say “Yes, queen! Work!” and also think that gay people are still going to Hell because of religious dogma.  


Cultural gentrification and appropriation are one of the most exhausting aspects of the modern pop culture landscape. It’s right up there with microaggressions as far as things that just wear me down. Gentrification and appropriation suck the life and history out a thing that matters to a minority community, sanitizes it and re-sells it at a higher rate that often locks out the original owners of that media, act or pattern for mass consumption. But through education, careful research and analysis of media trends and a decent level of empathy: we can combat cultural gentrification together.

Nothing Exhausts Like a Microaggression

_Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority._ Mary Wollstonecraft.png

You’re so pretty for a black girl.
You’re so well-spoken, I’m impressed.
You went to college? Amazing. Were you the first one in your family to do so?
Your hair is so straight! Is it like that naturally?
Did you grow up with both parents?
I only date black girls.
Those are just a few microaggressions and all things I’ve heard before in some form or fashion and all of them make my eyes roll so loudly that you may just be able to hear it from wherever you call home, dear reader.
Let’s talk about microaggressions.
A microaggression is a seemingly innocuous comment usually hurled at people of color that to the deliverer of the comment (typically a white person) does not seem problematic but to the person of color is either mildly or highly offensive.
The problem with microaggressions is that due to its mostly harmless appearing nature, it’s difficult to challenge them or call someone out on their statement. It doesn’t sound racist and overreacting is a surefire way to to essentially confirm many of the stereotypes attached to people of color (being sensitive, overreacting, being dramatic).
So today we’re going to go over a few microaggressions and we’re gonna discuss why they are problematic and how to respond to them if you encounter them in the wild!


You’re Pretty for a Black Girl/I’ve Never Dated a Black Girl/I Only Date Black Girls
Welcome to the beautiful world of exoticism, my friend. There’s nothing like a qualified compliment. I hear this one a lot from mostly white men and they mean well, they really do. But short of a little extra melanin, I’m not too far off from a white girl. I like comic books, video games, anime, costumes, I bake, I go through a book a week: none of those things have anything to do with race. Now, if it’s a statement about how “hood” one may be, well, that’s a whole different bag of troublesome. I’d also like to point out much of the irony in these sorts of statement. I as a black biological female who mostly dates white guys am frequently called a racist for it. But if a white man dates black women because of how “hot” they are, he just likes something different. And if a black man dates white women because black women are too “mean” or too “dramatic”, he just wants to avoid crazy. Thus proving that the patriarchy knows no bounds.
You’re So Well-Spoken./Did You Go to School?
Apparently, it’s a surprise that a black girl can read. Apparently, it’s still a surprise in 2018. Dear reader, if only you knew how my eyes do roll when I’m told that I’m well-spoken, intelligent or smarter than expected. I’ve been told I talk “white” which unless you have synesthesia, shouldn’t be a thing. I’m fortunate that I was always a curious kid. I’m lucky that I was able to go to college and finish school with a degree and I’m even more fortunate that I get to work in a field I love and studied for. I’m aware of all of my brothers and sisters regardless of race that are not able to do what I did: but a thinly veiled statement about how surprised you are because I am black and educated happens to be tiresome.
Did You Grow Up With Both Parents?
No. I did not. I was raised by my aunts and other family members. But Death was the factor that separated my family not a “deadbeat dad” or the American prison system. I’m aware of the stigma that any people of color have strained relationships with families: realistically, that’s a very universal thing. Sometimes families are not nuclear. And sometimes that’s okay. I am so lucky my aunts raised me after I lost my dad and I know plenty of well-adjusted people who happened to be missing a parent or two due to a myriad of reasons. I am not the person I am just because I’m a member of the Bruce Wayne Orphan Club and it’s never an excuse for anyone alive on this planet.
Is That What Your Hair Looks Like Naturally?/ Your Hair is So Pretty! Can I Touch It?
Nope, it sure is not. I get relaxers because I was told from a young age that I couldn’t be too black and I needed relaxers to fit a certain hegemony. I’ve been getting relaxers since I was 7 and now I’m somewhat dysphoric about my hair. I do not feel attractive or good when I have too much new-growth. Also, never try and touch a black woman’s hair or anyone’s hair without their explicit consent. If I had a dollar for every well-intended person who thought it appropriate to touch my hair…well, I wouldn’t have a day job. I feel even more for my brothers and sisters who go natural. Hell, even at times I’m tempted to touch Amber’s hair but I would never because most black women have hair full of secrets. Now, you are allowed to compliment my hair! I spend plenty of time and money on it for it to be seen. However asking if this is what it looks like naturally is naive. Also, please do not ask if it’s real or not…we’ve made excellent advances in weave technology for a reason.
Where Is Your Family From?
My family is from Texas and Alabama and I have family all across this great nation, even on up in Yankee territory. Oh, you meant like which part of Africa? Good question! You see, there’s a problem when a person is not considered a whole person for over 100 years and continued systemic racism suppresses any data or information about them: it’s hard to find records. Now, I can get a DNA test and find out based on genetics and such but I personally have very little interest in where in the Motherland I came from. That being said, I do have a DNA Kit in the trunk. Who knows, maybe I’ll use it.

Do You Celebrate Kwanzaa?
No, my family has been Catholic and/or Christian for decades. My Father was Baptist and ended up at an anti-science fundamentalist Church in North Texas that wouldn’t let me read Harry Potter or play Pokemon as a kid and Mom was born, married and buried Catholic. I’m a lapsed Catholic but a Catholic at that. And while yes, I am black, I celebrate Christmas like any other Christian and I eat an entire Advent Calendar on Christmas Eve like any other bad Catholic.

You Have a White Name!/You Don’t Have an Ethnic Name.

No, you are right. I do not and that was very intentional. And the idea that a black woman should have a more “ethnic” name is troubling for a startling list of reasons. I was given my name because it fits me and my family. There have been plenty of studies that confirm what many black men and women knew forever: having names that are too ethnic does sometimes stifle you as far as opportunities go. It shouldn’t, but it does. Also, feel free to ask where my last name came from: the answer is slavery.


Microaggressions suck for an enumeration of reasons, mostly because they maintain a certain level of exoticism to people of color that we thought was lost in the Victorian era. It calls back to a day when people of color were spectacles and were described lushly while simultaneously being enslaved and mistreated. There’s plenty of blatant and labored discussion of how beautiful many slave owners found their slaves: but not beautiful enough to consider a full legal human until 1865. And they don’t just happen in Tinder conversations: they happen at work, on the bus, at the bus stop, in coffee shops, in bars, in Ubers and more. And while it may be petty to clock a microaggression, handling such things with grace is at times difficult.
And sure, there will be plenty who say I’m being too sensitive and that microaggressions aren’t real and that they were invented by libertard beta cucks or by militant feminists (which is a thing!) but rest assured, microaggressions are real, happen often and they do wear on the soul.