Astrid Swan deconstructs her positions towards racializing, whiteness and her love for Lemonade by Beyoncé
Where there is a human there is gender
where there is skin there is color
where there is music there is a story
a particular narrative told by Someone
This is me writing about Lemonade, Beyoncé’s visual album. The music and the movie. I cast my hand into a well and pull out words. These words come close to my skin. Like nails scratching. I can feel the anxiety in my breath. Faster. Harder. A mess.
This is me thinking about Lemonade. Women’s bodies, gender, race, sexuality, commitment, hurt and love. This is me tackling the sense of isolation that comes with a singular unique experience of life. Whatever the trajectory. This is inspiration.
This is me writing about myself as a process. In good and bad. Fighting against narratives of progress and rejoicing in them. This is me wanting to talk about Lemonade. The power of the images. It’s always images. My mind is a tumblr site 24/7. This is me enjoying the narration in Lemonade. The push and pull of emotions crashing in.
This is me worried about women who still try to rewrite abuse as survival stories where you don’t have to let go of the abuser, but you can change them. Like a goddess. Otherworldly woman.
On a Sunday in May the Beyoncé album drops. Luckily I have Tidal. I am hooked on the images, hooked on the music. Timing is right. So I think I’ll write an article about Beyoncé and the inspiration that her new album is to me. I’ll talk about bodies, celebrating her choices of putting only racialized women in the film Lemonade. I’ll write about a superstar referring to the police brutality taking place in the USA on a daily basis. I think I’ll be writing as a feminist. Celebrating Beyoncé and her feminism and anti-racism. Quickly, while I’m planning words in my head, articles start to appear after the release of Lemonade. Everything is fast-paced. Sometimes thinking isn’t though. Many of the Lemonade articles I read are written by white women failing to mention their own racial profile. Just silence. Uncomfortable and blatant.
Everything is fast-paced. Sometimes thinking isn’t though. Many of the Lemonade articles I read are written by white women failing to mention their own racial profile. Just silence. Uncomfortable and blatant.
What makes this production—this commodity—daring is its subject matter. Obviously Lemonade positively exploits images of black female bodies—placing them at the center, making them the norm. In this visual narrative, there are diverse representations (black female bodies come in all sizes, shapes, and textures with all manner of big hair). Portraits of ordinary everyday black women are spotlighted, poised as though they are royalty. The unnamed, unidentified mothers of murdered young black males are each given pride of place. Real life images of ordinary, overweight not dressed up bodies are placed within a visual backdrop that includes stylized, choreographed, fashion plate fantasy representations. Despite all the glamorous showcasing of Deep South antebellum fashion, when the show begins Beyoncé as star appears in sporty casual clothing, the controversial hoodie. Concurrently, the scantily-clothed dancing image of athlete Serena Williams also evokes sportswear. (Speaking of commodification, in the real life frame Beyoncé’s new line of sportswear, Ivy Park, is in the process of being marketed right now).
hooks discusses bodies as commodities pointing towards the problems that arise when capitalism is the driving force behind the politics of art. hooks points out that although the visual version of Lemonade refuses to make black female bodies invisible and silent, her intention of shifting the white mainstream gaze and celebrating the racialized women as strong, beautiful and particular, succeeds only to an extent.
After reading bell hooks’ article I severely question the necessity of me writing about Lemonade. I stare at my face in the mirror. Do you ever stare long enough to get scared by the image reflected back? Is that really me?
I keep listening to Beyoncé. Still so inspired, so empowered and jubilant.
Do you ever stare long enough to get scared by the image reflected back? Is that really me?
June comes. They have a Beyoncé party in Helsinki. I don’t go, but I think about who might win the competition of looking most like Bey. I think of skin color.
Time passes. The magazine takes forever to turn into a toddler that can walk and upload itself on the internet. I hover between self-appointed silence and the need to keep writing and to see where this thing goes.
I remember that silence is deadly. Silence doesn’t make bad things disappear or turn anything into gold. I come to the conclusion that by not writing this article I will spread silence. So I keep writing. Even though the worth of this piece is unclear to me.
When the video for Formation dropped, there was a sketch made by SNL where white people found out that Beyoncé is black. They duck for cover as if Godzilla was coming. I laugh at the white people. They behave like idiots. I laugh at myself. I realize that me deciding to write about Beyoncé is me being white.
In conceptions of bullying, silence is seen as support for the bully, not the bullied. The same mechanism of support takes place with racism in relation to silence. I’m still hesitant.
How do I celebrate Beyoncé, the racialized feminist empowering other racialized women? How do I express my full-hearted support without appropriating particular lived experience? Does it matter that I think it is important that the world’s most famous woman puts forward a representation of racialized and gendered identity? Silence lurks behind my back as a viable option.
How do I actually deconstruct race and my personal identity as a white woman so that I’m not just reaffirming privilege? How do I fully engage in shaking the structures and stripping myself of the privilege? I think I have to admit that no matter what I write or do, I cannot abolish conditions through which I enter into a hierarchical position. My will is not enough. But I can make the conditions, routes and structures more visible and I can try to destabilize things.
How do I celebrate Beyoncé, the racialized feminist empowering other racialized women? How do I express my full-hearted support without appropriating particular lived experience?
Someone said to me that by acknowledging my whiteness I am rubbing privilege to the faces of the racialized. Would silence be my best service? Should I write yet another article by a white women that doesn’t acknowledge whiteness at all? Should I discuss Lemonade, the film, like a color-blind person? Should I do intersectionality, but only a little? I think many have tried that already and it doesn’t work. Silence stabilizes the structures.
Racially Happy Places
“You fight racism by acknowledging it”, says Chally Zatb on her blog Zero At The Bone.
She approaches the questions of who can write about racism and how. Her view relates to fiction, but can be applied to all kinds of expression. Zatb says: “Anti-racist work needs to be work that makes people reflect on racism. Not being outright racist is not enough: racial happy places are no happy places when they primarily function to reassure white people. White writers need to be a big part of writing these stories, with white and non-white protagonists and narrators both. They’ve got the industry support, the audiences, and a duty. Writing race well means writing about racism.”
Racially happy places. I understand them as the silent location of pretending not to see things the way they are.
We are treated differently based on the color of our skins. This makes no sense but it is a living and breathing fact. I can choose to ignore this fact – because I’m white – and just sit on the bus, but I can’t. My antenna is on. I can see the effects of racism and racializing close to me. They bring sorrow and hurt to so many people. They makes no sense. There is no scientific reasoning behind racism.
The slightest degree of brown matters – a fact even my four-year-old has learned in his short life. I have given birth to a child who is racialized in everyday encounters. This is Finland in 2016. It’s not violent, it’s usually not with horrible intention, but he gets attention for the way he looks. It is with a heavy heart that I recount that already as a two-year-old his opening line with new people was ‘Hi my name is … and I am Finnish.’
Being a white mother to a racialized child does not give me personal experience of racism. It just actualizes my need for change. This position gives me extra motivation, anger as well as a lump of empathy to work with. It problematizes the assumed neutrality of whiteness in my everyday life.
I have given birth to a child who is racialized in everyday encounters. This is Finland in 2016. It’s not violent, it’s usually not with horrible intention, but he gets attention for the way he looks.
I don’t know how it feels to be continually racialized. And I too make assumptions about people based on their appearance. I may not wish to be involved in racializing anyone, but I would be lying if I said otherwise. Yes, I may be more informed about structural and mundane everyday racism because of my education and my family’s experiences, but I am white. No one asks me everyday where I’m from or where my parents are from, as they do to my husband and my son. I can even visit the US as a foreigner and the locals ask my American friend where she is from and just assume I must be from Chicago. Her skin is brown.
I don’t need to save any brown or black people or speak for anyone but myself. That’s just racism wrapped up in nice worried white woman’s clothes. I need to understand and deconstruct how deeply my position in life is affected by race. I need to call out structural injustice wherever I can. I need to see my own role for what it is.
Counting my ties to racialized people does not make me an anti-racist. Tolerating or hanging out or appropriating doesn’t make me an anti-racist.
My good intentions often fortify racist structures and silence others.
My ignorance does that too.
I need to remain uncomfortable.
I need to understand and deconstruct how deeply my position in life is affected by race. I need to call out structural injustice wherever I can. I need to see my own role for what it is.
In My Skin
How do I deconstruct whiteness, the blind spot, the taken-for-granted skin color that comes with privilege? How do I deal with guilt, both the kind that I am aware of and the kind that escapes my awareness? I look at myself.
I never enjoyed my skin. It turns red in the summer. It is hairy, pink, blotchy and freckly for the rest of the year. My hair is the color of a dirt road, my skin is grey-pink-white. Blue and red veins show through my skin. Every summer between the years 2000 and 2010 I spent significant time (and money) trying to use self-tanning products – to look glowing, brown and non-blotchy. Like I’m living. Beautiful brown. Sexy, skimpy, alive. Then I got tired of using all the chemicals, wasting my time when I couldn’t stay in the sun anyway. The tanning never worked. Most of the time I looked orange and stripy and two-toned. As a Gender Studies major I also began to question the juxtaposition between white needing to be brown, black needing to be light brown and brown needing to define itself. I became aware of the racializing that takes place –– on the surface of our skins, in the head, structures and actions.
My identity is questionable. Silence sits on my lap.
My great grandfather was a Polish Jew, who disappeared during the Second World War in Russia. My grandfather never really discussed him. Jewish culture or religion never entered into the habits and narratives of my family. There are many reasons for the silence: Jewishness is passed on matrilineally. Another reason is shame. I am certain that my grandfather felt shame about being a child out of wedlock raised up by grandparents and siblings in the early decades of the 20th Century. But I also think that he was ashamed of his parental Jewishness. This shame was mixed with fear. My grandfather grew up when Finland was sending people to die in concentration camps and when there were concentration camps on Finnish soil. Thousands of people disappeared. Fear passes down through DNA. Stay on your toes, be quiet, someone might catch you…
This story, even though I am not sure how much of it is true, is part of my identity. I feel like the shame and puzzlement I have carried through from the generations before, this is partly about white privilege and partly about the story of my great grandfather, The Violinist. It’s an elusive notion that I might belong to something unnamed. But I’ve grown up in the suburbs of Helsinki at a time when silence surrounded complicated questions of identity. Where therapy was only for the truly hopeless. Where skin grew thick from the silences of generations past.
But I’ve grown up in the suburbs of Helsinki at a time when silence surrounded complicated questions of identity. Where therapy was only for the truly hopeless. Where skin grew thick from the silences of generations past.
In my day to day existence I pass as a white, feminist, agnostic woman with a heterosexual history of sexuality and a missing right breast. Recently, I have been in situations where I have wanted to mention this family background and my connection and feeling of affinity to Jewishness, but for some reason I have remained silent. Once again.
As if I might be told I am trespassing if I mention this family stuff. As if the link is arbitrary.
Yet, as I write this I feel that it is important to bring this past narrative up and to make it a part of my family story. A part of who I am.
This detail isn’t going to alleviate me from my task of dealing with white guilt. It just glimmers there, showing how messy identity is.
I’m never just the one thing.
Still, none of this messiness can get me off the hook.
Riding a Bus in the USA
Let me talk about the naive me as a high school exchange student.
This is where I became aware of being privileged and being white: Buses in the USA. Ann Arbor 1999. Austin 2001. Chicago 1999 and 2007, NYC 1999 and 2009.
I have been the only white woman on a bus. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t benefited from racist structures on that bus. That doesn’t eradicate anything. As a 17-year-old I was outraged at Michigan and its segregation and racism. I was furious with the white people who kept on oppressing and passing on stereotypes. But did I face up to the shame and guilt and confusion that within my skin I was a part of that history? I was probably incapable.
I just sat in my seat carrying meanings I was totally unaware of. Just because as a Scandinavian exchange student girl it was possible for me to be so ignorant as to believe in my right to choose my position.
But did I face up to the shame and guilt and confusion that within my skin I was a part of that history? I was probably incapable.
I wave at that girl on the bus: Hello! You have no idea what lies ahead!
Her naivety kept her safe, although mostly it was the good will of the people on the bus who could see that this one was out-of-this-world-ignorant.
I wish it was that easy. That we could freely choose a position.
White people often feel they can. Race is not assigned to whiteness as it is when addressing a person with brown skin or brown eyes or some other racialized sign.
I have wished we weren’t so connected to centuries and generations past. I wish we could just stand as blank individuals. Cut the ties. The wish to be blank is a white wish. Desiring neutrality is a dream circulating among those who have had the privilege to ignore color and gender. Or to think that it doesn’t affect them.
I have a degree from a university where I attended class after class on feminism theory deconstructing gender and barely mentioning race. I learned to tap dance around and through gender, but fell still time after time around race.
I have been the only person in a room full of white people who calls out other people’s racist talk. I have silenced the room. At other times I have failed to fight against racializing and racism in those instances. I have felt threatened and hated, just for being a white woman calling out racist behavior. I have argued choking back tears. I have cried.
My position is wrought with intentional and unintentional tension. My visibility and privilege intersect with personal experiences of illness, poverty and the silences that families inflict around painful things.
The only asset I have is my voice – for singing and for writing – for telling stories. A voice with which to make racializing visible everywhere I encounter it, produce it and oppose it. I have to face up to my own fragility and failings with this issue. I have to acknowledge the pain I cause. I need to lose privilege, I need to be willing to check myself again and again. I need to always remember that I don’t belong to the racialized, that it isn’t my fight. Yet it cannot be won without me playing a part.
As this planet is facing more war, violence, lack of food, lack of safety or other means for reasonable and ethical living, we are clinging to our stories –– the small, fragmented, unfinished, particular and personal.
I’m telling mine.
You are telling yours.
I am listening intently.
and to You.