#mixedrace

We Owe “Scary Spice” An Apology

Originally published on Medium in the Human Parts Collection. It was also listed in Dazed Magazine’s “Best of The Web” the week that it was published. 

mel b

Lately, I’ve been in my Black Girl Hair feelings. It’s winter and I’ve been travelling up and down the East Coast, so I’m spending more time in beauty salons, straightening it so that I don’t have wash it and risk pneumonia while it air dries (into curlsicles). But really, there’s never not a time that Black Girl Hair isn’t in my feelings. Solange’s wedding photos had every Black girl in the world — me included — feeling some kind of way. And as I finish testing over 15 products for an article about affordable hair care products for women of color in Paris, I’m being confronted with the global issues of how little Black hair is considered, much less, the possibility that it’s beautiful.

Of course, there are those comments to think about. The comments about Zendaya’s hair. The sound bites: weed. Patchouli. Dreads. Deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, the subtext of these remarks “dirty,” “undesirable,” and “unworthy.” Hair that is so unabashedly Black that it cannot be fantasied into racial ambiguity or “otherness” and thus, must be dealt with severely for its inability to amuse and/or be exoticized. Coiled dreads that are so unabashedly Black that Zendaya — who months ago many claimed she was not Black enough to play Aaliyah — is now so Black that she reeks of weed and patchouli through the television screen.

All of this talk has me thinking about Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown. For me, she was the first Black woman who wore curls and wore them proudly, the first I could identify with. And I think of her when White women say they are excluded from the natural hair movement, the new focus on curly hair in beauty products that hesitates to mention that aforementioned movement for fear of associating with Blackness. And in 2015, where a Black woman’s hair on the red carpet is evocative of deviant behavior, it’s worth collectively examining how we consider Blackness in its follicle form and the pathological fears and stereotypes that those follicles are wrapped in for mainstream consumption.

Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t get over the fact that we thought it was okay to call a brown girl with beautiful curls “Scary.” I can’t believe that we’re still using that name for her in headlines. Sure, she uses it herself in her Twitter profile — but as a public figure who uses name recognition as part of her brand, does she have much agency in the matter? That nickname is awful, erroneous, and racist. Why was Melanie scary? Because she’s Black? Because she has big curly hair? Because she’s the only Black girl girl in a group of White girls? Because mainstream doesn’t know what box to toss her in?

I remember so vividly the first time I saw Mel B. and her curls bouncing across the Zenith television in my room. My eyes immediately zeroed in on the cool Black girl amongst the other White girls, feeling an immediate kinship with that mise en scéne. (I was one of the few Black kids at my suburban elementary school.) It wasn’t that I didn’t think that Posh’s Gucci mini dress wasn’t cute or that I didn’t want Baby Spice’s pigtails; it’s just that I knew those things were unattainable for me. There was nothing in Baby Spice’s long, thin, blonde hair pigtails that went almost to her waist that spoke to my curls-turned-cute Afro puffs, not in any way. (And my mother was not buying a Gucci mini dress for her 12-year-old.) But Mel B. — she was a girl who looked like me. I was immediately obsessed. I wondered if she fought with her hair the way that I did, if she had ever gotten a relaxer (a Black girl in the 90s that did not get a relaxer might as well have been a unicorn), if she had spent hours of her Saturday mornings in beauty salons slathering creamy crack onto her curly roots while her White girlfriends were at soccer practice. I wanted to be Mel’s friend or at the very least, a pen pal. I did numerous and unfruitful searches on Netscape 2.0 for “Scary Spice hair conditioner.” Without question, “Scary Spice” was my first Black girl crush. After an 80s and 90s childhood that demanded I find myself in Alicia Silverstone and Winona Ryder, that gave me hair advice and tips that would never apply to my hair, Mel B. and her ringlets were manna from MTV.

But “Scary Spice.” It felt so wrong to call her that. Why was I calling this beautiful woman that looked like me, “Scary”? Sure, I thought she was beautiful, but why would the “people in charge” (in my 12-year-old mind, everyone) call her “Scary” if she were really pretty? I looked at her, trying to find something to justify the name, but couldn’t. And then I began to think, “Well, is she as pretty as I think that she is? Does that mean that I’m ugly?” The girls at my suburban middle school, many of whom vacillated between wanting to be Posh or Baby Spice, did not notice Mel B. at all. Was it because she was ugly? Less than that, she didn’t even register. She was just “the Black girl.” And though the “lesbian” and “slut” coding of Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”) and Gerri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”) are for another day, the invisibility of Melanie Brown’s beauty to my friends only made me love her more, as I didn’t have to compete with anyone to prove who was a bigger fan of Melanie B. But it was also a reminder as to how hostile the world would be to me and the things that made me beautiful.

In normalizing “Scary Spice,” we trained a whole generation of Millennials to think about Black women and Black hair as frightening. (Millennials are less racially tolerant than you think.) Without realizing it, we’ve helped create a generation of feminists that lack intersectionality; those excluded are made to create their own spaces because of a lack of inclusion. And we’ve given a whole generation the continued license to not consider Blackness as something that can be beautiful without Whiteness being a reference point, thus enforcing White supremacy by means of implying that Whiteness is a neutral, identity-less baseline of objectivity. Beauty standards built on restrictive norms enforce this idea that beauty is a scarce resource and that anything outside of those resource boundaries (i.e., Whiteness) must be attacked and diminished to preserve the potency of resource horde.

I don’t think for one minute that Giuliana Rancic was thinking about all of that colonialism, perpetuation, and preservation of patriarchy when she compared the scent of a Black woman’s hair to patchouli or weed. I really believe she didn’t understand why those comments were hurtful. I think her apology was sincere and should be an example of how to listen to people of color and be an ally. But that’s the thing; the messages of ugliness, the unworthiness, the otherness of Blackness has been so thoroughly engrained and approved by our society, that the bias is implicit and subconscious. The associations of inferiority that were made were so smooth and unassuming, just like the straight, thin locks our society covets. Some might feel that being cognizant of how stereotypes and tropes are perpetuated isn’t fun, but having one’s humanity confined by them is a helluva lot less fun.

We owed Melanie Brown the apology that Giuliana Rancic gave Zandaya 18 years ago. And I’m glad to see we’ve come far enough that Zandaya received it. I don’t know Melanie Brown in real life, but she seems to be a complex, beautiful, and rather full person. A collective disregard and fear of Blackness and Black femininity prevented a more thorough appreciation of Melanie Brown, both then and now. The casualness of saying that a young woman on the red carpet at the Oscars smelled like drugs because of her un-malleable Blackness is completely related to the fact that for almost twenty years, we’ve called another Black woman scary because she too, had non-negotiable Blackness.

Some might say Melanie Brown’s singing talents are mediocre. This may be true, but then again, when did that ever stop the majority of White pop singers in this country? Melanie Brown deserves more credit than what we’ve given her. Not because she’s an overlooked talent, but because she stands as a testament to our subconscious anti-Blackness that is still rampant in its casualness and frequency. Mel B. was a big influence to finally cut off the chemicals and embrace their curls, and their Blackness, for many Black women — myself included — who went natural in the early 2000s. And though she’s rarely seen today with her curls, I still want to ask her what conditioner she uses — and to apologize for calling her “Scary Spice” without understanding what I was continuing or condoning.

The Men Who Left Were White

 We’re re-publishing this brilliant essay, The Men Who Left Were White, with the permission of the writer, Josie H. Duffy. Disclaimer: I’ve never met Josie, but have a lot of friends in common with her and I’ve heard she’s great. And funny. And thoughtful.  And so is her writing – which you should check out on her blog, The True Fight. She works as a voting rights and economics lawyer in New York and I’ve been consistently impressed with her observations about race and class in this country, which is exactly what we’re talking about here. Read, share and discuss. This is great reading.

 There are three things you should know.

First: I’m not biracial.

“What are you?” people ask, and they expect me to say something thrilling and tribal. I answer, but still they press. “Where are your ancestors from?” people ask, and they want answers that aren’t San Antonio and Wheeling, West Virginia. But that’s all I got. My story is both simple and untold. The bones of it, of me: I’m black, despite the skin that goes virtually translucent in the winter. Despite the thin unpredictable curls. My mom and dad are black, as are my grandparents. That’s all she wrote. That’s all there is, even as I write this sentence. My parents, usually liberal employers of nuance, have always been militant-clear about drawing that line. We aren’t biracial. When I tell people I’m black, they find it unsatisfying. “That’s no fun,” one girl joked to me recently. “I thought you were going to have a story.”

Image

The parts that make a whole.

 Second: I’m 44% European, 49% African. Not exactly an equal split, but pretty damn close.

I hear the same sentence twice.

The first time from my mother. It’s Christmas in Georgia. Outside the clouds are unloading cold sleet, icy and malicious and familiar. “It’s gonna read my genes,” I tell her. She’s rifling through our miscellaneous drawer, filled with nails and old pictures and pens long dried-up. She’s skeptical.

“Why?”

“Why what?” I ask.

“Why are you doing this test?”

I shrug. “Why not?” I’m eating freezer burned ice cream out of the container; no one has touched it since I was last home. “Because. It’s irrelevant.” She closes the drawer and looks in her purse again. “They break you down into slices, you know.” She looks up. “Do you have my keys?” “No.” I pat my pockets, find them. “Yes. See? Maybe I’ll find out I have the losing things gene.”She laughs. “I could tell you that right now.” “You spent all that time researching our family tree,” I point out. She thinks for a second. “That’s different.”

Black America's best and brightest.

Black America’s best and brightest.

I know what she means. My parents – faithful worshippers of the AUC, who went to black colleges, worked for black companies, took us to black doctors, sent us to black schools. There were no blond Barbies in our house; Rapunzel had long braids in our fairytales. You could point a shotgun barrel to my mother’s head and she still would not utter the phrase good hair. My father wouldn’t refer to us as light-skinned, not for love nor money. To them, the technical was irrelevant. The technical had no context. It was the history that mattered. Still, I ask her. “Don’t you just want to know?”

“Not really. What do I need to know that for? Some people want to know all that stuff.” She’s headed out the door.
“Some don’t.”

Second time it’s February in Brooklyn and it’s night and through the window you can just make out a sliver of the water. He and I are eating tacos, each on our laptops murmuring half-formed ideas. I show him the e-mail. “Hooray! Your sample is at our lab!”

“The sheer potential of information is overwhelming,” I say. “Who would choose the word hooray?” he asks.
“One test that can tell me what I have brewing and what I might be passing onto my kids. Like, it could say I have schizophrenia.”

“You’d probably know by now,” he says.

“Or brittle-bone syndrome.”

“You’d know that too.” He looks at me. “I don’t think you know how genes work.”

“Or if my sons will have male-pattern baldness.”

“What if you find out you’re white during Black History Month?” He grins, but I don’t.

“Maybe I don’t want to know,” I say and he shrugs.

“Cancel it, then,” he says. “You don’t have to find out. Some people want to know about themselves and some don’t.”

But I do want to know. That’s how I am. I always want to know. And when the email comes it’s in the middle of the night, and I scramble to wake up and open it. There’s a map. Western Africa is shaded dark, but Ireland and England are shaded too, with a hint of highlight over South Asia, and another tiny note indicating Native American blood. I stare at it, trace the outline of my history with my finger.

 Third: In my family, the men who left were white.

his property and his family?

His property and his family? or both?

Let’s go back.

They had land the size of which a city brain like mine can’t fathom. Southern men with pale skin, the kind of men whose job it was to oversee the overseer.

These women – my ancestors – were the opposite. Not boss of a solitary fly. Exhausted from all the work they’d done and the years of work that laid ahead. Cleaned and cooked and picked, squinted and bent over and limping, working, working so hard for so long that they must have been sore in places they didn’t know they could be sore— their bone marrow, their blood. Nothing to show for it but the injuries. Not a hint of a thing resembling victory.

The women must have known rape was coming. Dread has a taste, you know. It must have crawled up their throats. But by all accounts there was no fight. What would be the point? The sharp cut of a whip across your back? What a man like that wanted, he got. No one could save the women. If he wanted it, then eventually his pale hands would be forcing open her thighs. Eventually he’d force himself inside.

And afterwards just empty air space, him pulling up his pants, clinical. Before he retreated to his bed with his wife, did he instruct the slave to go back outside to where she slept? And where she slept – was that a thin layer of straw or grass? Or was she one of the unlucky ones, stuck with just a plank of wood?

“How much longer until I can die?” these women, my ancestors, must have wondered. “How many ways can one person own me?”

Even after Emancipation, slow as molasses in January, finished crawling across the finish line– even then it didn’t end. Shit, maybe then it was worse.  I bet once the man doesn’t own you, he might have to scare you. He might have to beat you up a little more. I don’t know. I can only guess, because the only knowledge we have is in the missing spaces. Men who are missing from birth certificates, who never laid eyes on their child. There’s no love there, no romance, no babies made with care and devotion. My history tells the story of white men who raped, white men who coerced, white men who had black children, and then white men who disappeared.

slave children during Reconstruction.

I’m thinking about these men the night I watch Obama introduce My Brother’s Keeper. It’s the last day of Black History Month. Obama speaking about black men always gets me squirming in my chair, bloated with admiration and also disappointment. He’s balancing on the same flimsy tightrope he’s been walking forever. I’m grateful for a president that considers the plight of black men in America. But the condescension still tastes sour.

“We’re dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds,” he says.

“Who’s our?” I say to no one.

He talks about the initiative, about ensuring that black men become “better husbands and fathers and well-educated hard-working good citizens.” He says that we have got to “encourage responsible fatherhood.”

I get tired of hearing about the epidemic of missing black fathers. It’s always the same story, that old, tired, persistent-as-hell narrative, a troupe of vagabonds and thugs. It exists without context, without history.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to dismiss the very real pain of children raised without fathers, including black fathers. It is undeniable that too many kids have been left behind by the men that created them. I see the aftermath in many of the men I’ve loved, black men who never knew their fathers.

But I want to remind America of how criminally short its memory can be. In theory, the good thing about this country is that we all have our own story to tell, and there exist a whole host of stories, both parallel and perpendicular to mine. Countless fragile intricacies that are sometimes unimaginable to me, other times too familiar. But in practice, some of these stories go missing. And I wonder – where’s my story?

White supremacy remains the most powerful force in America’s history, the trump card of socialization. The narrative of abandonment has been hijacked to only include black men. If you google “white men abandon children” you get this:

Googling pathologies.

Googling pathologies.

But there’s a history of abandonment in America, a history of leaving black women and black children, and it did not start with black men. I want to tell America: you can’t escape my story. After all, mine is a storyline threaded through all of humanity, the price women have been overpaying since the beginning of time and sex. As long as men have been fucking, they’ve been disappearing. Because women carry life we are also forced to harbor fear; history is saturated with the stories of babies born of coercion, of aggression, of deceit, of abandonment, and the stories of those babies turned full-grown. When we talk about what slavery we talk about the ephemeral – what was and what ended. The details: plantation hierarchy, middle passage. We think that’s it. But what it meant – what it means – is worse than all of the details. What it means is a legacy of genetic material that courses through my own veins.

This is not a story about skin color. This is not a story about how race is a social construction. I’d reckon such a story would be boring for you. If it’s not, let me tell you – it would be boring to me. I’m not interested in narrating the tribulations of being, surefire bet, the lightest black person in the room. Nor am I informed enough to tell you of the triumphs. In America, skin color is the x in virtually every social equation. It is predictive. I am quite positive that being lighter has meant privileges that were not afforded to people with browner skin, many privileges that I have not even identified.

mixed race in the 1800s.

mixed race in the 1800s.

This is a story about history, about identity.

The way we’ve come to fetishize white features on black bodies is not only dangerous because of the way it reinforces the idea of white as better. For someone like me, it’s complicated for an additional reason. The part of me that created those white features came from men who would deny me if given the chance. Indiscreet men who took advantage of women and left. Men who not only abandoned their children but, in some cases, sold them. Had their own children bent over in fields for no pay.

I’m a living remnant of that sexual assault. I’m a living remnant of that pain. I can see it in my thinner hair, my lighter skin, my freckles. I think of those children, also my blood, and what it means to grow up marred by that abandonment and shame. I think of those children the same way I think of children with no fathers today. Surely we are all both prey and predator, snake and mouse. Surely our genetic material runs rife with strands of the conquered and the conqueror.

And maybe there’s a fourth thing you should know: part of identity is choice. My identity is defined in part by rejection, including my own. I am black. The people who made me are the ones who never left.

Ambiguous Ethinicty Challenge #1

Before Cheerios had Clayton Bigsby’s people and their white robes all knotted up, this commercial slipped quietly through…

or passed, as one might say.

Now, let’s think about this for a second. The commercial never implies that the family is Black or even mixed. For a brief moment, I thought, “Oh look, some suburban American family adopted two little Aboriginal boys,” but then I realized that Saburu was trolling me. Trolling that whole ambiguous ethnicity thing without having to put a flag down anywhere. Sort of like Mariah Carey circa 1990. Despite this Jedi-Master trolling trick, and considering the curl on the kids’ head, it’s safe to say that this family is either Black, mixed or Jews with a Tahoe summer house that gets a religious workout.

jewish_family

TBD.

Let’s start with the hair. It’s the wiry road to Damascus; it will lead to the Gospel and truth. And the truth of the matter is that considering that the children’s hair is all over their heads, I’m going to assume that their mother is indeed White and at a loss with what to do with it.

And if you live in San Francisco/Los Angeles/any major city in the U.S.,  many times have have you seen this agony in the grocery store check-out lines?

Image

Fundamentally, adorable.

And of course, it’s never the child’s fault. No one would walk out the house looking like that with a choice. And no mother does it on purpose. But hair conditioner, detangler and quarter size amounts of product only go so far and only do so much. Ergo, all points strongly correlate with a follically overwhelmed White mother.

Mixed: +1

I just love how, when you’re not wasting time with data or facts, how much faster you get to the point. 

Subarus. Now, this might be a very strong case for the Jewish family with the Lake Tahoe house. One, I can not see a Jew without Larry Ellison money splurging on a separate summer and winter house. (The houses in the commercial were too close together to suggest Larry Ellison or Ricky Rozay money.) The unrelated correlation between Jews and Lake Tahoe now has legs, as a Tahoe house is actually cost effective, being able to be used in all four season. And that’s important, especially considering that Subarus do really well in the snow. And as we’ve all know, Black people do not ski, snowboard nor participate in other cold winter activities that white people like because they do not like to get wet. (Disregard Black girl in photo; obvious trade in the 1998 Racial Draft.) Now, I don’t want to bog you down with all the data to support this fact, or clinical commentary from Murray’s or Soft & Beautiful, but I can scientifically prove that snow is indeed water and ergo Black people, especially Black women, just do not like that shit.

soul-glo

Are these the glistening follicles of a people that fuck with water recreationally??

But here’s a secret: Jews don’t like that shit either though. No, not Soft & Beautiful (because I’ve definitely had some Hebrew Heathers confess their addiction to the creamy crack), but water. It’s just all around kryptonite. But, Jews can definitely go IncogHebrew more successfully than one can go IncogNegro, so I’m willing to go with an upwardly mobile Jewish-ish family on this one.

Jewish: +1

I can’t let the whole single parent household thing slide. Now, while we don’t know for sure that the mother isn’t in the picture, considering that no Jewish mother would let that much happiness abound without her having something to say about and no I can’t imagine a Black mother, upon seeing all that water damage to the car, to let that go without threats of severe ass whuppings abound, so I’m going to assume these kids’ mother is Anglo-Saxon and absent. Not as in, “I went to Whole Foods to go get some cashew milk” absent, but more like, “I’m in rehab” absent.  Because again, who would let their child walk out the house like that… And justlikethat, we deducted that the mother is indeed White through the Rhetorical Socratic Method.

Mixed: +1

You might say that I didn’t address the question if this family was Black or not, but since it’s a well known fact that the One Drop Rule is the Joker Card in all race determination conversations, there was no need to waste precious HTML.

So, as we’ve thus determined that this family is indeed mixed, we should be asking ourselves why didn’t Subaru get credit for stealth trolling the Cheerio racists a lot sooner?

Unsolved mysteries of the Internets.

Final determination: Mixed