Jada Pinkett-Smith, Anita Bhagwandas and the Guardian telling us all to put up and shut up is making me livid.
Women of colour – it’s okay to be angry.
At least, it should be. However you’d be forgiven for thinking this otherwise if you glanced through yesterday’s Guardian. Me, I want to know when exactly the accepted understanding of how women of colour navigate a world that is, beyond any doubt or discussion, stacked against us at every angle became a combination of benevolent acceptance and self-education? When the goal became understanding the mindset of our oppressors, all the better for us to forgive them. Is this now the accepted dialogue, or did The Guardian just happen to publish two articles pushing this highly unsettling worldview forward on the same day?
Yesterday’s paper featured an interview with Jada Pinkett-Smith, glowing under her Level Five Auntie halo, preaching about how great it is not being angry any more, conflating anger with youth and – by inference – immaturity. She even goes so far as to refer to it as a ‘stage’. She then goes on to emphasis living by her grandmother’s teachings – upholding the ‘traditional role of Black women as the glue of the family’ and curing racism with ‘love’. Her interviewer reacts positively. ‘She faces negativity with compassion.’
Before I get started on everything that’s wrong with this and why this made me so savagely furious, let’s skip on a few pages shall we.
Overleaf (or click), we have British-Indian beauty editor Anita Bhagwandas precising her new book Ugly, in which she attempts to contextualise her internalised negativity about her appearance that is the result of growing up in a world that only sees beauty through a Eurocentric lens. While acknowledging that her understanding of how and why our society has come to value slimness, whiteness, youth etc as the gold standard of appearance has not entirely ‘fixed’ her, she credits her research with giving her the perspective to value herself beyond her appearance.
While this may, on the surface, sound all very admirable, let’s stop for a minute and consider what exactly Bhagwandas is saying. She has put in a significant amount of work, both in terms of research about beauty norms and in understanding and monitoring her own reactions and responses to those norms – ‘policing negative self-talk’ – comparable to therapy, to cope with the self-hate that society has put into her.
So, like Jada, she is, effect, fighting racism with love, negativity with compassion. They are both saying that the key to a happy life is to understand why we are being oppressed, forgive the oppressor and move on.
Forgive me for being blunt, but that’s just not good enough. I don’t want to forgive and accept, I want the world to acknowledge the damage it causes through it’s Eurocentric gaze and get its ducks in a row and give me and every other person who has been negatively affected by internalising centuries-old tropes of who and what our place is, who and what is acceptable, good, beautiful and desirable our goddamn money back. I do not consider it my responsibility to educate myself on the myriad of reasons for my oppression with the goal of understanding and forgiving, and I don’t believe it is my responsibility to make myself feel better. I believe, very firmly, that it is the responsibility of the oppressors to educate themselves on the reasons for their behaviours and the harm they have caused, and to take the lead in remaking our society in an egalitarian fashion.
A pipe dream, yes? Of course, but without those pipe-dream goals all we are doing is falling back under the wheel of acceptance, and therefore become complicit in our own subjugation.
Which takes us back to Jada.
Since forever, women of colour have been stereotyped as the family ‘glue’, praised for achieving the status of Level Five Auntie. The mind boggles that it does not seem to occur to her that she is not just conforming to but actively advocating for the exact woman-of-colour-as-sage-caregiver label that was created by white people for the precise purposes of subjugation. By dismissing anger at racism and injustice as youthful folly, Pinkett-Smith is casting her lot in with the oppressor, advising us all to accept our lot and move on, telling us that as women of colour it is both our duty and our privilege to take on a greater burden, and the more grace and dignity with which we bear our load and the less confrontationally we behave, the more praise we deserve, cos it doesn’t get much better than Level Five Auntie status.
Well fuck that.
For those of us who have actively rejected the role of matriarch and whose aspirations lie outside the nicely labelled box left out for us by white people, this reads like a huge slap-down. Pinkett-Smith has clearly internalised the colonial blueprint of Black and Brown womanhood and is now spewing it back from her own mouth to make it appear as though, coming from a woman of colour, it must be true. This borderline-absurd call to, in effect, Lean In to racialised and gendered norms and expectations is echoed by Bhagwandas and her efforts to change her understanding of herself rather than change the society that created her self-negativity.
While it would be easy to say well, each to their own, if these paths and behaviours make it easier for these women to live their lives then good for them, it’s not that simple. Pinkett-Smith is forever in the public eye, positing herself as an older women of colour to be listened and looked up to – a source of advice and encouragement for the younger generation. A Level Five Auntie. So this Level Five Auntie is dishing out her zen-wisdom-forgive-racism claptrap to younger women of colour who are internalising that it’s their responsibility to fix racists through patience and kindness. It isn’t.
Teaching the next generation that they will have more expected of them and less given to them and that that’s okay is fundamentally wrong. And dismissing anger in the face of prejudice plays into every negative trope about Angry Brown and Black Women created by a racist, sexist society that want us to deal with our own anger rather than have them deal with the structures that have made us angry in the first place. This idea that forgiveness and understanding is the path to happiness in effect completely lets both societies and individuals who have caused harm off the hook. The path to inner peace does not come from taking on the responsibility of healing your own wounds – this is another ridiculous social construct designed to victim-blame. Taking away the agency of righteous anger at social injustice, instead treating anger as a phase, a flaw, an immature response, is de facto accepting a society that is inherently unjust, and asserting that being the bigger person is the right thing to do is placing responsibility for handling the fallout of that injustice squarely in the hands of the wronged.
It is not our job to clear up a mess we did not make. The perpetrator must make right, not the victim.
Taking this a step further, this mindset also acts as a trigger against any women of colour who are angry and do push back, making our lives infinitely harder. It creates an expectation that not only can all women of colour think that way, they should. Because look, this person – say, Pinkett-Smith – who has suffered prejudice has learned to overcome it, they have put in the psychological work to accept the world as it is, so if they can do it why can’t you? And similarly, with Bhagwandas – if she can learn to understand and live with Eurocentric beauty standards, then why can’t all women of colour?
As a woman of colour who is losing her hair, until now I’ve felt a particular resonance with Pinkett-Smith. This article changed that. Speaking about coming to terms with her alopecia, Pinkett-Smith again nods towards self-improvement, referring to her diagnosis as ‘a great teacher’, and describing learning of a ‘a deeper beauty within myself.’ Again, no. Instead of fighting back against the social norms that tell us bald women are not beautiful, instead of pushing to change those norms, to be seen as beautiful by the world, Pinkett-Smith again goes full Level Five Auntie. For me, this is not a solution. I don’t understand why I should be happy or satisfied with the concept of inner beauty in the face of my hair loss any more than I should be in the face of my brownness or weight. I want, no, I demand, the right to fight for a society where the way that my genetic makeup has chosen to express itself will not automatically be seen as lesser, less beautiful, than the genetic makeup of a slim white woman.
We find ourselves in an impossible position where women who should be our allies are actively undermining the position of every woman of colour who actually wants society to change so that we can have the privileges, freedoms and status that we have been historically denied. Reading these articles makes me wonder if there is a new collective sense amongst women of colour towards just giving up, making the best of it, opting for Level Five Auntie status and making do. Or if it’s just that these are the voices that white newspaper editors are choosing to give a platform to. Either way, this is not a positive takeaway for women of colour. Being happy with being less is no more or less than accepting the status quo that leaves us forever lesser, and if that’s a Level Five Auntie lesson, I think we need to rethink how highly we hold up Level Five Aunties.