I just saw a meme that I was going to reblog as is, but then I thought, wait a minute. Anyway, here’s how it read:
Why is it easier to believe that 150,000,000 Americans are being lazy rather than 400 Americans are being greedy?
The short answer? Capitalism thrives on this. So does American exceptionalism. And the myth of meritocracy. And standard victim blaming that often occurs vertically, but also horizontally when the oppressed side with aggressors and the oppressor. Americans like unicorns, not horses. But let’s not pretend that 150,000,000 people are sharing oppression or even experiences in the same way in America. The perception of “lazy” itself is not even uniform among the 150,000,000. Classism is shaped by racism. That 1% that people occupy wouldn’t exist without capitalism. Capitalism wouldn’t exist without slavery.
The base income amount of entry into the 1% is about $368,000 annually. That number is beyond laughable and unreachable to me. I do not personally know a single individual or family who earns that. I don’t know any who exceed $150,000 annually, and even those I know close to this latter figure are few and far between. The city I grew up in is 68% Black and has an average family income of $26,800. The poverty line threshold in America for a family of 4 is $23,550.
But even the base amount of entry for the 1% does not reveal the real picture. It’s the 0.1% and 0.01% that show the real picture of income inequality. These are the base amounts of entry:
Top 1% = $368,238
Top 0.5% = $558,726
Top 0.1% = $1,695,136
Top 0.01% = $9,141,190
The 400 richest Americans are worth 2 trillion dollars. This is a 300 billion dollar increase from last year. The average member is worth 5 billion dollars (only because some are worth a few billion and others are worth 30 billion+, so it averages out) and entry into this elite group is 1.3 billion dollars. Their worth is larger than the GDP of Canada, Mexico or Italy. Even outside of the 1%, the top 10% of earners in the United States take home half of all income.
Now about those 400 richest Americans? A list almost completely comprised of White men. So no, it is not Oprah (2.9B) and Jay-Z (0.5B) repeated 200 times each. This disdain that people have for this tiny sliver of Black wealth (and not even generational wealth; most rich Black people are the first generation of their family to escape poverty or move up from middle class; generational wealth for Black people includes a tiny group that rarely exceeds 2-3 generations) while ignoring the struggling small Black middle class and large working class and impoverished Black people in America is another facet of racism. Because of White supremacy, this occurs in a binary where Black people are blamed and shamed for either poverty or wealth, and face racism either way, though its manifestation is still shaped by class. Besides, even the top 10 wealthiest people on this 400 list, which includes past NYC mayor and stop and frisk lover Michael Bloomberg are White and the only women included are White ones in the Walton family (owns Wal*Mart).
When generic language of “laziness” is used for half of the country, as if half of the country are regularly referred to as “lazy,” “shiftless,” welfare queens,” “welfare cheats,” “thugs” and told that their poverty is a “culture” and the like, it eschews the ways in which race shapes classism and class shapes racism. These are intrinsically tied, and ignoring this nuance for the sake of “unity” against the 1% simply centers White experiences and thoughts (as usual) and silences Black experiences. I don’t recall a time (except for Mitt Romney’s 47% comment) where Whites were alluded to as being lazy and ever included with such language. This does not mean that Whites are not also poor; a great deal of them are. But their poverty is always shaped as either working hard while “lazy” Black people “steal” from them or them being “down on their luck.” Black poverty is always shaped as pathology, not as the old trope of the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” that many Whites, especially Conservatives buy into. This trope is marketed by wealthy Whites and keeps poor Whites interested in it via White supremacy.
It is most certainly possible to stand up against greed and income inequality without pretending that the 99% have the same uniform experiences. There’s no way I could do that anyway since differences in unemployment, income and wealth are so stark between Black and White people in the 99%. (Stats below are listed in gender binary; I don’t have information that’s more nuanced; apologies.)
Black: BW: 11.5%; BM: 13% | White: WW: 5.5%; WM: 6.2%
Black: BW: 69¢ BM: 74.5¢ | White: WW: 80¢; WM: $1.00
Black: BW: $31,824; BM: $37,496 | White: WW: $38,533; WM: $51,405
Black: $4,955 | White $110,729
The picture further complicates for Black people who raise children alone (i.e. Black women have a median wealth of only $5), Black people who have been incarcerated (i.e. up to 60% unemployed after incarceration in NYC) and Black people in the LGBTQ community. Black trans people are hit the hardest with 34% of them earning below $10,000 a year, which is twice the rate of all trans people and four times the rate of cis Black people.
Most Black people do not see that upper echelon of the 99% that crosses well over $300,000 a year, as I mentioned above. When a homeless Black person, a Black person working as a receptionist for $25,000 a year and a White executive who earns $350,000 a year are supposed to pretend that their experiences are the same because Wall Street tycoons gobble up billions of dollars for themselves, those two people at the bottom are still facing poverty and racism that the executive will never understand. And this idea that it is “divisive” to discuss differences among the 99% is White supremacy. It is meant to obscure the racism and classism from Whites within the 99% to focus on the classism (and most certainly imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy) of the 1%. So many Black people that I know were actively silenced when they attended Occupy events. I was cursed out online before by Whites for mentioning how race impacts class. One of the Whites involved was an attorney. Another was a millionaire. I don’t know how I am going to pay some things next week but I have to get lessons on class from Whites? While I too want the 1% and the corrosive false meritocracy held accountable and income inequality addressed, I will not do that at the price of ignoring the oppression that exists among the 99%. Oppression is not linear.
Two things always occur whenever I mention social stratification among the 99%. The first is that Whites outside of America try the “othering” of privilege. They assert that Black Americans aren’t really “poor” because in X country X U.S. dollars is wealthy. This ignores the fact that not all Black people are middle class or celebrities. More are not than are. By comparing a Black American to someone Black in another place, they seek absolve their own White (and often class) privilege and benefits of White supremacy and pretend that the Black American has become the sole oppressor of that Black person in another place. This also eschews the cost of living and the experiences of Black people in America. Suggesting that X amount of U.S. dollars in X country is “rich” means nothing for Black people who cannot even leave the U.S., or the ones extrajudicially murdered every 28 hours, or the incarcerated ones, or the ones fighting to get basic food stamps and WIC or the ones who simply have to live here and adjust to what are “costs” and “poverty” here. The Black experience in America is not the White experience in America, and no amount of theories on Western privilege (which often are written from a class privileged White male or man of colour’s point of view, not one that is actually intersectional for the race/gender/class oppression triad) will parallel these experiences. (Privilege is always nuanced; a Black man’s male privilege is not a White man’s male privilege, though both exist.) America being a powerful and rich nation speaks to capitalism built on the backs of slaves, most of whose descendants are still struggling to today.
The second thing that occurs is that some White progressives insist that class does not involve race. No amount of facts, history or truth matters to many of them. They “colourblind” their way through Marx and keep on truckin’. Or worse, they expect me to ignore the nuances of such stratification and keep Jamie Dimon on my mind, not the White male employer in the 99% who paid a past White female boss $75,000 more than me. We were the same age, had the same experience level, I had more skills and more education. I should ignore the White feminists in the 99% who speak ill of me around corners so that I am blackballed out of new employment now. I should ignore the fact that I did not get my 69¢ on a White man’s dollar at some jobs for doing the same work. I got 50¢ actually. Literally. I saw the HR spreadsheets. And this does not mean that the Koch brothers and people like Dimon or the Waltons are magically off of the hook. But I will not ignore the everyday racism/sexism/classism oppression that I face from people who refuse accountability as they simultaneously demand accountability from the 1%.
Though some seek to debate it, Tupac Shakur is one of the most influential hip hop artists and poets of all time. His politics, shaped by the experience of having a politically active mother, Afeni Shakur (not to be confused with Assata Shakur), and the experience of growing into a masculinity where he on the one hand affirmed many stereotypes of patriarchal masculinity, but on the other hand challenged them (as well as challenged issues embedded in race, gender, class, poverty, the police state and the government) were ones reflected in many of his songs.
While the lazy (and White supremacist way) of thinking about Tupac’s music is to only focus on songs in his latter years that had heavy themes of consumption, violence, misogyny and capitalism, so many of his songs truly reflected his poetic abilities and social consciousness. In fact, for him and many rappers and hip hop poets, those are the songs that rarely get to be singles. Why is that? Well, Jay-Z alluded to why on The Blueprint 2 in “The Bounce” and also on American Gangster in “Ignorant Shit.” Basically, the White consumer (who dominates the market) seeks Black debasement and affirmation of stereotypes as a consumable good. The more critical the song, the less interest in the song. The more consumable the song is, the more money it makes. So the same capitalistic approach that they are critiqued for is the same one enacted by much of the masses who buy the music.
It’s a very difficult sell to tell someone Black in poverty about the corruption of capitalism when those doing the admonishing have everything while those Black people suffer. Further, for many successful artists like Jay-Z, they are literally one generation removed from poverty. Critiques of Black people and capitalism have to actually move beyond critiquing a tiny sliver of wealthy Blacks who consume expensive goods to explaining why this same system denies so many Black people upward mobility or even basic needs for survival. This is why though Black artists’ consumption (and egos) might need critique, especially within a Western context, critique without nuance often reads as White supremacist.
Though Tupac had (some, not all) songs with capitalist consumption and patriarchal bravado, many of his songs really discussed the intricacies of poverty, race, class and gender. One of those songs, one of my favorite songs by Tupac is “Keep Ya Head Up,” which was a hit single in 1993. I adore this song. It meant almost as much to me when it came out (I was just entering my teens) as Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.,” one of the greatest Womanist epistles in pop culture. While some disregard Tupac’s song as just patriarchal masculinity or “ghetto” (and I’ve seen the critiques from some middle class Black men, who like some middle class Black women, think the politics of respectability is womanism or Black feminism; um, nope), for someone like me who grew up very NOT middle class but in fact poor, it meant everything to me to hear a song like this in adolescence. Honestly, the concepts that he discussed in this song rivals many formal anti-racism and Black feminism texts. And because his song (and Queen Latifah’s song) have very accessible Black language and speak to a particular subset of the Black social class that’s usually examined top down versus horizontally, these songs are really critical to me. I think about them as if they are not in fact twenty years old.
The first verse is very powerful:
Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots
I give a holler to my sisters on welfare
Tupac cares if don’t nobody else care
And uh, I know they like to beat ya down a lot
When you come around the block, brothas clown a lot
But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive but don’t forget, girl, keep ya head up
And when he tells you, you ain’t nothin’, don’t believe him
And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him
'Cause sista, you don't need him
And I ain’t tryin’ to gas ya up, I just call ‘em how I see ‘em
You know it makes me unhappy, what’s that
When brothas make babies and leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t, we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep ya head up
In the matter of a single verse, he discussed diasporic roots, racism and disregard based on poverty, street harassment, acknowledgment that Black women do feel and cry because of intraracial abuse—not just racism (hi intersectionality!), emotional abuse (because often our abuse is ignored completely, but especially emotional abuse towards Black women since White supremacy, racism and misogynoir teaches people that Black women don’t have feelings), the conditions by which some Black men leave their children, the recognition of how the internalized hatred of their own mothers displaced upon other Black women (where there is no shame for that hatred, as there is towards their mothers) creates a cycle of hatred towards Black women, pro-choice reproductive justice, and a call for men to do what’s right. I feel like he made this call without the politics of respectability as the frame, which is critical.
The “kill/heal/real” lines really speak to me. He specifically addressed the concept of all three being necessary. Now obviously like most, I do not want anyone to be in the position to have to literally kill for me. But since many Black men will barely defend Black women’s name online…online…what expectation do Black women have for someone caring enough to protect? The fact that he said “kill/heal/real” back to back makes me see how he actually stepped out beyond a patriarchal masculinity of violence and noted that there has to be a balance of what is typically feminized (healing) in whatever proactive action Black men take. Being “real” implies honestly, but more than just telling the truth, but being open to fully connecting; fully feeling and engaging. And this is something that patriarchal masculinity doesn’t allow men to do.
I didn’t read these lines as just random patriarchal violence. I read them as Black men having a long history of being unable to protect Black women from violence because of White supremacy and racism, and him wanting to reassert that, but with the addition of “healing/being real,” he is acknowledging that his desire is not solely about “real” men being patriarchal. In essence, these lines read quite revolutionary to me. And growing up in an area with poverty, plenty of street harassment (and already experiencing it by the time the song came out) and misogynoir, the idea of a man from similar circumstances rejecting it and calling it out was powerful to me from the first time I heard the song. “Kill/heal/real” implies protection (that affirms worth, not protection to control), compassion, recognition and love, honesty and full emotional connection. And since White supremacist constructions of Black womanhood includes the denial of all of this to us, this line is really powerful to me.
In the next two verses of the song, Tupac spoke about the plagues of racism and poverty and how it creates violence, despair and pain, and how imperialist violence and war impact domestic racism and poverty. He does make some gender-specific commentary again, speaking to the emotional pain that Black women face because of racism, poverty and child-rearing alone. This is yet another time that he spoke of and to Black women as emotional beings; not cold unfeeling objects to project pain on based on compliments of us being “strong,” a word often used as permission to dehumanize Black women. He specifically critiqued the stereotype of Strong Black Woman with "dying inside but outside you’re looking fearless.” Tupac was acutely aware of the complexities of race, class and gender and was able to articulate them in a way that makes “Keep Ya Head Up” more than one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time, but truly a Black man’s womanist epistle. And again, as a young Black teen girl in poverty, it was an empowering song for me; the male companion to “U.N.I.T.Y.”
Thinking about his later years in his life (especially serving time for sexual assault via unlawful touching, though he adamantly denied these acts, and the other charges he was found innocent of) before his assassination is difficult for me because I see the memes and GIFs on Tumblr of his younger years and his acute and fiery hot political consciousness. And it is not that he abandoned such views entirely, but that the struggle between patriarchal masculinity (male privilege) and racism (oppression) created a space where again, he both affirmed and challenged oppressive ideologies and institutions.
I always have complicated feelings about hip hop because as a Black woman, I don’t have the luxury of viewing Black men or Black culture without nuance. While I openly critique hip hop and reject the idea that all critiques lack nuance, I do know that many critiques are solely about re-inscribing ideas about Black culture and Black masculinity meant to justify our oppression. And when those critiques cannot include what perhaps a song like “Keep Ya Head Up” might have meant to a young adolescent Black girl (like I was) who already faced street harassment by the time the song came out, already saw and lived poverty, had friends without fathers (though I had both parents myself), had family members incarcerated, and felt my experience affirmed by that song, then such critique is truly obscuring the nuance of experiences of Black people, and how art is used to affirm them. I will always cherish this song as a coming of age work that helped develop my consciousness as a womanist.
A couple of days ago, Miley Cyrus sent an ignorant, entitled, privileged and White supremacist tweet. Really, who do you think are the “other bitches” in this tweet? Which White women is she speaking to? None. It’s clearly Black women that she’s speaking to. The tweet was in response to her name mentioned in “Somewhereinamerica” on Jay-Z’s new album Magna Carta Holy Grail.
Call it what you want. But I don’t see Mr. Carter shoutin any of you bitches out. #twerkmileytwerk ✌— Miley Ray Cyrus (@MileyCyrus)
I saw many responses to the tweet, including applause from other White women, some Black women and of course some Black men, as expected. However the Black man below wasn’t having it, just as many people (like me) weren’t.
On Somewhereinamerica Jay basically said “Cops were sweating me for profiting off drugs but white America is profiting off our culture”— D’Brickashaw (@DragonflyJonez)
Then Miley Cyrus got on twitter and was like “OMG! Yall see that? Jay called me a culture vulture! Take that! HOLLLAAA”— D’Brickashaw (@DragonflyJonez)
Obviously Miley and her supporters do not regularly listen to Jay-Z’s music—forget that. Clearly they did not listen to this specific song. This is not surprising; very few Whites actually LISTEN to hip hop music (despite being the largest group of consumers for it). For the Black men who think the song was praise of Miley, they may certainly listen to hip hop but are also projecting their own internalized White supremacist views onto the lyrics. Because they worship White women in general, but especially ones who appropriate Black culture while disrespecting Black women at the same time—the same Black women who are insulted, attacked, shamed and even fired from jobs/denied opportunities etc. for exhibiting our own culture ourselves—they can view the lyrics as a compliment.
White supremacy is why this occurs. White privilege is why many Whites can’t understand why their cycle of cultural appropriation is a weapon of the oppressor and more than just “copying” Black people. It’s not a compliment to steal, alter, profit from without punishment and disrespect those the art comes from in the first place. It’s White supremacy. It’s meant to dehumanize and some of those who dehumanize actually laugh while doing it, as Miley reveals. As for the Black women applauding her, it connects to similar internalized White supremacist thought as Black men, with a different manifestation; White appropriation of Black culture is viewed as a “compliment” to some Black women who think appropriation is approval through the White Gaze. Sadly, some view her doing this as "proof" of their worth as Black women.
Even so, I still saw many Black people respond who 1) do not view the lyrics as a compliment, as the tweets above clarify and 2) are not flattered by Whites who appropriate Black culture.
There’s also something else occurring here. Recently in a post where I replied to a White woman who tried to convince me that experiences of people of colour are invalid and racism is solely the exchange of insults where race is mentioned between “anyone,” I reminded her of Louis CK’s joke that alluded to the fact that you can’t even hurt his feelings let alone oppress him as a White male. I’m reminded of this because not only is Miley’s response a typical superficial White response to Black art ("He said my name! That’s all that matters! Fuck context, even from a rapper with a strong command for literary devices! Fuck listening to what someone said who has an entire body of work and a book Decoded explaining how he is a master manipulator and equivocator when it comes to context and language! I’m White! I don’t have to actually listen, interpret or care about anything beyond the realms of my White privilege!") but it also reveals that even as an insult it alters nothing for Miley Cyrus. Even as an ironic criticism of White consumption of Black culture by Jay-Z, her White privilege (as well as class privilege) protects her from any real repercussions, unlike for Black women. This entire situation only reveals the accuracy in what I wrote in Black Women and Twerking: Why Its Creators Face Bigotry That Miley Cyrus Never Will.
This also should be further evidence of the fact that “racism against Whites” is just a White delusion based on their unwillingness to be critiqued about the manifestations of White supremacy. Not even insulting or critiquing them but simply rejecting White supremacy makes them call Blacks “racist.” They have been taught (as well as people of colour, actually, sadly) that Whiteness is “universal” and “normal” so naturally rejecting White supremacy is processed as hatred for individual Whites. I’ve had plenty of White women (the primary trolls for Gradient Lair are White women, by far) suggest that my blog is “racist” since it does not cater to White women. This belief of theirs connects to this all.
Of all the responses, the responses by other Black men who don’t share DragonflyJonez’s view have perplexed me the most. They’re pretty much ignoring all they know about Jay-Z’s work (unlike many Whites who aren’t actually critically listening in the first place) and deciding that his words are a compliment to Miley…since they like White women. Um…but look at Jay-Z’s work. This is the guy who critiques White supremacy and how despite his wealth he is always an outsider. Now if he wants inclusion in White supremacist power, that is internalized White supremacy, so I don’t suggest that he never proliferates it. He is clearly critiquing White consumption of Black culture and White disdain for Black wealth yet most who worship Miley or White women in general are ignoring the entire song and can only hear “twerk Miley Miley twerk.” This is amazing to me.
I expect this from Whites because even Black art that they claim to value like our finest literature from the likes of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin and more, they often respond to with a superficiality that rivals a toddler. I wouldn’t expect them to critically think about Black art like hip hop that is often placed “lower” than traditional literature then, since their thinking is so hierarchical in the first place. But for some of the Black listeners of his music who claim to know his music, and seem to when they discuss his other songs, it’s funny that their interpretation is “yay Miley!” I am both irritated and humored by this. Jay-Z has primarily dated women of colour in his lifetime and has been with a Black woman for over a decade. He has lyrics like "I only love her if her eyes brown" and "I only love her if her weave new" and "girl, why you never ready, for as long as took, you better look like Halle Berry. Or Beyoncé. Shit, then we gettin’ married." Whether negatively or positively, he’s usually addressing Black women. He is not quite the same as Kanye who explicitly worships White women. Now one can critique quite a bit in Jay-Z’s music and even consider how he talks about Black women reflective of internalized colourism in his thinking. But the idea that he’s just like some of the Black men who fill Twitter with worship of White women to the point that his song that is explicitly critiquing White supremacy in several ways is genuinely applauding Miley is beyond comical to me.
Black people have to move beyond the idea that exploitation is flattery as long as it occurs when/where we want it to. (This is no different from the recent “you can touch my hair” experiment.) As for Whites, I doubt that many of them are actually going to understand anything beyond the boundaries they’ve erected with White supremacy. If they can only respond to the epic work of art that is Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple with "wow that is so sad!" I can’t say that I expect much in terms of interpretation of hip hop music. Once again, this reminds me of what I said just the other day and what James Baldwin wrote about so eloquently decades ago, they don’t know who we are.