Ashanti Hunter

Why seeing the murder of Ashanti Hunter as anti-Black violence does not distract us from fighting for Black men and boys

By Treva Lindsey

Often, there is an alarming silence around the deaths of Black women. From the under-reported murders of Black women by their former or current partners to the vicious and specific targeting of Black trans* women, the killings of Black women rarely garner sustained media coverage, substantive rallying cries, or formidable mobilization and organizing from people other than Black women and gender non-conforming/fluid people.

How Jesse Williams’ divorce highlights the way white-supremacist beauty standards affect relationships

By Catherine Imani

By now, you’re probably aware of the fact that Jesse Williams and his wife Aryn Drake-Lee are divorcing after 5 years of marriage and 15 total together. This is not an article about their divorce, because no one knows what is going on inside of their home but them. This is about the ways beauty politics affect relationships–especially relationships in which one person is more attractive by the general society’s standards than the other.

It’s no secret that Jesse fits many stereotypes for attractiveness. He has light skin, light eyes, he’s physically able and slim-thick with a cute ass. In short, he’s “Hollywood pretty,” and that on top of his acting and social justice politics made him very popular among black women specifically.

Jesse was able to leverage that popularity into speaking engagements, interviews and job opportunities. His wife, on the other hand, while gorgeous and intelligent, is not the kind of woman usually seen in Hollywood. And Hollywood is a microcosm, where the ideals and standards of white supremacy, cis heteropatiarchy, fatphobia, colorism and ableism are magnified.

If the rumors are true, it would be no surprise that a fellow “Hollywood pretty” white woman led to the demise of Williams’ marriage.

Again, this isn’t about the couple’s divorce. But any conversation about love, relationships and community is not complete without talking about who is good enough to love, and how that is often directly tied to what is defined as beautiful in our white supremacist society.

Those of us who are not beautiful enough to love are often left with the opposite: violence and abuse. The fact is, although Jesse leaving his black wife for a white woman might be surprising given his seeming embrace of black feminism, it still fits the trend of “when (a black man) get on, he leave (a black woman’s) ass for a white girl,” which is compounded by the larger trend of “attractive person benefits from the love and labor and resources of their less attractive partner only to discard them when they don’t need those things anymore.” There are so many songs, movies and books normalizing this concept, that its effects on the larger society cannot be ignored.

Studies have shown that black women are viewed as being the least desirable across racial categories. Even within the black community, what is defined as desirable mirrors white supremacists standards. Beauty is often talked about in opposition to blackness, and is instead aligned with whiteness and everything whiteness represents.

Because of this, the pressures around beauty for black women are more pronounced. It makes sense that our community exalts the light-skinned, “mixed”/non-black/exotic, cis, abled, and/or slim women, but what goes ignored are all of the ways that beauty is more than skin deep. Beauty–read: how much a black woman aligns with the white supremacist standard–can be a deciding factor in getting a raise, and changes how that woman is perceived by her coworkers or even the judicial system.

In my community, it was very common for young men who were down on their luck to date women who did not meet social beauty standards but had an apartment or a car. They would dog them out the entire time or spread malicious rumors about them, and then when they were financially stable they would leave them. The women are usually much worse off financially than they were when they first met these men.

When I was more gender nonconforming in my presentation, men would threaten to “beat me like the man I thought I was.” I know many women who did not meet society’s attractiveness standard and have had to physically fight men who would never dream of hitting a non-black woman or black woman they deemed attractive. (And that is not to say that only women who are not stereotypically beautiful are abused, but that their abuse is treated differently than that of other women).

This dynamic is especially evident in the responses to the recent Cleveland Shooting regarding the woman the shooter abused. Once people found out who she was and, more specifically, what she looked like, some noted how weird the shooter was for being homicidal over a woman as unattractive as her. Still others blamed her for his violence and tried to threaten her into contacting him.

Image Descriotion: A screenshot of a Facebook post of a selfie of Joy Lane under the text: “Joy Lane please take that milk dud nigga back you not even all that to be curving bruhh like that you got this nigga going around tripping call this nigga and apologize or i’m fucking you up dude yo peanut head ass bitch you horse teeth dry weave stale ass bitch you betta take him back @Joy Lane.” Joy Lane was tagged by the poster.

 

Image Description: A screenshot of a Facebook message to Joy Lane that reads: “Aye hoe call that nigga Stevie , so he can stop killing ppl!!!!”

Her deviance from the standard of beauty made her someone that a lot of people were unable and unwilling to empathize with. It made her someone that a majority of people did not see as deserving of love, safety or affection. It made people think of her as less worthy of life than the people he could have potentially killed (because I do not believe that she would have survived another 3 years if the shooter hadn’t killed himself).

When a black woman who doesn’t meet the standard of beauty is in a relationship, she is blamed for any failings in that relationship. He cheated? Her fault. He abuses her? Her fault. He leaves her after 15 years of commitment? Her fault, because what should she expect?

When news broke that Jesse was leaving his wife, many people commented that they could see why. One’s alignment to these white supremacist beauty standards has very real consequences on how black women are viewed and treated.

Movement’s like #BlackOut and #DisabledAndCute, and the efforts of black women on social media challenge beauty being about one’s alignment to whiteness and redefine it in a way that is more inclusive. Although this is an issue that can never be resolved quickly, conversations like this help. As Jesse Williams said himself, “Now, this is also in particular for the black women … who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you”.

Further reading:

Romantic Love is Killing Us: Who Takes Care of Us When We’re Single?

What It’s Really Like To Be A Trans Woman

Society (And My Rapist) Says I’m Too Ugly To Be Raped


Catherine Imani is a queer disabled black femme based in Atlanta, Ga. They love art and science and are passionate about social justice and equality. Tip them at paypal.me/catherineimani .

Henrietta Lacks

Oprah Winfrey brings power and emotion to ‘The Immortal Henrietta Lacks’

By Imani J. Jackson

If nothing else, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a cautionary tale conveyed cinematically.

The HBO film, which premiered Saturday, April 22nd, and is based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book of the same name, presented an incrementally improving story about Lacks, an African American woman whose cells changed history.

George C. Wolfe directed the film, which presented Lacks’ life primarily through her daughter Deborah, portrayed by Oprah Winfrey and partially through Skloot, portrayed by Rose Byrne. The Immortal Life demonstrated personal power along with a story about medical misrepresentation, female friendship and race.

Initially, I was unsure whether this film would live up to expectation. Would the star-studded team project an intricate and intimate story of a Black woman whose cells innovated medical science  — including in vitro fertilization, the AIDS cocktail, the impacts of radiation and toxic substances and more? Would they render Lacks human, even though her cells continuously multiply, as if a higher power placed limitless potential in her?

At first blush, the characters seemed like stereotypes on steroids. But, as time continued, the utility of the stereotypes came to the forefront. Viewers saw cackling medical experts (read: mad scientists). Viewers saw Skloot as a harried white female reporter who was sometimes savior and sometimes sisterly. Viewers saw a religious, respectable, angry, close-knit and skeptical Black family with every reason to have each of these characteristics and then some. As the story unfolded, I was reminded that stereotypes do not fit everyone. However, they certainly fit some.

The medical experts seemed to compromise Lacks’ humanity through taking her cancerous cells without her or her family’s permission. They did not offer or award financial compensation for the human matter from which many of them profited. Instead, their actions offered a commentary on Columbusing and its scope.

More than just the feigned discovery of people or places that already have histories, Johns Hopkins Hospital staff extended their exploration into biomedical human material. These medical professionals’ cell harvesting can be likened to “ghost values”, when white settlers affixed prices to enslaved African people’s bodies after the Africans died.

When Johns Hopkins staffers said things like, “Would you patent the Sun?” in relation to stealthily stealing from Lacks, white medical professionals’ privilege and immoral practices were re-emphasized. And yet, these actions simultaneously reflected the experts’ own inhumanity.

The Immortal Life showed medical communities’ poisonous histories of negligence and malfeasance in vulnerable communities. The film referenced the American government’s unethical experiment on another group of Black people in the South, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” In The Immortal Life, the doctors and hospital employees were portrayed in ugly ways because their actions were ugly.

Conversely, Oprah Winfrey’s performance was beautiful. She brought depth, vitality and community wisdom to Deborah, Lacks’s daughter. Winfrey conveyed inter-racial tensions, that smart people are not always formally educated, and a spiritual connection with her deceased mother and sister.

By having the world’s most respected journalist amplify a Black woman whose cells propelled science into uncharted terrain, Winfrey reminded viewers and creators to dig deeper for stories. Further, unlike those who profited from the Lacks family without their blessing, Deborah actually wanted Oprah to portray her, since Oprah could not play Henrietta. (Watch around the 6:40 minute mark).

Thematically the film portrayed female friendship. Viewers spent substantial time with Deborah and Rebecca. So much emphasis was placed here that a legitimate concern arose: whether Skloot is centered, instead of Lacks in Lacks’ story.

Skloot showed curiosity and journalistic diligence. She was also an overly eager to record reporter. Her character was crafted toward likability in that she was not moneyed. Skloot did not seem to have much beyond the ordinary capital of whiteness. The reporter’s bill-juggling, document diving and late nights positioned her as a good white person, which contrasted with the others whose careers sketchily jumped off from HeLa cells.

I understand frustration with Deborah and Rebecca’s relationship, but also understand white viewers want to see white characters deploy their whiteness and work ethics to help people of color. To that end, the relationship seemed well intentioned albeit obligatory.

One of the more relatable race dynamics played out when Skloot was irritatingly casual with the Black family she grew to know and researched alongside. But that lack of formality is truthful. Rebecca often called Black people old enough to be her parents by their first names, even when they called her “Ms. Rebecca.” For all her friendship and persistence, she still reflected privilege.

Renée Elise Goldsberry portrayed Henrietta Lacks as a stunning, family-oriented and vibrant woman. I loved that Henrietta practiced self-care through beauty routines and displayed southern hospitality to people in her home. Henrietta was shown to viewers through flashbacks as an everyday Black beauty who knew her body and her family and lived with grace.

In the end, this story was necessary. However, the presentation was not faultless. The relationship between Deborah and Rebecca could have been deeper. The remaining Lacks family members could have seemed less knee-jerk. While I would award the film generally three stars out of five, Winfrey and Goldsberry’s performances deserve five stars out of five.


Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365. 

Steve Stephens

Black men, we need to acknowledge that we are the problem. Let’s talk toxic masculinity.

By Shekinah Mondoua

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I began to question the masculinity of African-American men as toxic. At one point I found myself constantly attempting to live up to the standards presumed from my Black male counterparts. Acceptance from my Black male friends was something that I sought out more than accepting my own self.

It might be best to start this conversation with my experiences at 15 years old. I had just left the private school scene and was entering the public school environment that I had once inhabited. The sights, the rhetoric, the style of the students were drastically different from how I last remembered them.

Trevor Wilkins

Trevor Wilkins, Princeton Alum, Co-Created App That Encourages Good Grades

By Imani J. Jackson

#Blackboyjoy sounded more like hustle than hubris earlier this week during a telephonic interview with Trevor Wilkins. The tech entrepreneur is a Southside of Chicago native and celebrant. He is also a Princeton sociology graduate who shared parts of his journey to co-creating an app with more than a half million users that encourages students to get good grades.  

Why intersectional feminism needs reproductive justice approaches to HIV

By Jallicia Jolly

Amidst the recent attacks on access to quality health care and sexual and reproductive health services, the assaults on the lives of racial and sexual minorities specifically reveal the systematic violation reserved for poor women of color, particularly Black and transgender women.

The neglect of Black women’s intersectional health experiences in national discussions about HIV/AIDS, coupled with the growing rates of HIV/AIDS in black communities, beg a critical question: How can a reproductive justice approach allow governments and decision makers to properly invest in Black health?

Why Stanford accepting the teen who wrote #BlackLivesMatter 100 times on his application does little for Black lives

By Tariq Luthun

This week, the story of Ziad Ahmed–a Muslim-American teen who was accepted into Stanford after writing #BlackLivesMatter in his application–went viral. Since the story dropped, many have come out in praise of the young man for his seemingly bold decision to write the politicized phrase on such an important application not just once, but 100 times. In this article for The Root, the author opens by asking the reader if our activism is “performative or substantive,” insinuating that Ahmed embodies the latter in a way that few others might.

Rachel Dolezal, Farcical Blackness and ‘Eating the Other’

By: Imani J. Jackson

One day I was minding my business, as an actual Black woman, when the Internet alerted me of a narrative that captivated America. Rachel Dolezal was a disgraced NAACP president whose whistleblower parents alerted the public of their daughter’s lived lie.

Dolezal had deputized herself as a Black sister, taught Africana studies and filed hate crime complaints that curiously could never be corroborated.  Further, the folks she thought she fooled through her racial Rachel curating apparently knew something was amiss.  

The Onus of Belonging: On Disability, Disney Princesses, and Finding My Tribe

By: Sarah Jama

There comes a time in any healthy, developing friendship when a shift from acquaintance, to friend, to close friend—and if luck is at hand—to sibling or family occurs.  The concluding shift, in my opinion, can only occur once one is made to feel thoroughly seen, thoroughly visible— flaws and all—by the counterpart in question.

For my friend Aisha and I, the shift happened in a dingy elevator of the downtown public library.