What Azealia Banks, Cardi B, and Black Cornell students decrying African immigrants reveal about Black scarcity
I want even more Black people to believe in ourselves and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, especially following diligent work.
Where I grew up, Black was the end of discussion. People clung to what law professor Juan Perea deemed the “black/white binary paradigm of race,” a bare-bones conception that acknowledged only whiteness or Blackness but did not allow for meaningful engagement with ethnicity.
In college, I learned about different kinds of Black people. I met a range of islanders, West Africans and South Louisiana Creoles. Often, students who were of the African Diaspora and born in other countries thought I, too, immigrated (sometimes attributed to my locked natural hair and preference for loud colors). Despite different starting places, we knew — and could be reminded by racists on a whim — that anti-Blackness exists.
Just this Saturday, I sat by a brown-toothed white man at a football game. A white woman sat by his right. He spat tobacco within an inch of my foot.
Being from São Paulo, Brazil or Bastrop, Louisiana would not have changed his mind. He saw Black. I was Black. I am Black. And for being Black, he grossly attempted to minimize me.
Black people often recall disgusting, aggressive and disheartening situations. Anti-blackness yields both individual slights and institutional oppression, and the inability to grapple with both at once informs confusion around whether people’s claims of Blackness are thought valid.
Questions of “who is Black” and “how Black are they” infiltrate social gatherings, pop culture and higher education admissions decisions alike. A related question is whether certain types of Black people more readily tap into mainstream success metrics. Rapper Azealia Bank raised this issue when she criticized Cardi B’s journey to the top of music charts, arguing Cardi rose from exoticism rather than effort.
Cardi B has identified herself as Black and also as Brown (or “Spanish,” a complex, colonial shorthand mixed race Latinx often use). She affirmed Black features in social media comments. She made a video likening her hair, which she described as coarse, to Gabby Douglas’ (NSFW audio) in sisterly solidarity. When she explained that with texture comes strength, the double meaning was not lost on me.
I count Cardi’s career success, and the support of her loved ones, as a win for Black girls, while conceding that Brown girls can count her as a win for them too. Actually, the really petty part of me Black-girl-clapped at the dichotomy revealed when Cardi B unseated Taylor Swift on the Billboard charts during the beginning of pumpkin spice latte season in Trump’s America. As Rodney Carmichael wrote for NPR, “At 24, Cardi B has become the first woman rapper to score an unassisted No. 1 hit since Lauryn Hill nearly two decades ago.”
Banks leveled a critique of Cardi B, which portrayed Cardi as a spicy Latina who took up industry space from actual Black women. This showcased a two-part fear: (1) only certain types of “Black” people get access (Cardi is Trinidadian and Dominican) and (2) those people can opt in and out of Blackness as it suits them, which could undermine the collective.
“She’s only black when black[s] want to include themselves in a success story,” Banks posted in now-deleted tweets. “I thought she was going to be a Latina hottie and not a poor mans Nicki. It went the other way now I’m over it.” Banks also explained her theory that white industry men train Black men to hate Black women, using Cardi B as an example.
I understand the “regular Black girl” fear of being left out. I understand that society wants many of us to believe we are last picks individually and institutionally. I do not subscribe to that. Yes, society privileges certain characteristics, including light skin, in arenas ranging from entertainment to the workplace to the classroom to the criminal justice system.
And privilege might even be an imperfect description for the ways people navigate Blackness. As Arielle Iniko Newton wrote in “Why ‘privilege’ is counter-productive social justice jargon”, “some of us have more access to certain parts of society due to the various natures of our identities. Hence, instead of weighing the intangible and subjective ‘privilege’ as a prescription, we should focus on oppression as a method for reckoning with ourselves and those who are non-Black.”
Practically, I want even more Black people to believe in ourselves and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, especially following diligent work. Personally, I try to learn how we win instead of state why we should lose because I want to be a Black woman who constructively critiques but does not fall down the rabbit hole and become a hater.
So while Banks’ assessments of why a light-skinned woman rides a wave of success most artists never see can be instructive, Banks is one Black woman.
Her concerns brought me back to intra-racial tensions at Grambling, my undergrad institution, and recently publicized concerns about admissions at Cornell. The Black Students United Group at the Ivy League institution said Cornell admits Caribbean and African continental students over “Black students whose families were affected directly by the African Holocaust in America.”
The fear is that Black people whose ancestors helped create American arts and/or the academy will be strategically omitted from meaningful participation. Of course, decision-makers who seek to remedy the specific harms multi-generational African American people suffer should ensure that we are given fair consideration.
But, the immediacy with which some Black people want to box out other Black people who also suffered multi-generational harms due to global anti-Blackness is bothersome. Cornell students couch their argument in terms of most direct historical effects of American racism, but another factor is likely at play. International Black folks could experience a bump at institutions of higher learning because American colleges and universities prefer wealthy students. Many students from Africa are not representative of Black immigrants from their specific countries, but of wealthy families.
At the end of the day, American society sustains notions of Black scarcity that teach us that other people can define and describe our place in the world. We also learn to search for kinks in each other’s armor when some of us ascend (which reinforces the idea that many of us should not). To maintain what bell hooks called “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” people learn tight bounds in which to operate.
I want different bounds. I want a broad and inclusive Blackness, that generationally improves, continuously mobilizes against injustice and supports community without stripping Black people of individuality, culture or lived experiences. I want South Carolina Black and Senegal Black and Cuba Black and Arizona Black and Australia Black. I want more buoyancy than binaries. As Jay Z said, “Nobody wins when the family feuds.”