Monthly Archives: May 2014

Dear Forbes: This Is Why Iggy Azalea Doesn’t “Run” Hip-Hop

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The Internet is currently on fire following a piece on Forbes that was initially titled “Hip Hop Is Run By A White, Blonde, Australian Woman” but was changed after the backlash forced Forbes to realize what an absurd claim they were making. The new title is “Hip Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.”

I’m annoyed for multiple reasons. Let’s discuss them, shall we?

First off, I wouldn’t go to an Iggy Azalea concert if it were happening on my front porch. While I understand (somewhat confusedly) that she does have something of a fan base, anyone who has any love for hip-hop is currently decrying the notion that this woman “runs” hip-hop. Or anything at all, really. But that’s why the article title was changed, right? Because it (as the update reads) “did not accurately reflect the content of the piece.” Nor does it affect, um, reality. So yeah, good choice, Forbes. But you’re not off the hook.

Let’s get into the article. Here is the author’s reasoning for what he calls Iggy Azalea’s “notable” “rise to prominence”:

Making a name for yourself as a woman and hip hop is laudable enough, forget the fact that she is a white, blonde, Australian woman. In a genre dominated almost exclusively by African American men she sticks out like a statuesque thumb.”

Yes, making a name for yourself in hip-hop as a woman is laudable. But lauding Iggy Azalea here is ludicrous. The author seems not to understand the fact that it is precisely because Iggy Azalea is white and blonde that she has “made a name for herself” in hip-hop. White privilege has successfully floated her to the top of a genre where black women have fought for decades to be represented: her presence (and success) in hip-hop isn’t a shining beacon for feminism, but for the power of whiteness and what it can accomplish.

The author goes on to say:

“While this is all happening very quickly for her in America, she has actually been honing her craft for a decade now, first rapping at the age of 14. In the ten years since, she has seen and been through all the trials and tribulations of the industry.”

Really? All the trials and tribulations of the industry? All of them? Black female rappers encounter a unique struggle in their journey to success in an industry bent on attacking (and exploiting) black female sexuality, not to mention the complex dichotomy of battling male rappers on their misogynist lyrics while also being pressured to support the genre of hip-hop as a whole. The experience of black women in hip-hop is nearly analogous to life outside of hip-hop: black women being asked to choose between supporting black men in the struggle against racism and supporting their own struggle against misogyny (and misogynoir.) Has Iggy Azalea had to make these choices? No. Rather, she is flippant about the subject of race, spitting this lyric in her song D.R.U.G.S:

 

“Tire marks, tire marks, finish line with the fire marks

When it really starts I’m a runaway slave…master

Shitting on the past gotta spit it like a pastor”

 

“Shitting on the past,” huh? Bye Iggy.

In the end, the idea that Iggy Azalea’s fame is “unlikely” is equally absurd. Of course it’s likely. A woman who represents every patriarchal and white supremacist ideal of beauty—tall, slim, undoubtedly white-featured, blonde—finding success in an industry that champions these qualities is entirely unsurprising, especially in a genre that is, as the author says, dominated almost exclusively by African-American men.” Iggy Azalea is not a success story I wish to celebrate. To me, she isn’t a success story at all: she is a novelty, a tiresome example of white female privilege and the delight white culture finds in white people appropriating any and everything.

Lastly, I would ask Hugh McIntyre if he has heard of FM Supreme. Awkwafina. Dominique Young Unique. Rapsody. Jean Grae. 3d Na’Tee. Women of color in hip-hop who are making a name for themselves against all odds. They run hip-hop. Next time you’re feeling all gushy about women in hip-hop…maybe write about them.

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Belle: A Lesson In the Timelessness of Racism and Misogyny Against Black Women

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It’s not often that audiences are exposed to a portrayal of racism that is viewed through the lens of black women. Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman in 1700’s England, was the daughter of an admiral and an enslaved African woman. The film Belle, which was released nationwide this weekend, follows Dido’s life in the household of William Murray, her great-uncle, who was the earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England. We watch Dido become a lady, educated and accomplished, while still forced to dine separately from her family in the company of strangers due to her lower status as a non-white person. We witness her experiences with romance and her complicated friendship with her white cousin, all during the infamous Zong case.

In the film, Dido becomes acquainted with an aspiring lawyer and abolitionist who advocates against the Zong slavers and, in turn, exposes Dido to the realities of slavery and racism that she had previously been sheltered from in the household of Chief Justice Mansfield. Meanwhile, as she comes of age and her cousin is introduced to society, she becomes painfully aware of what her race means outside the home of her great-uncle, becoming conscious of the unique prison she finds herself trapped within as both a non-white person and a woman. Her cousin, Elizabeth, is white, but poor; she doesn’t have the inheritance that Dido is privileged with. But the two young women discover how complicated both racism, sexism, and classism have made the world: Elizabeth can eat with her family and be introduced to society without burden; yet without an inheritance, her options for marriage are extremely limited, and the gentleman that she would marry will not have her, as his own pockets are empty, requiring a hefty dowry. On the other hand, Dido can afford to not marry if she wishes, or marry who she pleases, given her inheritance. Money gives her some independence, yet it seems she will not be able to marry at all, given her status as a non-white person: “too high to dine with the servants,” she says at one point, “but too low to dine with my own family.”

The intricacies of marriage and money and dowries in the 1700’s were complicated and seemed far different than what we experience in our world today, but what I saw in Belle—juxtaposed with the ancient-seeming idea of black bodies as property, cargo that can be thrown overboard as if drowning were not drowning but a mere spoiling of goods—was a startling sameness. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761 and died in 1804, yet the experiences this film projects in its illustration of the past bear shocking resemblance to the challenges black women (and black people) currently face in the United States today.

Dido’ fetishization by the two Ashford brothers, for one. While one brother sees her simply as an exotic Other who he can bed without forming attachments—very different than the attitude toward white women of the same time period, whose virtue was unequivocal and untouchable—the other is downright violent in his conception of Dido, calling her “repulsive,” but still expressing a desire to rape her. The scenes in which that older, more violent Ashford brother addresses Dido directly, giving voice to his unbridled racism and at one point assaulting her, are indisputably disturbing. Disturbing not just because they represent a disgusting and brutal history of humanity, but because I see remnants of those attitudes today in the way the world perceives the bodies of black and brown women: exotic, sexual, sensual, different, objects. We see it in the way Miley Cyrus and almost any given white pop star (Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke, for example) use black women’s bodies as props in music videos: something to be appropriated and used for one’s own pleasure, and then cast off in pursuit of the next trend. In addition, the rape of black women still does not seem to carry much horror in 2014: it was most recently the punchline on Saturday Night Live, and last year Russell Simmons was forced to apologize for his highly-offensive “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.” None of this is too different from the way the Ashford brothers perceive Dido’s body: an exotic Other not worthy of love or respect; merely lust, and lust framed in a particularly problematic racism.

The younger Ashford brother adds another layer to Dido’s complicated experience as a black woman: one night while he and Dido are sitting away from the crowd on their own, he confesses to being “taken with her,” and compliments her beauty in a strange way. Her mother’s blackness, he says, is undoubtedly ugly, but Dido’s “better half” (that is, her white half) won out in her features, which is what makes her so beautiful.

Shocking, isn’t it, that someone as beautiful as Dido would be struck down for her black half, and regarded as more beautiful simply because her white features are more prominent? Not so shocking when you consider it in the context of our beauty standards today, in which a quick Google search for “beautiful woman” returns almost entirely white faces. In American culture, the black women who do manage to be considered beautiful by mainstream societal standards are almost always mixed-race or possess white features: slim noses, light skin, straight hair. While the occasional darker skinned woman does manage to catch the public’s attention from time to time, she faces fetishization as well: look at Lupita Nyong’o. The public’s rabid consumption of her image often seems almost surprised with itself for finding a dark skinned woman so attractive, a feeling compensated for with adoration that borders on frantic.

Belle also examines the relationship between white and non-white women. Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth, speaks unhappily about the role of women in the world, noting that “we [women] are but their [men’s] property.” Her statement is almost comical: while bemoaning her own state of disadvantage as a [white] woman, she entirely ignores the disadvantage of black women, who were quite literally property. Where Dido and Elizabeth’s relationship was once intimate and carefree, tension grows between them as they become more aware (in different ways) of the power dynamics between them. Elizabeth’s ignorance and apathy—as well as her own racism—become roadblocks in their relationship, something we see often today when it comes to white feminists’ denial of their (our) own privilege and unwillingness to acknowledge intersectionality. Elizabeth is something of a feminist in her consciousness of the prison women are forced to live within in a sexist society, but her obliviousness to the plight of black people—and black women—blinds her to the ways that Dido’s identity impacts her life. That blindness is never actually remedied in the film—at one point she attacks Dido verbally about her “lower status,” but bites her tongue before saying something blatantly racist—and nor is it always remedied in our time, as white feminists so often attack women of color on decidedly racial ground, all the while claiming to be non-racist.

There was another moment in the film that paralleled our times so decidedly that it took my breath away. Toward the end, when Mr. Davinier—the young abolitionist lawyer that Dido encounters—is speaking passionately about the racist laws that made the Zong massacre possible, he says:

“Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are a framework for crime.”

Yes, they are, and this is our world, our country. We live in a country where:

  • African-Americans are 33% more likely to be detained awaiting felony trials than whites.
  • African-Americans are frequently (illegally) excluded from criminal jury service, according to a 2010 study released by the Equal Justice Initiative. For example in Houston County, Alabama, 8 out of 10 African-Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from serving on cases involving the death penalty.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crime.
  • The Sentencing Project reports African-Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
  • In New York, the infamous stop-and-frisk program continues to racially profile black and brown New Yorkers, even in the face of data that undermines its purpose.
  • Stand Your Ground laws continue to indicate racial bias in favor of white criminals who use it in their defense, meanwhile Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others receive no justice.

The list goes on and on. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761. It is now 2014, and the film about her life gives me very little comfort in the progress we have made as humans. In Belle, the courts rule against the slavers on the Zong, and Mr. Davinier rejoices, stating that the decision will reverberate throughout the world and will change the future. But the Chief Justice, Dido’s great-uncle, tempers the young man’s happiness: “History will judge whether your optimism is warranted,” he says, knowing there is much work to be done.

He was right. There is. And one of the greatest mistakes we can make in doing that work is acknowledging the ways in which we’ve come so far, while ignoring the ways in which we have not. Belle provides a view of an incredible life, a story not often told. We need these stories. We must keep hearing them. Mr. Davinier says at one point that a country that ignores the suffering of some and not others is “a country for whom hope is lost.” Let’s not be that country. Let’s not be that world.

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5 Ways Chicago Transit Authority Shows It Hates Chicagoans

If you live here, you have felt it. Perhaps you’ve thought, “I have been standing on this platform/bus stop for half of my life. Why? Someone must hate me.” The answer is…someone does hate you. It’s Chicago Transit Authority. If you live in Chicago and have felt the keen sting of CTA’s loathing, then read on and perhaps find some small comfort in the fact that you are not alone.

1. Ventra

Any true Chicagoan knows that this must be the first item on this list. If you need to see proof that CTA hates us, you need look no further than Ventra. CTA inflicting Ventra on us was, for all intents and purposes, an unprovoked attack. No one hated the old system: no one was tweeting @cta railing against the Chicago Card. No one was creating parody accounts mocking the absolutely absurd functionality of the Chicago Card. The old system worked…and then along came Ventra. From bank cards being charged in addition to the Ventra card, to inexplicably nonfunctional cards, to a completely and utterly mystifying account interface online, to fundamentally clueless Customer Care employees, to hour-long hotline waits, and oh, let’s not forget the fact that you are instructed to pay cash when your already-paid-for Ventra card doesn’t work on their worthless scanner…Ventra has been (and continues to be) a nightmare. Every single day the line to board the bus is at a standstill while each person must tap their card 3-4 times before it’s actually read. Meanwhile:

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Oh, of course. We’re being double-charged when we’re forced to double-tap. Of course.

Even worse: Ventra and CTA continue to pretend we’re all crazy for not liking the new system. See this lovely exchange on Twitter:

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“which is pretty rare?” <cue uproarious laughter>

Yeah. Right. You’re not fooling anyone.

2. Bus Bunching

Bus bunching is, to the CTA, like the common cold. It seems like such a simple thing, but the CTA cannot—I repeat, cannot—find a cure. Like most Chicagoans, I waste precious time every day of my mortal life waiting. Just waiting. Staring at potholes that will never be fixed, and waiting. I live on the near South Side and catch the 29 every day, a bus which is always full of people trying to get to work and kids trying to get to school. But at any given time while trying to catch the 29, there is a 20-30 minute wait. But it’s more than just a long, empty window. It’s the fact that at the end of that long, empty window…two or three buses come all at once.

I have many questions for CTA, but here’s one: what good does 3 buses all at once do anyone? Great, the thirty people now crowded on the bus stop can now get on multiple buses. But now there are three buses all in a row at every bus stop until Congress: traffic is congested, streets are blocked, people are pissed. Why not just have the buses come every 8 minutes? Like they’re supposed to? What is happening at your depots where every…single…day this occurs? It happened when I lived on the North Side too: the 147, the 151. North Siders, you hear me. Bus bunching is a blight. But CTA doesn’t care. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Abysmal Customer Service

I’m not even talking about Ventra, because everyone knows that the dunces they have working at Ventra are a bunch of salespeople trying to convince you to use your Ventra card as a credit card too—yay corporations interfering with civil life!—and maybe attempt (attempt) to troubleshoot your nonfunctional, worthless plastic Ventra card. I’m talking about CTA. Never have I encountered more apathetic, defensive, blame-shifting grunts in my entire life. Here’s the conversation I had this morning after calling to complain about bus bunching:

Me: “Is there a manager I can speak to?”

CTA: “No.”

Me: “Okay…well can I tell you my complaint?”

CTA: <silence>

Me: “Hello?”

CTA: “Go ahead.”

Me: “Well, the 29 has been really bad lately. There are old ladies waiting on a stop with no benches waiting for 30 minutes, and then a bus comes and they can’t even get on it because it’s so packed and—”

CTA: “Give me your phone number. I’ll have a manager call you back.”

Me: “Um…okay. Here’s my number.”

CTA: “I see in the system that you already complained about this.”

Me: “Yes, last week.”

CTA: “Oh, a manager called and left you a voicemail.”

Here’s a screenshot of my phone:

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Guess what, CTA? No, a manager never called me back. No, they didn’t leave a voicemail. See? My voicemail box is empty. So what are we supposed to do when we have a complaint or a grievance against CTA? Well, some people might take to social media, but CTA’s Twitter often seems to be run by what appears to be a petulant teenager. See, the Twitter account runs fine when they’re just reporting outages, service disruption, etc. But when they actually have to interact with customers who are complaining? They take the apathy you experience when you call them on the phone and add a pinch of defensiveness and a sprinkle of subtle sarcasm. Tweet at them. You’ll see. If you like being treated with contempt and thinly-veiled indifference, tweeting at @cta is the hobby for you.

4. Cattle Cars

I have been told a story by different people a few times in my lifetime: a story about public transportation in Japan and how there are guys that stand on the platforms with sticks to shove people into the subways to fit more people into the crowded cars. People always tell this story with a kind of amused awe: “can you believe they do that over there?” and no one ever really knows if that little tidbit is true or not. But this story always annoys me, for two reasons. 1) It’s racist. “Oooh look how weird and intense Japanese people are!” and 2) Do you really think that is not your life here? Okay, there are no people with sticks shoving people into train cars, but every day riding a bus or a train in Chicago during rush hour (and often outside of rush hour) is like transforming into a heifer for thirty minutes of my life. It might as well be a mosh pit. A combination of delayed trains/buses, route cuts, and not enough actual vehicles in the city creates the cattle car effect: people are smashed against one another. So forget riding CTA if you’re claustrophobic in any way, but cattle cars lead to other problems too.

Sexual harassment. Violence. Theft. I can’t tell you how many men I’ve witnessed/experienced taking advantage of the tight train situation in order to cop a feel. Same with people taking stuff from people’s purses, pockets, backpacks. And as for violence: well, people get pretty testy when they’re forced to be pressed against a stranger’s usually-odorous body for long periods of time. “Waiting for signal clearance”—those dreaded words— means you’re not even making any progress in your trip: you’re just cuddled (standing) with a stranger for no reason. Tempers flare. Fights erupt. It happens all the time.

But does CTA care? Who do you call when you’ve just been crammed into a train car for 45 minutes, had your ass groped, and your wallet stolen? CTA? Ha. You must have already forgotten #3 on this list. Go back and reread that. Short answer: They…don’t…care.

5. No Change

No, I don’t mean that they won’t make change if you’re paying cash. (Which, speaking of cash: you’re out of luck. Ventra wants to be credit card dependent. And your fare increases if you don’t use Ventra and continue to pay cash.) What I mean is that nothing has changed. Unlike anything else, where there are complaints, outcry, protests against a company and apologies are made, processes are tweaked, Ventra and CTA just dig in. One of the complaints about Ventra (mentioned above) is that, unlike the old system, you can’t tap your wallet in order to scan your Ventra card without your bank cards also being charged. This complaint has been made since the initial roll out, with Ventra reps promising to look into the problem. But now, this is what you get as response when you ask Ventra about it:

They have no intention of making a change: not about Ventra and not about anything else. The onus is on Chicagoans, like it is for everything else, and the ripples of CTA’s ineptitude extend beyond delays. The fact of the matter is, that CTA’s refusal to find solutions for the problems they are charged with creating every single day in Chicago leads to things more problematic than delays. Kids can’t get to school on time. Adults can’t get to work on time. The elderly and disabled are forced to wait (often at stops without benches, and often in bad weather) for up to 40 minutes in some parts of the city. Groping and sexual harassment increase. Theft increases. Anger increases.

You see, what CTA doesn’t realize is that their behavior doesn’t just mean a bad train ride. It means a bad start to the day. Take one look at the Twitter account @ctafails and you can see the negativity that begins from the moment Chicagoans step onto the bus stop in the morning, which is then reanimated when they’re trying to return home at night. The CTA website reports that on an average weekday, 1.6 million rides are taken on Chicago public transportation. When you fail even a fraction of those customers, interrupting their days, ruining their commute, making them late to work, what does it mean for the morale of a city? This makes me think of an article I read recently on Salon, “The Troubling Reasons Americans Are So Depressed.” In it, the author discusses “learned helplessness” and how Americans, due to corporations and call center hold times (among other things) are becoming depressed and angry because of the amount of our lives we spend waiting on hold, waiting in line, and (I add)…waiting for buses. The helplessness, the author says, is the helplessness of those who are resigned to the indifference of the institutions we depend on.

What else can we do? I’m not sure. Rant in blogs like this? Perhaps. I see the helplessness that the Salon author examines in his article. I feel it. What do you do when the buses won’t come and you’re late to work and you can’t afford a cab and you call customer service and if someone answers (if they answer) they don’t care and no one ever calls you back and nothing ever changes?

It’s funny…the CTA Twitter account recently tweeted this article: Public Transportation Shapes Where Millennials Decide to Live, where I found this stat: “54 percent of the participants said they would consider moving to another city if it had more and better options for getting around.”

Careful, Chicago. You might just be the city we’re moving from, not the one we’re moving to.

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