Today’s Round Table includes guest Ashley C. Ford — writer, editor, speaker, frequent contributor to Elle and TueNight.com, among a variety of other publications. She’s also currently co-editing the anthology, “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” with her friend and mentor, Roxane Gay.
Leandra Medine: We’re here to talk about racial inequality and white privilege. This Round Table is spurred by the comments section of an article we published pegged to the Taylor Swift/Nicki Minaj feud, where the commenters voiced that the larger issue — racial inequality in the entertainment industry — was glazed over.
I hate the idea of Man Repeller becoming a place run only by white women and for white women. It’s supposed be a treehouse for all women to come to and feel really, really understood.
Amelia Diamond: Because the author, Margaret Boykin, does not live in New York and can’t be here in person for this conversation, I want to state that her angle was pegged to the articles that stated Taylor was a faux-feminist, and that her point was this: celebrities are performers, not role models, and as such we should not look to them for moral leadership.
But she heard you — we all did — and emailed us immediately upon reading the first comments asking to write a follow up that explored the racially charged side of the debate. She’d do a great job, but we thought this called for a much larger conversation, one that extends beyond Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift and Twitter.
Can we start with the idea of white privilege? What it means, how it relates.
Ashley C. Ford: The first job is just to realize that this is real. I think that’s what a lot of people have a hard time acknowledging the reality of white privilege.
If we are talking about race specifically, if we are talking about people of color or talking about color, it’s about listening to people say, “This is what we need.” And then 1) not assuming that you know better and 2) not dismissing the concerns of women of color.
In feminism, women of color are very often told that they can deal with the race issues later.
When we talk about police brutality, when we talk about Sandra Bland dying in police custody — I believe she is the fourth black woman this month to somehow die in police custody — people do not hear about that; they do not cover it. And a lot of times the people that are not covering it are white women because in one way or another they do not think of it as a real feminist issue. But if women are dying at the hands of the state, that is a feminist issue. Or at least it should be.
So I think people get frustrated. They get frustrated with being dismissed, they get frustrated with the cookie-grabbing that people sometimes do where they talk a big game but then if they mess up or say something that is not right, they say, “But I have a history of saying all these great things about black people or black women.”
And it’s like, “No.” You have to acknowledge that you messed up. It’s sort of like this weird — well it’s this weird thing where they want to be a good person, but they don’t want to do the work of acknowledging what they have done wrong because they think it means they are a bad person, and they can’t separate circumstance and action from character.
Leandra: Do you feel like it ever boils down to a fear of ignorance? I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a story from the perspective of black woman. I’m wondering if when a white news reporter doesn’t cover a story like Sandra Bland’s, it’s her feeling like, “I can’t touch that because I’m not there. I’m gonna say something wrong or it’s gonna come out the wrong way. My intentions are great. I want to know more about this, but it’s just much easier for me to talk about what I know.”
Ashley: I think I understand that inclination, I just don’t think that it is necessarily an excuse. I also think that it’s really hard to understand because for people of color, especially if you’re a person of color who works in media, or you’re a journalist, you are expected to write about everybody’s stories. Like, if I decided, “I don’t really understand or know the white experience so I’m just not gonna write about white people ever…”
Leandra: Avocado toast.
Ashley: Or avocado toast, then what would I write about? You know what I mean? There is this idea — I think this is a dangerous idea — that the black experience and black women’s experience are more complicated. It’s just different than other people’s experiences.
When we pretend like it’s so complicated that we can’t write about it, or talk to a black woman about it, that’s when it makes us seem foreign or less human. And I know that obviously isn’t always the intention of people, but it does [make us seem less human]. There’s a difference between: you can’t really understand what it is to be a black woman, and, you can’t speak to other people about what’s happening in a black woman’s world. Does that make sense?
Ignoring things throughout history never made them better. We’ve never ignored something so much that it got better. It is only by addressing it that things get better.
Leandra: So here’s my internal conundrum, I grew up not thinking about the difference between black and white. It was just — people. Similar to how I believe the fourth wave of feminism should be the female state of existence — like, no conversation, does that mean it’s better to be in a place where it doesn’t need to come up? Or, are we in the first phase of a chemical peel, where all this stuff is bubbling to the top, and we’re on the road to progression, but we have to deal with all the red acne that’s up on our cheeks?
Ashley: Oh, we’re in a chemical peel. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by black people. My high school, my school system, fluctuated from ninety to ninety-five percent black. My family all lives in the same neighborhood. I was surrounded by blackness. I decided to go to college out of my hometown, which no one had ever done in my family, and I went to a predominately white institution.
What was hard for me was that even though I hadn’t grown up around white people, I knew a ton of stuff about white people. And I knew a lot about their culture just from the media I consumed. Despite being raised in a very, very black environment, I knew a lot about white people.
I mean, there was some stuff I didn’t know. I didn’t know who Fall Out Boy was. And I didn’t who what the word “tool” meant — if someone called someone else a “tool,” that was weird. But for the most part, I knew what was happening.
However, there were kids, or other young women on my floor who flat out told me I was the first black kid they ever had a conversation with. There were girls on my floor who were so confused by things like my hair, or words that I used and the way I spoke and it made me really self conscious. It made me spend a lot of time in my dorm room because I had never been so dissected in my entire life. A lot of those girls grew up not talking about race, not being scared of black people, not having those discussions, but it was completely different for every black person I knew. And really for every person of color I knew. We grew up talking about it all the time, and not necessarily in a bad way. Talking about race did not mean we were sitting around talking about, you know, “hatin’ whitey.” We just talked about it like it was a thing.
I’m so happy that we’re having these conversations now. It’s changing the conversations between me and friends I’ve had my entire life. My best friend was one of maybe four white girls in my class in high school, we’ve been friends since we were fourteen, and there have been conversations that we’re just now having about my experience in the world versus her experience in the world. And it’s because we’re talking about this stuff more in the media.
Leandra: What does that conversation look like?
Ashley: Well, she has a daughter who is black and white. I remember the first time she reached out to me and was like, “Fine, I get it. I don’t know what I’m doing with my daughter’s hair. Can you help me?” And I was like, “Yeah!” But she was embarrassed, and I had no idea that she would be embarrassed to talk to me about something like that.
Police brutality comes up. She is sort of confused because I speak out about police brutality, but half my family are cops. She’s confused about how I can have those two truths. And I’m like, “Because I can’t say all police are doing the right thing just because I know three people who are doing it right. That’s not even how averages work!”
We have to have those conversations.
Leandra: How do we encourage these conversations?
Ashley: By having them even when they make people uncomfortable. And by people getting over themselves.
If we say something offensive, or harmful, we can’t leave it. We immediately take it to, “She said I’m offensive, she’s calling me harmful. She’s saying this is the kind of person I am and I did it on purpose.” When usually, that’s not what people are saying. 90% of the time people are saying, “You did this thing.”
How many times has someone said something or done something crazy, and then later said, You know what, that was terrible, and I’m glad I know now, and I would never say that kind of thing again, and I just want to apologize. And I know that some of you will never fuck with me again, and that’s your choice and that’s okay and I understand why. But understand that that’s not who I am and that’s not who I am going to be.
And at first people might be like, yeah, yeah, another apology, I don’t care. But you’ll notice that this person doesn’t really get marked like the one who fight it and fight it and fight it. Because what they’re fighting for is different than the conversation. What they’re fighting for is their reputation. But the conversation isn’t about their character — it’s about what they did.
Amelia: Something we hear about a lot in fashion and music or entertainment is cultural appropriation. We’ve seen it on the runway, The Kardashians have been called out for it, and I think that this is where white privilege comes in.
I’m from San Francisco, so my city was super diverse, and my school was diverse. Everyone was friends with everyone. I’m not pretending it was some kind of utopia, but I definitely grew up in a place where there was a mix. Hip hop and rap culture was big at my school. It’s what everyone listened to, it influenced the dancing, style of dress — freshman year my friends made fun of me because I didn’t have Jordans. I’ve always had black friends. I’ve always been aware of race and racism, but I also always thought, But I’m cool, right? I can listen to hip hop, rap along, make jokes… I entered the post-college real world thinking, “I get it,” or, “I can be part of this.” But then I realized, maybe not.
Sometimes when you think you’re in on the joke, you are the joke, or you’re not getting the joke. I’ve learned that more and more.
And I think this is where the idea of appropriation can be hard. If it’s blatant, for example — like when Givenchy did a “Chola-inspired” collection — I get it loud and clear. But when it comes to using a word like “bae,” or dressing a certain way…is that always appropriation? Does that word ever go too far, or do people ever get too sensitive? Or is it like, nope, this is exactly where you check your white privilege?
Ashley: I feel — specifically with appropriation — that the problem is not necessarily that people take or borrow from other cultures, it’s the fact that they take from those cultures but don’t contribute to those cultures. So you might have a “Chola-inspired” line for fall, but you don’t have one Latina model on your runway, or you’ve never worked with a Latina model ever before. You have people who are giving white women cornrows who have never hired a black model. Ever. It’s a vampiric relationship when it’s all take, take, take but nothing’s given in return.
So when people get angry about appropriation, a lot of the time it’s not someone saying that you don’t get to be inspired by me, what they’re saying is, you don’t get to be inspired by me and also believe that who I am as a human is not good enough for you.
Amelia: To bring it back to the music industry, I remember Azealia Banks called out Iggy Azalea for loving black culture yet staying silent about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Ashley: Right, that’s such a big part of the problem. They want to collaborate and say, “We’re all in this together, we’re all the same color when the lights go out.” But when someone gets shot or is being slandered in the press, or it’s more and more evident that black people, not by our own volition, do worse financially, academically, career-wise as far as opportunity — and yes, we do have outliers, Oprah, Barack Obama, those are outliers; the every day black person is not having the same experience as Oprah and Obama — people don’t want to acknowledge that.
There are systems in place designed to oppress black people and people of color, just as much as there are systems in place designed to oppress women. And that’s usually where people, especially women of color, have a hard time with feminism: you’ve seen the patriarchy play out in all these different situations. But then when we tell you that we’re getting it from a racial perspective as well, you’re like, “Well hold on, I’ve never heard of that.” You know? You would hate it if a man said that! If a man was like–
Amelia: Like, “Chill out, you can vote.”
Ashley: Yeah! If a man was like, “You can vote, so, you know, that’s a W — what do you want us to do? What do you want?” But that’s what ends up happening a lot of times between women of color and white women — we end up saying , “This is a problem,” and they put up their hands and go, “What do you want from us?”
Or when they insert themselves into the conversation at a place where it’s just inappropriate, like the Nicki Minaj/Taylor Swift situation. It was inappropriate for her to insert herself there. If Nicki had mentioned Taylor, then that’s a conversation.
It also shows that Taylor doesn’t really understand the dynamics of black women who are celebrities and white women who are celebrities, because no matter how that situation went down, you saw it in headlines immediately: Taylor was the sweet, fan-loving, harmless white girl and Nicki was this terrible, bitter, mean black woman who was going at Taylor, even though Taylor inserted herself into the conversation. I don’t think that Taylor necessarily understood those dynamics, but I bet she does now. That’s a learning process.
Amelia: Going forward, when considering feminism — or any important topic — we will ask, “Where is the rest of the story?” It just always needs to be asked. Even if it’s not on purpose, the silence is heard.
Ashley: Yes. Silence means something. We like to think that when we’re silent, it’s because we’re having a different conversation or whatever, but a lot of times when you’re silent — especially in the situation with [Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj], people saw a white woman pitted against a black woman, the media did that — when you don’t mention it, what people hear in the silence is that you don’t consider this a necessary conversation to have.
Leandra: So what does the next step look like? Do we just continue having these conversations?
Ashley: Yes. You have to just keep having them. Here’s what has to happen:
Women of color have to work on one thing, and that one thing is separating an action from character. Everybody knows what they can handle, don’t get me wrong. But when somebody does something you don’t like, you don’t attach it to who that person is, you let the action be the action. You say, “You said this or you did this, and that made me feel like this.” Or, “That’s racist.” Or, “That’s sexist.” But you don’t say you’re racist. You don’t have to attach one action to someone’s character.
For white women who want to help this situation, there are a few things that need to happen. One is you need to be able to separate the difference between when someone is calling you out on an action versus when someone is calling you something and making a comment on your character. Two different conversations. And you need to be able to tell the difference.
Two, you need to know the difference between being an ally and allying, which are two different things. Being an ally does not mean you are above criticism. As a matter of fact, being an ally means you should welcome criticism. You should welcome to opportunity to do and be better.
And if you work in media, if you write about it, if you talk about it, whatever, consider that your perspective is not the general perspective. Even on a trivial level. If you do an entire thing on summertime hairstyles, for example, and every hairstyle mentioned would only work with straight, long hair and there’s nothing for someone with my kind of hair, that’s a problem. There are about a million tutorials online about what to do with my kind of hair, and if you don’t feel like you’re the person to write that, there are black women writers begging for the opportunity to get their words out on platforms like this. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Consider that whatever you’re putting out there might — I don’t even want to say it might be offensive to someone else — but that it might be seen differently. Consider the multiple facets of the world and how different people look at what you create. I think that just makes you a better writer and creator, period.
Leandra: I guess there’s only one more question: do you want to write for Man Repeller?
We look forward to reading your comments below, welcome further discussion and want to know what you’d like to see more of on Man Repeller. For the inquiring writers: email@example.com