Dust to the Side Chick Dream: The Pitfalls of a Princess

“Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.”
― Patricia Hill Collins, On Intellectual Activism

PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW: YouTube Star or Prop?

The ultimate dreams of success are not to be CEOs or Bawse moms with their own paper. For little girls the current pop culture mindset is to be a star without any recognition, without any of the politically relevant skills and thought processes that transfer into real economic and social power.  Wishing to be a princess or a star is what capitalism sells kids before they can walk any other lifestyle or mindset. If you grow up with an ambitious financial mindset— what I call “ecological fitness” for girls–when you’re young, black, and female, the stereotype and stigmas of black-femaleness often erase you from view. It’s easier to see the gold-digga, hoodrat, and ratchet baby mama as if being a black girl growing up in America ain’t hard enough.

When I was a girl, I dreamed like everyone around me of being the Beyoncé of my time. Then it was Diana Ross. She left her girl group to go on to become the biggest women in the music business. We girls embodied her lead position in play but never learned what it took politically to get there other than some rumor that women slept their way to the top. And I don’t mean the Disney caricature of a sleeping beauty.

Who Profits?

Next week when it opens, I’m going to go see the film Presenting Princess Shaw. Her real name is  Samantha Montgomery, a 38-year-old single woman originally from Chicago, living in New Orleans. It’s playing at the IFC Center–the art film spot in Greenwich Village NYC. As a social media researcher who specializes in the unintended consequences of YouTube and its social sharing networks for marginalized girls of color, I am interested in examining both the views and reviews this film is getting by the numbers and through the critical lens of repeated cultural appropriation and sexploitation of black female culture in social video, embedded sharing, comments, and its bottomlineswho profits from its popularity and who gets the fame that translates into real capital?

A Guardian article from last September concluded by hinting at the hidden issue of the Montgomery’s clearly not paid-in-full digital labor or exploitation by Israeli documentarian Ido Haar and Israeli producer Kutiman who remixes musical clips from videos uploaded by users in his Thru You series.  This is not to say she wasn’t paid but was she able to transact for the rewards and resources they surely imagined from the start? Probably not.

VidIQ Stats on "For kutiman give it up video" from Princess Shaw's YouTube Channel (3 Oct 2014)
VidIQ Stats on “For kutiman give it up video” from Princess Shaw’s YouTube Channel (3 Oct 2014)

Dust to the Side Chick Dream:
The Pitfalls of a Imagining Yourself a
Princess

In her older than expected “princess” fairy tale I am curious to see if the happy ending is no more than the emotional labor associated with her YouTube videos; none of which on first glance have more than 9,000 views which is huge for an average or ordinary YouTuber but a pittance for anyone claiming to be a YouTube star these days. Viral videos that make it big 9 times out of 10 are professionally produced.

The question I hope seeing the film answers is whether the protagonist  of Presenting Princess Shaw gains more than social capital; can she, is she, or will she have the relevant political skills as a YouTuber to translate her social worth to the film into economic capital in her life of poverty.

Having only seen the Presenting Princess Shaw trailer, it feels like a “fashionable” poverty porn flick at the intersection of post-Katrina NOLA, internet tourism that hunts for black pop culture in the poor’s unpaid digital labor, justified by the acceptance that everyone over shares and ignores the potential profit of their online presence. The marginalize gain views but rarely capital. For black girls and women in an unrelenting search for the resources they need not only to survive but often to support others older and younger,  centuries of structural racism and sexism is merely being replicated by invisible audiences from Inkster to Israel to elsewhere on the planet that mobile phones provide access to what’s great about the web and our lives and what’s not.   [Inkster is another community where black lives are under attack from state violence. I lived near Inkster during grad school at the University of Michigan. Watch this horrific beating and the cost to taxpayers–we are footing the bill for police violence.]

Montgomery’s Cliff?

As I plan to watch the film next week, I have a big question. How will Samantha Montgomery, a 38-year-old single woman struggling in New Orleans magically thrive without the real political tools for change in a market economy that never teaches the poor nor allows the girls and women of color to not only profit but overcome centuries of oppression? The fame thrust upon Montgomery by creatives in Israel may not fill the deep pockets of her unique poverty with the kind of power she needs to move out of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence working in a nursing facility. Being happy seen singing songs on film and being able to take care of your primary conditions of life–health, money, work, home, and family–are never synonymous. I hope she transacted for what she truly needed and that is never fame in and of itself.

On the surface of things–perhaps she has a different story to tell; I have not had the privilege of hearing her tell her side of  the story after the fact– I suspect she is ill equipped to handle (hell, I would be ill-equipped to handle) the kind of analysis or critical thinking needed about the hidden costs of such fame, the licensing agreements, marketing, monetization of my channel and any contract, the implications of viral videos and feature films for my future once the film is no longer relevant, ownership of my image and digital content–for instance, asking yourself if a song yours cuz you sang it on YouTube?–and much, much more. No one ever taught me that and they sure don’t teach that to kids in school–and its’ definitely not taught to the girls who dropped out of math and science classes by high school or college. I’m one of them. I know.

When she finally grows up #staywoke

The Cinderella in stories told by Disney (read the critique by Peggy Orenstein here or the critique on NPR here)  never asked for much. She wanted the patriarchal fantasy — the man savior never making  from life’s racialized and gendered oppression in other ways as Beyoncé Lemonade has done from years of hard labor and rich collaboration. The social and psychological socialization of growing up black, female, and poor in the U.S. tends to limit our imagination to  two options — the path to money through men and the systems of fame they created (see Nicki Minaj or Blac Chyna) or the illusion that someone might save you from the poverty most black women from low-income to middle-class occupy (see Blak Chyna or the distorted view that surely some girl out there has that Michelle Obama is famous because her husband is the president of the free world).  My examples can be debated but I hope my point is not lost.

What futures are we announcing with existing social and viral media — commercial or user-generated– and what futures are actually available to most girls of color if they are not armed with the ethical study and analysis of the oppression, exploitation, and limits of power given to girls and women locally, nationally, and internationally by race, class, and gender?  And let us not misread the “magic” of black girls and women. This is not the magic of a slight of hand or luck. It’s work!  And it’s not the wage labor of the body (or stripper booty aka handle your paper). This is about the work and action of the mind and that is what matters for the Minajs and Knowles and Chynas out there.

This is the legacy of the intersectional work of womanists, feminists, anarchists, progressives, and everyday mothers, sisters, and daughters before the Internet was a thing. My mother has been reminding every time we talk lately about how much of this is lost or not being exercised today.

Someday: No Prince Need Come

Some day, when we free democratic systems–schools, media, family, government–from patriarchy (h/t to Carol Gilligan), girls and women will be free of the fantasy of the glass slipper or the diamond ring to grasp the reality that society can break that damn glass ceiling. That beloved community — what some call the art and discipline of nonviolence — comes from serious study and long-term planning.

We must learn how to teach girls and women that some day planning for wealth and health is far better than the glitter of 15 minutes of social media fame!

And it’s never to late to learn this, said the black woman struggling over 50!

POSTSCRIPT: I posted a similar video in a blog post a while back of this same very young girl–JoJo–who asserts to her daddy in more than one video that “I am is NOT a princess”. In this one she insists,I’m a real person!” It’s precious and it made me think about the oppression socialization around why girls are marketed the princess ideology and why more girls don’t resist it.

We all have dreams and we have the right to imagine ourselves any way we choose. So I am not knocking Montgomery’s right to name herself as she chooses. What I question is the structures of power — particularly those of others– to exploit her circumstances and desires. I hope she understands the control over her representation they may wield and the politics she, or anyone else like her–a marginalized woman of color–needs to turn their 15 minutes of fame into long-term resources.  It’s the bottomlines — the multiple forms of capital  (i.e., social, economic, human, and cultural) involved that concerns me. I also notice a tendency for female singers to be exploited because we tend to not be well-educated in the power and politics of the music business.  I want Montgomery, and others like her, to learn to transact so they can thrive not just survive.

This post was prompted after being contact by a reporter.  In preparation, I started doing some study of her channel and the film.  I’ll see the film within the week. Stay tuned for more.

A Deep South Despair: Black and Female? Watch Ya Back!

 

Quotation-Bell-Hooks-culture-media-Meetville-Quotes-1377

FUSION ARTICLE RELEASED!!!

First before I dive in, Kashmir Hill, a great investigative writer on social media and privacy released an article on Fusion’s YoungTube blog based on my twerking research data yesterday. It’s titled: “A 9-year-old’s twerking video had 70,000 views and she couldn’t get it taken down.”  Can you please not only read the piece, but like, share, and comment so this issue gets more eyes and attention. Thanks for doing that!!

Now to the topic of the moment: black woman and discrimination. #formation

Pretty for a Dark Girl!

In the deep south of North America is where folks tend to think race and racism live. But racism, the flawed system of classification, is a symbolic and highly social structure. The systematic practice as we recognize it today that has sojourned from the earliest formations of our nations. It along with patriarchy has defined the processes of globalization about norms and values associated with skin color privilege and white supremacy that led to both the institution of slavery and that of Jim Crow in the deep south.

In the deeper south of South America, in Brazil, racism was supposedly abandoned with the end of slavery. But here in this short film by the Guardian–I deeply appreciate their commitment to critical engagements of intersectionality and social politics–they lighten the path to seeing just how viciously symbolic race and racism is and the impact it continues to have on the historically marginalized black woman. This media is both witness to the marginalization and offers a chance at intervening in the sickness of our own cognitive biases.

As David DiSalvo writes in What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite (2011):

“DiSalvo explains that the greatest desires of our brains are stability, certainty, and consistency. Humans are prediction and pattern detection machines: we process information in order to determine what’s coming next. We can’t help doing it, and it allows us to order our lives and feel in control. But to predict accurately, we need to be certain of what we know now. Hence, we are certainty addicts. We not only crave being right, but we convince ourselves that whatever information we have at hand is the right information.”

You’ll recall I wrote a post about how so many women on Twitter and FB are often engaged in the rhetoric of seducing emotions among one another to relieve a lot of psychic, mental and emotional pain. Pain that girls are learning or being socialized into at younger and younger ages with the aid of social media content and its virulent circulation on their mobile devices. It’s personalized but it ain’t at all personal. It’s structural and we must begin to intervene. It’s costing us our long-term capabilities, our cognitive juice, our willpower.

DiSalvo suggests 50 remedies in his book. Here’s one: we must be aware of the impact pre-existing beliefs is having our current thinking. No one’s thinking is free of pre-existing beliefs. We are never blank slates. Said another way, whiteness is not merely a symbol standing for something to black people only that would be wiped out if we’d just stop with the fear of being black in the eyes of others. Just stop #BLM-ing.  But this system lives and is being perpetuated unknowingly within our individual and social biology not just in the tangible or visible traits and phenotypes that link us to our ancestral connections–which connects ALL humanity not just blacks, whites, or Asians. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading experts on developmental trauma, explains that the body keeps score of trauma. Tis is where you have to begin to learn about your brain, about epigenetics, and about how language lives and shapes our cognition of the past, present and future.

DiSalvo warns that challenging in-grained thinking is not an over night thing. It’s not A-HA! I see! I’m racist!! We’ve all been racist!! NO! It must be incremental. The transformation stems from a deliberate reflective practice. We don’t need change. We need more comassion and empathy in incremental ways.

DiSalvo suggests we must become savvy about framing–the ingesting of labels that frame your perception of the people, places, things and even our beliefs. But here’s the trouble with that: Thinking outside that box agitates your biology–it brings up anxiety and/or upset. Sometimes you’ll even have to fight off excitement or passion (even in arguments about Beyoncé’s #Formation) to slay your frames and certainty biases.

Learning to deconstruct your frames is actually harder than the quick fix of slaying. It requires inquiry and stepping back and solitude. Slowing down to speed up incrementally! Reminds me of my adage: Agree to be offended…and learn to let things just be before you go slaying all up in your emotions.

I posted the Guardian video about the Samba queen being dethroned because she was black today, just after returning from a really important and engaging visit to the University of Albany (thanks to Bob Gluck and Oscar Williams on the faculty there). 

During two talks I believe I made an effective and impassioned case with my research on marginalized black girls in twerking videos on YouTube for the stepping back to develop a set of internalized ethics and empathy in watching black girls play online. It is our gaze that must be altered not their play. It is our allowing social media companies to exploit their digital play that needs our formation.

Without the  awareness and understanding of HOW social media is entrapping the most vulnerable girls in our society and in online networks we easily overlook how they are being seduced into selling their future net worth to indifferent globally networked publics and individuals. Digital media literacy skills and knowledge is one thing. Creating engaging content to get people to even listen is where I am at.

There is no ecological fitness for historically marginalized groups like black girls and black women if their experimentation not to mention freedom of expression and freedom to express their fears in creative and urgent ways (ah-hem #DefendBlackWomenUALbany) is ripped away. The crosshairs of sexism and racism rips meritocracy, as in the video, simply because of the sin others associate with their skin but not their living conditions they are in. Social media can rip future employability away and it can rip dignity away. Meanwhile, everybody but the girl makes a profit off their backs on social media.

When will they be paid for work they’ve done or the emotional debt they’ve paid?!?  

Inventing Solutions

I am diligently working on a solution and am looking for people to be on a team to deliver said solutions through the very medium I study — digital and social media. A critical voice in an animated context that is fun yet informative. That breeds curiosity not shame. That inspires and delivers solutions and doesn’t get stopped by the latest entertainment news.

If you’re interested, I am looking for people interested in making videos and other short media content to empower, make girls and women aware, of the digital seduction of our environmental fitness. Hit me up if you’re interested. The videos would target young girls, teens, young adults, and elders. It might also target the invisible audiences in creative ways. Come jump in the ropes with me!

 

Trending on YouTube: For Black Girls

I started writing because there’s an absence of things I was familiar with or that I dreamed about. One of my senses of anger is related to this…  — Ntozake Shange

Button Poetry:
Crystal Valentine & Aaliyah Jihad – “To Be Black and Woman and Alive”

Celebrity and Shame: Harriet Tubman on a $20 Bill

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” ― Harriet Tubman
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
C.G. Jung

Today’s topic is shame. And there is much to talk about whether around twerking videos or the new face of the $20 bill. But first a bit about my new blog theme and title.

Most of your know I was trained as an ethnomusicologist and that I wrote a book about black girlhood from double-dutch to hip-hop. The arch of my 20 year career has been spent on the intersectional study of race, gender and sexuality in embodied musical games by girls and that will continue.

The old title “Broadcasting the Bottomlines” worked but the direction of the work I’ve been doing with my undergrads lately is more like the CSI of online black girls. As we qualitatively code and analyze 800 videos of adolescent black girls twerking on YouTube, we examine how their love of dance and expression is overshadowed by shame about their sexuality, shame that comes from the ways their images are exploited by males, by media companies and by mega artists, as well as how the persistence of race and their uploaded content as young girls may come back to haunt their employability in a nation that has no “right to be forgotten” laws about things you did as an adolescent.

You never get a second chance at a first impression.

This blog allows me to share my thoughts about YouTube and digital privacy, about my love of teaching and my interests in empowering online black girls (esp. those ages 13-16 and younger) with digital media literacies. It also allows me to respond to current affairs in social media that intersect with these interests.

So, today’s blog post topic is about a current topic circulating on the web: Raven-Symone’s response to putting the face of Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill.

Celebrity and Shame

A video featuring soon-to-be-thirty-year-old gazillionaire Raven-Symoné has been circulating on Facebook and trending on Twitter since May14th. You, like me, may know her as the adorable child star from the final seasons of The Bill Cosby ShowThe version of the video I saw on FB timeline had over 1.3 million views. Appearing as a guest on ABC’s The View with Rosie Perez and others, Raven gives us her celebrity opinion encapsulated in a caption below the FB video, which read:

America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

20-dollar-bill-transfer-transferframe198

I doubt seriously that all of America wants Tubman on the bill. Confederate flag wavers are probably not in that line. I’d rather discuss the culture of shame that seems to lurk behind her comments that is reminiscent of many comments I hear from black youth, and non-black youth, who’d rather dismiss the “dark” past of slavery especially since  it draws us back to race which is also taboo. This cultural of shame was something I once resisted in my own youth as a black teenager. I want to discuss this without demonizing Raven-Symoné but I will use her comments to make my points.

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals

A culture of shame lurks among black people, especially youth or those ignorant of the powerful lives of enslaved persons. Instead the try to brush of the memory that were are descended from “slaves”. We don’t even call them “African” slaves like we are talking about people and not property. I suspect that since Integration in the late 1960s through the 1980s (there was resistance to federal mandates), segregated, under-resourced and undervalued black youth who strive to be upwardly mobile (i.e. gain individual wealth) have rejected the “dark” past of being a former slave like Harriet Tubman. Generations of youth were taught to reject everything African including people and the traces of its culture and biology including our own skin color and hair. It did this as a child and still suffer its psychological wages. When I was a kid it was “You got African hair” said disparagingly to mean that kinky was not desired, was not good like hair that resembled long white blonde tresses. Only straight hair would satisfy that hegemonic norm. We rejected our own natural textures for straightening combs and perms that burn your scalp again and again. We carry shame in our very existence when it’s up against the backdrop of whiteness.

If Media is Entertainment, What is History?

The media taught us these things while our parents were slaving in menial and then lower management jobs to eek out a living in a racist society. The children like me of the lindy hopping teenagers who had access to handheld transistor radios and TV sets were taught to reject the old for the new while also rejecting the darker skinned entertainers for the light. The mediated screen of televisions helped us learn these visual and cognitive lessons. We rejected black and white silver screen movies for the technicolor of television and the soulful sounds of Motown and disc jockeys on the regional radio.

So when Raven says we need to “move a little bit more forward” by choosing Rosa Parks over Tubman, I interpret that to mean we need to get over that slavery thing, those “things” (treating people like objects) of past generations and strive for what inspires today’s youth. The battle in Ferguson rings of this same generational struggle. The past is the past is what Raven is arguing for. Leave that old darker black woman’s past behind for the lighter, more palatable and respectable likes of a Rosa Parks. No disrespect but 14 year old Claudette Colvin and other dark-skinned black girls who took a seat in the white section of the segregated bus were not deemed sufficient role models by the NAACP. So Rosa was not the first. She was the most acceptable. Respectability politics has roots in our struggle.

Claudette ColvinIn my lessons as a student, a teacher and scholar (and I remain a life-long student), I’ve noticed the shame as a mechanism of control around race and slavery. It’s also part of pop entertainment on-stage and off. A Wikipedia entry on the “shame society” reads that shame is

the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.

Our relationship to history around entertainment as popular culture has been as a vehicle for a lot shame of artists we no longer wish to see or hear anymore.

In my informed analysis as a scholar, I remember how black folk rejected jazz vocalist and actress Ethel Waters who could sing circles around Lena Horne. Horne was favored because she was lighter and “prettier” though Waters was, for a significant moment in the 1930s into the 40s, much more powerful and prestigious in the entertainment world. Waters, who came from abject poverty in Chester, PA, was the first black entertainer with her own show on television (not Nat King Cole). She integrated Broadway and produced her own shows there. She became the wealthiest woman in Hollywood and on Broadway (notice I did not say “black” woman). Maybe Raven-Symoné would prefer Ethel Waters as the new face of the $20 bill but I wonder if she even knows of her legacy. Because Waters played maids at the end of her career in the advent of television, she was remembered by youth like me not as a legend in entertainment but as a stereotypical role. Whites get stereotyped in a profession of acting. Blacks are stereotyped in all of life. Like black girls twerking on YouTube, they are robbed of their full humanity off-screen.

For Symoné, Rosa Parks is probably a more palatable choice than Harriet Tubman, although Raven and her sympathizers might be convinced if they had had Tubman as a Barbie Doll figure during her youth. Imagine a Nickolodean commercial for Black Moses Barbie (“freedom oars” sold separately). Click the previous link for some humor and critique!

Ethel Waters in fur

Power: Wealth Alone Won’t Do

Raven take note: History of the past is not self-perpetuating but the cultural biases of human interactions sure seem to be. The meme of racial and sexual bias continues unabated as does naïveté. Ethel Waters was the wealthiest woman in Hollywood (not unlike Raven herself might be today) but was eventually rejected because of her age, race and sex despite her social prestige and her wealth. Back then Waters was arguably one of the 1%. The shame comes in when you realize that Ethel Waters was rejected from black cultural memory because of the roles she had to play to survive in the industry at the end of her career. This same pattern is why we don’t really know Paul Robeson.

In the 1954 Edward Murrow interview, Waters recites lines from the play Mamba’s Daughters, based on a novel of the same name written by DuBose Heyward (watch the interview here on YouTube). Waters used her economic capital to produce and star in the play on Broadway circa 1939. I can’t think of a dramatic Broadway play produced by a black woman since then. (H/T to Sara Jones who might fit this category but I don’t know that arena well. If you know, do tell!)  Waters recites these lines in the interview and likens their message to her own life as an entertainer:

Listen, Lissa. We black folks have one thing over white folks …  and that is…there ain’t no problem so big we can’t sing ’bout ’em. Best thing for trouble, honey, is singin’ … and werkin’. And when your werk is singin’, then you is holdin’ a charm against trouble.

The cultural shame about which I write here comes from not knowing these rich details of the lives of black people as people not as characters or roles from our past. Harriet Tubman is a stereotypical slave to someone who has not had much education in how the people we call slaves, or actors (pardon the analogy), really are.

The advent of television meant that skin color privilege would be valued and celebrated in celebrities not the community’s cultural narratives of ethnic power and change. I heard Dhoruba bin Wahad of the former Black Panther Party say that Huey Newton said, “Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired fashion.” Of course, in our capitalist economy, money empowers such an ability.

Within black cultural memory over time we have rejected actors for acting, musicians for musicking their inherited traditions and ghettoes (and its people), the products of environmental racism, as personalized problems enacted against us. There will be shame. The young and naïve often collapse the characters celebrities portray on screen with who they might actually be in real life off screen (from buffoons and maids to, for your consideration, Sasha Fierce aka Mrs. Carter). This kind of context collapse disallows the complexities of black lives and their multiple selves.

The Chains of Bondage Remain

Here is a more chilling example.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985) was a comedian who became the first black actor to become a millionaire of film, but he is stereotypically remembered as a buffoon over early television known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit.

Lincoln Perry

In my youngest years I never learned about Perry’s wealth–a wealth that surely came with no power in the film business of 1940s and 50s, I was simply embarrassed by his portrayals on the television screen. His public identity on screen trumped any knowledge of his humanity as a millionaire or his family life as a father. The logic of shame found in the filters of cognition was borne out to me in a conversation with a colleague at the University of Virginia in my first years of teaching. Prof. Angela Davis, not the black power activist and prison abolitionist we all know, but a former HBCU student who attended college with Perry’s son, told me that Donald Perry made headlines when he killed three people and then committed suicide on the NJ/PA Turnpike. She said he left a note saying he was embarrassed by his father’s image as Stepin Fetchit. We collapse what’s on stage with what’s off and those collisions have repercussions well into the future. That was 1969, decades before his father’s own death.

“Chains and Things” (by BB King, 1970, No. 6 on Billboard R&B)

This week, we lost BB King at the age 89. Shame was registered in a NYTimes article announcing his death. When the blues went out of fashion with young black audiences in the early 1960s, he was booed at the Royal Theater in Baltimore by teenagers who cheered the sweeter sounds of Sam Cooke. As reported in the NYTimes, “They didn’t know about the blues,” he said 40 years after the fact. “They had been taught that the blues was the bottom of the totem pole, done by slaves, and they didn’t want to think along those lines.” (see NYT link above for more).

cartoon3 on abolition and mother

Getting back to Raven and her comments on the $20 Bill and the shame of being descended from the old black Joe news attached to the chains of blackness, what strikes me as an educator is how 29 year-old Symoné (with a cosmopolitan “e” added for stylish flair) uses the characteristic adverbial phrases of twenty-somethings who like to say “super organized” or “super lazy” or when they are not so sure “a little bit more forward.” This kind of discourse among my students tends hide in plain sight their insecurity about their opinion or their desire to find others among them who might back them up–cuz we all know the adolescent or naïve thinker loves to prop up the “underdog” in the fight. This is a common and individualistic approach to personal views in arguments that rarely reflect being informed or demonstrate critical thinking.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers a rich definition of critical thinking, which I intend to use more often from now on. It’s super good! Thanks Google! It reads: “Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s groups’, vested interest.” It goes on to add: “everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought,” and let me add, celebrities as well as scholars are prone to these episodes.

While I’d bet money on the latter, scholars are rarely invited guests on The View. We are the wrong age demographic in the wrong cultural climate; news as entertainment is not our bag; sound bytes on talk shows, not our fortés. So today, they offer us Raven-Symoné as commentator on the feminist politics of treasury bills, civil rights agendas and slavery.

shame children cognition

The networks that permit such remarks knowing it’s entertainment news for Twitter water-cooler sessions and social media banter.  But what are we learning culturally, asks the anthropologist in me, about thinking and cognition as a result? What lessons are we being taught? Increasingly, it seems as if celebrities have the answers that circulate, but they never have any questions about their own thinking. We all need this modelled more than ever in a noisy social media landscape of mostly entertainment news. And we all need to practice examining our own logic and our own uninformed thinking…from celebrities to scholars but particularly youth in the fast-pace of social media and globalization online.

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as the overconfidence effect. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

 

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as “the overconfidence effect“. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

On Cognition and Thinking

I often tell my students there is a difference between thinking and thoughting. The former takes more glucose or energy and tired and lazy intellectual practice resorts to thoughting or opinions, fallacies, faulty logic, and over erroneous common knowledge.

Thinking (vs. thoughting — using knowledge you already knew but not incorporating the new things you are not so skilled at using yet in a course) requires more glucose. Without the real thinking, we often resort to stereotypical, short-hand thoughts. The brain does this to preserve glucose, to save you energy. It’s just biologically efficient and your brain knows this. You don’t! The more arrogant or naïve you are, the more likely you are to not realize this and the bigger tendency for you to speak your private universe of opinions to the world. Those thoughts can be costly to you and to others, esp. when you have a microphone that broadcasts to the world called “celebrity”. And you may never know it. This is bigger than you having your own opinion. Everyone does have that right.

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
Harlan Ellison

I can only imagine why the cosmopolitan and individual Raven-Simoné (and her accent) prefers Rosa Parks and not… Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Anna Julia Cooper or a Mary McLeod Bethune much less someone like Harriet Tubman who is so directly linked to slavery. It also directly links our of black people (not black skin) to the effects of capitalism on our labor and humanity. I think young people feel feel chained to the past and cannot quite understand esp. given all the state violence we have been witnessing in social media (that black folks have known all our lives), videos that remind us of an era of lynchings and centuries of subjugation by overseers in sharecropping, on plantations and on slave ships.

Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School
Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School

Young people in the black community (and any community) have the most limited vision of our culture, history, memory and ontology–the science of knowing. That is no fault of their own or anyone else’s. It;s how youth works. But they also can be some of the most impulsive and self-centered beings without critical thinking as they attempt to assert their self identity in a larger public. Wisdom soon tells us that we must also learn to defer and collaborate so we all thrive intergenerationally. Specialized understandings of this take time.

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.  ― Harriet Tubman
America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

Forward past slavery, in my opinion, would mean confronting the biggest wealth inequality gap in the history of our nation that also must be read against the reality of black women’s economic lives today in America.

Small changes like putting the face of Harriet Tubman, a black woman, on a $20 bill is seemingly small but a powerful gesture. The circulation of images in many ways can be a primary tool for instituting ideology and may instigate change over time. Think of all the images that have affected us from billboards to bedroom posters, from TV and  personalized mobile webcams and photography.

Net Worth vs. Negative Worth

Yet, and still, the substantive changes that give rise to access to those very dollars in an age of the most extreme wealth inequalities is a matter not so easily transacted and gained. Women and children, esp. black women and their children, are among the lowest paid, lowest valued and have the lowest examples of net worth — zero net-worth often called “negative net worth” — as demographic groups. From the ages 18 to 64, black women have less than $150 in savings after deducting their debt.
 
Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 12.29.28 PM

It is possible that women and children seeing Tubman’s face on the $20 bill might “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” more, not something I’d bank on as a solution, but the bigger challenge is not individual net-worth. Leverage comes from systemic change — how black girls and women, as well as women in general, are valued in a patriarchal society. That fact will not change by putting a historic black woman’s face on our currency. It’s more like entertainment than news in that light.
Harriet Tubman took slaves by gunpoint at times to force them out of their mental slavery. The UGGR, an acronym used by enslaved and formerly enslaved people like my great, great grandfather in his emancipation letter of 1855, stands for the Underground Railroad. No one else as Bob Marley sang can free you from those chains and from the chains of shame. The same ends as the colonized mind learns the reality of our lives with full humanity. I never learned that slaves actually had the skills to read and write to a larger degree than I could ever imagine. These 19th centuries media literacies surely contributed the end of the institution of chattel slavery.  Perhaps a similar read/write/create revolution is needed in the 21st century such that once emancipated from our lack of access to digital media literacies (read write create curate develop), would make it hard to maintain control over people with agency. Digital tools can help us organize their lives and adapt to our new online and offline environments and identities. In biology, the process of adaptation to an environment is known as “ecological fitness“. This is what I am after for myself and for online black girls and women.
And all this writing from watching a video of Raven-Symoné.  Thanks Raven!!
 
I’m supposed to be at a friend’sbarbeque right now. Please excuse my typos or any jumbled sentences. Drop me a note if something is illegible.  And if you made it this far and like something you read, THANK YOU!! Why not leave a comment??!!PLEASE comment!
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The World is Watching and You are Listening

“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves…. We proclaim our devotion to [our passion or dream], but we sadly practice the very opposite of [its] creed. … This strange dichotomy, this agonising gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love

 
Disney myths

 

This past week or two has been what I might call my test at confronting the tragedy of not crossing the gulf between practice and profession, between what needs to be done and what I do instead. It ended in giving the talk of my life at TEDxUofM on my Bottomlines YouTube research about the digital ‘net worth of black girls ages 13-17 and younger on YouTube. I talked about the racialized and sexualized disparities in search results, views as currency, and in the comments directed towards white girls vs. black girls. No one had to tell me I accomplished something spectacular when I left the stage. I’d done more than I ever imagined and felt it was some of my very best work as a writer, a speaker and even as a singer.

When I left the stage, my former voice teacher, the renowned MET tenor George Shirley with whom I studied for 2-1/2 years at the University of Michigan, was waiting to congratulate me backstage. What a joy that moment was!! I hadn’t seen him for over 20 years. He said “You sound good!” And we spent about an hour over tea talking about the work you must do to do you best and how that work will eventually pay off in whatever you do. Even if you don’t sing for a living. He intimated that the work he saw me do on the stage of Power Center in Ann Arbor was my life’s mission, what I was made to do on this earth. I fell and felt that way. It was like belonging and being all rolled into one and finally the place or my skin didn’t matter. I wasn’t diminishing my own voice anymore.

For 20 years I’ve been studying the intersection of race and gender in black expressive cultures through the lens of black girlhood and their musical play. For the last 2 years, my attention has focused on online black girls who are “messing around” on YouTube–uploading videos with editing, twerking to invisible audiences from the “privacy” of their bedrooms while others degrade their practices below their videos treating them like call girls and sluts. On YouTube you are who others say you are, or so it seems for online black girls. And so it has seemed for me as a black woman, as an African American citizen whose family has been in these lands for 9 generations and still suffers the effects of institutional racism.

The Life Course for Black Girls and Women

The black women in my family are not far ahead of the stats from 2010 that says we have zero or negative net worth and yet we come from an ancestral connection to middle class values. My grandmother was educated at the Mary McLeod Bethune Finishing School and almost went to the New England Conservatory of Music before she married my maternal grandfather, a Navy cook. My mother and her older and younger sisters had two parents at home. I was an only child but our lives were still touched by drugs, by gettin’ by cause the system didn’t seem to allow black folks after Desegregation to have a sovereign way of life or earn a real living that had comparable worth to white women or white men and their families.

So, for me to return to a stage where I’d had some of my worst moments of stage fright and give a talk that spoke to the self-worth and digital ‘net worth of African American girls who twerk!! It was a revolutionary moment for me and I hope for the 1300 people witnessing my shedding of skin and releasing of burdens. Mine and others. And not just black folk.

The view of the online adolescent black girls that I study in YouTube twerking videos are being shaped in ways I never was offline by interactions with people who don’t understand our history or the history of white superiority and hegemony in this country. They just adopt the stereotypical positions that black girls are ratchet, low-class, baby mamas or reckless and ignorant or that their parents don’t no know better. They are slut shamed and respectability shamed by whites and blacks online. Who will protect them from doing what all of us are doing online–playing with sharing our identities and trying on new things.

We were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others. — Ralph Ellison (1986, 186).

This past 7 days I’ve given my talk on The Bottomlines Project: On Black Girls’ Digital ‘Net Worth in Ann Arbor, at the Nassau Community College in Long Island, and at City College (CCNY) in an evening of work about hip-hop by  my dear brother media assassin Harry Allen and fellow ethnomusicologist Tim Mangin.    The TEDxUofM talk should be available online soon.

Confronting the Weight Not the Burden

I don’t feel tragically divided this week and with that feeling I realize that 2015 must be a line in the sand for me about my life goals and my ethics and my mission as a scholar and professor. It also must be the year I handle my biology and my health since black girls and women are the top demographic for obesity and I know now how absolutely essential to where I am heading that my well-being is to my success. I know but there I am still a bit tragically divided. I haven’t been to the gym for almost 2 weeks. I know what I ought to do but the gulf is there between what is.

So when my old American U collegemate Ken Brown tagged me on this video this morning, I knew I’d post it here. The world is listening, Kyra, and that world includes YOU! As India Arie sang, “The words that come from your mouth, you’re the first to hear!”  #towerk  #twerk

So today, I werk. I write. I write articles to publish. To get back in a tenure track job. I am here and I’m bringing new knowledge for a weary world. New insights that inspire and challenge us to grow with online black girls. #whywecantwait

H/T to Ari Gagne, a fellow ethnomusicologist who writes and studies the bounce scene in NOLA. He pointed me towards the Ellison quote and is educating me about bounce and its queens.

#FCKH8 – A Bad Word for a Good Cause #NSFW #girlhood

“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

START AT MAD, TAKE ACTION

You may not care for this but I have to say, I LOVED IT!!! The bleeps in advertising and media don’t stop the hate or the violence and they ain’t filling no ones #swearjar. So let’s get real!

NOTE: The comment about twerking at 1:15″

Only critique I have of this is that there should be MORE black and brown women represented here. Little white princesses cussing is one thing. But perhaps our empathy meter goes WAY DOWN when people of color quotient goes WAY UP. #blacklivesmatter

This is from the Centers for Disease Control (including intimate partner violence):

Dating violence is widespread with serious long-term and short-term effects. Many teens do not report it because they are afraid to tell friends and family. A 2011 CDC nationwide survey(http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/nisvspubs.html) found that 23% of females and 14% of males who ever experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.   A 2013 survey found approximately 10% of high school students reported physical victimization and 10% reported sexual victimization from a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed.

Need more facts to get agitated into action? Here’s recent data from 2014:

Where the relationship could be determined, 94 percent of black females killed by males knew their killers. Nearly 15 times as many black females were murdered by a male they knew than were killed by male strangers. http://www.vpc.org/press/1309dv2.htm

And…

 A recent report by the The Violence Policy Center (VPC) in Washington, D.C. found that black women are about three times more likely to die at the hands of a current or ex-partner than members of other racial backgrounds.

VPC, a national organization working to end gun deaths, reported that 94 percent of the black women killed knew their killers. More than half were killed by gunfire. And 64 percent of black victims who knew their offenders were wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of the killers. http://thegrio.com/2013/10/20/domestic-violence-awareness-month-black-women-homocide-intimate-partner-violence/ 

Girls and women should cuss some over this ish!!