Formation As Black Liberation Theory

Beyonce has made me so proud of her. I was already high after watching her video for “Formation” five times. But after seeing her Black Panther dancers throw their firsts in the air during Super Bowl halftime, I don’t know when I’m going to come down.

Predictably, some folk—black and otherwise—have been quick to point out what “Formation” didn’t do or mean to them. And the video and ‘Yonce’s Super Bowl performance won’t do a lot of things. They won’t stop the police from shooting black people. They won’t stop another Katrina or Flint, when the white people in power don’t give a damn about poor black communities. But “Formation” did a lot for me and a lot for other people, judging from the giddiness on my Twitter timeline.

Watching that music video, I felt affirmed in so many ways—as a person with southern roots (both of my grandparents on my mother’s side are from Alabama and Louisiana, and my dad’s parents are from Georgia), and with connections to a culture that is otherized. As a black man with “Jackson 5 nostrils,” whose hair grows like Blue’s. As a black man who identifies as LGBT (I’m bisexual), I felt recognized by the images of New Orleans black LGBT culture, and the genderqueer voices peppered throughout (Google Messy Mya and Big Freedia). I felt affirmed by the little boy in the hoodie who caused the officers to put their hands up. I felt affirmed by the happy black children in their kinky-headed radiance. And I heard Beyonce say that all these things were okay. “Formation” gave me permission to love and be myself in a way that I had not before. So many other black girls (and boys, clearly) needed to hear that, too—at a time when we face so many reminders that blackness is the enemy.

By extension, what I also saw in “Formation” was a working model for black liberation. With a flooded New Orleans as the backdrop, and Black queer voices as spokespeople in her absence, Beyonce centered not only black people at the margins of the mainstream, but black people at the margins of blackness itself—black poor, black women, black LGBT folk. True black liberation means freedom for all black people—freedom from state-sanctioned race and class violence and from homophobia and misogyny within our own communities. With “Formation,” Beyonce embraced those whom we acknowledge the least. Ironically, it has been black women and LGBT folk who have been leading the Black Lives Matter movement.

Beyonce did not come to play with you hoes, she came to slay white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy with intersectional feminism. Backstage after her halftime show, Beyonce said about her performance, “I wanted people to feel proud and to have love for themselves.” This one wasn’t for the masses—”Formation” was for her people.

But it’s that very reason why so many (white) people—even fans—were upset by Beyonce’s displays of unapologetic blackness. Previously, Beyonce had been a “safe” artist for white audiences to embrace—she kept her distance from race and politics. She broached the political on Beyonce and in documentaries when she openly embraced feminism and talked about the importance of agency for women. But race? That’s a different beast. With “Formation,” Beyonce demands to be acknowledged not just as a woman in control, but as a black woman in control—and one that’s country as hell. She refuses to allow audiences to celebrate just parts of her identity, or celebrate her divorced of her identity altogether as some otherworldly Queen Goddess that transcends blackness. She likes cornbread and collard greens, bitch. And not only that—she don’t fuck with police brutality.

Beyonce is far from the first black artist to make a political statement. But her reach is global, and that in some ways makes what she did categorically different. To drop such a defiant statement on the eve of the Super Bowl and then deliver that statement to the masses via an army of black women—I was proud of B like I was proud of Bree Newsome for snatching the Confederate flag off the flag pole at the South Carolina state capitol building. Both made me feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. Coincidentally (or probably not), Usher dropped a video for his single “Chains” featuring Nas on Sunday morning, which also speaks to police brutality. Hopefully, now green-lighted by the world’s biggest pop star, other black artists feel empowered to speak out about important issues despite fear of backlash.

Of course, there is real groundwork to be done. Black people must continue organizing and fighting for black liberation. (And for those who doubt Beyonce’s sincerity, she and Jay reportedly spent tens of thousands bailing protesters out of jail during the Baltimore protests, and Tidal [Jay Z’s music streaming service] is donating $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter and other civil rights organizations). But what “Formation” can be in that is a model for how to love ourselves and include the most marginalized among us in our advocacy, our spaces, and in our ultimate vision for freedom as we wage a collective struggle against oppression.

You feel me? Okay, then let’s get in formation.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.

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The Angry Black Woman Stereotype: What Nicki Minaj and Sandra Bland Have In Common

On Monday, Twitter was abuzz over the release of the police dash cam video of the arrest of Sandra Bland, and a string of tweets by rapper Nicki Minaj in response to her lack of a MTV Video Music Awards nomination for Video of the Year or Best Choreography for her “Anaconda” music video.

The video of Bland’s arrest showed the 28-year-old respond indignantly to Texas Trooper Brian Encinia’s inquiry as to why she was upset, and refuse his request that she put her cigarette out while talking to him. Trooper Encinia – apparently upset by Bland’s defiance, though she had committed no crime – tells Bland she is under arrest and orders her out of her vehicle. When Bland refuses, asserting that she knew her rights and demanding to know what she had done wrong, Encinia opens her car door and attempts to drag her out of the vehicle, eventually forcing her to exit voluntarily by threatening her with his Taser. Bland is subsequently arrested for assaulting an officer, though no such assault occurred. And in a press conference following the revelation of Bland’s hanging death in a jail cell, using language reminiscent of so many other cases of demonization in-death of Black victims of police brutality, Waller County Sherriff said Bland had been “combative” during the exchange and was “not a model person” who officers want to encounter during traffic stops.

Around the same time as the Bland video’s release, Nicki Minaj, upset by what she perceived as body-type and, she suggested, also racial, biases, in the music industry – a topic she, notably, has addressed in the past – said as much in a thread of tweets. She implied that her video for “Anaconda,” which broke online viewing records and sparked social media trends, was not nominated for the VMA awards for Video of the Year or Best Choreography because it celebrated curvy, brown bodies, and not skinny, white ones.

Following several of Minaj’s tweets, Taylor Swift, whose “Bad Blood” video received a Video of the Year nomination and, notably, featured a number of high-profile slim models and actresses, though the women’s bodies was not the focus of the video, responded, accusing Minaj of attacking her and being “divisive” between women. Minaj retorted that she was not talking about Swift – she never said her name, she merely made general observations about the music industry, as she had done in the past. Nor did Minaj say or imply that Swift did not deserve a nomination.

Her point was that she did not receive a nomination because she was thick and Black, not that Swift had only received one because she was skinny and White. Swift, though, read further into Minaj’s tweets than Minaj had intended.

Now, don’t read this as an affirmation of Nicki Minaj’s outrage at the fact that she was snubbed by the VMAs. Frankly, I am disappointed that, in 2015, Black people still care whether or not White people recognize their art and culture. I don’t need White people to tell me that music, movies, or TV shows that reflect me are “good enough.” I know that already, and I’ve written about this before. I am perpetually disappointed in artists like Nicki Minaj and Kanye West who are upset not about White supremacy, but about the fact that they can’t access whiteness and attain the same recognition and rewards as White people when they perform well because of it.

Undoubtedly, there exists within the music industry a bias for women artists who fit a Eurocentric standard of beauty. But in expressing outrage that whiteness did not acknowledge her, Minaj affirms its supremacy – she affirms that White people are the end-all-be-all, and that their opinions are what matter most.

So, while Nicki Minaj’s claim that the music industry is racially biased is accurate, who cares?

I don’t.

I do care, though, about how Black women are treated and characterized when they voice an opinion like Sandra Bland or Nicki Minaj.

After the Minaj-Swift Twitter exchange, articles surfaced online with titles like “Nicki Minaj Picks a Feud with Taylor Swift after Video Music Awards Snub” – some of which were deleted following outrage from #BlackTwitter – with clearly deliberately selected and years-old pictures of in-character Nicki Minaj with bulging eyes or gaping mouth, looking like Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black, juxtaposed against images of a sweet, smiling, unassuming Taylor Swift.

The underlying message: look at this mean, angry Black woman bullying a poor little innocent White girl.

We’ve seen and heard this before; White supremacy is nothing if not consistent. It happens every time Black women on Twitter call out Kylie Jenner or Iggy Azalea or Katy Perry for appropriating Black culture, or challenge some cherished White woman “feminist” who claims that talking about race is “divisive” (sound familiar?) for her lack of intersectionality. And, historically, White femininity has been pedestaled over Black and guarded as something that must be protected at all costs, especially from Blackness, be it from Black male rapists or snappy Black women.

But this particular instance was unique because, at the same time as it played out, we watched first-hand in the Sandra Bland arrest video how dangerous this perception of Black women really is.

Like Minaj, who was lambasted for being the aggressor in a non-existent “feud,” Sandra Bland, too, was targeted for speaking her mind.

Brian Encinia threatened and assaulted Bland because he didn’t like what she said or how she said it. As the Waller County Sherriff noted, to Encinia, Bland was a “combative” non-“model person” whose behavior warranted physical abuse (though, following the video’s release, his office said that Trooper Encinia had not “maintained professionalism” throughout the incident).

Sandra was out of line.

We don’t know what happened in her jail cell, but whether she committed suicide or not, her violent and unconstitutional arrest and imprisonment remain at fault for her death.

Even if she took her own life, the state killed Sandra Bland.

From Sandra Bland, to Nicki Minaj, to outspoken Black girls who are suspended and expelled from, and arrested in, school at rates that far exceed their White counterparts, pushback against the “angry Black woman” impacts Black women and girls indiscriminately. For Minaj, pushback merely took the form of media criticism. For Bland, its manifestation was far worse. But both are examples of the violence – whether physical or psychological – exacted against Black women who dare speak up for themselves.

Evidenced yet again, is that if there is anything White patriarchy hates, it’s a Black woman with an opinion.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco, CA. He is a 2015 graduate of Howard University and has had bylines on Politic365 and NBCBLK. Follow him on Twitter at @myblackmindd.

Why You Can’t Be Pro-Black and Homophobic at the Same Time

Last Friday’s Supreme Court ruling to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide was a milestone for the LGBT rights movement. While it didn’t give gay Americans complete equality in every aspect of their lives, the decision provided a long-sought-after victory: an acknowledgement that their love is equal in the eyes of the law.

This last year has also seen a dramatic rise in visibility for transgender celebrities—Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner among them—drawing attention to the legal discrimination and socioeconomic inequalities faced by the transgender community, especially transgender people of color, and those on the economic margins of society.

But not everyone is fond of Friday’s ruling, or of the so-called “transgender tipping-point“—including parts of the black community.

Of course, I’ve noticed support for LGBT rights from within the black community over these last few weeks: NBCBLK, NBC’s showcase for stories by and about the black community, featured a black church in DC that performs same-sex marriages and employs LGBT clergy; the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was murdered two weeks ago, was celebrated by some as a gay ally in the statehouse; and there’s a push under way to get the Black Lives Matter movement, criticized for focusing too narrowly on straight black men, to address violence facing women and LGBT people, especially black trans women.

But I’ve seen a lot of pushback from black people as well.

On social media, I’ve seen black people imply that marriage equality is a frivolous concern, and that gay people shouldn’t have received the right to marry before black people got the right to walk down the street without being shot by the police. I’ve seen black people argue against gay marriage by pointing out that it’s still not legal to smoke weed in most of the United States. Then there are those who reject gay marriage and homosexuality as a sin. Despite steady growth across the entire US population, support for same-sex marriage among black Americans remains in the minority, and is lower among black Protestants than all other religious groups except white evangelicals.

The simple truth is this: It’s problematic for members of any one marginalized group to challenge the progress made by members of another.

I’ve seen some in the black community also reject transgender people. In one argument that totally misunderstands what it means to be trans, somesuggested that Caitlyn Jenner was “pretending” to be a woman, and that black people who embraced Jenner were hypocritical for accepting her while at the same time rejecting Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be black.

The simple truth is this: It’s problematic for members of any one marginalized group to challenge the progress made by members of another, especially when both groups suffer as a result of the same system—a system that favors being white, male, straight and “cisgender,” a term used by academics and advocates to describe the opposite of trans.

But it is especially problematic for black people to reject the LGBT rights struggle, especially when, over the past year, black people have been particularly vocal about their own racial oppression, via sustained, high-profile protests that have swept the nation.

Most glaringly, it’s problematic because blackness and LGBT identities are not mutually exclusive. There are lesbian black women, gay black men, bisexual black people, transgender black men and women, “genderqueer” black people—identifying as neither gender or both—and black people who are any combination of any of the above.

And black LGBT people and their allies have made incredible contributions to the black liberation struggle, from Bayard Rustin during the civil rights movement toAudre Lorde, a poet, feminist, and LGBT advocate, as well as the three women who founded the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and the organization that birthed the movement: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Activism like this is even more inspiring than most because, in addition to state-sanctioned racism, LGBT people face state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia in the form of unchecked employment and wage discrimination, housing discrimination, health care disparities, increased risk of brutality at the hands of police, and so much more. And then they face ridicule and violence, oftentimes from within the black communities they call home.

Thirty-four percent of black transgender people live in extreme poverty, a rate three times that of black people as a whole and eight times that of the general US population. Homelessness is rife. Only 19 states have statewide employment non-discrimination laws that cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2013,two-thirds of all LGBT homicide victims were transgender women of color, while LGBT people are more likely than others to be subjected to hostility, brutality, and unjust arrest from police after reporting they have been victims of crime. And43 percent of black gay youth have attempted suicide as a result of issues related to their sexual orientation.

There is no caveat or asterisk on the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” All black lives matter, not just ones you are comfortable with.

Through anti-LGBT bigotry, we add to the marginalization of these black folk.

Straight black people should be fighting for them, not the reverse. Yet, so many black LGBT people are down for us, despite the fact that we so often remind them that, no, we are not down for them. This must change.

There is no caveat or asterisk on the phrase “black lives matter.” All black lives matter, not just the ones you are comfortable with. You cannot be pro-black if you oppress black people. And, more importantly, you cannot love all black people if you oppress black people. You do not mean “black lives matter” if you protest when an unarmed straight black man is killed by the police because they are black, but don’t care about the the many transgender black women who have been murdered this year because they were trans.

If we are to liberate black people as a whole, then we must combat all forms of discrimination against black people, including anti-LGBT discrimination and that which we inflict upon them from within our own communities. The struggle must be multilayered, just like the identities of black people. Every chain must be broken.

If black people do not come to grips with the homophobia and transphobia within our own communities, then all black people will never be free. That, indeed, would be a tragedy that we brought upon ourselves. I, for one, join the LGBT community—black LGBT people—in celebrating a milestone in their struggle for freedom.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones Magazine in San Francisco, CA.  He is a 2015 graduate of Howard University.  Follow him on Twitter at @myblackmindd and email him at bpatterson@motherjones.com.

How Officers’ Response to the Dallas Police Headquarters Shooter Fuels Black Distrust of the Police

Early Saturday morning, 35-year-old James Boulware sprayed Dallas Police Headquarters with at least 30 rounds of bullets from an automatic weapon and a shotgun, striking the building and police vehicles, and planting numerous pipe bombs around the building’s perimeter.  During the attack, officers were, in the words of the Dallas Police Chief, “literally dodging bullets.”  After the shooting, Boulware lead a dozen squad cars on a chase down an expressway.  In an attempt to bring the chase to an end, officers first immobilized Boulware’s vehicle by shooting and disabling the engine.  Then they negotiated with him for more than four hours before electing to kill him with sniper fire.

This is precisely the way police should, and are trained to, handle dangerous situations. Officers attempted to de-escalate the situation by engaging with Boulware before resorting to lethal force. Then, only after hours of back and forth, did they opt to shoot him, after it became clear that he would not respond to calls to stand down.

This was good, cautious police work in action, even in the face of a man who had demonstrated that he was an incredible threat to officers’ well-being.

Had officers killed Boulware immediately, the decision would certainly have been understandable given the circumstances.  But they didn’t.  And it is instances like this that leave Black people in awe of the restraint with which officers can act when they choose to.  This kind of response is too often not what happens when police officers engage with people of color, especially Black people.

Officers shot Tamir Rice less than 2 seconds after arriving at the scene. They shot and killed John Crawford in a matter of seconds as well. Kajeime Powell was killed in a hail of bullets less than 15 seconds after officers arrived at the scene, after he lunged at them with a knife from feet away.  And officers killed Anthony Robinson after he became physically aggressive with them during a bipolar episode.

There is a stark contrast between the  hastiness with which police respond to Black people and the restraint with which they approach White people like James Boulware, or Dallas Horton who, in Oklahoma in January, shot a (Black) police chief three times in the chest (the officer’s bulletproof vest saved his life) as officers entered his home and was not arrested at all, or the dozens of biker gang members who were allowed to hang out outside the restaurant they had terrorized in Waco, Texas just minutes after their shootout had left nine people dead.

Too often police shoot to kill Black people as a first resort.  And time and again, in interactions with White suspects, they demonstrate that they don’t have to do that, that they do have alternative, non-lethal methods at their disposal.  James Boulware was killed, but only after hours of failed attempts at alternative methods, hours not afforded Tamir Rice, or John Crawford,  or Kajeime Powell, or countless other Black people killed by the police.  It is this contrast that fuels Black anger with, and distrust of, the police.

All Black people want is for police officers to treat us the same way they treat White people – to engage us with a reverence for human life and a hesitance towards taking it. Until we see and feel equitability in police treatment of Black people and White people, Black people will continue to distrust, dislike, and protest the police.  The contrast between officers’ response to Boulware and so many Black victims of police brutality is yet another example of why we do so now.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones Magazine in San Francisco, CA and a contributor to NBCBLK.  Follow him on Twitter at @myblackmindd and email him at bpatterson@motherjones.com.

Rachel Dolezal is Allyship at its Worst

When I first heard the Rachel Dolezal story, my initial thought was, “this woman is crazy!” I laughed.  I was initially amused – and confused – not upset.

The first significant question that came to mind was: Is the fact that Dolezal would go to such great lengths to advocate on behalf of Black people indicative of a profound commitment to Black causes and the depth of her desire to help?

Briefly, I gave her the benefit of the doubt.  She has done good work.  She’s a graduate of my alma mater Howard University and a member of the organization that, on Howard’s campus, introduced me to organizing and advocacy – the NAACP.  Why be upset with her for trying too hard to fight for Black people?

I still do not believe that anything Dolezal did she did maliciously.  I don’t think she intended to be disrespectful.  I think, for her own reasons, she genuinely and desperately wanted to connect with the African American experience and to be a force for positive change.  Nonetheless, after a a few laughs courtesy of Black Twitter’s always-poignant response hashtags and further preponderance on the long-term implications of Dolezal’s actions, I came to the conclusion that, despite her good intentions, what she did is incredibly problematic.

Indeed, Dolezal’s actions speak volumes about her commitment to Black causes – but what they say is how misguided her commitment actually is, and how little she understands about what it means to be an ally to a marginalized group.

Allyship is about taking a supportive role in efforts lead by members of the group to which one is an ally – centering them in the work, not oneself.  It’s about, not speaking for the members of the group, but using one’s privilege and the platforms to which one has access to amplify their voices­­ – allowing them to tell their own stories and to speak for themselves.

Rachel Dolezal, though, had a personal agenda that eclipsed her good intentions.  In pursuit of the actualization of her “Blackness,” she sought to be – for lack of a better term, yet perhaps still used appropriately here – the savior of Black folk in Spokane, Washington.  She wanted to be the one to speak, to make decisions, to give direction.  She seized – under the guise of Blackness – as NAACP president, one of the few leadership roles reserved by Black people for Black people in Black spaces.  And at a time when the perspective of actual persons of color is so needed in conversations about police policy and reform, she assumed a position as Spokane’s Police Ombudsmen, a post created to provide community oversight to police conduct and engender police-community trust.  (How ironic that, appointed to a post intended to build trust between the police and communities of color, was a White woman lying about her identity.)

In doing these things, Dolezal deprived other, actual Black people of crucial platforms.  She deprived them of the opportunity to tell their own stories, to bring needed perspective based on lived experiences to the conversation surrounding racial inequality, as well as leadership and direction informed by that perspective to the work of combating such inequality – things which she cannot do as a person who has never been Black before.

But Dolezal’s brand of allyship is also uniquely problematic because it involved performance Black face.  Dolezal selected Black cultural markers – braided hair, African jewelry, garments, and head wraps – and, literally, wore them as a costume to feign Blackness.  Perhaps most troubling, she donned Black pain and struggle to complete her act.  She fabricated stories about her parents abusing her and her siblings based on skin color, alleged that she and her son moved multiple times in Idaho to escape the Ku Klux Klan and that each time KKK members found them and attacked their home again, and filed multiple claims of hate crimes with the Spokane police, none of which, police say, they can find any evidence.  With this false personal narrative in tote (one which Dolezal, presumably, touted, in addition to the various leadership posts she had held within advocacy groups, as her source of expertise on the Black experience given that both of her degrees are in art – not Black studies) Dolezal gave speeches at events and paid lectures in her African American Studies classes about the African American experience.

Rachel Dolezal profited from pretending to be Black.  But Blackness for actual Black people comes with costs, not benefits.  While Dolezal can remove her costume when it behooves her to be White, Black people cannot remove our Blackness when it might behoove us to be something else.  We cannot remove our Blackness when the police show up, or when we walk into a job interview, or walk into a bank for a homeowner’s or small business loan.  We cannot remove our Blackness when we move into suburbia and attend a pool party in the predominately White neighborhood in which we live.  We cannot remove it when we need to hail a taxi, or walk into a store, or pass nervous White people on the street at night.  And because we cannot, we face discrimination, not rewards.

What Rachel Dolezal did is not allyship.  It is anti-Blackness.  Dolezal could have been an active member of the NAACP as a White woman.  She could have attended public meetings of the Office of Police Ombudsmen and voiced her opinion.  Instead, she chose to occupy positions of power herself, to displace Black people from Black spaces in an odd exercise in gentrification, when the interests of the people she sought to assist would have been better served with an actual Black person in her position.  Indeed, I believe it was her racial privilege as a White woman that prevented her from recognizing this seemingly obvious point.

Allies – be they White allies to the Black struggle, straight and cisgender allies to the LGBTQIA struggle, men allies to the feminist struggle, or otherwise – must recognize that, no matter how much they have read, know, or think they know about a subject, as persons of privilege who exist outside of particular marginalization, they are never in a better position to speak about the experiences of the marginalized than the marginalized themselves.  Listen to Black and brown people when they tell you about their experiences with discrimination.  Listen to LGBTQIA people when they tell you about the ways in which straight and cisgender people erase their identities by imposing binary gender and sexuality standards.  Listen to women when they tell you about the things men do that make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

The best thing that White allies can do to help Black and brown movements is to acknowledge their privilege, talk to other White people about White privilege and White supremacy, and use the platforms to which they have access to get out the message of people of color to other White people who don’t get it yet.  Dolezal, by adopting a new identity and attempting to govern from within, did the opposite.  She centered herself.  And, in doing so, she became a hindrance, not an asset, to the movement.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones Magazine in San Francisco, CA and a contributor to NBCBLK.  He is a graduate of Howard University.  Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.

Black Girls Do Rock, And No It’s not Racist to Say So

Yesterday BET aired the 5th annual Black Girls Rock! awards.  The ceremony is held annually to celebrate Black women’s achievements and contributions to society, and it’s always a spectacle of Black excellence.  Tracee Ellis Ross and Regina King hosted the show jointly this year.  Erykah Badu, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ava DuVernay, and Cicely Tyson were among the celebrity honorees.  But Black Girls Rock! also honors everyday people for their work in their communities.  Nadia Lopez was recognized with the Social Humanitarian Award, Dr. Helen D. Gayle received the Change Agent Award, and Chentel Song-Bembry (a freshman at HBCU Hampton University), Gabrielle Jordan, and Kaya Thomas were recognized for their work as well.  First Lady Michelle Obama was the most esteemed guest in attendance.  She delivered a speech in which she reminded Black girls that, despite societal voices that may tell them they are not good enough, they are.  “No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you are beautiful, you are brilliant” she proclaimed.  “Black girls rock!  We rock!”

But even before the show aired Sunday, the First Lady caught flack for her appearance at the ceremony.  Last week, when the show was recorded and news of her appearance broke, articles surfaced online slamming both her and the show as racist and exclusionary.  The Twitter hashtag #whitegirlsrock emerged in response to the show’s title, under which users made such claims as “If there were a White Girls Rock! it would be a whole different story,” and “How come Black people get a Black Girls Rock! but we don’t get a White Girls Rock?”

How they missed the memo, I don’t know.  But, clearly, some people don’t recognize that we live in one giant White Girls Rock! ceremony.  White women’s beauty and achievements are celebrated constantly in mainstream media and culture.

White girls rock on the covers of Vogue, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, People, and endless fashion and beauty magazines.  They rock in the majority of lead and supporting women’s roles on TV and in film and on most commercials featuring women.  They rock as heroines, superheroes, and princesses on screen and in books.  They rock in the best actress categories at the Oscars, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Tony Awards.  They rock at the Grammys, American Music Awards, VMAs, and the Teen Choice Awards.  Among elected officials in Congress, state legislatures, and mayoral and gubernatorial offices, and first ladies, White women compose the bulk of women that hold these positions.  White women constitute the majority of all women in medicine, law, business, academia and the professions.

My point? White girls have the privilege of constant affirmation in mainstream culture.  As a result, They know they rock.  They know they are beautiful.  They know they can achieve.  The purpose of Black Girls Rock! is to affirm the same for Black girls, many of whom do not recognize such of themselves.  It serves to affirm Black girls’ worth in a society in which their image is not the standard of beauty, where they do not see many positive images with which they can identify, where the contributions and achievements of people who look like them often go unrecognized, and where even Black social movements like Black Lives Matter center Black men over women.  It is so necessary at a time when rampant police brutality against Black bodies reminds us all that Black lives are considered disposable in the mainstream.  Asserting that Black girls rock is not to assert that girls of other races don’t.  Black Girls Rock! is not exclusionary.  It is inclusionary of Black girls and women who are all too often excluded.  So I applaud the First Lady for attending and recognizing the importance of Black girls – of Black people – seeing the First Lady of the United States affirm their Blackness, and for reminding Black girls that they, too, are stars.  Lord knows how many of her advisers told her not to.

Yet, despite the abundance of affirming images that White women see on a daily basis, many of them reject the idea of Black Girls Rock!  They made that clear in their #whitegirlsrock tweets.  The conversations that emerged under the hashtag, the articles that were written in response to the show, did not seek to affirm the value of White women.  They did not sing White women’s praises, as many people claimed to want to see happen.  Instead, the conversations sought nearly exclusively to denigrate Black women’s celebration of themselves.  They derided Black Girls’ Rock!  And this kind of response appears as a recurring theme among White people’s reactions to Black self-empowerment.  Whether it be the slogan “All Lives Matter,” White Out Day (which White people held on social media in response to last month’s Black Out Day, during which Black people shared selfies of themselves and other Black people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr in affirmation and celebration of their beauty), or the hashtag #whitegirslrock, initiatives such as these are never about self-empowerment and affirmation, though White people like to claim that they are.  They never materialize on their own merit or out of forced necessity.  They occur in response to exercises in Black self-empowerment.  In fact, as you can see, the titles White people ascribe to their initiatives are literal plays on the titles Black people give to ours.

The backlash against Black Girls Rock! is not about racism in the show, just like the call “All Lives Matter” is not about racist exclusivity in the Black Lives Matter movement and White Out Day is not about mean Black people posting selfies.  It’s about the fragility of White people’s racist superiority complex.  In mainstream American culture, Whiteness is always centered.  So many White people cannot handle when Black people affirm or celebrate Blackness independently of Whiteness because they are no longer the focus of the discourse (“All Lives Matter” is okay, for example, because it includes White people).  White people are so rarely excluded from the conversation that they feel the need to reassert their presence when they are.  #Whitegirlsrock and the now trending #allgirlsrock are symptoms of this compulsive need to be acknowledged. They are not efforts by well-meaning people to affirm all marginalized women.  They are temper tantrums thrown by privileged White women who demand the spotlight.

Yes, all girls do rock.  But, no, all girls don’t get the same shine.  Last night, Black girls got theirs.  And it was well deserved.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter.  He currently writes for NBCBLK and Politic365 and is an aspiring journalist.  Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.

3 Things I Get Out of My HBCU Experience That You Can’t Get at a PWI

This week a video went viral of members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity singing a racist chant about excluding “niggers” from their fraternity and hanging them from trees at the University of Oklahoma. The video sparked the closure of the SAE chapter on the school’s campus, protests on and off campus, and the expulsion of several students involved in the video. It also sparked a resurgence in the ever-raging debate on the pros and cons of Black students attending HBCUs and PWIs via the Twitter hashtags #SAEHatesMe and #HBCULovesMe.

For months, I’ve intended to write a blog post about my experience at Howard University but never got around to it.  But given the interest in the HBCU/PWI debate, and because high school seniors are currently in the process of deciding which college to go to, I decided that now is the perfect time to add my two cents to the conversation.

I did not want to attend Howard specifically because it was an HBCU. I assumed it lacked diversity.  I envisioned it being ghetto.  I didn’t think it reflected the real world.  But I graduate in May, and I now believe it was the best, single most important decision of my life. Howard has played a pivotal role in forming my identity, and I honestly feel indebted to this institution.

Many Black students and parents share similar concerns about the HBCU experience.  Students are often told they are too smart for HBCUs and steered away from them by their parents or school counselors.  So, I want to debunk some of the myths about HBCUs and talk about the three most important things I got out of my four years at Howard that Black students simply cannot get at a PWI. These are the things that changed my mind about HBCUs.

If you’re one of those doubtful people, hopefully I can convince you to join #TeamHBCU.  At the least, I hope this post better equips students to make decisions about what school will be best for them.

Here it goes.

Culturally Relevant Education

At an HBCU, you are always learning things that are relevant to your identity as a Black American, inside and outside of the classroom. From discussing African American and continental African history, to talking about current events that are relevant to the Black American experience, to holding conversations with my peers about colorism or the appropriation of Black culture by White artists, I always feel like I’m learning about me. Always. And I personally needed this – I had no real exposure to Black history in elementary or high school.

Now, that’s not to say we don’t learn about anything else at an HBCU – of course we do. And that’s not to say that Black students at PWIs never talk about Mike Brown and Iggy Azalea – of course they do. But they have far fewer conversations like these because there are so few spaces in which to have them, outside of the monthly Black Student Union meeting at the Black Culture Center, or whatever they call it. Frankly, they have to pick a date, time, and place to talk and learn about being Black. That’s not necessary at an HBCU.

At Howard, I feel immersed in Black ideas, Black culture, Black people. And I love it. It’s necessary. It’s the reason why Black students at PWIs have Black Student Unions in the first place: there is value in Blackness and Black spaces. At an HBCU, you don’t need a Black Culture Center or a club – the entire campus is both. The entire campus is a safe space that caters to you.

Diversity

Yea, I said it. I would argue that HBCUs are more diverse than many PWIs, especially large, public state PWIs.

First, let’s talk about the demographic make up of HBCUs and PWIs. Many public state PWIs have a student body made up of around 80 to 85% White students, and 15 – 20% everybody else (students of color). Similarly, at many HBCUs, the student body is around 80 – 85% Black and the remainder is non-Black students. It’s the same demographic breakdown, except a different group is in the majority.

But at large, state PWIs, many – if not most – of the students in the majority hail exclusively from within that state. Too, many are of the same socio-economic background. This is not the case at many HBCUs. As a result, there exists a wealth of diversity on HBCU campuses that in many ways is not present on PWI campuses.

Before attending Howard, I hesitated to apply to HBCUs because I wanted “diversity” and I didn’t think I would find it at an HBCU. I was wrong. Black people are incredibly diverse. I have met students from all over the country – California, Texas, Georgia, New York, to Alaska and Hawaii. I marvel at the uniqueness of the cultures that exist amongst Black people in different parts of the country – from the slang they use, to the dances they do, to the music they listen to. Too, Howard has students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. There are students on this campus that grew up in the inner city and can barely afford to be here, to students whose parents are B-list celebrities and are paying for their education out of pocket, and everywhere in between. Students hail from 67 different countries. It is this breadth of backgrounds that produces the diversity of experiences that produce diversity of thought – the true end goal of diversity in an educational setting. Such diversity of thought is often lacking on campuses where the majority of students hail from the same state and went to private school in the city or grew up in the suburbs, as is the case on many PWI campuses.

Frankly, the idea that HBCU campuses are not diverse stems from the notion that Black people themselves are not diverse – that we all think and act the same. Students look to PWIs specifically seeking diversity, despite the fact that most students are White. It is understood that White people can be diverse. The same must be recognized about the Black community.

Comfort/Psychological Safety

At an HBCU, you are in the numerical majority. This allows you to achieve a level of comfort with yourself and with the people around you that is not possible when you are one of 150 Black kids out of 2,000 students at a PWI.

For one, the burden of representation and the threat of racial stereotyping are non-existent. You don’t have to worry about whether people are going to think this about you or that about you because you are Black. You don’t have to worry about “representing well.” You don’t have to worry about whether your peers think you are there only because of affirmative action, or worry about you’re opinions, experiences, and contributions to discussions being devalued because “of course you think that. You’re Black.” You won’t experience overt racism or constant racial microagressions. You can be yourself and be at ease with the knowledge that your presence is valued, your opinions are respected and appreciated, and that excellence is assumed of you, no less than. You don’t have to feel like you must prove anything to anybody.

Additionally, you experience with the majority of the student body a certain cultural connection, and relate to them in more ways than you would most students at a PWI. This manifests itself in ways that may seem insignificant until you are in an environment completely void of all of them at once. That means things like people understanding the slang you use; to being familiar with classic songs by Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg; and having the rhythm to join you when your song comes on and it’s time to hit the latest dance. Too, Black people interact with each other differently amongst themselves than they do in mixed company. That’s a reality.

Being in an environment in which you feel comfortable is critical to the college experience. After all, the campus you choose will be your home for four years. People often want to learn from being outside of their comfort zone, but there is a difference between being forced outside of your comfort zone on occasion and learning from that experience, and never, ever being comfortable at all.  The former can occur on an HBCU campus.  By contrast, four years is a long time to be uncomfortable in your own home.  The kind of comfort and connection achieved at an HBCU allows for an honesty and an openness with your peers that enables you to explore and learn about yourself and from others at a greater depth than is possible in an environment in which you feel alienated – or worse, rejected. Too, it facilitates the development a groundedness in your Blackness and a confidence necessary for navigating the rest of the largely White world in professional spaces and elsewhere.

At an HBCU, you never feel starved for Blackness. At a PWI, starvation is the norm.

So What?

There is something truly magical about the HBCU experience.  That is not to say that you cannot enjoy, learn and grow from a PWI experience as a Black person.  Many people do.  But it is to say that the cultural climate at an HBCU – being surrounded by Black people just as beautiful, brilliant, and driven as you are – can do things for your personal growth and development as a Black person that a PWI cannot, simply by virtue of the fact that there are so few Black people.  Too, you will be pleasantly surprised – if not proven right – by the diversity on campus.  You’re an interesting person.  Other Black people are just as unique and interesting as you are.  And the friendships you forge with them on campus will last a lifetime.  Plus, it’s a lot of fun.  From the poppin’ homecomings, to the step competitions, to the parties, Black people know how to turn up!  Attending an HBCU is a once in a lifetime cultural experience.  It’s not one you want to miss out on.

I strongly urge Black high school students to apply to and consider attending HBCUs.  Visit a campus.  Attend an HBCU college tour.  If you have questions about the rigor of the coursework or career opportunities post-HBCU graduation, talk to current students, alumni, and administrators. Do some research.  But don’t write them off for reasons as baseless as the ones I chose.  And recognize that when you stereotype HBCUs, you are stereotyping yourself.

I hope this helps.  Students, share it with your friends.  Parents, share it with other parents.  Teachers, share it with your students!

Good luck!

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter.  He is a weekly contributor to Politic365 and an aspiring journalist.  Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.