I work in the media and I write about race. It's a lethal combination that leaves me open to unsolicited feedback and criticism and, sometimes, racist attacks. But I do it because I've always thought race is one of those topics we still don't know how to discuss in this country, and I take great pride in being one of the people who is trying to figure that out.
But something happened yesterday that reminded me how incredibly complicated things can get when privilege and ignorance meet social media.
Last week, Black Voices published a story entitled "Proof That Once You Go Black, You Never Go Back," as a celebration of famous interracial couples and love in general, with a tongue-in-cheek headline. Yesterday, Salon writer Mary Beth Williams took issue with that headline and decided to make it her mission to publicly shame The Huffington Post for writing such a ghastly -- and in her opinion, racist -- story.
Jesus fucking Christ, HuffPo. pic.twitter.com/VI2ysVJ9Rj
-- Mary Beth Williams (@embeedub) April 22, 2014
When friends of mine sent me the inevitable "Have you seen this?" chat, I initially wrote off Williams as a rabble-rouser who completely missed the point of the article and didn't deserve any further attention. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But as the conversation continued, I realized she missed the mark entirely.
Williams has criticized The Huffington Post in the past, and sometimes rightfully so. However, she completely ignored the implications of the conversation she decided to take on; a conversation about a culture she obviously knows very little about but felt she could authoritatively police and discuss.
She wrote a piece titled "HuffPo's Worst Headline?" in which she offers a scathing review of the post and chastises the editorial team's lack of tact. Fair enough.
However, it's painfully obvious that not only is Williams unfamiliar with the "once you go black, you never go back" phrase itself, she's ignorant to the colloquial nature of the statement within black culture as a whole. She failed to do a little bit of research and understand that while the phrase may have origins in the blaxploitation era, it has evolved into an empowering statement that represents a prideful celebration of how wonderful African Americans really are. In short, black people are so great, once you love one of us you will love all of us. It is a phrase that celebrates blackness in the same way the phrases "black don't crack" or "black girls rock" do. People who use it are not looking to put other races down; they are simply complimenting a race that has historically been subjected to criticism for centuries.
Don't get me wrong, I'm totally aware that the statement could be misread and misconstrued. It could be seen as a fetishizing or over-sexualizing of African-American bodies, a challenge the community has grappled with since slavery. One could assume that we're reducing these loving relationships and these individuals to the single quality of their race. For the record, Robert De Niro is likely with Gloria Hightower because she's an incredible woman, not simply because she's black. The point is black men and woman can, in fact, be incredible -- a revelation some people in this country haven't come to accept or understand just yet.
Not only did Williams fail to offer any of those examples as a substantive reason for her argument, she fails to acknowledge the evolution of the phrase and how it can also be seen as a celebration of black beauty and interracial love. This is obvious in her literal interpretation of the phrase that not only has a white person who falls in love with a black person "gone black" but they are in fact "never going back." Let's be frank, plenty of white people go back to dating white people after dating a black person. It's not a hard and fast rule. It's a saying.
In her article, Williams fails to acknowledge that the post was specifically published in the Black Voices section of the site. However, she makes it a point to identify Jessica Dickerson, the writer of the article -- who in fact happens to be a product of an interracial marriage herself. Not only is Dickerson not clueless about race and the world, she is actually a perfect example of exactly "how beautiful love can be, no matter what the color of your skin is."
But despite all of these facts, Williams felt emboldened enough to authoritatively dictate and police the conversations in a community she apparently knows very little about. She uses a condescending tone, chastising our editorial team for playing off of a statement with a history she's seemingly unaware of. Her privilege has veiled her perspective so much that she doesn't even take the time to ask if black people are offended. Instead, she states that of course all people MUST be offended by such a ghastly statement.
Later, she pointed out that the headline hadn't been changed.
Pssst HuffPo still hasn't changed the headline. Enjoy the crazy now before they wise up! http://t.co/hM8KBMA073
-- Mary Beth Williams (@embeedub) April 22, 2014
But what she failed to realize is there is in fact no "wising up" that needs to take place. The story was intended for a community that understood the use of the phrase, and it was written in a way that celebrated love regardless of race. Changing the headline would only alienate the community Black Voices is serving, because, quite frankly, it made some white people uncomfortable. While we wholeheartedly acknowledge that on The Huffington Post platform, Black Voices stories are sure to appeal to non-black readers, we maintain that our audience should be our first priority and that we should draw the line between writing for our community and alienating it.
Every media outlet makes mistakes, and I'll be the first to acknowledge them when we do. However, I don't feel this was one of them. People of all races will differ in opinions, which they are well within their right to do. But opinions are served best when they are informed, and it is quite clear that Mary Beth Williams was not.