Nonfiction Pop Culture Societal The Word 9 minute read

Black Folks’ Masks, White Folks’ Tears & Beyonce

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I am not White.  Let’s get that out of the way.  But I think I have a real understanding as to why many White folks are so rattled by Beyonce’s Formation and corresponding video.  I also think I understand why the reaction to Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance was so muted in comparison. Peeps, don’t be mad at me — but this time — we need to accept some of the responsibility for White people’s tears.

Think about it for a minute.  You go to work dressed in your appropriate uniform: khakis and a white or blue collared shirt for the gentlemen.  No Steve Harvey inspired suit (hell, even Steve Harvey doesn’t wear Steve Harvey suits anymore since he “mainstreamed”).  Ladies, you wear a nice, un-patterned wrap dress, sans the big earrings that you usually sport.  You wear your hair in a conservative style: a bob, a flip, a bun.  You avoid braids, twists and cornrows, which is probably wise considering that the military only approved these styles in April, 2014.  Brothers, you wear your hair close to your head and rarely wear facial hair.  You wear the mask.

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You speak the perfect grammar, laugh at everyone’s jokes, and play on the company softball team.  You don’t share your weekend’s activities or reveal too much about your life.  You bring universally accepted food to your Christmas potluck.  You wear the mask.

You go to company functions and don’t drink as much as your colleagues.  You would never feel comfortable letting loose like that; but you sing along and bop your head to the 80’s Rock n’ Roll music that is playing in the background.  You wear the mask.

You don’t mention things that weigh heavily on your mind sometimes: Flint Michigan, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the fear that so many people support Trump’s separatist ideals.  You don’t even post about these matters on Facebook because several of your neighbors and co-workers are now your Facebook friends and you don’t want them to think that you are angry.  You wear the mask.

You walk into meetings and notice immediately that you are the only minority in the room. You’ve developed an uncanny skill of counting all the minorities, even in company-wide events, within 5 seconds.  But no one would know that you feel uncomfortable.  You wear the mask.

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You have unconsciously or consciously made yourself as neutral as possible.  You know people recognize that you are Black, but you have essentially bleached yourself tan through your dress, speech, and everyday behavior.  Tan blends.  You don’t want to make White people uncomfortable.  Difference makes all people uncomfortable and you have worked to be as un-different as possible to make them as indifferent as possible to your race.  You are a good Black and you wear your mask.

Your White friends have no idea that you cried when the Trayvon verdict came in; or that you spent Saturday walking in a Black Lives Matter Movement; or that you run a prayer group at your church for Black boys; or that your volunteer in a group that specifically helps minorities get into college.  They don’t know about how active you are in your Black sorority or fraternity. They have no idea that  your son is dating a White girl and you worry that the family won’t treat your son well.  They don’t know how sometime – actually a lot of the time —you get tired of being the only Black person in situations and that so many things are said in the office that are offensive.  They don’t know that you feel as if you have been passed over for promotions or have to work twice as hard for half as much.  They don’t know that you’ve been stopped by the police for no reason—as a matter of fact all of your friends have been harassed by the police at some point.  They don’t know that there is an extra burden that comes from being Black and you feel it everyday. Every damn day. They don’t know it because you wear the mask.

Beyonce too, wore a mask—a full freaking costume.  She became everybody’s sweetheart—accepted into all homes, by mothers and daughters.  She never uttered a controversial word. Actually, she rarely spoke.  She made White people feel absolutely comfortable until Super Bowl Sunday.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Singer Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Then she took the mask off, so that millions of people could see her fully.  Immediately, all hell broke loose!  Hold the presses. Wait a damn minute.  Beyonce seems to be a little pissed off about Black boys being shot by cops, and the way the government handled Katrina.  She’s noticed all of this stuff?  Not only is she Black.  She seems to embrace being Black.  Who knew?

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White people felt betrayed, shocked. THIS wasn’t the Beyonce they had “known” for years. How dare she?  What?!  She was supposed to be different.  She was supposed to be safe.

Beyonce was a good Black.  She smiled sweetly.  She showed up at the mostly White award shows and sang Ave Maria.  She and her husband hung out with Warren Buffet.  She appeared in all the top magazines, yachted with her husband, vacationed in Europe, went vegan, wore the best designers, and kept her mouth shut about everything.  She expertly wore the mask.

Then, without warning, she ripped that fuckin’ mask off and shocked the Whole White World.

Now we, Black folks, weren’t surprised.  Game recognizes game.  We know Black people.  We know Beyonce and Jay sit up on their yacht, sipping on some libations and talking about all the crap that is happening in our world.  We know that if Beyoncé has lived in THIS America, she has had to endure a lot of bullshit to get to where she is.  We know that she was supposed to open shows and was pushed down the schedule by a lesser known, less talented White girl.  We know that she has been getting her make-up done and some make-up artist has said some dumb-shit about how Black skin is so “neat” or questions about her weave (as if we are the only race to wear them); or how she isn’t really Black cause she was so light.

We know.  We’ve always known—cause there aren’t many Black Americans that don’t carry similar pain and resentment.  We just cover it up with the mask because they don’t want to be labeled angry, or whiney or militant, so they smile and dance—just like Beyonce.

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Now I don’t want White people to think that we’ve been being fake.  We actually like the 80s pop band, your mom’s Jell-o salad, and you.  We really do.  We just have never revealed all of ourselves to you because frankly you guys don’t handle it all that well.  If we wear our hair in naturally, you want to touch it as if we are a zoo animal.  Or when we wear a style of clothing that has a little more flavor to it —  we have to hear these weird compliments and have a discussion about it.  And if we say that we are angry about a particular situation, we know that you will get uncomfortable and there’s a 50% chance that you will say some dumb, well-meaning shit or leave us alone altogether.  So it’s easier to wear the mask (until it’s not).

Some Black folks, like Kendrick Lamar, don’t seem as if they’ve ever worn the mask.  Perhaps they never had to or were never encouraged to.  So they provide Black people with our voice—the one we stifle.

Kendrick Lamar performs at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Black folks loved Kendrick’s performance at the Grammys. White folks seemed to be fascinated, impressed with the artistry, and definitely (mostly) unbothered.  The reaction over Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance didn’t at all mirror the reaction after Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance.  Why?  He fits the stereotype.  There was no betrayal in his performance. White people had already classified “his type” as angry (and realize that there are a few out there). Black people who wear the braids and slouchy pants fit the mold the mainstream is comfortable with — angry, scary, and Black. Beyonce, my friends and co-workers fit a different mainstream comfort zone: happy, safe, and technically Black . . . but NOT REALLY BLACK.

The truth is, outside of the Clarence Thomas’s, Stacy Dashes and Ben Carson’s of the world, most Black folks are wearing a mask –some consciously and some unconsciously-in order to be accepted and successful.  Should we complain, should we show any emotion attached our Blackness and our history in America, we will be accused of playing the race card, being angry, causing problems, being difficult to work with; so we stay quiet, we dance, and we wear the mask.  Look what happens when we take it off: police officers are refusing to cover Beyonce’s events, Beyonce went from America’s sweetheart to a threat to America in a 4-minute performance.

Instead of continuing to work to make White people feel comfortable with who she is; Beyonce showed that now she is fully comfortable with who she is.    That means, as a Black woman, she has pain and anger.  It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love all people or that that she isn’t that woman she’s shared with the world over the last 30 years.  It simply means that loving her Blackness and being concerned about issues affecting her people is a part of who she is too.  It’s a part of who most Black people are–though we haven’t been allowed to show it.  What if White people’s discomfort stopped superseding Black people’s pain?  What if more Black people continued to take off their masks and challenged White people to like or simply accept them anyway?  It would take guts on everyone’s part. But, it seems that we’d all be better.

Are you up for it?

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