Friday, February 12, 2016

Knowing When to Stay in Your Own Lane

Although I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, I did see my fair share of commentary on Beyoncé’s latest release, “Formation.” I know I won’t do justice to the artistry when I merely describe it as a song and video of female empowerment (particularly for black women), celebrating a heritage and struggle that the mainstream media often ignores.

My description, while reverent, is reverent from a distance. I don’t think I can articulate the majesty of this work and what it means to the people it represents. Simply put, I know that the song, video, and performance are best understood, appreciated, and explained by black women. I try to stay in my own lane and don’t pretend to know more than I do.

That’s not to say that I, an Asian female, can’t enjoy the work for what it is. But I also have to acknowledge that there are strands and complexities that I will never fully understand because of my identity, my experiences, and how others perceive me. I am a female of color, sure, but I will never face what black women face. Because I respect the strength it must take to endure the unique struggles that black women face, I do my best not to speak out of turn. I do my best to not pretend that I know of another group’s feelings or motives. I do my best to acknowledge that relative privilege pervades my perspective at every turn, so I cannot be immediately dismissive of what I may disagree with. 

At the same time, we should not underestimate the power and duty we have to speak up when nobody else will. We often find that we are the only people in the room who are anywhere near similar to the group that needs defending. But even as we take on this responsibility, we are still obligated to operate with tact. For example, I, as a cisgender Asian female, can only address the experiences of black trans women to a limited degree. But if I am in a room full of white, cisgender men who clearly have misconceptions about what a black trans woman experiences, I feel compelled to say something. I have to do my best to stamp out the more damaging misconceptions. But I should also lead with the caveat that these are not my own experiences; don’t take my word for it and ask someone more qualified, who can truly speak to these experiences.

To me, striking the balance between speaking and not speaking is one of the most difficult balances to strike when advocating for social justice and equality.

Nobody is ever immune from having to be conscious of staying in their own lane. Queen Bey herself has gotten quite a bit of flak for this as well. Some think, for example, that the struggles the black community faced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was not Beyoncé’s story to tell in her video. Some think that because of her fame and relative privilege, she could not do justice to representing something that she didn’t experience. Similarly, not too long before the Super Bowl, Beyoncé’s video with Coldplay, "Hymn For the Weekend," directly utilized and invoked imagery and aspects of Indian culture. Did Beyoncé “stay in her own lane”? Was this cultural homage or cultural appropriation? The jury is still out on that issue, reminding us just how delicate the balance is.

I emphasize knowing when to speak and not speak because I believe that failure to exercise such care appears disrespectful to others and ultimately drives divisions among us all. The feminist agenda is fragmented because interests among a diverse group are not monolithic. It can't be monolithic. No single perspective is controlling. We will never get a sense of those other perspectives if we lack the humility and respect to honor the struggles and needs of others. Most importantly, we cannot move forward in solidarity or speak with a unified voice if we keep trying to talk over and subordinate each other.


Liz said...

I feel the same way you do about Beyonce's video. As a woman of color I understand the different plights that we go through in our society but how we are impacted will vary. I get Beyonce's "Formation" video is expressing she is unaplogetically black and she is proud despite her celebrity status. There are political expressions as well in the video as she draws attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

I really enjoyed her music video and her celebration of her culture. I definitley feel its important for me as a person of color to celebrate my culture publically like Beyonce. Sometimes American society would like us all to blend but I do not feel I should ignore my roots.

Courtney Hatchett said...

While I assume most people may have already seen this, SNL's response to the Beyonce uproar has been circulating my social media almost as much as the Formation video itself. ( The skit basically shows a crumbling world of white tears of Americans unable to process that "Queen Bey" is not white. At one point, the white male takes out his earphones and says "Maybe it's not meant for us?" and the white lady responds, "But normally everything is!" Good on you SNL. While the skit has plenty to criticize, as many have and will continue to do, the fact remains that a major media outlet was able to point out the absurdity in the backlash to the Formation video in a way that was palatable to it's audience may have brought the idea of "staying in your own lane" to entire communities of people who may not have ever even considered that idea.

Meredith Hankins said...

I've definitely felt the need to "stay in my own lane" during the recent Kanye-Taylor Swift drama. While I want to celebrate T-Swift's feminist Grammy speech, I also recognize the problematic issue of the Grammys once again failing to recognize great music made by people of color. But I think the Grammys Album of the Year controversy is complicated by the fact that T-Swift is both white *and* female. Are people critical of her win over Kendrick Lamar only because of race? Or also gender? Do I get a place at the table to celebrate her being the first woman to win twice? Or should I stay out because I can't fully appreciate the racial dynamics? I think these are hard issues to talk about, and as a white woman I generally stick to my own lane because I'm not sure what the right answer is.

Sonja said...

I feel like I frequently struggle with the balance between staying in my own lane versus being an genuine ally. As a cis white woman, I can't understand the lived experiences of people of color. But, hopefully, I can try and convey some knowledge to my white peers and family members. To quote Brittany Cooper, founder of Crunk Feminist Collective, "Too frequently, white allies think we are asking them to come into our communities to affirm our account of racist acts and structures. What we are really asking is for them to 1) affirm that account boldly among other white people; and 2) use their privilege to confront racial injustices when they see them happening, whether in the grocery store or the boardroom." Thus, I aim to attempt to use my privilege in white spaces where these critical conversations are not taking place.

Another analogy that I read and appreciated recently is to imagine that every night at midnight your "Ally Card" expires. Therefore, you have to do the work each and every day to actually be considered an ally.

Amanda said...

I really appreciated this blog post. I too struggle to find the balance between staying in my own lane and also acknowledging, and trying to combat, existing prejudices and power imbalances. Recently, I've led discussion sections for an undergraduate international law class. I've been very cognizant of facilitating a critical conversation, but not overstepping by assuming I have a place to always express an opinion. For example, we recently examined special courts in Sierra Leone that were established to prosecute human rights abusers. The lead prosecutors in these courts were all foreign, white men. I tried to open up discussion by challenging students to question the implications of this fact, but also tried to acknowledge that as a white American, I cannot claim to know how justice could have been better served in Sierra Leone. I think we can view our roles as facilitating discussion, even when we can't claim expertise or even add to the conversation.