Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Picture this: 

I’m driving and listening to a section of Real Life where descriptions of social anxiety pull situational tension to a stiff tautness; then it winds the tension into a tight growing ball of layered description — one speaker tearing her cuticles raw and bleeding, the other taking in elements in the room — all slowing down the stressful conversation on the page, stalling direct speech.

Finally, when the sharp angry words that break this descriptive tension are uttered  — “women are the new ni**ers and fa**ots” —  they are so vile and violent that I audible gasp at their delivery and miss my turn.  This was just one moment where the way this novel builds and releases tension literally took my breath away and disrupted my sense of direction. 

Real Life is a campus novel, drawn from Taylor’s own experiences and written from the perspective of a queer black biochemistry graduate student, Wallace. The action of the novel centers around the mundane weekend activities Wallace participates in with his “friends,” fellow graduate students — a Friday night lake hangout, Saturday potluck dinner, Sunday brunch. His friends with one exception are white; they are all nauseatingly self-absorbed but also defensively frightened about their futures in ways that make them awful retaliatory people. Among the striking things about this novel is how it departs from conventional ways of depicting microaggressions. It doesn’t so much tell us how Wallace feels or why in the didactic way we have become accustomed to in narratives that engage racism. Rather it serves up thick and layered situational descriptions, through Wallace’s eyes and actions. 

We see him being affected; we see him try cope silently; we see him injured over and over again by people whose feelings he ironically struggles to protect. They are his friends. Wallace literally eats his feelings. Through conversations the reader witnesses how painful it is for Wallace to occupy the world of academia that is arrogant about its own progressiveness, even as it does quotidian violence to underrepresented students. Did I mention these people are terrible? It is a terribleness that is all the more compounded by Wallace’s constant awareness of himself —  his body, his gender, his race — , his inability to safely articulate to “his friends” how it feels to be him among them, to properly name and call out the offenses the reader observes first hand, and defend himself when they lob microaggressive jabs. There’s one instance where when he tells a friend about his father’s death; after chastising him for not sharing this news sooner, she cries so hard about it that he has to comfort her. 

And then there’s the fraught sexual relationship with one of his colleagues that begins on the weekend of the novel’s events. I won’t spoil it by saying who, but this book shines in its descriptions of sexual tension between them, the conflicted tenderness and violence that characterizes their coupling, and the pleasurable raciness of well written sex scenes. The titillating descriptions of this relationship reminded me of Tracker and Mossi in Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf; though Taylor’s couple is more dysfunctional.  

This is one of the books I want to win. If you saw my predictions for the shortlist in the previous post, you know I am only 2/6 and thus absolute rubbish at book prize predictions. But still. The violence that Wallace has endured and even sought out himself, throughout his life just to be, is heartbreaking. That Real Life communicates this by showing rather than telling contributes to this book’s cumulative devastations. The astonishing way it produces circumstantial accounts of microagression that are neither judgmental nor preachy lays bare just how fucked up academia can be. 


Nope. I am not here for your shock, surprise or denials of who you/we are.

Nope. I am not here for your shock, surprise or denials of who you/we are.

The neo-nazi white supremacist horror that unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend is just the bitter fruit of a strong yet old-ass tree that will not die so long as we keep behaving like we haven’t been scarfing down said fruit to get where we want to be in life. Neo-nazis marching openly as white supremacists in 2017 is not shocking. The smoldering racism and bigotry fanned by Tea Party and birther politicians, of voters who turned up in droves at Trump rallies and polling stations, of a justice system that refuses to convict police officers of extrajudical executions of black people, is the same racism and bigotry that decided to show up without their white hoods on a college campus, parading bare-faced and with pride through a Southern town. Some of us knew this could happen, because we recognized the escalation through the Obama years in the shooting deaths of unarmed black people by the police, and by shooter terrorists radicalized at home. At least those of us who know and are subjected to this country’s white supremacist history knew this could/would happen.

For those who claim they never saw this coming (and even if you did) you do us no favors when you say or do these three things:

1. Saying “this is *not* who we are.”

Um, the hell it’s not. When did the history of wealth accumulation that built this country, via the taking of land and the exploitation of black and brown labor on US soil and beyond, stop being a thing? How do you think America became a global superpower? Do your children know what made America great in the first place and what it means to want it to be great in that way *again*? There is no institution in this country that is not undergirded by white supremacist logics that privilege white citizens and their communities. White supremacy was not abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, the dismantling of Jim Crow, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, or any of the other candidates. Americans just found new and more covert ways to enforce white supremacy, like increasingly creative restrictive covenants, differential sentencing laws for drug charges, and the private prison system. The enduring fact of black and white neighborhoods—raised, as many observers noted, to a fine art by the multiple separate municipalities in St Louis County—are among today’s glaring examples of the far reaches of slavery’s separatist white supremacist legacies and how property ownership and other seemingly benign structures are rigged to enforce them.

When the first line you draw is “this is not who we are,” you are beginning from a point of dangerously ignorant negation. Try starting from acknowledgment: “we have been this way for too long.” Acknowledge the systemic roots of white supremacy in who we are as a nation and call out its contemporary manifestations. Understand how they continue to work long after legal slavery and segregation have ceased to exist. Think seriously about how they are and have been at work in creating who we are today. Work to dismantle them.

2. Saying “we must listen to what they [the white supremacists] have to say.”

Yeah, no. We musn’t. Stop that. The problem with hearing hate out, however well meaning in intention, is that it creates dangerous false equivalences that obstruct the work of meaningful equity. It’s why there are dumbasses on my screens gawping over how both sides can’t seem to convey their competing views less disruptively, as if one side doesn’t have slavery and genocide on its historical track record. Only one side has terrorized non-white people with flaming torches and gas-chambers. Only one side is seeking to strip civil rights from everyone who isn’t a heterosexual white male. Only one side has mowed down pedestrians on a crowded street, murdering an American citizen in broad daylight. Only one side has acolytes who do things like walk into a black church and murder Americans at prayer and Bible study. You skew the terms of dialogue in hate’s favor when you treat it as though it is a morally tenable position worthy of equal consideration. You devalue the side fighting for equality. You are not helping the cause of justice, you are validating murderous and destructive hate. Cut it out right now.

3. Sharing symbolic memes.

What am I supposed to get from the sharing of memes depicting the ripping up of a Nazi flag? That shit is as small as the safety pin. Sorry, not sorry. We are so far beyond symbolic gestures that seeing such weak shows as expressions of solidarity just makes me mad. There were young white men brandishing torches on a university campus in the name of white supremacy in 2017. From where my black female immigrant ass is sitting, in Misssouri, the only state to have a travel warning from the NAACP, this is terrifying. All the Nazi flags in the world ripped in two does nothing to assuage that fear. Give a hard pass to the symbolic gestures in memes and on our clothes. Instead, go have an honest conversation with the children and young people in your family about white supremacy and how we are still in a place where, despite decades old legislation, despite a history of events like slavery and the Holocaust, white supremacists can march openly night and day, striking terror, spewing hate, and committing violence, while the police stand by for far too long and watch. Everyone, regardless of race, needs to be talking with their children about why there is such a thing as “the talk,” about why hearing it is crucial for some children and not for others.

Don’t know how to have such a heavy conversation? Click on the links to a variety of event-based syllabi that are being circulated. Here’s one specifically about Charlottesville’s history of white supremacy. Read the things listed and once you’ve digested them, go talk honestly to the children. Already talked to the children? Go talk to those in charge of the children’s school district. Ask them how these events will be treated in the classroom. Ask about the resources being allocated to help teachers instruct students frankly and factually about these events. And while you’re at it, go talk to your church’s minister and leadership council. Ask for more teaching that helps your faith community understand the relationship between the Good News of Christ and social justice. Demand the denunciation of what happened in Charlottesville, from the pulpit, as un-Christian. Jesus himself flipped tables and called his friends the devil for less.

Think children are too young to be exposed to things this heavy? Then you are well on your way to being complicit with the system that socialized the young men in their twenties and thirties who showed up on UVA’s campus with torches, upset that theirs are no longer the only voices that matter. Let’s avoid creating another generation of people who is either too enthusiastic about the public resurgence of white supremacy or too anxious to deny that this is who we really are. Can we do that?

Nope. There is still no chill over here in Missouri.

Nope. There is still no chill over here in Missouri.

So, presha an’ all dese tings tun WAY up over here since last fall. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, take a quick crash course by reading thisthis, and this for information about the student protest movements that successfully forced the resignation of the University of Missouri’s system president. See this for how Mizzou’s football team got involved as protest closers. And finally this for an idea of how the powers that be have responded to a member of The Establishment getting the heave ho because of black students and their campus-wide allies, who clearly don’t know their place in this world.  Are you caught up? Good. Welcome back. Now that you have a bit of context,  and for those who may have missed the event, I wrote and read the following for a teach-in this past week that attempted to counter the negative and racist narrative of the events at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus since last semester.

As an English professor I study how events or phenomena in the real world are translated into representations, and what these representations and our reactions to them reveal or conceal about the lived realities of our past, present, and future. Since moving to Missouri in 2008 I’ve had lots of opportunities to apply this habit of mind to things other than novels, and to consider how we process and represent events involving race and community in our everyday lives.

Holy Family Catholic Church, Freeburg, MO.

Let’s start with the mundane. A couple of years ago, I accompanied a friend to Freeburg, a little town about an hour and a half south of here. We went to a talk at the Holy Family Catholic church, given by a visiting priest who also happens to be black. That priest and I were the only two people of color in attendance. After the talk an elderly member of the church approached my friend and I and began, without invitation, as if compelled by the presence of two black bodies, to tell my friend (who is white) about the first black couple who moved to Freeburg, back in the 1960s. According to his story, they moved there from Chicago, but soon afterwards were forced to leave. He told my friend how the community encouraged the priest at the time to tell the couple they weren’t welcome, either in Freeburg as residents, or at Holy Family as parishioners, because of their race. The priest told them their unwanted presence might stir up racial unrest and even potential violence against them and their property. He concluded that in the community’s collective mind, it was better for them to leave. Thus, the community’s refusal to accommodate the couple’s diversity became the couple’s problem, and not the community’s problem. Rather than relinquish the segregated comforts of its own racism, Freeburg preferred to hold on to segregation for a little bit longer, ultimately laying the responsibility for their communal discrimination at the feet of the black couple.

I don’t know if the story he told is true; for my proposes here that doesn’t really matter. What I want to focus on instead is the fact that this elderly man decided to tell this particular story, on this occasion, and how he went about telling it. You see, as he spontaneously relayed this story to my friend, he neither looked at nor addressed me. I noticed this as he spoke to her and even tested to make sure I wasn’t imagining it by dropping a “really” or “is that so” and even “where’d they move to?” into the conversation. Though his eyes registered that he heard me, they did not move in my direction to register my presence, nor did he answer my questions. I didn’t protest this by confronting him; I didn’t see the point. He looked to be almost a hundred years old; I figured he wasn’t just set in his ways, he was pretty much calcified in them, like a fossil. Moreover, being from Jamaica, I had never had my presence erased in quite that way before and I was mildly fascinated by what was happening.

You might be surprised to learn that the man’s refusal to see me wasn’t the most discomfiting thing about this experience. It was, rather, that the person I was with did not notice I was being ignored. Or, to put it another way, she did not notice that the person she was talking to was refusing to see me. It only occurred to her when I explained it afterwards, and to her credit, once I asked what she noticed about his interaction with me, she began to register the exclusion. The thing is, while I expect racist discrimination and even erasure in some places, at the time, I was only just beginning to understand how this discrimination is simply invisible to some of us – even when it is happening in our presence.


From that mundane personal example of the failure or refusal to see, we can move to a more spectacular opportunity to think about how what we see and don’t see about race can tell us about ourselves and our community. Let’s talk about Beyoncé at the Super Bowl. When Beyoncé performed “Formation” in the Bay Area last month, flanked by dancers with afro-adorned heads bedecked with black berets, there was a collective clutching of pearls at what some saw as the outrageous and divisive audacity of this Black Panther imagery. How dare Beyoncé bring race onto the most hallowed of football extravaganzas? How dare she use that significant time and place – the fiftieth Super Bowl – to pay tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of establishment of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, in a city not that far away from the one where the game was being played. Never mind that Beyoncé and many of the football players inhabit raced bodies and as such, race is always already present. Never mind either that in order to make things hospitable for the big game and its fans, undesirable elements, like a large predominantly minority homeless population, needed to be removed from sight. By evoking the Black Panthers, Beyoncé also evoked, among other things, the absent presence of the city’s destitute displaced by game day gentrification. The backlash came primarily from those who did not want to be forced to see racial and class politics at the Super Bowl. One Fox News anchor said the overtly black performance alienated “little white girls” who are Beyoncé fans. A police union in Miami urged other police unions to boycott her concerts for what it perceived to be anti-police sentiment in the video for “Formation” and the game day performance.

Whatever your opinion is of the song or the performance, like a present day Trojan horse, in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé smuggled into one of America’s most unequivocally nationalist and always already racially loaded spectacles, the iconic, resistant, and subversive visuals of the Black Panther Party. As fashion magazines from the 1960s and 70s attest, the Black Panthers’ afros, black berets, leather jackets, and even

Mizzou Football showing their solidarity with the Concerned Student 1950 movement

guns were as much about self defense and communal preservation as they were about a militant coolness, the celebratory, unapologetic, and now iconic racial pride of a violently oppressed and marginalized portion of American society. This is a portion of society that some of us continue to resist seeing or hearing, when we find ourselves in its presence. These days, that ignored and/or excluded presence is in no way as silent or polite as I was that night in Freeburg. Indeed, Beyoncé’s performance forced us to think about the relationship between sports, racial politics, and capital together, at the same time – much as our own football team did last November.

I can’t say Beyoncé’s display of blackness at the Super Bowl, a display that I see as related to our own student demonstrations, should not evoke emotions of anger or alienation or both. I think that is part of the point of the demonstrations.

Among my proudest moments at MU #chills #staywoke

What I would like us to do is to pause to consider why particular visual spectacles of blackness – a black couple moving into an all white community, Black Panther-like dancers at the Super Bowl, or black students marching through a student union loudly demanding full equity on campus – are each represented through the lens of outrage that demands censorship, silencing, expulsion, and erasure, rather than an honest confrontation of what it is about us and our community that resists seeing, seeking instead to dismiss the fullness of what is being represented. What is it about how we perceive blackness that simultaneously registers as invisible and hyper-visible when it moves outside its quote-unquote proper place?

Nope. I didn’t expect Woody Allen’s Irrational Man would be triggering, but there you have it.

Nope. I didn’t expect Woody Allen’s Irrational Man would be triggering, but there you have it.

Holy shit you guys! It’s been a minute since I’ve had such a bad reaction to a movie. I don’t even like the word triggering and how it’s being trotted out to keep the ignorant blissfully so. But I struggled for reals with mounting anger through Woody Allen’s Irrational Man, while nonetheless still hoping I would find something redeeming about it. When we had the typical post-movie “Well what did you think?” conversation, all I could say was I hated it.

I needed some time to think about why, which I did, with much anger, gesticulations, and to my surprise one or two really big angry tears as the gentleman and I walked back to the car, drove to the grocery store, and made our way home. I knew it had something to do with the five people of color – only one of whom had a speaking roll that she played within the first 10 minutes of the film, after which she was never seen again – who I spent most of my time scanning the screen for and counting. But representational diversity was only just my gateway problem with the movie. I mean, come on, it’s a Woody Allen film. I knew what I was in for.

I’d like to acknowledge here too that my response to the film has everything to do with the fact that I am a relatively young, non-American woman of color, who is also a newly tenured English professor at a predominantly white Midwestern university. The first half of that self-description, in many ways, is why I can only ever smile politely and think, “how quaint” at the end of any Woody Allen film I’ve seen. Much of the culturally embedded specificity is as foreign to me as the films about where I’m from probably are to Woody Allen. In Irrational Man, though, every time I saw the one black dude that was at the table with an Asian woman and six or seven other white students, or the single black couple who were blurry background people in full rooms of in-focus white people, I felt the sometimes discomfiting familiarity of such rooms. My problem with this film, though, is not so much its lack of diversity, but the other thing that counting people of color made me notice: its portrayal of white American academics – not a single non-white one among them; I was looking – who all suffer from the same gross lack of awareness of the privilege that comes from their race, education, and citizenship. It was overdrawn, but also in some places familiar. I knew it well enough to recognize it immediately and it rubbed me the wrong way.

But let me back up for a second to give the context for why I was at this movie, even though I pretty much knew how it would go from the trailer and long ago decided I absolutely did not want to see it. If you are my friend on the social medias, you may have noticed that I have dramatically reduced my engagement with the racial politics du jour, particularly those surrounding police brutality. Sandra Bland’s death in particular was tough and angering. This is not only because I had to check somebody who characterized multiple deaths of African Americans in police custody as isolated incidents not reflective of any larger systemic issues, and not at all an indicator of a significantly flawed justice system. If I need to explain to you why the whole isolated incidents thing is rubbish, this blog is not for you. Click away from this post right now and come back when I have patience for your foolishness, and begin to pray for just that, because right now I am not the one. Jesus has been known to make a way, though.

With a few weeks before I needed to return to the classroom fresh and not angry about racial inequality, wearing a brown face in a predominantly white place, I took the self-care route that thankfully is also being advocated for those of us who live in the bodies that are typically targets for (sometimes fatally violent) marginalization and whose work focuses on countering this marginalization, one hard headed soul at a time. I stopped reading the posts, the articles, the memes, the all of it. I stopped engaging, because my recent drive back to Missouri from Miami, through southern states, terrified me. I stopped engaging because when my husband showed me the stupid video of the KKK member at a confederate rally wearing FUBU sneakers I cried, because I am terrified of those people who will say things like “blacks are taking over our country” but are unable to see that as racism, because too many people are too busy confusing hatred and patriotism. Stupid used to be an annoyance, but today, in this body and in this place, it is more terrifying than anything else that has ever frightened me in almost 36 years of life on this earth.

My self-care regimen, so I would stop crying when I felt hopeless in the face of the adamant ignorance of the #AllLivesMatter crowd, the capacity for deadly violence among the Dylan Roofs of the world, and the daily blurring of the line between the two, meant I decided to pass on seeing Straight Outta Compton too – that and the very troubling casting memo from a while back. There is no doubt that the police brutality and racism shown in that film would be angering and could trigger the tears that are always welling behind my eyes these days. Not only that, I can’t get behind the film’s treatment of women or Ice Cube’s dismissal of the film’s misogyny. I get the stupidity of youth part; everybody does dumb shit when they’re young. But I’m still waiting on the whole, that was so wrong back then and I see that now and I am happy I am a grown ass man who no longer denigrates women, because that shit – even when we perpetrate it as young, stupid youth – is just poor. See, Ice Cube? How hard is that? But anyway, I wasn’t going to see that movie because I needed to not subject myself to those two triggers – racism and misogyny – right before I hit classrooms on a university campus which, alongside many fine students, includes a bro culture like you wouldn’t believe, the excesses that sometimes accompany SEC football, and proud traditions like one fraternity’s Poverty Party.

So now we get to why I semi-unwittingly went to see a Woody Allen movie in the first place. I figured, what would possibly be upsetting in a lily white Woody Allen movie? As it turns out I found a whole lot to be upset about. When I saw Joaquin Phoenix in the opening scene I immediately recognized it, was a little wary of being there and, overall, sorry I don’t pay closer attention when my husband suggests we see a movie. The self-absorption of yet another middle-aged white man having an existential crisis that has not a damn thing to do with the price of rice didn’t appeal to me. But there I was nonetheless on the couch at the local art house theater settling in for a movie I had forgotten I didn’t want to see.

I’m a damn good sport though. I saw The Fantastic Four voluntarily and I feel neither here nor there about superhero stuff. So I settled in with my shandy and was prepared to watch and enjoy nonetheless. Quick plot rundown and there will be spoilers, so if Woody Allen is your shit and you plan to see it, then stop reading now and come back after for why it pissed me off. Ok, the rest of you, Abe Lucas, played by Phoenix, is a neurotic, self absorbed, romantically gothic, and attractive-to-everyone-because-he-is-troubled-yet-ridiculously-smart philosophy professor. He moves to Rhode Island to teach summer session at a fancy college with classrooms that only seat twelve. You know, the small rooms that are particularly suited for all those deep and complex and completely extemporized philosophical discussions of Kant, Kierkegaard, et alia that us professor types have all the time, with earnest undergraduate students who have all read and are engaged at a graduate level or above. Those people definitely show up for summer school.

Joaquin as Abe is in the throes of the same existential crisis that he’s been in for his last three roles – with the exception perhaps of Inherent Vice – but really, if you saw his red eyed bumbling mumbling in that one, you’ve already seen what he does in Irrational Man.

As over Joaquin Phoenix as I have been, I was more bored by Emma Stone, who plays Jill the student who is completely taken by Abe and all his gothic philosophical bullshit and spends much of the movie staring up at him doe eyed. Their romance is, as we say in Jamaica, dry like crackaz, and just utterly unmoving – to me at least – and I will accept that my annoyance with the overall boringness of both actors/characters probably does inform my assessment of their on screen chemistry.

The crux of the thing is how to resolve everything once Abe murders a corrupt judge to restore meaning to his life and Jill threatens to rat him out to the cops if he doesn’t turn himself in. To avoid having to give up his whole renewed sense of meaning and vitality and spend the rest of his life in prison if Jill goes to the cops, Abe decides to murder her too by throwing her down an elevator hatch that he’s tampered with. In an unexpected and really quite ridiculous physical skirmish, Abe slips on a flashlight that rolls out of Jill’s dropped purse. Ironically, this is a flashlight he won for her at a carnival. She picked it instead of a Teddy Bear. Yawn. Even when the movie tries to give Jill depth she only ever comes off as trying too gahtdamn hard to do lord knows what next to Joaquin’s crazy. But anyway, he slips on the fateful flashlight and falls to his own death down the shaft. I told you there would be spoilers; it’s your own fault if you continued to read despite my warning. But since you’re still here, you might as well stick around for the moment— ah comin’! –when this prefatory preamble/rant finally gets to why this film was unexpectedly triggering.

So beyond being bored by seeing Joaquin do all that exact shit already in comedies, dramas, and all of the things, and seeing Emma Stone moon-eye-with-barely-parted-lips her way through the entire film, what got me was the film’s utter unconsciousness about its dependence on white American privilege. Now, I have ambivalence about this. I am the lady who argues in most of her work that keeping art beholden to the political imperatives of its time and context is unproductively restraining, not the least because it makes us miss all kinds of important and interesting things about art. This is why despite being disturbed by the film’s tokenism with regard to diversity, I kept paying close attention rather than napping, because there had to be something redeeming about it.

It had to at the very least obliquely be aware of the privilege that it traffics in. But as it turns out, not so much. You see, Irrational Man clearly wants us to see Abe as an asshole, but it goes about making this point while remaining oblivious of the fact that he is surrounded by other people who are entirely unaware of their privilege, and for the most part useless in providing the kind of foil necessary to criticize Abe’s actions. For me the most egregious aspect of Abe’s assholery is the insipid narcissism that is at the core of his existential crisis. He spirals into depression, impotence, and alcoholism because despite his brilliant philosophical treatises and brave volunteerism in Darfur and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he has been unable to change the world enough. So he lost his reason to live, because his volunteerism and smart philosophy papers did not change the world. What the hell is wrong with wanting to change the world through smart academic writing and volunteering, lady?, is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask here. Not a gahtdamn thing is what I’d say, unless your whole reason for wanting to change the world is, like Abe’s, so you can feel better about yourself. Church, we don’t need any more people going into economically depressed places and disaster areas looking to feel better about themselves or searching for a reason to live. Those efforts become dangerous when they are focused on how self can be made better by helping others, rather than just helping others. See what I did there? Everyone, cut that shit out right now.

So let’s say Irrational Man feels the same way I do about the narcissism of volunteerism and the self-seriousness of academics and really wants us to see Abe for the sorry human being that he is. I would be more convinced by this argument if there weren’t other such characters all over the film. I mean, all I needed was one voiceover – maybe Jill’s when she wasn’t being boring – saying something like, “you know, this whole I’m-so-smart-but-can’t-save-the-world thing seems to be more about your brain and your efforts than it is about anyone else.” But nope, she was too busy being enchanted by said brain and efforts. Sure, she took the moral high ground and insisted that he leave town or she would turn him in, but that was only because murder is the horrific thing It is. It’s also important to note that she’s horrified by the murder but not so much by the character flaws or sense of privilege that lead up to it.  There’s a kind of willed blindness here that she shares with other characters.

Let’s take Rita, played by Parker Posey, who I hate to do this to, because she was the only watchable one in the whole thing if you ask me. Rita is a chemistry professor who was also having an affair with Abe. I say chemistry prof because it’s her key to the poisonous chemicals room that Abe lifts, so he can get the poison to kill the judge. Rita wants to divorce her husband and move to Spain to start a new life. Towards the end, after Jill threatens to turn him in, Abe entertains taking Rita with him when he leaves for Europe to escape further suspicion. Rita, even though she suspects Abe is the killer, is all like, I’d go with him anyway. Nuttn nuh wrong wid dat. Who cares if he killed a dude for reasons? Sexy romantic middle-aged European escape and wot not. Except of course for the perfect ease of the fantasy that through my eyes was conspicuously devoid of any concerns for border crossing. Ask one of those folks who are braving the treacherous waters off North Africa to make the nine mile trip to Europe – many of whom don’t actually make it – about the sheer simple pleasure of a new start in Europe. Ask one of the millions who made it to Europe from war torn countries but exist in refugee limbo because no country wants to grant them amnesty. I’m sorry, but even as a thoroughly documented immigrant, I did not get the fantasy, not least because people who should know better dreamt it up.

So here’s the crux of the problem, which has to do with how hard this movie has to work—and is willing to work—to gin up a sense of existential crisis in a world where too many people live that shit on the daily. Recently, I saw an outraged post on Urban Cusp about the human rights violation that is the taking of DNA swabs on arrest for FBI archiving and identification purposes; many of the ensuing comments also expressed the outrage with the word “unconstitutional” featuring prominently.

The criminalizing effect of such practices was the essence of the outrage. I have broken no laws, why are you taking my DNA? That particular outrage, expressed by an American woman, belies one of the many privileges of un-criminalized American citizenship. Today, immigrants, African Americans, and others are actively criminalized in subtle and not so subtle ways – like the arrest of activists at Black Lives Matter Protests. Since 9/11, I have been finger printed and photographed at the make shift precincts that are called Border Control in American airports every time I arrive from a different country. Every. Single. Time. More times than I can count. Before I got my green card, my biometrics were once again taken for the various criminal justice databases all over the country. What this has made clear to me is that as an immigrant, I do not have the luxury of a presumption of innocence. I understand the outrage at feeling like a criminal when one is subjected to practices associated with those who break the law. It’s how I have felt on every single entry into the US since 9/11. I have broken no law beyond being a woman of color who migrated to America. I bring all this up because I do not have the privilege of not being criminalized at American borders. This is why Abe and Rita’s European escape plan got under my skin. Really, they should know better.

I’d like to think that academics in a movie would have more awareness about the world and those beyond the mostly white halls of a college just outside of Providence, Rhode Island. Maybe that is too much to ask of Woody Allen. But at this current moment in history it seems in some ways easier to know these things than it has been, and by extension much harder to maintain the kind of fantasy of a world where people choose their own existential crises that Irrational Man wants us to buy. If you’re me at least.

Meanwhile, I guess I need to go see Straight Outta Compton after all. You know, to balance all the shitty chi.

Nope. On this score, America is not all that different from the Dominican Republic (or the Bahamas)

Nope. On this score, America is not all that different from the Dominican Republic (or the Bahamas)

“‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,’” is what the young white man who sat for an hour among those gathered for bible study said to his victims as he opened gunfire on them and reloaded his weapon five different times. These are the names and ages of the men and women who were killed: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59. Never mind that six of the nine people are women, the fear of collective black violence against exclusionary white supremacist imaginings of “our country” that he invokes here has haunted white America, and terrorized people of African descent in particular, since Jesus was in short pants. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin defined this fear in a 1964 interview. “There is no prospect of setting Negroes free, unless one is prepared to set the white people of American free,” he says. When asked from what do white Americans need to be set free, he answered, “free from their terrors, free from their ignorance, free from their prejudices, and free ultimately from the right to do wrong, knowing that it is wrong.” In qualifying this sense of the need for white people to be free, and characterizing it as a necessary part of the revolution hoped for by the Civil Rights movement — essentially saying this Civil Rights business is not just for black folk — Baldwin’s words show us that today’s white supremacist terrorist has not evolved far beyond that of yesteryear:

White southerners, I think are the most victimized, the saddest people of the Western world. They know it’s wrong – you can’t turn a dog on a child and not know that you are doing something wrong. You have to know it and nobody can deny it. And this is an extreme example of what I mean when I say that this revolution is not designed so much to change the Negro community as to change the American community, the American relationship to itself: Americans walking around with various uneasiness and terror, wondering what the negro is going to do next, especially since they invented him. You know what I mean?

I sure as hell do, James, but now you’ve gone and made me get ahead of myself. Before I can even begin to think about the chilling, wrongheaded, and hateful words the shooter uttered, and what they mean for America’s relationship to itself, I want to take us away from South Carolina, where the confederate flag still flies over the state house, to the Dominican Republic. There, in 1937, President Raphael Molina Trujillo ordered the massacre of ethnic Haitians living in the frontier region, close to the border between Hispañola’s forever-contentious sister nations. The orders he gave national troops and civilian reserves was to use machetes, because bullet riddled bodies would betray governmental involvement in an attempted genocide that was intended to look – in the interest of legality – like a civil uprising. Whether someone lived or died depended on how they pronounced the r in perejil, the Dominican word for parsley (thus the name Parsley Massacre). If you rolled the r you were Dominican and thus spared. If you pronounced it as a w sound, you were Haitian and thus chopped to death. Many weren’t even given the parsley test though, but rather summarily cut down because of the darkness of their skin.

I think it’s important to go on this particular trans-historical and transnational journey, with stops in 1937 at Trujillo’s El Corte in the DR, today’s impending mass deportation of ethnic Haitians from the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, and the terrorist attack on the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, because the relationship between terror and citizenship in each instance is one we should think long and deeply about. Though separate and unique instances of violence against black communities, which should absolutely be considered and commented upon individually within their unique context and circumstances, they nonetheless collectively offer a singular and timely opportunity to think about why today – with all the good work folks like Rachel Dolezal do – we in our supposed progressive democratic societies continue to see daily racially-motivated violence committed against people of color by perpetrators whose actions are facilitated and protected by the laws of the land.

If you know what happened at La Frontera in ’37, you cannot help but watch the events that have unfolded since a 2013 Constitutional Court decision to strip generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, with the unnerving horror at history repeating itself. The decision stipulates that Dominicans born after 1929 to parents who are not of Dominican descent will have their citizenship revoked. It’s worth noting that the date of retroactive revocation chillingly and even mockingly predates that of the 1937 massacre. Where anywhere between 15,000 to 35,000 people of and believed to be of Haitian descent were chopped to death by state order in 1937, today, we are talking about an estimated 500, 000 Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been sentenced to a civic death or sorts. Many of them have no connections, familial or otherwise, to Haiti.

After an initial international outcry over the possibility of rendering stateless almost half a million people, the government of the DR launched a program that would consider granting legal residency to non-citizens who could establish their identity and prove they arrived in the DR before 2011. That is, they have to prove they were not a part of the the post-earthquake surge of Haitians into the DR. Nonetheless, the disingenuousness of what appears to be a diplomatic and generous program is revealed in its requirements and its approval rate. The thing is, you don’t ever really have to think about the paperwork that allows you to traverse the world until you need to do just that—say if you’ve never left your country of birth to make a life in another one. Today, on paper, I am a copiously documented non-resident alien who has resided in the US since 2001; my existence in this country has been documented by four different resident programs that we can think about as similar to the one proposed by the government of the Dominican Republic. The volume of documentation I have needed over the years to legitimize my presence is astonishing. The most basic of these is a birth certificate, which in the case of those subject to the ruling in the DR is among the necessary documents when filing for legal residency. Today, officials estimate that there are 500, 000 people who might be eligible for this legal residency, but as the Miami Herald notes,

employers in the Dominican Republic are not providing workers with documentation to prove they have been in the country long enough to qualify. Another hurdle has been the Haitian government, which despite pledges to improve the process has been slow to provide birth certificates and other forms of identification to its citizens and has charged more than many people can afford to pay.

Today, only 300 of the 250,000 who have applied for these permits have received them. When the security of your existence in a particular place is contingent on your ability to produce corroborating paperwork, your inability to do so devalues your existence in that place, reducing your humanity to the papers that justify your presence, and makes you vulnerable to the kinds of violence that we see all over the media if we look closely enough. Here. Here. And here. Moreover, the state essentially denies you its protections and leaves you vulnerable to those it charges with enforcing the security of the homeland, on behalf of those citizens it claims, against the ones it does not. If you are me, it is at this juncture that what is happening in the Dominican Republic today meets the delusions of the white terrorist who murdered nine black people in a South Carolina church last night.

Of course, you are well within your rights to say no one in the US lives under the threat of deportation in quite this way, but that would be a stupid thing to say. What happens to Haitians in particular in detention centers in Santa Domingo, Nassau, or South Florida resoundingly resonates with the more opaque corralling and terrorizing of brown and black people who might as well be locked away in Krome for all the state sanctioned terror they confront walking down the street, listening to loud music, hanging out at a pool party, or at church. At least the Dominican constitution is transparent about what it is up to. We in the United States have yet to begin to acknowledge, understand, and do something about the ways our legislative framework also sanctions the right of some citizens to terrorize others, on the basis of race, under the corrupted logic of protecting a white supremacist imagining of the homeland from black and brown outsiders.

The white supremacist logic that underlies both the past and present relationship between Haitians and Dominicans in the Dominican Republic is the same one that underlies the shooter’s delusional version of what constitutes “our country,” the things from which it needs to be protected, and whom it needs to exclude. To understand this, we need to remember that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere. It resulted in the establishment of the world’s first black nation at a time when European colonial domination of the region was supreme and the newly minted United States was only just testing her own imperialist chops. Haiti as a nation has continued to pay for this since. The Haitian Revolution in many ways is the specter of imagined retaliatory black violence realized, and laws all over the region since then have sought, often violently, to guard against the violent resistance from the subjugated that subjugators often fear and can vividly imagine. The Dominican Republic’s historical memory of itself as a colony of Haiti obviously stokes this fear in ways that have become normalized within its national fabric. It celebrates, for example, its independence from Haiti, but not from Spain.

The US on the other hand, did not really need the threat of another Haitian Revolution to amp up its own strategies of protection against black rebellion and overthrow. Indeed the strategies geared towards protecting those legitimized as American citizens from those categorized as laboring chattel dates back to the 1600s, and work to inscribe within the national imagination who is a person/citizen with protections under the law, and who is property and thus bereft of protection. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes,

In 1650, Virginia mandated that “all persons except Negroes” were to carry arms. In 1664, Maryland mandated that any Englishwoman who married a slave must live as a slave of her husband’s master. In 1705, the Virginia assembly passed a law allowing for the dismemberment of unruly slaves—but forbidding masters from whipping “a Christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.” In that same law, the colony mandated that “all horses, cattle, and hogs, now belonging, or that hereafter shall belong to any slave” be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support “the poor of the said parish.”

Let’s not let that first provision escape us. The right to protect oneself and one’s property with arms is definitive of who a citizen is in the United States. It is a notion as old as time. Moreover, the right to bear arms defines citizenship at the same time that it decides who is denied that protection and thus barred from citizenship. A bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in the hands of a young black man can be mistaken for weapons and he can be summarily and extrajudicially executed for just that mistaken imagining. The rest speaks for itself, to the extent that the latter are incorporated into the dehumanizing fabric that continues to this day to marginalize and wreak violence against black lives.

If the Haitian Revolution presents a too-close-to-home reminder of the possibility of black retaliatory violence, the black church historically is also a powerful symbol of black organization and resistance. This is a part—perhaps the biggest part—of why its literal structure and members have been subject to violence since the Jim Crow era. We can also understand the attack on members of this particular church, more specifically, because of its history as the spiritual home of Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom after he won the lottery and fomented a failed insurrection among 9000 of Charleston’s slaves. Emanuel AME was burned to the ground back in 1822 because of its association with Vesey, but once rebuilt, it later housed audiences for civil rights speeches given by Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr, and Coretta Scott King. Last night’s murders there was a calculated hate crime, meant to strike a blow to a generations old symbol of black community and resistance.

Church, I’m so tired of coming up in here and talking all the time about race, but I will not risk the wrongheadedness of those who want to displace race as a focus of our conversations, before we have fully come to terms with the ways we all live its implications no matter what color where we live says we are. To the extent that the government of the Dominican Republic and white supremacist networks in America continue to see race as a divisive marker that must be policed by white supremacist terror – aided and abetted by pro-pro gun legislation – it is unwise for us to shift our focus. Indeed, while I agree that perpetually parsing racial politics risks a form of essentialism that works to perpetuate rather than mitigate equitable equality, I also know the full story has yet to be told and understood about how race affects all our lives in life-and-death ways.

Globalism exacerbates the relationship between race and statelessness that has existed since Europeans discovered the Western hemisphere and began importing Africans to do the labor of extracting its wealth. Statelessness is a confounding mode of being not only because it leaves those subject to it without the protections and rights available to those imagined to be legitimate citizens, but also because the absence of the markers of legitimacy du jour is tantamount to a sentence of nonexistence and horrifying vulnerability. Here in the US, the vulnerable version of statelessness lived by black and brown people is not nearly as transparent as in the Dominican Republic. On that point alone, the country that brought us Trujillo appears to have the United States beat.

Nope. I did not want to give Rachel Dolezal a second thought.

Nope. I did not want to give Rachel Dolezal a second thought.

But here I am, giving this more than a couple thoughts – committing thoughts to text even. I blame the ubiquity of the conversation about this white woman who passed as black for the last ten years, achieving what are considered benchmarks of African American ethnic responsibility and success such as presidency of an NAACP chapter, racial activism, and an academic position in an Africana Studies department in an American university. She came up at a dinner party last night; then two different people asked me what I thought about it; the likkle man inboxed me not one, but three truly perplexing additions to the batshit crazy story this morning, because he knows I am just here quietly and sometimes not so quietly wrestling with this. Like Jacob with the angel, I can’t let this mess go until it makes some kinda sense to me, but as I have said when asked, I don’t quite know what to make of it. Neither do I have any cans for this and hope in earnest that Luvvie Ajayi recovers from jetlag soon, so she can set things right with the insightful snark.

Everything I know about the workings of race, ethnicity, and identity in the hegemonic organization of society offers me no reliable insight. Instead my thoughts are working in concentric circles that don’t help me form an opinion about Dolezal and what she has done, certainly not one that I am willing to utter out loud, with conviction, much less one I am willing commit to print. Should we celebrate her as relinquishing white privilege and embracing blackness as progress? Isn’t the idea that you can relinquish white privilege the very essence of white privilege? I can’t even touch the transracial mess yet. Intuitively I know it’s not quite right, but I have yet to read our think any thoughts that explain why it isn’t quite right convincingly enough, so I will sit on my intuition and keep reading until such time. Couple days ago, Kara Brown, on Jezebel, identified the visage of our collective response to this perplexing madness as the expression on Marc Lamont Hill’s face as he watched the Huff Po Live segment where Dolezal’s parents revealed her whiteness.

Mark Lamont Hill on Jezebel

I am Mark Lamont Hill’s face. I mean, humph. Ok. Lets run through some possible options of what exactly might be going on here. What exactly are we to make of this woman’s decade long existence as African American (or, as she says she prefers, black)? I’ll start with ones that seem generous: maybe we are being punked. Ashton Kutcher is about to make the prank comedy comeback of a lifetime and he has enlisted the help of Rachel Dolezal to develop an elaborate performance art project to do it! See? Makes sense, right? Ok maybe not the Ashton Kutcher and Punk’d part. But she is a visual artist, and a la Vanessa Place—who has been tweeting Gone With The Wind verbatim for the last six years to bring attention to the text’s racism (as if we didn’t already know)—maybe Dolezal has made herself into an art project to bring attention to the problems of institutionalized and systemic racism in America today. Of course this would mean, as with Place, that we have to ignore all of the problems of disavowed privilege that attend such projects, and so the art project route hardly constitutes a pacifying explanation for this behavior. Ok, let’s try another one.

Maybe the two white people who claim they are her parents are hoodwinking us. Maybe she really did live a life filled with experiences of class, race and gender based strife, violence, and trauma. Who are we to say that Jesus Christ is not the witness on her birth certificate because she was not born in a teepee in the Montana bush? We don’t know that she and her family did not hunt for food with bows and arrows. Here’s the thing: maybe because we are so familiar with what the stories of black women are supposed to look like, we become all the more suspicious of stories that seem to reflect the stereotypical facets of such lives too perfectly. Why should we believe her parents’ narrative and not the one she lives out, perfectly, on Twitter, Facebook, local papers and other media, at every opportunity God gives?

No? The argument that maybe we are judging her incorrectly from false information from unreliable sources isn’t quite right either? Alright, last one.

What if she has the condition, the opposite of Michael Jackson’s that Uncle Ruckus of The Boondocks claims to have: revitiligo?

Fine. I know you can tell I’m being disingenuous with this one. But, while I hesitate to invoke health pathologies casually, because that would be irresponsible, maybe Dolezal really does think of herself as an African American woman and has lived a life that manifests what she imagines that to be. The end.

Syke. While I don’t think the answer to the question of what exactly is going on with Dolezal can easily be answered by any of these three scenarios, I also don’t think parsing this particular question is the most interesting one that might be asked here. Rather, what is most interesting to me is how she was able to be as successful as she has been at this particular performance, and what that in turn means for me and other young black female educators who also do the very hard, often thankless, even more often embattled work of teaching about the relationship between power and racial identity while occupying raced bodies. Yep, this is where we lay off the jokes and be serious for a second, because what disturbs me most about this entire kerfuffle is how it will make an already hard job harder.

In thinking about Dolezal’s success at performing the role of a young black educator, activist, and artist, we have to also think about the intellectual capital inherent in the dissemination of knowledge about identarian difference in American institutions of higher education (however embattled this intellectual capital has always been and continues to be). What I am thinking about here is similar to what Iggy Azalea does with African American cultural capital in the realm of music. Bear with Iggy and me for a couple of sentences. The cultural capital of hip hop, as an ethnic American popular form, relies for its popularity, marketability, and ultimately profitability on its practitioners. And a performer draws on that capital whether or not they happen to belong to the group whose experiences vouchsafe it. The thing about understanding race, culture, and ethnicity as a set of social relations, habits, practices, and traditions, is that the aspects of these that are celebrated are all the more susceptible to commodification and appropriation. If you can gain popularity and wealth from doing so, bully for you, Iggy! But what does this all mean in terms of academia?

In the last forty years – the last decade of which sees Dolezal coming into her intellectual and personal renaissance – ethnic studies units have become a significant facet of the university landscape. One of the many institutional purposes these units serve is to signal an institution’s commitment to the very important work of diversifying predominantly white spaces, not only demographically but also in terms of curriculum. Thus, new spaces for intellectual engagement and advancement were created, and are now predominantly occupied, by people of color. Moreover, in the last couple of years, since the onset of the social media age, more and more platforms exist for successful racial activism at the grassroots level and these operate primarily on the premises of wide dissemination and visibility. It has been incredible and empowering to watch the rise of phenomena like “Black Twitter” which, never mind heinous trolling, nonetheless function as decentralized but powerful hubs of contemporary social justice activism.

This unofficial movement, for instance, pressured Bank of America to in turn pressure one of its subcontractors Core Logic to investigate and eventually place on administrative leave one of its employees who was caught on camera during the pool party incident in McKinney Texas being verbally and physically abusive to teenagers of color. Rahiel Tesfamarian of Urban Cusp, for example, is among those who have been doing good and high profile work with the #blacklivesmatter, #notonedime, and other anti-discrimination movements, all through the power of social media based mobilization. It is by no means easy work to be an activist, but because there is work to be done, the ease of social media dissemination means there are tools to do good work and be visible doing so.

What’s a white woman gotta do to get a real chunk of that intellectual capital? Well, we kinda know what she has done.

I don’t raise this as an issue of intellectual capital to suggest that a white person (female or otherwise) has no place in ethnic studies or even racial activism – far from it. As many in the various social media spheres have resoundingly already said, knowledgeable non-black allies are an extremely important part of the work of agitating for true/material/equitable racial equality. The decision to don blackface to do this work however – and fun and jokes aside, I don’t doubt her earnest (if not misguided) commitment to this work – does real harm to the cause, because it threatens to delegitimize hard fought battles. Now the national discussion on race (and everybody knows we can only have one of these at a time) focuses not on the role of police in protecting racialized forms of community property, or God forbid on the racial attitudes held by people who were pushing risky mortgages on black communities not too long ago, but . . . on Rachel Dolezal.

One more thing, before I issue the benediction, church. Performing specific versions of racial identity, typically associated with stereotypes, such as Dolezal does – the squalid childhood; the much-photographed hair game; the end of semester sweet potato pies for students; the stories of physical and sexual violence, and trauma – not only foreclose the imaginative possibilities for other kinds of African American and even non American black female lived realities, it does so by reinforcing a particular kind of narrative as the only one with the power of authenticity. This is not to say these experiences only exist in the realm of stereotype, and I mean in no way to delegitimize them. In fact, if the violence, discrimination, and trauma that are a part of her narrative are not her actual experience (or are but are perhaps not attributable to race), it is tantamount to a dangerous fetishization that takes (among other things) real victimization and trauma experienced by women of color and reduces it to a prop in an ultimately selfish personal performance. It trivializes and delegitimizes serious social justice issues at a time when many are working hard to make these issues matter to those beyond the victims, black, white, or otherwise.

The cause of universal equity and equality among all humans, I finally want to say, is done more harm than good by circumscribed logics of identity and belonging. Dolezal’s entire person is an expression of a circumscribed logic of identity. She achieves belonging at a skill level that is impressive, but nonetheless worrisome. Worrisome, because she brought this logic into her classroom and disseminated it to students, with a fishbowl activity no less. Now, at my Midwestern state institution, I have enough problems with students who come into my classroom with limited experience of fellow students not of their race, much less their non-white, young, female professor whose accent clearly indicates she is not from the US. The need to now also have to deal with the ways Dolezal’s performance undermines my efforts to help students think about stereotypes in complex ways that go beyond simple “see race is just a performance it doesn’t matter” declarations makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry.

This is why I did not want to think about this woman and what she has decided to do, for whatever reason, earnest, malicious, or whatever shade between. It makes an already personally and emotionally exhausting job harder. It’s summer. School is out. I really don’t want to have to think about this particular kind of bullshit. Other bullshit, sure, but not this. And while I am aware that me writing a post about it just contributes, I on another level eagerly await her departure to the place where we send all our formerly trending topics.

Nope. Tidal is not what we have been waiting for.

Nope. Tidal is not what we have been waiting for.

What’s not to like about an artist owned streaming service? Why wouldn’t one support sticking it to “the man,” aka Spotify, iTunes, Amazon etc.? Shouldn’t artists be properly compensated for their work by streaming music services? Is it not a crying shame that Aloe Blacc had a song that was streamed 168 million times but got paid only $4,000? Nothing. Hells yeah. Yep. And it’s gahtdamb shame. But, to connect the contemporary civil rights movements such as #blacklivesmatter and the entrepreneurial energies of a streaming service, by artists for artists, is to build a bridge that takes you to nowhere else but delusion. In as much as Tidal represents revolutionizing potential for fairly compensating artists and everyone involved in producing music and music related products, in ways that other services have not, it does not hold similar potential for revolutionizing the material inequalities that ail society at large. Nope. Tidal’s success is not the force for making black lives matter. This is primarily because the logic of entrepreneurial fairness and profit generation, on which the success of Tidal relies, is the same logic that belies the systemic discrimination that present day civil rights movements are working to make more visible, so they can be dismantled. Today, this logic, boys and girls, is called neoliberalism.

But lemmie back it up a bit before I start laying down the heavy business of the relationship between contemporary economic theory and social justice and why we would need to think about these things alongside each other, when figuring out exactly what power something like Tidal possesses and for whom. Depending how far under a rock you may have been you may or may not know that Jay-Z launched a new music streaming service back in April called Tidal. Many of the biggest and most successful names in the music game, past and present, are stakeholders including Rihanna, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Madonna, Arcade Fire, Usher, Chris Martin, Alicia Keys, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, deadmau5, and Drake among others. It is billed as the first artist-owned streaming service and starting at $9.99 a month, the same price as Spotify’s Premium service, audiophiles can enjoy hi-fi music, videos, and exclusive curated content from some of the biggest names in the music industry. Exclusive content in particular is how Tidal is distinguishing itself from similar services, a marketing strategy that is drawing both excitement and criticism from music fans.

Take just this week, the video for “Feeling Myself” by Nikki Minaj featuring Beyoncé was exclusively released on Tidal, joining among others, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” The much-anticipated video featuring two of the biggest performers in the game generated buzz aplenty all over the interwebs for Tidal, especially among those who had all but forgotten about it – like myself. You see, I follow both Queen Bey and Nikki Minaj on the Instagrams and Nikki had been posting shots from the video all day. Of course I had to see the video, but I am not among those who are currently spending $9.99 on any streaming service and as such waited patiently for someone to come through with the free albeit bootleg YouTube link. Yes. It does not escape me that such is precisely among the behaviors that the Tidal engineers endeavor to curtail, but I came up in a Napster world and while I do buy music, there are still vestiges of a freeness mentality at work in how I consume music. Explaining this further might take me down a path I don’t want to go right now because it will take me too far away from the whole economics and social justice thing that I’m building to, so suffice it to say that while I do buy the music I want to listen to over and over again, I am also quite alright streaming the deadmau5 I grade papers in my office to for free, with commercials via Spotify, and am disinclined to pay for a subscription to any streaming services.

And I am not the only one. One of my favorite bloggers Luvvie Ajayi echoes this sentiment about Tidal in particular.

Of course this did not go without criticism, because soon after, she posted this hilariousness:

Buy a T-shirt, y’all, because I respect Luvvie’s hustle and she should be rewarded for giving a girl life and laughter daily. Fun and jokes aside though, what was meant to be a crabs in a barrel reprimand for refusing to support a venture that should be supported for its underlying ethos of fair compensation for the work of artists, is what I want to hone in on here. This is because it is in this place of support that Tidal and its fans try to meet social justice. With Jay-Z as front man, we can think of Tidal as a black owned business. In the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson last summer, consumerist activism was mobilized via #BlackLivesMatter and campaigns like #BoycottBlackFriday that advocated against spending money during the biggest shopping season of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, there was an 11% drop in spending. Whether or not this drop correlates to the social media generated protests is not an immutable fact, but it was significant enough to bring about the #BlackDecember and #NotOneDime campaigns that advocated for holiday shopping only at black owned businesses.

Against this politicized backdrop geared towards putting your money where your mouth is, it is easy to imagine why the refusal to buy into a service fronted by black faces and dollars would seem impolitic. Moreover, what this convergence between buying power and civil rights activism conveys is how easy it becomes to imagine a refusal to buy into Tidal as de facto support of the racially discriminatory power structure against which so many have been struggling over the last year.

Indeed, Jova himself says as much in a recent clip circulating on social media under the title “Jay-Z Slams White Supremacists.” I note the title here not because Jay-Z himself utters the phrase “white supremacists,” but rather that his performance is read as a response to this power structure.

In the freestyle/Tidal commercial, Jay-Z promotes the virtues of his streaming service by mixing the politics of business and civil rights activism. Entrepreneurial energy – “don’t ever go with the flow/be the flow” – is marshaled to advocate for striking it out on your own, against companies that refuse to compensate workers equally for their work. The flow that Jay-Z performs here is one that is poised to go against the likes of YouTube, which is identified as “the biggest culprit” because “Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get.” Working for this tenth is likened to slave labor: “You know when I work I aint your slave right?” Tidal presents an alternative to artists like Jay-Z to own and receive full compensation for their work, and no longer be subject to exploitative arrangements in an already established system. Thus, “You know I aint shucking and jiving and high-fiving, and you know this aint back in the day right?” “Back in the day” harkens back perhaps, both to slavery and Jim Crow, presenting a lyrical opportunity for Jay-Z to merge his arguments for the necessity of launching his own streaming platform, outside of the established system, with a larger critique of the continued existence of institutionalized racially discriminative power structures. Thus though he may “know this aint back in the day,” he cant tell based on “the way they killed Freddie Gray right/ Shot down Mike Brown/ how they did Tray right?” He goes on to conflate Eric Garner’s death with the continued exploitative actions of existing distribution companies, “Let them continue choking niggas,” but positions Tidal as the embodiment of defiance: “We gon’ turn style, I aint your token nigga/ You know I came in this game independent, right?/Tidal, my own lane.”

In the freestyle, Jay-Z takes the racist injustices at the core of multiple killings of black men at the hands of law enforcement — and those like George Zimmerman who imagine themselves to be enforcers of the law — and positions them alongside the logic of working outside of the existing system through the establishment of a new system, in a manner that makes a streaming music company a beacon of political and civil rights resistance. I dunno about you, but that makes me a little bit uncomfortable, in part because what is being lost here, in favor of successful business promotion, is the systemic and material transformations that are necessary for freedom and justice to truly be equitable for all. Arguably, new equitable systems like Tidal are thusly positioned as potentially powerful alternative sources for the generation of systemic change, but the neoliberal ethos that belies such projects makes them more enabling of the systems they imagine themselves bypassing, than disabling and dismantling these same systems.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not at all questioning Jay-Z’s political integrity, neither am I critiquing Tidal’s intentions. I think it is poised to do great things for artists and those who work in the production of music, so stand down, Beygency. Moreover, as far as politically minded super rich folk go, I am Team Jay and Bey, largely because their philanthropy and political activity is transnational and treated in much the same way that they do their private lives, with the utmost privacy. dream hampton, in her attempt to defend Jay-Z from critiques of his silence surrounding the events in Ferguson, New York, and more recently Baltimore, revealed in tweets that “when we needed money for bail for Baltimore protesters, I asked hit Jay up, as I had for Ferguson, wired tens of thousands in mins.” As NeNe Leakes criticized Kenya Moore on the most recent reunion of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, true charity is not about being seen on social media writing them checks. If NeNe is not your cup of tea for moral authority, hop on over to Matthew 6:1-4 for the stuff about hiding the things your right hand does from your left hand. As far as social justice is concerned the Carters often get it red-letter right. The Tidal business though, requires some careful decoupling – business from social justice – because really, it is in no way the revolution everyone who is for a more equitable and just society, including the Carters, hope for.

Why not though? This is largely because of its complicity with neoliberal values. Now that’s the third time I’ve used that particular troublesome n-word and this time I shall tell you what it means, at least in the context of what I am talking about here. Neoliberalism is both a set of economic logics and political rationales that promote free market competition as *the* optimal source for producing the best possible outcomes for everyone universally. Put another way, subscribing to and participating in free markets is the only way for all of us to be successful. Free market means everyone gets to compete in a variety of commercial markets on equal terms. This equal term is often tricky though, because equality does not mean sameness, and in a world where a variety of differences mediate in matters of equality – because history – justice becomes necessary for producing the mediating equitability (fair and impartial conditions) that can in turn deliver true equality, despite historically manufactured differences.

Free market competition considers itself equal in theory, but it isn’t equitable. Thus neoliberal values in many ways deploy logics of freedom and equality to obfuscate material differences that put some on a better footing towards economic success than other. Entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion are the hallmarks neoliberal values. We can be all that we can be if we just try super hard! Neoliberalism is at once a set of ideas, an over-arching ideology, and even governmental programs. It is in large part successful because of our relative unawareness of the ways it structures our everyday lives. Thus, according to David Harvey it is a “conceptual apparatus” that has “become so embedded in common sense” that it is “taken for granted and not open to question” (5). With this unconscious indoctrination in mind, the questions I began with about what could possibly be the problem with something like Tidal that has fair competition and entrepreneurial innovation at its center, merit revisiting.

Neoliberalism champions entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion under the aegis of free market competition at the same time that it dictates state divestment of public resources, deregulation of trade, finance and labor markets, and the withdrawal of state support and provisions for organized labor. At its simplest, at the same time it encourages you to pull yourself up by your own boot straps, it also removes all the protections and facilities that allow you to possess a pair of boots to stand on to begin with. Or better yet, shifts fiscal supports to corporations who in turn have the privatized responsibilities of attending to public welfare – if they feel like being charitable. What’s more, as far back as the nineteenth century, the rhetoric of personal responsibility held the promise of transformation from slave to agent, familiarizing us with a logic of self-reliance that licenses the state under neoliberalism to gradually relinquish all its responsibilities to its citizens, relegating social welfare instead to the charity of private corporate institutions. You ever wonder why collective bargaining is always on the chopping block whenever new corporation comes to town with promises of social sponsorship and recreational facilities? You ever wonder why corporate sponsorship is just about everywhere, but schools are under-funded and under-reseourced?

We see this at work in Baltimore, where the city supported the development of Under Armor’s downtown headquarters through $35 million in tax incremental financing at the same time that it divested itself of city run recreational facilities. Thus, “while the city ran seventy-six recreation centers twenty years ago, it now only operates only forty-one (another ten are privatized). City officials credit the reduction to a lack of resources.” Ironically, at the same time that it enables corporations to function profitably, neoliberal logic encourages bodies electorally charged with the social welfare of citizens to delegate this responsibility to private entities. We could also talk about the financial predation on the citizens who live in Ferguson Missouri, by the city. A condition that, according to the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department, contributed to the circumstances that led to Mike Brown’s death. Thus:

Rather than facilitate conditions that are beneficial for all, free market policies encourage such predatory approaches within municipal governance, disproportionately benefits those already in the material position to compete, and disadvantages those who are not. We see the effects of this most clearly in the US’s wealth gap

The bottom 90% of American families holds 25% of the country’s wealth. Sobering, no? No? Let me try again. The wealth gap in the America is also divided along racial lines. Surprise!

According to The Pew Research Center the median wealth of white households was thirteen times (13 times!) more than black households in 2013. But what about folks like Jay-Z and Beyoncé or even the Obama’s who have achieved places in the highest echelons of all the land? Their success means that the possibility for material equitability under neoliberalism exists, right? Sure, if you only want it among an exceptional cohort rather than universally.

So herein lies the problem of Tidal: it participates in a larger pervasive structure of free market governance that celebrates entrepreneurship at the same time that it shirks larger material social responsibility, and perpetuates the success of an advantaged few while continuing to deny the same from the many. What’s more in its subscription to neoliberal values, it is also predicated upon a system of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. If we are more attentive to our own individual efforts towards profit generation, who is paying attention to how material inequality is built into the very system that organizes and structures all our lives? The same system that created the need for things like #BlackLivesMatter ?

Can a person live though? I mean, can a person make some paper and live? I’ma hit up the OG Black Atlantic scholar, Paul Gilroy for this one:

The continuing effects of systematic racism on black life cannot be dismissed and there are instances where that very impact seems – perhaps even where racism is to be sacrificed in capital’s interests – to have inclined people towards the solutions proffered by neoliberal styles of thought which can be taken over, possessed and made one’s own. In other words, the history of being denied recognition as an individual has actually enhanced the appeal of particular varieties of extreme individualism.

In other words, the desire to live, to eat, to make good, even obscene paper – to be successful according to the measure of neoliberal norms and values – is all the more attractive to those subject to historic discrimination and disenfranchisement. At the end of the day though, this is a catch 22. Nonetheless, here is what I think is true: Tidal does not offer the possibility for making material realities more equitable for everyone. To see it as a force for universal civil rights transformations, particularly ones that will bring equitable value for black lives, is to miss its reliance on the same economic power that continues to devalue black lives for its own success.