With Saturday's release of Beyonce's Lemonade video album, her Ivy Park fashion line's debut earlier in the month, and her worldwide tour kicking off on April 27, black women everywhere are happily getting into formation. But amid all the celebration of #blackgirlmagic, writer Julia Bainbridge put voice to a question that non-POC ladies everywhere have been asking themselves since Formation's racially charged video was released: Are white women invited to the party? Can white women rock out to this new politically-woke version of Beyoncé, one whose lyrics and videos are clearly not for them?
Unlike 2013's "Flawless," Beyoncé's latest power anthem, "Formation," boasts words that are inherently afro-centric, leaving white women to question whether they, too, are allowed to jam to the recent hit, sing aloud its catchy lyrics, or even buy its merchandise. Lemonade, with its slavery imagery, its proud celebration of blackness, and its appearances by Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown's mothers, begs a similar question. Would white women be "embezzling black pride" in singing along, Bainbridge asks? She writes:
When Beyoncé gets to “I like my baby hair with baby hair and Afro/I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” at her June concert, will I be allowed to mouth the words in unison from row 14 of Citi Field’s promenade section? Though I do not possess them, do I “get to” celebrate textured hair and wide noses, features that have historically (and even recently) been subject to ridicule because of the racism coloring our beauty standards, in a pop song?
In my opinion, not only can white people enjoy "Formation," but they should. People of color are always forced to somehow find meaning, identity, and empowerment in media that is meant to be "universal" but is actually for white people. In return, white people's universality is constantly reaffirmed. Similar to Tegan and Sara's Boyfriend, which was just released and spins the gay-for-play trope on its head, people from marginalized communities might actually benefit from people with privilege not only enjoying and celebrating their identity, but learning how to empathize and value them.
When I first heard "Formation" the day before the Superbowl, I cried. After gaining my composure, I delivered a sermon to my (white) girlfriend about black girlhood and black womanhood, and black power, and the beauty and struggle of blackness. She has always been pretty tuned into issues of race — a great ally — but this moment wasn't about allyship. It was about empathy. It was about my personal empowerment and the rare opportunity I was experiencing to feel whole in a pop cultural landscape that often belittles and dismisses me.
Every part of American media is saturated with white exceptionalism and the celebration of white beauty; what black women see of ourselves is picked apart and re-packaged in white-approved copies, like Iggy Azalea’s ass, Kylie Jenner’s lips and wigs, and Kim Kardashian’s “boxer braids” (they’re called cornrows), to name recent examples. On us, these things are ugly and undesirable. Attributes to be laughed at and dismissed.
So to hear Beyoncé, a mega superstar who in the past has been accused of distancing herself from her blackness, sing to the world that she likes “her baby heir with baby hair and afro” and her “negro nose with Jackson five nostrils” is a jarring and beautiful and heartbreaking experience. An experience that is unique to black people and only something we can really lay claim to.
But that doesn't mean that white people can't blast it out of their windows, singing the lyrics when appropriate (humming, perhaps, when it's not), and rocking the merchandise. The experience of listening to this song is unique to black people, but the message that we should be celebrated, loved, and respected should be universal.
I would love to see more white people celebrate black brilliance in its truest form (as in, not repackaged by a white celebrity), enthusiastically and without apology, and not just when Beyoncé is the mastermind.
The caveat, of course, is always, always being mindful of the line between appreciation and appropriation; taking and giving. Asking the question — "Can I sing the same lyrics as a black woman parading her blackness in front of a country still smarting with racism?" Bainbridge wonders — is a good start. But white listeners must remember — you're guests at the party. That means you have to respect the host. Maybe don't sing "negro nose" and "Jackson five nostrils" aloud. And don't pretend like you think having hot sauce in your bag is swag if you don't. I hate spicy food too. It's OK.
Beyoncé’s more afro-centric music and videos don't need to be co-opted for you to enjoy them. In fact, it doesn't need to be for or about you in any way for its message to be something you can jam to. In fact, I would love to see more white people celebrate black brilliance in its truest form (as in, not repackaged by a white celebrity), enthusiastically and without apology, and not just when Beyoncé is the mastermind. Listen to more black music. Visit more black-owned businesses. Watch films with all-black casts. Buy books written by black authors.
Support us. Celebrate us.
You can absolutely do all of that.
Images: Giphy (3)