Saturday, February 22, 2014

On Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston, Race and Shame

I learned a lot this past week about perception, language and who has the right to the floor when it comes to speaking about such issues.

As a woman of color growing up in a small Midwestern town and an intellectually liberal but socially conservative family, I did all of my radical growth in private. My sexy books, my rebellious phase with tattoos, my first taste of a wine cooler. It was only when I moved out of the house I grew up in that I began to become more comfortable giving voice to what I liked, what I desired. And, goodness, I have always loved innuendo. I have been punning and perving since long before “That’s what she said” became a catch phrase. Because it was the only way I knew how to channel things inside me that were still culturally taboo. “I can’t do it, but I’m sure as hell gonna talk about it!”

So, now, as a budding romance author with a Twitter account, I just put it all out there. And I’ve been truly lucky to find a community that understands it. I say “filthy” and “dirty” and they know I don’t mean “Where’s the soap?” I say “vanilla,” and it’s a given that we’re not talking about ice cream. And we’re not talking about race.

Here’s the thing: People of color don’t have the luxury of not “considering” race. It’s on our skin. We wear it. We know it. We live it. Are race and sexuality connected? Sure. Absolutely. And perhaps if I had compared Idris Elba to a white man roughly physically similar — like Channing Tatum — and made the same comment, you could cock your head and wonder if I was being a little bit racist. But my brain, and my Twitter account, are far from Mandingo Central. Idris Elba, in my pervy, kinky, erotic romance writer world, is an alpha hero. Tom Hiddleston is a beta male. (Mind you, I was soon persuaded differently about the latter idea. Oh, how I DO love romance writers…) And it was nowhere in my mind that I was painting a black man as savage in comparison to a white one. Could I ponder it? Sure. I'd be happy to have a rational debate about it sometime. Especially with black women, for whom it's a far more personal and relevant issue.

But that topic was introduced into my space in a combative manner, and I was “invited” to talk about it. In my own space. All too soon, the women who joined in to shut down the bewildering path of this topic and I were painted as the aggressors. The attackers. The people ganging up on this well-meaning white lady who just wanted to talk. Because, you know, there hasn’t been a long history of POC being considered threatening. Because, you know, this is the exact same thing as living a minority experience: “I live in NYC. I've lived and worked in racially diverse neighborhoods for 15 years ... Community organizer. Teacher. Bachelors in Sociology. Masters in Education. Both specializing in race/class.” 

You can “specialize” all you want. But that doesn’t give you our brains or our skins or our speech.

This was not on me. I was not going to, and still won’t, cop to being a secret racist because I pictured Idris Elba to be aggressive in bed while Tom Hiddleston is submissive. No. Nope. Uh-uh. I explained myself succinctly early on in the exchange. What followed became an exercise in justification and education … that didn’t take. When someone is that convinced of their rightness, their earnestness, there is no changing their mind. Unless you are, of course, white. It wasn’t lost on me that the only people who did make an impact in the argument with this person were white women. It was a barrage of indignation and accusation with me, but a dialogue with those who fought on my behalf.    

And that, folks, is a problem. This idea that only white women can effect change. That is the very thing I’m fighting against as an author of color, trying to put multicultural fiction out there into the world and spotlight my fellow authors and the diverse stories I find.

You know what else is a problem? The guilt and grief I felt that day, and still feel. Did I say something wrong? Was I crass? Was I slutty? Never mind that Idris Elba did not need someone crusading for his honor — the actor is quite outspoken about his potent appeal — the one thing I did “consider” was if I was dirty. Not in a sex way. Not in a kink way. But in a shameful way.

No. Nope. Uh-uh.

No one has the right to make me feel that way.

But that’s what she said.   

*This post originally contained redacted tweets. In 2015, I went back and added complete screen caps. It's important to call this kind of thing out for what it is. Silence only breeds complicity in this kind of behavior.


  1. I love you.

    I rarely accuse people of having an agenda, but I can't help but feel as though this woman had one. Namely, that white women want so badly to engage with people of color on important issues like race, but that people of color are obtuse, hypocritical, and angry. That was the only point she seemed to want to prove.

    I am a rational person. It takes a lot to get me to the breaking point where my temper snaps. If she wants to talk about a culture of discourse - I make my living off of discourse, and can trot out degrees and professional experience that would run circles around hers. She was having none of my logic. None of your reasonable explanations for the reason you chose the words you did.

    And this tweet:

    I found this utterly vile. If that doesn't sum up her agenda, I don't know what does.

    Like all things in life, there is a right way and a wrong way to discuss race. You don't get cookies just for knowing the lingo. And apologies don't count when you offer them graciously to white ladies after spending hours antagonizing women of color.

  2. The "or else" nature of that particular tweet was very unsettling. As if women of color need to watch our backs lest we have our words thrown in our face.

    Classic "tone argument." With no acknowledgment that it is often white people who SET the tone.

  3. Terrific post.

    After I posted mine yesterday I was telling TheHusband about the post and the whole mess. Just for background, he's a sociologist who does research and teaches on identity (race, class, gender, etc.). I told him about the "dirty=race coding" tweet and he interrupted me and said "wait, I thought you said the tweet was about Elba being sexy?" To which I said yes, but it didn't matter, "dirty" was supposedly racist in that context.

    His response? "BA in sociology, MA in education, Ph.D. in idiocy." I swear, it's a direct quote.

    I love TheH a lot.

  4. I really appreciated your post about credentialism, Sunita. It was excellent. And TheH is pretty awesome! I'm STILL boggling about dirty and vanilla being racially coded in that context.

  5. OMG that whole exchange. I watched it and it was mind-boggling. Especially for WoC who have been fetishized and objectified within the context of sex (I cannot even begin to count the number of times I've been dismissed as a boyfriend's "Yellow Fever," as though he'll come back to the right--white--path as soon as he gets over the affliction), the idea that we have to control our sexuality so as not to corrupt the rest of the world with our sexual thoughts is bad enough. But now we have to control our sexuality lest someone is offended because they believe we might be trying to claim not racial superiority (even though that is the excuse used), but the majority power when it comes to talking about race and sexuality?

    Academic discussion my ass.

  6. I don't know you and I didn't see any of the tweets, but a friend retweeted the link to this and it sounded interesting, so I read it.

    I have to be honest. I'm a little confused as to how it even blew up. I'd agree with you on the alpha/Idris and beta/Tom male thing. It's an attitude and a body type. How did colour even come into it?

    Men are men, regardless of what colour, size, age or underwear they wear. Sorry that people jumped all over you on it :(

  7. "And apologies don't count when you offer them graciously to white ladies after spending hours antagonizing women of color."

    Amen to that! But even hers to me (a white woman!) was couched in excuses for why she said what she said. She was more concerned with explaining herself than with making amends to Suleikha.

  8. Janine - I think that really speaks to how some perceive that white women's words have more weight. Having you understand her motivation was more important than her understanding mine.

    alylonna -I think it really says more about what she brought into it than what was already there. Perhaps the racial coding was forefront on her own thoughts. But she wouldn't/couldn't address that.

    Audra - The idea that we have to control our sexuality for *other women's judgment* is something I can't fathom at all.

  9. I'm so sorry this happened. :( You've always been willing to have open conversations with me and others about race. I really appreciate that because I like to discuss and learn. All the hugs.

  10. Thanks, Jill. The whole thing was bizarre. When I have *ever* not openly conversed about race, you know? Just don't come at me like you've already decided what's up!

  11. Suleikha -- Yes, agreed. My opinion and that of other white people counts more to her, and to many others, which is unjust beyond anything I can articulate.

    I also think because it was a public venue, she was concerned with saving face. And again with me and other white women telling her she was in the wrong, it looks worse for her in the eyes of some than coming solely from women of color (and she was conscious of that). Also unjust beyond words.

    I think when you say "People of color don’t have the luxury of not 'considering' race. It’s on our skin. We wear it. We know it. We live it," you hit the nail exactly on the head. The rest of us do have that luxury and many times we do not consider. How horrible and unfair that is.

  12. Of course, Janine, to some, it was horrible and unfair that I could objectify a black man in such terms while white women can't.

    And that's basically horseshit. Because of COURSE women of color can be prejudiced or self-loathing and it's very wrong. I don't get a "free pass" for -ist language by being brown. What I CAN do is talk about sexual desire in appropriate terms. And that's what I was doing. That some people can't distinguish between the two is troublesome.

  13. Nods with all you said. And yeah, that part --jumping down your throat for such an innocuous comment -- was downright bizarre.

    I feel that even if I see a comment that may *seem* to me to be prejudiced coming from a person of color, I should think twice (or really a thousand times) before I make up my mind and confront that person.

    For example: I have seen (mostly on TV and in print, she hangs her head and admits) discussions within the black community about whether or not it's appropriate for black people to use the N word among each other.

    A black person absolutely has every right to offer an opinion on that but am I, as a white person, in a position to publicly confront a black person for using that word?

    No and no again, IMO, because while I benefit from white privilege, where would I get off judging someone who doesn't as to whether or not they are exhibiting racism? That would be adding insult to injury IMO.