The Alleged Minstrelsy of Insecure
*Me getting ready to write the blog this week*
Last week I posted this quote to Instagram: “The body is holier than we’ve been taught to believe” and promised that a Treatise on the Body would be coming soon, one that dissects and perhaps dismantles, the idea of a barrier between the “spiritual” and “natural” worlds. I was all ready to post that shit this week but then,
Something more pressing came up.
Last week my friend Nathalie (of the travel blog Nappy Nomads, check them out) sent me this video from a woman who had a lot of claims to make about the HBO series Insecure. Namely, her stance is that Insecure is a form of minstrelsy — aka a form of entertainment where either white people in black face, or black actors under the direction of white leadership, dawn caricatures of blackness and black culture for the express entertainment of white people. The reason she felt validated in this claim is because of an article she found asserting 62% of the show’s viewing audience is white, meaning only 38% are POC and as she points out, who knows of that 38% how many are black. This, she believes, is evidence proving that Insecure was made for white consumption.
Before I begin I want to say a few things:
1) I only watched her video once, and I don’t really care to watch it again. So I’ll be speaking from my general impressions after the first go. If I get the spirit of what she said wrong in presenting my own argument, I’m more than happy to go back and revise it.
2) I have not read or even looked for the article she’s banking her entire position on. So again, I’m writing from my first impressions of her video and that alone.
3) Spoiler alert: I disagree with her on most points. I do see where she’s coming from but in large part I’m of a different mind. Despite this, I am not writing to antagonize her or even change the minds of people who agree with her, I’m just presenting the other sides of arguments because that’s how we grow in understanding of both each other and ourselves.
So. I have loved Insecure, I mean y’all know. I recapped this entire season, reference it in almost every conversation I have about representation, am convinced Issa Rae and I are best friends who haven’t met yet, like I love this show. That, plus the fact that objectivity is a farce, equals me going into watching this video with some bias — that I willfully own up to. Regardless, as I watched I sought to remain open and subject to the uncomfortable potential that one of my favorite shows is purposefully a cog in the White Supremacist machine. As I said, I don’t think it is, but I remained open to the possibility. Let’s get into examining her arguments.
The biggest one of course, is the popularity of the show among white people. She mentions in her video that anything white people like too much is suspect. She also believes anything that’s too popular in general is suspect, because according to her there are too many people in this world for all of us, or a lot of us, to like the same shit.
As far as the first part is concerned — being wary when a lot of white people like something created by POC — I get that. Her thing is that if white people aren’t being challenged or confronted in their privilege, that’s a problem, and I agree. White Privilege should be challenged on every front. But to demonize something because of its popularity among white people feels misguided. For one thing, because of the way this country’s racism is set up,
anything that becomes popular or mainstream is going to be so in part because white people like it.
That’s just a consequence of the system. It’s the same concept as the fact that if you want to live in a nice neighborhood, work a higher paying job, send your kids to good schools, you’re going to have to deal with white people and probably a lot of them, it’s the way they set this shit up. If it’s good, lucrative, or popular, white people be in it. There was a period of time in this country (and still may persist) when the largest audience for Gangster Rap was white suburban teenagers. Are we about to say that Tupac, Biggie, and N.W.A are minstrels because white kids were their biggest market? No that shit doesn’t make sense. It’s the system, this is how shit go. And who is to speak on the emotional or mental perspective of the 62% as they are watching? Who is to say that they’re not watching BECAUSE they’re being challenged and their world views are being stretched, you know?
Just to touch on her point about the popularity of anything in general being suspect because “there are too many people in this world for us all to like the same things”.... I mean when I look at humanity, I perceive we’re more alike than we are different. Because of that, there are certain universal truths and concepts, even chord progressions, we’ve all agreed are pretty tight. Take Love, for example. This is a universal, archetypal, human emotion that we’ve generally agreed provides the largest power source for good in this world. We all like, want, and need love, our brains are wired for it. There’s a reason songwriters, philosophers, poets, artists, and scientists throughout millennia have been obsessed with understanding Love, it drives us. Love is popular, it is also good.
Another example: I think there’s also a reason most cultures throughout history have developed some concept of God, spirituality, or a Higher Power. Maybe it’s a grand delusion but it’s OUR (as in human) grand delusion, dammit. God is popular. God (in most traditions) is also good. I mean we can even talk about music — there are certain songs that are scientifically catchy, something having to do with the beats per minute, chord progression, and other shit I’m not fully adept in understanding but I know there have been studies done on what makes a song popular and in many cases you can break it down to simple, repeatable elements. Shall we penalize these anthems because we all like them? This of course is not to say that Insecure is or should be considered as ubiquitously good as God, Love, or “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, I’m just trying to poke a hole in the argument that popularity = bad. Doesn’t feel like that statement considers the full picture.
Later in the video, this woman brings up Issa Rae’s response to hearing how many white people watched her show. Turns out she was stoked (as I would be, but I’ll get to that), and in this woman’s mind, Issa’s elation translates to her willingness to shuck ‘n’ jive for a check. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term “shuck ‘n’ jive” I encourage you to take a second to look it up, learn something.)
Y’all know I’m big on representation. Yes I as a black woman need to see myself reflected so that I can better understand how to love and accept myself and my humanity, but I also need to see the stories of other marginalized groups so that I can be exposed to their humanity as well. This is one of the reasons I’m obsessed with Hasan Minhaj and everything he does, but particularly his work in his Netflix comedy special Homecoming King. (If you haven’t watched you literally need to NOW. Okay not now-now, finish reading this and then go straight to Netflix because it will change your life.) Hearing stories from marginalized groups is IMPERATIVE to combatting the racist, 2-dimensional caricatures of each other we usually get from the media. Because again, the way racism was set up, neighborhoods were purposefully segregated and remain largely so to this day. In this environment, much of white people’s only exposure to people who don’t look like them comes through the media. And if all they see of black folks is that we’re gangsters, funny sidekicks, or sexual objects, and all they see of brown folks is that they’re terrorists, gardeners, or housekeepers, well we get exactly to the mess we’re in now. So I’m with Issa, I’m stoked that many white people are watching Insecure, because it means
that many more white people are participating in an experience where they have to care about black lives.
Do you know how often people of color have had to care about and find themselves (often poorly or incompletely) reflected in white lives? From Friends, to Seinfeld, to Full House, to Roseanne, to Everybody Loves Raymond — we’ve been invested in white lives for a long time. I don’t know how often white people have had to care about black lives in the same way, I mean to be really invested in the goings on of a black person. So for that many white people to care about the lives of two black WOMEN? I’m gonna call that a win for representation.
This next argument she made is where I stopped even pretending to be open to her positions because I felt personally attacked — and not in the funny @mytherapistsays way, I mean where you are literally coming for the fragile identity I’m constructing for myself.
She makes the point that Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji are essentially appropriating the Black American experience because neither of them are “truly” Black American. Because Issa Rae’s father is Senegalese and Yvonne Orji was born in Nigeria, they can’t possibly understand the Black American experience and thus their attempts to create a show about it fall flat and are insulting. She then postulates that it’s easier for white people to put people of direct African descent in these roles because when they look at an African, they don’t have to remember slavery or Jim Crow or mass incarceration, they can just sit back and enjoy the show, if you will. It felt like she was trying to draw a very clear line between Black Americans and Africans, a line that says “You’re not one of us!” Literally the exact opposite of what Black Panther did.
I do understand that there may be a level of exoticism Africans receive from white people that Black Americans don’t. When my mom was pulled over by a cop in Texas a couple years ago, part of me wondered if she was spared in part because of her accent. I understand we may have a different experience of the American racial system, but like any racially ambiguous person will tell you,
being deemed as “exotic” is not a compliment either.
It’s just another way to Other, to dehumanize. And when I walk into a Trader Joe’s, no one is looking at me like “Ah, a Nigerian woman!” I’m black to the system. I’m black to cops. I’m black to White Supremacists. The fact that my name is 56 letters long doesn’t matter.
I took deep issue with this position because only just this year, have I begun to accept the possibility of not having to choose between the cultural spheres that I straddle. That decades of feeling not black enough, or American enough, or Nigerian enough, could be healed with the realization that I *am* allowed to claim all these cultures. Not only that but as my fellow Third-Culture-Kid friend Nathalie (from Nappy Nomads, remember?) mentioned, I can add to these cultures as well. My Nigerian experience can add to the Black American experience. My Black American experience can add to the Nigerian experience. And every part of those can add to the American experience. I mean ultimately isn’t the whole “Us” vs. ‘Them” model played out anyway? ESPECIALLY between POC and even more so POC of the same racial group. How dare you try to tell me my experience is invalid. How dare you try to weaken us with division. Racism and colorism have done that enough, don’t you think?
And okay yes, Issa Rae has a Senegalese father, but what if, despite her father’s country of origin, she has always more closely identified with Black American culture than she has with African culture? So she then creates a show from that, from her experience — who are you to tell her that she’s wrong? Or that she’s telling HER OWN story incorrectly? Shit doesn’t make sense to me.
Sighhhhh I don’t know y’all. After all this she continued, saying a lot of other things I honestly don’t have time to get into about how Africans come here looking for work because they can’t make it in their own countries, as though Nollywood isn’t a thing *headache emoji*. It was just all this scarcity mindset, “You’re taking our jobs!” type shit and I just couldn’t do it, I tried. I tried to listen, and I really do understand her frustration. But I could not ascribe to where she placed it. I’m not seeing Insecure as minstrelsy at all, but you know what, go off sis.