Almost two weeks ago, Questlove penned a haunting, soul-bearing Facebook post in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin (I don’t care if six women in the Hate State of Florida don’t call it “murder,” I will call it “murder” so long as I have teeth, lips, tongue, fingers to do so) and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. It was adapted for New York. It is fantastic and if you have not read it yet, you should. In “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Sh*t,” the musician/arbiter of cool discusses the trials of occupying a large, Black male body in a world that sees even the smaller, dead Black male body of the Florida teenager as a threat. His words:
I'm in scenarios all the time in which primitive, exotic-looking me — six-foot-two, 300 pounds, uncivilized Afro, for starters — finds himself in places where people who look like me aren't normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct? In the beginning — let's say 2002, when the gates of "Hey, Ahmir, would you like to come to [swanky elitist place]?" opened — I'd say "no," mostly because it's been hammered in my DNA to not "rock the boat," which means not making "certain people" feel uncomfortable.
I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people's safety and comfort first, before your own. You're programmed and taught that from the gate. It's like the opposite of entitlement.
The piece was widely circulated and lauded. Brothers and even sisters of varying sizes and backgrounds said “Amen!” and “Tell it.” Great writing about an all-too-common feeling? The people will feel it.
But the funny thing about White privilege is that it knows no bounds. It will infiltrate and occupy every space on the planet because who’s gonna stop it? White privilege sees your bodega, your church, your school, your plate, your experiences and inserts/asserts itself as it sees fit, with little or no regard for, well, you.
Such is the case with a response to Questo’s piece by Kim Foster, mother, writer and Harlem resident. Foster rode in on her waaaaaambulance (I could feel the White Girl Tears through my computer screen) and Whitesplained away much of the funky drummer’s experiences, frustrations, reality. And spent over 2,000 words doing it. Oh, and while I know that editors usually choose pictures…LOOK AT THE PICTURE, DAWG. [Note: the image of the young White girl, seen here, that originally accompanied Foster's article has since been removed.]
First, Foster sets the tone with 444 words explaining how tragic Martin’s death is, how unfortunate it is that Questlove “Bigger” Thompson—multi-platinum, Grammy-winning, Jimmy Fallon-nightly-performing, book-writing, world-traveling virtuoso, who just happens to be Large and Black and Black and Blaaaaaack—has to walk the world being sensitive to the fact that his existence makes people like her uncomfortable. Because she’s not a racist. And she wants you to know that she cares about the little Black boys in her childrens’ school who “will be stopped and frisked by the police and considered dangerous by passersby. They’ll have to think twice when they do something as simple as put the hoodie up on their sweatshirt. Or, God forbid, maybe one of them will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the next Zimmerman is feeling paranoid while carrying a loaded gun.” (Kim Foster cares, if don’t nobody else care.)
The mother of two appreciated Questlove’s piece and his connection to Martin. However, at the center of his article, there is an anecdote about the time he rode an elevator in his swank apartment building with a presumably-White woman that he found to be attractive. Though he does not verbalize his interest, he is demonstratively chivalrous and offers to key in her floor on the magical rich-people elevator system—an offer which she declines, forcing Questlove to realize that she saw him (famous and paid enough to be in this building and by all accounts, a very nice, gentle giant of a man) as a threat to her safety.
Foster’s sympathy for the Philly native ends here. Though the article “made everyone think," she warns that "it is a disturbing piece for women.” Her words:
"I imagine a young woman reading the exchange that happened between Questlove and the woman in the elevator, taking it in and, not wanting to be racist, shifting how she reacts to men in public. Maybe she smiles more, acts less freaked out when alone in an elevator with a strange man, maybe she walks down that dark isolated street and doesn’t worry that someone is walking behind her, or lets down her guard and tries to let the man know she isn’t intimidated, that she doesn’t find him scary. Maybe she lets concern for others — offending that stranger, appearing racist, or sexist — over-ride her instincts to take care of herself."
Sigh. I am aware that there are certain White people who are hypersensitive about how their behavior (which is, at times, actual racism) may be perceived as racism by Black people, even when said Whites don’t see their own racism for themselves. And if we briefly remove the racial element (aka “everything that makes this story a story”) and focus solely on gender, I can attest to having walked a delicate line between protecting myself and profiling men as potential rapists or robbers.
But unlike Foster, I am also aware that there is a time and place to discuss the very real concerns about feminine safety in the presence of strangers and that time, nor place, is hooked to the murder of a Black teen who was killed because someone looked at him and made assumptions. That conversation should not be hooked to the words of someone who looks like every scary Black n*gger fear you can conjure in your heart bearing his soul and saying ‘This is what it feels like to be a problem, even when I know that I’m not a problem at all.’
Kim Foster’s piece is emblematic of the reason that many Black people roll their eyes at me when I say that I’m a feminist. Because to them, “feminist” means “a White woman who sees White women’s problems as the most important problems of all the problems in the world and she’ll use your plight and your movement as a stepping stone to put a spotlight on said problems.” Or something to that affect. This essay is, once again, a reminder how different the intersectional nature of Black feminism—the double-conciousness and need to understand the specific pain of our men—is from the “I, me, my, mine” that many cis-gendred White feminists speak to when talking gender and race.
Foster’s piece says quite plainly, “No, Questlove, you really ain’t shit.” And I’m appalled. More:
“See, women almost always look out for others. We are taught as girls that we are inherently caretakers, mothers to everyone. We are taught to placate, be nice, share. We don’t want people mad at us.”
Kim, you couldn’t even look out for Dead Trayvon and let us reflect upon how racial profiling, which led to his death, hurts Black men who are still living. Let’s talk more about your problems instead, amirite?
“I have a friend who told me about being in college and having the Chair of her department come on to her, grope her. She said that it never occurred to her to say, ‘f*ck off!’”
This has everything to do with Questlove and the elevator. And by “everything,” I mean “not a single solitary thing.” Please, tell us more about the price of tea in China.
“I was nice to the end, every painful minute of it,” she told me,” and it never occurred to me that I could tell this powerful man to get off me.”
This is just like the time Questlove was on the elevator and tried to hold the door for the lady, except not.
"It is an inherent flaw of our education of girls that we do not encourage and inspire them to ask, demand, negotiate or stand up for what they believe they deserve. And it doesn’t stop at the office. It’s everywhere, at home, in bars. And, yes, in elevators."
Questlove’s neighbor stood her ground, you see.
“This is particularly an issue for us liberal women — we don’t want to be perceived as racists. [Ed. Note:AND HEEEERE WE GO.] But really, this is one of those times that is truly not all about race, it’s mostly about gender and power. Middle class, middle-aged white men in business suits are just as able to take you by force and f*ck you against your will, as a black teen in a hoodie. And probably more prone to do so.”
This is true. But do you get afraid when you see men who look like George Clooney or Ryan Gosling in an elevator, Kim? Snark aside, I agree that the role of women, like all human beings, should be self-preservation. However, we cannot ignore or dismiss the pain that is caused when so many people hold it to their hearts that Black men are the ones who are out to get you always, everytime. And, again, I find it troubling that this was the narrative that had to be inserted into Thompson’s story about being on the receiving end of racial profiling.
If there is any room for any defense of Foster’s piece, in my opinion, it lies with the fact that women should have the agency to keep it moving and be brisk when in the presence of strange men. No, we don’t owe anyone a smile or a convo if we don’t feel like it. However, the ish goes entirely left when she accuses Questlove of “oppressing” the woman on the elevator for thinking she was cute and flirting with her. No, really. She says that. Kim:
“Indeed, Questlove outright admits to objectifying her. And he does it with a wink and laugh, ‘bow chicka wowwow,’ as if it’s completely cool to sexualize women and admit it in a national magazine…’She was also bangin’,’ he writes,”so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor?’…
Questlove not only admits to objectifying her in his head, he “flirts” with her as she gets off the elevator, and even then, even as he wrote the words on the screen and saw them there, was unable to look at his own internal monologue and see he was oppressing her. Isn’t this exactly what white people do to black people? Isn’t this the point of his whole article?"
While the young woman on the elevator had every right to be disinterested in Questlove’s romantic intentions, he was NOT “oppressing her” by finding her attractive. Finding a woman attractive and wanting to ask her out is not oppression. He didn’t say anything rude to her, he didn’t demand that she return his interest…he found her attractive and he THOUGHT ABOUT IT.
Are the thoughts of Black men dangerous to you, Kim? Are they intimidating? Is the fact that one of your Black Harlem neighbors may look at you and think “She’s cute” oppressive to you? Are you really comparing the sexual assault of a friend of yours in college to the attraction a Black man had to a woman on an elevator who, for whatever reason, was not interested in connecting with him?
Foster closes by acknowledging that “Questlove has to bear a huge weight. No one should have to do it, and I imagine that having to wear it all the time, never take it off, constantly having to think of others first must be exhausting and suffocating,” but makes it clear that her daughters will be raised to protect themselves first and worry about offending people later. What she fails to see is that girls and women can protect and advocate for themselves without dismissing someone else’s pain. Even if those girls still end up brushing off a well-intentioned fellow in an elevator and making him bad, it does not have to be the case that they walk the world feeling “oppressed” because a Black man finds them attractive. They can also grieve the senseless loss of Black boys without refocusing the lens to say 'What about sexism? What about ME?'
The sexist oppression of women is real and is important, but damn if we couldn’t take a moment to acknowledged an issue that is outside of what White women experience. As a tall Black woman, I have found that White women sometimes clutch their purses and act funny style in the presence of me. I could say a lot more, but I felt Questlove’s experiences and hurt were valid enough for us to stay there instead of playing “Oppression Olympics.” But, alas, White privilege manages to take the gold every single time.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com. She tweets: @jamilahlemieux