Jillian Parker is a recent graduate of my alma mater, Howard University. She is also a singer who just released the video for her song, "Mr. Football," a Taylor Swift-esque ballad about…you guessed it, a football player. The lyrics are SNL-skit worthy ("He runs back to me/runs back to me, runs back to me…" Get it? Because he plays football, hi-YO!). Parker's voice is not my personal cup of tea and it's safe to say we won't speak of her as part of Howard's Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack musical continuum. That's not a crime so much as it's a sign of the times and the current American musical landscape. 90's babies, I cram to understand you.
However, the video (and the sheer existence) of "Mr. Football" shook me up in a major way and I know I'm stepping into the lion's den by saying so…
The video is shot entirely on Howard's campus and shows the singer kicking it with her HU lacrosse teammates and crossing paths with the football team. She connects with a particularly tall, dark and fine member of the team and we watch them frolic around the school…until she shows up at his dorm room and another girl answers the door. He pleads his case (See? He runs back to her), but she leaves him out in the cold.
Jillian Parker is White. Her on-screen boo, like the vast majority of Howard students/alumni, is Black.
And I am bothered by this video. Bothered.
Someone has already stopped reading at this point and decided that they are justifiably angry at my discomfort. Because for a lot of people, if the reaction to mixed couples is on the other side of "It's great!" or "Live and let live," then you're a bigot. Alas, it's not that simple. My personal feelings about interracial dating are complicated. Which isn't so uncommon, nor should it be surprising—race is complicated. And the history of romantic/sexual relations between Black and White people is certainly complicated. Do I instantly roll my eyes when I see a White woman and a Black man holding hands? No. But do I feel uncomfortable watching Parker and this big, dark Black guy walking around Howard's campus through camera angles that were clearly intended to 'artistically' juxtapose the difference in their colors.
I won't pretend that had this video taken place on Georgetown's campus, it wouldn't have had triggered any sort of reaction in me. I just would have likely dismissed it rather quickly. But Howard is hallowed ground—for me and for a lot of Black people. Our school is known as “The Mecca,” short for “The Mecca for Black intellectuals.” I think of all HBCUs in that way. Safe havens. Not the place where White girls go to find desirable men.
In a world where Black girls are often made to feel less desirable, my alma mater is a space in which sisters are the norm. At Howard, the majority of the handsome straight boys on campus are checking for us. At Howard, we are the standard of beauty. Black moms send their boys there hoping they'll bring home nice young sisters after their own heart. You don't hear "All the athletes here like White girls" at Howard like you do at certain PWIs. That's still significant, that's still special. That's still necessary…right?
That's not to say that White students are or should be unwelcome at HBCUs. They have always been there and they always will be. And many of them leave having had an eye-opening lesson on the true impact of racism and race relations from those who have suffered the most as a result. The White Howard students/graduates I have encountered over the years seem to value what they came to understand about Black life during their time in college and as members of the lifelong HU network. For that reason, I'd wager that most of them would not have made a video like "Mr. Football." And that includes those of them who have dated or married Black people. It just seems that someone who spent a good deal of time at Howard would understand how that imagery would read to a lot of people. In fact, I can't help but to wonder if that was the point: to be provocative and spark controversy. Or to make a statement about some sort of 'new' Howard culture. The director was a Black guy, which surprises me NOT AT ALL. Sigh.
If I mention having complex feelings about interracial dating, someone will accuse me of "reverse racism" (because members of an oppressed minority and the privileged majority are all 'even stevens'?), or bring up my support of LGBT rights (sexual orientation isn't a choice) or remind me that President Obama is biracial (because we'd never have a Black president otherwise, apparently; also, because you have to tie President Obama to everything). The world is not black and white, no pun intended. And for me, this is a subject that has a lot of shades of gray. As I said here yesterday, I thought the Cheerios commercial was cute! But I'm not ready for a 'post-racial' Howard University and I never will be.
I'm just not going to pretend that the idea of White women as trophies or 'better' than Black women doesn't exist among some of our men. I'm not going to act like Black women are not often represented in the media as unattractive and inherently problematic. I'm unable to forget centuries of 'big Black buck' propaganda or the words of certain White women whose interest in Black men is centered around a fetish for just that. I refuse to act as if the number of professional athletes who date and marry non-Black women is some sort of grand coincidence. And because this video brought all of those thoughts to mind, I'm not going to dismiss the Black history of my alma mater and just view this video as college kids doing college kid stuff: releasing a wack music video shot on campus. I didn't put myself in mountains of student loan debt for this! This is not my Howard, not on any level.
But is this Howard today?
The video dropped on May 30th, a few weeks after the student body went home for the summer. Though social media keeps folks connected long after classes have ended, it's hard to gauge what the on-campus reaction to "Mr. Football" would be without kids sitting in the dorms talking about it. I came to Howard in 2002 and I am certain that this would have been fodder for some heated debates on The Yard, in the student newspaper and in some of our classrooms—the sort of debates that made our college experience so valuable. But I'm not so sure that these '90s babies—folk only a few years my junior— have much historical context about race and racism. In the era of absurd talk of 'post-racial America' that is set to the backdrop of ever-present racial disparities in hiring, housing, imprisonment and, of course, education, it seems like many young people feel that color just isn't a big deal. Cause, hey, we have a mixed-race president! NO EXCUSES, amirite? Can we wait to get post-racial until we're post racism?
I’d hope that the current students of my beloved alma mater would stop short of putting me in some ‘radical racist’ box for feeling as I do about this video—I’d want anyone who’s been Black in America to stop short of that, even if they don’t agree. However, I just really need this new generation of our young adults to understand why I feel as I do. A White graduate filming a music video on Howard's campus is hardly the biggest problem facing HBCU students or alumni, but image and representation matter. Culture matters. I would want for the next Jillian Parker who steps on that historic campus to leave understanding why such a video would stir up problematic feelings and not to write that off as some sort of hating. And, more important, I would want the "Mr. Footballs" of Howard University to decline the offer to participate in such a video.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com.