If the road to hell was paved with good intentions, I had apparently packed my bags and was preparing for my departure first thing Monday morning. Even more surprising: who knew the BET Awards would teach me a much-needed lesson about how seemingly innocent jokes can harm Black women?
On a night when Beyoncé and Kendrick “broke the chains,” and Prince finally got a tribute worthy of his stature, Jesse Williams delivered one hell of a speech on racism, equity, and equality. As an activist, I felt a sense of euphoria as the plight of the voiceless was being masterfully conveyed in a poignant, unapologetic way. However, just minutes later this moment of pride would be quickly destroyed by ridicule of the women Williams had just promised we Black men would do better to protect.
As a certain singer walked to the mic and began reading from the teleprompter, my first thought (and subsequent typo-ridden post) was as follows:
“Sooo yall gonna pretend yall won’t surprised at [the singer] reading the teleprompter? Ok den #BETAWARDS”
How rich was it that I wrote a post joking about her reading abilities using broken English and my “what you won’t do” voice? Despite my abuse of the language, comments and jokes came rolling in, most in agreement with my unnecessary dig. A quick survey of social media found many others held that very same opinion, complete with memes and tweets to boot. The intent of my joke was to make people laugh, not disrespect the singer, but as I reflected on it the following day I realized my dig at her perceived intelligence wasn’t a laughing matter.
Thankfully, a friend called me on my B.S., questioning the purpose of such a mean post in the first place. It didn’t take me long to figure out that something that I didn’t intend on being hurtful was an example of the ways in which even the most “woke” folks can be elitist, sexist, and just as bad as those who keep us oppressed.
The intersectional nature of Blackness comes with certain responsibilities and privileges. One must be careful not to separate them self based on things like education level, class, gender, sexuality, or region. We have to make an effort not to find comfort in being “this type of Black,” while putting down others who are “that type of Black”—the type we feel is somehow subpar. After all, respectability politics have no place in the push for equity and equality, and being divisive in this fight based on sex, education, or socio-economic status compromises the freedom of us all.
As a Black man with advanced education, I had become the very thing that I have chosen to fight against in other parts of my life–willfully exclusive, not willingly inclusive. Moreover, the ability to read, comprehend, and write well is more often than not something afforded to those with a much higher socioeconomic status and access to high-quality education. My wrongheaded decision to condemn a Black woman for her reading skills, when reading was once a right only afforded to white people, fed directly into using the tools of oppression against our own. I was effectively saying I wasn’t the same type of Black person as this sister because I’ve been privileged enough to finish college—and that was wrong.
To make matters worse, the singer has been very open about her reading struggles—something many other grown folks deal with as well. While she has since gone back to, and completed, school, according to the Literacy Project, “44 million adults are now unable to read a simple story to their children.” So it’s clear my snarky joke could have hit far more people than its intended target.
Far too often, we have these conversations about celebrities who’ve been in the business for years and continue to box them into old behaviors and traits that they may have outgrown. Even worse, we help to perpetuate stereotypes forced on our community as a way to separate ourselves from each other to show we are different or elite. The intent of something small, like my bad joke, can inadvertently destroy the freedom we are trying to obtain. As a member of the Black LGBTQ community, I know how it feels to be thought of as “less than” based on stereotypes. In turn, I boxed the sister into a stereotype was not fair to her, and in doing so, I became the exact type of Black man that Jesse Williams cautioned against.
It would have been just as easy for me to lob the same joke at the male rappers, comedians, and actors who crossed the stage that night. Instead, I chose to throw shade. And for that I apologize.
I must also apologize to every Black woman who was offended by my joke, which very well could have made them feel like an unprotected target, because far too often they are the butt of stigmatizing jokes. As humans we definitely make mistakes, but it takes accountability to prevent the missteps from becoming a habit. And continuing to joke about someone’s education, lifestyle, socioeconomic level, or relationship status does little more than add to the onslaught of criticism Black folks, and particularly Black women, already face. Thankfully, a friend called me out and challenged me to reflect on my actions. And thankfully, it helped me become a much better version of myself. It is truly our duty as Black men to love, support, affirm, and protect Black women—being “woke,” while continuing to take jabs at sisters, is not hardly enough. I learned this much-needed lesson, and I hope many other Black men will too.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. He has a monthly column in A&U magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.