Black Women Deserve Nuance…Azealia Banks Included

Azealia Banks in Concert

Image by: Dena Flows

Azealia Banks is one of the most complex figures in popular culture.  Because Banks’s Twitter beefs garner so much buzz, many fail to see the shrewd analysis of the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and culture present in Banks’s comments.  In an interview with Hot 97 last year, (which I’ve decided is a must see for anyone who wants to write about Azealia Banks now or in the future) Banks discusses the grit needed to get her album off the ground, her fierce Twitter exchanges, and the harsh reality of being a talented artist in an industry that privileges White mediocrity.

Through watching her, we are able to view the full spectrum of Black womanhood.  Despite Banks being multifaceted, she is subjected to the same narrow representation that Black female stars battle.  Her astute observations about the prevalence of sexism and racism are rarely dissected by media outlets because we already have a cultural script for an angry, Black lady, but not one for a Black female that is an adept cultural critic.  Banks disrupts the status quo, and unfortunately many have decided it is easier to label her as crazy or angry rather than engage with her points.  This past week and a half has proven no different.

(Discussions of the slur “f****t” are under this line)

‘Fag’ is not necessarily a static identity attached to a particular (homo- sexual) boy. Fag talk and fag imitations serve as a discourse with which boys discipline themselves and each other through joking relationships. Any boy can temporarily become a fag in a given social space or inter- action. This does not mean that those boys who identify as or are perceived to be homosexual are not subject to intense harassment. But becoming a fag has as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess and strength or an anyway revealing weakness or femininity, as it does with a sexual identity. This fluidity of the fag identity is what makes the specter of the fag such a powerful disciplinary mechan- ism. -C.J. Pascoe in “Dude You’re a Fag”

Nobody has ever called me a faggot*.  I’m a heterosexual woman; I don’t see it happening anytime soon.  So I can’t imagine the pain associated with a word used to terrorize and oppress members of a community. I think Azealia Banks gives us an opportunity to discuss the fluidity of language.  The above quote is from C.J. Pascoe’s article “Dude You’re a Fag” published in the journal Sexualities in 2005, and later turned into a book (I highly recommend it for anyone even remotely interested in sex and gender).  In her article, Pascoe demonstrates how the “fag discourse” is used amongst adolescents to police the boundaries of masculinity.  Though the boys were using the term fag to be disparaging, most were not intentionally using it to bully homosexual classmates.  In fact, some respondents stated that they believed using “fag” to talk about someone who was gay was wrong.  So how does this relate to Azealia Banks?  In response to the altercation on the plane, Banks has said that she uses the term “faggot” in a feminist way.  However, most wrote this explanation off as a star’s pitiful attempt to backtrack after a horrendous comment.  I cannot situate this language within my feminism, but are we right to immediately write her off?  We as a society partly evolved the definition of the word “fag”, as it is widely used to check the masculinity of peers who are often heterosexual.  So is it possible for Banks to reclaim and redefine the language in this way, and who gets to decide?  Where does the fluidity of language come in?  Well, I’m not 100% sure, nor do I know if it my place as someone who has never been called a faggot to really decide.

What I can do is identify with Banks as a Black woman.  I too experience the duality of sexism and racism.  Racism and sexism are partners, both insidious and inescapable.  Though Banks and I experience both, she faces them on a much larger scale as a public figure.  So when she took Perez Hilton to task, who has been known to make misogynist comments, or when multiple White men got in her face while she’s trying to exit a plane, she retaliated.  She called them faggots.  Banks wields the language at her disposal against White men who are exerting power over her.  This is the meat of the issue that white media just doesn’t get.  An analysis of the incident on the plane that doesn’t discuss the racial and gender power dynamics present, is no analysis at all.  Do I condone calling people fags?  No, but I have had interactions with White men where I have wanted to tear the flesh from their bones or boil them inside out.  So when Banks chooses a word to hurl at the White men she perceives as wronging her, she chooses something that will hurt; an assault on their identity as men.  You don’t have to condone something to understand it.  

Further, we must be able to think critically about the incident and derive a conclusion beyond she’s crazy and homophobic.  I don’t believe Azealia Banks is homophobic.  I do, however, believe that she has been excluded from the LGBTQ community, just like so many Black women before her, and I do believe that her use of the word faggot is designed to also hurt those who pushed her out.  I have read pieces about Azealia Banks’s supposed homophobia that do not even acknowledge her bisexual identity (I also found one comparing her to Bill and Hillary Clinton, but we won’t even go there), nor do they acknowledge the sexualized racism and racialized sexism that she has been subjected too by members of the LGBTQ community (I assure you her Twitter mentions are not pretty).  This is part of a larger pattern.  Black people are never afforded nuance, and no one deserves it more than Azealia Banks.

When Broke With Expensive Tastes came out I listened to it everyday for two months.  Though I’d been bumping to “212” for years, it was “Soda” that especially caught my ear.  Banks effortlessly blended some of the heaviest lyrics on her album with a dance upbeat that I couldn’t help but jump to.  Even though I was dancing, I could feel the pain in Banks’s words and relate to them.  It is one of the best expressions of the expansiveness of Black womanhood, and I need it now more than ever.

For more on Azealia Banks and her complexity check out:

Britt Julious on Noisey: “Why The World Needed Azealia Banks in 2014

Derrick Clifton at The Daily Dot: “What the Internet gets wrong about Azalia Banks and the word ‘f****t’

Charles Pulliam-Moore at Fusion: “What Azealia Banks said, what Azealia Banks meant, and why she’s not a homophobe

Episode 14 of Bey-Ond Pop Culture with Kevin Allred

*Note:  I reflected on my privilege as a cis heterosexual female as I was planning to write this piece on Banks.  As I stated, I do not know what it feels like to be called a faggot.  In my attempt to urge for nuance in discussing Black women, I may have unintentionally been dismissive about the use of the slur.  I always am seeking to improve; please let me know in the comments how you think I can expand my analysis.  

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2 thoughts on “Black Women Deserve Nuance…Azealia Banks Included

  1. Demetrius says:

    I think this blog in particular and you in general are wonderful and that your careful and thoughtful insight is much appreciated in a world of reflexive, knee jerk, 140 character arguments. Of course, I have known you a very long time. I think you were somewhere around two the first time we met. I was fresh out of graduate school and all of my conversations sounded a great deal like this post/essay. Some would argue that they still do. Anyway, you and I got along fabulously and your parents quickly zeroed in (it took me years to realize I had been targeted, lol) on me as a suitable babysitter. I bring this up not to embarrass you but as a point of reference. I remember your parents returning home, after the first time I was your sitter, and your father asking me how things went and I told him that you were, quite simply, the smartest, most articulate child I had ever met. I knew instantly that you would do great things and here you are at the beginning of what is sure to be a most brilliant journey.

    Speaking of journeys. I do know what it’s like to be called a faggot. The slur has been as much a part of my life/identity as my name. In fact, the slur has been synonymous with my name for as long as I can remember. In grade school I was Andre (my middle name) the fag. In college I was Demetrius the fag and during my brief (and ill advised) stay in the navy I was Bady the fag. And yet until recently I had never examined, beyond the polemical, my own acceptance and participation in the politics of the identities I have accepted and carried for most of my life. What, exactly, is a black, gay man? How do these identities work, individually and together? What are their respective advantages and disadvantages? Are they accurate? Why do I participate in this naming? And, the biggest question of all, at least in regard to the question you present here, is there even such a thing as black homophobia? If so, why is it unique? When, where and how do racial and gender power dynamics intersect with or completely disrupt the production and reproduction of hate speech? And if we’re going to give out exemptions then who decides?

    I watched the incident on the plane…several times and, after a lifetime, of “conditional friendships” with straight or bi-black women, I’m far less willing to give Ms. Banks a pass. More often than not when I have been called “fag” by straight or bi black women it was meant as an assault on not only the authenticity of my masculinity but also on the authenticity of my “blackness.” In other words when straight or bi-black women have called me a fag I have never been able to escape the suspicion that what they are also calling me is a “traitor” and a “sell-out” to the race. My “gayness” invalidates my “blackness” and renders me useless to the race. So, then, when you suggest that there were power dynamics at play because “multiple White men got in her face while she’s trying to exit a plane, she retaliated.” And that “Banks wields the language at her disposal against White men who are exerting power over her.” That’s letting her off way too easy. Yes, I do believe that there were gender specific power dynamics at play but I’m not sure that her remedy or “retaliation” can be cast in racially specific terms. In other words I think she would have called the man a “fag” regardless of his race and I think it would have had the same dehumanizing and demeaning intent behind it. I’m sorry. I’ve been burned too many times and I’m just not buying it.

    Now, I do not mean to suggest my relationships with straight or bi-black women are indicative of all such relationships . Nor am i suggesting that these women and I were never friends. We were. Or that that they did not care for me. They did. But I am telling you that I have always known something they did not. I knew that our “friendship” existed under a covenant and that this covenant had only two rigorously enforced rules. The first rule is the most important. It is omnipresent and always unspoken and dictates the terms and conditions of almost all “friendships” between straight or bi-black women and gay, black men. That rule is this; our lives are not equal. What this means is that while we may spend lots of time together in public and while we may speak on the phone every day, in most cases straight, black women do not know, do not want to know and in some cases do not even consider real the private lives of the gay, black men they call “friends.” The brilliant writer and educator Thomas Glave puts it this way:

    “…to those heterosexual people who claim to be your “friends” –you must distrust the word; regard it and them askance and with all suspicion. For when, given what they have revealed to you over the years of your “friend” –ship, were you ever completely certain that they truly were friends? That they really considered you and others like you an actual person, not an aberration? Not something experimental and “interesting,” nor one of “those people” who can be so funny, so acerbic and outrageous and—when?”

    And this brings me to the second rule of friendship between black, gay men and straight or bi-black women. The second rule is actually more pronounced and less tacit. The second rule is; don’t ever make me (the gay man) challenge the first rule because if I do you won’t be able to handle the truth. And the truth, Ms. Banks, is that we hear the things you say and we see the things you do and, when the chips are down, we know where you stand.

    Demetrius the fag

    Liked by 1 person

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