On Tuesday, November 27th, Facebook alerted me that a man named Sean Grant posted a picture of me. I didn’t and don’t know Sean. But, I recently performed at book release for the phenomenal Bay area poet, James Cagney, and thought that perhaps he was someone who attended the reading and snapped a shot.
I was excited to see what was there because I knew that I was styling and profiling at James’ reading. I was outraged, however, to find that the photo was actually a meme that Sean Grant, who runs an Oakland based concert and party promotion company called Baystarz, created to make fun of the Bay Area women who post in his comments after he makes requests for “baddies” to entertain rappers in VIP lounges post concert.
Specifically, he was making fun of women he perceives to be unattractive requesting access to spaces of which he thinks only “attractive” women should have access.
In order to make that point, he did a google search for Ugly Black Woman, and he found me. He posted my picture as an example of an “ugly black woman” who has the audacity to want access to spaces around affluent, famous or wealthy Black men.
He posted my picture to be an example of what he does not want, to garnish some laughs, and to belittle Blackness, fatness, and darkness in women and other genders. It also turns out that this is how he moves through the world. His Facebook is known to be cruel, mean spirited, and deeply misogynist towards Black women.
Now, I am a grown woman who has already dismantled white supremacist and patriarchal concepts of beauty for myself. I have been lauded as ugly and beautiful, desirable and repulsive, by many people in my life and I try not to think in those binaries. Given that, I’m surprised by the physical and consequently emotional hurt l experienced, even still, a day later. I’m shocked by the harrowing crunching that persevered underneath my skin, that teased between my muscles and organs, that crunched at my tear ducts, that left me slumped over, unresponsive, and only able to make eye contact with the wall.
I keep wanting to tell myself that I know better, that it shouldn’t hurt this much, that my resilience and self-love is 100 times brighter and more potent than any google search, than any ridiculous meme someone can make of me. I was drenched with a beautiful outpour of support and love – one that Facebook sadly took from me.
Friends, I so desperately wanted to bathe in your solidarity, sheath myself in your affirmations, wrap your validation and appreciation around my shoulders like a cape and a blanket.
But I also realize that’s not enough.
Sean Grant chose a picture of 26 year old me, almost 10 years ago. I was a newish teacher at the community college, posing at my white board after an exciting class, feeling proud of myself and excited to exist in the world, newly learning to really love the beauty and contour of my face and body.
26 year old me couldn’t get on BART or walk down the street without local youth calling her ugly, calling her “Precious,” asking her why she was so fat and Black.
26 year old me hadn’t yet worn off the scars of 16 year old me and 6 year old me who had it even worse, who was inundated with it, who dreamt of revenge, escape, homicide, and suicide because she hadn’t yet been exposed to what liberation looked like or that the concept of liberation even existed.
More Radical Reads: Desire & Belonging: On Blackness, Femininity, and Queerness
Fortunately, today, I have been.
Fortunately, today, I have standards. Fortunately, today, I get to choose (for the most part) who has access to my company. But I keep thinking about the people who don’t have access to make that decision. I keep thinking of the people who give up hope before they can escape.
I think of eight-year-old Imani Mcray, a bullied little Black girl who killed herself before her ninth birthday last year.
I think of nine-year-old Al’ayah Weatherspoon, the third grader, also a bullied little Black girl, who hung herself from her bunk bed this January.
I think of the fact that I just learned that Black children are killing themselves at twice the rate of white children, and what that means – especially since most of the Black children in the US live in predominatly Black or Black and Brown communities.
These tiny little babies who gave up before the world introduced them to hope, to heroes, to justice, to possibility. These little babies who decided life isn’t worth it. I understand why. We have Sean Grants in the world. We have people who support, validate, protect, and avenge the Sean Grants of the world. We have people who kiss their forehead softly and tell those who speak up and talk back that they are out of pocket.
Just like our babies experience it at school and on the internets, in the music we listen to and the comedians we watch on television; they also hear it in their families. Whether it be their parents or siblings talking to them and about them, or about other people, they see it and drink it in.
These words kill. They way we belittle, bully, and target each other is killing us. Even when we think they are just jokes, they kill. Even when you are talking about someone who has harmed you, the sentiment seeps out and kills.
A few months ago, I listened to one of my housemates talk shit about a cousin who had caused harm in their family. But they did not focus on the harm. They focused on the cousin’s body size, on their fatness, on the cousin’s partner’s fatness, and the disgustingness of their fat sex. All the while I, a fat Black woman who they supposedly cared about, had to share a kitchen with them and listen to it. When I talked to them about it, they kept focusing on the harm and violence their cousin had perpetrated – but they couldn’t see how their response was harm and violence to me, to my fat partner who I had just finished having sex with, because that was the basis of their insult.
It terrifies me how widely accepted, how normalized, how validated bullying and fatphobia continues to be – even amongst the most revolutionary of people. We do not deserve to have our bodies be made villainous or humorous.
We deserve the opportunity to live safely and with respect, to access resources and be able to move through the world, to get good service and good care, to have friends and loved ones who adore us, to be held accountable for our behaviors and our actions – not our weight.
I keep thinking of what Black Lives Matter means outside the contexts of police officers, bullets, and the school to prison pipeline. What does Black Lives Matter mean in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our romantic relationships, in our friendships, in our churches, on the tips of our tongues and the heat in our eyes, in the way we discuss gender, beauty, love, consent, boundaries, and self worth with our children – even with each other.
I’ve known Black men like Sean Grant my entire life.
I hate to say this and I’m nervous about the consequences, but I was raised in a household with men like Sean Grant. I grew up listening to my father (who I love and who I know loves me dearly) say horrible comments about Black women, my mother, and myself most of my childhood. He critiqued our bodies, our creativity, our intelligences, our personalities, and our desire to be whole and autonomous. It was painful and it was damaging. It also reflected the messages I received from boys at school, men on the radio, and television.
I watched him teach my brother to be a man like Sean Grant. I grew up being bullied at school and watched my brother bully other people for the same reasons and in the same ways I was bullied. I used to beg him to stand up for me. I begged my father to have compassion. Their only response was that if I wanted to be treated differently, I should lose weight, I should change my personality, I should strive to be like the people who they didn’t bully, the people they deemed normal and worthy of safety and respect.
To be clear, by posting that photo of me, Sean made it clear that some people deserve safety and respect in the world and some don’t – solely based on appearance. This is utter violence. This is racist. This is misogynist. This is oppressive. This is the value set that makes survival hard for so many. We often blame, judge, and ostracize the people who hurt themselves, who choose death, who respond violently, who get lost in depression and monsters, who self-medicate in all sorts of ways.
We don’t hold space for the circumstances; we don’t hold their perpetrators accountable. This is dangerous. This is victim-blaming and oppression-validating. It terrifies and hurts me.
I’ve listened to my brother and my father defend other Sean Grants. I’ve watched women I love so much defend the Sean Grants out of love, out of “familial solidarity,” out of fear of losing them, out of compassion because they know how much the world hates Black men. I get it.
I understand men like Sean Grant.
Men who find their worth only in the money they earn, the things they purchase, and the people they can degrade and belittle in order to feel power, or funny, or special, or relevant. I know that sometimes we make fun of a group of people in order to separate and classify ourselves along the lines of who is desirable and who is not, who is successful and who is not, who is welcome and who is not, who is worthy of being treated well and who is not.
I understand men like Sean Grant.
I understand men who haven’t yet discovered that their power does not have to come at the expense of other people, that it can be autonomous, that it could be connected to the good they do, the service they contribute to community, their generosity of spirit, the simple and humble willingness of people able to listen.
I understand men like Sean Grant.
I understand men who don’t yet know that the violence they perpetrate is the same violence that was done to their mother, to their father, to their ancestors attempting to vote and march, attempting to farm and support their children as sharecroppers or during the great migration.
I understand men like Sean Grant.
I understand men who don’t realize their disregard for other people is no different than the disregard Black people experienced on plantations in the midst of slavery, on boats crossing the Atlantic Ocean, in the previously fertile lands of Africa by European Slave Catchers, Catholic Priests, and Christian Missionaries.
I understand men like Sean Grant.
I understand men who, because of the rigid constraints and pervasiveness of systemic oppression, have never truly learned:
- to love themselves or other people,
- that they are magic,
- that their voices are precious and have power,
- that they are important just the way they are,
- that people will love them even if they don’t make them laugh,
- that there are SO many ways to laugh and entertain people that doesn’t involve cruelty or bullying
- that they could be an instrument of change,
- that there is enough about them that’s loveable and worthy without being cruel or violent without needing to google “ugly black women” for validation.
I understand men like Sean Grant.
I understand men who grew up watching cruel and violent men earn the most money and respect in our communities
- who never saw other people stand up to these men,
- who were told not to be soft,
- who were told not to be bitches,
- who were told to man up when they showed vulnerability,
- who were told never to accept defeat,
- who were told not to be weak,
- who were told to be real men,
- who were taught basic concepts of dominance = strength.
I know and understand and have loved and currently love men like Sean Grant, from a far distance. I rage against them and I weep for them. I weep for their children and for the women of who love them.
And just like I understand Sean Grant, I understand the women who laughed at the picture he posted of me, implying that I was an example of an undesirable and unwanted woman.
I understand how grateful those women are to not be the ugly Black woman he found.
I understand how those women compare the width of their arms against the width of mine, the girth of their chin against the girth of mine, the fairness of their skin against the darkness of mine, the texture and choice of their hair against the texture and choice of mine, the style of their clothes against the style of mine, the thickness and curve of their body against the thickness and curve of mine, the shine of their smile against the shine of mine.
I understand women who rejoice that men like Sean Grant choose them, who modify their body-character-standards in order to attract men like Sean Grant, who find identity and validation in the fact that Sean Grant did not choose to make fun of them – this time, whose only concept of beauty, value, esteem is found within the lens and choice of men like Sean Grant who don’t have actual self-esteem their own damn selves.
I understand women who protect and nurture men like Sean Grant, who lightly chastise them with giggling coos and “lol”‘s, who kiss their forehead when their feelings get hurt, who fight their battles in exchange for a few minutes of his attention, who think that our request for changed behavior and concrete amends are out of pocket and too much.
I get it.
I know what it’s like to spend your life not thinking you were worthy of having standards. I know what it’s like to be afraid to ask for “too much” because you don’t believe it’s possible or that someone will actually be willing to respect and honor your needs. I know what it’s like to choose an embrace over boundaries, to choose desire over self-esteem, to choose connection over self-respect.
I understand women who lie with and nurture men who treat them like scum, men who treat them like they are replaceable, who only see them as tools of service and pleasure because they don’t know that better is possible. Because they didn’t see their mother or their grandmother get better.
I know women who choose men like Sean Grant, who beg and plead for men like Sean Grant, preferring their shallow and temporary warmth over the freedom and reprieve of living a life without violence of abuse.
I understand not knowing the peace, the creativity, and the power that one can generate when one don’t have a violent perpetrator of oppression sucking one’s breast and one’s life force. And it makes me so sad for us.
I know women who numb their own emotions with bitterness and assimilation, and lash out at those
- who refuse to submit,
- who choose liberation and joy,
- who accept their bodies and their weirdness,
- who choose the clothes and smiles that speak their truth,
- who sit proudly in their gender or lack of gender,
- who let their stomachs and breast sit free,
- who let their hair grow everywhere,
- who paint their face-hair-skin the color of their pleasure,
- who speak nerdy and weird.
I understand the fear, the jealousy, the insecurity, the frustration, the edging recognition of self-hatred that they mask with a performance of rational dissonance like, “it’s just social media,” or “they just too sensitive,” or “they out of pocket and want to much.”
I understand women who’ve never been told that it’s OK to want more, to have expectations, to have boundaries, to ask for consent, to ask for kindness, to ask for respect, to ask for self-reflection, to ask for accountability, to ask for change.
This is the impact of misogyny.
This is the impact of toxic masculinity and patriarchy.
This is the impact of empire and capitalism and white supremacy.
This is the impact of readily accepted religious dogma, of punishing and ostracizing people who speak up and out about the ways we’ve learn to stay silent and hopefully safe.
I get how, for some of us, this internalized oppression and self-loathing is in our blood, our bones, our heritage. I get that dreaming is scary. I get that fighting back is dangerous. I get that being yourself can initially feel lonely. I understand why we acquiesce to our oppressors and eventually join them.
But still it hurts.
Yesterday, I felt it in my skin, in the tightness pulling at my cheek and jaw muscles, in the disruptive clutch of my gut and the constant trips to the bathroom, in the ways I kept grinding my teeth, in my headaches, in the wall I kept staring at, in the ache still stretching across my shoulders, in the tears that burnt my eyes every time my partner attempted to talk to me.
I know that I am not ugly.
I know that ugly is a perspective.
I know that ugly is a behavior.
I know that ugly is a state of mind.
I know that ugly is a lack of care for others.
And I know that ugly won’t change until we change.
Friends, I want more. I want better. I want a fierce and radical change, a social and cultural shift.
Your words have been extraordinarily healing. You have warmed me up. You have helped to keep me from drifting into the fear, hopelessness, and feelings of invisibility that I have dealt with and fought the majority of my life. I am so grateful and so honored to be loved by you and to be in community with you.
You have reminded me of my own intentional kindness, my moves towards compassion, my willingness to forgive and to hold myself accountable, my deep desire to grow, to heal myself, and to let my healing inspire and nurture other people’s healing.
You have defended me with the swiftness and the fierceness that I craved as a child and young adult, that I felt guilty for wanting and unworthy of receiving, that I was often chastised for requesting, that I was told irrational.
YOU my friends are so beautiful, the epitome of beautiful, and I am grateful to be blessed with your shine.
But still, when I signed on to social media yesterday morning, I saw memes so similar to the ones posted about me.
I saw memes that made fun of the way people were dressed, of their shoes, of their teeth, of their addiction, of them being unkempt. I saw memes that made fun of who was attracted to which bodies. I saw memes that chastised basketball players for wanting trans women and not being out. I saw memes that made fun of Black men who were attracted to frumpy and fat white women – women who are frumpy and fat in the way that I am, the way other women of color I love are. I saw memes of Black men dressed up as “ugly, hairy” Black women to make social points and simultaneously make fun of us – all as jokes, of course.
These memes are NO different than the meme Sean Grant made about me and what it implied. Our laughing reactions to these memes are NO different from the people who laughed at me.
Even though I know that none of us identify as bullies or perpetrators, that we are folks committed to uplifting all humans and systems that sustain life and healing, that we are folks who care about each other and our neighbors – these memes are indeed violent.
I invite you to join me in a world where we don’t find validation and identity at the expense of other people
- where we don’t recognize our beauty, worth, or brilliance by comparing ourselves to other people and deeming them less than;
- where we don’t turn other people’s pain and marginalization into a platform for us to stand on;
- where we don’t hold men to irrational and toxic standards of being dominant or emotionless;
- where we don’t create hierarchies rooted in how we look or what size we are or how we express our gender or whether we are cis or stealth enough;
- where we don’t chastise folks who ask for more and better and call them names.
In your own conversations with other people, in the music you listen to or play at parties, in the way you stand up for yourself and defend others – try to focus on people’s actions and not their looks, their bodies, their heritages.
When you create art, tell stories, crack jokes – aspire for craft that doesn’t need a scapegoat, that doesn’t rely on familiar tropes of insult, that doesn’t use other people’s struggles to make us laugh or feel better.
We are SO smart, so phenomenally talented, so creative, so sophisticated, so well-versed in the ways of oppression, power, privilege, and harm. I know that we can find less violent ways to communicate with each other and to deal with the people who harm us, who we don’t like, who we need to hold accountable, who we don’t understand, and who we feel intimidated by. We have so many options of expression.
Because let’s be real, sometimes, when we’re oppressed, when we are the people being made fun of, when we’ve been excluded because of our gender or our size or our appearance or other parts of our identity or show up, we validate the way we harm others, the way we engage with and utilize systems of oppression for our benefit, the way we fight and flash back. And we do it as if we think our oppression, our marginalization, our intersectionalities excuse us.
My friends, they don’t. They just further normalize and validate the systems that hurt us all.
I love you. I love us. I know that things can be different. Please, don’t give up hope on you, don’t give up hope on others, don’t give up hope on possibility, don’t give up hope on change.
Some people are committed to their narrow-mindedness, their colonization, and their hurt. But there are so many blossoms of youth, of human, of possibility out there desperate and hungry for juice like yours, for a world like the one we’re creating, for the possibility and liberation I spent my childhood searching for.
Your love has helped me heal, and as a result my love has helped others heal. We are a powerful, dynamic, and deeply collaborative source – and we’re still growing, we’re still learning, we’re still becoming. It’s amazing. Thank you for everything. And let’s keep fighting the good fight.
With adoration and solidarity,
Your Favorite Faerie Mermaid Gangsta for the Revolution.
If you’d like to support me or my work, please check out my paypal (PayPal.me/jezebeldelilahx) or venmo (@vanessa-lewis-4) in the comments, or be sure to join my upcoming Patreon. Thank you so very much and I love you deeply.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person standing next to a brick wall. They are wearing an orange shirt and their hands are on their hips. They are wearing gold earrings and necklace. Their hair is in black braids and styled in a bun on the top of their head. They are looking to the left. Source: pexels.com]