Blackness is a box. Its sides are close enough that if you spread your arms out far enough, you can touch them with both hands. While its ceiling may be tall, if you fly high enough or long enough, you will eventually crash into it. It is an inescapable boundary that every black person in America is aware they cannot escape. It will squeeze you until you can’t breathe. It will choke you to death.
Nowhere is this box more noticeable than in corporate America, where one’s blackness is simultaneously commodified and shackled. In the world of high-stakes, multimillion-dollar capitalism, you are allowed to be black, but not too black. You can be proof of a corporation’s diversity as long as you don’t wear your hair a certain way (the way it comes out of your head; the way that doesn’t take time, pain and hundreds of dollars to change).
You can offer a different cultural outlook as long as it is sufficiently acceptable to whites. You can bring a younger, urban audience to a network, as long as you don’t mention white supremacy.
Never mention white supremacy. Never remind anyone of the history of American whiteness. Just to be safe, never say “white.”
Imagine becoming a black writer, reporter or public figure and having a muzzle placed over your mouth. That’s what is happening to many people with alarming frequency. It has become a trend. They are allowed to be black, with a caveat: Don’t upset the fragile safe space of whiteness; stay inside the box.
I damn near cried a few minutes ago.
On Tuesday morning, I read a story about ESPN’s Jemele Hill calling Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on her personal Twitter account Monday, becoming the subject of controversy when she tweeted this:
ESPN has a strict company policy about its reporters sharing their personal opinion, even on their own Twitter accounts. The company issued a memo that basically said its reporters are allowed to share political opinions only when the topics are “related to a current issue impacting sports. This condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions—such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW. Other exceptions must be approved in advance by senior editorial management.”
In response to Hill’s tweet, ESPN issued this tweet:
Jesus fucking Christ.
I stopped watching SportsCenter a few years ago. Not for any radical reasons. I didn’t like that it didn’t show sports anymore. Instead of highlights and stats, it does feature pieces about Make-a-Wish kids and bland interviews with people who have nothing to say.
Then they rebranded the 6 p.m. SportsCenter as SC6 and hired Hill and Michael Smith to bring some flavor to the broadcast. And we all know what “flavor” means: blackness. The show basically became a young, sports-based, urban talk show. ESPN executives hired Hill because she is black. They traded on her blackness. They used her blackness to make money, to boost ratings and to make the network cool again.
Until she stepped out of the box.
The same thing is going on everywhere. Politico magazine recently warned its writers about offering their opinions, according to the Washington Post. Then this happened:
Staffers at Friday’s meeting asked whether it was okay to tweet their opinions about topics such as physical attacks on journalists and white supremacy—i.e., matters that receive and deserve widespread condemnation. “The editors’ message was very hesitant: Try to stay away from those things because some of them are partisan,” said a source in attendance.
Newspapers don’t hire anyone because of his or her subject-verb agreement. They hire writers because of how they translate stories and facts into words. When they hire black writers, they know—and usually want—the facts and stories filtered through the lens of a black reporter. Not only is this important, but it is necessary if the aim is to present different viewpoints. Imagine your boss reprimanding you for opposing racism. Or, as Soraya N. McDonald put it: “I‘m black. If condemning white supremacy is a ‘partisan issue,’ you don’t deserve my words.”
It happened when L’Oreal cut ties with transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf, who wrote a Facebook post saying, “Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people.” The company hired an outspoken, trasngender activist, then turned around and fired her for being an outspoken transgender activist.
These public figures weren’t reprimanded or fired because of what they said. It was because they said it. Even worse, the companies that hired them employed them specifically to use their blackness as currency. As a prop. The corporations were happy to rake in dollars based on their blackness until their blackness crossed the line.
To be clear, Jemele Hill’s tweet didn’t offend a single person. L’Oreal won’t sell fewer tubes of lipstick because of what Bergdorf said. There isn’t a single platform in all of the media universe where you can’t run into someone calling Donald Trump a white supremacist. These people didn’t make themselves liabilities; they were just too black. It is the exact same thing that happened to Colin Kaepernick.
I can’t imagine speaking out against inequality and racism and having my boss say, “Nah, Mike recognizes he shouldn’t have said that. We gave him a stern talking-to.”
Isn’t the ability to make your black-skinned property shush until it’s spoken to reminiscent of 200 years ago? Isn’t that the definition of white supremacy? Isn’t that like sending them back to their tiny little boxes to huddle in the corner until they learn their boundaries?