We Done Told Y'all What's Up: Black Folks are Not Here for the White Gaze

by Jenn M. Jackson

There may be nothing more intimidating – and therefore offensive – to White folks than Black Americans who set boundaries for their personal space and public privacy.

Increasing numbers of Black celebrities, entertainers, and athletes have forcefully established themselves as people rather than objects for commodification and public consumption. From Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, to Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, to Beyoncé Knowles Carter, Blacks in the public eye have demanded respect for their personal space in ways that disrupt White Supremacy and challenge the control of the White Gaze.

Within the past week, Lynch—a fellow alumnus of Oakland Technical High School—has gained national attention for his continuous assertions that he has no intention of giving mainstream media outlets more than what he owes: To perform well with his teammates on the field. At the NFL’s Super Bowl Media Day, his repeated statement of, “I’m only here so I won’t get fined,” let us all know that he is not checking for the (predominantly White) news media.
And at another media conference before Super Bowl XLIX, he had this to say to reporters:
Ay, look. I mean, all week, I done told y’all what’s up. And for some reason, y’all continue to come back and do the same thing that y’all did [before],” Lynch explained to various media, cameras still snapping photos. “I don’t know what story y’all trying to get out of me. I don’t know what image y’all trying to portray of me. But it don’t matter what y’all think, what y’all say about me. ‘Cause when I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face -- my family that I love [chuckles] -- that’s all that really matters to me. 

In other words, Lynch is not here for conforming to the whims of White news media or fans watching at home. For him, his real family is back home in Oakland, CA. And while some in the media have respected his desire for privacy—rather than pandering to the wants and needs of spectators—others in the media have called his actions eccentric and strange. Despite repeated fines, Lynch maintains that he isn’t playing the sport for the attention. For him, it’s about family. What’s so strange about that?

The truth is: having a private life as a celebrity is only seen as “strange” when that celebrity is Black. This goes for men, but especially for women. For Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, their “unchained” parenting style has been a topic of news media for years. For Beyoncé, there is a certain feeling that her removing herself from the public eye “breaks all the rules.” Rather than praising these celebrities for their ability to remain humble and grounded amidst a world where “viral” is a household term, many have chastised them for prioritizing their family and private lives rather than acquiescing to the watchful gaze of the public.

But we’ve seen what happens when these celebrities’ private lives become public. Recently Fox News pundit Mike Huckabee called Jay-Z a “pimp” claiming that he has exploited Beyoncé – implying that the world-class entertainer and businesswoman is a sex worker – all because she has a sex positive image. Last year, Child Protective Services launched an investigation into Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith’s parental aptitude after a picture emerged of 13-year-old Willow Smith with 20-year-old actor Moises Arias. In both cases, these celebrities’ private lives were laid bare for those in the news media to cherry-pick and piece apart, seeking shame rather than similarity. With those accusations, who can blame Black stars for rebuking White news media and consumers?

So the question that naturally emerges is simple: What are the rules? Is there a rule that Black bodies are always up for public (read “White”) consumption? Is there a rule that parenting is only a private activity in White families? Or, is there a rule that in addition to meeting one’s professional requirements – whether they be athletic or otherwise – Blacks must also provide play-by-play commentary for every media representative who demands it? Maybe these are the rules. And, perhaps, that’s the root of the problem.

The pressure of being a Black body in America is an obstacle unto itself. Couple that with the added weight of performing for White executives, media professionals, and consumers, and the burden placed on Black public figures seems nearly impossible to surmount. It is the weight of expectation which bears down unequally on Black Americans. The pressures of respectability and acquiescing to mainstream standards of “perfection” create a minefield for Blacks who just want to live. Those very same expectations are used to punish these individuals when they assert their independence and humanity. This is the incendiary double-standard enforced unilaterally against Black public figures.

Folks like Marshawn Lynch are acting in open defiance of these unfair “rules.” And, the Smith and Knowles-Carter families seem to be doing the same. Hopefully, as White news media and consumers continue to hit a brick wall with these Black public figures, they will finally “get it.” Though, whether they ever “get it” or not, it’s beyond time that more Black people demand the right to live and be Black with the same dignity, privacy, and respect afforded to White celebrities.

Frankly, that’s what I’m here for.

Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.

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