The Magic of Misinterpretation

In addition to being shared here, I’ve posted this essay on Medium and recorded an audio version for my podcast.

#BlackGirlsAreMagic

When I was a little girl, there were times when I regretted being brown. My schoolmates used to tease me. Their comments left me curious about having different facial features and lighter skin.

As an adult, I found solace in the pages of The Bluest Eye. I couldn’t relate to everything in Pecola Breedlove’s life. Still, I remembered what it was like to believe that life would have been just a little bit better if only I looked like everyone else.

This week on Twitter, I learned that a writer named Quinn Norton objected to #BlackGirlsAreMagic. This is a hashtag created to celebrate Black beauty in a world where — in spite of the success of women such as Viola Davis and Nicole Beharie — we still often feel pressure to aspire to something else.

After her misinterpretation was righteously rebutted, Ms. Norton retreated and wrote an explanation of her critique that I am still trying to digest. Her essay can be found in full here.

Among Ms. Norton’s claims is the notion that #BlackGirlsAreMagic’s purpose is to display gratuitous shots of women’s breasts. She took great care to declare that

“if you look at #BlackGirlsAreMagic at the moment I am writing this, and you skip over the tweets about me, you can find black girl’s achievement in between a lot of boobs. That bothers me, because the idea what we do something good but BOOBS BOOBS BOOBS is what crushes many girls’ dreams of living a public life. The women who follow each other may or may not see the tag that way, because they may or may not look at that live flow. Even then we tend to look for what confirms how we see a hashtag, because that’s how human brains work.

(emphasis added)

In spite of my familiarity with #BlackGirlsAreMagic, at this point Ms. Norton’s words drove me back to Twitter. In an attempt to make sense of her concerns, I logged into the site and looked up the images associated with #BlackGirlsAreMagic. I found a few photos that were clearly posted by racist trolls. However apart from that, the majority of the images were of Black women looking…Good. Some were dressed up, some dressed down. There were children as well as grown women. All looked perfectly normal and content in their beautiful, brown skin.

The fact that Ms. Norton would see the images associated with #BlackGirlsAreMagic and conclude that the hashtag was designed to focus on women’s breasts is disturbing. Her attitude is reminiscent of an old-school colonialist, desperate to categorize a group of “others” as unacceptable simply because she is not familiar with them.

Furthermore, even if the photos of Black women displaying their cleavage were nearly as plentiful as Ms Norton claimed, her objection would still seem suspect. Black women are women. We have BREASTS. I’m shy about sharing mine with the world, but if another woman is comfortable with posting cleavage shots online, who is it harming?

At another point in her essay, Ms. Norton attempts to be informative regarding hashtag use. With respect to the idea of a person or group’s right to claim a tag, she said that “we can own a hashtag in a community, but we can’t own it a wider public sphere. It has a hashtag life of its own.” I can only assume that here, Ms. Norton meant to enlighten those who use #BlackGirlsAreMagic regarding how hashtags work. However it seems to me that she is the one who fails to comprehend social media dynamics.

Obviously, one cannot own a hashtag any more than a writer can claim to own the alphabet whenever she uses its components to express a thought. Yet from the originator to the community that made it popular, most individuals understand the purpose of a hashtag is to share relevant points pertaining to a particular topic.

To emphasize her point about a hashtag’s malleability, Ms Norton also states that “I’m not wrong about how [a hashtag] can and does change over time and to different audiences.”. And indeed, Ms. Norton is not wrong about the fact that hashtags are interpreted differently by different people.

However she misunderstands the influence that those who have nothing to do with a tag have on its interpretation. If a hashtag is irrelevant to a cause that someone cares about, there’s a chance that he won’t find it meaningful, and in all likelihood, dismiss it. That’s the way most hashtags work. Not everyone will find sense in a particular tag’s creation. Still, that’s nothing for them to worry about. If I stressed over every hashtag that I couldn’t relate to, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

As an aside, I can’t help but wonder, if #TransMagic was used to celebrate members of the Transgendered community, would it have been met with the same level of presumptuous imposition? There’s no shame in admitting to being wrong about a situation, without attempting to insult those that you unfairly criticized.

The wonder of humanity is how different we are in spite of our similarities. I believe these differences ought to be celebrated, and above all, respected. However, that was not the case with Quinn Norton’s critique of #BlackGirlsAreMagic. Her words provide an example of a bias within society that needs to be corrected.

I long for individuals to understand: There’s nothing wrong with giving those of us who are non-white or outside of society’s gender norms room to appreciate ourselves and each other. In those circles, ideas that do not pertain to you are bound to be discussed. Yet that does not mean that said discussions are inherently wrong.

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