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Unsolicited Blackness - Chicken, Waffles & Twerking

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by Phill Branch
September 4, 2013 5:37 PM
19 Comments
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The moment Hoda Kotb or Barbara Walters grabs hold of some formerly underground colloquialism or dance move, I brace myself. Anything with a hint of Black coolness that crosses over too far into the mainstream, usually spells trouble. I don’t have a problem with Miley Cyrus twerking. I just hope it doesn’t lead to me being twerked at without my permission.

I find myself deflecting random acts of slang, exaggerated neck movements and chicken recipes on a regular basis. Thankfully, I’ve cultivated a group of diverse friends who would never do something like randomly pop-lock in my face, but that doesn’t save me from strangers and coworkers.

Coworkers and colleagues tend to be worse than strangers when it comes to “unsolicited ‘blackness’.” Strangers don’t quite know if you might slap the shit of them, but the people you work with think you’re a different kind of Black, because you laugh at their jokes and talk with them about Downton Abbey.

At a writing retreat recently, I joined some new colleagues at a cafeteria table for breakfast. Before I could adjust myself in my seat, one them asked me, “Do you think we’ll have fried chicken and waffles tomorrow?” I was confused. We had never had any type of poultry talk. I didn’t even have eggs on my plate.

In moments like this, I sometimes wonder if I’ve gone into a trance where I’ve recited lines from a Popeye’s commercial. Once I determine that I am, in fact, awake and being asked about fried chicken for no apparent reason, I have to make quick decisions. Is this person trying to get me arrested, or just trying to make a connection? I can’t even lay my burdens down while I eat granola.

Years ago at a public relations firm I worked for, my department often went to lunch as a group. My boss’ favorite place to go - Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Now don’t get me wrong; I get down with Roscoe’s. I order the No. 9 with a side of fries covered in gravy, greens and mac and cheese. I don’t go often and when I do it, I do it. That said, the first time we went as a group, I ordered a salad - with no chicken.

I had this vision of sucking on a bone and then one of my coworkers saying something like, “You love chicken, don’t you?” I feared that I would black out and then when I came to, I’d be handcuffed to a hospital bed. In order not to lose my job and to stay a free man, I ate lettuce. The truth is it that doesn’t really matter whether I’m eating leafy greens, or downing a pack of Nowlaters (I know that’s the incorrect spelling), folks who want to throw some “black” at you, will.

My earliest memory of “unsolicited ‘blackness’” was when I was in high school and J.J. Fad’s song “Supersonic” was all over the radio. If you’re unfamiliar, go listen to “Fergalicious” on your iPod. They’re essentially the same song, but not - kinda like “Blurred Lines” and ”Got to Give it Up.”

I was at the Burger King in Livingston Mall in Jersey, minding my own damn business and this white girl gets in my face and just starts with, “A-somma-lomma-duma-luma-lamalama-toomalama-hamalama- Aw, Yeah, that's it!”  I stood there being rapped at for about 27 seconds.

I think I was supposed to be impressed because she knew the words. I never knew and still don’t know what J.J. Fad was saying at the end of that song. However, I wasn’t impressed and I wasn’t sure what to do. Her friends were laughing and clapping. It was like an 80s, suburban version, of getting served. I remember standing there with my Whopper wondering if I was supposed to rap back at her. Was this a battle? I really just wanted to eat and go to the Gap. She seemed disappointed when I just said, “Cool” and sat down. If I had rapped back, it wouldn’t have been J.J. Fad. It would have been KRS-One and then I’m an asshole for making the white girl uncomfortable. It was a no-win.

The expressions, dances and handshakes change, but the experiences are the same. Thanks to Martin Lawrence, I spent a good portion of the 90s being hit with “You go boy” replete with full neck rolling and if the assailant was aware of my sexuality, a clumsy finger snap. For a while, “You go girl/boy” lived comfortably nested as part of the lexicon of a very specific community, but then it leaked. These things always leak. I’ve lived through "jiggy," "bling," "dissin’,"  "holla," “Drop it like it’s hot,” “C’mon Son!” and so many more. As I watched Miley twerk, I braced myself for the onslaught.

It’s not so far-fetched to believe that I’ll have to fend off some well-intended twerking this coming holiday party season. If you’ve ever had drunk coworkers cabbage patch at you, you understand where I’m coming from. Even outside of work situations, I’ve been sitting at a bar and had someone get in my face and start doing the Robot. I’m not uptight, but by anyone’s measure that’s inappropriate behavior at a jazz club.

All that said, there can be harmony when all participants are willing. A few weeks back at the aforementioned retreat, a festive, wine-induced karaoke party broke out. People from all walks of life stepped to the mic and let it all hang out. There was some rapping. Sir Mix-a-Lot is a crowd favorite, but no one rapped at me. On the converse, I didn’t hop in anyone’s face spitting out Bon Jovi lyrics. It’s rarely discussed, but “unsolicited ‘whiteness’” is a problem too.

You ever been in mixed company and a black person - if female, hair askew and if male , in Crocs - drops every white pop culture reference they know for no reason? Oftentimes, the added bonus is the constant raking of non-moving hair behind one’s ears, as if it had fallen out of place…but I digress.

Over the last few days, I’ve read many pieces about appropriation and how Miley’s recent image shift is an act of cultural theft. I suppose my question is, who owns twerking? I don’t. As far as I’m concerned, Miley can twerk until she breaks a hip. I didn’t see anything that represented being Black when I looked at Miley perform. I just saw an awkward mix of youth and capitalism. Besides, nobody can perform my lived experience. You can twerk, do vocal runs, or get "jiggy" all you want, but none of it captures what it means to be me. It’s performance without full context. Historically speaking, this isn’t a new thing.

My main concern is that Miley opened the floodgates. I was just beginning to recover from the "turnt up" outbreak and now there’s something else. My only wish is that when some random person wants to drop it like it’s hot, then back that thang up on me and twerk, they’ll check-in first. You don’t know me like that and I will feel bad if I have to diss you.

Word to your motha.

Check out my upcoming writing and performance workshop at Capital Hill Arts Workshop and follow me @cinephill_.

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19 Comments

  • Joe Banks | October 7, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    I see this all the time when out of touch whites try to act black... Makes me sick... Worse even when other ethnicities (Asian, Hispanic) try to act black. Have you seen blacks that act white intentionally??? I find that offensive. Just as blacks should find it offensive if others act black. Just be yourself and don't treat people different than you would your own family.

  • Stacey | September 7, 2013 2:37 PMReply

    There aren't enough words to express my love for this article and my appreciation to you for writing it. I have, with my Afro all kinds of nappy, been guilty of unsolicited whiteness in numerous occasions. That's a toughie though because pop culture doesn't belong to white people neither does proper English but my delivery has at times been very Buffy from the Valley for no damn reason at all. I've forwarded this to all my friends and will save it for that co-worker/ date or neighbor who thinks calling me "girrrrrl" makes them "down".

  • ThatDeborahGirl | September 7, 2013 8:57 AMReply

    The correct spelling is nowalaters. You left out the A.

    :D

  • Mico | September 6, 2013 7:00 AMReply

    Yes! So true! So funny! So sad! So needed! So insightful! You made my day

  • Lynne | September 6, 2013 7:00 AMReply

    I don't know whether to cringe or be okay when white people tell my son, who is 1, that maybe he will be a basketball player one day. Maybe he will. But can someone tell him that maybe ne will be a doctor? He can make that choice. And he has a basketball jersey that he wore yesterday that I almost didn't let him wear because I didn't want to perpetuate stereotypes, but it's a cool jersey!! Overthinking.

  • ShebaBaby | September 6, 2013 12:05 AMReply

    Dammit Tambay, now I'm craving Roscoes. And I have no problem eating fried chicken in front of white folks. It's their problem, not mine. Plus that's all I see when I go to Roscoes anyway, so no salad for me, give me the bird.

    To touch on Miley, I think my problem with her inevitable pilgrimage to the land of ratchet has more to do with her taking something else we created (no matter how embarrassing) and making money off of it. Then here goes the media running with it like she's the first person to shake her non-existent ass on the moon or something. Nothing ever seems to be good or interesting in society until a white person does it. They run off and make money off of us, while we're somewhere dumbfounded. I really wish these silly rappers would quit encouraging this girl but they all seem to groupthink that white is right anyways...but I digress.

  • ShebaBaby | September 6, 2013 12:07 AM

    Correction, I meant to type Phil.

  • ALM | September 5, 2013 11:10 PMReply

    I believe that many people feel the way they do about Miley because of Miley's past interviews. When "Party in the USA" became a hit, she was reported as stating that she didn't even listen to Jay-z's music, even though the lyrics reference "and a Jay-z song was on, and a Jay-z song was on..."

    Fast forward approx two years and she has "Mike Will Made It", a well known hip hop producer, creating singles for her. She's talking about doing the drug Molly, and then here comes the dancing with plus sized African American women on stage. Miley has reportedly made associations with the items I have listed with being "Black".

    Two years ago, she wasn't having it, but now she is pretending to have it because she wants attention. It's not even about whether these are "Black" cultural actions. It's the fact that she is obviously using what the public perceives to be hip hop or "Black" to get attention, while she can always retreat back into her privileged life at the drop of a hat and write this past few months off as a "phase". She wanted attention. Mission accomplished

  • Amnesia | September 5, 2013 9:49 PMReply

    Thank you for this piece! It was hilarious and insightful. I have had to give the blank stare while taking a deep breath, when a coworker wanted to show their "coolness". But my fear of jail & Big Rozes are tend to keep me from "blacking out".

  • Natalie H. | September 5, 2013 2:46 PMReply

    This was so hilarious and well-written! I, too, stand and applaud! Now I'm going to have to click on those links to your work and read some more. You've just gained a new fan!

  • Radha | September 5, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    *STANDS. APPLAUDS!*
    Once again. Phil my dear.
    YOU DID THAT!
    Thanks for the images and laughs and insightful moments.
    And in your honor I present this ---> _/
    A chair for all the 'i twerk therefore I'm cool' white folks.
    ;-)

  • onyx | September 5, 2013 11:25 AMReply

    Great article.
    I'm probably older than the author, but I can recall "Jive Turkey" being thrown about at work long after the black community had retired it. I guess my way of dealing with serious transgressions of unsolicited blackness is an icy cold stare and silence, especially since older black women are lumped into either the maternal "how you feeling baby, just call me Mama" or the angry black woman who'll chew you up and spit you out. I'm nobody else's "Mama" although I will go off and become the ABW when the need arises.

    While I can ignore Miley, I wonder why Robin Thicke's getting off easy. He became a star as a soul crooner, yet who does he ask to perform with him? (according to some published reports, it was Thicke who approached Miley about performing with him, and they also rehearsed together, though I don't think Robin Thicke realized Miley was a camera hog).

    And correct me if I'm wrong, but he could have easily danced away when Miley began wiggling her backside in his crouch. But he didn't.

    Along with him suing Gaye's estate and claiming Blurred Lines isn't a copy of Marvin Gaye's hit classic "Got To Give it Up" well, the whole thing is disappointing to say the least, just like the striped suit he wore on the VMA stage.

  • BluTopaz | September 5, 2013 11:25 AMReply

    This is one of the funniest pieces I've read in a long time. Wish your workshop was here in NY, I would sure sign up for it.

    And re: unsolicited Whiteness, I'm guilty of bringing up easy listening and country music in mixed company discussions about music.

  • Toussaint | September 5, 2013 12:10 AMReply

    I think the real issue is that black people don't want to see white people doing anything that is considered "black". To the extent that Miley Cyrus played on a stereotype, it's the one about black people knowing how to dance. Not just twerking in particular. It doesn't really matter what type of "black" dance white people do, black people will always feel that their culture has been co-opted; hence the author's mention of the cabbage patch. It just so happens that many black people feel that twerking is a more ignorant type of dancing, and therefore Miley's appropriation was more hurtful because it made black people look more ignorant, not just her.

    But black culture has been on display and available for abuse since we were brought here. As the author mentions, it didn't start with Miley Cyrus, and it certainly won't end with her. And black people won't be able to change that as long as they live side by side with white people. Even more so in these internet times. White people will always be more comfortable with the black stereotype and no amount of Cosbys or Obamas will provide sufficient counter narratives. So, Miley didn't really do anything to alter any perceptions about black people.

    At the end of the day, if you don't want to see Miley twerking, then you have to tell black people to stop twerking. But then we get on a slippery slope about what is black culture really and what black people should and shouldn't do around company. And that may be a much needed conversation.

  • CareyCarey | September 5, 2013 12:26 PM

    "White people will always be more comfortable with the black stereotype and no amount of Cosbys or Obamas will provide sufficient counter narratives. So, Miley didn't really do anything to alter any perceptions about black people"

    **Standing in applause** Therein lies the serendipitous rewards of the year.

    I've said this many times, I don't care what images are projected on the big screen and/or television (by white or black producers) many whites will always come to their own conclusions of another race based on a plethora of dynamics, the least which being stage and screen images.

    And really, why should we even care about what they think or do?

  • samax | September 4, 2013 11:47 PMReply

    I have in fact had drunk coworkers cabbage patch at me, and I have bad news for you: This Christmas, there WILL be twerking. Sorry.

    I am not above telling a white dude doing the robot to step the fuck off, though. But that's just me.

  • cgthegeek | September 4, 2013 11:46 PMReply

    I don't even think JJFad knows what they were saying!

    This article really articulated something that's be rolling around my brain. There's a short list of foods I don't eat and things I do not do in front of too many White people. And I shouldn't have that list, I should not worry about representing my whole race, but I live in the real world and I do and that sucks.

    Great article.

  • mantan | September 4, 2013 10:38 PMReply

    this had me hollaring!!! lolol...

    the only thing i disagreed with in this post was you suggesting that what miley cyrus did had no impact on black people because you don't think that what she did represented black culture/people and i wholeheartedly agree, but it's not really what we think that matters.

    WE know better and WE know that what she did doesn't represent all of black people, we're diverse we--- twerk but we're also POTUS'/teachers/dr' and such.., but the world overall doesn't know or respect that and that's the problem that i have with her and what she did. she knowingly played up stereotypes, stereotypes that don't really affect her or white people in general, that are seriously detrimental to the black community and how we are perceived in america and around the world.

    and yes, i know that folks are going to think and assume whatever they want, just like you had no eggs on your plate yet someone asked you "do you think they're going to serve chicken and waffles for breakfast" as if your name was Roscoe or you were some kin to to Gladys but that doesn't mean that it's ok for her to contribute to that. what annoys me even more are the black people, that have no sense of respect for themselves, their culture or their history, that have chosen to align themselves with her just for publicity's sake. but their days are numbered anyway...

  • lovesfilmnmusic | September 4, 2013 5:58 PMReply

    This right here is why I HATE high-fives, especially unsolicited and undeserved ones.

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