As an African-American woman, Beyonce’s performance last night was pretty bittersweet for me. Quite simply it was both exhilarating and excruciating. Exhilarating because as a supremely talented black woman on a world stage surrounded by a plethora of talented black women, Beyonce and Co. were making history. (Even Janet Jackson had to share the spotlight with Justin Timberlake a few Super Bowls back. And Nipplegate is the only reason why anyone even remembers that she was also on stage with him.) In a world in which white males almost always hold the mic (and thus dominate public discourse), black women are finally getting their chance. Yay!
At the same time, Beyonce’s performance was also excruciating because the circumstances under which black women are finally being handed the mic are oppressive. (And yes, Beyonce was handed the mic; anyone with a sociological imagination knows that Beyonce was on stage only because powerful people – e.g., those who produce the Super Bowl – decided that it was in their best interest to grant her access.) Ever since the days of slavery, black women have been almost entirely evaluated based on their ability to sexually arouse white men. The black women who were light-skinned and/or possessed European features were deemed attractive/valuable and became “house niggers,” more “powerful” slaves who worked closely with the master in his home. Of course, this was a false power because the beauty associated with it was entirely defined by the white master and because those who were granted it were often subjected to rape and other forms of abuse. Hello sexism, meet racism.
This racialized sexism continues today. Both racism and sexism have interacted to produce a society in which only a certain type of black woman, one that overtly appeals to white men, would even be granted the mic at a Super Bowl half time show. It’s no coincidence that Beyonce’s “fake” hair was blonde (a color that is atypical/unnatural for black women) and long (a length that is atypical for black women), that her skin color is lighter than average for a black woman, and that she has European features. Lauryn Hill, she is not.
As “powerful” as she appeared on stage, Beyonce was still subject to the stringent rules and standards that white men set for black women. All other things (e.g., talent) being equal, she was only given “power” because she happens to be the kind of black woman that white men like and because she was sure to “perform” in a way that would be pleasing to them. To be blunt, she was treated like a 21st century “house nigger” whose value will never outlast the duration of an erection.
I’ll cheer whole-heartedly when black women get the Super Bowl stage on our own terms. Until then, I’m ambivalent.