Black lives matter. Black joy matters too.
Like many of you, I’ve been closely following the protests of the last week and a half, watching as hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other black people murdered by state-sanctioned violence. I’ve been taking this time to listen and learn from those who have been leading the anti-racism fight, and rather than rushing to speak, I’ve been sitting with my own discomfort, trying to examine where the gaps are between my good intentions and how these actually show up in my life and work. In this post I want to share with you my reflection and some commitments that will influence what you’ll see in this space going forward.
I feel it’s vital to realign and recalibrate my work in the context of what feels like a seismic shift in our awareness of how systemic racism has influenced every aspect of life in the US, and in many other places around the world. As a white woman, my views on this are no substitute for those of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color), but as Adam Grant points out in his recent newsletter, white people often stay silent on racism because they feel it’s not their place to speak, when in fact keeping quiet only contributes to the problem and places the burden of fighting racism on the shoulders of the people already most affected by it.
Over the past week, I’ve combed through an amazing volume of resources that have been shared online and on social media, searching for perspectives that have challenged my own understanding. Among these is a Twitter post that resonated particularly strongly with me, and helped me see my role as student of and advocate for joy in a broader context than I had before.
In the past week, we’ve been called to face a struggle that has long been invisible to many Americans, especially white Americans. We live in a system of entrenched white supremacy that not only inflicts violence upon black bodies but erects innumerable barriers to the health, wealth, success, and progress of black people. As individuals, as communities, and as a country, we must make a continued commitment to fully understanding this devastating reality.
But what I’m coming to realize is that if we only acknowledge the struggle, we participate in oppression of a different form. Because when the prevailing cultural narrative about a group of people is dominated by struggle, and equal space isn’t held for stories of joy, creativity, ingenuity, love, and warmth, then that narrative offers a limited and slanted view of that group’s humanity. Not only has white supremacy deprived black, indigenous, and people of color of their basic rights, their safety, and their peace, but it has also threatened their ability to be — and to be seen as — complete human beings living the full spectrum of human emotion and existence. It is a subtle form of dehumanization, and particularly insidious because (like all things joy-related) it is so easy to dismiss as frivolous or trivial.
As I’ve been doing more research into the workings of systemic racism, I’ve come to understand that one of the privileges of being white is having the comfort of history, art, literature, music, and media filtered through a white lens. White people make up the overwhelming majority of decision-makers and gatekeepers in our culture, whether that’s agents, publishers, museum curators, academics, textbook authors, record label heads, movie studio execs, etc. By and large, white people determine what stories and perspectives get greenlit, which ones get funding and how much, and what lens these stories will have once they’re created.
The result is that the white view is the “default view” — so common that it is taken for the primary narrative — and this not only gives priority and credibility to white creators, but also creates a situation where the voices of non-white races are “other.” (To see this, you might think back to your high school history or English reading lists. When you read Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Willa Cather, likely you were told you were reading “literature.” When you read Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, or Richard Wright, you may have been told you were reading “African-American literature.” Maybe, like me, you only read these books in February, during Black History Month.)
A thought experiment that I’ve been trying lately may help to add some depth here. If you’re white, imagine that you grew up going to school where every day you read books only by black authors. Imagine that when once or twice a year your teacher did assign white authors, the subjects of the books were always about your culture’s struggle to overcome oppression. Imagine that when you went on museum field trips, 95% of the art that you saw was by black artists, and that when you saw art by white artists, it depicted your race’s pain and anguish. No depictions of people like you in peaceful settings, playing games or enjoying a landscape. Just poverty and toil. Imagine playing in the orchestra and only ever playing music composed by black artists. When one day your teacher brings in a piece by a white composer, they explain that this piece represents your people’s desperate struggle to survive the torments of slavery. What message would you take away about who you are and what your race represents? What messages would your black classmates take away about who you are as a white person, and knowing this, how might you begin to see yourself?
It’s not that these kinds of stories aren’t vital for all of us to witness and understand. But we also need joyful stories in which we can see ourselves. One of the basic tenets I know to be true is this: moments of joy are how we know we’re truly alive. Without joy, we’re just surviving. This applies not just to what we attend to in our own lives, but also what we make space for in our society. And I would venture to say that there is both a loss to our collective culture and a danger to marginalized people in overlooking narratives and representations of black joy.
In the past, I’ve made efforts to diversify the voices I highlight in my work on joy, whether that’s the artists I feature or the experts I interview. And as someone who writes a lot about human universals, I’ve actively sought out studies from other cultures to ensure that I’m not simply representing a Western or American lens. But I haven’t done nearly enough. The fact is that because white perspectives dominate our culture, it takes more work to find perspectives from people of color. I need to be ultra-clear that this is no excuse. I’ve over-relied on my own networks, which are predominantly white. I’ve stopped searching after easily finding a white researcher, without looking to see if I can find a perspective from a person of color. My bookshelves, for all their vibrant color-coding, are simply too white.
I’ve known for a long time that it’s important to diversify the perspectives I bring into my work. But what I finally understood this week is that this isn’t just because of the need to provide visibility or to create a more inclusive conversation around joy, though these are incredibly important. The reason this matters so much is that by not fully incorporating BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color’s) perspectives into our understanding of joy, we’re left with an impoverished and incomplete picture of the science, history, and culture of joy as a whole.
If you’ve read Joyful or heard me give a talk, you’ve likely heard me speak to the role colonialism played in shaping the way we experience and express joy in the West. The more I really sit with the weight of this week, the more I realize that even this understanding has been pieced together through a white lens. For many of us who identify as allies (or aspire to be better allies!) I think the most difficult work is in realizing that even when we have tried to expose the pervasiveness of white supremacy, we have not dug deep enough.
This is all to say that I see this moment as a beginning. I’m learning and actively working to be better. Here’s what that looks like for me and the Aesthetics of Joy:
- I will diversify my sources and the creators I choose to spotlight here and on the Aesthetics of Joy social platforms.
- I will work toward a fuller understanding of the subjects I’m presenting, going beyond white perspectives to seek out and present the views of BIPOC researchers and experts.
- I will engage in this pursuit with curiosity and humility, remaining open to feedback and critique around how I’m doing on these fronts, and take the lead in learning so I can improve.
- I will ask questions of partners and potential collaborators about their commitment to and efforts toward racial justice before committing to speak or work together.
In her 1978 essay The Uses of the Erotic, Audre Lorde writes, “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.” I believe strongly that joy is a form of energy for change, and my hope is that together we can use it as such.
With this in mind, I want to end by sharing a few favorite books and resources from black authors that have recently shaped my understanding of joy in the hope that you will seek these out. I look forward to adding to this list as my knowledge deepens.
- Pleasure Activism, Adrienne Maree Brown
- Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
- The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers, Alice Walker
- The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
- And please read this thread from Bethany C. Morrow about how the centering of white perspectives shapes the expectations many white readers bring to books, and how to alter your perspective.
If you have recommendations, I welcome them. And I look forward to continuing this conversation with you in the days ahead.