UU Church Today, Spirituality & Theology, Uncategorized

Not For You

Beyoncé’s recent album Lemonade is being celebrated as a powerfully black piece of popular culture, and black fans online have asserted distinct ownership of the work. When white audiences – including critics – met the release with a tsunami of opinion uninformed by lived experience, many fans pushed back: Hold on, white people. Beyoncé’s work is not for you.

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The Internet itself plays a central role in the Not For You phenomenon. Social media makes it easier than ever to form communities of our own and to stumble into the communities of others. This dynamic is shifting us away from a monolithic popular culture toward a plurality of online fandoms. The boundaries of these groups can be hard to see – especially when social privilege leads some of us to mistake access for ownership.

My own online conversations about Lemonade suggest that Not For You is an attempt to maintain a space where black experience can remain at the center of the conversation instead of being swept aside by white viewpoints. (Below: POC means “people of color;” WP and Wypipo (a pejorative) mean “white people.”)

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It’s not for me to explain what such carved-out cultural spaces mean to marginalized groups, and I hope others will take advantage of this blog to add those perspectives. But I don’t need to be the spokesman for these spaces to hear and accept that they are needed.

Accordingly, white people should reexamine our approach to the expressions of people of color and to the spaces that audiences of color create for themselves around those expressions. Within those spaces, we will usually be uninvited guests at another community’s party.

On that point, let’s pay special note to the above poster’s claim that white people “hate feeling excluded,” because it touches on an important point. If we are honest with ourselves, white folks are not used to being on the outside of social boundaries – especially those drawn as emphatically as this one:

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Before taking umbrage, we should recognize that historically, “our lane” has been the good one. Not For You has always fallen hard upon people of color in relation to career opportunity, college access, legal justice, housing, healthcare, and other fundamental material concerns. As if these core injustices were not enough, popular culture, too, has marginalized people of color in everything from children’s toys to Hollywood casting. Whites have been conditioned to believe that everything is for us – or at least ought to be.

Within this context, it is not too much for black fans to demand a little elbow room to celebrate Beyoncé on their own terms. In fact, we should be embarrassed that this claim would meet with any protest at all. (Omitted here is a roundup of offended white counter-responses demanding equal ownership of Lemonade.)

Even so, my conversations suggest that Not For You does not always mean forbidden. Some people of color (though not all) still find room on the dance floor for white audiences to approach and appreciate expressions of color, so long as this is done with respect and reserve.

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It is clear that we need to continue negotiating a cultural ethics for the Internet age – an age of unprecedented access to content and its associated communities. This ethics will bridge “not for you” and “you can enjoy it.” It will not eclipse blackness or any other applicable “ness.” It will recognize that responsible engagement requires more than an Internet connection; it also requires the ability to discern and maintain a positive relation to the community whose house we are visiting.

In our own way, the All Souls community already illustrates how to live with the Not For You ethic – in relation to religious belief, race, gender identity and expression, sexuality, worship style, and other dimensions. “We need not believe alike to love alike” is a powerful template for affirming and reconciling all kinds of difference – from matters of profound faith to matters of personal style. This approach leaves everyone elbow room, positioning Not For You as a model of self-possessed coexistence. As we continue to apply the principle of Love Beyond Belief, we can find opportunities to live by it even in online settings where, behind the screen names, are real people with distinct experiences and voices to share.



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