Young Black female actress Keke Palmer sent a series of tweets that she probably views as compassionate and a clear voice on the recent extrajudicial execution of Michael Brown. I do not doubt that she genuinely cares about Michael Brown and his family. Nothing about her personality has conveyed callousness at a very basic level, and believe me, I have seen some fellow Black people convey a level of callousness that reveals the true cost of internalized racism and anti-Blackness on our lives.
However, these tweets of hers are still dangerous, even when dressed up in benevolence, mentions of love and Christian theism. Her tweets reflect a common theme (what Pharrell called “new Black”) where the experience of “old” Blackness is flattened into one of “arbitrary” rage without history or context, into “random” bitterness without the reality of oppression in our lives as a factor, and most dangerously so, one of the politics of respectability, the lie that individual emotion and positive affirmations can dismantle structural oppression and one that does not allow the space for nuanced emotions beyond benevolence and “peace” in response to the genocidal violence of anti-Blackness. It is essentially certain Black celebrities engaging in victim blaming (and on Twitter, I discussed why Black people do this, in general).
When Keke tweets "I feel bad for those that choose to believe they’re doomed. You’re doomed because you believe so." it stands in stark contrast to Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden who stated this: "You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many Black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level (she lowered her hands in the video) and they feel like they don’t got nothin’ to live for anyway.”
Keke Palmer’s affirmation that simply believing something different eradicates the fact that Black men are extrajudicially killed on a 28 hour clock is victim blaming. Even if her intent is something else. The impact is what it is. Certainly Keke is young, privileged via class status and now somewhat disconnected from some of the very same things that her fans themselves experience, even though she still would experience racism and anti-Blackness, as class status doesn’t completely eclipse these. However, the fact that Pharrell, Don Lemon, Morgan Freeman and a plethora of other Black celebrities engage in these statements/actions where protection of career means denial of Black history and current Black experiences to instead applaud everything from affirmations to exceptionalism clearly reveals that her tweets are not completely caused by youth and lack of information/connection. It’s about a calculated ignorance that some Black people have to engage in to protect their careers and sadly other Black celebrities genuinely believe.
Since so many celebrities engage in “positive affirmation” talk (because of exceptionalism and the nature of their wealth, especially since so many Black celebrities are just one generation removed from poverty) via individualism (fostered by imperialist White supremacist capitalist patriarchy; diametrically opposed to most Black culture of community and connection) instead of acknowledging structural oppression and its impact on millions of non-famous Black lives, it’s clearly not solely about naivety and age. It’s about internalized racism, exceptionalism, and victim blaming, whether Keke Palmer does it at age 20 or Morgan Freeman does it at age 77. Consider the fact that Janelle Monae is 28 and she acknowledges the reality of racism. Consider the fact that Cicely Tyson is 80 and she acknowledges the reality of racism. This also happens. It’s possible to do so and still have a career.
When Keke tweets “If you want to end racism, you start by not generalizing/grouping people with the thought that they all believe the same things” she creates false equalization between the violence against Black bodies because of generalizations, stereotypes, archetypes and controlling images of Black people with Whites’ discomfort with benefitting from anti-Blackness, White supremacy and White privilege, whether they feel that they are “racist” or not. She sets this up as if there is a structural repercussion for generalizing Whites. Racism is not “insults” back and forth that “goes both ways.” It remains structural. And Whiteness is where that power is concentrated. When Black parents generalize the police, they want to protect their children. When the police (and even non-White cops have to uphold White supremacy and anti-Blackness as the police functions as the violent local arm of the State) generalize Black people, we die.
When Keke tweets "Why do we hate each other, harm each other, kill each other? We are brothers and sisters y’all. All colors! Peace is the answer." in response to the cops executing Michael Brown, she, like so many people alludes to the violent conflation of intraracial crime (which every race has, not solely Black people) with anti-Blackness causing extrajudicial execution as modern day lynching. When Whites, non-Black people of colour and unfortunately some Black people who have internalized racism and believe that the politics of respectability can protect us repeat or allude to the violent lie, derailment and misnomer (“Black on Black crime” is a misnomer and epistemic violence) that Black people “don’t care about intraracial crime,” this is derailment and dehumanization via false equalization. (And we have to stop thinking about oppression in terms of “hate” anyway; it requires no such individualized thing, only power and resources to lord over those who do not have them.)
While “peace” sounds nice, I am sure that Michael Brown’s mother wanted her child to return home in peace. The denial of the space to grieve (and one of the five stages of grief is actually anger, by the way) means psychological warfare against Black people who remain. Because of anti-Blackness, even death is not the final act for Black people, where victims are degraded post-mortem and Black people who remain are regularly denied the ability to actually grieve while the murderers and the State rarely are held accountable. Suggesting that the response/answer to violence against Black children is simply behaving peacefully despite evidence to the contrary of this as effective, Keke and anyone who agrees with her indirectly denies the breadth of the humanity of Black people.
Her tweets definitely hurt and angered many Black people on Twitter (though some sadly shared her non-nuanced view). However, I do worry that at times Black celebrities are positioned as the “real” problem over the White shooters. Over White supremacy. Over anti-Blackness. And while they most certainly are harming other Black people with respectability politics and affirmations/projections based on internalized racism, I never want to reach the point where I’m holding them accountable outside of the context that makes this calculated ignorance of theirs necessary in the first place. As I alluded to on Twitter:
The stuff Keke is tweeting is short-sighted because that’s kinda common with celebs who yes, still face racism, but their reality is still a bubble. No, not every celeb is going to engage structural violence beyond citing the bible or engage oppression structurally and not via individualized affirmations. The victim blaming and facile nature of “affirmation” culture because of exceptionalism of Black celebrity has them thinking progress is boiler late.
But let’s not be ahistorical. There were Black celebs of the past who spoke out and some said nonsense or kept their head down. Same as today. Don’t romanticize the Civil Rights Movement era as if “all” Black people spoke out. Couldn’t. Many Black people were terrified and spoke in terms of the politics of respectability, nonsense or were silent altogether. And we have to always contextualize our activism in the presence of anti-Blackness. Are we more angry at Black celebs or anti-Blackness/racism? Realize in fact it’s really the same anti-Blackness that makes us hold Black people accountable for “ending” racism and moreso than Whiteness. And it’s a slippery slope when we start holding fellow Black people responsible for racism itself. Be careful.
Also, some of the anger at Black celebs speaking nonsense on race is about White Gaze fear. How their nonsense is placed over the truth that we know. The reality is anti-Blackness aligns with any explanation that shrinks its impact, even if no Black celeb was nonsensical about it.
It absolutely hurts when Black celebrities with massive platforms use them in ways that harms or triggers fellow Black people, especially when the violence that we experience is so fresh and raw at this moment after the execution of Michael Brown and so many other Black people, including Black women, Black LGBTQIA people in general, and especially Black trans women (who face astronomical violence) and Black sex workers. And while we easily rally behind cishet Black men when they are harmed, that same care and concern—by celebrity and non-famous Black persons alike—is needed for all Black people.
While some Black celebrities are never going to be activists, I wish they would stop trying to be “pacifists” (and regularly misspeak on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work, only taking parts that fulfill memes used to silence us and not more of the breadth of his perspective) through the flattening of Black experience with appeals to the ahistorical nature of White supremacy. They can show compassion to those who are hurt without the politics of respectability, tone policing and victim blaming. And while there may be a cost to their careers for not indulging anti-Blackness and violence, they have to be willing to draw a line to where a certain level of triggering excuses, false equalizations and ahistorical explanations won’t be used against Black people and deemed compassion.
Celebrities like Keke and all of the others I named who share her view? Maybe just reach out and connect versus trying to educate on what they either don’t know or cannot say. And maybe as they do this, non-famous Black people can both stop expecting celebrities to lead movements and examine our anger at them when in reality their behavior does not eclipse the system that usually creates the reasons why they disappoint us in the first place.