White women: ‘Formation’ isn’t for us, but we can learn from it.
Last week Beyoncé unveiled ‘Formation’ to the world and you’ve been living under a culturally devoid rock if you haven’t seen or heard anything about it. Queen Bey is back, and much to the dismay of a surprising amount of people, she is (gasp) black. The video to ‘Formation’ is a powerful piece of protest pie, putting black America, specifically southern black America, into the heart of mainstream consciousness in ways that have not been done for quite some time. The controversy Beyoncé has sparked is at once massive and miraculous. Her political volition, with lines like “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils/ I like my baby hair with baby hair afro” is a far cry from a woman whose last politically adverse hit ‘7/11’ had her screaming, “Ooh wee be-be freaky deaky/ Think me see she pink bikini.” Who can honestly say that was what they were expecting from a woman whose career up until now has been based upon her toeing the cross-cultural line? So far Beyoncé’s politics have been palatable to a white dominated US market. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that today there was an Anti-Beyoncé protest in New York for those disgruntled by the video’s overt attack on America’s troubled law enforcement – the only scene that utilizes any white people is one that sees an all-white police force stand in line against a young black boy, as he dances in front of a piece of graffiti that reads “Stop shooting us.” Bey has now placed herself at the fore of the Black Lives Matter movement in America.
The video is fiercely provocative, and many think it wrong that the world’s leading musical act is using her popularity in such an overtly political way. Utilizing the aesthetic of the Black Panther Party at last Sunday’s SuperBowl provoked uproar from police sheriffs, and just generally stupid white people, all over America. One (black) police officer, David Clarke, likened her overtly empowered black aesthetic to the KKK; “would that be acceptable if a band, a white band came out in hoods and white sheets in the same sort of fashion? We would be appalled and outraged. The Black Panthers are a subversive hate group in America. I think she could have done a better job.”
The thing is there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ‘Formation’. The fault in fact lies with the way many people are consuming ‘Formation’, the way they have been taught to consume any piece of music, film, art that comes their way for centuries: as if it should be either for white people (therefore disguised as somehow not political at all), or black, but not overtly political (therefore not questioning the hidden power of a white patriarchy). Up until now it has been the former that Beyoncé’s career has pertained to.
As a white woman, I take for granted the fact that in this country (and most of the Western world) almost everywhere I go, whatever I read, look at, buy, what I’m consuming is aimed at me. The shop windows I walk past, the magazines I buy, the films I watch, white women proliferate. When a Beyoncé song or video comes on, I’ve never not felt somehow addressed by the world’s biggest superstar. Up until now Beyoncé has been a ‘feminist’ – her last album housing tracks such as ‘Flawless’, which sampled revered feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calling out society on all its sexist bullshit. But she’s never used her music for racial activism. So when I saw ‘Formation’ last Saturday I was admittedly confused. Where was the cross-cultural Beyoncé in her cross-back bikini, where were her silky blonde cross-cultural curls? Where were the dance moves my white ass could kid herself she could pull of? There were none. Once I realised this, once I realised what I was watching and what Beyoncé was reinstating herself as, my internal monologue was screaming “YAAASSSSSSSS”, but my mind was telling me to STFU, this wasn’t just a song for me to consume and dance to like all the others. For once, after listening to a Beyoncé song, I sat and had a good hard think.
I sat and I thought of all the young white girls probably out there right now trying to appropriate the video to their own experience as I’d just tried to do, desperately grasping for ways to assimilate it into something it wasn’t: for them. I think it’s important we stop them, lest we allow a plague of bucktoothed 13 –year old white girls screaming “I came to slay, bitch!” to pollute our streets. It’s not their fault, as I said earlier, they’ve been brought up to expect things, particularly Beyoncé songs, to include them too. (See Kady Ruth Aschroft’s article The White Feminist Guide To Making Beyoncé’s “Formation” Video About You.) But the point of Beyoncé reclaiming and exclaiming her blackness with pride for all to see is to make space for the pro-black black voices that are so often denigrated and refused into the dominantly white, or white-acting, mainstream. It’s therefore our duty to celebrate her blackness too, insofar as buying the single, appreciating and promoting her message, but not reducing its political force by appropriating it to our own experience. The only appropriation needed here is the appropriation of our self-understanding, that we don’t have the right to be included in everything, that in this case our exclusion is vital for the political advancement of others.
I agree that ‘Formation’ isn’t for white women, and that’s more than OK. But I think ‘Formation’ does address white women, to the extent that there is a vital lesson we can learn from Bey’s new, exciting cultural turn. When I watch ‘Formation’, which I have many times now, not only do I feel moved, I feel how it feels to have the most popular song in the world not be for me. As my housemate reminded me last week, the closest I’m going to get to being able to viably say “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag” is after she steals a bottle of ketchup from the local ‘Spoons.
I now feel how it feels to be disqualified from partaking in a piece of mainstream culture, something that a young black woman feels often – when she buys a magazine, when she walks down the high street, when she watches the BRIT awards or the Oscars, neither of whom have nominated any black people this year. As a white woman I am for once looking at an example of popular mainstream music that makes me feel different and not included. This is something we need to learn from, not just discuss.
In celebrating her own identity, the idiosyncrasies of her southern roots (“My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma”), Beyoncé is challenging every viewer to consider their own identity. Whether included or excluded, it can only be a positive thing that viewers are challenged to consider the less-popularized consequences of their race. That as a white person you are afforded many more privileges that a black person often isn’t, the main privilege here considered being that of cultural priority.
When I watch ‘Formation’ I don’t feel like dancing, for once I don’t feel like the way Beyoncé looks in her video is what’s going to stay with me for the next four days (see that Déjà Vu updo). When I watch ‘Formation’ I feel moved, silenced, and haunted for all the right reasons. This is what good music does, this is what the most seminal of cultural moments provides us with: a reason to shut up, a glimpse into the unabashed culture of someone else, so that the voices of those others we so often forget about can for once receive the privilege they deserve.