Not saying Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness. Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce. There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal. Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there’s long been backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.). The insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.
It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters. And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable. She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be. Their answer? Let’s make her more palatable. If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.
Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort. The problem is not that she has an unpronounceable name, because she doesn’t. The problem is that white Hollywood, from Ryan Seacrest and his homies to the AP reporter who decided to call her “Annie” rather than her real name, doesn’t deem her as important as, say, Renee Zellwegger, or Zach Galifinakis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom have names that are difficult to pronounce–but they manage. The message sent is this: you, young, black, female child, are not worth the time and energy it will take me to learn to spell and pronounce your name. You will be who and what I want you to be; you be be who and what makes me more comfortable. I will allow you to exist and acknowledge that existence, but only on my terms.
I missed the Oscars last night, and so I missed the live tweeting, and so I missed The Onion’s tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis (just use google if you don’t know what i’m talking about). I’ve been flooded with questions about what they were thinking and why didn’t I stop it, and “SERIOUSLY BARATUNDE YOU ARE BLACK HOLLA AT YOUR BOYS WTF!!??”
First, I haven’t worked there since May so don’t KNOW anything about this incident from an insider perspective. I’m not a spokesperson. I’m not an advocate or defender. I’m not their official black friend. I’m just writing this as ME though I’m clearly in a position to have some perspective since I tweet hard and used to do so with/at The Onion and do/love comedy and satire and also amazing child actors.
Second, I think I understand the underlying target of the joke: The Onion largely satirizes media and the general public. Everyone fawning over a clearly lovely and innocent little girl presents an opportunity to go the opposite direction with something contrasting and clearly false. It was also a take on tabloid media extremism. (I’m remembering the headline about the media’s struggles in covering Obama’s double homicide) but it was an extremely high risk move and missed that target by WIDE margin. Limited upside. HORRIBLE downside.
It wasn’t necessary and was loaded with horrible language. In the context of what I’ve read about Seth McFarlane’s jokes, I feel especially bad for Wallis and her family who won’t “get” or care what the comedic idea was and only know that some comedy news organization called their little girl a disgusting, sexist name. It just comes across as mean. Intention does matter, and based on my time there, I’m sure the intent was not, “Hey let’s call this little girl a cunt. Ha. Ha.” However, RECEPTION and context matter as well, and this utterly failed in that regard.
I’m glad The Onion removed the tweet (which BTW for that outlet is a massive massive decision).
Also FYI, this is not some new practice of “Baratunde Tries To Explain Place He No Longer Works At,” and due to time constraints and other priorities, I’m unlikely to get into back and forth commentary beyond this post for now. I don’t like explaining jokes. I don’t like overly deconstructing art in general or The Onion in particular, but this was an extraordinary situation, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts and try to address the scores of questions people have been asking me.
Also, I believe the children are the future.
The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that even when you are the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, many people will use the occasion not to hold you up for all of the amazing things you obviously are, but to tear you down for the ways you don’t look like them, the ways your name isn’t their kind of right, the ways you don’t remind them of themselves, the ways you are not blonde or blue-eyed, as if those things could possibly matter when set against the otherwordly talent and beauty and brilliance you possess.
The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that you come into it already expected to be less than you almost certainly are, the genius and radiant darkness you possess already set up to be overlooked, dismissed or erased by almost everyone you will ever meet.
The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that even when you are everything, some people will want you to be nothing. They will look at you through the nothing-colored glasses they will put on every time you enter a room. And the bigness of you, the outstandingness, the giftedness, will be invisible to them.
The thing about being a little black girl in the world who is already, at nine years old, confident enough to demand that lazy, disrespectful reporters call you by your name, is that most people will not understand the amount of comfort in one’s own skin it takes to do that, will not be able to grasp the sheer fierceness of it, the boldness, the certainty, the love for yourself, and will not be blown away at seeing you do it, though they should be.
The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that your right to be a child, to be small and innocent and protected, will be ignored and you will be seen as a tiny adult, a tiny black adult, and as such will be susceptible to all the offenses that people two and three and four times your age are expected to endure.
But take heart.
Mia McKenzie, “The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In The World: For Quvenzhane Wallis,” Black Girl Dangerous 2/25/13
Simply put, I love this post!