Transcript: Subjects of Desire | May 21, 2021

ANNOUNCER:
You're listening to
a TVO podcast.

COLIN:
Welcome to OnDocs,
a podcast about documentaries
and the stories they tell.
I'm Colin Ellis.
NAM:
And I'm Nam Kiwanuka.
Colin, I feel like a weight has
been lifted off my shoulders
because the weather outside
is so amazing.
COLIN:
It's beautiful out there.
I went for a bike ride the other
day, it was tremendous.
NAM:
I would like to say I did that,
but I did sit outside
under the sun.
That's activity, right?
(Laughing)
COLIN:
Uh... no, it's not. I'm sorry.
(Nam laughing)
You know what you should try
doing outside is yoga.
NAM: Yoga?
COLIN: Yeah.
NAM:
Yeah, actually I should do that,
'cause it's something the kids
actually like doing
so maybe we'll do that
together later.
COLIN:
Awesome.
So what documentary are we
looking at today?
NAM: Today we're going to be
looking at
Subjects of Desire,
which explores the history of
beauty standards,
and the shift towards
recognizing
Black women aesthetics.
VOICE OF MALCOM X:
The most disrespected person
in America is the Black woman.
The most unprotected person
in America is the Black woman.
PAGEANT COACH:
Five, six, seven, and one...
WOMAN:
What I love about
the Miss Black America pageant
is it creates a space for us
to continue to celebrate Black
beauty unapologetically.
CONTESTANT:
I want to be a part of
the Miss Black America pageant.
I needed to feel as though
I mattered
and my voice mattered.
GIRL:
Little white kids would always
comment on your hair.
"Oh, it's so big,
you look like a lion!"
You know, like,
"You look like an animal."
No one else says that
to anybody else.
WOMAN:
In the realm of beauty,
Black has to be minimized.
GIRL:
People tell me, "All right,
we gonna straighten your hair."
"Your hair, your hair,
your hair..."
SECOND GIRL:
When you don't love yourself,
you don't love anything.
COLIN:
One thing I liked about this
conversation you had
is just how our beauty standards
are kind of informed
by popular culture, and
how celebrities can reinforce
what is and isn't considered
beautiful.
And growing up, I can't tell you
just how few Black women
I saw in movies,
in magazines, on TV.
And you know, it's unfortunate,
'cause obviously pop culture
influences how we look at each
other and see ourselves,
and if you only see one beauty
standard represented
over and over again, I think it
has a pretty negative impact.
NAM:
Oh yeah, it definitely does.
And I dare you to have
a conversation
with any Black woman who didn't,
when they were younger,
wear a towel over their head.
Eddie Murphy had a skit
back in the day
where you have this towel on
your head and you're pretending
to have, like, long, flowing,
straight hair.
Um, and it really does change
how you see yourself
in the world when you can't see
anyone that looks like you
on TV, in magazines,
even on the local news.
I mean, things have changed
a lot since I was a little girl.
So we spoke with Jen Holness,
who directed the documentary,
Subjects of Desire,
about why
she wanted to do this film,
the role the media played in
the past in creating
these stereotypes of Black
women,
and the impact of these racist
caricatures on Black women
and young girls, and how the
women in this documentary
are challenging how we
understand beauty standards.
Stay with us.

NAM:
Jennifer Holness,
welcome to the podcast.
I really enjoyed this
documentary.
Your doc,
Subjects of Desire
begins by exploring
the history of American
beauty pageants.
How have they historically
been defined,
when we talk about what
is beautiful and what is not?
JENNIFER:
Well, what you have to think
about is that up until
maybe the last decade or so,
beauty pageants
have been like, essential
in the conversation
about beauty.
You know, women, girls grew up
wanting to be in pageants,
pageants defined femininity,
defined beauty.
And so here is the thing,
until 1968, though,
Black women were historically
not allowed on the stages,
national beauty stages.
So what that meant was,
you know,
imagine that the biggest
cultural thing
for women and girls at one point
were beauty pageants,
and never seeing someone that
looks like yourself
on those stages.
So in 1968, the Miss Black
America pageant was created,
and it was a political act.
It was a political act to say
Black women were beauty--
beautiful.
And it was a part of that Black
Power movement.
And so I really,
in trying to tell the story
of Black women and beauty,
I really wanted to go to
a place where,
um, that understood the power
of beauty,
and that it was a political
stance to actually,
you know, fight for Black women
and their beauty.
NAM:
How was it political?
JENNIFER:
Well, I think politics,
to me, is about power
and power dynamics.
And I think that right now,
we're at a time
where women have really made
incredible advancements
in terms of economic
opportunities,
education opportunities,
particularly in North America
and in Europe.
So why is beauty then--
why is a pageant,
or why is beauty powerful?
Well, here's the thing.
Black women have been outside
the standards of beauty.
And I think if you look
at the history,
that has meant that they
have had to operate in a place
where they're unprotected,
or to operate in a place
where they weren't seen.
And so if women are defined,
to some extent,
whether we like it or not,
by their beauty,
and you're not embraced in
the standards,
then that means that you lack
power in that situation.
You know, Black women go
into situations,
and they are not believed,
they're unprotected.
There's a whole bunch of
narratives
that are put onto Black women
because they don't have,
essentially, the power
behind beauty,
or the power that beauty
affords.
NAM:
I thought it was interesting,
too, in the documentary
that you pointed out that in
1968, when that pageant
for Black women was created,
in that year,
white women were actually
protesting against
beauty pageants, saying that
they wanted to be seen
for more than just their looks
and their bodies.
JENNIFER:
And so that's what
the irony is.
So in 1968, when the Miss Black
America pageant was created,
on the night of that pageant,
the inaugural event,
across the street that same day,
the largest feminist protest at
the time in America happened.
And this is the protest that
we've all heard about,
where women were, quote unquote,
"burning bras,"
and they were, in fact,
predominantly white women,
they were protesting the fact
that women should be valued
for their abilities,
not for their looks.
And so the irony
is that across the street,
there were Black women,
and Black men, in fact,
protesting and saying,
"Black women are beautiful,
"and they should be, in some
ways, upheld for their beauty."
And again, I think it's because
there's a real understanding--
we pretend that beauty
doesn't matter, and yet we know
that is partly how women
are defined.
And historically,
that was almost entirely
how women were defined, right?
And so again, if you are not,
you know, in that standard,
in that definition,
if you don't fit,
if you don't make the grade,
well, what does that mean?
Where do you--
what are the values that are
going to be given to you?
What are the perks that
are going to be afforded to you?
Where are you going to get in?
How are you gonna make
that mark?
Um, and so I think that history,
though, is still with us,
because when I made this film,
you know,
I actually thought some of the
things I went through
as a little kid growing up
in Canada,
not seeing myself
on beauty stages,
I actually thought that I,
you know,
my kids would be well past it.
That they would be, you know...
They would feel-- they would
understand how wonderful
and beautiful they are outside
of everything else, you know?
And of course they were
certainly smart, right?
You know, that was really
important to us.
As Black folks, as Caribbean--
you know, background.
That was really, really
important.
And when I started making
the film,
it was a real shock
to me to realize
that a whole bunch of the stuff
that I went through,
a lot of what I felt growing up,
they were feeling that too.
And so that's why I think you
just couldn't dismiss this,
you shouldn't dismiss this,
that this was really important.
And the funny thing is,
in making the film,
I cannot tell you how many women
have come to me
and said how impact--
how they've been impacted
by this film.
I've has women cry and tell me
that their whole lives,
that they've seen themselves
in a certain way
and they didn't understand the
narratives that existed,
that helped to create the way
they saw themselves.
And in actual fact that this
film helped to pinpoint
and reveal the source
of some of this.
And so that, to me, has been
really important to hear.
Um, because, you know,
I think it's uncomfortable
for us to say
that we value beauty.
Especially as women, you know,
we're always--
now, right now,
we're trying to say
that the only thing that
matters,
you know, is our...
(Stammering)
Our ability.
NAM:
How smart someone is, right?
JENNIFER:
Yes, exactly.
But we're just pretending,
I think, in many ways.
That other part is almost--
is almost as important.
It isn't as important, but I
think it's almost as important.
But I also think at one time,
it was actually more important.
NAM:
Well, I mean, if you look
at any commercials...
(Chuckling)
Most commercials are talking
about how you can
make yourself better,
or you know...
But a few years ago, in 2019,
Miss Universe, Miss World,
Miss USA, Miss Teen USA,
and Miss America,
the pageants were all won
by Black women.
Why was that a watershed moment?
JENNIFER:
Well, gee whiz, I mean...
Okay, I think if you go back in
the history of beauty pageants,
you will see there are many,
many years, in fact,
most of them, where if you look
across the spectrum,
you know, a white--
(Stammering)
a white female would have won
those pageants.
So all five of them would have
been won by, you know,
sort of, the standard beauty--
the beauty standard within
the beauty standard.
So I think that, first of all,
it's never happened.
That Black women across
the board... never.
And even until maybe
a decade ago,
it was rare to have, you know,
a Black woman
win any of those pageants.
And I just thought,
"What does this mean?"
You know, does this mean
that we've arrived?
(Laughing)
You know, is this...?
It just... I just felt like
you had to stop
and acknowledge that moment.
And I have actually never been a
part of beauty contests.
I've never tried, I've never
thought this was something--
it was never really something
important to me,
but in spending time with women
who, you know,
the Black women from the Miss
Black America pageant in 2018,
in spending time with them,
I realized how incredibly
smart they were,
how tough they were,
how resilient they were.
I mean, for heaven's sake,
these ladies had to wear heels
and dance and rehearse
day after day.
I've gotta tell you...
I can't even--
NAM: The heels!
JENNIFER: The heels!
I can't even put on a pair
of heels anymore.
I've had three kids. Like,
when I put on a pair of heels,
it comes off within five
minutes, the second I sit down.
And I'm just saying that
the toughness...
But also they were so smart!
They had so much going on
with them.
NAM:
Also, not to interrupt you,
but to think...
when you apply to these
pageants,
'cause it is... it seems like a
very insulated world,
but to have the confidence
to apply to be in those pageants
when the world is telling you
that you need to change
your nose,
you need to change your hair,
you need to change the colour
of your skin...
I mean, the skin bleach
industry is huge!
But then for them to have
that confidence,
to say, "I'm going to enter
this place
"that tells me I don't belong,"
and then for all those women to
win all those pageants
at the same time,
I know social media went crazy.
JENNIFER:
Yeah, it should have
been celebrated,
and it was celebrated.
And so, you know,
you ask why it was
a watershed moment,
it was a watershed moment
because it was.
It's because it's never
happened before,
and it's because the talent,
the beauty, the resilience,
you know, the fortitude,
and the bravery of these women
were being applauded
and uplifted.
And so I also-- let's be honest,
when it happened,
I remember when the first
happened,
I said, "Okay, whatever."
Then the second, I thought,
"Okay, whatever."
And then the third, I'm like,
"Dang! This is making it
into the film!"
And the fourth and the fifth,
I was like,
"Okay, this is my opening
in my film!"
(Laughing)
NAM:
To go back to, you know,
when we talk about the Miss
America beauty contest,
let's talk about some of the
women that you follow,
because at one point,
one of them says,
"Black women have historically
been denied the power of beauty,
"and I think it was
intentional."
When you think about that
statement,
in what ways was it intentional?
JENNIFER:
Well, okay.
When you look at the
stereotypes,
like the Mammy, the Jezebel,
and the Sapphire,
these stereotypes
that are among us right now
when you look at commercials,
the way casting happens,
you know, the products...
how they're sold to us.
These stereotypes have been so
ingrained and interwoven
into narratives
that we live with,
we haven't even questioned them.
So then when you go back,
and this is what I wanted
to do in the film,
when you go back and look at the
origin of the Mammy stereotype,
the fact that that stereotype
came about
after slavery was over,
you know, when--
when the South, and America
wanted to portray
a more gentle version
of slavery.
So it wasn't like-- that Black
women, for example,
were living these horrible
lives, no,
they were these older
unattractive, fat Black women
who were jolly, and they might
have even been sassy,
but they took care of you,
and that was the place
of Black women.
To take care of you. Okay?
So if you look at casting,
I mean, again,
I raise it, and it's
unfortunate, but you know,
books like
The Help
that was so wildly popular,
never questioned, right?
And again, it was a message,
a very clear message,
that the dominant culture
preferred their Black women
in a subservient position,
assisting and helping them.
In the position of service.
To the point where
it didn't even matter
if that Black woman
had children, and again,
it doesn't matter if we have
children,
or what we have to do.
Our role, even in a corporate
environment,
when a Black woman, for example,
speaks her mind,
is in fact not willing to take
on that service role
of taking care of everyone
in the office,
being the person
who does what people says,
and maybe with a little sass
to keep it interesting.
Um, when a Black woman doesn't
fulfil that role,
then she is, in fact,
a Sapphire,
an angry Black woman.
And I can't tell you how many
professional women
across the board,
no matter what,
have come across a circumstance
where they were just being,
you know, straight,
they were being clear.
They weren't angry,
in actual fact.
They were just expressing what
they believed.
And that was-- and has
been perceived as a threat,
as threatening, as angry,
as, you know, uncooperative.
As... just as negative.
And I think almost every single
girl I interviewed,
every single person
I interviewed in the pageant,
and these were young women,
they'd all had experiences
with this.
Myself as a Black woman,
who has worked in the industry
for a number of years,
I've had experiences with this.
You know?
And so that's one of
the narratives.
And that narrative was created
because they wanted
to silence us.
So if you are, you know, vocal,
then you're angry.
And then so what
don't you want to be?
You don't want to make a fuss.
You don't want to disrupt.
You don't want to be
the angry person,
so what are you gonna do?
Now you're gonna be silent,
right?
So if you can't serve,
you're gonna be silent.
And you know, that is really
something that we all
in the corporate world have to
grapple with to some extent.
And then the last stereotype
that's been really a part of us,
and I think, in some ways,
has been so embraced
that it's become
who Black women are.
And that is sort of this
sexualized idea
of what a Black woman is,
you know?
And you know,
I didn't put this in the film,
but women talk about dating,
going on dating apps,
Black women, and often times,
people come at them with,
"Oh, you're hot chocolate,
I can't wait to..."
All this sort of, like,
this very sexual connotations,
very sexual conversations
with them.
You know, versus trying to get
to know them as individuals.
It's like, "I want to
have sex with you,"
because the idea of this, uh,
hyper-sexual erotic Black woman.
And that has, as we can see,
has really been amped up
in our own community,
you know?
And that narrative was created,
essentially,
to negate the fact
that white men were, in fact,
raping Black women
in a mass scale.
And so it wasn't their fault.
It was, you know, this
over-sexualized Black woman.
And so that has filtered down
and down and down,
and now I think sometimes,
you know,
Black women don't question
why they sometimes
feel the need
to only express themselves
in a sexual way.
WOMAN:
Before we're even born,
people have an idea
of how we should act.
When we should act
a certain way,
and how we go about things.
So if I already am born
into a box,
you're not giving me any freedom
to self-identify who I am.
You're not giving me any
freedom to evolve.
You're just keeping me
in that box.
NAM:
You know, you went
through those--
the Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel,
and in the documentary,
you talk about how these are
the stereotypes
that are associated with
Black women,
and those stereotypes have been
essentially shaped by the media.
You know, when we do talk about
the Jezebel,
which you just mentioned,
we get into...
I don't want to... you know,
I used to work in the music
industry.
And in the documentary,
you also touch on it.
How does this stereotype affect
the kind of entertainment
Black women can participate in
within society?
JENNIFER:
Well, it's very narrow.
So this is the problem,
it's very, very narrow.
So if you don't fit that sexy,
over-sexualized Jezebel,
then oftentimes,
you're not given the same
opportunities.
India Arie, who is in the film,
actually spoke about when she
was early in her career,
'cause she's never been
a Jezebel,
she's always been
this beautiful Black woman
who tried to express herself
in song, you know,
her inner thoughts, and so she's
never really been
this over-sexualized person,
but she talks about
the fact that...
it's almost the only way
for Black women to achieve
success
in the music industry.
You know?
And if you actually look around,
there are very few
Black artists, female artists,
that have managed to be
successful in the recent decades
without overtly sexual presence.
INDIA ARIE (SINGS):
♪ I'm not the average girl
from your video ♪
♪ And I ain't built
like a supermodel ♪
♪ But I learned to love myself
unconditionally ♪
♪ Because I am a queen ♪
♪ I'm not the average girl
from your video ♪
♪ My worth is not determined
by the price of my clothes ♪
♪ No matter what I'm wearing
I will always be ♪
♪ India Arie ♪
It's so funny to sing that,
'cause it feels like
a song from a...
from my youth.
JENNIFER:
And so that, here's the thing,
Black women should embrace
their sexuality,
completely, how they feel,
but I don't believe that every
Black woman who can sing
is overtly sexual,
or has to be overtly sexual.
You know, where is the Jewel
of our community?
Where-- you know, there are so
many different versions
that I think that white female
singers can have, you know?
Like, um-- why is it then,
in the Black community,
it really has to, sort of,
fall in the Megan the...
you know--
NAM:
Megan Thee Stallion?
JENNIFER:
Megan Thee Stallion,
who I happen to love,
and I am, in fact,
I'm a member of the Bee Hive,
or the Bey-Hive, I mean...
(Laughing)
I love these women,
I love their expressive nature,
but I just don't think
that every single Black woman
has to express themselves that
way to be successful. You know?
And that's some of the problems
with this stereotype.
And so we don't get that range.
And also, you know,
the colourism element of it
is really, really troubling.
You know?
NAM:
Yeah, I want to talk more
about the colourism,
but I wanted to just follow up,
one more question with
the Sapphire,
because it's pointed out
in the documentary
that being angry
is something Black woman
are often accused of being,
and in the documentary,
you use the examples of Jully
Black from
CBC Reads,
and Michelle Obama,
who has been accused of being
"radically angry,"
I'm not sure what that is.
But she's been accused of being
radically angry at times.
Why is this image of Black women
so pervasive?
JENNIFER:
Like I said,
that was to silence us.
How better to silence
a powerful voice,
who is calm and smart,
and, you know, wants something,
and is trying to achieve
something
that stands in opposition
to your point.
How easier can it be
to just tell them
that they are angry?
JULLY BLACK:
And it's as if my mom,
grandmother, my nieces,
my sisters,
every Black woman, girl, child
that I've ever known,
experience, directly or
indirectly, is like,
"They were all sitting
on my shoulders,
"every last one of them,
"and I was able to respond."
JENNIFER:
And they will, you know--
so anything that they say or do
will just be perceived
as angry.
So if they're like,
"What are you talking about?"
You know, "You have a problem."
They'll be like,
"You see? That's an example
of your anger."
So how do you silence
a Black woman?
You silence her by taking away
her power.
By taking away her voice.
And in many situations,
historically,
our voice is all we've had.
What I love about Jully,
and about Mrs. Obama,
um, is that...
I should say Michelle Obama.
(Laughing)
What I love about Michelle Obama
is that in spite of what was--
what the media tried to do,
in spite of how people tried
to position them,
they used their voice
regardless.
You know, Michelle Obama,
she has been involved
in so many powerful movements
to uplift and support
Black women and girls.
She has, you know-- of course,
Black women and girls,
but also women and girls
in general.
She has been an example of
elegance and smarts,
and it's just....
it's laughable, actually.
It exposes itself.
NAM:
It does expose itself,
but I always find, you know,
even her famous line,
"When they go low, we go high,"
and even just watching
the interaction
with Jully and
Jeanne Beker on
CBC Reads,
it kind of feels like you're not
allowed to have, like,
to own-- to have a full range
of emotions.
Especially in situations where
you're being perceived
to be something that you're not.
You always have to,
kind of like, watch your tone
or be-- you know,
you can't be angry.
And I kind of find--
and you do touch on it
in the documentary
that you can't be your full self
because you know,
you have an understanding
of all these perceptions about
who you are already.
JENNIFER:
Absolutely.
It's the same thing with--
you know, with the Jezebel.
There's not a full range of...
personality that you can
present.
And with the Sapphire,
there's not a range of emotions
that you can express.
And again, one of the things
that Brittany Lewis says
in the film is,
"Why shouldn't we be angry?
"Why can't we be angry?
"Can we not be angry at the
things that are problematic?"
Like... so that's...
(Laughing)
It's not to say...
She's just saying, that's one
range in the emotional wheel
that we should be able
to express,
and not live in fear that it's
going to be perceived
in a way that will undermine
you, you know?
Um, so... look, I mean,
I don't know.
Like, you have to be very
careful sometimes.
There are times, I mean,
I think I am...
I think part of the reason why
I've been able to
be successful
in this industry is because
I tend to be a bubbly person,
you know?
And...
(Laughing)
And that, so...
So maybe sometimes that
is embraced.
But I've gotta tell you,
I've had to, you know...
(Stammering)
When I have a serious face, or
when I feel like,
hmm, I'm not liking something,
it's like, there is this
desire for me
to always be in this bubbly
frame of mind,
'cause people are just--
they just lose their minds,
they're like,
"What's Jen thinking?
"Oh my God, she's scary."
I'm like, oh my God!
I am literally just
trying to say,
"I don't like this thing."
And that's okay,
so let's figure out, you know,
how to get it done,
or something.
So, yeah, it's very limiting,
and we've also, to be honest,
we've embraced it, too,
in a sense.
I mean, look,
when I think about
Sanford and
Son,
which I love,
and I use that reference
because we all grew up
watching shows like that and
loving those shows,
but did not realize that Aunt
Esther had no internal life!
She had no actual love,
no family,
there was no people she
connected with,
and so all we saw was one note
from Aunt Esther,
and it was a disservice.
It was a disservice
to Black women.
NAM:
The doc features a number of
conversations between these--
with women who are going into
the beauty pageant,
and you also have high-profile
women like India Arie,
who we mentioned, Jully Black,
and Amanda Parris.
And you also speak to a group
of young women
who talk about everything from
colourism, hair,
and stereotypes.
As a director, when did
you start to see clear themes
arising from these
conversations?
JENNIFER:
Well, I actually think,
to be honest,
I think it was as a Black woman
I started to see those themes
and I decided
to direct a film around it
because I could see
those themes.
Growing up, like I said,
you know,
it was a time
when there wasn't this,
you know, plethora of Black
female awesome women
to look up to.
And, um, any Black woman
who did anything at all,
you were like, "Oh my God!
There! Oh my God!"
"I can touch you!
You're almost like me!"
In fact, I actually would
even envision
dark-haired white woman
as connected to me
because there was just no one.
(Laughing)
So I was like, oh, you know,
in
Charlie's Angels,
"Oh, she has dark hair,
I'm like Sabrina."
You know, like...
(Laughing)
And so growing up always feeling
like I was outside of this,
these standards, these norms,
the women that were valued
and put into roles
and places I would love
to see myself into,
I... those connections were
clear to me.
But it was when
I had my daughters,
and as-- as teenagers,
when they started to express
both the angst and joy
of being a Black girl,
and in my case,
in my family's case,
dark-skinned Black girls
in the world,
then I really started
to put together
that there is something bigger
around us.
There's something bigger.
It's not this benign thing,
you know?
It's not just,
"Oh, just how things are."
And when you actually go back
and you peel away the layers,
'cause that's what
I didn't do before.
The documentary, making the
documentary allowed me
to peel back the layers
and find the connections.
And when you look at the
connections,
you can't deny them.
NAM:
Yeah, you can't. Um, I...
There's moments in the
documentary
where I felt extremely
emotional,
and I'm saying this as a
light-skinned Black woman.
And I was surprised to find out
that, you know,
we shy away--
we tend to not talk about
colourism,
and in the documentary,
you do talk about it,
and I was surprised to find out
that, you know,
the brown paper bag test.
Something that the...
And I know Black communities
are not a monolith,
but this was something
that was kind of embraced
within the community-- I don't
know if that's the right word,
but you know,
you talk about the comb test
where Black women were not
allowed to join a church
if they couldn't pass a comb
through their hair.
And watching this,
I was kind of like, you know,
"How did that come to be?"
It's as if we adopted
these things
that were harming the
communities
and then we continued to harm
ourselves.
I don't know if that's the right
way to perceive it.
What would you say?
JENNIFER:
Yeah, these are all
very nuanced things,
but you're absolutely correct.
Here is what people don't
think about.
Coming out of slavery, there was
a very large percentage
of the Black people in America
and in the Caribbean
that were the sons and daughters
of the slave masters, right?
And what that meant was
in some situations,
when slave masters died,
they would give their children
freedom.
And they would,
in some situations,
they would educate
their children.
And in many situations, they put
their children in the homes,
where it would be a kinder,
better place.
So those children were--
had greater access to education,
and often freedom,
legitimate freedom-- papers.
So now here you are in slavery,
and you're Black,
because that 1/34th rule,
one drop of blood, you know,
literally seals your fate
and your fate is pretty grim in
these times, right?
Anyone white could do almost
anything to you
and there would be no
repercussions.
So... so what does that mean?
Well, even those
who are fighting
for the emancipation
of Black people,
they start to see themselves
as better,
and as elevated,
certainly more intellectual.
And so that is how and why--
and they married amongst
themselves.
It was rare, for example,
lighter skinned folks
to marry darker skinned folks
unless there was a big scandal.
It was actually
a big scandal,
"Why were they doing this?"
You wanted to lighten. And so...
if you go to the South,
you know, New Orleans,
these kinds of places,
that was sort of the standard.
And so what that also meant was
that you start to create
these categories, right?
So, yes.
Because the quote unquote,
like "middle class" Blacks,
they often were fairer
complected, right?
And when they did marry a darker
complected person,
it was because that person was
very, very successful.
And so then you would have
church events,
elegant events, and guess what?
You wanted to keep--
you wanted to keep your children
in the same circle.
You wanted to have your children
marry within that circle.
So those were... I mean, it's a
shameful history in that sense
but how can you deny it?
I mean, like...
The opportunities. I mean, look.
White folks created a situation
where Black people--
Black men could not get work.
There was a narrative that the
only job that was fitting
for a Black man was one
that a white man did not want.
So these things--
how could this trauma
not impact you wanting
to be elevated?
Wanting to get closer to where
there were more opportunities.
NAM:
Yeah. We only have
a few minutes.
We only have a few minutes left
and I have a few more questions
to ask you.
JENNIFER:
Okay.
NAM:
I mean, I could talk to you
for like, a day on this.
You know, one interesting person
you speak to in the documentary
that might surprise people
is Rachel Dolezal.
Why did you talk to her
for this documentary?
JENNIFER:
Yeah, that seems to be
controversial. Um...
(Laughing)
I wanted to talk to
Rachel Dolezal
because we were just talking
about light-skinned privilege
to some extent, and one of the
things that happened
at this time,
and what I was aware of,
is very light-skinned people
passing for white,
and we, in our community,
my community,
I've known this, and you know,
one family member,
all this kind of stuff,
but nobody blamed them,
it's not a thing,
it's just what happens.
And it happened because, again,
it's opportunity.
It's livelihood.
It's how you live a life.
So now, for the first time
in my life,
I find out that there has been
a white woman
who has lived as Black
for ten years
who values Blackness so much
that she takes this on,
when in fact, passing has always
been the other way around
as far as I know?
I just felt like, how could we
talk about Black women
being outside of the standards
of beauty
and the standards of beauty
being white,
and here we had a white lady who
had all the features,
blonde hair, green eyes,
and in some ways,
rejected that
to live the life as Black.
How? How could you not--
(Laughing)
have this as a part of the
conversation, you know?
I know I know Black women were--
some Black women are
angry about it,
but I think most people
who have seen the film
understand why she is
in the film,
why she is an important part
of the conversation.
NAM:
You do speak with a number
of other experts
in the documentary,
I don't know if you want to
share what their perspectives
were on her self-identification.
JENNIFER:
Well, Brittany Lewis,
who is a PhD candidate
and a beauty pageant queen,
and was the 2017 winner
of the Miss Black America
pageant, she is like--
she's like, "No."
(Laughing)
She's like-- her feeling is
that, you know,
this is not your space,
you are taking from us.
Dr. Cheryl Thompson was
wonderful, who I have a--
I have a conversation with--
a Big Ideas conversation with
tomorrow, in fact. She was like,
"I don't have a problem with her
loving Blackness,
"and even choosing to
live that way,
"but you are white,"
as far as she's concerned,
"and you have to come from
that point of view."
"I'm white,
but I'm choosing to."
And you're letting people know.
And so you are not passing,
you are just choosing
to be in this space,
whatever that means.
So you know,
that's a different range.
India Arie felt a great deal
of sympathy for her.
She understood that she--
that obviously Rachel Dolezal
saw the beauty,
and sees the beauty
in Blackness.
So there is a range,
and I wanted to share that range
with the audience.
NAM:
We talked about this at the very
top of the interview.
There's been a shift away from
beauty being the image
of a white woman with blonde
hair to "Black is beautiful,"
but this shift has seen some
problematic things
arise from it, for example,
Kim Kardashian will
wear cornrows
and the media will go wild,
they might say she
"discovered cornrows."
(Laughing)
And they'll celebrate her,
but when a Black woman
wears them,
it's considered to be
unprofessional.
At one point in the documentary,
one of the young women
you speak to says,
growing up, you want to be white
and it ruins you.
So you grow up, and the people
you wanted to be
want to be you.
Um, and that "ruins you" part
just kinda broke my heart.
Um, you know, what--
in the documentary,
it was referred to as
"Black-fishing."
So what is Black-fishing, and
why is it problematic?
JENNIFER:
Oh jeez, Black-fishing is
actually, I think,
more problematic than what
Rachel represents.
Um, because it's essentially
white women and girls
who love the aesthetics--
certain aesthetics of Blackness,
and they create, through makeup,
and tricks,
and collagen, and even fillers
and surgery,
they create a look that is,
what I would say, biracial.
And that biracial look,
incidentally,
I call it "the Beyoncé look."
You know, she has, in fact,
two Black parents,
but she's very light-skinned.
And that look,
the Rihanna look, is what--
NAM:
Ambiguous, like you don't know
what they are.
JENNIFER:
Exactly, and that is
Black-fishing
because it's white women
who are doing this,
and people have been mistaking
them for being biracial.
And here is the problem with it,
though.
They can, and do, wash it off
and, you know, go out and about
their lives when they need to
and when they're ready.
And ironically,
some of these girls have gotten
modelling contracts,
you know, they have great
Instagram presence,
so they are economically
benefitting
from presenting a look that is,
historically, based on the
one-drop American rule,
is Black.
You know, now it's a very
interesting thing,
because I think biracial is now
becoming something that...
you can be biracial,
whereas I think, before,
no matter how mixed you were,
if you showed Black,
you were just considered Black.
I mean, it's hard for me to--
you know,
I saw the shift around President
Obama,
so whereby, you know--
suddenly he was--
he's a Black man, but he's also
a biracial man,
and that narrative has become
much, much clearer,
whereas before, I think, like,
all the people around me
growing up,
they were just thrown in--
we would say they were
light-skinned
or we'd say they were pretty
or some such thing
but they were just Black people,
right?
And so now, here you have white
folks who want this.
And it didn't end up happening
in the documentary,
but I reached out to a friend of
mine who has a daughter--
she's blonde, my friend is
blonde with blue eyes.
Her daughter is blonde
with blue eyes.
And her daughter, she said,
spends two hours
curling and crimping her hair to
make it look like yours and mine
and her daughter has been very
angry with her
for not having the features
that she wants,
like a bigger booty,
and this kind of thing.
I invited her
to come on the film,
but she didn't want to speak,
you know, as a young white girl,
it might have been
damaging to her,
and I understood why
she ultimately, you know,
chose not to be in the film.
But in Toronto--
(Chuckling)
you know, there are young white
girls who are presenting
this aesthetic because it is
attractive to them.
So yeah, beauty is changing.
You know?
And it has changed,
let's be real.
I mean, um, however you say it,
the body type of Kim Kardashian?
I mean, look, slim Black women,
we called it "slim thick."
It's like, small waist,
big booty...
(Laughing)
A little bit up top...
NAM:
Jeans that can never
fit you properly..
(Both laughing)
JENNIFER:
You know?!
NAM:
Just saying!
JENNIFER:
So that-- that is not
necessarily, you know,
the standard European body type,
which tends to be more straight
down the centre, you know,
and that kind of thing.
And even things like a
physically fit body.
Now we have everyone going
to the gym,
but let me tell you, that is a
more natural Black female body,
and in the past, when I was
growing up, having a slim body
with musculature was not seen
as cute at all!
It was that-- like, when you had
no muscle tone.
You know what I'm saying,
you look like you're about to
starve.
I mean, like Twiggy. It's
like...
(Laughing)
You know what I'm saying?
NAM:
Yeah, like mauger.
JENNIFER:
Yeah! You know, in Jamaica,
it's like, "Mauger dog"
And here...
(Both laughing)
And you know, so that...
(Stammering)
that "Pa-pow" is now, like,
the rage, and it's so...
I love that my booty is in.
I'm like, what?!
It is actually interesting,
But the sad part, of course,
is when white women have that,
it's much more valued, as you
can see with, you know,
Kim and her sisters, and,
you know... Kylie.
I mean, the lips, the change...
You know, those kinds of things,
right?
And I don't know if you grew up
with this or not,
but like, my lips--
people used to laugh at them,
like, "They're so thick!
They're so big!"
NAM:
I used to-- one of my aunties
used to hit me in my mouth
because she thought that I was
sticking out my lip,
because they wanted it
to be more like this,
so they would hit it.
But again, I think it speaks to
what we were talking about,
where when you're trying to
survive in a system
but then you cause more harm
to your own community
because, you know, it's just the
way the system is built.
But you know, what do you want
people to walk away with
when they watch this
documentary?
JENNIFER:
Well, I hope that, um...
well, first of all,
with Black women,
I really want them to understand
that these systems
are a part of what has been,
um, writing a certain narrative
that you've had to fit into,
and so in understanding that,
to just dispel them.
To challenge them.
To know that they are wonderful
and beautiful
in their own right, and they
don't need, you know,
that exterior ideal to be that.
To embrace all they are.
So that is it for Black women
on that side.
And then for the...
for white women and other...
groups, other races,
other ethnic women,
I want them to...
really understand that, um...
that they have, in some ways,
not really seen us.
That they have been influenced
by these ideas
that are not ours,
that don't really represent
and reflect us,
and I want them to be kinder
and more compassionate,
and to, um...
to really, um...
Reach out.
To be allies with Black women.
I think it's been historically
easier for white women,
for example, to even be allies
with Black men, you know?
You know, I mean, I have
a robust group of friends,
and that includes white women,
for sure,
in fact some of my very best
friends are white.
(Laughing)
I love that.
"Some of my best friends
are white."
(Laughing)
We all know what that is!
(Both laughing)
But I can honestly say
that it's been--
I've had to teach them to
understand who I am
and what I stand for,
and why it's important,
and so I hope this film will
shorten that conversation,
you know?
NAM:
Jennifer, thank you so much
for your time.
Congratulations on a wonderful
documentary.
Thanks so much for your time.
JENNIFER:
Thank you for inviting me.

NAM:
And that's the podcast.
Look for
Subjects of Desire
on the film festival circuit,
and while you may have to wait
for a little bit,
TVO will be airing the
documentary early next spring.
COLIN:
While you're here, why not give
us a rating on Apple Podcasts
and tell a friend about us?
It helps new listeners
find the show.
NAM:
You can follow me on Twitter
@NamShine, all one word.
COLIN:
And you can follow me
@ColinEllis81.
NAM:
Thanks to producer and editor,
Matthew O'Mara,
senior producer, Katie O'Connor.
Production support coordinators
Nikki Ashworth
and Jonathan Halliwell, and
executive producer, Laurie Few.
COLIN:
Thanks for listening, and we'll
catch you at the next screening.

Watch: Subjects of Desire