A couple of weeks ago at the Super Bowl, Beyoncé performed part of her new track, ‘Formation’, during the half time show, and has since garnered aggressive criticism for being racist and hateful– in other words, raising the issue of racism in a way that has offended some white Americans by drawing attention to their complicity in it.
‘Formation’ is a song of empowerment and resistance that flips a proverbial finger to the white establishment that has sustained the oppression of people of colour in the US since its colonisation; it is also an expression and assertion of black experience, an acknowledgement of a history that is still so often denied or erased. The song’s video, released the day before the Super Bowl, explicitly references both the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the neglect of people of colour by the government after Hurricane Katrina: a young boy of colour dances before a line-up of riot police; the words ‘stop shooting us’ are literally written on a wall; Beyoncé sinks into a swirl of flood waters atop a New Orleans police car.
The Super Bowl performance built on the message of the video, and while many felt inspired by Beyoncé’s performance and her willingness to address a real, long-term social issue in a public space, US conservatives were riled by Bey’s back up dancers’ uniforms – the women were dressed in black berets and jackets, a clear nod to militant activist group the Black Panthers of the 1960s and 70s. It was interpreted as anti-police and anti-America, as ‘pathetic’ and ‘bigoted’. The hashtag #BoycottBeyonce started trending, ordering people not to buy tickets to her newly announced World Tour; an anti-Beyonce rally took place on 16th February at NFL headquarters in New York, to protest against her ‘hate speech & racism’ (though only three people turned up, lol).
There was no attempt to read the complexity of the symbolism employed by Beyoncé and her dancers – that in referencing the Black Panthers she is not only citing as inspirational those who have stood up against injustice in the past, but also calling out the repetition of history and the fact that little has changed in the way that people of colour are treated by the police force and government authority in general.
Instead, well-known conservatives have been providing public statements on how offensive her behaviour is to them. ‘I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive’, commented Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor, who failed to address the fact that more than 100 unarmed black people were killed by US police in 2015, which NGO Mapping Police Violence has reported is five times the rate of unarmed whites. Even Andrew Bolt weighed in, describing Bey’s performance as ‘crude new racism’.
It’s clear that what really inflamed people was that a black woman had made a statement about racism in front of white people. ‘You’re talking middle America when you have the Super Bowl, you need decent, wholesome entertainment and not use it as a platform to attack the people who put their lives at risk to save us,’ Giuliani went on to say, as if ‘middle America’ is composed solely of Caucasians. His comments also imply that black people would not be watching the Super Bowl; that the NFL is a race-free zone that has no history of racial discrimination; that ‘race’ should only be discussed in certain circumstances and is not embedded in every aspect of the way society is organised.
At the heart of comments like these is the notion that racism should only be discussed on white people’s terms, and that when people of colour speak out against oppression, it’s inappropriate, offensive, and hateful. ‘I’m tired of BlackLivesMatter. I’m tired of the New Black Panthers, I’m tired of seeing black women on TV twerking, I’m tired of the racial division,’ said Paul D Hampton, a youth worker who started the Boycott Beyoncé page, essentially blaming black people for causing the racial divide by complaining about it (and by twerking on television, though I’m not really sure what Hampton was getting at there apart from shaming black women for representing their own bodies how they want to).
This is deep racism: silencing the oppressed on the basis that their view disrupts the status quo of all the normal and regular white people who just want to go about their lives. This attitude is not borne from real concern that people of colour will oppress white people (even if were, such a concern would be ridiculous): it’s frustration that white dominance is being questioned; it’s a repudiation of any symbol or commentary that implicates white leaders in a racist history; it’s a way of avoiding responsibility for injustice; it’s a way of whiteness maintaining power whilst refusing to acknowledge power as privilege and instead asserting that it’s natural, that it should remain invisible, that it’s the way things should be.
Even though these racist, unnuanced and self interested responses to Beyoncé’s performance are both saddening and infuriating, I do feel as though they have vindicated her to a degree: the aggression and defensiveness of her detractors only affirms that provocative acts like Beyoncé’s are necessary for the change needed to ensure that equality for all Americans (or indeed, all people) becomes an actual goal. I’m not saying Beyoncé is perfect: there’s a wealth of discussion and critique by women of colour about how much ‘Formation’ can or should be expected to achieve, particularly in regard to Beyoncé’s relationship with capitalism and the way she attempts to represent black women but does not always succeed. Even if she doesn’t effect change, though, racism clearly remains: at the very least, Beyoncé’s mainstream presence has helped continue public discussion about how deeply entrenched racial discrimination is the US still is.