Solange Knowles may be Beyoncé’s younger sister, but that doesn’t mean she’s content to stay shadowed in a corner.
Yes, Solange may not be a household brand, but I can’t help but think that she prefers it this way. This level of celebrity allows Solange to directly critique anti-blackness and white supremacy in America without the fear of public backlash that could destroy her pop culture bankability.
Beyoncé, who rarely gives interviews, may not take a publicly vocalized stance on issues of social justice, but she often makes her support known through financial support. Earlier this year, Queen Bey and husband Jay Z donated $1.5 million to the Black Lives Matter movement, in addition to other civil rights organizations. In the beginning of the summer, she gave around $82,000 from her Formation World Tour to assist the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. People may criticize Beyoncé for not literally speaking out in a blunt, unapologetic way like the actor Jesse Williams is prone to do. However, this has never been a part of Beyoncé’s handling of her image as an entertainer or member of pop culture royalty.
In the case of Solange, she utilizes social media in a form that her older sister avoids. Her Twitter and Instagram, along with her website, Saint Heron, routinely confront racism and the country’s impulse to uphold white privilege.
I can only wish that I’d grown up with someone like Solange as a public figure who is so insistent on protecting Black girls and women. On her Twitter, Solange recounted an unpleasant and highly uncomfortable concert experience in New Orleans. Solange, her husband, and her eleven-year-old son, Julez, attended a Kraftwerk concert at the Orpheum Theater. The audience at the electronica concert was not diverse: Solange noted that the overwhelming majority of patrons were white. When Solange danced to a song, a group of white women told her to sit down. Solange refused, and the women threw a lime at her.
To the naive reader, this story may seem nothing more than an unfortunate incident to be chalked up to rude and drunk concert attendees. For Black girls and women who understand what Solange meant by the term “white spaces,” it’s affirmation of a long-known truth.
To be Black in white spaces means that you are suddenly blessed and cursed with hyperawareness, injected with the X-Men ability to interpret not just outright racism but malevolence cloaked in a cloudy layer of passive aggression and microaggressions. To be Black in white spaces means that you are both the designated ambassador of your entire race and no one at all, invisible, with an interchangeable face. In an essay titled “And Do You Belong? I Do” and posted on Saint Heron, Solange elaborated on her Tweets. She wrote:
It usually does not include “please.” It does not include “will you.” It does not include “would you mind,” for you must not even be worth wasting their mouths forming these respectable words. Although, you usually see them used seconds before or after you.
You don’t feel that most of the people in these incidents do not like black people, but simply are a product of their white supremacy and are exercising it on you without caution, care, or thought.
Many times the tone just simply says, “I do not feel you belong here.”
Anti-blackness is not solely relegated to overtly hostile or malicious displays of bigotry. There are numerous ways to make someone feel as though they don’t belong, as though their safety has been compromised. Later on in her essay, Solange wrote, “You constantly see the media having a hard time contextualizing black women and men as victims every day, even when it means losing their own lives….You realize that you never called these women racists, but people will continuously put those words in your mouth.”
White people who have deluded themselves into believing that they are progressive liberals often tout the phrase, “I don’t see color.” They frequently follow up with something along the lines of, “I don’t care if you’re black or white or green or blue,” ironically disproving their point, as they classify minority status as akin to alien foreignness. I didn’t grow up in the South, but that doesn’t mean I’m a stranger to racism, and to feeling like my blackness, my “Otherness,” doesn’t fit into my very white surroundings. The institution of whiteness ruled that my identity wasn’t authentic enough, that my blackness was dependent upon adhering to a narrow vision of blackness as defined by the white gaze. Boys who I deemed the love of my life have accused me of being too sensitive, of imagining things, of seeing fire where there isn’t smoke. That’s the clever trick of white privilege: the combination of willful ignorance and lack of lived experience imagines equality where it does not exist.
I don’t believe that silence is a beneficial defense mechanism. In a society where being Black is punishable by death, silence only aids white supremacy. Solange recognizes that silence does not encourage change. She also realizes that she can use her public platform to connect with other Black girls and women and make them feel less isolated and alone.
Solange recently interviewed actress Amandla Stenberg for the February 2016 issue of Teen Vogue and spoke to that feeling of unquantifiable kinship between Black girls. She noted, “There’s a secret language shared among black girls who are destined to climb mountains and cross rivers in a world that tells us to belong to the valleys that surround us. You learn it very young, and although it has no words, you hear it clearly.” Knowing this language has made it possible for women to produce safe spaces in the midst of uninhabitable land. It’s a sense of higher consciousness, the look that transpired between the only other Black woman and me in my graduate school writing class, the exchange that prompted me to grab the open seat next to her. A feeling of anchoring myself. It is less a shared code of pain than it is a show of solidarity.
Anger is often viewed as destructive. Solange challenges that idea, arguing that anger can be a healthy, even necessary response to unfathomable atrocities ranging from the physical to the emotional and mental. While Beyoncé seems to filter her frustrations through subversive tactics that are primarily based on a nonpersonal, business-first sensibility, Solange participates in racial politics via personal reflection.
The media may deem Solange “crazy” for speaking out, as is often the case when Black people refuse to be complicit in racially motivated abuse. Solange is not exposing anything new or revolutionary, but her comments are viewed as such due to America’s legacy of deep denial. In the closing part of her essay, Solange remarks, “We belong. We belong. We belong. We built this.” Anger is testament to this mantra, a reminder that blackness is not validated by trauma.
About Vanessa Willoughby
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut, and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal.