Why The Questlove Article Exposes Our Racism — And Our Sexism

Saturday July 27 — update

My piece has received many reactions and much criticism. If you are going to read my piece below, I recommend you also read Jamilah Lemieux’s Ebony response, which is thoughtful and fair.

I’m passionate about the message that all women must protect themselves, but it was a mistake to link that subject to Questlove. In doing so, I sent the message that white women should protect themselves specifically from black men. That was not what I intended or believe. I apologize to Questlove for using his story and his experience to this end.

I’ve left this piece up since deleting it won’t change the initial mistake and a dialog has spun out from it. All the responses have forced me to re-think my lens on the world.


Last week’s Questlove: Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit piece in New York magazine, written by Ahmir Questlove Thompson, drummer for the Roots and Jimmy Fallon’s bandleader, is getting a lot of play on social media. And for good reason.

We are fresh off the tragic injustices of the Trayvon Martin trial. We are mourning the loss of Trayvon, and all the other dead black boys who haven’t gotten much play in the media. We are putting ourselves in the shoes of Trayvon’s grieving parents, hoping we never have to endure what they have had to endure. What could be worse? The senseless death of your child. Watching his murderer walk free. It makes Questlove’s piece especially poignant.

It’s tough to read that the man’s size, his race and his gender force him to be cautious, so he doesn’t offend or scare other people. The response to his piece has been sadness, affirmation, and awakening: sadness that someone has to do this, that their life is formed around being seen as potentially dangerous; affirmation for the black community who have to do this every day, and for whom, this is old news; and awakening, a reminder to many white people, that racism is alive and kicking, and it is felt thunderously in the black community, everyday in all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle crippling ways.

We are a white family, living in Harlem, where our kids attend public school. The boys in my daughters’ first and second grade classes, most of them black, brown and mixed race, run up for hugs and regale us with tales of the class rabbit pooping on the school floor, and proudly show off their lovingly-crafted art projects. They are so sweet and little now, but they will be grown soon, some as big as Questlove.

These lovely little boys will probably not be given the benefit of the doubt. They will be stopped and frisked by the police and considered dangerous by passersby. They’ll have to think twice when they do something as simple as put the hoodie up on their sweatshirt. Or, God forbid, maybe one of them will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the next Zimmerman is feeling paranoid while carrying a loaded gun. I know their parents worry about it everyday.

What Questlove wrote underscored this.“This should never have had to be written” is the refrain posted on Facebook, and we all agree that something important has been taken from Questlove, and all black men, because of our ideas about what it means to be black, to be big, to be male. His writing is moving on so many levels.

It made everyone think, and I’m grateful he wrote it.

Yet, it is a disturbing piece for women.

I imagine a young woman reading the exchange that happened between Questlove and the woman in the elevator, taking it in and, not wanting to be racist, shifting how she reacts to men in public. Maybe she smiles more, acts less freaked out when alone in an elevator with a strange man, maybe she walks down that dark isolated street and doesn’t worry that someone is walking behind her, or lets down her guard and tries to let the man know she isn’t intimidated, that she doesn’t find him scary. Maybe she lets concern for others — offending that stranger, appearing racist, or sexist — over-ride her instincts to take care of herself.

See, women almost always look out for others. We are taught as girls that we are inherently caretakers, mothers to everyone. We are taught to placate, be nice, share. We don’t want people mad at us. We are rewarded for compromising. We believe that if we work a little harder, put in a little more elbow grease, be better, lean in, try a little harder, we will be rewarded.

I have a friend who told me about being in college and having the Chair of her department come on to her, grope her. She said that it never occurred to her to say, “Fuck off!”

“I was nice to the end, every painful minute of it,” she told me,” and it never occurred to me that I could tell this powerful man to get off me.”

A myriad of studies support this. One, in The Harvard Business Review asked men and women to play a word game. They were told they would be paid somewhere between $3 and $10. When the game finished the men and women were each given $3 and asked, “Here is $3. Is $3 okay?” Men nearly always asked for more money, women almost never. Men’s requests for money exceeded women’s by 9 to 1.

It is an inherent flaw of our education of girls that we do not encourage and inspire them to ask, demand, negotiate or stand up for what they believe they deserve. And it doesn’t stop at the office. It’s everywhere, at home, in bars. And, yes, in elevators.

This is particularly an issue for us liberal women — we don’t want to be perceived as racists. But really, this is one of those times that is truly not all about race, it’s mostly about gender and power. Middle class, middle-aged white men in business suits are just as able to take you by force and fuck you against your will, as a black teen in a hoodie. And probably more prone to do so.

We might not go around thinking of men as rapists, but we are profoundly aware that if caught in a dark part of the club, a back room, an isolated house, an elevator, our apartment after we get off the elevator, if the mood is right, if he had too much to drink, if we can’t talk our way out of it, if we dress too seductively, stay out too late, if we flirt and then change our mind, if we are on the subway at 2am, or if we are nice and that’s enough for him to misread our intentions, most men could take us, if they chose to, and there is little we could do to stop it.

All women, obviously, are affected no matter their race. Sexual assault is something of an equal opportunity playing field for women. It happens to all of us in varying degrees. 34.1% of American Indian women will be raped or have someone attempt to rape them in their lifetime. As will 17.7% of white women, 18.8% of black women, 24.4% of mixed race women and 6.8% of Asian women. And this doesn’t even count the unreported cases and the myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle forms of sexual harrassment, intimidation and assault that women are confronted with on a daily basis in private and public spaces.

It is dangerous for us to teach our children not to protect themselves or act on their instincts, or say “No” or “Fuck off!” or ignore someone, even if it offends Questlove.

We don’t need a man telling us we shouldn’t be taking care of ourselves, and that is exactly what the Questlove piece, perhaps unintentionally (because the bias is so ingrained in men), is guilting us into doing. It’s one more message to women to look out for others first.

That woman in Questlove’s elevator — who is unknown to us, who may be one of the 1 in 6 women that has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime — has the right not to disclose her floor, or get off into a hallway alone with a man, or concern herself with offending other people in the elevator. Her sole concern should be protecting herself from the chance of a sexual assault which happens to 1 out of every 3 women and girls in their lifetimes.

1 in 3.

Indeed, Questlove outright admits to objectifying her. And he does it with a wink and laugh, “bow chicka wowwow”, as if its completely cool to sexualize women and admit it in a national magazine. The message here is — Hey, no one cares, all us guys do it.

“She was also bangin’,” he writes,” so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor? *bow chicka wowow*!” Instantly I was on some “What dessert am I welcome-committee-ing her with?”

Questlove not only admits to objectifying her in his head, he “flirts” with her as she gets off the elevator, and even then, even as he wrote the words on the screen and saw them there, was unable to look at his own internal monologue and see he was oppressing her. Isn’t this exactly what white people do to black people? Isn’t this the point of his whole article?

Maybe that’s why she was uncomfortable. Maybe that was why she didn’t disclose her floor. Maybe it had nothing to do with being black and big. Maybe he was yet another man in an elevator plotting how he can get in her pants. It probably wasn’t the first time that had happened to her that day.

It’s also possible she just got fired from her job, or broke up with her girlfriend, or got diagnosed with cancer. Maybe it wasn’t about him at all.

Questlove has to bear a huge weight. No one should have to do it, and I imagine that having to wear it all the time, never take it off, constantly having to think of others first must be exhausting and suffocating — no one can take that away from him.

Nevertheless, I am going to give my daughters a two-fold education. First, I’m going to continue to teach them to be open, kind, empathic and embracing of all people, to give others the benefit of the doubt, to not project their fears, whatever they are, into the world and on to other people whenever possible, to be mindful of how they are treating others, and when they do make a mistake, or judge someone on a stereotype, that they look at it, own it, and make it right.

I want them to think for themselves and be conscious of how they are in the world.

Secondly, I will continue to teach them to be mindful of how they treat themselves. When I talk to my daughters, ages seven and eight, about strangers or family members, or friend’s parents, I tell them to listen to their guts. If it feels wrong, get out of there, go, scream “NO!”, kick, punch, make a fuss, lie, call home, whatever, tell immediately, and if they are wrong, if the person is just trying to help or they misread the signals, well, they got it wrong, we will make our apologies later.

But protect yourself first.

Girls and women must care for themselves first. They must listen to their guts and act on it without worry of offending others or getting it wrong. They must demand, negotiate and stand up. They must defy all the poor socialization we give them. They must never accept the $3. They must listen to their bodies and their inner voices if a situation or experience feels wrong, they must give themselves permission to run, flee, kick someone in the balls, whatever it takes to get out of there, without feeling they might get it wrong.

They can get off the elevator because they are leary of the guy who is having a pornographic fantasy about them in his head, and not worry one little bit about hurting his feelings.

Violence against women is rampant. Sexism is as awful and malignant a cancer as racism.

Last month, I was in a Vegas casino, alone in an elevator, and eight guys got on. They had been drinking, having fun. They were young, early 20’s. They were all white. They didn’t care at all that I was there. But still, as the doors closed, I thought, “ Wow. If they all worked together, they could take me and there’s nothing I could do about it.”

We wear that heavy weight too, Questlove. We never take it off and it is, as you know, exhausting and suffocating.