Who Played Whom? Gawker Media and Tionna Smalls

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

A few weeks ago, while browsing Jimi Izrael’s blog, I came across this piece on Tionna Smalls, former advice columnist for Gawker. Now, I am only passing familiar with Gawker as I am a non-New Yorker, I didn’t really get into the blogosphere until last year, and the content on the main site doesn’t interest me as much as the content on their other blogs (like Jezebel and Kotaku).

So, I read Jimi Izrael’s thoughts on Gawker with some interest:

So, Tionna Smalls was the advice columnist for Gawker.com, the blog ostensibly dedicated to East Coast media. In reality, it’s serviceable hipster prose on the half-shell: heavy reading for guys who light farts at keg parties and the girls—and gays—who love them. The readership are the kind of people who count the mailman as one of their “black friends.” I read it for “Kreepy Kats.” No point, otherwise, becasue it’s not written to pique my intersts. Black people don’t pixelate on the site unless they are shucking, jiving, vogue-ing, rapping or tripping headlong into a stereotype.

Jimi then goes on to explain his take on the situation:

Tionna Smalls of Brooklyn, NY is the kind of woman over-pouring drinks at every inner-city bar in America: all good, all ‘Hood. Like most of us, she’s the kind of black person white folks cross the street to avoid. I’m not sure who thought employing her to dispense advice to white hipsters on Gawker was a good fit, but to be sure, there were signs of trouble from her very first appearance. There was a palpable, disconcerting, colonial casting to it from the curb: the heavy-bottomed Negress as the keeper and comforter of the chilluns’ gathered ‘round marvelin’ at her wisdom…and bra size. With headlines like “You Didn’t Suspect He Had A Little Sugar In His Tank?” , it’s Mae West meets a wildly inappropriate Butterfly McQueen at a frat party, and it’s a fuckin’ freak show, straight out the gate. It didn’t take long for her to become a phenomenon, garnering an average of 10,000 page views and 100 comments per post. Her work was posted raw and unedited by Negrophile editors intent to celebrate its crude, primitive authenticity: slick-sly meta-coonery at its finest.

And he makes a value judgment:

On her first Gawker post, commenter GOBOT asks “Is it exploitation if Tionna doesn’t know she is being exploited?”

Yes, Gobot. Yes it is.

What business is of mine in the first place? I’m a professional writer: I write for money. So I have a stake in the marketplace. I can’t tell you how to sell your wares, but I can tell you how to keep the market vital. And giving hipsters the privilege of using and discarding blackvoice at whim?

Nah. We got to play that smart,and on our own terms.

But maybe Tionna did.

Not surprisingly, Tionna was a bit offended at his characterization of her and her motives, and when Jimi showed her the piece…well, you can go to his site and read it as the exchange is classic and I am not going to quote the whole thing.

However, reading Jimi’s take did raise some questions in my mind.

I talked to Jimi about his post, and he clarified what he was trying to accomplish in the piece:

I think my problem was that Gawker manages to find the most egregious, flagrant colonial stereotypes to put on display and give voice and that’s disturbing. It’s problematic, that they can only deal with blackvoice from a colonial perspective. It all made me sad but it made her angry that posted on it. She was really, really upset. Partially, i think because she wasn’t exactly sure what I was trying to say.

It wasn’t about her being gutter, so much as it was about the dominant culture only sees us when we’re doing what they expect us to be doing.

Fair assessment. But the perspective that was missing from all this was Tionna’s. I emailed her to ask for an interview, and she quickly agreed. I asked everything that was on my mind, and she came back with some very provocative answers.

Latoya Peterson: First thing’s first – how did you end up working for Gawker media? What made you decide to choose that company?

Tionna Smalls: Well let me make this extremely clear. I never applied for a job at Gawker. One morning I woke up after my book was finished and decided to send emails out regarding my book. I sent the email out under my name so I knew that they were going to know that the message was from me but I still spoke in third person anyway. They did exactly what I wanted them to do and place the email on their site and in came all of the criticism and questions about who this young lady really was.

Some people thought I was a fake person, some thought Gawker paid me to act like this hood girl but no none of that happened. I just wrote them to let them know about my self published book, “Girl, Get Your Mind Right!”

Finally after they placed me on their website for the third or fouth time, an editor there wrote me a long, emotional email asking me for my advice. At the time, my computer was broke and I had to use my parent’s computer which had dial up and rushed and wrote my answer. She wrote back that she had a great opportunity for me and offered me a job. At the time I was broke as shit and my business hadn’t taken off yet so I said yes. I thought, and so did a lot of other people I asked (including my agent) said that it was a great opportunity. I could [get] paid off of writing advice at home, hell yes I accept.

Besides, I have been giving free advice away for years and really love helping people especially after I went through my trials and tribulations and overcame them. I felt like I was super blessed so why not help other people and get paid for it.

LP: You had mentioned in your interview with Jimi Izrael that you had approached black media and they did not show interest. How did you approach? How hard was it comparatively to break into black media versus to break into white media?

TS: I am so glad that you brought up this issue. Let me explain something to the world, Tionna Smalls loves the black media. I have been a fan of magazines in my life since the Right on! and Word Up magazine days.

All my life I dreamed of working for a popular black magazine or media company. When I first decided to quit my job at the storage facility, I wrote every magazine and expressed interest in getting an interview regarding my book. I could say at that time, my public relations skills wasn’t as tight as it could have been or as tight now but I still went hard to hey out there. Not one magazine or black media hit me up. I can’t tell you why but I’m just saying.

Also, let me say this. I grew up a very diverse young lady. Even though I was the biggest black media fan. I also was a fan of Seventeen and other white oriented magazines. I watched Sweet Valley High and Saved by the Bell as much as I watched Sister Sister and Family Matters. Does that make me less black? Hell no.

Listen I always received flack for being a diverse chick. When I was in JHS, the hood chicks thought I was too uppity and the uppity chicks think I am too hood. Its like I never really fitted in with people so I made my own path.

To be honest with you, getting a job at a media company was a dream, not black, not white, just getting in there and letting the people see exactly who Tionna Smalls is. And what made me mad about the Jimi Izrael article was that he was basically judging me and making it seem like I was some kind of mammy or parody for the white man. And that is so far from the goddamn truth. If he would have took the time and got his facts straight, he would have found out who the real Tionna Smalls was and what situation she was placed in and what she knew and what she didn’t know.

Instead he wrote a bunch of bullcrap, well his opinion and I let him know what his opinion meant to me.

Listen, I’m a young, black woman who is just trying to make it. I’m doing all of this so the next little girl from East New York (my hometown) will say that if Tionna Smalls did it so can I. So its whatever. When the black publications stop waiting for you to lick their privates to get a mention or story, then I will be there writing. And when they understand that writers need money too and stop not paying their writers then I will work for it. Trust me. I know plenty of talented, grammatically correct writers who are jobless because they say oh I am only writing for black publications but that’s them. Sorry, being broke aint me and kissing ass damn sure aint me.

I don’t care who don’t want to admit it, its hard for black people in media. When you do meet someone that is in the field and say hey can we meet up and maybe you can throw me a bone, the ish never happen. Its like the crab in the barrel effect. Its like I don’t want her to get here because then she will take this from me. At this time I would like to give writer Kim Osorio a shout out. When I met her she embraced me like a sister and told me to contact her so we can really network and figure things out- I appreciate it because most people wouldn’t have done that. I’m telling you, Its all a bunch of bullcrap. That’s why I just do me. They are going to talk about you no matter what you do. I say don’t hate me, hate the game because I am going to get my cash one way or another.

LP: Okay, you know I have to ask – what was going on with the titty shot that you had posted with all of your articles on Gawker?

TS:
That’s easy. I love my breast. I grew up flat chested so I’m obsessed with showing them. Well then I was. So I picked the picture that brings the most attention. I love my breast as much as I love attention. They are not going to look like this forever so why not flaunt them. I bet some haters thought that was Gawker’s idea, yeah sure. No I’m grown and I make my own decisions and I made the decision to place the banging pictures up. At the last weeks, I started loving my face more so I sent out face shots. That’s life.

LP: In your interview with Jimi, he says “She says she knows how those Gawker cats get down, but she also know about criticism she gets from “boujie black people”,(points to self) and about people thinking she’s a poor little black girl getting exploited.” What kind of criticism did you draw? You mentioned that you did not feel exploited because you got what you needed out of the situation – did you feel like you had to sacrifice part of yourself on Gawker?

TS: Hell no I didn’t feel like I sacrifice myself because honestly in the beginning I didn’t feel like they were trying to exploit me. I was thinking yes, finally a check. I will never exploit myself for any amount of money. When I found out Gawker was grimey it was at the end.

To be honest with you weeks before the column got cancelled, I decided that it was time to quit and you can ask Emily Gould and Choire Sacha but my agent and management at the time said that it wasn’t smart yet so I brushed it off but honestly it wasn’t because I thought I was exploited. It was because I felt I wasn’t being taken seriously as a writer. I’m telling you its not that serious.

I could say this, I did get what I wanted. I crossed over in my first year of my career. I received enough notoriority to move on and do other things. My company became popular and we received our first million dollar client. Life is freaking good. Sure, I may have made some mistakes by not recognizing the signs of grimey-ness by Gawker but who cares. In the end we both got what we wanted. They got page views, I got hey, that’s Tionna Smalls. Her advice is the best and that’s what makes me feel good. Trust. As long as my family is healthy and I wake up every morning and not be broke, my life is happy. I no longer care about what the critics feel about my career. Those are the same ones who are dying to be in my shoes. So I say hey, bring it on! Because one of us is going to lose and its not me.

I’m a writer but I’m a business woman first. I write but my love is owning businesses and that’s what I am doing. Writing is my passion trust but if I never did it professionally again, I wouldn’t shoot myself. I will just email my friends my thoughts and words like I used to. So, hey it doesn’t really matter to me.

LP: Some background for you, Tionna – I had done a post on Racialicious about street lit and received a very interesting response. I got the usual “that crap is trash” from the regulars, but one commenter in particular let us know that street lit is what he loved over and above “what everyone else tells me to like.” I feel like with our site (and I will warn you, we have lots of bougie folks, self probably included) we focus so much on trying to fix the portrayal of the black experience that we forget that there are many different black experiences – ones that include things that other African Americans may not like. In this piece on you, I will explore this dynamic, hence the background information.

TS: Im sorry I don’t like black street lit books either. I never read them. I like business books and things that could help elevate me. I don’t knock anyones taste that like those books but hey they just aren’t for me. I can just sit on my stoop if I want to see Shaniqua’s baby father Rob cheat on her with her sister. I guess those books doesn’t entertain you when you live in the hood and you see this type of stuff everyday. Sorry.

LP: Why do you think your style of advice is so popular? What distinguished you from the Ann Landers and Dan Savages of the world?

TS: I guess it was so popular because I really cared about helping people and I let people know that I was just like them. It doesn’t matter how strong I am as a person, I too went through stuff. I also think because I simplified things for the audience as well and also because I am a very real person and people need to hear the real. They need to hear the real and they want the real and that is who I am. A real ass chick. I been there and done that and if I haven’t done it, I know someone who has. No disrespect to Ann Landers and Dan Savage but its time for change and Tionna Smalls is change. Yes, a wise, black girl, from East New York. Great.

LP: You have leveraged your popularity in many ways, including into a reality show and book deal, as well as doing community service through TalkDatIsh. Do you feel like you serve your community? And what community do you serve? (Your own? The black community? Your fans?)

TS:
Let me make this clear, I don’t have a book deal but my next book will be under my own publishing company. I do have a reality show in the works and so many other opportunities. In terms of my community service, yes my company, Talk Dat Ish Entertainment has its own volunteer team called Talk Dat Ish All-stars and we serve all communities that are in need of our services. We help all states, places, color or creed. We are expanding in other states and things of that nature but we have a long way to go. I also teach kids about business in Harlem through the Junior Achievement League.

I definitely feel I give back because I don’t barely have anything and I still try to help the world whether they are a fan or not. Before I became Tionna Smalls, this semi famous writer that I am. I was a community advocate. I used to go to community board meetings and I got crack houses closed down so the haters really need to keep up on what I do before they write garbage but its ok, I’m going to let them write whatever. Its good for the fans who google me. My true fans know me because unlike most writers, I speak to my fans on a everyday basis on myspace, facebook, etc. So I’m good.

LP: Do you consider yourself successful? Do you believe that black people have to fall into a “type” in order to be successful in media?

TS: I am successful in my attempts of starting a company from the ground up, becoming a popular writer but I’m still practically living check to check so I have a long way to go. Also, there are so much more things I want to do and will do-trust. What I am most thankful for is that I die today or tomorrow, I will die knowing I went hard for my dreams and was known for being positive and doing my thang.

Yes, being black in media is very hard. You have to kiss ass to make it or act like you are not black to make it on a mainstream level. Yeah look at AJ from 106 & Park, he cut his dreads and got on a national show. Look at every person in media like Tyra Banks and others I won’t name. They are getting blonder and blonder just to be more white. Please, before someone even think I would even think about not being me, they better check themselves because I act the same way wherever I am at. My column was filled with grammatic errors but that’s not because I am not smart its because I am a blogger and what you don’t use you lose besides I have sub verb agreement complications because of my many days using ebonics in the hood.

That is what happens, but I’m getting it together.

LP: You mentioned that the Gawker staff did not feel comfortable with you. Why did you choose to go to the Christmas Party? Are things better with the Radar staff? Worse?

TS: I didn’t know that some were uncomfortable with me until I went to the party. I went to the party because I wanted to and I wanted to network. This black girl is free and would not be hidden. When I first went to the party, no one except for a few I knew like that spoke to me but then when they got drunk they spoke to me but the owner Nick Denton looked very uncomfortable with my presence. I guess that was because I was the only full black woman there and maybe because his huge loft in soho didn’t intimidate me. It just made me say, Tionna Smalls, this will be yours one day.

I came into the party a shock at first but left a star and I don’t think the divatude in him liked that so much. But its ok, he’s mad he doesn’t have a vagina. That’s his problem. I played my position and I never said anything about how all the other writers got paid by click and I got paid one lump sum. I knew it was the last days since the party but I just didn’t think it was so soon but hey all good things come to an end.

All I can say thank God I worked from home.

As far as Radar, Balk is great. He’s really smart but the column is less real and less consistent than my previous one but its ok. I don’t really care about being an advice columnist anymore. I just care about making my dreams come true and other people’s too. When this is done, I don’t want to do advice for a while. I want to bring my thoughts together and do a weekly column about everyday life as a young, black woman, on the come up. If you read my column on slcoutsider.com, I wrote a piece about life is what you make it and that’s the type of stuff I want to talk about. So its all a process, I thank God for the check for right now but I’m ready to step my game up. Trust.

LP: I write for Racialicious, so every single day, I am posting something about the ongoing conversation America has about race. Some subjects (like the N word) are beaten into the ground while others (like how poverty tends to cycle) are left out completely. What do you think needs to be in the conversation?

TS: I think the parents need to be brought up in this conversation because that is the problem if you ask me. If the parents don’t teach their kids better than they are teaching them now, were going to have a big problem and that’s why I’m afraid to have kids. What happens when my 5 year old have a fight in school and I’m 30 or so and the other kid’s mother is 19. What is going to happen. Someone is going to get their ass kicked that’s what. We have babies raising babies and no one is teaching us different. Its like one big family curse. You got parents pulling guns out on kids. The world is just freaking mad; its sickening.

LP: Finally, is there anything you would like to add?

TS: I just would like to add that I am thankful for all the blessings God has given me thus far. Like I said before, I have a long way to go but I have the will, the drive, and the consistency to keep moving forward. I would like to add that I still live in ENY and plan on being more of a positive influence for the people in my community and helping out even more. I just plan on making it and not stopping. All reading this, please feel free to email me at tionnatsmalls@yahoo.com.

[Note - Tionna emailed her answers in via Blackberry]

There are a lot of different directions where we can take this conversation, but let’s just start with the basics. Readers, you’ve just read both sides of the story. What’s your take on the situation?