By Deputy Editor Thea Lim
Alicia Keys loves drama – and no, I am not referring to her current lovelife (you’ll have to read a different kind of blog to get that gossip, unfortch), I’m referring to her music videos. When it comes to star-crossed histrionics, both Keys’ music and videos always deliver the goods. Which I kind of like, most of the time; woman’s got a good set of lungs and a nice scrunchy crying-for-the-camera face.
But her latest video just gets on my nerves. “Unthinkable” stars Chad Michael Murray as Keys’ white lover, and shows reincarnations of the same interracial couple across several different decades, suggesting that from the 40’s up to today interracial relationships still face prejudice.
While I appreciate the way Keys uses time to show parallels between the racism of the past and the racism of the present, there are a few things about this video that strike me as deeply dishonest. Broken down for your reading convenience, here are my issues:
1. Only black people hate interracial relationships!
Okay Ms Keys, why do you only have black people showing prejudice in this video? From the 50’s to 70’s to the 80’s to the 00’s, all we see are black faces looking on at the Murray/Keys pairing with fury and even violence. Oh no wait, we get a split second of a white cashier looking at black/white flirtation with disgust…and then it’s back to black folks.
A video doesn’t just pop out organically from the brain of its creator: someone makes very specific choices and then very specific casting calls to mark race in a video. So why did Keys and her team choose to only show black people getting mad about the interracial love in this video?
This seems particularly problematic and dishonest in the “50’s” section of the video, where the optics, if you really look at them, are disquieting: a group of angry, bloodthirsty black men circle a defenseless white man with a puppy dog face.
So not only do we get a very racist portrayal of black people as aggressive and irrational in contrast to a lover-not-a-fighter white man, we get a profoundly skewed version of history. Anyone with a 101 knowledge of Black History Month knows that in the 50’s it was black men, not white men, whose lives were in danger if they so much as looked at white women. For some of our readers this will be well-trod ground, but let’s do a refresher just in case: Emmet Till was a 14 year-old black boy who was tortured and murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. And his story was not an anomaly; this happened to many black men. So much so that an all-white jury took all of 67 minutes to acquit both Till’s accused murderers. This didn’t happen in 1897, it happened in 1955.
I imagine that at some point in the 50’s, there were white men who were given a split lip by black men for dating black women. (And then, considering the way the justice system works, those black men were probably sentenced to life in prison.) But when you note the systemic power behind the violence visited upon black people by the white dominant culture, that other violence pales in comparison.
Either Keys is appallingly ignorant of American history, or is intentionally toying with historical representations to solely present black people as the violent objectors to interracial relationships. Maybe just to get a rise? To step with the “but black people/POCs are the most racist!” crowd? I just don’t know.
Undoubtedly there are people of any ethnic group who have issues with IRs, causing their friends and family members misery. So why did Keys make the conscious decision to show only one half of the haters, especially when you think of the state’s force behind white distaste for IRs?
2. Let’s hump our way to a racism-free world!
I know that interracial couples continue to face prejudice today. Just last year we heard about a Louisiana judge who refused to grant a black/white couple a marriage license, for the sake of their (future) children.
Yet reactions to IRs are immensely complex: sometimes the forces of racism actually encourage interracial relationships, where people of colour are boiled down into dehumanising sexual stereotypes to be collected. Meanwhile, Keys’ presentation of IR reactions seem to fall into only one category: people are hateful towards mixed race pairings because they are mean racists; anyone who accepts or encourages an IR therefore, is an enlightened anti-racist. (Just take a look at responses to “Unthinkable”: Vibe calls Keys “socially conscious” for advocating for black/white relationships.)
This kind of black and white (haha) telling of an interracial affair runs dangerously close to the “let’s hump to end racism” campaign. Hands up if you’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing someone say “Everyone should date out of their race, because the more we mix, the less racism there will be.”
The idea that interracial relationships are anti-racist, and having a mixed race family will fix racism is not only naive; it may even go hand in hand with racial fetish. A few weeks ago I met a freshman college student – a good-looking black guy with a bright future – who told me that he doesn’t want to date black women because he has a thing for mixed race girls*, specifically ones that look like Alicia Keys. (So of course I emailed him CVT’s article about how mixed race people on the whole may actually *not* be that hot.) When I suggested that his racial dating preference was messed up, he said that the bad balanced out the good, because isn’t dating outside of your race a way to end racism? The more we mix up, he reasoned, the less there will be reason for people to hate.
Please! Yuck! No. Date someone because you like them inside and out, not because a) you have a racial preference or b) you think that dating out will end racism when you have little beige babies. That’s just asking for parental trouble when your beige babies have their own consciousness and their own desires, and don’t want to be poster kids for your personal crusade. And anyways, racism is not truly about racial phenotypes; it’s a social campaign to assign power based on ethnocultural group. There will always be ways to demarcate ethnocultural group, even when people are “all mixed up.”
I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked that this is coming from Keys – she is after all, the co-founder of the Keep A Child Alive campaign, which created this sorry set of ads a few years back:
So maybe her racial politics have always been a little bit obtuse.
3. Mixed Race Masquerading
The cherry topping on this mixed race mess comes in the final scene of the video, when Keys’ family watches as Murray pulls up in his car. You see her black brother (a familiar face, but I can’t find the actor’s name anywhere) and her black mom, played by Adina Porter, her black father is silhouetted in the foreground. In other words, Keys’ character does not have immediate family members who are white.
Why does this matter? Even though Keys herself has a white momma, usually I would have no problem with a first gen mixed race person playing someone who is not first gen mixed race. Hey, more power to them. But considering the interracial content of this video, and its grossly simplistic presentation, it puts me off that Keys chooses to simplify even her own genealogy at the end.
Drake, who is also black/white wrote “Unthinkable” and provides back-up vocals. Some fans have asked why Drake is not in the video, saying he should’ve been cast as her brother – is it because having a light-skinned black and white man in the video would throw off Keys’ wall of hate-filled blackness? A real life mixed race person would apparently complicate the coarse racial dynamics of this video; Keys hides both Drake and her own mixed roots in the video.
Which I suppose brings me to my personal beef with this video: as the mixed race product of an interracial relationship watching a song/video made by two other mixed race products of interracial relationships, I am really irritated that Keys is presenting these unions as so wholly pure, good and anti-racist.
This is obviously an irrational personal projection, but I often hope (expect? sigh) that mixed race celebrities have a more nuanced understanding race and racism**. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they are going to end racism just by being a manifestation of love across racial lines. Rather I assume that if you live at the intersection of race and love, as many mixed families do, you’ll have insight into just how complicated that intersection is. You might have a sense that interracial relationships, like any relationships, are muddy, confused things that are not wholly good, bad or anything.
You might know how people confuse fetishes with love. You might know that love is not always strong enough to end racism; maybe you have family members who love you, and still have effed up racist ideas. You might know that people take offense at mixed race pairings sometimes out of real, understandable pain, not just hate.
Yet instead Keys chooses to give a painfully simple drawing of a mixed relationship that lets racist stereotypes about her own people stand, presumably so as to cash in on that socially conscious rep from a mainstream media that just likes anything shiny.***
Fail Alicia – this lets a lot of us down.
*By “mixed race” I assume he meant someone with one white parent and one parent of colour.
** I don’t mean a more nuanced understanding than other people of colour, just more nuanced than the white establishment around them.
***Hey, there’s cache in the safe socially conscious, just ask multimillionaire Bono.
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