The Limits of Racial Symbols

 I am undoubtedly the biggest Beyoncé fan there is. I live and breathe her music. To me, there is no one greater. That being said, I feel I can say I am disappointed in Bey. At the Grammy’s, she sung “Take My Hand Precious Lord” a gospel classic written by Thomas Dorsey and recently sung by Ledisi for the movie Selma. Ledisi should have sung that song, a song for which she was nominated that night. However, there is a deeper issue at stake and that is how she and other artists can deploy racial symbols without doing the substantive work of protesting.

Beyoncé gave a visually stunning performance, depressed in all white, and backed by a male choir similarly dressed in white. Within the first few moments of the performance, Beyoncé and her dancers put their hands up, a reference to Michael Brown who was said to have held his hands up before being shot by Officer Darren Wilson. The Brown case has sparked a national debate about excessive force by police officers and I am sure the symbolic gesture was lost on few. However, as others have pointed out, Beyoncé has been silent on Brown and Garner (although she did attend a rally for Trayvon Martin in NYC and met with Sabrina Fulton). Furthermore, Beyoncé’s decision to sing a song that Ledisi is nominated for is not something a “feminist” should do. In this instance, Beyoncé is flawed, not flawless.

Beyoncé wasn’t the only one that night using the hands up gesture, Pharrell (who looked like he was auditioning to be a bellman in the Grand Budapest Hotel) and his dancers in black hoodies similarly did the same gesture. This is the same Pharrell who called Michael Brown a “bully.”

Both of these instances highlight the limits of racial symbolism. Beyoncé and Pharrell are hugely important and influential artists who can do more than put their hands up. They can support young protesters in Ferguson; they could keep issues of criminal justice reform in the headlines by mobilizing their massive followings; they could use their musical talents to write songs that reflect the frustration and despair of hearing about countless unarmed black men and women being killed on what seems like a daily basis. As artists that profit from dedicated huge queer fan bases, they could bring attention to the deaths of trans women of color. We don’t need Beyoncé and Pharrell to put their hands up; we need them to stand up against the persistence of inequality today.

I have always resisted telling people how they should act or, in this case, protest, but they put themselves in the spotlight and I believe it is only fair to call them out for what they could do, besides deploying somewhat empty gestures.

I say this with love as the biggest fan of Beyoncé and Pre-Happy Pharrell.


This post was originally published on February 9, 2015.