About two years ago, Team ATPB and I gravitated towards the universe of Mandy Harris Williams. I say universe because Mandy, as you will read, is a self-described polymath who possesses an extremely impressive ability to streamline her knowledge across multiple disciplines in ways that resonate profoundly with her various audiences. Since she launched her discussion space #Brownupyourfeed, we have all been encouraged to look within and ask ourselves what being brown means while simultaneously challenging and unlearning the historically limiting and negative factors instilled by the white patriarchy. Her work urges us to take accountability for how we are showing up as human beings, how we are supporting our fellow BIPOC, and provides cues on how we can truly de-center ourselves when we are advocating on behalf of under-seen communities. It is clear that Mandy has used her experiences to train her eye to see beyond the surface of what needs to be considered within the conversations she amplifies. Her work is a vital part of the paradigms unfolding towards the future of BIPOC globally. Thankfully, she is a thinker who is impossible to satisfy and who doesn’t rest until she unearths every single element of a situation. Keep a close eye on her work to avoid complacency and shortsighted victories, but in this moment, grab a vessel of your favorite treat and enjoy getting to know her.
Meet Mandy Harris Williams
Tamu McPherson: In your creative practice, you are a writer, educator, radio host, multimedia conceptual artist, academic, musician, and this year you became Programming Director at the Women’s Center for Creative Work. How do you weave this respective expertise throughout your body of work?
Mandy Harris Williams: I think people are really starting to unpack this idea of what it means to be a polymath, especially in this era where there’s not much job security even when you assign yourself to one particular career path. Since the patriarchy and the dominant culture are working on so many levels to suppress marginalized communities, you can’t afford to box yourself in.
In the last year, I began working at WCCW, a feminist community arts organization, I opened on tour for SASAMI, I hosted the Brown Up Your Feed Radio Hour on NTS, I continued to write, post and present, and the overarching goal in all of those gestures is creative problem-solving. And the central problem that I want to solve is that I see some people are just systematically under-loved right now and have been throughout history. Whether it be racism, classism, or genderism, how the preference and centering of certain narratives or certain dominant voices creates a scenario where people just don’t feel loved in one way or another, structurally, politically, institutionally, interpersonally, socially.
So I like to work on a spectrum of interventions, and some of that lives in galleries, some of that lives on screen or on stage, some of it is broadcast directly into your home or car or headphones, some of that is community cultural work. My work is very balanced now between focusing on my individual expression and focusing on amplifying and remunerating others, which is a meaningful sort of praxis for me.
TMP: You were an educator for 7+ years. Does anything you observed in the classroom influence your approach to informing the community that you have created on the internet?
MHW: What I learned while teaching, more than anything, was just how hollow the promise of equality is in the United States. I remember the particular book we used for the kindergarten reading final. This kid is asked to grab all these things around the grocery store and in the end, the pattern changes and the kid gets rewarded, so the mom says, “now you go get some cookies for yourself.” And it’s this moment where the students have to be really observant, because the word pattern is changing, and they’re likely to make errors. The cookies in the photo are these gourmet cookies in cellophane plastic. It’s kind of like something you would find in Zabar’s, but it would stick out as special even then. Mind you, students are supposed to be using the pictures for cues when they read. So this test not only tests reading but also whether they can decode the everyday visuals of the upper class.
What I experienced, and observed, was that neither local, nor state, nor federal governments provide adequate resources for many children of color to succeed in the first years of school. And it was so stark that I would have panic attacks because I knew that we were asked to succeed at this already difficult task, and we’d been set up to fail. There wasn’t even a sufficient developmental reading library in my classroom. It was clear to me that the government does not demonstrate a real duty to educate. It really extinguishes mythology about hard work and so on when your Kindergarteners aren’t even given a fair chance.
So it was that awareness that fueled the spirit and radicalization of my work more than anything, but also strategically, I approach my work didactically. My goal is not only to express myself but to have that expression mean something and move the dial in certain dialogues, whether it be in film, essay, speaking, radio, or music. Like that, there’s a little presentation and then you turn and talk with your partner or small group, and then you’re able to see or be something different. But definitely like the inspiration, some of my passion or the intensity of what I do is based on just realizing how difficult it is to make change on the ground level and being hungry to teach and inspire in different ways. Ultimately, the art of teaching is about being so good at your craft that you liberate others to perform their unique skills and talents, as well.
TMP: Why did you become a teacher?
MHW: I was studying the history of the African diaspora in college, which led me to study the carceral justice system. I learned that many prisons utilize an algorithm that includes data from third-grade reading scores to decide how big they should build their prisons. So they’re estimating the likelihood of someone going to prison based on how well they can read in third grade.
I’d had a sense of a need to give back and I began to see education as this one place where you could try to use relationship building and communication and cognition to outplay the system. I stayed in the classroom longer than expected. I thought I’d leave and become a lawyer, but every time I’d get ready to take my LSAT, I’d learn something about practicing law that seemed really lonely or boring, and I was kind of losing faith in the legal system, where you have to interface with judges and juries that are likely to have biases of their own. And frequently people consciously and unconsciously depend on biases to decide whether somebody seems guilty or inherently criminal. So I think I was just looking for a place where I could use my unique skills to act directly and education was a place where I did.
This year, I worked on an amazing project as Programming Director of WCCW, working with feminist.ai, and also in alliance with The Free Black Women’s Library-LA, we created an online book club that featured the amazing book Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble. (This book kind of became a book of the summer after Meghan Markle spoke with Gloria Steinem about reading it.) But you know this book is one that’s been massively important for me and my work and I got to use some of my teaching skills to really think about how to create a community around this text and make the information accessible, so that teaching skillset is frequently at play.
TMP: You attended predominantly white academic institutions starting from elementary school through grad school. How does your intimate exposure to white and conservative environments from a formative age influence/inform your observations/criticism of white supremacy/patriarchy today?
MHW: Intimacy begets detail. I think it’s really important to note, however, it’s really more nuanced than just white people—whiteness, which is white supremacy oriented behavior that can live within us all–– is upheld by more than just white people.
TMP: Why did you start #Brownupyourfeed?
MHW: When I first got on Instagram, which is where the hashtag started, one of the things I experienced when I was looking for a natural hair community, I noticed that when I would use hashtags, they would be crowded with people who did not reflect what I expected the hashtag to be. I would search for 4C hair type for instance, but there would be a lot of people who did not fit into that hair type included in those hashtags, and moreover, those people were popularized in those hashtags. There’s a couple of things at play there. One of them is just the fact that on Instagram, there’s a structural inability to be intersectional because you can’t marry all of those hashtags. I can’t do a search for dark-skinned girls and high porosity hair. I can’t add all of those things together to get a hyper-specific thing. A lot of funny stuff happens because of that limitation, not the least of which is our internalized racism.
It was kind of like a personal quest at first, and then I realized that there were multiple ways in which the feed was working. For instance, I became really curious about looking at my friends’ pages, and seeing how many Black people or dark-skinned people there would be in their friend groups, or the friends they choose to share. I began to think about why Instagram’s algorithm pushes certain people to the front of our awareness.
I was interested in what I could do to address this problem. Brown Up Your Feed is an answer, but it’s not the answer. It is definitely a directive, but it’s also dialogic, it’s a discussion space. What does Brown mean? What would be Brown vs. Browner and what does it mean for the intensity of that hue to change? What is algorithmic bias? And how can user intervention against it, or in light of it occur? What is the efficacy of that intervention?
Brown Up Your Feed became this practice by which I was constantly asking myself and constantly asking others to have these discussions and notice their behavior, but also to try to intervene as they’re using this app [Instagram], which is very automatic. Where we have to do so little effort to consume content, show approval, and pay attention, it’s practically mindless. How can we be more purposeful on this asset, so that we’re not just feeding anti-Black, and, specifically, anti-slave descended media, aesthetics, and culture?
TMP: Why did you choose the Instagram handle @Idealblackfemale?
MHW: This is another dialogic exercise. I think the concept is starstuff, like the big bang. I’d like to explode it so we can all have a bit of star stuff within us. That ideal cosmic belongingness. A lot of the work I do stems from the intense awareness and discussion of, and navigation of my value, my belongingness, and worthiness, as I’m kind of performing some sort of, you know, public persona in a public marketplace. My work inspects anti-Blackness in the media and my body and career are test sites and venues for that work. So @idealblackfemale is kind of like the autobiographical spin-off, the miner’s canary of that work. It’s a performance of persona, but I think also that’s what we all get on there and do. But as far as what the majority automatically calls to mind when they hear those words, I’d be far from it. There’s a lot of reasons for that, to name the first few disqualifiers, I’m dark-skinned, with Afro curly hair, and I’m thick. Not the big tittied, small wasted type, kind of the opposite.
There’s a distanced avoidance between me and that ideal. I’m still looking for ideals and representational archetypes–– I can’t even find them in obscure D level queer films, and so I think by using that name, I’m kind of like playing on archetypes and I’m very much asking the question of like, well, what would that even be? What would the ideal Black female be? I think there’s a lot of rules for body parts, and what she does with them, and what she does and does not say. I’m not gonna follow a lot of those rules, and yet, I still really fuck with myself, and so, I’m equally proposing that wherever that illusory, unlikely, obsolete archetype might be, maybe I’m her, maybe more of us are her than we think.
I also don’t want to downplay any very real privilege that I do have, as an ideal Black female. I’m meant to ask how do I take space in this concept, and why, and how am I divested, and why? And I think that’s a fairly complex discussion. Some people, I can tell, feel very earnest about calling me that, and I notice it, and it’s extremely kind, but also, especially on the internet, I’m just kind of acting out a critique, like taking the piss, so it’s hard to take the compliment. And some people, I can tell, feel that I am being very earnest in calling myself that, which is a little embarrassing.
TMP: You mentioned you feel underrepresented in queer media just as much as mainstream media–– but you don’t speak about Queer identity as much in your work. Why is that?
MHW: I do talk about queerness explicitly, but I think queerness maybe within my own niche culture. Maybe this seems like a paradox, but it represents my lived experience. When I ask what are the histories that make us see certain bodies as less lovable and less valuable or less worthy of life or less worthy of following, I’m talking about queerness. When I’m speaking against the masculinization of Dark skin, I’m speaking about queerness. When I’m speaking about my chest to waist ratio, I’m speaking about queerness. When I’m speaking about how especially Black women so frequently have to add straighter hair to be seen as beautiful and glamorous, I’m talking about queerness. Gender and race and the specter of sex are inextricably linked. A great book to learn from is C. Riley Snorton’s writing in the book Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity.
TMP: In a really serious reflection of some of what you’re mentioning, I’m thinking that the Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and now Jacob Blake murders and shootings by police forced the United States into an overdue racial reckoning. I think your work in some ways, indirectly speaks to that systemic racism that led us here when you talk about the undervaluing of the Black body.
MHW: Yes, exactly. I think that the conversation needs to go beyond whether our Blackness causes people to undervalue us into how specific narratives, how specific archetypes around Blackness and gender, stoked over time with the consistent existential purpose of putting a different value on our lives, mythologies created by capitalism, and forged by literature, and film, and media— how this makes our day to day lives more or less valuable, and therefore, more or less dangerous, or precarious. Of course, these images don’t affect our inherent value, but that’s the fight, to remember that, to embody that. And that, you know, Viola Davis’ Blackness affects her differently from Dominique Jackson’s, differently from Tracee Ellis Ross’, from Lupita N’yongo’s, from Breonna Taylor’s, from Nina Pop’s, from mine or yours. It’s this magnetic structure, but there are all these vectors of individual experience around it, and so we curl around it, needing to attract it and also repel it to keep moving, experiencing it in ways that are structurally more or less fatal depending on our inherited and lived relationship to it.
TMP: The three police officers responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor have not been fully brought to justice by the state of Kentucky. Former officer Brett Hankison is the only officer who has been charged, indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment in first degree. There has been less coverage/support of her case in comparison to the cases of Black men from the Black community and beyond. Do you think that the valuation you explained is why less support is afforded to the victim in cases like Breonna’s and similar cases involving Black women?
MHW: Yes, absolutely.
TMP: And that also may explain the factors at play in our community that prevent us from fully applying the Black Lives Matter movement to the case of Black transgender women? At least 28 transgender people have been murdered in 2020, with the majority being Black transgender women. It feels like as a community we do not show up for these women the same way we do for cis-gendered Black women and definitely Black men who are murdered by the police.
MHW: Yes. And again, I want to defer to trans people who are saying this stuff from lived experience, so what’s great is that there are these mainstream entry points, like the Disclosure documentary on Netflix. But also, any time you’re using mainstream entry points, treat them as just that, and do work in addition to that and begin, as quickly as possible, how to make material impact in people’s lives—working against all of these ways of racialized genderism and gendered racism. But I think that documentary specifically really speaks well to how negative representation affects the Trans community’s real lived experiences
TMP: In the current representation era/Black empowerment era, how can we be more effective in creating space and amplifying the stories of those who are underrepresented and under-loved?
MHW: I think we have to be willing to have a complex discussion beyond categories and take apart these archetypes that we see on screens and rebuild them in projection of our anti-racist values. It’s not enough to just say we increased Black representation, and meanwhile, 95% of that is women who are lighter than a brown paper bag, and cis, and able-bodied and people who don’t reflect that lived precarity that creates the longing for the representation in the first place. It’s not enough because then is the media really helping us see Black women as loveable and worthy of defense? Or just some, and which ones and why? If we’re going to actually make representation about Black Empowerment, then we’re going to have to really get keen about how the optics operate. We’ll need to look at the story, and the storyteller, and the director and composer and the writer, and the designer, and the performer, and the investor, and the way that products are made, in all of this media and across all of this media and think about what story they’ve come together to tell and why.
But I’m hoping that this is the dusk of this version of the representation era. We can readily see that people’s horizons are limited because of their skin color, or the texture of the hair, or their nose shape, or their willingness to play into a specific archetype, and all the while we’re being told it should feel representative because someone checks the same census box as we do. It really makes you think about, what is the thing that we’re avoiding? Within even this phase of Black empowerment, are there tendencies towards anti-Blackness? Take Obama, for example: would Barack Obama raised by a Black woman be seen as equally capable of leadership? Who are we seeing in this media fervor to represent Blackness, and how is their Blackness similar or dissimilar than those who are dying at the hands of police and other forms of toxic masculinity and white supremacy?
So I think with representation, it is at best used to bring people in and redistribute the resource of that increased esteem and empathy and desirability, such that some mortal or material benefit might also come of that. But the trick is that it has to avoid this phenotype or classist gradualism that merely nudges the boundaries of who gets to play this round of the white supremacist respectability game.
The thing about representation is that it is actually this grave civic responsibility––this story must liberate others, must speak for and deliver upon the needs of those with less access and amplification, otherwise, it’s just expression, which is fine, but a separate thing. If we’re going to rely on that specter and invest in and profit from the romance of representation, we have to be accountable to ourselves and others for how that representation is working. And I think that given how unlikely that balance can be, we need to think beyond representation, to mass-scale creative liberation. Honestly, maybe it’s just my tastes, at this point, but taking a real assessment of the world, right now, I’m calling up the liberatory power of the supposedly representative media and finding that a lot of it underperforms. Like the production expenditure to liberation, the balance is off.
TMP: Have you noticed a change in the images and messages at #BrownUpYourFeed since the racial reckoning began after the murder of George Floyd? If so, what changes have you witnessed?
MHW: There was an uptick in interest around the hashtag, and me, and my work. People started using the hashtag more, it was featured by the Instagram @Creators account. I don’t think the content has been that much more serious. Making the hashtag was like a post-it note beach ball. You blow it up and you volley it out there, and you see what happens.
I love the #BrownUpYourFeed project because it’s a way to have a conversation online, and I’m interested in the hashtag linguistics, but I think that it was an entry into this discussion about representational identity politics, and social media, and I think that discussion is changing. It’s not the only way I want to be communicating and working. It’s this one gesture among many.
TMP: What are five goals you would like to achieve at some point in the new decade?
MHW: Well, my primary goals are to just do more of what I’m doing, in more well resourced and supportively produced ways. I’m finishing my book based on the Brown Up Your Feed project, as well as some of the work that I’ve done online, and I hope to find a team to support me in sharing those ideas with as many people as possible. My second goal is to continue to host discursive spaces, curating more on radio and also through WCCW, and I definitely want to host in more capacities. My third goal is to use music as a complement to the words, lyrics, prose, I’ve been creating. I’ve become really passionate about making music a part of my practice. It always has been in a really personal way, and since the quarantine, I’ve just become more dedicated to honoring all of the edges of my creative voice. I guess it just feels urgent to bring all communicative powers to bear right now. I guess relentlessness is the word for it. My fourth goal is to build a discursive community and to contribute meaningfully to spaces that sustain and nurture life. I’m really interested in love and care, not just in this traditional sense, but with this real passion for exploring and exercising what they mean and how they work. And I love the idea that these people are ones you can play and create with. I’m passionate about building community, and relationships. I used to feel they were automatic, but now it’s like a goal to really give that building more intention and care. I guess my last goal and they get kind of redundant, but my last goal is that I want to make key gestures of leadership and emotional intellect to redistribute resources so that everyone can feel the love they deserve. I guess that they all kind of get redundant because they feed each other, hopefully in an upwards spiral.