In the social media-obsessed age of journalism, before we have time to meditate on one story, we’re already on to the next. For the first year, in celebration of slowing down and looking back, we’ve curated a list of essays and articles that defined conversations about race, pop culture, and identity in 2015. The pieces chosen for this list cover a wide array of topics, from the merits of Fetty Wap’s "Trap Queen," to the injustices of mass incarceration, to Hollywood’s representation problem. All pieces featured on this list were written by a person of color and published within the last year.
While all end-of-year lists aspire to be definitive and comprehensive, there’s obviously no way to include all of the stellar and thought-provoking writing by people of color that came out in 2015. See something missing? Share your picks in the comments. In the meantime, check out some of the brilliant, enlightening, and stimulating conversations we had this year:
Blackface Refuses To Die
Ashley Clarke, Vice
Every year there’s another unfortunate story about some college party or Halloween party where one or several of the white party-goers show up in blackface. Film critic Ashley Clarke, author of "Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled," searches for why this racist American tradition endures, despite the general consensus on its offensiveness.
They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist
Jenny Zhang, Jezebel
White poet Michael Derrick Hudson committed literary yellowface in October when he used the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Calling out the tendency of white writers to drown out the voices of non-white writers in literature, Jenny Zhang zeroes in on the literary world’s one-dimensional approach to writers of color. "Why… is the English-speaking literary world mostly interested in fiction or poetry from China if the writer can be labeled as a ‘political dissident’?" Zhang asks. "Even better if the writer has been tortured, imprisoned, or sentenced to hard labor by the Chinese government at one point… Why are we so perversely interested in narratives of suffering when we read things by black and brown writers?"
John Metta, HuffPost Black Voices
Mixed-race writer John Metta writes in the wake of September’s Charleston massacre about the reality about race in America that many of us refuse to acknowledge: "The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings." Metta, with brutal honesty and perceptiveness, urges white allies to "Speak up. Don’t let it slide. Don’t stand watching in silence. Help build a world where it never gets to the point where the Samaritan has to see someone bloodied and broken."
Fariha Roisin, Medium
When Zayn Malik left One Direction in March and made moves towards differentiating himself from his 1D persona, he also took the first step in asserting his identity as a brown, Muslim, international pop star. Muslim writer Fariha Roisin delves into Malik’s identity and what it means for our perceptions of Muslim men, writing, "Malik’s back-and-forth search of personhood is tantamount to watching a quiet revolution. The war on terror has been waged against men who look like Zayn. When Western culture has institutionalized the erasure of men like you, it is a sincere revolution to be yourself."
The Prosperity Gospel Of Rihanna
Doreen St. Felix, Pitchfork
Rihanna’s empowering trap anthem "BBHM" from June is the focus of this great piece of analysis from Doreen St. Felix, who argues that ,"To be a black woman and genius, is to be perpetually owed." The piece celebrates the idea of "black women recouping historical debts," and calls out our discomfort with seeing financially independent black women who are "confrontationally untethered to men or to goods."
The Charleston Shooter Killed Mostly Black Women. This Wasn’t About Rape.
Rebecca Carroll, The Guardian
When Dylan Roof opened fire on a bible study group at a Charleston, South Carolina church in June, he allegedly declared that he had to do it because black men "rape our women.” The ever-perceptive Rebecca Carroll dismantles this racist idea in this essay, highlighting the fact that the majority of Roof’s victims (six) were black women. "Did he only shoot black women because there were no more black men to kill?" Carroll asks. "Or because he didn’t see black women as women at all, and, as something less than women (and certainly lesser than white women), felt us undeserving of the same valiance he conjured on behalf of the women he claim to be protecting?"
A Black Woman Walks Into A Gun Show
Kashana Cauley, Buzzfeed
Gun control and American gun culture are at the forefront of the national consciousness in the wake of numerous police brutality incidents, the Planned Parenthood shooting and the Paris attacks. With this as a backdrop, Kashana Cauley shares what it like to attend a gun show, where shoppers can buy guns from private dealers — without a background check.
How Black Reporters Report On Black Death
Gene Demby, NPR
In the year of Freddie Gray, of Sandra Bland, of Walter Scott, and so many other black people, police brutality and black death have been consistent topics for discussion. But what does this mean for the black reporter? Here, Gene Demby beautifully explores what he describes as the "psychic residue of paddling through a lake of floating corpses," and searches for the answer to coping with such an emotionally taxing beat.
The Meaning Of Serena Williams
Claudia Rankine, The New York Times
Serena Williams dominated athletically in the early half of the year, but still faced criticism and even disdain for her body and her attitude. Claudia Rankine had the opportunity to interview the tennis star this summer, and in this piece from August, meditated on what Williams and her success represents for black people as a whole. "Black excellence is not supposed to be emotional as it pulls itself together to win after questionable calls. And in winning, it’s not supposed to swagger, to leap and pump its fist, to state boldly, in the words of Kanye West, ‘That’s what it is, black excellence, baby.’’’
Here’s What’s Missing From ‘Straight Outta Compton’: Me And The Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up
Dee Barnes, Gawker
When F. Gary Gray’s "Straight Outta Compton" was released in August, both the film and surviving NWA members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were met with accolades and praise. But there was one glaring commission from the movie: the rap group’s history of misogyny, and Dr. Dre’s incidents of violence against women.Dee Barnes, the hip-hop journalist who Dr. Dre was charged with physically assaulting in 1992, came forward in this powerful piece to talk about the film and her life in the wake of her assault. "People have accused me of holding onto the past; I’m not holding onto the past. I have a souvenir that I never wanted. The past holds onto me."
White Killers Go To Burger King: Race, Planned Parenthood, And Our Diseased White Privilege
Chauncey Devega, Salon
It’s widely known that police bought Burger King for Charelston massacre terrorist Dylan Roof, shortly after his arrest. The incident served as a stark example of the disparity in treatment that white criminals face as opposed to non-white criminals. As Chauncey Devega explains in this piece written in the wake of the Planned Parenthood shooting, "White men commit a disproportionate percentage of the mass shootings and domestic terrorism in the United States. Yet, their actions are never taken to be reflective of white men as a group… However, when an ‘Arab’ or a ‘Muslim’ commits a crime, said event is processed by the White Gaze as an indictment of an entire population and to summon the boogeyman of ‘Muslim Terrorism.’"
Beauty Is Broken
Arabelle Sicardi, Matter
"[Beauty has] always been a man’s possession," writes Arabelle Sicardi,"and that’s why it failed." There are many poignant observations about the nature of beauty in this piece, particularly: "I don’t legislate beauty’s boundaries — (white) men do. They define it; they dictate; they own it, asking us to see ourselves in their eyes. When I’m getting ready to go out, determining how to look good, but not vulnerable, I think about the fact that men so rarely have this issue: how to be beautiful, but not breakable; something easily pursued."
Same Old Script
Aisha Harris, Slate
While representation of people of color on television is certainly getting better thanks to shows including "Empire," "Fresh Off The Boat," and "Quantico," Aisha Harris’s brilliantly reported piece on the state of TV diversity highlights that there’s still a long way to go behind the scenes. "When writers of color are in a room, and writing for a character who looks like them, it’s an opportunity to make sure that character is a full-fledged personality and not a one-dimensional stereotype."
Ashley Ford, Elle
Viola Davis made history in September when she became the first black woman to win a dramatic leading actress award at the Emmys. But while her win was historic and important, writer Ashley Ford points out: "There will be many more black firsts, even more for black women, but we’ve already earned them. And we will continue to earn them. And some day, they’ll let one of us in. When I saw her standing there, passionate and poised, her natural hair flourishing, and an Emmy in her hands, I was not grateful for her win. Her recognition — our recognition — was overdue."
In Defense Of ‘Trap Queen’ As Our Generation’s Greatest Love Song
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Seven Scribes
One of the biggest songs of 2015 was Fetty Waps "Trap Queen," a song that has since been covered by everyone from Taylor Swift to kid singer George Dalton. The wild popularity of the song is undeniable, but in this Seven Scribes essay published in June, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib makes a compelling argument for why "Trap Queen" is actually a phenomenal love song. "It is perhaps flawed in execution, but we’re all lying to ourselves if we’re imagining that the immense appeal of the song is rooted in its cleanliness. The staple of the Ultimate American Love Song has always been ‘This is what I have. This is all I can give. And I’d rather share it with you than celebrate it alone.’"
Of Lions and Men: Mourning Samuel DuBose And Cecil The Lion
Roxane Gay, The New York Times
In July, a Minnesota dentist killed a 13-year-old lion named Zimbabwe, and sparked a debate about how people seemed more upset about the lion’s death than they were about the death of Samuel DuDose. As she is wont to do, Roxane Gay superbly argues in this piece why we should avoid "creating a hierarchy of human suffering as if compassion were a finite resource."
A Brief History Of Name Fuckery
Larissa Pham, Full Stop
Vietnamese-American writer Larissa Pham’s observations on "name fuckery," specifically what it means to deal with having a non-American, non-"white-sounding" name, is brilliant, beautifully articulating the many struggles of having a name that isn’t "normal." " Names express. Names are the first glimpse, they shine a light on the rest of an identity — however complicated."
When People Are Property
Raven Rakia, Medium
Published in July, this article explains "how strategically choreographed, racialized fear built prisons out of broken windows." Rakia tackles the failings of the Broken Windows Theory, specifically how it "rests on the concept that black people are property — and should be ‘handled’ as such."
The Year We Obsessed Over Identity
Wesley Morris, The New York Times Magazine
For a stellar cultural year in review look no further than this piece by Wesley Morris, where he recounts our preoccupation with identity this year — from Rachel Dolezal, to Caitlyn Jenner, to second-term Obama. "Before Obama ran for president, when we tended to talk about racial identity, we did so as the defense of a settlement" Wesley Morris writes. "Black was understood to be black, nontransferably… But Obama became everybody’s problem. He was black. He was white. He was hope. He was apocalypse. And he brought a lot of anxiety into weird relief. We had never really had a white president until we had a black one."
Self Portrait Of The Artist As Ungrateful Black Writer
Saeed Jones, Buzzfeed
This essay from prolific black poet Saeed Jones unpacks the mixed emotions of being a successful black writer in the publishing world. How much gratitude does one owe the (mostly white) gatekeepers? "I admire writers who can say the words “thank you” without sounding as desperately grateful as I often feel, or rather: I feel like I’m supposed to feel desperately grateful because there is, in fact, a very long line of other young black writers waiting outside the velvet rope, waiting to be let in, one person at a time."
The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
In this brilliant long read, "Between the World and Me" author Ta-Nehisi Coates breaks down the impact of mass incarceration on not only prisoners, but the families they leave behind. Coates traces the current state of the prison system all the way back to Reformationwhen "the end of enslavement posed an existential crisis for white supremacy." Vagrancy laws, created to manufacture black criminals, directly resulted in a current prison landscape in which the overwhelming number of prisoners are black men.
Aziz Ansari On Acting, Race And Hollywood
Aziz Ansari, The New York Times
Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show "Master of None" became one of the major TV hits of the year, particularly because of the way it skewered Hollywood’s perception of Asian men. In November, Ansari wrote an insightful piece on being an Indian actor, and how diversity and representation for Asian men in particular has a long way to go. Case in point: "Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents."
I Dressed Like Cookie For A Week To Get Over My Imposter Syndrome
Jazmine Hughes, Cosmopolitan
When talented writer Jazmine Hughes was hired at The New York Times this year, she writes she was seized by imposter syndrome. To get over her anxiety, she decided to dress up in recreations of some of "Empire" character Cookie Lyon’s best outfits for a week. Her experience makes for a funny and enlightening read, particularly the implications of being read as "ghetto." "It’s easy to distance yourself from the connotations of Cookie when she’s on your TV — she’s a character but what happens when she’s in your face?"
The Rebirth Of Black Rage
Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation
In this exploration of the concept of "black rage," writer Mychal Denzel Smith gives a fascinating overview of expressions of anger and frustration within the African-American community, from Kanye West to President Obama. For Smith, "Black rage speaks to the core concerns of black people in America, providing a radical critique of the system of racism that has upheld all of our institutions and made living black in America a special form of hell."
The Ghost Of Cornel West
Michael Eric Dyson, The New Republic
One of the most talked about essays of last year was scholar and activist Michael Eric Dyson’s scathing indictment on his former mentor Dr. Cornel West, published in April. Dyson criticized West’s public denouncements of Barack Obama, and argued that the "Race Matters" writer has lost his way as a "black male leader." Whether you agree with Dyson’s criticisms of West or not, the essay at the very least sparked some interesting and necessary debates about the state of black intellectualism, and its future.
Has ‘Diversity’ Lost Its Meaning?
Anna Holmes, The New York Times
"Why is there such a disparity between the progress that people in power claim they want to enact and what they actually end up doing about it?" asks Anna Holmes in this essay, which explores the ways in which "diversity" as a concept has failed us. "Part of the problem is that it doesn’t seem that anyone has settled on what diversity actually means," Holmes writes. "Is it who is in a position of power to hire and fire and shape external and internal cultures? Is it who isn’t in power, but might be someday?"
White Fear Can Be Hazardous For Your Health
Jamil Smith, The New Republic
In June, the viral video of a McKinney, Texas police officer violently manhandling a black teenage girl at a pool party sparked a national conversation about the policing of black joy. In this piece, Jamil Smith breaks down how "the implied threat of blackness is only the reflection of white fear."
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