I know. I’ve seen it. It’s an ad where Gwyneth Paltrow is all serene and serious-face and sporting a jaunty-yet-possibly-meant-to-evoke-tribal-two-toned-blue-colored swipe across her pale, white cheek. The caption in bold lettering at the bottom states I AM AFRICAN. Under that, it says, “Help us stop the dying. Pay for lifesaving aids drugs that can keep a child, a mother, a father, a family alive.” To me that says, Let’s stop people from dying. We all come from the same place. We are family.
I’ve heard giggles and titters and loud eye-rolling, along with outright yelling and jeering about not just this ad, but pretty much everything Gwyneth Paltrow has touched lately. And I don’t get it.
Why does a white woman joining a campaign focused on Africa get met with distain? Is it because she’s white or because she’s “Gwynnie,” as I’ve seen her widely, familiarly and condescendingly addressed, because nothing brings a person down to beneath our level faster than minimizing them with a cutesie name probably reserved for family and close friends of girls under five. If it’s because she’s white, I’ve got a big problem with that and I’ll address it below. But if its because she is who she is, have we all just turned into a large group of Regina Georges? (Shout out to Tina Fey! Holla!)
It appears to me that Gwyneth’s worst “fault” is being who she is and not apologizing for it. She’s happy and confident and beautiful and rich and enjoys her life. She talks about clothes and accessories out of the average person’s price range . (She can afford it. I bet her friends can afford it.) And she has the audacity to not say she’s sorry she’s so happy and content. Because she doesn’t apologize, we think she’s stuck-up and flaunting it. She has a great voice. Her cook book, from what I glean from my friends and the internet reviews, is fantastic. She’s been in movies we all love and won awards for her craft. She’s worked with the Save the Children fund, seems to delight in hanging out with her kids and from all accounts, has a stable marriage. I mean, if you don’t like someone, you don’t like them. There are plenty of people I don’t care for. But I don’t need to publicly jeer at them and hope they fail, either. I’ll save my jeering and gnashing of teeth for people that are actually doing hateful and hurtful things.
We all want to be happy, living in abundance, safe and confident in our own skins. Those are the things I try to teach my kids. I mean, I’m all for ribbing or joking within reason, you need to have a sense of humor about yourself. But I’m calling sour grapes.
Before this turns into a GP fan site, which is not my intent at at all, let me state that the reason this is on my radar is that I’ve watched this kind of thing happen before, it is happening now, to good friends of mine, mostly women, who succeed and don’t apologize for it. It’s like we’re still in high school. We’ve got to stop this scratching and clenching and trying to knock the happy, beautiful people down because looking at them makes us feel bad about ourselves. They’ve worked their butts off to be where they are. Good for them!
Instead of all that junk, spend your time doing something better and worthwhile like improving yourself and your own life and get all those things you wish you had. The grass always looks greener, especially if someone looks like they have no problems, but everyone is struggling in their own way. Everyone is doing the best they can. Nobody’s life is a cake walk. And all that noise just takes away from the important stuff in life.
Now on to what I really want to talk about.
This I AM AFRICAN ad campaign, currently spearheaded by Alicia Keys, for Keep a Child Alive has other “non-black” people involved. The list includes David Bowie, Elijah Wood, Sarah Jessica Parker, Liv Tyler, Sting, Elizabeth Hurley, Richard Gere, Gisele Bundchen, Lucy Liu and Heidi Klum. Are we angry and disappointed in all of them or just Gwyneth? What are we saying, that only black people belong in the campaign? Because that is, I guess, “normal” and “good?” Not silly or distasteful or outrageous or arrogant, which are some of the terms I’ve heard in connection to Gwyneth’s ad.
There is a joke rebuttal ad that made the rounds aimed at Gwyneth for joining this campaign to fight against aids. It shows a beautiful African woman in traditional dress and has the words I AM GWYNETH PALTROW as the caption. And underneath that, there is paragraph which includes, “Help us Stop the Shameless famewhores from using the suffering of those dying from aids in Africa to bolster pathetic careers now that they are no longer dating Brad Pitt and no one gives a shit about them.” For me, the message is- don’t try. Don’t try because you are famous and because you are white and because you live in America.
By the way, David Bowie, whom I have mad love for, was not met with derision when his ad came out because he is married to Iman and already considered a humanitarian. So the problem with Gwyneth is that she is married to a white guy and isn’t considered a humanitarian? So she shouldn’t try? How does one become a humanitarian, anyway? Oh, by joining campaigns and becoming ambassadors and doing what one can? Weird. If only Gwyneth had tried that…….
I’m not saying any of the ads in this campaign are perfect. They show tribal paint and dress in a way that I find beautiful but some have said is mocking or inappropriate. I find it beautiful not because I’m secretly mocking Africans and the way they dress. I find it beautiful because I love color and culture and photography and appreciate the qualities we all have that make us individual and unique and tribal dress and jewelry is beautiful to me. Will you be mad or laugh at me because I don’t find it offensive as so many people have clearly pointed out it is or call me a racist?
I posit that if my finding it beautiful is offensive to you, it is more helpful to help me understand why, not yell at me and call me stupid and racist. I may be simply uneducated in the ways these images are harmful. I may not be savvy to the undercurrents and in that way, naive and in your opinion, racist or elitist. So educate me. Tell me how you feel. Let’s talk about it in a way that furthers the conversation, not shuts it down, leaving everyone defensive.
Another criticism of this campaign is the idea that by using the words I AM AFRICAN in association with an AIDS campaign, we are saying that Africa is a pit and *only* a pit of AIDS. Nothing else.
People, one organization cannot cover all things. They are more effective when they get serious about one aspect of a problem. It does not mean that said organization does not care about any other problems. Does that mean they shouldn’t try? If we tell a charity they should give up before they start because if they do try to do something, just one thing, someone is going to be upset or dissatisfied or worse, offended because they didn’t cover XYZ, we are sending the wrong message.
There will always be more things to worry about and campaign for and that is good because it means that we as a race keep learning and seeing things in a new way and hopefully finding ways to target problems and help each other. Hopefully someone will decide to do a campaign for causes not currently covered. One can only hope those campaigns will be memorable enough to spur discussion and elicit help as much as this one has. The answer cannot be that they never should have tried because they didn’t say the wording right or the photo isn’t perfect. Let’s be thankful for what people are trying to do and if you see something not currently covered, do that thing! Do your part to help where you can.
There are other issues at stake, like the Big White American Country sending money to the Poor Black (
Country thanks for catching the typo, @Carolynedgar) Continent, causing more issues with the local infrastructure. I hear that. I worked with a non-profit with ties to Africa and saw many things that did not go how they ought to have gone. Until government is no longer corrupt, we could shovel mountains of cash to Africa and it wouldn’t better the infrastructure in any large, major way. In fact, it will probably make things worse.
Let’s put that aside for a moment. What about the “small” ways? What about the woman and child who received vaccines, food and other care because a charity provided it? That won’t seem like such a small thing to them, or frankly, to me. Is it better for them to go without because we haven’t figured out the best delivery system yet? Horseshit. Those people deserve the help. They are our family. Shame on the officials with means and ways in government that don’t change policy to truly help their poverty stricken people because they are corrupt. Shame on them, not shame on their people. Those people (all people!) deserve help and we should be taking care of our own. Let’s keep taking care of them in any and all ways we can while we work on the bigger problems.
I don’t want to try and “save” Africa or any other country. Africa doesn’t need saving. It is a country filled with smart, beautiful, competent people in the state and local levels who are already (and have been for years) busting their butts to help where they can. It is a disservice to them all to not acknowledge that. Africa needs partners with resources willing to make fair trade agreements so they can help themselves continue to grow. I don’t think Keep a Child Alive contradicts that in any way. And the more “white people” and ANY people who get involved along the way, the better.
Yes, I’m white. And I’m assuming there will be many people that suggest this is not my business and I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m white and come from a place of privilege. But, please listen – if it’s not my business, then you discount not only me, but oceans of non-black people and if this campaign and ones like it are not meant for us, then who are they trying to reach? And if someone like me can’t bring this up and talk about it in a way that is nonthreatening to all sides, how will we ever further this conversation at all?
Please don’t scream at me that I’m racist and I don’t understand. On many fronts, I’ve come to realize and am currently accepting the fact I’m passively racist and always have been. This is the result of poor education, inexperience and naiveté, not blatant disregard for others because of their skin color and excludes intentional racism, aggression and marginalizing. Those are the easy to recognize kinds of racism. I’m guilty of subtle yet pervasive types such as never thinking twice about how my day-to-day life might benefit from simply being white and taking for granted that life will always give me a fair shake, the benefit of the doubt. I’ve asked people I find beautiful and exotic looking what their ethnicity is, never realizing how rude that might sound. (I think it’s the natural interviewer in me. I just really like to know things about people.) And more than once I’ve touched someone’s hair. Uninvited. I know. But to be fair, I do that to people of all races, including white. (But I didn’t do it EVEN 1 TIME at the last conference I attended, so yay for me, I guess? Oh look at me, learning already…)
I want to learn. I want to understand. I’m looking for ways to educate myself.
I’m ready to listen. Tell me how you feel.