The Feministing Five: Jay Smooth

Jay Smooth, as longtime readers of Feministing will know, is one of our favorite commentators and male allies. Jay is the founder of New York City’s longest running hip hop radio show, WBAI’s “Underground Railroad,” which has been around for twenty years now. You can also hear him on NPR’s “Morning Edition” every week, talking music and culture.

But what really got our attention, and what secured Jay’s inclusion in the ranks of Salon’s Sexiest Men Living in 2008, is the commentary he does about the intersection of race, gender, politics and pop culture. At his website, Ill Doctrine, he does trenchant, funny and thought-provoking commentary on everything from the phrase “no homo” to the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Most recently, Jay has garnered attention for his video “How to Tell People they Sound Racist,” a fascinating guide to having a productive conversation about the most divisive issue in American culture and politics. The video, which should be shown to every incoming college freshman (and every pundit, and every one of your friends, and everyone who wants to be included in our national discussion about race), is three minutes of desperately-needed genius, and with it, Jay has done us a real service (seriously, watch it).

It was a genuine pleasure to be able to pick Jay’s brain for half an hour, to hear how his experiences of race have shaped his views on gender and to find out exactly which Feministing editor he wants to take to a desert island.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Jay Smooth.

Chloe Angyal: What led you to begin writing and recording cultural commentary, and how has your perspective on race shaped your perspective on gender?

Jay Smooth: Those were always issues that were central to my identity, growing up the son of a Black dad and a white mom, with parents who were very politically engaged and very conscious of those issues. Being someone who is visually sort of racially indistinct has always given me a window into the many different ways that people can perceive someone and the assumptions that they can make, and how arbitrary and illusory and ungrounded our assumptions are when we think about race and identity. I’ve always been fascinated by that stuff. My parents were both artists – my mother grew up in the jazz world and my father was a poet, and they both always had a lot of art and creative expression around me that was politically expressive, so that was always something that came naturally to me. I was a painfully shy kid growing up, and getting into media as a teenager was the first way that I started to find a place in the world and a way that I could connect and communicate. It was how I found a way to connect with the world and connect with people, and exchange ideas. I’ve always been fascinated with how we use media to relate with one another, how we use language and whatever medium we have to connect to each other. With my video stuff especially, I’ve been drawn to analyzing media and talking about the way we talk about things.

It shapes how I think about gender, I think, mostly in terms of seeing how oblivious people can be to their own privilege, and being something white people assume is white a lot of the time. Hearing the conversations that people have when they assume there are no Black people around – they’re not being overtly racist, but there’s an assumption that it’s perfectly natural for this to be a room full of white people, and there’s nothing problematic, no system of exclusion behind this. There are a lot of assumptions made about the world you live in; if whiteness is normative for you, then you just assume that this is the normal way of things if the room is full of white people. I, as a man, especially in the hip hop world, which is hypermasculine and very male-dominated, you should really actively try to check yourself and be aware of how privilege is shaping your surroundings.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

JS: I was going to say Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball who I remembered from back when I was a kid being his physical superior, she was the one who wanted to beat everybody up for him, and also his intellectual equal. And I remember it as a model for having a relationship with a woman on equal terms, professionally and personally. But when I went back and looked at it, it may not have been as forward-thinking as I remembered it. She actually played this sort of subordinate role. She would be smarter than him only when it came to understanding emotions better than him, because she was a woman. But back then, I thought it had an empowered female role model.

Another one from my childhood is Dee from “What’s Happening!!” who was a young woman in a house full of men, and because of her age and because she was the only woman in the house, she was always fighting to be seen and fighting to be recognized for her intellect.

In real life, my mom. I grew up with her as a single mom, starting when I was three or four, and she was a very political active and counterculture-oriented child of the sixties, and she was always exposing me to people who operated outside of societal norms. Growing up around her, with her interests and sensibilities, it made me want to identify with people who operate outside the mainstream and who make the mainstream uncomfortable. My mother never shaved her legs when I was growing up, and in high school she would come to parent-teacher night and all the kids would be aghast that this woman’s legs were unshaved. It was completely unthinkable within the polite society of the Ethical Culture School. And my mother just didn’t care, at all. And I learned that the world doesn’t come to an end if you operate outside of these norms, and it made me see how arbitrary some of these rules are, and how unfairly they exclude certain people.

Also, Lady Pink, who was a pioneer graffiti artist back in the day. We all looked up to her after seeing her in the Wild Style movie. She did great work carving out a role for women in the graffiti element of hip hop culture.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

JS: There are always many. This is not the most important story, but it’s a media thing and I’m a media person. I was very infuriated by the way the staff of “The Daily Show” handled the whole issue of their hiring. They sent out this group letter from all their female staff members, and there was another batch of quotes from male staff members, and it was just so frustrating from people who you relate to as smart, progressive people, falling into the same defensive, dismissive, smug, patronizing attitudes. I guess it goes to show that all of us succumb to that when we’re the ones being criticize, but I would have hoped that they could do better than that. So many people are susceptible to that, whenever someone questions something they said or did, people automatically take it as a referendum on, “am I a good person or not?” and the response is, “how dare you question me, I’m a good person!” And it’s not about whether you’re a good person; prejudice and privilege and the blind spots they create, these are things good people are going to struggle with all their lives. We’re all human beings, we’re all going to be prone to having blind spots and preconceived notions – that’s the nature of being human, we’re imperfect. This attitude that, “I’m a good person, therefore I shouldn’t be questioned on things” is kind of like, “my bathroom is clean, so I don’t need to clean my bathroom.” We’re always going to gravitate toward having these flaws and misconceptions, and it’s impossible for us to always be aware of how our privilege is affecting our worldview and our actions. The key to being a “good person” is to constantly challenge yourself and be open to being challenged, and to respond to criticism with humility.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

JS: I don’t think it’s my place to say, but to me it’s the same thing I feel is the biggest challenge in general, which is that it’s so easy for those of us on the privileged end of things to fall into complacency, and not be willing to question ourselves. I think it’s really, really easy for you to perpetuate an unjust status quo just because you think you’re a good person, because if you’re a good person then you can just go about your business and you’ll be doing good things and you won’t be perpetuating injustice, but it doesn’t work that way. And when someone points out that you’re perpetuating injustice in a way that you’re not aware of, it’s going to be really difficult for you to accept that. After watching the entire series of “Mad Men,” it’s really striking how often there’s one woman in a room full of men, going, “I can’t believe all this foul shit just happened, is this really how you’re going to do me?” and all the men are completely oblivious to the fact that anything happened – they don’t even notice her reacting. She walks out shaking her head and the guys just go on with their day, and there’s an exchange where they thought they were being kind to her and treating her as an equal.

Speaking for myself, I’ve been doing the radio show for twenty years, and we play a lot more records by male rappers than female. My collective has usually been almost all-male. I didn’t consciously make the choice to do that, it just naturally evolved that way, and being aware of that more recently, I’ve been trying to counteract that. But looking back on that, and seeing how far I fell short, just because you’re a good person doesn’t mean you can go about your business, you have to actively be working to counteract privilege. People want to think about gender the same way want to think about race: they want it to reach a point where we’re over it, and we never have to talk to you or think about it ever again, but that’s never going to work.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

JS: Coffee, salad with chicken and avocado, and Samhita.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I was glad to read this because it puts Jay Smooth’s work in an interesting perspective. He is an example of a “birthright” Progressive as a result of being born to two activist parents. Smooth talks a good bit about racial identity and privilege, but I would also add that social class and class privilege is an important factor in the debate as well. I’m sure he knows this, but I still think it’s important to point out.

    I and many others were raised in very different circumstances than his, where we were knew we were outsiders and didn’t reach that point through observation. This is not to imply that his struggles were not trying or painful, but rather that Smooth was guided towards activism by way of his mother, which makes it a bit different. Many people don’t have the ability to be validated by their parents and must go it alone. Both perspectives are needed, but I know that if I have kids someday, my own activist stance will not take the same forms as theirs. How could it? I’d be raising them deliberately different than how I was raised.

  2. Posted August 24, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Oh man, if I was Samhita I’d be swooning so hard right now.

    I am not Samhita, and I am still swooning.

    Love Jay Smooth. Great choice, Chloe!

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