This is a difficult article for me to write. I’m still struggling with this story and my thoughts around it, but think it’s important to discuss what is occurring. Roxanne Shanté, have you heard of her? There’s been a ton of conversation, emails, postings, tweets surrounding the NY Daily News article about her. That was quickly followed by another article in Slate magazine that basically said everything in the NY Daily News article was a lie and that she doesn’t have the education she said she did.
As one of the few female rappers in the 1990s, I grew up listening to Roxanne Shanté and still do today. I’ve struggled with this for a week now. I’m not sure where my struggle lays, is it that I’m not ready to debunk her work? That I’m hurt she has lied? That I worry about how survivors are treated in our society? I think it’s all of this and so much more that I have yet to find the words for.
The part that gets me at my core is that the media so easily seeks to bring down a Black woman from a working-class background that is serving her community. This is who I am. This is what I do. This could be you. This could be me.
I’m not sure people realize how frightening it is to see a Black woman from a working-class background who is an activist be questioned, investigated, and eagerly called a liar. Since the Justice Sotomayor hearings , I have a difficult time recalling a more recent time I allowed myself to pay attention to such an attack. My last vivid memory of witnessing such questioning, interrogation, and name-calling was surrounding Anita Hill. Perhaps this void in my memory is my way of coping with the multiple abuses women of Color endure in the public eye.
When I read what activist and journalist Jeff Chang and Wayne Marshall wrote about the situation I realized how important it is to be conscious of what messages are being constructed. Several of the comments responding to his article are by many people I know and read on a regular basis online. Yet, I find it very unsettling that one of the main areas Jeff points out regarding Shanté’s claim to higher education was a history of domestic violence, is used as fodder for people to say “still, where’s the proof?” Only a handful of commenters understood/stand the enormity of being a woman of Color who is a survivor of violence and what coping with such experiences may be for us.
We are socialized to believe journalists are supposed to be unbiased. We know that is not true. We all have biases. But for some reason neither article discussed her race and how it intersects with all the other aspects of her identity: gender, class, citizenship status, geographic location, ability (to name a few). I find this sad that people are using race neutral analysis in their reporting. Author of the second article that debunked Shanté, Ben Sheffner, asked me on twitter “What does Shanté’s race have to do w/whether the story she told the Daily News & others re Ph.D/Warner Music was accurate?” My reply to him was: “its a pretty big deal. i’m not down for race neutral approaches. we are complex & all our ids matter. look up intersectionality.” To which he responds, “The facts are the facts. No one has successfully challenged ANY facts reported in my Slate piece. Her race doesn’t matter.” My response is here. And then he asks about intersectionality. You can read the rest as both our accounts are public and I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of him quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose “facts” have been debunked by the use of intersectional analysis by scholars of Color all over the world. The only time each of the two pieces mentioned her race was when discussing whom Shanté works with and were identified as “urban African-Americans.”
As someone who did the traditional route of higher education and has two master’s of arts degree (you can’t write MA squared on business cards), I don’t really care about the paper. I don’t care about if she has a PhD or not. Yes, this may not be a popular position, yet that’s where I find myself at this moment in time. I understand lying about obtaining education is wrong. And I see very clearly how much this lie has affected our community. Many people and several of my friends have rightfully stated that this particular lie does more damage than good.
Here’s where I struggle: I know several social workers, camp counselors, hotline counselors, doulas, and the like who have not gone through the traditional modes of higher education and are doing amazing work! What does this tell us about higher education and those who have access to it? I can speak to the fact that many programs do not always teach you how to counsel, they teach you how to critique and do research. These are very different approaches to what is considered “work.” Many of the counseling experience I gained was not only during my higher education career, but through my actual lived experiences of working with people, along with, not only, reading books, going to class, and writing papers.
I’m not ready to debunk Shanté’s work because she lied about her educational background. I understand the importance for many, and I’m not saying having a degree does not make a difference it does for many. Yet, I can’t help but feel compelled to remind us all that coping, care, support in our everyday lives comes from people who may have no specific or focused training on providing such care. Think about how you use your friends and family to help you through decisions and experiences. This, for me, is an informal yet crucial part of our ability to cope, mentor, and build community.
Shanté choose to call herself “Doctor” may be misleading, as we do not know the entire story (Chang and Marshall speak to this). Choosing to question if the work she has done in our community as valid is understandable. Yet, if Shanté helped one person or 100 people, she has succeeded in my opinion. As a mentor to a young woman for over 15 years, I know that mentoring is no joke! It is hard and rewarding work. If we choose to ignore her work in the field of mental health, I know we can’t ignore her work as a mentor. Many of us witnessed it when we watched Vh1s airing of EgoTrip’s Ms. Rap Supreme. If she is helping women of Color as we saw in the show in whatever capacity, mentor, counselor, advisor than there is reason to call her a success as it’s too often that women of Color are ignored and forgotten. People too easily forget that not all women are treated equally in this country . Her work matters.
We can hold each other accountable and still support one another. I see the importance of respecting her wishes to not speak on her surviving violence (can people please realize the importance and power in the term SURVIVOR over “victim”) and how this may connect to some of the lies that have been presented. There are ways of healing, coping and finding support and community that are far more complex. I really want to hear what others think about this topic and also how we as communities of survivors can support one another without hurting each other.
I know Roxanne Shanté is a survivor and she too will survive this, after all she does identify as the “untouchable Queen Pin, the most relentless in the business. Makin’ money without men, Sittin’, stackin’ her riches.”