‘Black Girl Magic’ controversy

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A hashtag intended to inspire, motivate and celebrate black women has triggered a spate of controversy. But what does “Black Girl Magic” stand for? And why are people arguing about it online?

If you search for the phrase online, you’ll see it being used to share messages and images of success, defiance or simply beauty.

“We’re using it to celebrate ourselves because historically black women haven’t had the type of support that other groups have,” explains Cashawn Thompson, a caregiver from Washington DC. “Black Girl Magic tries to counteract the negativity that we sometimes hold within ourselves and is sometimes placed on us by the outside world.”

The phrase itself, and a variant – ‘Black Girls are Magic’ – have been in circulation for some time, but Thompson says she was the first to encourage others to rally around it, around three years ago. Together they have been used more than 150,000 times on Instagram, and hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter.

So why the controversy? Well there are a few different strands to unpick.

First, a counter hashtag gained traction – “White Girl Magic” – which was used in a variety of ways, sometimes with a positive sense but often with a provocative edge, as if to suggest that “Black Girl Magic” placed a needless focus on race. “I get #blackgirlmagic is meant to be uplifting, and it’s cool, but if there was #whitegirlmagic it would be seen as racist,” wrote one user. The hashtag gained ground, but many on Twitter said that it missed the point.

But now “Black Girl Magic” has drawn criticism from within the black community too.

Earlier this month black women’s magazine Essence published a special edition highlighting “Black Girl Magic”, featuring three prominent black women on its covers. Actresses Teyonah Parris and Yara Shahidi, and one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Johnetta “Netta” Elzie all talked to the magazine about the phrase in positive terms.

Days later Elle magazine ran an article by Linda Chavers entitled: “Here’s my problem with Black Girl Magic. ​Black girls aren’t magical. We’re human.” She argued that the phrase holds black women to unfeasibly high standards – celebrating them when they achieve it, but ​criticising them when they don’t.

“The ‘strong, black woman’ archetype, which also includes the mourning black woman who suffers in silence, is the idea that we can survive it all, that we can withstand it. That we are, in fact, superhuman. Black girl magic sounds to me like just another way of saying the same thing, and it is smothering and stunting. It is, above all, constricting rather than freeing,” Chavers wrote.

The piece whipped up a storm online and thousands have taken her to task.

One of the critics was was Jenn M. Jackson, managing editor of the Black Youth Project, who discussed some of her concerns with BBC Trending.

“I think her point would be valid if the term came form outside the black community. but if it comes from within the community, we are setting that standard ourselves. We are choosing to see something magical in black womanhood, and we’re not comparing it to anything else.”

On both Instagram and Twitter, use of the phrase shows no signs of slowing down