A Seat at the Table Doesn’t Always Come With Permission to Speak
Just because you’re invited to participate doesn’t mean your opinions will be valued
On Friday, February 6, 2004, Jermaine Dupri staged an impromptu press conference at a Hollywood media gathering to announce his immediate resignation from his position as president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Nominated to the highly sought-after board position just two years prior to his unexpected resignation, Dupri spoke of accepting the job with high expectations:
I consider NARAS a community who protects each other and supports each other. We have programs like MusiCares, [which] provides financial assistance for musicians who have fallen on hard times. But there appears to be a double standard. I cannot stand by and watch a fellow member of the music community be used as a scapegoat. It comes down to the issue of fairness. Despite it all, what is happening is not fair.
The scapegoat in question: Dupri’s then girlfriend, pop icon Janet Jackson. The double standard under discussion: Jackson’s revoked invitation to present a special Grammy to Luther Vandross at the upcoming awards ceremony, hosted by NARAS. In 2014, during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, Jackson’s onstage accomplice, Justin Timberlake, ripped a piece of the singer’s bodice, causing her breast to be exposed. Despite both performers taking accountability in the public eye, only Jackson appeared to be held accountable behind closed doors, while Timberlake’s invitation to the ceremony went unaffected.
It wasn’t just the personal nature of the issue that stunned the Atlanta producer, which should’ve been enough to sway a table of Dupri’s peers into lenience. It was the irony of being president of the very organization that hosted the Grammy Awards and having no say as to who got to attend, not even your own girlfriend. Dupri wouldn’t be the first or the last Black person to occupy a position of power only to discover the position did nothing to empower them. He learned a lesson all too common for those offered a seat at the table: The invitation doesn’t always come with permission to speak.
I got my wake-up call during my final year of high school. My friends and I were intent on being elected to the prom committee for one reason and one reason only: having a DJ at the dance. Sure, we didn’t mind the Hoobastank tributes and Bare Naked Ladies covers performed by our white teenybopper peers’ favorite cover bands. But it would be nice to hear our music at a social gathering for once, especially one as important as prom, and we weren’t in the wrong for wanting that.
We, the Black girls, constituted only 0.9% of the all-girl pre-K through 12th-grade population, but we accounted for 8% of our graduating class, earning our class the title of “most diverse” since the school’s founding in 1916. We thought surely this would be something we could leverage. Who could argue that almost 10% of the population should have their requests totally ignored? We were confident they’d see our side and agree that a DJ could provide more variety and therefore appease a more “diverse” guest list than some middle-aged Backstreet Boys doppelgängers could. All we needed was a seat at the table.
Upon winning the impromptu election by six votes, I was eager to get to work presenting our list of soft demands to the rest of the committee. Instead, I was told meeting after meeting that the issue had been tabled for another vote on another day, prolonging the vote for so long that it would call for an “emergency” vote—a type of vote for which I conveniently didn’t need to be present. I was also given menial tasks to carry out that limited my ability to be present when other important decisions were being made, like location and ticket pricing. And I was regularly lectured about how diversity didn’t always mean everyone would be represented. Besides, we all loved Bare Naked Ladies, didn’t we?
Ultimately, my physical diversity was propped up as a symbol of their ability to be inclusive, but the diversity of my opinion was of no value to them. I had no idea how to tell my friends that even with my position on the board, my voice wasn’t just going unheard—it was intentionally being silenced. We focused so much on getting to the table that we didn’t realize it was a different battle once we got there. No one had ever prepared us for a seat that came with sanctions.
The idea of being a member of an influential, decision-making group is a concept seen throughout the social hierarchies of history. From the depiction of Jesus sharing a table with his disciples to commemorate the Last Supper to the Round Table King Arthur shared with his knights to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Table of Brotherhood, there’s no historical shortage of table sightings for us to reference. But despite the frequency with which the concept appears, there’s little to no proof that the seats at these tables offered any significant power. More recent instances would imply the exact opposite, demonstrating that the power is neither in the seat nor at the table. Rather, it’s in ownership of the home that houses both access to the seats and influence over who occupies them. The harsh truth is that when a people have been denied ownership of the home so long, the furniture feels like progress. But mistaking access for acceptance and acceptance for authority never gets us anywhere near actual change, only the cyclical appearance of its pursuit.
Barack Obama won the highest seat at the United States’ most prestigious table: the one in the Oval Office. Later, he was criticized when it turned out that the seat didn’t come with much of a say, especially pertaining to decisions affecting minority voters.
Martin Luther King Jr. was praised for his invitation to President Hoover’s table to discuss civil rights reform after extreme pressure from advocates and supporters of the movement. When King no longer agreed to operate within the confines of the terms of the table, the same people who invited him to the table would threaten his life, reputation, and mission through an FBI witch hunt.
Jay-Z announced that his company, Live/Roc Nation, would be partnering with the NFL in hopes of tackling police brutality and systemic injustice through music and other forms of entertainment, claiming to further the work of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed for doing the same. When criticized for the plan’s vagueness and questionable timing, new pals Jay-Z and Roger Goodell staged a press conference and chastised everyone for not celebrating Jay-Z’s newly appointed seat at the table. The pair dismissed talk of the partnership being a way to silence ongoing protests and assured everyone that disenfranchised communities would benefit from Jay-Z’s ability to choose the Super Bowl halftime performers; we’d just have to wait and see. A week later, the partnership would award $200,000 to an organization called the Crusher’s Club, a group that frees young black boys of their ties to the streets by chopping off their locs and sending the boys on movie dates with local Chicago police officers.
The notion that any minority, especially one of African descent, is occupying a seat at any table for the sake of bettering the lives of their community is shortsighted and self-serving, especially when others at the table have proven to operate against the progress you stand for. The truth is we don’t tackle oppression by sharing a meal with our oppressors. Institutions that set out to exploit Black and Brown bodies by capitalizing on their systemic social and economic disenfranchisement will never allow their platforms to be used to counter these very same ideas, no matter how many of us are seated alongside them.
The seat we so dangerously covet gives us something to compete for, something to place our hopes on, a way to gauge who’s inching closer toward approval and therefore deserving of our support. But at the end of the day, our desire to be in close proximity to our detractors is nothing more than modern-day overseer syndrome. If the seat at the table doesn’t come with access to the rest of the house, maybe it’s not a seat worth occupying.