Category Archives: women of color

Why Orange is Not The New Black

By Guest Contributor Kimberly Bernita Ross

The prison comedy-drama, Orange is The New Black (OITNB), is projected to trump House of Cards in viewership by the end of the year, giving it the distinction of being Netflix’s most-watched original series. The show is an adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir by the same name, which recounts her time in prison after being convicted for drug smuggling and money laundering a decade after the offense. Actress Taylor Schilling plays Piper in the series, depicting the sometimes-comical angst that the White upper-middle class, 30-something feels, upon entering what in real life was Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut.

OITNB joins the ranks of other popular women in prison TV and film productions like Bad Girls, Stranger Inside and Prisoner: Cell Block H. All of these shows and films touch upon relevant issues facing real women in prison, such as a lack of physical and mental healthcare, sexual assault and separation from children; yet they also draw on some of the more sensationalized themes of an earlier generation of women-in-prison (WIP) exploitation films first popularized in the late 1960s and 70s. While OITNB is a significant departure from the B- Movie, WIP film subgenre, the show still relies on subjects of female subjugation, violence, and lesbian sex, themes heavily prevalent in WIP films. And just as WIP movies often cross into revolutionary plots and sometimes Blaxploitation motifs, OITNB delves into the stories of Black and Afro-Latina women in prison. Comparing the women-in-prison film genre with OITNB is a ripe opportunity to analyze changing representations of sexual orientation, gender and race on screen.

There is a dearth of critical examination within portrayals of race and the criminal justice system. Black and Latina women’s plot lines predictably include criminal women from the “menacing urban underclass” without much nuance or context. Writers rarely, if ever, analyze the racialized society that has created the prison industrial complex in which these women find themselves entangled. Jenji Kohen, creator of the show, has been quoted as saying she used the WASP character, fashioned after Piper Kerman, as a ploy to pitch the series to different networks—a sort of subterfuge to tell other stories that the industry is reluctant to touch. The White woman lens as a means of telling the stories of women of color has been a scheme in Hollywood for a long time, and is an oft-criticized element of OITNB. At the same time, much of the show’s appeal rests on this juxtaposition of race and class and the laughable observations of an ignorant Piper. While the stories of real women of color are still held hostage by Hollywood stratagem, OITNB has developed Black and Latino characters that differ from the static, underdeveloped roles of the WIP film subgenre. But how much has really changed?

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Why Did So Many Black Women Die? The Jonestown Massacre at 35

All rights reserved by Peoples Temple / Jonestown Gallery

All rights reserved by Peoples Temple / Jonestown Gallery

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published at Religion Dispatches

Thirty-five years ago, on November 19, 1978, 73 year-old Hyacinth Thrash awoke to a nightmare in the jungles of Guyana.  Nine hundred and eighteen people from her Peoples Temple church lay dead before her eyes, poisoned by a lethal cocktail of cyanide and fruit punch.  The images from this gothic scene of carnage have become indelible. Bodies stretch into the distance in rows, face down on the ground.  They are overwhelmingly black bodies, clad in simple workaday clothing. Rendered “anonymous”, they represent complex extended families of children, elderly women, young women, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and nieces.  They came to Jonestown, Guyana from communities all across the U.S., drawn by the utopic promise of life in a communal settlement envisioned by a charismatic white messiah as a socialist refuge from American racial apartheid. One of the most haunting scenes from the massacre’s aftermath is that of an adult with their arm around a child, protective in the throes of death.  Thrash was the sole survivor on the premises.

Although the gruesome final snapshot of Jonestown is burned into the American popular imagination, the prelude to the massacre is not as well known.  Founded by the Reverend Jim Jones in the 1950s, Peoples Temple was a multiracial Pentecostal congregation with roots in Indiana. Over the course of two decades the church would establish operations in Ukiah, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the late 1970s Jones relocated the bulk of the congregation to Guyana, ostensibly to avoid government persecution for its radical views. The Jonestown massacre has been dubbed one of the largest murder-suicides in world history.  About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American.  The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white.  As per the cultural cliché, black women like Thrash were “the backbone” of People’s Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church.

It is troubling that of the scores of book length personal accounts, critical analyses and sociological appraisals on Peoples Temple and Jonestown only a few are by black women (the best of these have been compiled at the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” site). Thrash and Leslie Wagner–Wilson are currently the only two black women survivors to publish books on their experiences.  Wagner-Wilson managed to escape Jonestown before the massacre with several of her family members.  As early African American members of the church when it was based in Indiana, Thrash and her sister tithed 20% of their income to Peoples Temple.  Thousands of dollars in property sales, Social Security, disability, and welfare benefits from Temple members were funneled into the church’s empire.  Despite being elderly and infirm, Thrash and her sister followed Jones from Indiana to Ukiah, San Francisco and Guyana.  Eventually Thrash became disgruntled with the divide between Jones’ rhetoric of racial equality and the white-people-first reality of church leadership but stayed put nonetheless.

Unpacking why so many black women died in Jonestown requires taking a critical look back at the racial underbelly of the Jonestown age.  It demands confronting hard truths about the dangerously gendered seductions of organized religion; especially given the global appeal 24/7 prayer movements and charismatic Pentecostalism have for women of color.

According to a 2012 Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post poll, black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation.  Only 2% said that being religious was not important to them at all (compared to 15% of white men), while 74% said that it was extremely important. Numerous surveys have touted the decline of American religiosity within the past decade. Yet, in an era of black economic depression, the need to be devout or churched up has not diminished for most African American women, despite the patriarchal, heterosexist orientation of the Black Church.

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Young Lakota Premieres Nov. 25 on Independent Lens

“Young Lakota” Official Trailer from marionlipschutz/roserosenblatt on Vimeo.

Young Lakota will air at 10 .m. EST, Monday, Nov. 25, on PBS’s Independent Lens. The film chronicles Tribal President Cecelia Fire Thunder’s challenge to a proposed abortion ban in South Dakota, and the political awakening she inspires in Sunny Clifford, a young Lakota woman living on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Young Lakota was an Official Selection at the Big Sky Film Festival, the New Orleans Film Festival, the American Indian Film Festival, and won Best Documentary at Cine Las Americas and the Smithsonian Showcase.

For Indian Girls, Radical Black Feminism or the American Dream?

By Guest Contributor Chaya Babu

When two famous black feminists take the stage to discuss social justice and feminism, or more specifically, how race and class impact African American women’s experiences in the US, why is it that I–an Indian American woman from pretty, affluent Briarcliff Manor, New York–feel at home? How is that this where I feel whole, recognized, and validated?

I don’t actually need the answers to these questions as some sort of navel-gazing exercise. But others seem to. When it comes to our position in social movements, identity is a big deal; it behooves us to acknowledge and take accountability for our inherent role, by default of who we are, in intersectional systems of oppression. So perhaps confusion is founded. As an upper-middle-class, straight, cissexual, conventionally feminine woman, whose ethnic minority status in America is mitigated by being part of the ‘model minority,’ it’s true that I have much going for me. I could ride the tide of my privilege. Easy.

But I started thinking about race at an early age. When we watched a video about MLK and the civil rights movement in second grade, I saw a binary and placed myself on the pigmented side of it. At 11-years-old, I adopted hip and hop and its surrounding culture as my self-expression in a white world. Would things have been different if my parents played Bollywood films in the house? I can’t be sure. Whatever it was, I identified clearly with non-whiteness. This made me an outcast in a way. I grew up around mostly white people, and the other Indians I knew seemed to see themselves on that side of the color line, or at the very least, they were more seduced by the power that came with our proximity to whiteness, as Melissa Harris-Perry put it. I am guilty of this too, but I still felt acutely that my brown skin was creating a vast gulf between my reality and that of my white  friends. If I had to guess, this is where I got my sense of injustice in the world, despite my understanding that I was exceedingly blessed and shrouded in comfort, wealth, and opportunity.

I was more aware of my status as a person of color than as a woman.  (It took me much longer to become aware of the endless benefits of my class position, because, well, that’s how it works). I became interested in anti-racism far before I felt drawn to anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal movements or cared about class dynamics. (Of course, I now get that it’s all connected.) But I think my internalization of my color is very telling for where I stand now when it comes to my personal feminist politics. Regardless of the particulars of the layering, all of this means I stand outside of my own ethnic community in the US–a community that, in my experience, often seems largely (not universally) brainwashed by the promise of ascending in a racist system.

Based on this, who could I have looked to as speaking to me–a little brown girl whose large suburban home had a Ganesha in a kitchen cupboard–about dissent and disruption of the status quo? What, you don’t believe in a white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy, you say? Who put these thoughts in your head?

There was no place for me there. My place was to be a good Indian girl.

A large part of last week’s talk between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at The New School (see above) was about black women’s voices: the avenues though which they convey their messages, the shift in how they are represented, why some mainstream spaces may be more open to promoting them, even if minimally (Harris-Perry on MSNBC). I had no access to these voices when I was younger. I had some Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in high school, and then college and beyond gave me the nonfiction radical texts of bell hooks and Harris-Perry, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Roberts, and more. However, I couldn’t see that I was allowed to turn their thoughts into action in my own life, no matter how deeply they touched my heart.

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Quoted: Joshunda Sanders on Being a Black Woman in Austin, Texas

Austin sunrise image, courtesy of StuSeeger on Flickr

Austin sunrise image, courtesy of StuSeeger on Flickr

 

For someone so sentimental, I’m unsettled and surprised by my lack of sentimentality about Austin, about moving back to the East Coast. The people I love here who have shaped the experiences that made this feel so close to home for me all know about the non-narrative Austin, the pseudo-nirvana blind to its hidden luxuries and congratulatory, smug stubbornness. Like San Francisco, bless its heart, Austin prefers topical niceties over excavation, and redefines progressive intention, sentiment and fantasies as akin to thought and action.

This is part of what makes Austin and Texas exhausting locations for black people, especially black women. As in its liberal cousin hubs, like Berkeley and San Francisco, I feel a hypervisible invisibility in Austin. Like people are happy to see me because it means that they are not racist, because, look, there is a real, live black woman here, too, and it’s so great that she didn’t have to come in the back or that she’s enjoying a fine meal, too. More often than not, my presence provokes a stare from non-black people pregnant with class and gender assumptions and limitations. Put another way, even though I’m a homeowner, people frequently assume that I must be visiting from where all the black people live. Polite racism is still racism, and because black people with brown skin in particular are unable to pass as anything but, I would argue that people hear most often from us about bias in Austin and Texas because there is no way to blend in or avoid the subject.

This is no different from America. But at least in more racist pockets of Texas, I know where I stand. I mean, I know to stay the hell out of Vidor. But knowing your role in Austin is much trickier. There is no resting place. A tense smile in a liberal hub is a maddening, dangerous thing. It is to be placed in a category upon first meeting that requires black women to spend their social time and experiences treading lightly while we assert and affirm our individuality, knowing that we are often educating our well-meaning friends and while they appreciate it, it is repetitive, never-ending, tiring work. If they are not awkward (and it is a naturally awkward topic, race) or defensive, responses about racial stratification here prompt a white flag: hopelessness, a kind of dreaded silence, an acknowledgment of the awkward position of black women here, a change of subject.

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The Racial and Sexual Politics of Peace

By Guest Contributor Kelly Macías; originally published at The Feminist Wire

The week of October 7th was Nobel Prize week. And for economists, writers, scientists, and those who actively work for the resolution of conflict, and peace more broadly, the announcement of the Nobel Prize awards are like the Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys all rolled into one. Those of us engaged in the fields of international relations, conflict resolution, and peace studies eagerly await the announcement of who will win the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. This year, many of us thought that it would be Malala Yousafzai (we were wrong, by the way). You’ve likely heard of Malala. And you probably know the names of the Peace Prize winners more than any of the winners in the other categories– Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Al Gore, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of recipients. Peacemakers need not be academicians, have formal education, or even know how to write. They can be from ordinary backgrounds and do extraordinary things to change their communities, countries, and the world for the better. They actively work to undo systems of oppression and injustice. They are everyday folks who become our heroes.

Racial and Sexual Politics of Peace

Malala Yousafzai

Unfortunately, peace has long been regarded as men’s work, and the Nobel Peace Prize is still a bit of a boys club. There have been 125 winners of the award since 1901, with 100 of those going to individuals and 25 going to organizations. Out of the 100 individuals, only 15 have been women. That number totals only 15% of the prize’s overall winners. And even though they are largely underrepresented in recognition, the list of women who have been awarded the prize is quite commendable and distinguished. Jane Addams, Rigoberta Menchu, Wangaari Matthai, Aun Sang Suu Kyi and Mother Theresa are among those 15. One of the wonderful things about this list of extraordinary women is that, at least for me, it is easy to see some of myself in each one. They were humble women who saw communities or countries damaged by violence and inequality. They knew that no one is truly free when others are oppressed and they put everything they had into changing oppressive structures. The international community took note and recognized them for their efforts.

Yet there are some glaring omissions on the list of Peace Prize winners. For example, no woman of color from the United States, nor openly LGBTQ individual, nor an organization championing the rights of LGBTQ persons has ever received the award. This is hard to believe but true. If you look at the contributions of Black American women alone (some of whom are also part of the LGBTQ community), we have a rich history of peace activism dating all the way back to slavery and the abolitionist movement. We organized for civil rights and marched in Birmingham and Selma. Some of us even lost our lives during that struggle. One of us even spoke at the March on Washington (Daisy Bates, the lone female speaker at the event). Even after the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, we continue to promote peace and the elimination of harmful structures in this country via the prison system, education, health care, public housing, etc. And we are not alone. Women of color in the U.S. have been incredibly active in championing and building peace. Consider Yuri Kochiyama, who was actually nominated for the Peace Prize in 2005; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association (which later became United Farm Workers), who organized for migrant workers and the poor; Ada Deer, a member of the Menominee Nation and as a Native American activist who was the first woman to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs — the list of activist women of color is long and distinguished. However, these contributions seem lost on the peace community.

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My Dad, the Feminist

My Dad, The Feminist

By Guest Contributor Sydney Magruder; originally published at Elixher

I am 10 years old, sitting in a booth at Applebee’s, and my Dad is grilling me.

“Okay, last one. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space?”

I am stumped.

“C’mon, Syd. I know you know it,” prods Daddy.

I turn the question over and over in my head like a smooth stone unearthed from a riverbed. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space? I bite down harder on my lower lip, considering all of the trivia questions Daddy has ever asked me, and trying to remember if he’d asked this one before. He had not.

Mae_Jemison_1_FF665B08B837F

I remember learning about her in school, and I could see her smiling face on a picture from my 6th grade classroom. Suddenly, a moment of clarity. A flash of brown skin, a cumbersome-looking orange suit, and the NASA insignia above a gleaming white name tag: Jemison.

“Mae Jemison! The first Black woman ever to enter space was Mae Jemison!” I offer confidently.

“Atta girl, Syd!” Daddy offers me a single french fry as reward for my effort.

As was customary, we played Black history trivia every time we went out to eat together. For each right answer, I was given that crunchy, salty, coveted reward. I munch contentedly as I watched the gears turn in his head, forming another question.

“Now…who was the first Black woman ever to be President of the United States?” he raises his eyebrow mischievously.

“Daddy, that’s a trick question. No Black woman has ever been President of the United States. It’s a fact.”

(I was a serious child—a very bossy, know-it-all, matter-of-fact little girl. Imagine Angelica, of Rugrats fame, with afro puffs.)

“Ah, not yet!” he shakes his finger at me. “It could very well be you, Sydney Magruder!” he bellows in his full, rich baritone. I laugh at him, and reach for another french fry. He reaches for one too, pretending to fence with his. I best him, splitting his fry pitifully in half with my own. I chew triumphantly.

“Ready to go?” he indicates the door with his eyes.

“Mom’s gonna make me go straight to bed when we get home,” I gripe.  “I’m not sleepy yet!”

I always begged to stay longer whenever we went out. Bedtime was the ultimate hindrance to our intellectual adventures.

Sydney and her dad

Sydney and her dad (right)

“Even geniuses have to sleep, baby” he retorts rationally.

In the car, the raindrops race each other across the window. I follow them with my index finger as the Washington, D.C. skyline hung in the distance. Daddy sings along to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Out of nowhere, he turns down his favorite track. As “Southern Cross” plays faintly in the background, he turns to me.

“Y’know, I think you’d make a great president one day,” he beams. I smile at him, believing his every word.

And just like that, Daddy put roots in my heart. Roots that would one day grow into feminism.

As a child, Dad constantly reminded me that I was not limited by my gender, or by my Blackness. He celebrated them to no end, constantly praising my intellect, my wit, and my good judgment. He made perfectly clear to me the plight of women and of people of color in this country, and stressed the importance of knowing our history — my history.

The trivia games we played at restaurants when I was a child have reinvented themselves into an expected text message from him to me every April 4th and November 22nd, asking me which two famous men died that day. (Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, respectively. Nailed it.) He still promises me french fries for correct answers. While my mom demonstrated the strength, poise, grace and tenacity of women of color in her everyday actions, Daddy proclaimed them in his words.

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Hair touching…again

 

It has been revealed that the controversial exhibit in New York City’s Union Square earlier this year that prompted passersby to touch black women’s hair was actually part of a larger exploration into responses to black physicality, including a brief documentary (see Pt. 1 above) and a panel discussion. The documentary explores, among other things, comparisons of the exhibit, “You Can Touch My Hair,” to the exhibition of Sarah Baartman centuries ago, and includes the voices of women opposed to strangers touching and posing with black women on display.

For Pt. 2 of the documentary, visit Colorlines.