Category Archives: women

Quoted: “Black Girls’ Zero-Sum Struggle”

Sasha and Malia Obama, image via Salon.com

Black women remain caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of hyperinvisibility and invisibility. Everyone thinks that they know everything there is to know about us, but based on facts alone, very little is actually known. And what we don’t know can hurt us – is hurting us. What we fail to acknowledge is that images of black and brown women drive a startlingly large amount of social policy. Disdain toward supposedly irresponsible black and brown women – welfare queens as those on the right derisively call them – is at the heart of the right’s continued unfeeling push toward austerity. This same disdain toward disproportionately black and brown female wage laborers undoubtedly informs the national resistance to raising the minimum wage. Images of “dastardly” brown women crossing our borders illegally in order to drop anchor babies drives immigration policy.

And the exceptionalism of Michelle Obama and her daughters frankly doesn’t help matters. Black women themselves become complicit in this pushing of ourselves to the background, marshaled there by our mythic belief in our own strength, our unresolved traumas over fathers who failed to meet expectations, our self-sacrificial love for black men, and our deep desires to respectably conform to the American nuclear ideal. Michelle Obama makes many black women long for this return to tradition.

There are no easy answers here. Black and brown men’s needs and lives matter. And I’m glad we have a president sensitive to those needs. But as Mychal Denzel Smith argued, “The path to equality for Black and Brown people [cannot be] to uphold patriarchy.” And as Dani McClainargues, it seems that women and girls simply have no place in this new set of initiatives.  Beyond the problems of using personal responsibility and philanthropy as models to solve a deeply systemic set of social problems, the failure to imagine the struggles of men and women of color as linked together is perhaps the most short-sighted aspect of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

“Black girls’ zero-sum struggle: Why we lose when black boys dominate the discourse” by Brittney Cooper via Salon.com; March 6, 2014

 

Quoted: On Femininity and Race in Figure Skating

Figure skater Surya Bonaly

By Kendra James

Nancy had gradually come to embody all the qualities that Tonya, it seemed, would never quite be able to grasp. Nancy’s presence was elegant and patrician despite her working-class background; her skating was as graceful and dancerly as Tonya’s was explosive and athletic. Audiences and commentators wanted elegance and grace; they wanted Nancy, and as good as Tonya was—as great as Tonya was—it had become painfully clear, over the last few years, that she would never quite be right.

There seemed to be a greasy, eventually shameful pleasure that came with both writing and reading about not just Tonya’s gaffes or problems but the basic facts of her existence. Her mother had been married six times to six different men, or maybe seven, depending on the journalist’s sources. Tonya owned her first rifle, a .22, when she was still in kindergarten, and had moved thirteen times by fifth grade. She dropped out of high school at fifteen…She skated to songs like Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” and LaTour’s “People Are Still Having Sex.” She was ordered to change her free-skate costume at the 1994 Nationals because the judges deemed it too risqué. Her sister was a prostitute. Her father was largely unemployed, as was her mother, as was her ex-husband.

Believermag’s article, “Remote Control: Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and the Spectacles of Female Power and Pain” provides insight into the role media played in shaping the assault on Kerrigan’s landing leg prior to the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships and how important perceived femininity can be in figure skating and women’s sports.

I wasn’t a serious skater yet in ‘94, but I remember being 6 and absolutely scandalised at Harding’s alleged actions. I believed the media hype and declared Nancy Kerrigan a personal hero. But after reading this piece Tonya Harding is feeling surprisingly, well, relateable. My background is nothing like Harding’s detailed above, but as a Black figure skater achieving the appropriate levels of perceived femininity, grace, and poise wasn’t easy.

Whether it was my my height, my different hair (no neat skating bun for me), the fact that I couldn’t buy skating stockings that matched the color of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t order and wear the same shades of makeup as the other (white) girls on my synchonised skating team, there was always something that kept me from feeling like I was adored the same way the other skaters were.

By the time I left high school I had all my double jumps down, passed all my moves tests, and was helping to coach a local synchronised skating team, so it wasn’t for lack of talent that the familiar accolades of “you’re so graceful” or “you have such artistry” seemed to always turn to variations of “you’re so athletic/aggressive!” or “you have such a unique style”. Someone at my club in Connecticut commented that I’d probably be amazing at track and field because my skating was so fast and powerful, and had I thought about that instead? New York City tourists have politely and very complimentary (in their eyes) told me that I’m “the best Black skater they’ve ever seen, and so powerful!” Strong, powerful, aggressive, athletic; not the words you want to hear in the delicate, feminine world of figure skating.

Harding’s desire to skate programs to untraditional music choices mirror my own. The year Will Smith’s Big Willie Style came out I desperately wanted to do a competition program to Men in Black or Miami. My coach looked horrified when I played her the tape, and I ended up with a program from the musical Camelot instead that satisfied the requirements of soft, graceful, feminine skating.

That was 17 years ago, but you’re still not going to see many programs like Starr Andrews’ (to Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair) in national and international competition. Music that derives from the standard Euro-classical and instrumental should be avoided, but if it is to be presented it should be done only by an All American white girl in a bindi so as not to threaten the sport’s reputation or the judges’ sensibilities.

I don’t compete any more. I haven’t put on a pair of skating tights in years because Capezio’s“tan” is still about 5 shades lighter than I am, and Surya Bonaly was a childhood hero. I put on headphones and skate to whatever I want— almost always starting a workout with Beyonce and DMX. I have half a program to “Partition” choreographed already, not that it would ever be acceptable in competition. We can’t excuse whatever part Tonya Harding may or may not have played in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, but I get what it’s like to not be seen as the“‘lovely,’ ‘ladylike,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ one,” and spending the energy trying to conform to a sport standard that’s not necessarily made to fit how the world’s been trained to see you. I suspect that several other Black athletes do as well; along with Bonaly, Serena Williams comes quickly to mind.

Just something to keep in mind as we approach the Sochi Winter Games, or as we work through our Ashley Wagner vs. Mirai Nagasu feelings. Sometimes it’s more than expensive costs that keeps girls off the ice.

Reposted from our Tumblr Hack Refuge

Online Dating Shows Us The Cold Hard Facts About Race in America

By Jenny L. Davis, PhD; originally published at Sociological Images

Quartz, a business and marketing website, recently released data on the Facebook dating app Are You Interested, which connects single people with others within the confines of their Facebook networks. Quartz’ data are based on a series of yes-or-no questions about who users are interested in, as well as response rates between users, once notified of a potential suitor. The data show that white men and Asian women receive the most interest, whereas black men and women receive the least amount of interest. The writers at Quartz summarize the findings as follows:

Unfortunately the data reveal winners and losers. All men except Asians preferred Asian women, while all except black women preferred white men. And both black men and black women got the lowest response rates for their respective genders.

Here’s what the data looks like:

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As a sociologist, I am entirely unsurprised that race matters, especially in such a personal process like dating/mating. However, these findings may come as a surprise to the (quite significant) segments of the population who identify as color-blind; those who label contemporary society post-racial.

And this is why dating sites are so cool. Social psychologists know that what people say and what they do have little empirical connection. Dating sites capture what we do, and play it back for us. They expose who we are, who we want, and of course, who we don’t want. As shown by Quartz, “we” fetishize Asian women while devaluing black people.

With a schism between what people say and what they do; between what they say and what the unconsciously think,  surveys of racial attitudes are always already quite limited.  People can say whatever they want — that race doesn’t matter, that they don’t see color — but when it comes to selecting a partner, and the selection criteria are formalized through profiles and response decisions, we, as individuals and a society, can no longer hide from ourselves. The numbers blare back at us, forcing us to prosume uncomfortable cultural and identity meanings both personally and collectively.

Indeed, before anyone has answered anything, the architecture of online dating sites say a lot.  Namely, by defining what can be preferences at all, they tell us which characteristics are the ones about which we are likely to care; about which we should care.

Both the user data and the presence of racial identification and preference in the first place are revealing, demolishing arguments about colorblindness and post-racial culture.

Jenny L. Davis, PhD, is in the department of sociology at James Madison University. She studies social psychology, experimental research methods, and new and social media. She is also a contributing author and editor at Cyborgology.  You can follow her at @Jenny_L_Davis.

Quoted: On Beyonce and Feminism

beyonce1

I can’t believe that, as someone who a year ago could scarcely quote a Beyonce song, save “Bootylicious,” I am spending so much time defending the artist these days. But the surprise release of her “visual album,” Beyonce, has sparked a fresh round of broken criticism of the star, freighted with gender and race bias.  Understand, it is not that Beyonce, for all her power-belting, catchy hook-writing and effortless dancing, is above reproach. Once we finish getting down to “Drunk in Love,” we need to analyze the hell out of Mr. Knowles-Carter’s wack ass, Ike Turner-worshipping, violence-fetishizing contribution to the “love” track:

 

Catch a charge, I might, beat the box up like Mike…

I’m like Ike Turner

Baby know I don’t play, now eat the cake Annie Mae

Said, eat the cake, Annie Mae

 

This, right here, is all kinds of problematic and the sort of contradiction a public feminist needs to be called to task for. But, as yet, I haven’t seen many people questioning why Bey let Jay spit some nasty, misogynist shit on an album that includes the feminist brilliance of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Instead, folks are still carping about whether one can flaunt dat ass, be conventionally attractive, launch a world tour using a married moniker or be rich and successful and still be feminist.

Just so we can move the analysis along: The answer to that question is “Yes,” as I outlined in an article in Bitch magazine earlier this year:

A popular star willing to talk about gender inequity, as Beyoncé has, is depressingly rare. But Freeman insists flashes of underboob and feminist critique don’t mix. Petersen concurs, calling the thigh-baring, lace-meets-leather outfit Beyoncé wore during her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show an “outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishizes the otherwise powerful female body.” A commenter on Jezebel summed up the charge: “That’s pretty much the Beyoncé contradiction right there. Lip service for female fans, fan service for the guys.”

These appraisals are perplexing amid a wave of feminist ideology rooted in the idea that women own their bodies. It is the feminism of SlutWalk, the anti-rape movement that proclaims a skimpy skirt does not equal a desire for male attention or sexual availability. Why, then, are cultural critics like Freeman and Petersen convinced that when Beyoncé pops a leather-clad pelvis on stage, it is solely for the benefit of men? Why do others think her acknowledgment of how patriarchy influences our understanding of what’s sexy is mere “lip service”?

Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, says, “The idea that Beyoncé being sexy is only her performing for male viewers assumes that embracing sexuality isn’t also for women.” Jackson adds that the criticism also ignores “the limited choices available to women in the entertainment industry and the limited ways Beyoncé is allowed to express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race.”

Her confounding mainstream persona, Jackson points out, is one key to the entertainer’s success as a black artist. “You don’t see black versions of Lady Gaga crossing over to the extent that Beyoncé has or reaching her levels of success. Black artists rarely have the same privilege of not conforming to dominant image expectations.”

Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, who has gone for a natural-haired, boho, less sexified approach to her music, remains a niche artist, as do Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes, like so many black female artists before them. Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello—talented all, but quirky black girls, especially androgynous ones, don’t sell pop music, perform at the Super Bowl, or get starring roles in Hollywood films.

Black women (and girls) have also historically battled the stereotype of innate and uncontrolled lasciviousness, which may explain why Beyoncé’s sexuality is viewed differently from that of white artists like Madonna, who is lauded for performing in very similar ways.  Read more…

Quoted: Dr. David Leonard Pens Open Letter to Marissa Alexander

Marissa Alexander Poster

But our failure did not begin the day Florida decided to prosecute you for standing your ground; we did not fall short in the aftermath of a sham of a trial and the horror of a 20-year sentence. We, and by we here I am specifically talking about men, failed you long before you said enough to abuse. We have failed to create a culture that repels violence against women, which shuns and denounces every instance of domestic violence. We failed you in 2009 when your husband was arrested for abuse. The system has failed you over again. And we have failed in not holding that system accountable, in demanding a system that actual works to create a environment. In 2010, your husband said, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.” Reading this hurts me because it is further evidence of our failure. We rear men who think this is ok, who are empowered to abuse. Where were we then? Where was the criminal justice system that is so concerned about protection and safety? We have failed you and for that I am sorry. Read more…

Sharline Chiang on Smiling Selfies and Other Lies

Photo courtesy of Sharline Chiang

At Hyphen, writer Sharline Chiang tackles the stigma of post-partum depression and how her race influenced her experience with the condition.

Four years ago I had three miscarriages. “You’re not careful enough,” my mother said. “You’re too active.” While I was pregnant with Anza, I learned I had balanced translocation, a genetic condition. We needed to get lucky. Even after explaining this to her, my mother would insist: “Go on bed rest so it doesn’t fall out.”

I couldn’t risk hearing words that sounded like blame. I already felt it was my fault: I was too soft.

My grandmothers combined had birthed and raised 15 children while fleeing the Japanese, the Communists, and poverty. What right did I have to fall apart?

So I took selfies of me and Anza smiling and sent them to my parents every day.

I lied because even though depression is so common in Asian American communities, we rarely talked about it. The message I grew up with: your mental struggles are our own; it’s up to you to find the inner strength to “ren,” to endure.

The character for “ren” 忍 is the character for “knife” over the “heart.” Endure even when there’s a knife in your heart.

In my thirties I discovered talk therapy, tried to get my parents to go. Their response was basically: “That’s for white people.” “They hook you in,” my mother said. “You can never be cured.”

I wish mental illness didn’t come with stigmas. I wish I could have told my parents that my mind had broken just as easily as if I had to tell them my arm had broken.

Whenever my husband would say, “You really should tell them,” I felt that chasm again (he’s white, son of hippies). To him it was unimaginable to suffer the darkest period of your life and not tell your parents. Meanwhile, everyone in his immediate family knew. His mother and brother moved down from Canada to help take care of me.

The fact that I could get PPD never crossed my mind. I had no history of depression.

Two years ago while pregnant with Anza, I had spent thousands of hours reading about pregnancy and birth and exactly five minutes reading about postpartum depression.

On the cover of the brochure was a white woman with long brown hair. She was staring into space under the words: “Feeling Blue?” I took one look and said to myself: white woman, sad woman, that’s not me and that’s not going to be me.

Read more…

 

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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