Thursday, April 1, 2010

From the vault: The black women I know

In response to my post about the Jill Scott controversy, a few commenters made the wise observation that there sure do seem to be a heckuva lot of "them po' black women" stories floating around lately. Roslyn Holcomb offered:

We've been ignored by the media since we've been here, now all of a sudden they can't stop talking about us. Do we honestly believe that they suddenly give a damn? Of course not. They're counter-programming against Michelle Obama and what it means that suddenly we have a black First Lady. That undermines white supremacy and they're in a frenzy to counteract that message and the impact that it can have. God forbid a black woman actually think she's fit to be First Lady.

So what do we do? Instead of putting our best foot forward and show ourselves in our magnificence we play right into the media message. That will undermine the marginalization of black women. This woe is me message does nothing to do that. And that's their intent.

I wrote the following post for What About Our Daughters back in 2007. I thought digging it out of the vault would be a good way to end the week. Folks shouldn't get it twisted when they hear us complain about injustice--racism and sexism have dealt black women a host of challenges, but we are no more defined by those challenges than anyone else. Indeed, despite what CNN and NBC and Steve Harvey say, most of us are doing just fine, thank you.


Have you heard the news? Lately, everybody’s talking about how bad it is to be a black woman. Let some folks in the media tell it, we are over-educated, unattractive, unwanted, overbearing, unhealthy and poor. NBC Nightly News recently devoted a whole week to the plight of the sister. You know, whenever I hear the latest “oh, how it sucks to be a black woman” story, I think: They must not know the black women I know.

They say that black women are too smart for our own good. The black women I know realize that there is no such thing–learning is the key to professional success, personal fulfillment and freedom. And the black women I know realize that a mate that doesn’t want a smart partner, is a mate they don’t want.

They say that black women are not beautiful, that our hair is too nappy, our skin too dark, our noses too wide and our asses too big. The black women I know are gorgeous, sexy and strong, more so because they love their black selves–truly and deeply. The black women I know are loc’d, fro’d and twisted, and even if they are not, they understand that black women’s hair needn’t be altered to be beautiful. The black women I know are size 2 to 22, but always fine. The black women I know understand beauty is not foretold by the amount of melanin in their skin. The black women I know believe European features don’t trump African ones, no matter what fashion magazines say.

They say that black women are unlovable, that no partner–black, white or otherwise–wants us. All of the black women I know are adored by their families and friends. Some of the black women I know are married to wonderful men and building strong families. Some of the black women I know aren't interested in men. Some of the black women I know attract the attention of eager suitors of all races and nationalities. Some of the black women I know don't care to partner with anyone. None of the black women I know are defined by whether or not they have a significant other.

They say that black women hate and dominate men. The black women I know lovingly raise their sons, embrace and speak gently to their husbands, and respect their fathers. The black women I know also realize that their gender doesn’t make them second to any man, and that female equality is just as important as racial equality.

They say that black women are unapologeticly unhealthy. The black women I know cherish their bodies. Some of the black women I know work out daily and monitor their diets closely. Some of the black women I know struggle with weight and stress, but recognize how their habits affect their health. The black women I know read about nutrition, try healthy recipes, do yoga, run marathons, and belly dance for exercise. The black women I know understand that good health requires work and vigilance, and they are dedicated to living long and healthy lives.

They say that black women are penniless. The black women I know make money and manage it. They own homes, condos and co-ops. They save for a rainy day, because rainy days always come.

The black women I know don’t represent every black woman. But the character of the downtrodden black woman that gets so much ink and film doesn’t represent the black women I know. It is not true, as many people imply, that it sucks to be us. The black women I know are proud and happy to be black women.

Here’s what is true: black women are often dismissed and overlooked. To use the vernacular, folks are always “sleeping on” the fabulousness of black women. People were sleeping on black women when Harriet Tubman was leading her people to freedom. People were sleeping on black women when Dorothy Dandridge was one of the most beautiful women on the silver screen. People were sleeping on black women when Mae Jemison was rocketing into space. People were sleeping on black women when Ruby Dee was shining on stage and working for black equality. People were sleeping on black women when Shirley Chisholm was running to be the leader of the free world. People were sleeping on black women when Toni Morrison was winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. People were sleeping on black women when Ann Fudge was working her way to the top at Kraft Foods. Ain’t nothin’ changed.

But, you know what? People who dismiss and overlook black women and their achievements do so to their own detriment, and at their own loss. Overlook the black women I know and they keep on going, keep on achieving and keep on living well.

From the vault: What it means to be friends (or lovers) with a racist

There is discussion going on over at Jezebel surrounding the Sandra Bullock/Jesse James controversy. Now that James' alleged predilection for Nazi memorabilia is being trumpeted by the rags (with photos!), some folks are wondering if "America's sweetheart" knew about all this stuff, what does it mean about her character. I got nothin' on Bullock and James. I couldn't care less about their private situation. I am; however, intrigued by the notion, advanced by some commenters, that you can choose to surround yourself with racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic, etc.) people and still call yourself anti-racist, feminist, etc.

That to me (pardon my language, but it's been quite a week) is bullshit--bullshit born of privilege.

I commented on a related post to a reader with the position that Hey, sometimes your family and friends just believe stuff:
IMHO, a husband is different than random "family" (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins...people who are in your life by an accident of birth, and with whom you may or may not share values.). A spouse is someone who is in your life by CHOICE. Presumably, we choose people as our spouses, in part, BECAUSE we share important values...because we mesh.

Of course, all couples differ on some things...generally the things that aren't deal breakers. I would like to think that for people of conscience, racism is a deal breaker.

I certainly hope that Sandra Bullock was in the dark about her husband's alleged beliefs. If she was not, I would hold her accountable for abiding racism. She may not be a racist herself, but those that abide oppression and injustice are responsible for its existence, too.
The debate reminded me of this old post, prompted by a Cary Tennis column on Salon:


Racialicious provided a link to the latest column by Salon advice-giver Cary Tennis. In it, a New England liberal white woman and her husband learn that their new friend is a racist. "Should we keep him as a friend?" She asks. Read the entire letter and Cary's response here, but the gist is:
This friend of yours appears to have mistaken beliefs. It is difficult for those of us with all the correct beliefs to extend courtesy, love and understanding to those with mistaken beliefs. But it is an affliction of your time to believe your own beliefs -- to believe your own beliefs are the only ones that matter and are correct and represent the pinnacle of social progress. If you take an imaginative leap to the 12th century, or the 18th century, or the 1930s, you will notice how radically beliefs change. We who are now alive think we know what is right and correct, as did the Spanish in the Inquisition and the Protestants in the Reformation and the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution; it is the privilege of those on top to think they know what is right and correct. It is a nice privilege indeed. Doubting ourselves is hard.
Tennis' flowery moral relativism seems to imply that it is judgmental and arrogant to think that judging people on the content of their character is good and judging them based on the color of their skin is bad. Who knows, racism may be in vogue in another century? His advice: Keep the friend.

What is the right thing to do when you discover an acquaintance is racist?

I can tell you what I have done. I think racism is immoral. It is contrary to my values. When faced with an acquaintance that reveals his or her racism to me--I end the friendship. [Editor's note: And I'm not saying that is easy.] I don't hate that person. We are all human. We all have our failings. And this country is rife with prejudice. But I cannot call someone a friend, who has values I think are abhorrent. I also address racist comments when I hear them, making my displeasure clear. I'm willing to offer a little leeway to folks 70+, who may be products of their time.

Obviously, being a black woman, this issue is important to me. How nice for Tennis, a white man, to have the freedom to decide that racism is no big deal, a minor character quirk. I note that a lot of self-professed liberals are able to make this type bargain with their ideals. That the letter writer even had to ask what to do in this situation is interesting.

As for me, when I hear white acquaintances make prejudiced comments about Hispanics, Arabs or Asians, it triggers an alarm. The comments are offensive even if not directed at me. And Certainly a willingness to judge people based on race does not stop where my people are concerned. What are they saying about blacks when I'm not around? And I'll tell you this, my feelings about prejudice are no less strong when the perpetrators are black. And yes, black folks can be prejudiced, too.

Listening to hatred hurts my spirit. I have to assume that those who surround themselves with people who hate and who believe in the superiority of their own race, don't really think racism is that bad. A good liberal who can easily fraternize with a flaming racist probably needs to check her belief system.

What do you think?

P.S. One commenter on Salon posted the lyrics to a Dan Berg song called "The Fascist in Me" in response to this letter. I think the song is a powerful challenge to folks who say the right things, have the right bumper stickers, but who secretly hate:

The Facist In Me

When I vote, I vote democratic
And sometimes further left like peace and freedom,
Or even libertarian
I’m pro-choice, pro-environment
Against large corporations and the neutron bomb
But when I’m stuck on the freeway
And it's hot and someone cuts me off
I think they oughta fry that son of a bitch
It's the fascist in me

Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
It's the fascist in me
Get rid of that smell, go back where you came from
It's the fascist in me
You're a burden, you're a drain on the economy
It's the fascist in me
It's so distasteful going to the grocery store
For some Haagen Daaz on a Saturday night
When you have to pass this vermin
I've given to seven charities
I’ve played five different benefits
In the past month
My bumper stickers say:
Save the whales, visualize peace, NPR (KPFK)
But when someone's rude in a restaurant
I’d like to make them look at the barrel of a gun
And then we'll see how smug they are
It's the fascist in me
Wish I had the power to seize your house
It's the fascist in me
Wish I had the authority to take your tongue
It's the fascist in me
I’d run you naked through the middle of the town
It's the fascist in me
You'd live in fear knowing every creak of the floorboards,
Knock on the door, or cry in the dark of night, could be your last
Sometimes I just want to take half the world and decree that they all go away
Everyone's stupid and no one has anything very insightful to say
It's the price you have to pay
I’m tired of it today
I’d like another way
It's the fascist in me
Wear some normal clothes, don't have so many children,
Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
Where'd you get that car?
Which drugs did you sell?
How'd you get that job?
Which quota did you fill?
I’d like plant my fist in your face
Don't talk so loud
Don't walk so slow
If you just disappeared, no one would care
No one would care if you just disappeared
Your mother oughta be down on her knees
Cleaning up my kitchen
It's the fascist in me
It's the fascist in me
It's the fascist in na na na na
It's the fascist in me
Learn to speak English, get a job, get a life
It's the fascist in me


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