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The point is, even by sexualizing women to make an ostensibly parodic commentary on how hip-hop sexualizes women, you are still sexualizing women. And even if your dancers are well-treated and knew what their job was beforehand, you’re still mocking those who dance for real in rap videos for potentially a myriad of reasons, and/ or assuming that they don’t know what they’re doing, or that they are victims. That is racially problematic at best. And when you’re the fully-clothed white woman at the center, and your video director is still working with the same slow-mo ass shots as the ones you seem to want to satire (his direct inspiration: “what was the most hip-hop thing you could ever do?”)—well, that shit is definitely racially problematic, and particularly so in a banner year for twerking and white women treating black women as props.
It’s such a shame, because beyond the “ironic objectification” and pretty dunderheaded generalizations about hip-hop, the song could have been good—a real-talk “critique of sexism in the industry,” as Pitchfork enthused. This video says to me that Allen’s feminism applies only to Allen and her ilk. It’s white feminism to the max.
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Monique Morris, author of the forthcoming book “Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-first Century,” told New America Media that not only would a young black female victim not be in the public eye, but the type of conversation that followed Martin’s death wouldn’t happen:
As with boys, the “talk” with black girls and young women is also a discussion about racism in America; and as with boys, it should include tips for how to be safe in the presence of law enforcement and include clear instructions about how to behave when they are suspected of wrongdoing in the presence of someone with a gun,” she said. “But the talk also requires a candid discussion about sexism and patriarchy in our society and our racial justice movements. Our girls need to know how to identify sexism in all its forms, how to understand the ways it intersects with racism to create problematic narratives about the femininity of girls of color, and how their own education and self-determination can change these narratives and their devastating effects on policies and practices associated with education, justice, and the economy.
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Though famed entertainer Josephine Baker ultimately flew in from France and was granted a speaking slot at the march, the organizers faced criticism that the initial March on Washington program featured no female speakers. As a result they created a special “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom.” Myrlie Evers was supposed to be the featured speaker for the tribute, but she was unable to attend at the last minute. (Her name, however, was already listed on the program and would remain there.)
The other women listed to be honored in the tribute included Diane Nash, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Prince Lee, the widow of murdered civil rights activist Herbert Lee; Rosa Parks; Daisy Bates, who had served as head of the Arkansas NAACP during the Little Rock Nine crisis; and Gloria Richardson, co-founder of Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee.
Richardson, who is now 91, took some time to share her memories from that day as well as her perspectives on Russell Simmons, President Obama and the modern-day civil rights movement.
When asked for her most profound memory from the March on Washington, Richardson lit up. “The thousands of people that came and the buses! And then the whole energy from those people there, but then I had a bad experience,” she explained. “Because when I got to the platform they took my chair away.”
Asked to elaborate, Richardson recalled that there was a separate tent for the female speakers. When the other women exited, she thought they were headed to the ladies’ room before the official program began. She sat there alone in the tent until march organizer Bayard Rustin came frantically looking for her and explained that she was about to miss the program.
This is likely where they were when Richardson thought they had disappeared to the powder room.
By the time Richardson arrived to the stage with Rustin, her chair with her name on it had been removed. “Lena Horne and Josephine Baker said, ‘They took your chair away. You need to raise hell.’ ” The indignities didn’t end there. Though Richardson had specifically been invited to give two-minute remarks, she recalls that when her name was called and she approached the microphone, “As soon as I said ‘hello’ the marshal took the mic away.” She added, “I thought it was such a great occasion that all of those people from all over the country had gotten there, that I didn’t raise hell, I just went on about my business.”
But the most disappointing moment came later. Richardson missed what was widely considered the march’s highlight. “Before it ended, two marshals came to Lena Horne and me — she had been taking Rosa around to take her around to European satellite stations and saying, ‘This is the woman who started the Montgomery Bus Boycott.’ So before it was over, these marshals came over, saying they thought we’d be overwhelmed [by fans] and escorted us out, so when Martin [Luther King, Jr.] spoke, we were in a cab on the way back to the hotel.
Asked if she believes female civil rights activists were treated as second-class citizens, she said, “Oh, yes! Oh, yes! In terms of the march, yes.”
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This apparent lack of concern and empathy for black women on the part of society lies in dehumanisation and ‘othering’. Given that the dominant narrative the Western world over, is that of the white male existence, black women and other women of colour are doubly othered - on account of their race as well as their gender.
A study conducted in 2008 demonstrates how black people are subconsciously associated with animals, and there is a wealth of research on the objectification and dehumanisation of women. As Jamila Aisha Brown points out, a black woman, Rekia Boyd, was simply an innocent bystander when she was shot by a police officer in 2012. Even now, the officer in question faces no criminal charges, as his file is still awaiting review in Chicago’s State Attorney’s office, yet the name of Rekia Boyd has not had even a fraction of the publicity that Trayvon Martin’s has had. The name of Aiyana Jones, too, a black girl killed due to a police error, has slipped under the public radar.
Media representations, where black women are rendered either invisible or else heavily stereotyped and where they are often portrayed with animalistic language or images, play a huge role in reflecting, as well as feeding into, society’s dehumanisation of black women.
The ubiquity of whiteness and maleness in visible society and the majority of the media means that the interior lives of women of colour are consistently ignored, and are seen not to exist as separate to the white male gaze. Some of the common stereotypes of black women - the ‘mammy’, whose existence revolves around serving white people; the sexually promiscuous ‘Jezebel’; and the ‘angry black woman’ - have been used to defend slavery in the past, and today continue to be used by some to deny black women their humanity and to dismiss their concerns.
Far from being a fancy term thrown about to theorise on, dehumanisation has a very real impact on the lives of black women. It is a large component of justifying violence against an individual, which could explain why black women are significantly more vulnerable to male violence than white women are, and why society finds it so easy to let news of their murders slide by with very little comment.
But what can we do about all this? Well, lots. To start off with, let us see all news outlets pay closer attention to their use of language when reporting on people of colour. Let us see them hire more people from minority groups, (obviously on merit) so as to broaden their journalistic perspective. And let us see more roles for women of colour in films and TV dramas, where they are portrayed as fully developed human beings who change and grow, not a static caricature mired in stereotype.
In society at large, let us see children being exposed to broader sociological perspectives of race and gender in school. Let us see more people becoming aware of how they talk and think about women and minorities. Let us see parents teaching children about media literacy, to critically analyse it instead of consuming it whole. Let us see recruiting methods in organisations that are free of bias, so that we have a higher proportion of minority women in influential positions.
None of these, of course, are silver bullet solutions. Racism, sexism and dehumanisation consist of many tiny strands that have made up the tangle of society, and solutions need to come from all angles to even begin to tackle the issue. And it is imperative that we tackle it, for the lives of women of colour matter too.
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We as people — men — in my experience, we are told we are superior to women, they come from our rib and this and that. That’s all our insecurity, to make us feel like someone, like a slave master. I’m so happy to reach a stage in my life, a paradigm shift. Everything I did believe was a goddamn lie.
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Black women rarely had hold of the microphone, sometimes because of sexism, but they wrote the speeches, they organized the marches, planned the boycotts, took part in the sit-ins and demonstrations, and were beaten, arrested, sexually assaulted, and dehumanized for their efforts alongside the men.
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Black women are among the most steadfastly religious groups in the nation, yet it is precisely because they receive the brunt of sexualized racist stereotyping and objectification that they have become more vocal in atheist organizing. In addition, black women non-believers are continuing a long tradition (ironically fostered in the Black Church and other religious civic and charitable organizations) of community organizing and outreach. And, like their religious foremothers, they are encountering some of the same sexist opposition and resistance to women’s leadership:
I believe women are at the forefront…because we’re willing to stand up and take the hit. There are quite a few men out there that could stand up but they’re not. I often detect some anti-feminist resentment that won’t respect what I have to say. One of the gentlemen in my group will say the same thing I have to say and he will be respected and I won’t. We still have the same patriarchal mindset as those in the religious community.
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African American Women in Jail: Victims or Criminals?
by Shannon O’Brien
"I made this video montage for a class project about Women of Color in the United States. It is written, directed, and edited by me. Narrated by Emily Ben-Jumbo. And the information and pictures were collected by Lauren Leonino and Michael Yohannes. The video is meant to quickly analyze if inmates, especially African American women, are victims of bad situations or criminals as a result."
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Representation matters. It changes minds and cements biases. Individual black women are more likely to be viewed as representatives of their race by the majority culture. Black women and girls do suffer from seeing limited and/or relentlessly negative reflections of themselves in the media. Those limited images do reinforce stereotypes about black women and often prevent people from recognizing their humanity. And those stereotypes do burden black women in their real, everyday lives.
What can we do about that?
Policing the behavior of black women is not the answer. If it is wrong for a contemporary black actress to portray a maid, what message are we sending to black women who do domestic work? If it is wrong to be shown having sex with white men, what does that say about black women in interracial relationships with white men? If Erykah Badu is a whore for having children out of wedlock, what does that say about all black single mothers? Indeed, since more than half of births to all women under 30 occur outside of marriage (regardless of race), what does it say about women as a whole?
The goal of respectability politics may be noble, but the execution is flawed, damaging, and ineffective. By indulging in respectability politics, we acquiesce to the racially biased idea that the actions of individual black people are representative of the whole. We add to the pre-existing burdens of racism and sexism. And we fail to solve our problem, because we move the responsibility for eradicating race and gender biases from the powerful institutions and systems that perpetrate them to those oppressed by them. It is easier to try to control the oppressed than challenge the oppressor, but it is rarely a humane or useful approach.
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