“That Man is Suspect”: Perspectives on Black Masculinity from a Black Queer Mother

Raising Black children—female and male—in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive. And in order to survive they must let go. This is what mothers teach—love, survival—that is, self-definition and letting go. For each of these, the ability to feel strongly and to recognize those feelings is central: how to feel love, how to neither discount fear nor be overwhelmed by it, how to enjoy feeling deeply.  ~Audre Lorde

How to be –in this world–/…Multiple. Petal/to/petal-Bending. Velvety-   /a    Dripping        Bloom/

How is presence (in this world)…Limited. Metal-to-metal. Wrist bound/Twined-      a  thirsting      bud

~Candice Merritt, “Black Being”

An Introduction

In the summer of 1979, black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde penned one of her famed essays titled “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response.” She wrote the following about raising her then 14 year old son, Jonathan:

“The strongest lesson I can teach my son is the same lesson I teach my daughter: how to be who he wishes to be for himself. And the best way I can do this is to be who I am and hope that he will learn from this not how to be me, which is not possible, but how to be himself” (77).

I return to this essay today for solace and guidance as I think through the social and political conditions my son, a growing young black man, must sift through and navigate without me doing it for him. Like many black mothers and women, I too, carry the fear of my child’s survival in a world seemingly designed to crush his difference should he deter from proscribed paths and/or rigged to destroy his existence entirely should he stimulate a threat just for being perceived as young, black, and male.

Since coming back from travelling to my home for the holidays, I have reflected on my son’s maturation and several family conversations over the years. In doing so, I have become acquainted again with the expectations around my son from both public and intimate spheres. In particular, I have come to realize how much I am invested in trying to protect him from the demands placed upon his body. Here, I am thinking of his body in terms of not only its physicality but also as a larger metaphor for self-expression of his personhood.

I am thinking of the possibilities of how my son can decide to comport, dress, adorn, and shape his body to his desires and/or others. This essay is about how my son’s body, a perceived black and male body, is imagined publicly and intimately. It is about what modes of being are sanctioned and embraced while others must be torn out from silence and reclaimed.

“Man, a cat?! Y’all better get that boy a pitbull!”

When I think of my son, I think of a seven year old boy with sparkling, large brown eyes and wild black hair. I think of a boy who loved helping his grandmother garden and plant elephant ears outside our old, red brick home. He had a green thumb for sure then. I think of a boy with creativity that enjoyed painting and drawing favorite cartoon characters. I think of a boy with curiosity and interest in the greater world around him since he loved to go to the Science Center and see all the new animal exhibits.  Overall, I envision a boy with a kind sweetness—one who picked a flower and gifted it to his aunt.

These days, I must remember that my son is no longer seven and now approaches the age of sixteen. He is now taller than me (some say that this is not that hard to accomplish). He has hairy shadows on his neck and face. His voice has deepened, and his chest has somehow expanded.  He is also more independent than ever. I try to not take it personally that he no longer wants to spend every waking moment with me. Years ago, I was shocked that he chose to play his game online with friends rather than watch a movie on the couch with me even after not seeing me for a few months.  I had to remember as well than I did the same at his age, and also—I still do not want to spend every waking moment with my parents either.

Though my son is not the young boy I often remember him to be, he has not changed too much. These days, I imagine a young man with dreams of becoming a world champion gamer in first person shooters while making sure his cat and gecko lizard share in the glory (he loves his animals). His green thumb may now be trained for the left and right analog sticks, but he will still be up for a family adventure in gardening if we decided to do so. He is also still dazzled and fascinated by fictional worlds of fantastic beasts (and so am I). In the end, my son continues to exhibit the kindness and love of his young self; and I am proud of his growing quirks and his quiet nerdiness which believes that Disney has ruined the Star Wars canon since it no longer includes the extended universe.

I do not want the world to take my son away.

Of course, I am thinking of the physical threats to my child’s existence, but I am also incredibly anxious over the psychic and social ones that he must and will endure throughout his lifetime.

In American public discourses, we often hear of the state violence enacted upon black men and boys which sometimes comes at the expense of obfuscating the queer lives that have been taken by state violence as well. I am not here to pen more to this conversation which I know applies to my son. I write this today to etch a more explicit space to consider how black boys and men are narrowly imagined in the first place—imagined narrowly not just by the majority white society that my son and I find ourselves to occupy but also within our own communities we call “home,” such as our families, neighborhoods, churches, and schools. In short, I am not just afraid of the bullets etched by histories of American racism that could pierce my son’s body; I am also afraid of what might get destroyed within his self as he navigates meanings of blackness and manhood by those closest to him and me.

What are the ideal images of black manhood? What does it really mean to be black and a man?

These are the questions that I find tenuous to answer. The answers are contentious—some are irrevocable—others, incredibly deadly.

The answers to these questions play out often between my family and I; and the racial, sexual, and gendered meanings between us are so important that even the smallest minutiae of life choices come to matter, such as the choice of a family pet. My son has had a vast gamut of pets over the years—from hermit crabs, hamsters, fish, and now cats. One of my brothers believes that my son should not have a cat and that the family needs to get him a pitbull—a kind of symbol of masculine power, protection, sometimes aggression, and also loyalty. The cat, unfortunately, does not make the cut. The cat, a feline, has been cemented as feminine, the one to be chased—passive, finicky, and even untrustworthy. A kind of physical epitome of “These Hoes Ain’t Loyal” sentiment I guess.

My son adores his cat and his cat the same. We got her for his birthday years ago and he chose her because her name was Oreo, a favorite cookie of his, and because she was also black and white. I have had to defend this choice of a pet over the years. For practical reasons, the dog takes more maintenance and we do not have an enclosed yard at home nor at the time did my family and I want to take too much time caring for a dog anyways. Besides this, it is just a cat—a pet that can still teach him responsibility and bonding.

But, I know too well that the association of a cat fails to perpetuate ideas of proper masculinity. For instance, I have had one family member tell me that she would find a grown man “suspicious” if he owned a cat for a pet and would not date him out of fear that he could be “that way.” I find such meanings incredulous and comical, but also feel fatigue at trying to explain that the cat and the dog does not inherently mean masculine and feminine. Culturally, we have assigned meanings to these living creatures and imagined their existence in particular ways. What is threatened when a black man or boy exhibits attachment to this animal rather than others? As such, I cannot muster the energy every time to tell my relatives that if owning a cat means a boy or man is gay, then so what. So, I just tell my brother to just leave him be—if the boy wants a cat, let him have a cat.

After thinking through these conversations, I recently came across a picture of civil rights leader and American Congressman, John Lewis, with his cats during the holiday season. According to his Facebook page, Louis posted a new year’s greeting and wished everyone a safe holiday break. In doing so, he also shared the following photo (seen on the right) of how he spent his break playing with his cats.

Congressman Lewis and Cats
Representative John Lewis with his two cats

I felt joyed when I saw this photograph. The picture reminds me of my son playing in crunchy leaves outside when he was little and also of moments in which he has found joy in the care and company of his pets. I also felt relieved when I gazed at the photograph given my history of conversations and defense of my son’s choice for a pet.

Congressman Lewis is a well-respected, black man. He has historically fought for black civil rights, showing his commitment to black community life; is in a heterosexual marriage; educated; and has been decorated with various honors over the years. I felt relief because a “traditional” black man was seen playing with his cats, and no one questioned his masculinity or sexuality (yet) over the picture.

Although I am not here to push for calls of respectability, I was delighted to witness a respected black male so openly share a moment of play with his feline critters. To me, it reflects a moment of expanding bounds of black manhood. Although my feelings of relief does not question notions of “respect” and “tradition,” the picture provides a kind of visual consolation to my family. The picture, to me, says: “See! A respectable black man can have a cat! The cat doesn’t mean he is gay!”

“No man should be caught dancing like that, nephew”

The question of which pet is appropriate for a black boy to keep remains a historic one in my family. A more recent debate arose at home during this holiday season about the proper way black men and boys should physically express themselves. The conversation centered around professional football and NFL player, Odell Beckham Jr. and a series of videos that show him dancing for fans and with male friends.

Admittedly, football is an important sport in my family. Both of my brothers played it—each did in high school and one did it in college.  My oldest brother has had all three of his sons play the sport and has also done coaching. My other brother currently coaches a local little league team. From my perspective, the game is a “proper” sport to socialize young boys and men. The sport values appropriate male-bonding (competition, loyalty, and friendship) and also expressions of aggression and strength for what many consider goals for ideal male body development.

I must also state that I know that the sport to both of my brothers also represents a “ticket out” the “hood” in which my family and son lives. Thus, the question of whether or not my son should or should not play high school football became a heated and complex one when the time came to decide which high school he should attend. Since playing football is not solely about “correct” gender and sexual formation for black boys, the discussion also heavily intertwined with desires about which social avenues should young black boys take in order to achieve safety from poverty and racism in larger society.

I have told each of my brothers that football will not be my son’s only avenue out of poverty and that we should also value his intellect, curiosity, and creativity as well. He currently goes to a high school that does not have a football team and is known for its academics. This comes as a disappointment to both of my brothers, but I am dedicated to valuing my son’s body in a different way. We permit my son to play the sports that are available to him at the school since he does like to be active and does find a way to channel his emotions in the competition and in the physical practices required by the sports themselves. This, of course, still does not stop my oldest brother for finding football teams at other schools for my son to play at since he considers my son’s body as a “football body.”

This kind of looking and interpretation of my son’s body—a forming, black body, coded male—I find limiting in some respects. This narrow view of black male bodies became incredibly clear to me during a holiday conversation between my brothers, my father, and oldest nephew. Traditionally, during Christmas season, my family and I all gather around the television. When both brothers are in the house, sports become the show of choice and my brothers and dad begin to talk shop.

This Christmas, they and my nephew began to talk about playoff scenarios. During the conversation, the recent suspension of the New York Giants player Odell Beckham Jr. flashed across the television. I had no idea of who Beckham was. I heard that he began a fight during a game because another player called him a gay slur. Instead of calling out the homophobic remarks pelted at Beckham, my brother began to verbally confess that he found Odell Beckham Jr. “suspect.” He showed me a video of him dancing in a club with “no females”  and another with him and his friend that someone re-posted on YouTube with their written disapproval.

I looked upon the first video and felt elated at the sheer joy and fun that I thought Beckham to exhibit. Of course, I yelled, “YASSSSS!” when I saw it since I thought Beckham was, what I term,”gettin’ it.” The dancing itself looks like a mix of popular ones (Whip and Nae Nae) and Odell is front and center with sparkling silver shoes!

While watching, I felt an instant desire to join, imitate, and celebrate. My brothers, however, felt otherwise. My brothers instead focused on the men present in the video and the one that joins Beckham towards the end. One of my brothers was afraid that he was “backing up” on some dude, and I could not help but feel his disgust and disapproval.

My oldest nephew was present and defended Beckham. He retorted that just because a man dances does not mean he is gay. I agreed with my nephew, but my nephew’s defense came with the unquestioned assumption that any sexual expression outside of a heterosexual arrangement is unacceptable. I concurred and added, “Well, if he is gay though, that is okay.” My brother, however, could only say, “Nephew, no man, especially an NFL player, should be seen dancing like that.”

Reflecting back on this moment, I cannot help but feel my sadness at the constraints around black bodies, especially those around my son, his cousins, and my brothers.  Black being continues to be policed quite literally in the broader culture and streets. Yet, communities we call “home” engage in all kinds of policing of black self-expression. In the end, I am left asking:  Why do we confine black bodies to certain comportment, sounds, and expressions when we continue to seek freedom in the broadest senses?

“This generation right here today”: Envisioning Masculinities and Plural Expressions

When I think of the elation experienced by Beckham and his pleasure in movement with himself and others, I cannot help but think of black joy and the collective histories of our bodies enjoying rhythm and music. Historically, black bodily expression such as dancing, singing, and hairstyling has been castigated as “evil” and/or “excessive” by dominant white culture even while dominant culture has simultaneously taken pleasure in black cultural aesthetics. White fear and anxiety over the growing popularity of rock-n-roll and hip hop suffices as evidence. American cultural history should make us think further over why white parents worried over Elvis gyrating or over Eminem flipping the bird. Such cultural aesthetics and practices were transgressive of racial, gender, and sexual expectations of which groups of people engaged in low, dirty acts of the body and which did not.  Regardless of those who privileged repression and constriction of the body, the fact remains—the body can be a site of pleasure, and many of us across cultural groups have found joy and expression with/in our bodies and with other bodies as well.

My brothers may suspect that men who dance in a “feminine” way reflect a new day and age where black folk are “suddenly gay.” Arguably, gay and queer visibility has increased today, but Beckham’s expression of dance reflects a much longer history of black individuals who have choreographed rhythms and dancing forms with one another and have loved doing so. I do not know why many do not make this historic connection. After all, Soul Train was not that long ago.

Many in my son and I’s intimate spheres must begin to think of masculinity as non-singular and as an ever-changing way of shaping, carrying, dressing, and adorning the body. Cultural critic, Rinaldo Walcott writes that discussions of “black masculinity in the public sphere…assume not only heterosexuality,” but the popular way we talk about black masculinity also assumes one “…coherent black masculinity as well” (76).

This kind of coherency, or recognition of a “true” and only “one” black masculinity, heavily relies on a historic narrative of the emasculation of black manhood usually beginning with American slavery. The story goes: the black man could not be a man since he was another man’s property. He was a victim and now he needs to become a victor.

I write this not to diminish the brutality of American chattel slavery that black beings were subjected to.  I problematize this particular narrative of black manhood in history and current day America because it begs the question of how does black masculinity become victorious if we do not challenge what cultural ideas of power and masculinity look like in the first place. What does “fixing” black men and boys look like? What gets excised on the way to establishing the one idea of proper black manhood? Such a question calls us to dig further to untangle notions of manhood from conflations of masculinity with aggression, property, and domination.

As I begin to untangle masculinity with traditional notions of power, I am left with Audre Lorde’s vision for her son, Jonathan. She shares:

“I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self” (74).

As my son matures and considers expressions of manhood and sexuality, I want him to know that to be a man means to embrace all parts of himself even when others tell him to hide or repress those traits deemed “undesirable.” I want him to value kindness and the vast expressions of human emotions (not just anger, happiness, or desire, but also sadness, fear, and more).

I want him to know that should he choose to explore his sexuality with another being, that it be done safely (both in the physical and emotional senses) and in full honest communication with one another. And should he decide to make more permanent intimate relationships, he should know that he must question notions of powerful/powerless and popular representations of human interaction. In doing so, he must practice feeling, connection, openness, and trust—all practices that I work on as an adult in relationships that I value.

Additionally, the question of what is proper black masculinity forces us to confront the reality that blackness and manhood are a variety of expressions. Blackness and manhood as quirky, giddy, playful, and fierce (in the Bey sense of the word) must be part of the sanctioned cultural repertoire. Consider Jaden Smith’s recent Louis Vuitton’s womenswear modelling and the androgynous photo shoot by Morehouse College graduate, Jamal Lewis, in Fall 2015:

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Some have said that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith should “get their son” and should not let a boy wear a dress as I heard on a local radio morning talk show the other day.  Clearly, “womenswear” serves as a mismatch for the idea of respectable black manhood. Perhaps Jaden will “get away” with this since he has access to more social and economic capital than many other black males, and his body has not been seen being “inappropriate” with bodies considered male. Regardless, many are still confused at Jaden’s fashion expression. Just listen to the conversation about the matter on the The View.

Similarly, the image of Morehouse College alum, Jamal Lewis, also challenges singular notions of black manhood as well. Lewis identifies outside of traditional ways of thinking of gender as simply man or woman. Lewis uses he and she pronouns and does not seek to have a “proper” or recognizable gender definition. As a result, Lewis has faced strange looks, institutional attire bans (women’s attire donned by students was banned in 2009 at Morehouse along with other “undesirable” garb), and probably some verbal scolding for his/her way of expression. I am not going to share the comments I have seen in regards to the Buzzfeed article that featured the photographs and story of Jamal Lewis’ experience at Morehouse College. I will just say that many black voices concluded that Lewis just did not belong at a historically black, all male, institution.

Considering the historic and literal constraints on black bodies and the current narrow holds on how we imagine black men and boys to be, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ photographs against the grain. As I gaze upon their pictures, I tell myself that there is no one way to be black and/or a man. I choose to see black freedom and expression.

For Jaden, I see a kind of quirkiness in the high fashion getup itself. For Lewis, I am reading “fierce.” In each, I am thinking of blackness as multiplicity, beautiful, fluid, and deliberate. I choose to read these black bodies as being in a particular time and moment and not bound by the frames in which they appear then and there. I choose to remember that black bodies have always been monitored, policed, and shackled, and we have always tried to get our being free. As such, I choose to read Smith and Lewis’ expression as just being and as representative of a  much larger possibility for multiple types of pleasures and self-fashioning with/in black bodies.

As a black queer mother, I affirm these self-expressions. I do not hold these images as the only representations of black male bodies for my son, other boys, and men to aspire to.  I affirm these photographs because I want to let my son know that being in this world is multiplicity and complex. It is about bending and resisting that which tries to dry us of our joy and detain our magic. I affirm plural expressions of black being and the various ways many of us have come to name and carry ourselves. In the end, I do it for freedom—for my son’s sake, and my own.

Dear Bristol: #SayHerName Cuz’ We are “Guilty, Always” Before The Law

Another week brings another video illuminating a moment of police use of force against a black body. This moment sheds light on a senior deputy in South Carolina violently removing a young black girl from her desk within a classroom at Spring Valley High School.

These videos add to our growing archive of truths that many U.S. communities of color have built through experience and collective memory. Many communities and individuals have learned to draw upon this archive when teaching ourselves (adults and kids) on the dynamics of police and authoritative power and the consequences (many devastating) when authority “feels” threatened and/or disrespected.

Unfortunately, I am not shocked that many have come to weigh in and defend the actions of police officers. After all, our culture demands obedience and compliance to authority figures ranging from parents, teachers, church officials, and police officers.

We must ask ourselves what is at stake when culture demands “compliance” without question, especially when culture demands obedience to powerful institutions that have historically engaged in the enforcement of inequality within our country. Police forces were designed to serve and protect, but in that decree, law enforcement served a particular body of people and protected them from certain “others” deemed undesirable and dangerous.  The logic plays out quite nicely in our historic, cultural tropes of “good guys” versus “bad guys”; Cowboys and Indians; Whites and Blacks; etc.

So, to those, such as Bristol Palin, a “redeemed” woman who quickly married to avoid bearing her child out-of-wedlock, that argue that parents are “failing” to teach kids obedience to the law, I write you this short, poetic meditation on race, history, and law for reflection. I title it: “Guilty, Always.”

Guilty Always

Why Meryl Streep Ain’t Gettin’ My Money for Suffragette

I admire Meryl Streep.  She has made my Best Actresses of All Time list quite often in my life. She made it when I saw Sophie’s ChoiceDeath Becomes Her (added this one later); The Devil Wears Prada; and for The Iron Lady, too.

Streep’s latest, Suffragette, however, will not be getting my monetary support nor verbal admiration.  Maybe it will be one of those films that I come to consume later through Netflix, or perhaps when I visit home to watch a decent bootleg rendition. (On the real though, my family will most likely go with a bootleg of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit since it dabbles in horror.)

“But, you’re a feminist and it’s a women’s rights movie!”

I can hear the push back now for my admittance to not wanting to see the film. Many may think I would and should go out to support a film that tells the struggle of voting rights by women in Britain. After all, I do name myself a feminist, and the film has been marketed so far as a championing narrative of human rights and gender equality. Streep and others have even contextualized the importance of the historic biopic to talk about current day inequities that women face in the film industry.

Admittedly, I was intrigued by the film when I saw an online poster and realized that Meryl Streep starred in the cast. Streep has a kind of Midas touch for me in a film. But, I was still only about twenty percent likely to go out and spend my money on it when I saw the advertisement.

Then, this happened:

suffragette.jpg.CROP.rtstoryvar-large

The above image comes from an ad campaign for the film featured in London’s Time Out magazine. The image represents all the reasons why I did not want to see Suffragette in the first place.  And damn, did this image really sink my twenty percent in a matter of seconds.

Feminist “Origin” Stories as (White) Women’s Voting Rights Movements

Suffragette is not alone in perpetuating a linear narrative of feminist movement history. The main reason why I was only twenty percent likely to go see the film was in part due to how I have been taught feminist history inside and outside academic spaces. More often than not, feminist movements’ “beginning” agitators start with the political campaigns led by white (often-middle class) women in the western hemisphere in the twentieth century.

I have always had a fraught relationship to this kind of origin narrative of “women’s rights” and feminism because there remains an absence of the political activities of women of color. Why do we often start with voting rights as the political birth moment of feminism and women’s movements? Why not start with the political agitation of slave women or women like Ida B. Wells who led a transnational campaign to end U.S. lynching?

These questions began during my undergraduate course Histories of Feminist Thought which structured feminist history in a chronological order. The beginning point of our curriculum commenced with The Book of the City of Ladies by Italian French author, Christine de Pizan, published in 1405. I recall our class discussing Pizan’s arguments for women’s education, their gifts of virtue, and their capacity for governance. I remember feeling a bit thrilled to find such an old text that argued for “feminism” when it had not been named yet, but something about the lineage of feminism beginning in Europe dismayed me. “Where were black women or any other woman for that matter?,” I quietly thought.

That course continued this trend of producing a limited “feminist canon.” We read Wollstonecraft, Mills, Stanton, Anthony, Grimke, Goldman, Sanger, Woolf, Beauvoir, etc. There were a few glimpses of color, and when we did show up, I always felt that black women were a kind of oddity that stood outside the canon of feminism and “women’s history.” The feeling persists even though scholars have documented the contributions by black women to voting rights campaigns despite their exclusion from the majority of these political spaces (i.e. Seneca Falls) because of their considered detriment to the cause (read: white men were less likely to extend the vote to white women with “others” in the mix. See Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class for a historical coverage of the U.S. suffrage and abolition movements and the fissures between each.)

This sense of difference became public one class period when we read selections from Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record.  I recall a kind of silence in class when asked if any of us considered Well’s work a “feminist” one. I had my response formulated from the night before. My response to that question required a lot of personal mental gymnastics since up to that point, “feminism” seemed to only consider the plights of (white) “wives” and (white) “mothers.” Unlike my good friend, a white gay male, who shared in class that it was the most decidedly feminist works we had read that semester, I had not come so easily to that conclusion about Well’s political writings and activities.

I recall questioning, as I read Wells’ work, “This text is about the wrongful treatment and murders of black men. How is this feminist?” I feel a bit embarrassed now to admit this, but at the time it was a heavy question for myself to consider. Who was the subject of feminist thought and concern? All the texts we had read prior did not point to concerns beyond white women’s oppression under the institutions of marriage and motherhood. I remember feeling frustrated, angry, and alone that I had to mentally fight to include the lynchings of African American men as a feminist issue. It felt like I lacked access to a language that could assist me in making the connection between lynching and feminist analysis.

After hours of writing and serious critical thinking, I came to conceptualize Wells’ work as an indictment of the controlling sexual myths of African Americans and how notions of white womanhood and white male paternalism interacted to produce white male violence against black male bodies. Analyses of power, gender, race, and sexuality were screaming directly in my face in Wells’ work, and somehow I was very close to missing it in a feminist history course.

This particular shaping of “feminist issues” and “women’s history” in curricula, activist organizations, and popular culture is powerful to say the least. If “women’s history” and “feminism” continue to foreground narratives of white women’s struggle against the legal and cultural boundaries of domesticity, our collective visions and definitions of women and feminism will remain narrow and exclusionary.

Why White Women Were Not Slaves and Why Black Slaves Were Not Women

The structural way we think about “women’s history” brings me back to Suffragette‘s ad campaign. As I look upon these white women wearing bright promo T-shirts donning the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” I cringe with anger.

The phrase comes from a speech by women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) in 1913. Many say that the T-shirt promo takes the phrase out of its historic context, and that’s why it is wrong, but I disagree.

The phrase was wrong then, and it is still wrong now.

This is not an argument over who can refer to slavery or use the word slave. This is just a matter of historic fact. White women suffragists were not slaves by law, and black female slaves were not considered women. To be a woman meant to be human, and black slaves were not human. We were considered chattel—non-human property.

Pankhurst was not unique in equating white women suffragists’ status and oppression to that of slaves. Many white women suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, invoked the imagery of slavery to compare to the institution of marriage. Doing so was quite shocking and inflaming then. White suffragists and suffragettes definitely used the slogan to rally their cause for enfranchisement.

Despite its political utility, this historic conflation should not have been made. The institutions of marriage and slavery were not the same, and each encompassed disparate experiences. The comparison egregiously erases slavery’s process of diminishing blacks’ humanity and the brutal violence that slave persons had to endure and experience under their status as property. It also downplays the social privileges tied to marriage—a conferral of humanity and respectability to name a few.

I sometimes wonder if Pankhurst had other options for a rallying slogan. Maybe the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a woman” was a viable consideration since woman connoted docility and gentility. To me, it seems like many white suffragists were rebelling against the constraints and expectations of white womanhood, but many wanted to keep their status. Of course, I cannot go back and change history, but I wish media campaigners of Suffragette could have thought otherwise.

So Where Can We Go From Here?

It can be quite infuriating to witness this phrase play out again in 2015. So much so, that many of us will get into debates about whose conditions were actually worse off than the other.

I am sure I will hear that white married women were functionally property under law as well. That under the institution of marriage, marital rape was not yet recognized, and that white women did not have legal access to their children if separated from their husbands. To counter, I might hear that white women had privileges accrued to them by notions of humanity and virtue; that they did not experience the physical and emotional hardships of being considered slave labor; and that they were still considered at risk of rape unlike black slave women who were considered lascivious animals.

This is a dangerous place to be for women (feminists and non-feminists alike). Debating who had it worse then or now and whose oppression should come first can do us more harm than good if we wish to build a broad feminist movement or any large coalitional movement for social justice.

No matter what, we need to stop making conflations between our conditions and recognize connections between various systems of privilege and oppression. For example, we have to ask how notions of “good” women interplay with ideas of “bad” women, and how each are a function of powerful systems of thought. How do various divisions (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) work together keep certain men and women from experiencing opportunities that may remain open to a privileged few?

Next, we have to expand our understanding and definitions of “women’s history” and “women’s empowerment.” I envision a culture in which the story of Harriet Tubman’s Combahee River Raid gets mass marketed as a “women’s empowerment” and “women’s history” flick as well as an incredible moment in black history. At the heart of this desire is a vision of multiple representations of feminist struggle and history. Such a vision seeks to break down the very dominant subject of feminist thought and history—the white woman—perhaps even woman itself.

For now I will be continuing to finish Madame Bovary on Netflix this evening. Bovary’s oppression is real and I wish it could have turned out better for all parties involved. As for Suffragette, I can only take so many historic pieces focused on white women’s struggle no matter how well it pulls at my heart strings—no matter if Meryl Streep stars in it.

How To Exercise Intersectionality’s Punch? Make Segregation a Feminist Issue.

On September 19, 2015, Viola Davis invoked the words of Harriet Tubman as she accepted the prestigious Emmy award for best lead actress on a drama series. As the first African-American woman to receive the award, she recited:

“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”

The image is haunting.

In my mind I see a common black and white photograph of Tubman—stoic and upright—gazing outward. Then, I see a colorful pasture of yellow daisies with thin green stems. I then think of Tubman looking out at Scarlet O’Hara frolicking in Little House on the Prairie fields, questioning: “How could I ever be over there with that woman without having to change her chamber pot?”

It is the image of Tubman’s line and Viola Davis’ invocation that sticks with me. As a metaphor, Tubman’s line invokes overall divisions and separations between white and black women. Yet, the United States circa 1800s makes Tubman’s imagined line in this instance more than a metaphor. Unfortunately, I would argue that the United States circa 2015 makes Viola Davis’ line more than a metaphor, as well.

Intersectionality and Differences within Women

I write this piece in a time where many black feminists publicly continue to push movements for racial justice and gender justice to understand oppression as commonly intertwined, interlocked, or what many have termed “intersectional”—while other black feminists have denoted that the concept of “intersectionality” has lost its punch, and has now become a mere label for many to claim but not necessarily practice (see Racialicious editor, Latoya Peterson’s Washington Post’s opinion piece).

For those of us who are not familiar with the concept or word, “intersectionality” became a term in 1989 deployed by black feminist and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in her article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” In her legal analysis, Crenshaw details the failures of antidiscrimination law to protect black women. Crenshaw cites a history in which black women plaintiffs could not go before courts as representatives of the commonly recognized injured classes of “women” or “blacks.” In those instances, the experiences of the black women plaintiffs could not be articulated under the precedents of “sex discrimination” or “race discrimination” with the former being rooted in white women’s experience and the latter in black men’s. Since the black women plaintiffs’ experience of sex and race discrimination did not follow those of white women or black men, the courts could not recognize their claims and could not compensate the plaintiffs.  Crenshaw, thus, advocated for the law, antiracist politics, and white feminist politics to consider social injury occurring along lines of race and gender and not either/or.

Since Crenshaw’s seminal work, intersectionality has become known as the single most important contribution made by feminists and black feminists, in particular. The concept has travelled across various disciplines and fields within the academy ranging from sociology, psychology, history, political science, philosophy, etc. It has also been taken up in various activist circles such as the #SayHerName campaign—a campaign that calls for the attention of police violence against black women. The concept has also been taken up by public critics such as black feminist scholar, Dr. Britney Cooper, who recently wrote that “Black lives do matter–all of them.” In our current call to value black lives, Cooper calls our attention to black people’s experiences of transphobia and homophobia in activist spaces, and reminds us that we blacks are also trans and gender non-conforming, and that black politics as a whole must get on board with this reality. #thatsmysibDrCoop

At the end of the day, intersectionality at its base level teaches us that there are differences within large social categories and that “women’s oppression” goes beyond sexism. Long time General Hospital actress, Nancy Lee Grahn, needed to learn this primary lesson Sunday night when she blasted Viola Davis’ Emmy speech for bringing up race, but celebrated Patty Arquette’s speech for gender equality at the 2015 Oscars. #ReallyNancy

Intersectionality, however, goes beyond understanding individual and intragroup differences. I say however because I want us to consider how intersectionality can be critical to understanding the interplay between large scale stratification and systems of power, such that some groups of women have better material and life outcomes than others (i.e. better health, employment opportunities, education, and wealth.) Here, at the macro-level, intersectionality still packs more than a punch; it’s got a damn uppercut.

Intersectionality and the Residential Segregation of Women

So this leads me back to Tubman and Davis’s referenced line between white women and black women. Of course, Davis’ line is drawn within a context of television and the accessibility of acting roles or lack thereof for black women and other women of color. I am thinking more literal here. I am thinking of a more Tubman kind of line. I am thinking of residential segregation between white women and women of color.

Segregation consists of literal lines between women and residential segregation is still quite prominent today despite the Supreme Court’s overturning of “separate but equal.”  Thirty plus years after the Brown decision, I still grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in St. Louis that suffered from de-industrialization and massive white flight. That means the crippled economy of my neighborhood led to the deterioration of businesses, abandoned houses, and low-funded public neighborhood schools. I did not have white friends (mostly girls) until I entered a public magnet high school. The magnet program was designed to attract white parents and resource-laden families who had abandoned the city and neighborhood schools in favor of “county” or suburban public schools and private ones.

None of my white girl friends in high school lived in my neighborhood. They either lived in the south portion of the city, in a gated community, or outside the city in the county-suburb. The segregated line between us was real, and that line was called Delmar Boulevard—the notorious dividing race and class line of St. Louis city.

On my way to Lucy and Becky’s house, my mother would drive south down Kingshighway, and once we crossed Delmar Boulevard, the physical landscape of the city transformed. On my end—the north side—fast food joints, check-cashing/money order places, and liquor stores suddenly ended. After we crossed Delmar to the south side, I would soon notice the large-barred opening entrances of gated housing enclaves that featured large dream homes, then hotels, a theater, and the multi-hospital complex next to vast green spaces which housed the great art and history museums of the city.

It felt like we lived in different worlds along the same road, and our parents knew that. Once I remember my white friend’s father yelling at her over the phone while she took me home at night. It was not past her curfew and he knew I was her friend. Her father, however, considered my side of town a dangerous ghetto, especially after dark. My parents knew of this perception, too, and they often were surprised that my white friends could and would come to our house.

As I look back upon my friendships with Becky and Lucy, my memories are filled with our fun times together. I recall how we enjoyed female punk artists and queer folk bands; how we went to weekly trivia night at the lesbian coffee house on the south side; and then ate at our favorite Vietnamese joint and diners nearby.

At the individual level, intersectionality has helped me think of how Becky, Lucy, and I came from different racial and class backgrounds. It has enabled me to think of how we differently expressed gender and our sexuality. As young women, we knew that we were different and it was important to understand and accept that between us.

Looking back at my friendships with intersectionality at the macro-level in mind, my thoughts go beyond matters of individual differences and questions of identity. At the macro-level, I have to think of the structural differences within our lives—the ones that physically separated my home and community from Becky and Lucy’s.

Why were our neighborhoods so different? The development of locales is far from incidental. Residential segregation is a tool of social engineering. Histories of redlining, housing discrimination, urban development policy, and the continued practices of these policies (although many are illegal) shape who can walk to the local farmer’s market and those who may have to drive more than a few miles for fresh fruit.

The macro-level questions of intersectionality would consider what histories and policies create the disparate landscapes women find themselves in. What history of racism, classicism, xenophobia, or prejudice caused one woman’s neighborhood to become severed into two, so that one now has a larger tax base and a separate public service system while the other’s infrastructure deteriorated? It would also ask how such occurrences constrict and/or erase opportunities for women.

Expanding Feminist Politics

It is important to note that the neighborhoods women and girls find themselves within are not stratified based on a gendered logic of masculine and feminine. Neighborhoods are not divided by women and men, but are often divided by race, ethnicity, and economics. As such, white women and women of color are often not going to the same schools, churches, associations, parks, and businesses.

Feminists must think of the implications of this physical separation of women. First it can explain why a more unified feminist movement remains difficult to achieve. We simply find ourselves in homogeneous intimate spaces and we do not know each other; we remain strangers to one another. To undo this, that requires the work of bridging our social distance which sometimes seems irreconcilable, threatening, or exhausting.

This separation also influences what gets deemed a “women’s issue.” Residential segregation often gets talked about as “race or class” matter only because “women’s issues” are viewed through a lens of sex/gender injury. If we are to envision a feminist movement that truly wants to enhance the life outcomes of all women then mainstream feminists must also politicize issues of segregation and think of various kinds of thought and practices that interlock and intersect to determine who gets a promotion or who continues to clean toilets for a low-wage.

We must utilize intersectionality at the macro-level of analysis when determining what to politicize because fighting for equality between the sexes will do nothing to guarantee that women of color living in impoverished enclaves have better access to health care, education, and employment (being equal to the poor men in these communities will still leave poverty intact). Fighting for equality between the sexes will also not guarantee that women of color will not face police brutality, mass incarceration, or other forms of state violence, such as reduced public safety nets that combat hunger, malnutrition, and job instability.

At the end of the day, feminist politics must expand, and that means that gender equality must also be a battle for racial and economic equity.  To put it simply, it means that feminists must work to do away with the physical lines drawn from Harriet Tubman and Viola Davis’ time.

Getting White Girled: A Sociopolitical Perspective

White Girl \hwahyt gurl\ verb.  -ed, – ing. –tr. 1. To fail to recognize racial privilege: Abigail complained to Brittany that the school should celebrate a white history month since there is a black history month; Abigail just white girled Brittany2. To deflect responsibility for problematic behavior: Mindy white girls me every time I try to talk to her about race in America; she says I am just too sensitive. 3. To emotionally manipulate for influence and sympathy either purposefully or unconsciously: Maddie began white girling the whole group by crying about black women not listening to her.

Today I would like to describe the sociopolitical phenomenon called “Getting White Girled.” Urban Dictionary has already beat me to the punch with an entry on “white girled.” I thought I was a creative genius when I finally found the linguistic terminology to name the experience of certain social interactions with white women in both public and intimate spaces. Come to find out, “getting white girled” happens on a much wider sociological scale. I am not surprised.

Urban Dictionary touches upon some important aspects of the phenomenon. Emotional gestures for sympathy and the deflection of responsibility can be critical tactics in the practice of white girling. I think the top definition entry deserves more elaboration, and I should contextualize my usage of the phrase.

I situate “white girling” or “getting white girled” in the sociopolitical context of race and gender relations in our country. Specifically, I am referring to a dynamic that can occur between white women and women of color, especially during discussions of race. “Getting white girled” has its own personal contours for me. Let us begin with its origin of use and go from there.

“Girl, I just got white girled”

I recall the first time I used the phrase. It was an instinctual quip formulated in response to an exchange with a white woman co-worker. We worked on the same team in a high pressure environment. At the end of one work day, she requested that I process a form for her. I set it aside for the next business day to complete in the morning. It was not time-sensitive and it was a favor. Before my first sip of coffee the next day, my co-worker came rushing into my cubicle frantically asking if I had completed the form because “I needed that done, like, yesterday,” she stated. ::record screeches::

“First boo-boo, I am not your secretary. Second, we are co-workers. You ain’t my boss. You don’t sign my papers or my checks, so don’t come at me like that, and third–who the fuck you think you are!”

I wish I could have said that, but I didn’t. It was a brief fantasy of black girl resistance to white micro-aggressions. The moment called for another kind of social and emotional intelligence on my part– one that did not involve me getting labeled an “angry black woman.”

So, it really went like this: “[insert nice white girl name], are you okay? Is something wrong today?” While giving a caring look, my co-worker sat down and went on to vent about how stressed she was by work as if explaining her stress was an excuse for treating me like her personal assistant.

I swallowed my anger and lent my ear. I was a great team player that moment. I soon called a friend afterwards and said, “Girl, I just got white girled.” That same friend, a black woman, understood. “Girl, she’s done it to me, too.”

“Getting White Girled”

That exchange was not the first time a white woman has justified their maltreatment of me, and sadly, it probably will not be the last.

There are a plethora of accounts by women of color that detail the failures of white women to recognize their racial privilege in their exchanges with women of color. These experiences have accumulated enough to warrant a termed social phenomenon: “Getting White Girled”

I recently tried to explain the phenomenon to a few of my white co-workers after recounting a story of a white friend who said I was “attacking” her in a conversation. Keep in mind that I was sitting down while my friend and I were having a heated group discussion while she was standing up. No ill words were shared. No objects were thrown. Yet, as soon as my hands gestured in the air and my voice elevated, the words “Now, you are just attacking me” left her mouth. Without hesitancy, a mechanism in my brain switched and sparked the following retort, “[insert nice white girl name]! Don’t white girl me!”

It felt right. It felt just. Of course, that only escalated the argument. We are still trying to move forward from that moment now. As a friend, I apologized for hurting her feelings and explained to her the reasons why that interaction triggered me.

That trigger has a particular history in my experience and other women of color’s social exchanges with white women. Consider the following historic instances:

  • In a feminist theory classroom, the day finally arrives for the multicultural portion of the curriculum. The class reads a text written by a black feminist writer. A white female student shares that as she read the essay, it felt like the writer was “yelling” at her personally.
  • At a discussion on race and education, a white woman shares that she thinks that programs gauged for minority students on college campuses are “reverse racism.” I told her I disagreed and asked for her definition of racism. She later accused me of “attacking” her to our director because I leaned forward and asked her a question in an impolite tone.
  • A white woman once told me that I “always bring up race and beat the same drum” although we both worked at a non-profit focused on mentoring girls from predominantly poor and black neighborhoods.

Across time and various locations, these interactions aggregate and share common themes. When women of color call out white women on their racism, we soon are labelled “angry,” “aggressive,” and/or “impolite.” We become instigators and the perpetrators of social conflict and the emotional pain of white women. White women become victims to “discomfort,” “loudness,” and “anger.” In their distress, tears may shed [white girl cry] and the refuge of others may then be sought or not for validation and consolation [white girl sympathy].

The exchange between former co-host of THE VIEW, Rosie Perez, and Kelly Osbourne showcases this pattern. Perez calls Osbourne out on her assumption that only Latino people clean toilets in Los Angeles. Osbourne gets flustered and then cries during commercial break. People began to rush to help and assure her that she is not a racist. TV producers failed to console Perez and only cornered her to apologize on air and later twitter.

I find it interesting that the flock to protect and comfort Osbourne was seemingly unsolicited. Osbourne even told Perez that she was right to correct her for her statement. Yet, TV producers and executives came to Osbourne’s rescue with the quickness. Perez apologized for being “overly sensitive” and Osbourne assured everyone that she is not racist. Rosie Perez quit and Kelly Osbourne remains comfortably on THE VIEW.  The whole exchange deserves its own hashtag: #rosieperezgotwhitegirled.

Situations described above are examples of getting white girled to the fullest. The phenomenon can be perpetrated by the individual white woman or it can become a multi-party affair, especially if a rescuer comes to the scene. No matter what, the phenomenon usually involves a person of color who may have politely or impolitely called out a white woman’s racist remark or behavior and a subsequent unproductive response by the white woman either in the form of accusations of attack, crying, or denial. The product of the phenomenon is usually increased social distancing between white women and women of color and the increased silence and rage within women of color.

“To White Girl or Not to White Girl”/ “To Stay Angry or Get Angry”

So where do white women and women of color go from here? For one, white women please know that it is okay to be called out even if it was not stated in a way that felt comfortable for you. Remember, behind the words of women of color who do share are often times more than just anger. These words also encompass our sadness and disappointment over this historic pattern inside and outside our intimate relationships with you. Give us space to express our pain.

Additionally, ask yourself why should you require a polite tone to listen to words about an injustice.  I imagine that this is culturally scripted for many of us across racial and cultural lines. Anger may have never been expressed safely within our families. Or we may have been taught that anger/aggression and femininity should not coexist within the same being.  Nevertheless, politeness has a cultural premium and we need to begin to unpack our emotional and political attachments to its practice. In the meantime, requiring people of color to be “nice” while they endure racial injustice only serves to assuage white anxiety and discomfort.

For women of color, we face another kind of choice, and often times, our choices will impact our livelihood, our image, and/or our intimate relationship in some ways. Next time a white woman “white girls” you, you will be tasked with the following option: to get angry or stay angry. Or put it another way: To Nicki Minaj or not to Nicki Minaj that Miley Cyrus woman.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive choices, but I parsed them out to suggest an outward expression of our anger and an inward silence that rages within. We often have to navigate and exercise both choices based on our circumstances at the moment. At work, I could not Nicki Minaj my co-worker in my black girl fantasy of resistance. I would have risked reputation, a reprimand, or worse, termination.

You may choose to express your hurt openly. You may save your rage for protests or a Facebook rant. You may do it in a diplomatic manner. Maybe it is one of those teaching and healing moments between women of color and white women, like in an anti-racism ally workshop.

Getting angry in the interpersonal sphere presents a risk. You will need to hope that the relationship has enough strength in communication and trust to experience general anger and political anger at one another. That’s a gamble, and some friendships with white friends may not be able to take the tension. If it can, that relationship has some roots, and you may want to consider nourishing its growth.

These suggestions are non-exhaustive, but I share them in the spirit of encouraging understanding across differences. As our country navigates through national dialogues around racism and police brutality we need to recognize the power dynamics that can take place within these conversations between women, feminists and non-feminists alike. This cultural and political climate provides many tactics for derailing critical discussions on race and racism.  Let’s make sure that getting white girled becomes less of a phenomenon in these conversations.