I went back and watched some of the footage of Jeantel’s testimony. I could see why some observers might be disturbed that the teen wasn’t able to express herself more clearly. At times she was barely audible, she didn’t always use standard English and she sometimes didn’t seem to understand what the lawyer was asking her. It can be painful for us to see inarticulate black folks propped up on a national stage, speaking to a mixed audience with an unpolished tongue—particularly when words like “creepy-ass cracker” and “nigga” are freely tossed into the mix, words that Jeantel told the jury that Trayvon used to describe Zimmerman to her.
It reminds me of the way my parents described their pain and cringing embarrassment whenever boxing great Joe Louis was being interviewed on television and he would give the English language a vicious beating. We have a desperate need to want to always put our best selves forward. If you are in a position representing the whole of black America—and let’s face it, any black person being covered on a national stage still represents each of us, as much as it hurts us to admit it in 2013—every syllable you utter is going to be vigorously scrutinized. With social media, the scrutiny is going to be magnified like an electron microscope. [Exhibits A, B and C: Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson]
I understand all of that. But let’s not take this thing too far.
Rachel Jeantel is a teenager, a 19-year-old girl who told the world what she heard that fateful February night on the phone with her longtime friend Trayvon. From the news reports produced by the mainstream media, you got the impression that Jeantel was genuine and believable. Of course reporters from outlets like the New York Times, Miami Herald and the AP are not going to feel the need to describe Rachel’s attitude or overuse of black English vernacular, but they will feel compelled to describe the effectiveness of her testimony. And I saw them use words like “transfixed” to describe the all-female, nearly all-white jury’s reaction to what Jeantel was saying. Perhaps if the prosecutors had done too much coaching of their star witness, her genuineness would not have shone through.
I also saw incredibly mean things said about her looks on social media, even seeing her described as “Precious”—referring to the movie character brought to life by Gabby Sidibe, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of the troubled overweight teen. Disturbingly, this has become the go-to moniker for overweight, dark-skinned girls—aided by rapper Kanye West, who leveled that scarily ignorant line in his song “Mercy.”
Plus my b*tch, make your b*tch look like Precious
Jeantel had to live through a close friend being murdered, watching his killer walk free for far too long, then sitting in front of the world and recounting the painful night with an intimidating older white man directing questions at her while she’s clearly scared out of her mind.
Now, on top of all that, she has to endure some assholes critiquing her looks?
Really, people? Grow the hell up.
As a survivor of campus sexual assault, and as someone who became a feminist and an activist after my own experience of institutional apathy towards my attacks, I feel conflicted. I am so glad that this serious issue is getting more attention, but I am increasingly frustrated and almost scared by the lack of diversity that I see in the survivors receiving national media attention. As I look at photos and watch the media appearances of these resilient, brave survivors I can’t help to feel invisible. I browse a network of campus rape survivors who are working to combat institutional apathy towards rape victims and struggle to find other women of color who are like me.
Why does the representation of survivors in the media matter? Validation of black women of survivors would go against the jezebel stereotype that, in fact, black women are not all sexually insatiable creatures and can be raped. It would challenge attitudes that black women are more to blame for being survivors of sexual and domestic violence and that being raped is just as serious as if they were any other color. An important message that media attention on rape survivors means that “you matter.” Do not other survivors — whether they are men, of color, poor, LGBTQ, gender non-conforming matter, too?
What has contributed to young white women being the face of rape survivors in media? I do not know. It may be a reflection of our culture to be more sympathetic to white female survivors as talking about rape and rape culture in mainstream media becomes more prevalent (a sort of extension of “missing white woman syndrome”). It could be general distrust or fear of the mainstream media to properly tell our stories. Or maybe no one wants to listen. When I first was trying to get attention to my story, I remember reporters, producers, and magazines alike asking me to rehash the painful details of my story only to pick to feature other survivors: all of them pretty, female, and white.
Rahim Thawer, a social worker and activist in Toronto, was at Woody’s, a well-known bar in city’s LGBTQ neighbourhood, back on December 16th, 2012. His reaction to a racist, Islamophobic drag performance that night appeared days later in the Huffington Post. Donnarama, a famous Toronto drag queen, performed in a pseudo-burka and a bindi, with bombs attached to her abdomen, complete with choreography suggesting gun violence and explosions…
The media reactions that followed, a small handful at best, didn’t characterize the performance as seriously problematic. Instead, much of the commentary seemed to hide behind superficial arguments about freedom of expression, without any analysis of political, social, and structural contexts. Donnarama is not a poster child for the far-right in Canada. And the incident didn’t seem to sustain any broader, louder conversations about racism, sexism, and Islamaphobia in the LGBTQ community. While disappointing, this isn’t entirely surprising. Ultimately, the performance reflects how oppressive attitudes can sink deeply into communities that we otherwise may consider “liberal,” and become normalized to such a point that they may even be celebrated.
The second article, by Zev Chafets, offers an account of Maryam Basir, New York model and Muslimah, and a subtle view of sexism within Muslim communities. Basir’s experiences illustrate the tensions that exist between her firm, personal identity as a Muslim woman and others that don’t see her occupation as legitimate within the context of Islam.
I don’t think Hadiza was expressing an opinion that belongs solely to “radical, extremist Muslims.” In fact, the message smacks of the same long lectures I got from my mother in high school. “Those pants are too tight! That shirt is too short! What are the Aunties and Uncles going to think?! What impression do you want to give to the world when you’re on the subway?!”Fancy that my younger brother was never subjected to those same lectures or sunset curfews. Hadiza’s Facebook message to Basir carries a sexist subtext, alluding to the expectations bestowed upon Muslim women to always carry themselves as representatives of the faith and as models of purity. In other words, whether willing or unwilling, Muslimahs are being asked to live to a higher moral standard for the sake of upholding the Islamic identity and image.
Basir’s response to the sexism is sharp, unapologetic, and public…
Thawer and Basir offer snapshots into the subtleties of racism, Islamophobia, and sexism that help us think of oppression in bigger, broader terms. In contrast, much of the mainstream media discourse of oppression is limited to blatant, stark forms that also describe the perpetrators as extreme. The media, for example, largely identifies Trayvon Martin’s murder as racist but also describes the accused, George Zimmermen, as a vigilante. The perpetrator of the tragic Sikh Temple shooting in August 2012 is largely characterized as an “ex-Army, white supremacist” without any critical analysis of where his racist ideologies came from.
Khan’s article, the one which began this post, shares the same issues; If we focus upon the fact that the vast majority of anti-Muslim attacks upon Muslimahs are perpetrated by supporters of Britain’s far right, then we lose sight of the subtleties that Thawer describes along with understanding that Muslimah women likely experience Islamophobia daily, in a myriad of ways, across different contexts, and through their interactions with a range of people that represent the political gamete. If we attribute sexism in Muslim communities to the “extreme, fundamentalist” clerics, then we may be unable to identify the subtexts of sexism within the judgements we make about Muslim women like Basir.
The always-inquisitive Jada Pinkett-Smith recently posed a question that has many people scratching their heads and some folks outright upset. In short, she’s wondering if black women ask to be represented in mainstream media, on the covers of magazines like Vanity Fair, shouldn’t white women be represented on the covers of traditionally black magazines like Essence, Ebony and JET?
The answer? Yes and no.
It’s not enough to have this discussion without a little bit of context. We didn’t come to this dilemma out of nowhere. There is a long, difficult history that informs our current dynamics around race that can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. This country has a long history of exclusion and the many movements for equal rights and access including the women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement (both of which black women fought in) reminds us that every person is not considered deserving and some of us had to, and still have to, fight for representation.
Magazines like Ebony and Essence were created from a need for black people to see ourselves featured prominently and positively. Ebony, which was founded in 1945, aimed to focus on the achievements of blacks from “Harlem to Hollywood” and to “offer positive images of blacks in a world of negative images.” Back then it was rare for mainstream magazines like LIFE and LOOK to feature black people in a non-discriminatory way. During a time when blacks were fighting so diligently for equal rights, it must have been a devastating blow to morale to be disparaged in the folds of corporate media. We’ve seen other marginalized communities like the LGBT and fat communities create their own media for fair and just representation. This plight is not exclusive to black people.
However, Pinkett-Smith’s question forces us to think about something a little deeper than representation. There are two things at stake here: the common good and the self-determination of the individual. It feels almost impossible for these two things to co-exist” common good means that we have a shared vision that benefits everyone (which we don’t just want realized for the people who look like us, but for all people) and individual self-determination is a philosophy that exists because many people don’t believe in the common good but instead in prejudices that exclude. Blacks were self-determined to create positive media representation because there was none. Pinkett-Smith suggested wholly integrating media so all of society, regardless of color, can start seeing ourselves as cohesive (benefiting the common good) and that while there is still a need for black women (and other communities who have been traditionally excluded) to be represented, we would all benefit from a shared presence in corporate and specialized media.
I don’t disagree entirely. But I would be remiss if I didn’t name the obvious issue with this suggestion: racism still exists. Ebony and Essence were birthed because people were racist. That hasn’t changed. People are still racist and some of those people work for and make up the readership of corporate magazines. These people have no desire to see black people on the cover or inside of their magazines and until their non-racist co-workers hold them accountable for their bigotry, they’ll continue to exclude folks.
In fact, masculinities, including black masculinities, are performed partially in response to the various external conditions present within the geographical spaces, like NYC, where they emerge. In other words, masculinities are shaped by skewed conceptions of gender, a sexist culture, and the range of structural conditions that impact black men quite negatively.
Consider, for instance, what type of black masculinity might emerge in response to a city funded teenage pregnancy prevention ad that pretty much tells black teen females that black boys ain’t shit in a city where police use tax-payer funded guns to shoot its residents? And how can we encourage black boys and men to resist the need to perform power (that hurts), toughness (that victimizes), and swag (that boasts chauvinistically) when, in fact, demonstrations of power, toughness, and swag might be performed by black boys and men to counter state violence? Thus, we should ask how we might re-create masculinities that do no harm and also consider the forces at work that tend to shape black male gender performances in destructive ways.
Black masculinities are created within heteropatriarchy and tend to be overdetermined by misogyny, sexism, violence, and rape culture. It is our responsibility as black cis and transgendered men to name and disengage caustic masculinities, but we should also consider why black men would fight so damn hard to perform the “strong black man” caricature in various spaces in the US, like NYC. Indeed, we black men must consider how our senses of self and the masculinities we perform are shaped by the conditions present within the spaces that we move through.
it’s important for Black people to be able to represent ourselves. fortunately, with the internet, websites such as Youtube seem to be the place to do that considering we are quite far from owning our own images in popular television and film. internet webseries have much more ownership over their series than those on television or in theaters, and thus more flexibility, diversity, and a closer connection to feedback from the targeted audience (i.e. other Black people).
here’s a list of a few i’ve found on youtube:
some are good and some are not so good. but this is simply to put them out there. also, feel free to add to the list….
My representation as a certain type of black man often transgresses the accepted boundaries of black masculinity. The ways I cut my hair, shape–or refuse to shape–my beard, style my clothes, walk, talk, and gesture tend to confound some folk and, on occasion, anger others because of my seeming transgressions. Sinning ain’t easy.
Indeed, some will stare at me as I make my way down any street rocking a beard, frames, “man bag,” and a little less than loose clothing because my gender presentation seems to be read as a sign of non-heterosexuality, deviance. In fact, most folk are okay with what they “see” until they notice that I am wearing something like hot pink (!) sneakers. According to some, a black man wearing hot pink sneakers, like a black woman wearing a suit, ain’t at all “cool.”
The notion of “Black cool,” in particular, seems to be limited, limiting, and quite “straight” (as in hetero and rigid). I am thinking, for example, of one of the inspirations that motivated Rebecca Walker’s investigation of “black cool.” She mentioned during an interview on NPR that an image of then-Senator Barack Obama exiting a black Lincoln Town Car during the 2008 campaign “was really, at that moment, the epitome of black cool.”
She went on to say that she was “drawn to that image because [she] wanted to decode it and to see where it fit into this Afro-Atlantic aesthetic.” And while that image is but one of Walker’s inspirations (and while her book, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, actually includes critical and beautiful essays that think through the gendering of “black cool”), that particular picture of Obama locates the quotidian “black cool” in a male-bodied, masculine, straight black man and leaves me to wonder: Does coolness exist anywhere beyond black masculinity, maleness, and heterosexuality? As some of the writers in Walker’s Black Cool argue, I think so.
I can recall, for example, growing up with an older female cousin who was a swagged-out straight young woman and mother. She often chilled with the dudes in my family. Her vernacular was cool. Her walk was cool, or, as others would say, “pimped out.” She was cool. But this one black straight woman’s coolness was contingent upon the masculinity that she performed expertly. And, no, she didn’t identify as lesbian. Which, again, forces me to consider: are masculine performances solely emblematic of “black cool”?