As a person of color, the fog of racism surrounding this president is obvious to me. While I believe that he has not done nearly enough to address racism and has done all together too much in the way of ignoring human rights, I also see that he doesn’t get some of the credit he deserves because his record is distorted, both by detractors and by those who unfairly hold him to a higher standard because of his race.
But, as an Asian American, I also see how comments that suggest that black people are especially irresponsible play out in other communities. Among Asian Americans, many of whom have internalized the lie that says that Asians have done well in the U.S. based solely on being exceptionally responsible, the effect can be especially powerful. Too many of us overlook the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery in the U.S. We don’t understand how different that experience is from that of Asian Americans, much less the way Asian Americans have benefited from the Black civil rights struggle. And we’re not alone in that. The irony of internalizing negative racial stereotypes amongst a community targeted by negative stereotypes only brings into stark relief a much wider spread and growing problem of anti-black racism that our president singling out blacks for lectures about personal responsibility only serves to feed.
We are still both separate and unequal by race. In 2012 the New York Times reported that 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white. And the poorer the students, the worse the segregation. Meanwhile, due in no small part to Roosevelt-era federal programs that excluded blacks as they invested in building the American middle-class, a persistent and worsening racial wealth gap between blacks and whites continues to plague black families. This presents an unfair and often insurmountable barrier to opportunity in a society in which the most powerful indicator of success is your parents’ financial status. Yet, too many of us, more all the time actually, believe that the problem of black poverty is black irresponsibility.
The president’s comments worsen this problem. Why? Because they aren’t just heard by or meant for black people. They’re also acts of political theater, meant to play in public. And to the broad public, our liberal black president singling out blacks for lectures on personal responsibility undermines the credibility of legitimate black complaints of persistent racism, even as it feeds the damaging stereotype that there’s a particular problem of irresponsibility in black communities. And, as I said before, those stereotypes are strongest amongst those of us who aren’t black, and that can cause people who should be allies to become enemies.
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.
Parlour: You talk a lot about the Politics of Pleasure, what does that mean?
Joan Morgan: Much of my work as a feminist revolved around how do we improve black women’s lives. I had been investigating how we talk about black women, particularly in terms of sexuality, without talking about pleasure. Instead, we identify the racial and sexual history, particularly in the United States, and why that history prevents or complicates black women’s sexuality from enjoying a sex positive space.
Feminism is very good at dissecting the politics of respectability and the culture of dissemblance thanks to Darlene Clark Hine. Still, we’re not so good at articulating a language for pleasure, which is crucial for any human being but it plays a critical role in other black women’s issues with which we don’t necessarily make the connection. For example, if we’re talking about black women and the rate of new HIV cases – the percentage of black women among new infections is disproportionately high – but when you look at the prevention, the language is ‘If he doesn’t want to use a condom, tell him to back off’ or, ‘If he really cares about you he’ll use protection.’ The discourse is centered around men’s pleasure.
Parlour: So part of your focus is to illuminate our sexual history, combatting the idea that during the Middle Passage, people were too stressed out to have sex; we were busy trying to survive.
Morgan: Yes, and some scholars are challenging that notion, saying there was probably same sex love during that time and even during slavery. In this way, Caribbean fiction, like Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women, has been really helpful. We often look at Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are the beginning of the story but there were multiple kinds of sexual relationships that black women had during slavery; involuntary, voluntary, strategic, non-strategic, love. But these conversations have been erased out in order to lay the blame for much of the black female struggle on racism and white supremacy, where it needs to be. I get that but I’m very concerned about what is taken out of the narrative to fulfill that agenda.
So what’s the draw? The Sisterhood creates a conflict between public politics, private realities, and personal taste. However, this war between the emperor’s coat of high culture and the everydayness of his nakedness is nothing new. This ongoing juxtaposition highlights the ever-increasing tensions between the “cultured” and the “ratchet”: the former drawing attention to so-called taste, tact, refinement, civilization, and genius, and the latter calling attention to the so-called vulgar. While the former is purported to arise out of the Geist–the intellectual inclinations–of our times, the latter is purported to spring forth from the worst of black culture. However, what better communicates the spirit of the time than the ratchet? And no, I don’t mean the ways that ratchet gets deployed to project a collage of derogatory meanings onto black women’s bodies. I’m referring to the ways that ratchetness often undergirds the ricocheting of raw emotions and missiles of unfiltered truths.
To uncritically bash The Sisterhood is to toe the expected party line. To demonize the show is not only an attempt to maintain a position of moral superiority, but an assay to construct and limit meaning for the audience—an audience that may, in fact, connect with the human qualities of the ratchetness therein. And trust me, I get the critiques regarding black female representations in media. This needs to be called out every day, all day—but not while asphyxiating black women’s complex identities with mythological notions of black women’s heroic genius. In short, binary oppositions don’t work. They set up “us”-versus-“them” politics, which are both totalizing and reductive. I think a better suggestion might be to think about the heroic qualities of black women’s genius–that is, if you buy this argument–as at times being a bit ratchet. Identities and tastes shift in shades of grey, not monochrome. That said, we don’t need another schemata. And we damn sure don’t need another exceptionalist social fiction to cancel out our complex subjectivities, which can neither be packaged nor wholesaled, by the way.
The Sisterhood is evidence of our obsession with brown women’s lives and our pornotropic desire to lift their curtains and see everything. In addition, it’s evidence of the fluidity between religion and culture and the myriad ways that each cross-pollinates the other, thus broadening, limiting, and confusing all kinds of meanings. An example of this is the construction of the “first lady” concept for the show, a Black Church conception structured in both politics of respectability and patriarchal dominance, aimed at constructing alternative identities–distinct from the hypersexual/sexual-savage trope–for black women, particularly during the early twentieth century. As with the FLOTUS, it’s a title of respect for wives in religious contexts that are often theo-socially hostile to women in general. With regard to black women, there’s a long history here apropos race, gender, sex, sexuality, respectability, and wifehood. However, I’ll save the politics of race, ladyhood, and wifedom for another day.
My own struggles with ratchet came to a head when my colleague alerted me to the “Bury the Ratchet” campaign being launched by Michaela Angela Davis. The campaign will begin with a symposium at Spelman College this March, when black leaders will examine how reality TV shows featuring ratchet black women are “harming Black culture.” The symposium will be followed by a public service announcement featuring black women discussing their feelings about such depictions. Along those lines, Davis argues, “It has become completely evident that there has been a brand of women from Atlanta that are adverse to what most of these women are like.” To be honest, I’m not struggling with ratchet as much as I’m grappling with false binaries like this—binaries that are being manifested in conversations about all things ratchet. However, the either-or dichotomies erase women like me, and others, from the conversation.
Davis started the campaign in order to “get the spotlight off the ratchetness and on the successful women in Atlanta.” Well, wait a minute. I wasn’t aware that “ratchet” and “successful” women were mutually exclusive. What if some network decided to develop a reality TV show about me, or sisters like me? I’m a well-educated, happily married mother of two. I’m a professor at an elite liberal arts college. My husband has been a successful entrepreneur for almost 4 years. I admit that representations of black women like me are scant across all genres of television. Think about some of the reasons so many black women faithfully watch MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show and ABC’s Scandal. But, I’d be just the kind of candidate Davis would be looking for to combat these ratchet images of black women on reality TV, right? Well, probably not.
I have no qualms admitting that I can be a bit ratchet at times. Okay, a lot of times. You should have seen me and my husband on New Year’s Eve this year. Trinidad James anyone? You should have heard me talking to my sistercousin after a meeting one day a while back. “They don’t even want me to go there, okay?!” You should have read that blog where I wrote about Li’l Wayne and cunnilingus. Ooooweeee! You should have seen me and my homegirl on the deck overlooking my backyard this past summer. “If you ain’t gone finish that last li’l bit in that bottle, I will.” You should have seen me and my other homegirl in the bar that night a few years ago. Talk about snatching wigs! Okay, I think I’ve said too much already. But, see, therein lies the problem. Said too much for what? Too much for whom? My family? My friends? My colleagues? My readers? I guess I really do have some qualms after all.
This makes me ask: Which forms of ratchet are acceptable and which are not? The ratchet sure to flow from the women on All My Babies’ Mamas is probably not okay with Davis and her supporters, because, after all, these women are just babies’ mamas. They’re nothing more than some child’s mama. Not only that, they each procreated with some tattooed, gold-mouthed rapper who became famous for an ass-shaking anthem called “Laffy Taffy” (Down for Life, 2005). The ratchet that flows from The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) is also probably unacceptable, because, after all, those women are nothing but so-called fashionistas that pull each other’s hair over he-said-she-said gossip and who-said-what-on-Twitter beefs. And the ratchet flowing from BBW is probably unacceptable, because, after all, those women are nothing but gold diggers who sleep with basketball players for money.
However, those of us who actually watch these shows know that’s not completely true. We don’t know much about the women on All My Babies’ Mamas yet, but we do know something about the other ratchet black women on these shows. We already knew Kandi Burruss of RHOA is a successful singer/songwriter from her days with R&B group Xscape. But we know from watching the show that she has parlayed her celebrity into a successful web series (Kandi Koated Nights), boutique (TAGS), and pleasure products company (Bedroom Kandi). We know from watching Malaysia Pargo of BBW: LA that she launched her Three Beats jewelry line last year, and donates part of the proceeds to the Boys and Girls Club in Watts, CA where she grew up. Why don’t they get a pass from Davis for their ratchet behaviors? They actually are successful by their own standards. So am I. Would the privilege that my Ph.D. affords me grant me a pass from Davis? My privileged place of employment? My heterosexual privilege?
It happened in class about a month ago, and I have yet to find the words to ease the levels of high anxiety and horror that I continue to grapple with after hearing this phrase. Part of me recoiled like the 9-year-old little girl I talked about here; part of it was me as a grown woman angry at the fact that rape is contextualized and dismissed as a spectacle. By no means is this quick commentary intended to be a polished discussion of rape and blackness in the popular imagination. Instead, is more sporadic and “off the dome.” It has no shaped trajectory but accentuates the messiness of rape discourse that currently exists in (black) American popular culture.
Aside from my immediate “WTF” moment was the jaw-dropping realization that this phrase annotates a (young) black female body. Rape as a lens of visible (hyper)sex ultimately leads to a conversation about shifting representations of rape and black women’s respectability. In order to be visible a black woman must be “rape-able?” The inversion of black women’s respectability as being considered “rape-able” creates a nasty, imploded lens of black women’s sex and identity that remains situated within historic plantation sexual politics. Black women as rape victims is stymied by the belief that black women have “moved past” victims–a status that was reserved for, you know, ‘respectable’ white women wary of predatory black men–to proponents of rape discourse because of the destabilized foundation of rape as traumatic discourse. Further complicating rape-ability is the investment by young black girls in the belief that rape equivocates good sex and, thus, removes the pain and trauma associated with rape. Due to (tweet) trends like “It Ain’t Rape If…” and shows like Family Guy and South Park categorizing rape as a joke, “rape me so good” opens up the horrifying possibility of black girls being open and prone to rape in order to be considered ‘deserving’ of warranted or unwarranted sexual attention “just for shits and giggles.”
On the flip side of this question is the implication(s) of what phrases like “rape me so good” suggest for black boys and black men? Upon asking my male students if they had been sat down and talked to about rape and rape prevention they shyly admitted they had not. When we talk about rape, it is often gendered and geared towards women without little consideration for (black) men. There is a need to tackle this issue, especially with folks like Too $hort telling little boys to sexually assault girls to get their attention. Indeed, it is MUCH bigger than Too $hort. Compound that with a young girl or woman casually claiming their willingness to be raped because “he fine?” What language is left when a girl or woman, supposedly asking for rape, “gets what she asked for?” Sex as validating men for discourse is a sharp dichotomy of sexual prowess as strength and sexual power as predatory. Real black men smash anything that moves. Real black men grind it out–all puns intended–until, as Rick Ross so eloquently puts it, “put his dick in the dirt.” Yet the limitations of this highly compressed sexual identity leaves little room to express the vulnerability and frequent trauma set as the foundation of this type of black masculinity. In what ways do we address the victim and victimizer? Taimak’s character on the rape awareness episode of A Different World immediately comes to mind because of his inability–and unwillingness–to address characterizations of sexual violence. How messy is it that “no means no” no longer suffices as a band-aid for a serious conversation about rape (prevention).
Though Perry doesn’t know or care, I have been disturbed at his elevation by the mainstream as some storyteller of the black experience. And, if I am honest, I am none too pleased about his popularity within the black community either. It’s not that I don’t admire the brother’s hustle. I wish I had that kind of work ethic and mojo. But I am no fan of the Perry ethos. I think he makes black women’s lives harder, in particular, by reinforcing sexism and the centuries-old stereotypes the plague us. I wish a brother like Perry, with so much money and support behind him, could present a better case for black womanhood than the big, ball-busting granny and the embittered, work-obsessed, money-hungry bourgie chick who doesn’t know how to appreciate a good, blue collar man. Actually, his portrayal of blackness as a whole, to me, amounts to a combination of dysfunction, shucking and jiving and saccharine set to gospel music.
My views on Perry haven’t changed. He is never going to be my favorite director. But I realize the energy I have put into railing against his efforts is misdirected. And I realize that I am indulging in a form of respectability politics that is more hurtful than helpful.
My eyes were opened while writing an article, “No Disrespect: Black Women and the Burden of Respectability,” for Bitch magazine. Inspired by negative reaction to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of maids in The Help, I wrote about how the personal and professional choices of black women in the public eye are routinely judged through the perilously unflattering lens of the majority culture — Eurocentric, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative and middle class — and found wanting. Davis and Spencer (and Halle Berry and Erykah Badu and Beyonce) are not allowed to be simply women or performers, but, by dint of their blackness, are asked to serve as ambassadors whose every decision reinforces the respectability of black folks to white America. That means Davis and Spencer are criticized for playing domestic workers. Halle Berry is criticized for having graphic sex with a white man in Monster’s Ball. And Erykah Badu is judged for having children out of wedlock as Beyonce is praised for using her uterus “the right way.” That is how respectability politics work. And, in my article, I judge that extra burden as unfair and damaging.
I have, hypocritically, directed the same unfair expectations I abhor toward Tyler Perry and his career. I have expected him to be my ambassador, communicating my secular, feminist, middle class, progressive values to the masses. But he is not me. However disappointing I find his schtick, it is his. Perry has done the work and paid the price. And there is no doubt he believes he is doing what is best, not only for himself, but as a member of the black community. And there is this: For as much as I don’t identify with Perry’s output, there are plenty of black folks who see their lives reflected in his storytelling.
This expectation for Asian American artists to represent one’s community “positively” at the expense of an expansive and complicated portrayal — the “burden of representation” — is something that Parreñas-Shimizu feels strongly about. “The demand to make films that represent your community does an injustice to the actual work the filmmakers are trying to do,” Parreñas-Shimizu says. “You can’t film an idea. You have to film very concrete things, a very concrete person who’s going through some kind of dilemma. This person may not be a positive person. I’m thinking of the work of Quentin Lee’s Ethan Mao, which features a character who’s bullied and silenced by his own father for his sexuality, and then wields a gun against his own family. I think it’s a story worth telling. But once you make the demands of, ‘Is this the kind of visibility we want?’ it can be unfair to the goals of the filmmaker, which is to tell stories that help make spaces for these people.”
At the same time, Parreñas-Shimizu understands and feels the importance of Asian Americans wanting to see themselves in a way that hasn’t been seen before. This is why she was instantly mesmerized by the breakout of NBA player Jeremy Lin, whose sudden emergence was coined “Linsanity.” “It’s interesting to watch all the cameras look for Asians in the audience, but Asians have always been there,” insists Parreñas-Shimizu, a long-time fan of sports teams from her hometown of Boston. “Participation in sports is itself an assertion of citizenship and belonging. For me, being a Filipina immigrant in Boston and just loving the Celtics and basketball, I remember loving that school was canceled because the Celtics won the NBA championship and you’re part of that group in the subway going to the celebration…But yeah, you see that hunger. I know that hunger. It’s painful.”
But the medicine that so many Asian American men use to heal that pain — what Parreñas-Shimizu calls a “phallic masculinity,” or what other scholars call a “hegemonic masculinity” — only hurts others in the process. “I think it’s very easy to define masculinity in terms of the hero who saves the day and beats everyone up and sleeps with a ton of women. So if you define masculinity in that way, the Asian American man has to fall short. You’re still proposing a straitjacketed definition of what is gender and sexuality for Asian American men,” says Parreñas-Shimizu. “I want to open up a world where someone like William Hung can be sexy! And the thing is, people did find him sexy! He got marriage proposals! So if we look at masculinity, and what people want from it, it reveals that there’s something very limited in that kind of phallic masculinity. It’s not really good for people.”
That tension between the desire for national recognition and the danger in subscribing to a phallic masculinity (which undergirds the nation) is what drove Parreñas-Shimizu to unearth the vast filmic repertoire of Asian American masculinities. “After I toured for two years for my first book, people kept asking, ‘Now that you’ve proven the hypersexuality of Asian American women, what do you have to say about the asexuality of Asian American men?’ I thought, “We have to historicize it and see if that’s really what’s going on. Because if it’s true that Asian American men have only been seen as asexual and effeminate, then how do you make sense of Sessue Hayakawa or James Shigeta? These huge heartthrobs from almost 100 years ago, fifty years ago? So many women fainted at the sight of their sexiness and beauty. So we have to be very careful about creating that blanket statement.”
Much-needed criticisms of The Help and the characters of Aibileen and Minny have come from sources like the Association of Black Women Historians, which, in its own open letter, challenged various aspects of the book and film, including misrepresentations of elements of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. But there is something else floating in the ether: the idea that the role of a maid is simply too ignoble for a 21st-century black actress. That idea is merely respectability politics at work.
Respectability politics work to counter negative views of blackness by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems “respectable.” The approach emerged in reaction to white racism that labeled blackness as “other”—degenerate and substandard—with roots in an assimilationist narrative that prevailed in the late-19th-century United States. Black activists and allies believed that acceptance and respect for African-Americans would come by showing the majority culture “we are just like you.”
Black women in particular had their own set of stereotypes to battle, as they had long been labeled by white society as lascivious Jezebels, animalistic beasts of burden, and disreputable antiwomen. According to Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media studies scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, to counter these stereotypes newly freed African-American women were forced to adhere to the sexist strictures of the Cult of True Womanhood, which positioned white women as inherently chaste, pious, childlike, submissive, and (as Sojourner Truth famously said in her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech) in need of being “helped over mud puddles.” In other words: respectable.
And here emerges one fallacy of respectability politics: An oppressed community can implicitly endorse deeply flawed values, including many that form the foundation of their own oppression. The idea that domestic work is shameful is a product of class bias that disdains the working class, and of gender bias that devalues “women’s work.” And while Truth spoke longingly about the delicate way white women were treated, that treatment was deeply sexist.
On the other hand, respectability has been important for marginalized people throughout history. Black women’s clubs that formed in the early 20th century, spearheaded by women like Ida B. Wells, uplifted the black community and “proved” the respectability of African-American women by replicating similar organizations led by white women. Black civil rights activists showed up at marches and protests in their Sunday best—despite discomfort, and sometimes only to be spat on or sprayed by fire hoses. Those jackets and ties, heels and hats, sent a message: Your stereotypes are untrue; we deserve equality; we, too, are respectable. Jackson notes, “Assimilation was an effective way to join the national conversation at a time when there was a great disparity in not just the visibility of black Americans, but in the opportunity and legal protections afforded them.”
Negative views of blackness have surely not disappeared in the 21st century. And the black community still uses respectability politics as a form of resistance. But perhaps now more than ever—when there are so many different ways to be black and to be a woman—respectability politics have the potential to harm as much as uplift. As often happens, black women carry a double burden, as they are asked to uphold a respectability built on both racist and sexist foundations. And the burden isn’t just about professional decisions—say, which roles an actress should choose—but personal ones as well.