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.
Maroud highlights how many women of color feminists have taken issue with what they consider a clear example of imperial feminism, through importing western understandings of nakedness onto Islamic notions of the body; I want to draw attention to what continues to be overlooked. It seems that no one is emphasizing the fact that these white feminists do not own the method they have chosen to declare as their call to arms against patriarchy. In short, before we discuss how FEMEN is engaging in somewhat problematic dynamics with women of color feminists throughout the Middle East & North Africa region, we should recall that their chosen method of protest is certainly not exclusive to white European feminists. Have we forgotten the naked protests that have taken place in Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya and Uganda for over a century? While the conversations surrounding FEMEN’s growing presence in the MENA region certainly highlight valid arguments about Western feminism and how it relates to other notions of feminism/womanism throughout the globe, what I find to be the greatest example of liberalism is that they’ve managed to convince us that they own the method and in some ways, how we understand our own nakedness.
In this era of social media and new technologies FEMEN’s tactics are able to gain notice through their chosen mediums of expression and well connected network. The issue is not so much that they use naked protest as a method, but rather that we continue to confuse our disapproval of how their tactics mimic imperial feminism with the method itself. In other words, FEMEN’s expansion into the Middle East and North Africa is likely a glaring example of imperial feminism, but not because of the method.
I did what Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, encourages women to do in her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In a self-proclaimed feminist movement to address current gender disparities in leadership, Sandberg aims to galvanize women with a call to action to lean in and step up in the workplace.
I did step up. I leaned in at staff team meetings, sat at the table and contributed to the dialogue. I explored and pursued research opportunities. I asked for mentorship. I scheduled meetings with key players, and asked for their support and guidance in moving my research career forward.
But leaning in has its limitations for women in the workplace, and especially for Latinas.
When Latinas lean in at work, they are often examined through a lens blurred with ethnic prejudices, and socially prescribed roles and expectations. God forbid she has a Spanish accent…
More than once, a lost patient or hospital staff wandering down the hall came to my office door to ask for direction. “Are you the secretary?” they would ask. “No, I’m Dr. Perez, how can I help you?” I’d reply. My title was often met by a subtle facial expression of surprise.
My bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and Ph.D. has raised questions on the role that affirmative action must have played in my academic achievements. In her memoir, Justice Sonia Sotomayor describes a moment when her academic merits were credited to affirmative action, despite graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University. This perpetual attribution of Latinas’ achievements to tokenism is real in the workplace, and underestimates what accomplished Latinas bring to the table.
An assertive Latina at work risks being seen as “difficult” or “opinionated.” A confident voice level makes her “confrontational” or “loud.” We are expected to be nice and supportive, and less so leaders. These social perceptions and ethnic biases form an important part of the organizational barriers that women, and especially ethnic/racial women, face in the workplace. This, of course, is in addition to the organizational culture and policies that are blatantly gender biased when it comes to promoting women leadership.
You might be surprised to know that a number of us here at Black Feminists were amazed to hear you declare in your latest New Statesman blog that “feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class movement”.
We’re not sure the feminists of the Indian Chipko movement in the 1970s or the Southall Black Sisters would agree either.
It seems that you’re most worried about the “issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and privilege…fracturing feminist dialogue,” even if your fantasy universal feminism actively marginalises the experience of anyone who isn’t you.
You play into the damaging myth that feminism is for an elite and narrow group. In reality many people who don’t actively identify as or even distance themselves from the F-word still have feminist views. Similarly many people know how intersectionality affects them and others around them, even if they don’t consider themselves to be intersectional.
In recent weeks intersectionality – or whatever you want to call it – has been deemed irrelevant and literally not worth giving a shit about. Now you’ve kindly told us it’s too academic. If we’re being honest, both come across as excuses to avoid talking about intersectionality itself and dealing with how it affects people. Given recent events, perhaps you can see why many black feminists and others are angry.
Intersectionality may be an academic term that has spilled into common usage among many feminists, but that doesn’t mean that the concept it refers to isn’t real and worthy of discussion. It’s merely shorthand for experiences that many people recognise and talk about – those points where race, gender, sexuality, ability, class and so on come together. And while language is important, most feminists only really use that kind terminology with others who know what it mean.
In obsessing over the use of one word, you not only miss the point (intersectionality could also refer to education), and imply that a vast swathe of people are stupid, but worse still you actively dismiss the views of people of colour and others.
In her much-talked-about speech, last Wednesday, at the Democratic National Convention, Obama said her most important role is “mom-in-chief.” In analysis, this pronouncement along with the fact that Obama declined to talk about her own impressive career, was found disappointing by many in the white feminist chattering class.
White feminists who acknowledge Obama’s blackness, and the stereotypes attached to it, believe her “momification” is a shrewdly calculated answer to attacks on her as “Stokely Carmichael in a dress.” In her article, Malone endorses a similar analysis by Rebecca Traister in Salon. It is as if, even these smart women cannot believe that, alongside strong, black womanhood, Michelle Obama might have a nurturing, maternal side that is not politically manufactured but a part of who she is.
Black women in the public eye, including Michelle Obama, may not see the need to distance themselves from traditional roles, as Hillary Clinton once did, famously saying, “I am not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man.” and “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” Cooking-baking, devoted wife and mother has never been a stereotype about us.
In contrast to some of the mainstream feminist analysis of Michelle Obama and her role in the White House, I have heard from many black women, including feminist ones, who are delighted to see an African American woman publicly celebrated in ways that we commonly are not. Michelle Obama is–refreshingly for many of us–lauded for being nurturing, beautiful and stylish as well as whip smart, athletic and strong. And we imagine that Obama has the strength to make her needs known and that if she has, for now, chosen motherhood, that it is the role she wants. She is a black woman free to make that choice. These things are revolutionary for black women, even if some white women see business as usual.
Feminists who wish that Obama would strike a blow for feminism and against stereotyped roles of women, too easily forget that all women are not burdened by the same stereotypes. The way sexism visits white women and women of color, including black women, is similar in its devastation but often unique in its practice.
I tried to watch HBO’s much lauded Girls.
I received absolutely nothing for my trouble, except 30 minutes with full on screw face. Kendra and Jenna Worthham have already handled the diversity questions that arise with the pilot, but I have to admit that I really don’t care about diversity on this show. If they didn’t get the message by now, it’s not going to happen. And on the real, is this what we really want? Diversifying that show is the pop culture version of integrating into a burning house.3
My personal rule (being an urbanite) is that if someone can’t diversify their social circle in areas like Brooklyn or DC, they are not people I want to know. So whatever, the show isn’t for me. A lot of them aren’t – I don’t watch Two and a Half Men, nor do I watch Rules of Engagement and that’s just fine. I’m not the core audience, and that was made abundantly clear.1
After I turned off Girls, I tried to make sense of why I was so deeply pissed off. And for me, what stood out the most wasn’t anything to do with the the monochrome cast. Nor was it the wink-wink nudge-nudge entitlement of the privileged class, though that’s fully there as well. (Pro Tip: Being aware of racism, classism, or ignorance is not the same as actually doing something about it.)16
But more than anything, I was annoyed because the usual accolades, denials, misrepresentations that follow after a show like this airs. There’s the usual conversation from gender focused outlets that these shows are for ALL women and we all need to go support or else we won’t ever get another shiny new toy. Then comes the idea that even though this show is totally for ALL women, that we shouldn’t be attacking them for things like a total lack of diversity because it’s not fair to expect one show to be all things to all people. Then we start hearing the usual idiotic arguments about television being a meritocracy where if you create good programming you will automatically be served with a deal, or that it’s so unfair that this one show is getting so much negative attention when whatever new show of the year is one of dozens that fits the same basic theme of exclusion.
There’s something to be said about Girls and the state of diversity in education. Dunham is a recent college graduate; one of the first in a new generation of young writer/directors who will—whether we like it or not—be helping to shape the pop culture we’re going to consume over the next decade. If these course requirements represent the average college graduate requirements, then pop culture might be in trouble. I don’t claim to know what Dunham’s course schedule was while she attended Oberlin, but the fact that there’s a chance that she—and the other writers and directors who will come after her—has never had to read a Langston Hughes play, watch anything by Chen Kaige or Oscar Micheaux, or study any type of non-white/European media narrative is troubling, and it’s unsurprising that it would lead to the creation of a show that highlights (I would even go so far as to say rehashes) the lives of four white girls in New York City.
Despite our similarities in background, our views of life in New York city seem to be radically different. An article in The New Yorker tells me that our circles of friends come from the same pools: Oberlin Students and high school friends that more often than not come from the same group of New York City day schools and New England boarding schools. Not only do I work with a WOC who attended high school with her, I have friends who went to high school with both her and her younger sister and, because my friends consist of Latin@s, Asians, Blacks, and whites, I know her life couldn’t possibly have looked as white as the posters for Girls (which is semi-true to life; she calls her character Hannah “another version of herself”) would have you believe.
Yet Girls, set in Brooklyn, where only one-third of the population is white, somehow exists in a New York where minorities are only called to cast for one liners and nanny roles. “Pleasantly plump” Latinas may also inquire within.
These are casting calls from April and May of 2011—when the show was still filming its first season—pulled from Breakdowns Express. There may have been (and probably were) more that have since disappeared from the site.
When asked about the lack of diversity, The Voice of Our Generation didn’t have much of an answer.
"When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color,’" Dunham told the Huffington Post. "You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that."
But Dunham is the showrunner, writer, director, and star of Girls. I have the feeling that if she’d honestly wished for some diversity she’d have gotten some diversity.
In response to a column I wrote Monday about the iconic white woman and perceptions of her as she takes center stage in the fight over reproductive rights, many readers argued that race was irrelevant.
One wrote: “Women of all colors are equally angry because things thought settled 30 years ago are being threatened and the real issues, the issues that wake EVERYONE up at 3 a.m., are not being addressed.”
That view, widely shared, highlights part of the reason that race still matters. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion. But, as the billboard campaign reminds us, the conservative effort now underway to overturn the court’s decision is not just being waged on women’s reproductive rights, but on the black woman as a person.
Do white women recognize the difference?
There are an estimated 123 million white women in the United States, and roughly 16.4 million of them live in poverty, according to the census. Of 20.7 million black women, almost 6.6 million live in poverty. The poverty numbers for both groups are awful, although the consequences of poverty and sexism increase exponentially when racism also is a factor.
Used as a political ploy, racism against black women also scars white women. The so-called black “welfare queen,” for instance, was a racist myth that gained currency during President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s. The sole purpose was to divert attention from the feminization of poverty in America.
Meanwhile, the criminalization of the black woman serves to legitimize a sharp increase in the numbers of black women being incarcerated and the indignities they face behind bars.
Because the attack on the black woman’s body is so pervasive and, historically, so persistent, black women are expanding the womb-centered debate over abortion and birth control to one of “reproductive justice.” This includes a pro-choice stance on abortion and the embrace of a “pro-life” outlook, but with a twist that distinguishes them from, say, Life Dynamics, the antiabortion group that’s putting up those billboards.
“When we say ‘pro-life,’ we mean the whole life, where conditions underlying the abortion rate are addressed,” said Jasmine Burnett, lead organizer for Sister Song, an activist group in New York, as well as chairman of the mobilizing committee for Trust Black Women, a national coalition of black women’s rights organizations. “Those other pro-life groups ought to change their name because as soon as a black child is born, they stop caring about the life of the child.”
In this battle over women’s rights, the black woman and white woman have much in common. But race cannot be brushed off as a distinction without a difference.
All anger is not equal.
—In fairness, Courtland Milloy should have said “women of color” because it’s not just issues between Black and white women and it’s not just Black women helping to reshape the conversations around reproductive justice. (California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, anyone?)