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.
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.
Black men occupy an interesting place in the popular imagination. Their superhuman sexuality is an integral part of American lore. It’s most prominently on display in the titles of pornographic videos that market the ability of big black men to ravish young, innocent white women. It’s more subtle in the white women who walk past with their eyes firmly locked on my crotch, undoubtedly pondering the question that the bold will occasionally whisper in a dark corner of a house party: “Is it true?” And the misguided among us will certainly whisper “yes” through a sly grin, unaware that entangled with the superhuman lore of the black penis is the dangerous specter of dehumanization. This strange combination of fear and fascination reveals the superhuman-subhuman duality that black men embody.
The very same superhuman virility fuels fear of black men. It’s why white women run from us in the hallways, scream when they see us jogging toward them in the street, tell us we look dangerous, and clutch their purses in elevators if they get on the elevator at all (these are actual anecdotes from me and a friend, some of which occur occasionally, others, regularly). A few decades ago, these fearful reactions would be enough to put us in danger of mob violence, regardless of how benign our presence may have been. Even now, racial hoaxes are an ever-present danger. When white people claim to have been victimized by a fictitious black man, hundreds of innocent black men are endangered as law enforcement officials search out the supposed assailant. While perceptions of hypermasculinity elevate us to the superhuman, they simultaneously reduce us to subhuman status.
So let’s get it straight. The fight over who does and doesn’t deserve welfare is a fight about race and always has been. In fact, it has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of neo-slavery which, after all, was not completely abolished until 1948, 13 years after welfare went national. It is also very important to recognize the profound and vicious sexism that informs the paternalistic attitude shaping welfare policy, allowing us to talk about recipients but not with them, as though they have nothing to offer to the debate.
But, maybe most importantly, while racism has been used as a weapon to attack welfare, the fight isn’t just about race.
The real fight over welfare is over workers and wages. And while the fight over workers and wages cannot be separated from our history of slavery, coolie labor, and manipulation of immigration policy to maintain a pool of highly exploitable immigrant labor, race isn’t the only thing driving the dynamic.
This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial. But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.
That’s why conservatives are so obsessed with welfare when there are so many other areas of spending that are less popular and doing so much more to drive up the deficit. A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down. The more vulnerable we are, the more desperate we become. That, to me, is what all the fuss is about.
I used to bask in the Daria comparisons. To be called “Daria” was considered an acknowledgment of your mental acumen, acerbic wit, and general allure as a disgruntled misanthrope. Now that I’m grown, I can’t help but think that however “Daria” I may be, the person I truly relate to is Jodie. In a sea of white faces, who couldn’t even begin to comprehend the term “privilege,” yet alone unpack it, she was the lone POC girl.
Daria is a feminist show with a feminist main character, with that teen angst telegraphed through sarcastic quips. Jodie isn’t really that different from Daria, except she’s black, more tolerant of her less-than-stellar classmates, and further out in the sidelines. Although it’s Jodie’s standing as one of the “cool kids” that makes her a secondary character, her marginalization is an accurate reminder of the real life standing WOC often have in feminist spaces.
It’s hard for me to know where to begin talking about some of the issues I have in regards to feminism and the limited spaces it offers POC. As of late, I’m more and more disappointed in my supposed allies, when attempts to talk about my individual experience as a feminist of color go nowhere. This isn’t a new complaint, either. One of the repeat offenses of post-modern feminism is the mammoth failure to factor race and privilege into the ongoing dialog. When you’re a person of color, there is no such thing as separating race and gender – it’s a package deal, baby. It shouldn’t be that great of a stretch to acknowledge that race is an enormous factor in how a woman lives and perceives her experience; it’s her race that sets the tone of how others will approach and treat her as a woman. If you get the urge to tell me that I’m wrong, you probably aren’t a person of color and you should just sit back down and pay attention.
I look forward to the few seconds or minutes when Jodie gets screen time. Besides comfortably going toe-to-toe with Daria, Jodie is point blank about Lawndale’s almost blinding whiteness, and so freaking meta about her status as a token black character that it hurts. Daria may snark endlessly about buying into the patriarchal system and everyone’s general need to get a clue, but Jodie’s cynicism runs on a deeper level because she knows that she can (and most likely will) be collateral damage of the same system Daria may only marginally suffer. Daria can walk away relatively unscathed, or if she chooses to be continually vocal about her complaints, there is always some sort of sympathetic space for her as a white woman. The same doesn’t hold for Jodie.But the beauty of Jodie is that she copes and works hard on her escape plan.
- All Asians look like John Cho.
- Asians know everything. Seriously, everything. And they can probably fly in secret and they just don’t tell us.
- If an Asian person tells you to do something, for the love of god, do it. NEVER cross them.
- Black people are all hard. Every one. They’re hard as fuck. You can’t break them with a hammer.
- Despite being really hard, black people tend to die very easily and repeatedly.
- Despite black people dying really easily, cops still need to shoot them and/or taze them and/or tackle them in large groups to the floor.
- Attractive white men will rarely suspect suspicious attractive white women. The only people who will are black or latino people and other attractive white women.
- God is black, but only a tame kind of black.
- All black people look alike.
- White women are very delicate and special.
- Despite white women being very delicate and special, they often seem to live through entire shows.
- Despite white women having higher survival rates than probably anyone else, everyone falls over themselves to protect them, almost as if they are in danger.
- Black people know all other black people. All of them. Seriously every single one.
- Most Latinos just look like white people.
- The ones that don’t are very, very HARRRRRRD.
- Muslims and Middle Easterners who aren’t completely Americanized down to the tiniest degree are barbaric and horrific. But at least you can count on your Americanized ones to side with white people on just how barbaric they are.
- Brown people love the shit out of arranged marriage. In fact, they are all arranged married. Even ones who have lived in America for several generations. Or sometimes they play a doctor (who just isn’t arranged married yet).
- Darker-skinned black people all come from the skreets. Suburban upper or middle class black people are all light skinned. Very light skinned.
- Non-white trans women only hold two jobs; prostitute and casualty of prostitution.
- Lesbians are all white.
- If a trans woman isn’t a prostitute, she’s definitely white.
- Trans men are also all white.
- Gay men are mostly white except for black guys who share their massive black dicks.
- The few massive-black-dick-sharing gay guys are all on the down-low.
- There may be a few secret queer Latinos.
- Gay Asians don’t exist. Gay Indigenous definitely don’t exist.
- Indigenous people are werewolves, or they teach white people lots of things and send them on spirit journeys and stuff using magical native potions. Also spirit animals.
- Despite PoC having so much magic and giving white people so much education, they always need to be saved by white people in the end. What the heck are they using all this magical education for????
Now in my 40s, enter the brave new world of Facebook. Like many, I receive requests from classmates I barely knew — including this: Mary the Bully wants to be friends! I deleted the request and didn’t think about it. But after a few months, another request would appear. Then another.
It occurred to me that maybe Mary had read one of my novels, including one, in which a Korean American girl growing up in Minnesota — surprise, surprise — suffers through a “ching-ching-a-ling” song (and in the novel, at least, the protagonist manages to fight back). There was a mention of my novel in People, and classmates were definitely reading it. But while people like my piano teacher wrote tearful letters (“I had no idea this was going on”), the apologies I thought I might receive never arrived. The closest thing to an apology: “I didn’t know why you let it bother you so much, people were just kidding.”
With Mary’s enthusiastic friending — she also went to the trouble to find and join my Facebook author page — I thought, maybe the novel had made her more reflective, and now as adults it would be possible to talk about what happened. I accepted her friend request, only to discover she just liked to write things about Sarah Palin on my wall. But after more time passed, I thought this was a unique opportunity to do something I never had the courage to do when I was younger. I wanted to try one last time to understand my bully.
Mary lives in Oregon now and is married with an assortment of children, stepchildren and grandchildren. She agreed to talk with me, and we had an hour-long conversation on Skype.
When I asked her why she had tormented me for so long in junior high, she said she didn’t remember the specific incident nor its duration. In a rush, she told me she had “blacked out” most memories of junior high because her parents had gotten divorced and she was having a hard time; therefore, she didn’t have any memories of me, specifically. In fact, she went on, she was bullied: Right before entering junior high, she’d moved among the town’s three elementary schools where “people were mean” to her, particularly at her last elementary school, where “the bitches” made her life miserable. She added that she had older brothers who beat her up all the time. At one point, I almost wanted to say plaintively, “But what about my being bullied?”
The more I tried to pin her down about the “ching-ching-a-ling” routine, though, the more she sought cover.