Archive for gendered racism
The archived video(s) of An Exploration of Whiteness and Health A Roundtable Discussion
is available beginning here (updated 12/16/12):
The examination of whiteness in the scholarly literature is well established (Fine et al., 1997; Frankenberg, 1993; Hughey, 2010; Twine and Gallagher, 2008). Whiteness, like other racial categories, is socially constructed and actively maintained through the social boundaries by, for example, defining who is white and is not white (Allen, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Roediger, 2007; Wray, 2006). The seeming invisibility of whiteness is one of its’ central mechanisms because it allows those within the category white to think of themselves as simply human, individual and without race, while Others are racialized (Dyer, 1998). We know that whiteness shapes housing (Low, 2009), education (Leonardo, 2009), politics (Feagin, 2012), law (Lopez, 2006), research methods (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008) and indeed, frames much of our misapprehension of society (Feagin, 2010; Lipsitz, 1998). Still, we understand little of how whiteness and health are connected. Being socially assigned as white is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status (Jones et al., 2008). Anderson’s ground breaking book The Cultivation of Whiteness (2006) offers an exhaustive examination of the way whiteness was deployed as a scientific and medical category in Australia though to the second world war. Yet, there is relatively little beyond this that explores the myriad connections between whiteness and health (Daniels and Schulz, 2006; Daniels, 2012; Katz Rothman, 2001). References listed here.
The Whiteness & Health Roundtable is an afternoon conversation with scholars and activists doing work on this area.
The roundtable is sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) and the Critical Social & Environmental Psychology program at the Graduate Center CUNY. The event is hosted by Michelle Fine (Distinguished Professor, Social Psychology, Women’s Studies and Urban Education), Jessie Daniels (Professor, Urban Public Health and Sociology) and Rachel Liebert, (PhD Student, Critical Social/Personality Psychology).
In the summer I barely read emails. This summer in particular, I am too concerned with enjoying the midwestern summer while I sit outside attempting to write my second book before the academic year begins again and I become lost in the day-to-day grind. Deciding to check it a few days ago in order to simply rid myself of spam, or the ridiculous comment notices from Facebook of my so-called “friends” I have collected over the summer, I came across an interesting message. It was from a sociology listserv. It was titled, “Black Female Historians Slam ‘The Help.’” Since every female in my life to my mother has talked about no other anticipated movie this summer, the message caught my attention and forced me to put on my academic propeller cap and become engaged. Here is what the message said:
The Association of Black Women Historians has joined the tide of negative voices rising up against The Help. The group has released a statement urging fans to reconsider their support of the wildly popular film, saying it portrays African-American women in subjugated roles and relies on tired stereotypes of black men.
On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), this statement provides historical context to address widespread stereotyping presented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book has sold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie will ensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.
During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help’s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy –a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.
Now, I must confess, I have no inclination of ever seeing the film due to the fact that I simply do not gravitate toward heartfelt sobbing movies that neither make me want to put on ultra tight uniform and adopt a cool superhero name or ones that remind me to either laugh hysterically or be terrified of the dark. Nevertheless, I began to receive group texts from my academic Black female friends calling all to boycott the film. The comments made by them and the Association of Black Women Historians made me think and say, “You have got to be kidding me.” Now this may anger many of my Black female peers, but I was a bit upset. Why? My argument is not with the totality or rationality of their concerns, but the fact that the initial email also mentioned the depiction of Black males. The beginning of the email said the movie, “…portrays African-American women in subjugated roles and relies on tired stereotypes of black men.” If that is the case, why was there no mention to Black males in the official open-statement made by the organization? The next notion that seeped through my psyche was concerning the fact that over the past years, where was the outcry against, let’s see—The long list of Tyler Perry movies, Terry McMillian’s male hating movies, The Color Purple (1985), and the buffoonery and modern-day Amos and Andy Soul Plane (2004) just to name a few.
Researching the Black male reaction to movies such as The Color Purple I discovered a few accounts of Black males picketing the movie due to the demeaning manner in which males were depicted. Regardless of comments made by the great Spike Lee who believed the film was only produced due to the fact that the movie depicts Black males as “‘ “one-dimensional animals,’” the film received a larger Black female pool of constituents who rallied behind in support of the movie.
As I am writing my new book on the oppression of Black males in education, I have begun interviews with other Black males in regards to their perspective on education and why Black females are moving ahead of them (i.e., graduation in realms of public and higher education). One question that I ask them is, “Why has the plight of Black and Latino males not received a great degree of public attention?” Unanimously from the diverse pool, they all have noted that the reason is due to the fact that they are the invisible population—The Whipping Boys. One participant noted,
Black males have always been the population that receives little attention and the most overall abuse. It is easy in the world to make us look like the bad guy. Both Whites and Black females accept it. Look at the depiction of us in the media. My own people have bought in to this crap.
When I asked if Black females were the ones with the lowest graduation rates and killing each other in the urban streets of America, what do you feel would happen? One ex-convicted felon told me that, “Hell would pay. Black women know how to organize. They come out for their own. We barely believe we are worthy of life at times.”
This way of thinking and thus reacting to the presence of Black males through the social vehicles within the media today are nothing but a continuation of the influences of the white racial frame that supported the demonization and oppression of people of color. The power of the frame has undoubtedly influenced people of color as well. Therefore, today exists ingredients of centuries-old faming that have not withered, but have been overhauled and updated in order to go easily undetected in order to continue the centuries old thinking that Black males are simply “the inferior” and deserve to be treated as such.
The depiction of Black males males as dumb, lazy, and at times childlike in commercials and movies is rampant. You know: If we are educated, we have lost connections with our heritage as we drive in our expensive European cars alongside a blond haired beautiful female. If we are uneducated, we are violent, drug dealing, or buffoons. This happens so much that few like the Association of Black Women Historians and others deem it necessary to combat it. So I say to the opponents of The Help, do not forget about me… that is, us.
Today is World AIDS Day, when people around the globe stop to reflect on those lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is almost in its third decade. While many people may associate the disease with white, gay men because they were one of the groups initially infected and affected by HIV and among the most political vocal about it, the fact is the epidemic has changed. Within the U.S., if you examine the epidemic across racial and ethnic groups, you will see that HIV/AIDS is not a disease that exclusively, or even primarily, affects whites. Blacks and Latinos are increasingly affected by the disease, as this graph based on 2007 CDC statistics illustrates:
The changing nature of the epidemic is even more striking when you include gender.Today, black women are the group with the highest rates of new HIV/AIDS infections. According to CDC:
- African American women account for a majority of new AIDS cases (66% in 2006); white women and Latina women account for 17% and 16% of new AIDS cases, respectively.
- African American women account for the largest share of new HIV infections among women (61% in 2006), an incidence rate nearly 15 times the rate among white women. (For more detailed look at statistics about the epidemic’s impact on African Americans, see: “Black Americans and HIV/AIDS” compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, opens PDF.)
During the first decade of the epidemic, most social science research focused on changing individual behavior (e.g., wearing condoms, using clean needles) as the primary intervention strategy to prevent HIV infection, these efforts often failed in the face of complex settings of social inequality. For example, telling a woman that her partner should wear a condom becomes a risky proposition if she is economically dependent on that man for survival and he sees the request to wear a condom as an affront of some kind. Thus, researchers and community activists interested in stopping the spread of the disease began to look at the dynamics of sexuality within a broader social and cultural factors.
Just as an increasing amount of research demonstrates that mothers who experience racism are more likely to have low-birth-weight babies, the experience of racism and sexism are part of the social and cultural factors affecting HIV/AIDS rates among African American women. One way to measure this combined racism and sexism, is to look at what national leaders have to say about the HIV/AIDS epidemic among black women. In 2004, when journalist and vice-presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill raised this important issue in the form of a question to then-candidates John Edwards and Dick Cheney, neither one could stammer out a coherent answer. It was clear that the alarming rates of HIV/AIDS among black women were simply not a concern for powerful political leaders (who also happened to be white men).
Some of the most exciting research that attempts to address this inequality is the pioneering intervention studies conducted by Gina Wingood and Ralph DiClemente of Emory University who, drawing on Connell’s gender and power theory, began to think differently about HIV prevention for young, black women. Wingood and DiClemente developed an intervention study for African American adolescent girls that used workshops that emphasized ethnic and gender pride along with the usual HIV-prevention information. Basically, the researchers included a consciousness-raising group about race and gender along with the usual health education information. These positive messages about racial and gender pride are important for enabling and empowering young, black women who encounter a layered burden of racism, sexism and often, poverty.
However, not all black women who are HIV-infected are poor, as several activists remind us. Marvelyn Brown, for example, diagnosed at age 19 with HIV/AIDS has become an outspoken proponent and visible spokesperson for HIV-prevention among young, black women. The author of Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, Brown has won several awards for her activism. Rae Lewis-Thornton, diagnosed at age 23, was featured on the cover of Essence magazine in 1994 and described as, “I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS.” It’s been fifteen years and, fortunately, Lewis-Thornton is still very much alive and an tireless activist. Yet, she struggles with the legacy of her diagnosis (powerful video interview with Lewis-Thornton here). And, young black women who are allies, are harnessing the power of new media to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, such as Karyn and Luvvie of the Red Pump Project.
The growing epidemic among black women in the U.S. reflects a global trend. The World Health Organization’s estimate (via AIDS.org) is that there are over three million women with HIV in the world, most of them in Africa. In fact, one in 50 women in sub-Saharan Africa is infected with HIV. AIDS is the leading cause of death for women ages 20-40 in major cities in the Americas, Western Europe, and Africa. The fact that this disease is shape-shifting into one what disproportionately affects black women both here in the U.S. and globally raises important questions about whether or not we will, collectively, be able to put aside our racism (and sexism) to address this epidemic.
Today, as you go to a service, attend a vigil, or just hold a good thought or observe a moment of silence on this World AIDS Day, reflect also on the ways that racism shapes the epidemic and who we lose because of it. If you care about racial and gender equality, you need to start paying attention to HIV/AIDS. IF you’re concerned about HIV/AIDS, you need to start learning about racism and sexism.
For more on the public health crisis affecting black women, you can watch this video (approximately 27 minutes) which features a discussion with C. Virginia Fields, President of National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Monica Sweeney, MD, Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Marvelyn Brown.
[This post is from the archive: 12/01/09.]
A sports bar in St. Paul, Minnesota is featuring a blatantly racist ad to attract business over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend (h/t to reader Gina Kundan for alerting us to this ad).
While I’m a little puzzled by what it means to “party like a Pilgrim” (were they big partiers?!?), the invitation to “drink like an Indian” – with the illustration of a passed out Native American man leaning against a white cowboy in the background – trades on some of the oldest stereotypes of Native Americans as “drunks.” The convivial image of a white cowboy and the “drunk” Indian as companionable drinking buddies, obscures a history of genocide. (Would it be possible to imagine a similar image featuring an SS officer and a Jewish person in such an embrace?) The image of the supposedly indigenous woman in the photo (I have my doubts) dressed in a sexy outfit and provocative pose also plays on the gendered racism of Native American women as squaw, princess, sexual slave.
Is it possible to get a drink in this bar without the bad politics? Bartender: I’ll have a shot with a beer back, hold the racism.
Not only is this racist, but rather ignorant about the history of the Massachusetts Puritans (including those called ‘Pilgrims’). They actually were very strict in their morality and condemned many such “amusements” like this as very corrupt and sinful. They would be horrified to be identified with hard drinking and partying like this suggests. And, of course, the Massachusetts Puritans also engaged in genocide against indigenous societies like the Pequots in the Massacusetts area. At one point, in 1637, they surrounded an Indian village and burned it down with hundreds of Indians in it. Then shot others, sold remainder to slavery. A nice bunch for indigenous people to party with, right? Many Americans, especially whites like these, seem to be just plain dumb about North American history.
The news that doctors representing the government intentionally infected Guatemalan citizens with STDs has inevitably provoked comparisons to the famed Tuskegee experiment where black men were denied treatment for syphilis so that doctors could study the course of the disease. In another post, Jessie has eloquently discussed the broader public health and racial implications of this work. But while comparisons to the Tuskegee experiment are often the first that come to mind, these are not the only cases where mostly white doctors have exploited patients of color in the name of experimentation and/or racist ideology. Journalist Amy Goodman recently interviewed medical historian Susan Reverby (who brought the Guatemalan scandal to light) and reporter Eileen Welsome to discuss other cases where people of color have been abused and mistreated by the medical community, often with governmental support. This is a transcript of the interview between Goodman and Welcome, discussing the case of Elmer Allen:
“AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Eileen Welsome, who won the Pulitzer Prize for revealing the names and doing the investigation into eighteen people who were injected with plutonium in the ’40s without their knowledge by federal government scientists. In a 2004 interview on Democracy Now!, I asked Eileen Welsome about one of those people. His name was Elmer Allen.
EILEEN WELSOME: The sad part about and the tragic part about Elmer’s story is that nobody believed him. He went to his doctor and told him, you know, “I think I’ve been injected with something.” His doctor diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic at the same time that he was conversing with the atomic energy scientists in Argonne National Lab to provide them with tissue samples and—
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait, wait. His doctor said he was a paranoid schizophrenic at the same time his doctor was providing Elmer’s tissues to the government scientists doing the experiment?
EILEEN WELSOME: That’s correct. That’s what the medical records show. So, Elmer was not only used in 1947 when he was injected with this radioactive isotope, but he continued to be used as a guinea pig for the rest of his life.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome. She revealed the names of eighteen people in this country injected with plutonium. Elmer Allen was a black conductor on a train in San Francisco. He was injected at the University of San Francisco hospital. This story of the people injected with plutonium, he’d always said—he used the term “I was guinea-pigged by the government.” His wife was a nurse. His daughter was a teacher. We spoke with Elmerine Allen, his daughter. They never understood what he was saying, and they believed what the psychiatrist was saying. Yet the psychiatrist was working with the US government, telling them he was crazy. But he wasn’t.”
And another story about medical experimentation on Puerto Rican women:
“So, what happened in Puerto Rico is that the research, you know, for birth control pills was done—the major work was done here in Massachusetts, actually, but giving out birth control pills was illegal. Contraception was illegal in Massachusetts. So the research was done in Puerto Rico. And the use of very high estrogen dosages was because at that point they really weren’t sure what would be necessary, and they wanted to absolutely make sure that they could stop the pregnancies. So, and there were connections to people. They were working with a physician who had connections in Puerto Rico. So, that’s one of the reasons they went there. There were some objections, clearly, within the Puerto Rican community to this, but women also, frankly, wanted a better way to protect themselves from endless pregnancy. At that point, in Puerto Rico, the Church actually protected sterilization and thought sterilization was acceptable after women had had enough children. But the Church actually objected to the research on the pills, when a number of women—we think a couple of women died because of the high estrogen.”
I raise these stories here to make the point that there is a long history of abuse, gross mistreatment, and exploitation of people of color by the medical establishment in this country. Such stories are documented both in the accounts of these unnamed Puerto Rican women, Elmer Allen, and in several excellent books that show the disturbingly recurrent and often government-sanctioned nature of these practices. Jennifer Nelson ‘s exceptional book, Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement, explores the widespread practices of sterilization abuse wherein mostly white male doctors performed hysterectomies on women of color without their knowledge and consent for decades, with some of the most notable examples of this being the forced sterilization of Fannie Lou Hamer , a 1960s activist, and Minnie Lee Relf, a mentally disabled young woman who was underwent this process at age 13 without giving consent or understanding the effects of the procedure. Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, also explores the medical community’s exploitation of a poor black woman’s medical tissue without her or her family’s consent.
These cases abound, and there are probably additional ones of which I am unaware. The common theme among them, however, is the story of white doctors and other members of the medical establishment—often acting with the support of local, state, and federal governments—engaging in ethical and medical violations that exploit communities of color in various ways. These practices erode trust, minimize confidence in the medical establishment, and most importantly, manifest some of the worst forms of racial dehumanization and inequality. Yet they also highlight a particular irony in contemporary discourses about race relations. Often, one of the talking points used to imply that blacks are oversensitive and embellish racial issues is the citation that blacks are more likely to believe various theories about the inception and spread of the AIDS virus that point to government complicity or intent.
In 2005, a Washington Post article cited that more than 25% believed the virus was produced by the government, 12% believed the CIA was responsible for spreading it, and 15% asserted that it was a form of genocide among black people. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Dr. Jeremiah Wright was widely mocked for his endorsement of some of these statements, which were used to further the image of him as a crazy radical (and by extension, to cast doubt upon then-Senator Obama). Ultimately, the statistics about the number of blacks who believe government involvement in the creation and/or spread of the AIDS virus are often used to imply that blacks are paranoid, crazy, and grossly exaggerate racial issues to the point where they believe absurd conspiracy theories, or else that their willingness to endorse such theories hinders their treatment. This latter argument is particularly significant when it comes to the spread of HIV, since black Americans comprise only about 14% of the population but constitute the majority of new AIDS cases. Both arguments, however, suggest that the endorsement or embrace of these beliefs represents something problematic on the part of black Americans.
Rather than dismissively marginalizing African Americans’ perceptions or blaming them for allowing these beliefs to influence their health practices, I think that the recent information about yet another case of the medical community’s egregious breach of the trust of minority communities should spur a renewed attention to the continued, ongoing perils of racial stratification and inequality. Susan Reverby’s findings are undoubtedly important and critical, both on their own and because they point to a larger pattern of state-sanctioned medical abuse. But they also give broader context to ongoing public health issues like the rise of HIV/AIDS in black communities. With information available about the Tuskegee Experiment, Henrietta Lacks, Minnie Lee Relf, and now the Guatemalan women who were deliberately infected with viruses, it’s not so surprising that the theories about government involvement in the AIDS virus might take hold among certain communities who have been the target of the worst kinds of medical racism.
Let me be clear: I am not writing this to advocate the theory that the AIDS virus was government invented. However, I do believe that these blatant examples of the medical establishment’s state-sanctioned abuse of minority communities have a great deal to do with why blacks in particular are less likely to trust doctors and government. I also think it’s a mistake to suggest that blacks who hold this belief are the problem, given that there is ample evidence that government has in the past engaged in medical experimentation, mistreatment, and negligence when it comes to people of color. Acting as if some blacks’ concerns about the origins of the AIDS virus are evidence of racial paranoia or a self-imposed inhibitor to treatment is akin to suggesting that black men who express misgivings about the criminal justice system are inventing a paranoid racial reality, rather than relying on exhaustive evidence of racial profiling and disproportionate arrest rates.
The larger issue, in my opinion, is to assess how we can create a more racially equitable society so that these sorts of egregious violations don’t exist to eradicate trust in the first place.
This short video (about 10 minutes) by filmmaker Byron Hurt does a nice job of addressing themes of race and masculinity by contrasting media images of President Obama with those of rapper “50 Cent,” aka Curtis (h/t to @feministfatale via Twitter for this).
This could be an excellent teaching tool for starting a discussion. Byron Hurt also has a feature-length documentary called “Beyond Beats & Rhymes” about hip-hop culture, race and masculinity. It’s a very thoughtful film that I highly recommend.
How many readers remember the Moynihan Report, the shorthand title for The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” written by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965? Supposedly, the rationale for the report was to draw attention to the need for social policies and programs that would address the many problems faced by Black families, especially single-parent, female-headed Black families, in the United States. Regardless of the intent, the Moynihan Report soon became one of the most frequently cited sources to support the argument that the problems facing Black, single-parent, female-headed families – e.g., disproportionately high rates of poverty, crime, illness, substance abuse, “illegitimate” births – were not the products of racism, but were actually caused by Black women themselves: by their strength, their independence, their emasculation of Black men. In subsequent years, the “myth of the Black matriarchy” was refuted by sound empirical research, but such myths, it seems, die hard, and it appears that this one has been resurrected recently, albeit in somewhat different form.
I am referring to the substantial media coverage recently of “the successful, but lonely Black single woman.” As one recent Washington Post article put it, there is now a large group of young Black women who seem to “have it all” – good jobs, high incomes, nice homes and cars and clothes – but they’re lonely; they don’t have a man or the prospect of marrying anytime soon. It turns out, according to a report released today by the Pew Research Center, that young, successful White women are experiencing the same relationship troubles. Among Americans aged 30-44 years old, women are more likely than men to have a college degree. They are also less likely to have lost their jobs in the recent economic recession; men held about 3 out of every 4 jobs that were lost. These changes are producing a “role reversal,” according to the Pew report, that is “profoundly affecting the marriage pool.” While the Pew report, which analyzes recent Census data, shows that the education and income gap by gender is greater for Blacks than for Whites, the focus of many media stories it seems to me is a new twist on the notion of the Black matriarchy.
In a recent ABC News Nightline segment, for example, it was reported that the number of never-married Black women is about double the number of never-married White women. The segment mentions various reasons for this difference, including the smaller number of “marriageable” Black men due to higher mortality, incarceration, and unemployment rates. But the segment focuses primarily on Black women. Several young, successful Black women were interviewed about their intimate relationships and what they desire in men they date. The women come across as strong and independent – and as wanting too much. “Relationship guru” Steve Harvey is also interviewed and he makes it fairly clear that these women have unrealistic expectations. He is shown advising the women to adjust their goals by, for instance, dating older Black men.
The Washington Post article I mentioned previously is even more explicit. It features Helena Andrews, author of Bitch is the New Black, a collection of satirical essays about young, successful Black women in Washington, DC. Andrews and her friends, according to the article, pride themselves on being “mean girls,” especially when it comes to meeting and dating men. But their “bitchiness” is just a mask; in their public presentations of self they convey a “don’t mess with me” attitude, but beneath this veneer is a well of loneliness and, it appears, it’s all their own fault. What do they expect? Instead of exploring with men – men of all races – why perhaps strong, independent women might be threatening to their masculinity and why this is their problem not the women’s problem, the implication of these and other similar stories is what man would want a woman like this? According to the Pew Research Center study, women’s educational and occupational successes in recent years mean that men benefit more from the economic gains of marriage than women do; in 1965, when the Moynihan Report was issued, the reverse was true. So why aren’t we applauding young, successful Black women for their achievements instead of blaming them for lower marriage rates? Why are we ignoring the fact that young, successful White women are also reporting difficulties finding compatible marriage partners? And why aren’t we analyzing why men cannot let go of norms of hegemonic masculinity and why they find successful, strong, and independent women intimidating? Sexism and racism are alive and well.
January’s GQ Magazine features singer Rihanna on the cover, with a story about her recent experiences and upcoming CD. As has been widely reported in the press, earlier this year Rihanna was badly eaten by her ex boyfriend, singer Chris Brown. Claire Renzetti wrote about social class, race and intimate partner violence here last March.
Since then, Chris Brown has pled guilty to charges of felony assault, is attending domestic violence classes, and is currently on probation. He has apologized for beating Rihanna and has appeared on several news outlets to discuss the events.
Rihanna’s GQ cover is one of a few cases where she’s talked publicly about the events of “that night.” (She spoke to news correspondent Diane Sawyer prior to sitting down with GQ.) In GQ, she says that she welcomes the opportunity to speak to young women and to give them insights, that she finds discussing her situation liberating, and that doing so helps her to “move on” and to avoid being defined by this one event. This is an admirable goal, but in the article, there are precious few examples of the insights that she wishes to share with young women. When asked specifically, she says that the biggest insight she learned is
“really really really that love is blind. It took a lot of strength to pull out of that relationship. To finally just officially cut it off. It was like night and day. It was two different worlds. It was the world I lived for two years, and then having the strength to say, ‘I’m gonna step into my own world. Start over.’”
She also states,
“I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on young girls’ lives, and that’s part of the insight that I wanna give. Stop blaming yourself for that outcome. There’s nothing you can do, ever, to excuse a man’s behavior like that.”
The reporter goes on to ask Rihanna if she ever blamed herself, to which she replies that
“I never blamed myself, but I wondered, what, what did I do to provoke it?” (italics in original.)
At this point, Rihanna’s manager tells the reporter to move on to a different subject.
I found this interview rather troubling on a number of levels. For one thing, there can be no question that Rihanna’s choice to speak out now about her abuse does not just happen to coincide with the release of her new album. GQ speculates as much when they assert that “in the record business, domestic violence isn’t just a tragedy; it’s an image crisis. So now Team Rihanna had to decide how to ‘handle it.’ Their plan was this: She’d talk about it for the release of the album. She’d do Diane and Glamour and announce that she wanted to help young women who’d been in her position. Even if that meant addressing what really happened that ugly night last February” (pp. 56). This isn’t hard to believe, given that Rihanna didn’t immediately discuss her abuse at Chris Brown’s hands, and the more obvious likelihood that she’d be reluctant to offer such a painful, traumatic incident up for public consumption. However, by talking about her experiences with various media outlets around the time that her album is released, she is doing just that.
What I find problematic is that by encouraging Rihanna to do interviews based on the expectation that she’ll discuss her abuse—but then cutting off interviewers who attempt to discern her insights about it—her experience becomes trivialized and commodified in the worst way. What insights are young women supposed to gain from Rihanna if handlers only allow her to repeat platitudes about domestic violence (e.g., it’s never your fault, it’s hard to leave)? Essentially, these interviews lure people to buy the magazines or watch her interviews with the expectation that they’ll hear Rihanna share the salacious details of what was probably one of the worst nights of her life. They get a teaser that fortunately spares us the worst, but also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual insights or inspiration. What does emerge is a carefully calculated, if transparent, effort to use Rihanna’s tragedy to encourage people to buy her CD.
The tragedy of this is multifaceted. It’s horribly unfortunate that a young woman’s trauma is seen as something to be “handled” and “managed” as a way to boost record sales. What’s equally significant is that Rihanna’s abuse touched on many racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes that go unaddressed when her discussion of it becomes cynically packaged and sold as currency. Following the initial stories that Chris Brown had beaten Rihanna, many blogs, discussion circles, and conversations resonated with the predictable discussions over whether she “brought it on herself,” but also evoked comments that “island women are crazy” and that black men’s shortcomings and mistakes receive more attention and criticism than those of their white peers. All of these points warrant greater analysis and/or debunking, but using Rihanna’s experience so callously precludes her from actively being part of this. Perhaps most tragically, some of these statements about Rihanna’s culpability in her assault came from young women of color, who are disproportionately likely to experience domestic assault from boyfriends, lovers, and husbands. They are also the women who are usually overlooked if and when the media does decide to focus on issues of domestic abuse and violence. Ironically, then, some of the very women who maligned Rihanna are perhaps those who might benefit the most if she were to make the informed, autonomous decision to offer whatever insights she’s gained.
This is not to say that Rihanna should now be obligated to take on this role. I think if she wants to maintain her privacy about this, she should be entitled to do so. But it does a disservice to Rihanna and to all women to commodify abuse in an effort to climb the charts, and it obscures rather than drawing attention to the depth and extent of domestic violence and abuse among women of color.