Archive for women of color
The other day I was reading and came across this:
Prior to 1989, the race on a newborn’s birth certificate was determined by the race of the parents. An infant with one White parent was assigned the race of the non-White parent. If neither parent was White, the child was assigned the race of the father. Since 1989, the race of the mother has been indicated as the child’s race on the birth certificate.[Note 1 below]
Of course being the mother of a multiracial Asian child, my curiosity was massively peaked. I didn’t remember identifying my son’s race/ethnicity after he was born. Did nurses mark it for us? What did they put considering both my husband and I are multiracial Asian too? I rushed to find my son’s birth certificate. No race listed. End of story? Of course not.
A birth certificate is a vital record documenting the birth of a child. In the U.S., State laws require birth certificates to be completed for all births, and Federal law mandates national collection and publication of births and other vital statistics data.The data is managed by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What I pulled from my files was a Short Form Birth Certificate, an unofficial document containing very little information. The short form does not list race. It merely certifies that an actual official birth certificate exists somewhere else. A Long Form or Certified Birth Certificate is the official document; a duplicate of the hospital birth record that is prepared when a child is born. The long form certificate does list race.
The manner in which birth race is recorded has changed over time. The most recent 2003 revision included the important update of allowing multiple-race selection. As far as I can tell a “multiracial” option has not yet been added (as it was to the 2010 Census).
And here’s where it gets complicated.
First, although the NCHS has expanded its race/ethnicity codes extensively and allows multiple-box-checking, doing so has created a statistical dilemma. How does the system compile answers when some people check 1 box and others check 2, 3, or more? I poured over many online documents (including those posted on the NCHS website) and found myself drowning in confusion. I am certainly open to being corrected on this point if someone else can figure what in the world the NCHS is talking about – but it appears that complex algorithims are used to bridge multiple-race responses into one single response, a single race response. What??
Second, despite collecting race information on both parents, birth data is still reported, in most cases, by the race of the mother.
Third, states have been slow to adopt the newest certificate form. As of 2007, 26 jurisdictions had not yet implemented it.
Carmen: “When my daughter was born the hospital put black on all of her documents (immunizations etc). I am black and my hubby is white, I thought it was a little weird that they should ignore the fact that my child is bi-racial. The nurses told me, (a little condescendingly mind you) that ALL government doc default to the race of the birth mother. So I had a question for the white mothers with bi-racial children with black fathers, did they put white on your child’s documents? Or was this some backwards thing they do just to black mothers?” –Circle of Moms (2010)
Ultimately this all gets pretty sticky when we consider birth certificate data has played a long-standing role in public health planning, action and funding. Leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers. How does the inaccuracy of recording mixed race impact the lives and representation of multiracial people? And how do us parents experience this inaccuracy as we are asked again and again to identify our multiracial children?
See my blog here.
1. Tashiro, Cathy J. “Mixed but Not Matched: Multiracial People and the Organization of Health Knowledge”. The Sum of Our Parts. Ed. Teresa Williams-León and Cynthia L. Nakashima. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. 173-182. Print.
Henry A. Giroux, in a recent post entitled, “Lil Wayne’s Lyrical Fascism,” alleges “We have come a long way from the struggles that launched the civil rights movement over fifty years ago.”
After reading the actual article, due to the esteemed Dr. Giroux’s critique on the rapper Lil Wayne, it would seem “We” definitely have not arrived. Giroux examines not only the deplorable lines within Lil Wayne’s contribution to the remix of “Karate Chop” (Yes, it actually called this), where he declares he will “beat the pussy up like Emmett Till,” but more importantly Giroux lends a spotlight to the underlying condition that allows for racist, sexist, and historical mockery to take place within the 21st century.
Giroux goes on to call into question the economic drive that fosters the media’s atmosphere consisting of poisonous and destructive attributes. These elements thusly seep through the “sleazemonger” which occupies our airwaves, satellites, and print. He also calls our society to the proverbial mat due to our collective lack of resistance to said subject. Importantly, Giroux comments on the existence of “a deeper order of racist ideology and commodification that is pushed to the margins of discourse in the neoliberal age of colorblindness.”
Those who follow his scholarship are aware Giroux has argued over the years that fundamentalist neoliberals who reject democratic idealism while praying to the gods of free market have gained the necessary financial momentum and social vigor to heavily influence the political and economic domains around the world like never before observed in history. In fact, they not only influence policy and political directions of those we elect to represent our interests, but they also seek to weaken those non-commodified areas within our communal space which serve as sources of conflicting critical discourse. Indeed, the mainstream media have become a brilliant source for accomplishing this charge. Due to their unwavering compulsion to gain profit, these free market fundamentalists hold almost no empathy in regard to their actions, which may create inequality, mortal anguish, and subjugation. Overall, the collective soul of a people and their democratic footing in this world is simply collateral damage to those seeking the all might “Dolla Bill Ya!”
I agree with Giroux in terms of the current state of neoliberalism and the erosion of democratic practices that is facilitated by use of the media. Malcolm X was right when he said, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
But at the same time when taking into consideration Giroux’s take on the neoliberal methodology in regard to using the media to gain profits through the use of racist and misogynistic messages (which are easily swallowed by the zombies that surround us), I strongly argue, simply, they are playing an old tune we as a world have been dancing to since the beginning. Remember, Joe Feagin contends racism and oppression are still viewed as normal parts of society due to the enmeshment of the White racial dogma embedded in the foundations of U.S. society. In addition, his concept, the white racial frame, spotlights a created set of organized “racialized” ideas and stereotypes that have the power to induce strong emotions. It is important to know these actions are based off of the U.S. historical enshrinement of a frame of thinking which at the center, is composed of a pro-white sub-frame (which takes notice of the superiority of Whites) and a demonizing anti-black sub-frame. In fact, institutional racism relies on the presence and mechanism of anti-Black attitudes and practices that are displayed overtly and covertly.
Therefore, what we are seeing today with the likes of Lil Wayne is nothing new. In terms of people of color attaching their own psychological chains to their advancement, this is nothing new as well. The power of racism and the allure of the white racial frame have the ability to ensnare those targeted for oppression into unconsciously adhering to their own demise. The historical and powerful speech by Malcolm X, “The House Negro and Field Negro,” although forceful, seems fitting:
There was two kind of slaves. There was the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, they lived in the house, with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good, cause they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master, and they loved their master, more than their master loved himself…If the master got sick, the house negro would say “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself. And if you came to the house negro and said “Let’s run away, Let’s escape, Let’s separate” the house negro would look at you and say “Man, you crazy. What you mean separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?” There was that house negro. In those days, he was called a house nigger. And that’s what we call him today, because we still got some house niggers runnin around here…
If Malcolm were alive today, would he feel this is applicable to rappers like Jay-Z who has made million along his musical path calling women bitches?
Fascinating, due to having a baby daughter in 2012, he declared to never use the word again. Thank you Jay-Z. How about Lil Wayne and music mogul Russell Simons who hasve defiantly defended the current status and messages of hip/hop? Are they men under the illusion that they are in control and their pursuits? Are they purely focused on money and simply representing a faction of the neoliberal camp? But are they in reality the all encompassing “House Negros” affected blindly by the messages of subjugation.
Therefore. Dr. Giroux, the only difference I see today, beyond the democratic erosion of our society due to neoliberalism, is the advancement and use of technology in facilitating an old message that attempts to keep a white foot on the neck of people of color.
United States history has taught us it is not new or unusual that blacks are viewed as second class citizens compared to whites; our contemporary realities has informed us that women are not on equal footing as men; and our society has still not come to grips that one’s sexual orientation could be anything other than heterosexual, if that individual is to be positively accepted. What can make matters much worse is when someone possesses any combination of these nonnormative characteristics. For instance, a black female who is also lesbian would be located at the lower rungs of human acceptance in the US, even more illuminated when compared to a white heterosexual male. While there are an abundant number of discriminatory examples in which a combination of race, gender and sexual orientation can lead to detrimental consequences when that mixture is located at the opposite end of what is “normal”, none has been more predominant than the recent “discretionary discipline” handed down to the two coaches at the University of Texas (Austin).
For those who are not familiar with the recent events at UT, let me briefly explain. Although two coaches at UT both had consensual relationships with students at the university, the ramifications of the two incidents proved discriminatory. Bev Kearney, a black lesbian and head female track and field coach, was forced out of her 20-year-long career after admitting her previous relationship with a student-athlete. Major Applewhite, a white heterosexual male and assistant football coach, was only suspended after revealing he had a one-night-stand with a student athletic trainer. What makes matters even more puzzling is consensual relationships between staff and students, according to university policy, are not explicitly prohibited. It can be argued that other factors played a role in this decision such as football being a high-profile revenue-generating sport and track and field being a low-profile sport, and thus sacrifices can be made. However, the obvious double standard, especially when accounting for the success of Kearney (e.g., seven national championships, high student graduate rates, inspiring mentor, International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame inductee), makes this woman’s characteristics (i.e., black, female, lesbian) more of the cause than an inadvertent coincidence.
Being a black woman is already problematic enough in the US, with this group receiving far less access to society’s resources, underrepresented in every major institution, and having to work harder than any other group to make it (see Feagin, 2010), adding lesbian to the mix most definitely muddles things. Although there are few laws in contemporary society that institutionally limit the lives of the LGBT community, Pharr (1997) suggests a restrictively heterosexual and homophobic culture continues to bind these individuals. This is no different in the sport context. For instance, Krane and Barber (2005) found discriminatory hiring practices to exist towards female coaches perceived to be lesbian. Even when these women do make it through the interview process and eventually hired, Griffin (1998) argues the “lesbian stigma” continues to threaten their status and power and contributes to the maintenance of their out-group status. Researchers (e.g., Wright and Clark, 1999) contend that media discourse plays a principal role in perpetuating these inequalities, since they “construct a particular view of the world, of both individuals and social relations” (p. 228).
It is the numerous media outlets discussing the case of these coaches that perpetuate the differences between the two. For instance, in the various media accounts there is no mention of the type of relationship (homosexual or heterosexual) that Applewhite was involved in, but in almost every account Kearney is characterized as a black woman who had a lesbian relationship. Similarly, Applewhite and his family are continually discussed in a positive way through the media, which appears to suggest he has more to lose and we have to give him a chance; whereas outside of her accolades as a UT track and field coach, there is minimal reference of Kearny’s personal life. Just like there are two sets of rules applied in these similar cases, there are two different stories being disseminated to the public. Consequently, the powerful institutions of sport and the media continue to remind us what is most valued in the US: men over women, heterosexual over homosexual, and white over black.
UPDATE: I had several interesting conversations with folks about this blog piece. For the record, these were not contentious conversations, just casual talk with acquaintances. For instance, one person said they liked the post, but thought I should have focused more on Kearney’s race than her sexual orientation. Another said they didn’t believe sexual orientation played a big role in her being viewed negatively; it was primarily her being a woman and black. A third person didn’t think sexual orientation should have been an emphasis on a “racism” blog. I tried telling these folks that every media account highlighted Kearney’s sexual orientation while no mention of Applewhite’s, and thought it was an important inclusion to demonstrate how it may have compounded (on top of race and gender) her negative treatment. I suggested that maybe they should go look up the dozens of media accounts and tell me what they think afterwards… By the way, these were all black folks.
Bibliography and items to read:
*Griffin, P. (1998). Strong women, deep closets. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
*Krane, V., & Barber, H. (2005). Identity tensions in lesbian intercollegiate coaches. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76, 67-81.
*Pharr, S. (1997). Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. Berkeley, CA: Chardon Press.
*Wright, J., & Clark, G. (1999). Sport, the media and the construction of compulsory heterosexuality: A case study of Women’s Rugby Union. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34(3), 227-243.
On January 15, 2013 the Oxygen network released a tentative statement about discontinuing the production of All My Babies’ Mamas. This reality TV show would peek into the life of the not-so-well-known U.S. rapper Shawty Lo who currently has 11 children by 10 different women, a 19 year-old girlfriend, and is rumored to have another baby on the way by his ex-girlfriend Jai Jai. Thankfully, on January 16th the network canceled the show after receiving almost 40,000 signatures from Change.org. In response to the cancellation requests, Oxygen V.P. Julie Rothman said, “[this show] is not meant to be a stereotypical representation of everyday life for any one demographic or cross section of society. It is a look at one unique family and their complicated, intertwined life.” Yet, Rothman’s statement leaves lingering questions. With all the unique families out there, why did Oxygen choose this family? Why didn’t Oxygen pursue a celebrity like Bill Clinton for a reality show? The focus could be upon Clinton’s many extra-marital affairs.
In the media, Black families have become representative of dysfunction. Americans have been laughing about stereotypical “Black people” for so long, such comic relief has become an addiction that many, like Julie Rothman, defend. Black parents often find themselves at the receiving end of media-based jokes about Black families. “Baby Daddy”/“Baby Mama” labels have become an omnipresent symbolic representation of broken Black families. The portrayal of unmarried Black mothers becomes yet another way in which dominant group values are juxtaposed against marginalized identities. These so-called “Baby Mamas” are most often caricaturized as being poor- but gold digging- welfare recipients who want nothing more than money, child support, and the latest hairstyle. Media portrayals frequently present uncaring mothers who leave their children in abject poverty while they go to receive beauty treatments or find another man to victimize in an effort to acquire more child support. These deleterious stereotypes become crystallized and reinforced through what the media decides to broadcast and rebroadcast to the public. For a more thorough discussion about media stereotypes of African Americans (see The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America by Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki (University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Now back to Shawty Lo. There are men from various racial/ethnic backgrounds in the U.S. who father children out of wedlock, including Levi Johnston (the father of Sara Palin’s grandson) and Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has seven children by five different women though he has only married twice. Yet a show called “All Clint’s Babies’ Mamas” ridiculing Eastwood would never occur to reality show producers. And the mothers of Eastwood’s children would not become sideshow attractions to his extra-marital exploits. Why? Because he is White + Male + Affluent and in the U.S. we humanize those who fit these intersecting categories regardless of their transgressions. Shawty Lo represents those who are Black + Male + “Ghetto” and persons who fit these intersecting categories tend to be reduced to the transgressions they make.
In “Al My Babies’ Mamas” the mothers of Carlos Walker’s (aka Shawty Lo’s) children are cast as laughable, sideshow attractions in a nation where the disproportionately high number of Black single mothers is no laughing matter. In 2011, it was estimated by the Annie E. Casey Data Center that 67% of Black children grow up in single parent households; and 38.4% of children in Black female-headed households live in poverty according to 2011 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Given Julie Rothman’s claims above, why didn’t Oxygen take the more humanistic route of creating a documentary on the struggles of single mothers instead of a reality show that ridicules them? A documentary would do a far better job of presenting lives that are “complicated” and “intertwined”. “All My Babies’ Mamas” would have only served to keep African Americans wrapped in and warped by age-old dehumanizing stereotypes.
Nicole DeLoatch is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden.
Before The Help was well known three of us, David W. Jackson III, Charletta Sudduth, and I, were gathering the real stories of women who worked for white families in the segregated South. Now our book, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South is out from LSU Press.
Based on interviews with more than 50 people with intimate knowledge of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South, the storytellers are black women of the Great Migration to Iowa from Mississippi and other southern states as well as southern white women who grew up in homes that employed domestics. In the interests of accuracy and completeness, the interviews were conducted by members of the same race as the narrators.
The first section of the book provides a historical and cultural context for what follows in the next two sections, discussing concepts such as paternalism and maternalism which made the “southern way of life” a distinct and especially insidious form of racism unique to its time and place.
The phenomenon of “maid/mistress” intimacy in a society built on norms of segregation was confusing to outside observers and rarely captured in southern films about the era. The bonding that sometimes ensued between white and black women was more puzzling still. Domestic workers were often placed in an emotional bind, loved on the one hand and rejected through custom on the other. To try to make sense of what one of the white interviewers called “the dark past” we authors drew on literary documents and sociological studies written at the time. To quote a passage from the book on the unique status of the black domestic workers:
“Aligning themselves with whites of the professional class, black women often earned the respect of members of the white community and formed alliances that could render them and their families a certain degree of protection. Black domestic workers moved freely between the white and black communities. Dressed in a maid’s uniform, they had a mobility denied to others of their race. Domestic workers often fell into the role of go-betweens, as interpreters of black life to white people and of white life to black people.” (p.33)
Part II of The Maid Narratives takes the reader into the first-hand storytelling by the African American women who are now a part of the Great Migration. Because of their long absence from the region of their upbringing, their memories are frozen in time, and the past becomes the present in their telling. Thus we hear from Elra Johnson at age 100 describe how she defied the old norms of segregation and walked right through the front door of a local building and faced off the Ku Klux Klan for her civil rights activities. “They didn’t want no Negroes to have no freedom, “ she explained. And we hear from Ruthie O’Neal who described a typical example of how the servants were instructed to abide by the norms of segregation: “She’s 12 years old,” the lady of the house would say, “call her Miss Nancy.”
The paradoxes of historic southern etiquette are striking and emerge in such statements as “I would not only clean the bathroom but I’d take a bath in the bathtub” as recalled by Hazel Rankins. Another example is offered by Vinella Byrd who said, “The man didn’t want me to wash my hands in the wash pan.” The bathroom was off limits as well. So she was forced to cook the family dinner without being able to wash up.
Taken as a whole, the resilience of these women shines through their stories. In the words of Pearline Jones who worked for a period in the home of William Faulkner and other prominent people in Oxford, Mississippi, “The way I got through all this was I made poems; I wrote poetry out of them jobs. I am old now, but I have some poems at the house.”
“Part III: The White Family Narratives” gives the perspective of those who grew up in homes that employed domestic workers and were largely raised by these women. Many are filled with regret that they never showed their gratitude to these women who were often like second mothers to them and sometimes even more. Now most of these women who cared for them are dead. One white narrator, now age 90, shares her poem entitled, “Were Our Sins So Scarlet?” In a poem that describes servants going under the house “while white folks flushed” she concludes that they were.
~ Guest blogger, Katherine van Wormer is Professor of Social Work at the University of Northern Iowa
Anna Holmes has an excellent post on the great achievement of Gabrielle Douglas, the first African American to win the women’s all-around gymnastics gold medal in the Olympics. (And to win the two particular gold medals she got in this one Olympics.) What an achievement for any 16-year-old, but especially for one who has faced the barriers she has faced.
Holmes demonstrates the extraordinarily naïveté and role in systemic gendered racism of key white commentators, in this case the famous Bob Costas. Costas interviewed Douglas and asserted this:
“You know, it’s a happy measure of how far we’ve come that it doesn’t seem all that remarkable, but still it’s noteworthy, Gabby Douglas is, as it happens, the first African-American to win the women’s all-around in gymnastics. The barriers have long since been down, but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier, based on how one might see oneself.”
As you might expect, this type of white racial framing, in its colorblind Pollyanna-ism, was Holmes’s
In a political and cultural environment in which the patriotism—the very Americanness—of people of color (including the current president…) is often called into question, Costas’s scripted deep thought .. . was at worst dishonest . . .. What leveled barriers … was Mr. Costas referring to? Who, excepting the most Pollyanna-ish or cloistered … would believe the assertion that Gabby Douglas’ challenges were primarily psychic, a statement that can be contradicted by … the undeniable whiteness of being that is high-level American gymnastics?
Other writers echoed this same white racial framing, reverberating Costas’s colorblindism.
Holmes then picks up on the Costas point that our view of ourselves does makes a difference. But, she adds, structural situations often create that problem for people of color:
Douglas’ triumph seems extremely remarkable, both because of the commonality of her situation—the big dreams, the economic hardships, the one-parent household—and its unusualness: A minority in a historically “white” sport. . . . a 2007 diversity study commissioned by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S., said that just 6.61% of the participants in American gymnastics programs were black.
Numerous members of USA Gymnastics, the mostly white coaches and other leaders in the field, often had a negative reaction to this honest report. Many whites there and elsewhere have tended, as they often do, to blame everything but white agents and white decisionmakers for this systemic-racism condition.
Holmes concludes by accenting how powerful the Douglas achievement was, especially for girls and young women around the globe, most of whom are girls and women of color. It will be interesting to see how the mainstream media treat Douglas, and the general white (and other) public too, when this great gymnast and her fine team return to the United States. Holmes concludes with this fine sharp point:
The 16-year-old’s triumph—not to mention her poise, her maturity, her focus, her elegance—will help recalibrate what young females of color believe is within their reach, while also influencing Western ideas and concepts of black womanhood, strength, agency and femininity—which has been historically objectified, sexualized and, it should be noted, feared.
It is way past time for these negative images of black women in the common white racial frame to be attacked for the mythological and racist framing they have always been–and indeed attacked constantly in the mainstream media until they are eliminated in the heads of way too many white (and some other) Americans.
In the zany world of Utah politics where Republicans naturally remain right of center, but Democrats venture toward the middle, Mia Love’s recent rise to national prominence came about after defeating former state legislator Carl Wimmer for the right to run against the well-funded Democrat incumbent, Jim Matheson, thus positioning herself as the first Afro-Haitian American Mormon GOP House candidate. If she wins, Mia could make history as the first black female politician ever elected to the House of Representatives from the state of Utah, an amazing feat when considering the odds of her of actually winning in a predominately white, conservative, Mormon state.
If Mia Love is victorious in her bid for the House seat, it will do wonders for the image of the state of Utah, and especially the LDS Church whose recent spate of high profile race-based debacles captured national attention. There have been insensitive racial statements made from former church authorities in past time (see pdf here). However, BYU religion professor Randy Bott’s recent remarks of justifiable racism found within the LDS cannon triggered one the strongest public statements against racism to date uttered by LDS Church headquarters, but not before the church’s own racial beliefs were once again questioned.
Additionally, comedian David Ackerman’s interviews with predominately white students while dressed in “blackface” on the campus of BYU in February 2012 went viral on YouTube, as it highlighted the ignorance of race awareness in Utah (by both Ackerman and the students alike). Highly publicized in the national media, it proved embarrassing, yet again, for the flagship school of the LDS Church. Against this backdrop, emerged Mia Love.
How does a black female who is a conservative and a Latter-day Saint manage to negotiate so many foreboding white spaces and, yet, publicly appear oblivious to the racial tensions found within each space? This is a complicated question that, in all fairness, only Mia can truly answer for herself; however, research has been beneficial at elucidating the complexities of racial identity development as we observe groups. We begin by understanding what the eminent scholar W.E.B. Du Bois meant when he coined the phrase “double consciousness” over one hundred years ago to explain the sociological conditions and democratic contradictions of living with everyday racism(s) that black Americans endure. That black and white folk live in two existentially dissimilar worlds with opposing codes of power and rules of conduct, Du Bois argued those rules and codes preferentially benefited whites at the expense of African Americans. The respective codes of power form a fairly predictable and sanitized environment where the dominant ideology of whiteness is proffered and diversity of bodies and experiences is generally discouraged, particularly in predominately white-controlled organizations. Though the language of these organizations will profess diversity, their actions insinuate otherwise, chiefly when viewing the structure of these institutions.
In order for someone like Mia Love or myself, for that matter, to gain some rewards and advantages in white America, we along with scores of other typically middle-class and well-educated people of color have to be proficient in these preferred racial codes of power which are often hidden from plain sight, but have enormous consequences for social mobility. For example, religious persuasion is highly valued along with particular hairstyles, musical tastes, and clothing. Additionally, white sounding names (as compared to black sounding names), educational status, and English language proficiency are but a few codes of power found in U.S. society, particularly with respect to hiring. For African Americans, the need and ability to tread between two separate and opposing codes is identified as “code switching.” Though this is often unconscious, it affords black Americans the ability to traverse white norms and values in order to “succeed” in the illusion of the American Dream, while still maintaining a connection with and understanding of the black community and its struggles as they move up the social ladder and try to preserve their status as middle class. The constant shifting of context that African Americans must tolerate, however, carries the burden of disease. The consequences for their health and well-being take the form of higher cortisol levels, which produces higher rate of chronic ailments that lead to increased morbidity and mortality.
To many African Americans and other individuals interested in politics who are following Mia Love’s Utah candidacy, she is a paradox. As a black, female Mormon, her conservative ideals are deemed peculiar as she runs for office in the Republican Party while balancing a triad of oppressive social constructs that are leveled against her. Not only have Blacks historically and continually had to battle for their right to coexist as equals in U.S. society, but women have similarly pushed against a glass ceiling. Even today, women still struggle for equal pay, equal rights and equal protection under the law in the workplace as well as in the armed forces.
Mia represents one of the most racially discriminated groups in the country as a black female. The same can be said for her Mormon identity as the LDS faithful endured bitter hatred and state-sanctioned terrorism in Missouri and Illinois in the 1800s. Mormonism remains grossly misunderstood and often unfairly judged with respects to their religious views while mainline evangelical traditions continue to wield Christian privilege at the expense of ‘fringe” religions like Mormonism. (Many republican supporters outside of Utah politely ignore Mia’s membership in the LDS Church, lionizing her as a fresh face in the party while secretly lambasting her for belonging to a “religious cult.”) Yet, Love’s political convictions show a strong support for values that do not necessarily represent her interests as a member in any of these oppressed groups.
In fact, Mia along with other conservative Blacks such as Allen West, Michael Steele, Amy Holmes, Alan Keyes, and Herman Cain ascribe to a party that rejects any notion of group inequality within its basic tenets of individualism. What many conservatives fail to recognize is that individuals are connected to larger groups, and those groups display patterns and behaviors that assess their levels well being in relation to society. When a group lags as a whole in the American scheme of profitability, it is because they typically display conduct in variance to the all around code that the white, male norm subscribes to. For example, Blacks aren’t doing well with respects to education, economics, and health outcomes while women still lag behind in salary and positions of power. These actualities of Mia’s reality seem to be in concert with her values that are based in a white male Christian context.
But the biggest quandary with respect to Mia lies with her inability to grasp Du Bois’ double consciousness. Whether this is due to her Mormon faith and the apparent Stockholm syndrome of black Mormons (whose membership in the LDS church differs widely from those of The Black Church which helped to sustain the African American community through some of the most difficult and turbulent times in American history rather than perpetuate racist folklore to justify black marginality) or due to her racial consciousness, by lacking the ability or refusing to code switch with the black community, Mia and others like her are seemingly out of touch with the political realities of African Americans and what remains at stake for them. It would be a mistake to assume that all black people are cut from the same cloth and share the same political inclinations. The Pew institute estimates some 3 million self-identified Black Americans are registered republicans; however, there has yet to be a ground swell of support for the right-wing ideology amongst the vast majority of African American voters. Thus, for most African Americans, it appears absolutely preposterous that someone black, Mormon, and female could possibly support the GOP so strongly given its history of anti-black, anti-feminist, and anti-Mormon sentiment. But this isn’t so preposterous when we recognize that American politics is a broken system in the business of servicing big corporations wherein Americans are duped into voting their values even when they contradict their political interests and success as a social group. African Americans are the only racial group that votes in blocks and, I would argue, the only group to vote their interests. But Mia Love does not align herself with African American interests, which is why a figure like her is so fascinating.
As potentially the first Mormon, black female from the state of Utah in the House, she has captured national attention. And her recent ascendency onto the political scene could not have come at a more convenient time when there has been a surge of interest in Mormonism due to definitive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. With the race beliefs and ideology that Mormons have been subjected to defending, Mia Love, as a seemingly bright and well-spoken GOP candidate, will prove to be a counter-answer to those raised eyebrows.
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I did not attend Wednesday’s movie release of “The Help” from DreamWorks Pictures, based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Why, you ask? Because I read the book.
Last week New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni saw an advance screening of the movie and referred to it as “…a story of female grit and solidarity — of strength through sisterhood.” He wrote, “The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, told me that she felt that most civil rights literature had taken a male perspective, leaving ‘territory that hadn’t been covered much.’” What neither Bruni nor Stockett acknowledge is that the real territory remaining uncovered is civil rights literature written by the Black women who experienced it.
I recently read The Help with an open mind, despite some of the criticism it has received. I assumed the book would be racially problematic, because for me, most things are. The novel opens on the fourth Wednesday in August 1962, at the bridge club meeting in the modest home of 23-year old, social climbing Miss Leefolt. The plot unfolds when her “friend” and the novel’s antagonist, Miss Hilly, the President of the Jackson, Mississippi Junior League, announces that she will support legislation for a “Home Help Sanitation Initiative,” a bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. (10)
We learn early on that Miss Skeeter, the only bridge club lady with a college degree and no husband, opposes the idea. By page 12, she asks Miss Leefolt’s maid Aibleen, “Do you ever wish you could…change things?” This lays the groundwork for a 530-page novel telling the story of Black female domestics in Jackson.
The first two chapters were written in the voice of a Black maid named Aibileen, so I hoped that the book would actually be about her. But this is America, and any Southern narrative that actually touches on race must focus on a noble white protagonist to get us through such dangerous territory (in this case, Miss Skeeter; in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch). As a Black female reader, I ended up feeling like one of “the help,” forced to tend to Miss Skeeter’s emotional sadness over the loss of her maid (whom she loved more than her own white momma) and her social trials regarding a clearly racist “Jim Crow” bill.
What is most concerning about the text is the empathy that we are supposed to have for Miss Skeeter. This character is not a true white civil rights activist like the historical figure, Viola Liuzzo (April 11, 1925 – March 25, 1965), a mother of five from Michigan murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama. Instead, Skeeter is a lonely recent grad of Ole Miss, who returns home after college, devastated that her maid is gone and that she is “stuck” with her parents. She remarks, “I had to accept that Constantine, my one true ally, had left me to fend for myself with these people.” (81) Constantine is Miss Skeeter’s Black maid, and it’s pretty transparent that Stockett is writing about herself. We learn this in the novel’s epilogue, “Too Little, Too Late: Kathryn Stockett, in her own words.”
“My parents divorced when I was six. Demetrie became even more important then. When my mother went on one of her frequent trips[…] I’d cry and cry on Demetrie’s shoulder, missing my mother so bad I’d get a fever from it.” (p. 527)
“I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine. I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie the same question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.” (p. 530)
It would have behooved Stockett to ask her burning question of another Black domestic, or at least read some memoirs on the subject, but instead she substitutes her imagination for understanding. And the result is that The Help isn’t for Black women at all, and quickly devolves into just another novel by and for white women.
But when the novel attempts to enter the mindset of the Black women, like Aibleen or her best friend Minny, suddenly we enter the realm of the ridiculous. Although Stockett’s writing shows her talent, her ignorance of the real lives of the Black women bleeds through. Her Black characters lack the credibility reflected in Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir by Anne Moody, an African American woman growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1960s. Moody recalls doing domestic work for white families from the age of nine. Moody’s voice is one of a real Black woman who left her own house and family each morning to cook in another woman’s kitchens.
So instead of incorporating a real Black woman’s voice in a novel purported to being about Black domestics, the Skeeter/Stockett character is comfortingly centralized, and I can see why white women relate to her. She is depicted as a budding feminist, who is enlightened and brave. But in reality, she uses the stories of the Black domestics in the name of “sisterhood” to launch her own career, and then leaves them behind. In my experience, the Skeeters of the world grow up to be Gloria Steinem.
In a certain sense, The Help exemplifies the disconnect many Black women have felt from Feminist Movement through the second wave. For 20 years, I read accounts of Black women who were alienated from that movement primarily populated by middle-class white women. Black women have asserted their voices since the 1960s as a means of revising feminism and identifying the gap previously denied by the movement and filled by their minds, spirits and bodies. Yet, because I was born in the midst of the second wave and the Black Feminist Movement, I never felt alienated, myself, until the 2008 Presidential election.
It started with the extremely unpleasant showdown between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris Lacewell, (now Perry) surrounding Steinem’s New York Times op-ed about then-Senator Barack Obama. This was followed by the late Geraldine Ferraro’s dismissive comments that Senator Obama was winning the race because he was not White. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. … He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
And even now that we have an elegant Black First Lady, I’m troubled that our popular culture obsession is with the “largely fictional” book, The Help. Sounds like an opportune moment for second wave feminists to engage in some serious deconstructionist critical analysis.
Or maybe not.
Once again, it seems that the sisters who make up the “sisterhood” are left to fend for themselves, while second wave feminists like Salon.com writer Laura Miller give a tepid analysis of the legal controversy surrounding the novel.
In February, Ablene Cooper, an African-American maid and babysitter working in Jackson, Miss., where “The Help” is set, filed suit against Stockett. Cooper accused Stockett of causing her to “experience severe emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation and outrage” by appropriating “her identity for an unpermitted use and holding her to the public eye in a false light.” In her article, “The Dirty Secrets of The Help,” Laura Miller writes:
“Cooper’s lawsuit does manage to unearth two remarks from the novel in which Aibileen seems (arguably) to disparage her own color, but they are tiny scratches on an otherwise glowing portrait.”
Here’s one of those “tiny scratches” posted on ABCnews.com.
“That night after supper, me and that cockroach stare each other down across the kitchen floor,” Aibileen says in the book. “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.”
Laura Miller sees no problem with this, and focuses more on the depiction of the white women in the text:
“Although it’s difficult to believe that anyone would feel “outrage, revulsion and severe emotional distress” at being identified with the heroic Aibleen, her employer, Miss Leefolt, is another matter. A vain, status-seeking woman married to a struggling, surly accountant and desperately trying to keep up appearances in front of fellow members of the Jackson Junior League, Miss Leefolt is the one who insists on adding a separate “colored” bathroom to her garage. She does this partly to impress Miss Hilly, the League’s alpha Mean Girl (and the novel’s villain), but she also talks obsessively about the “different kinds of diseases” that “they” carry. Furthermore, Miss Leefolt is a blithely atrocious mother who ignores and mistreats her infant daughter, speaking wistfully of a vacation when “I hardly had to see [her] at all.” Like all of the white women in the novel (except the journalist writing the maids’ stories), Miss Leefolt is cartoonishly awful — and her maid has almost the same name as Stockett’s sister-in-law’s maid. Fancy that!”
Of course, Miller insinuates that the real life Aibleen lacks the agency to have initiated the lawsuit, and that Stockett’s sister-in-law surely coerced her.
I have never met the real-life Aibleen, but if she went to the grocery store yesterday, she would have seen that The Republic of Tea introduced its new limited-edition The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, and despite her educational background, she would have understood that she won’t get a cent of the royalties. According to the website, The Help Tea – Caramel Cake Black Tea, is inspired by Aibleen’s best friend Minny’s famous caramel cake. The tea is being marketed to drink with friends in celebration of a movie where a “remarkable sisterhood emerges.”
What no one wants to acknowledge is that the fictionalized Skeeter leaves the Black domestics in the South—similar to the white freedom riders during the Civil Rights Movement. In real life, after appropriating the voice of working class Black women, profiting, and not settling out of court, Kathryn Stockett admits in a Barnes and Noble audio interview that even her own maid was not fond of the novel: “My own maid didn’t really care for it too much, she said it hit a little too close to home for her,” Sockett reports seven minutes and 35 seconds into the 10 minute interview with Steve Bertrand. So, in the end, The Help and the lawsuit are about white women who don’t want true sisterhood. They just want Help.
~ Duchess Harris, PhD, JD is Associate Professor of American Studies at Macalester College, and the author of Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton and Racially Writing the Republic. This post originally appeared on FeministWire. You can follow her on Twitter @DuchessHarris.
Today is the celebration of the 100th International Women’s Day. While it’s meant to be an event that celebrates the diversity of women’s accomplishments, often times the focus of such celebrations is overly young, white, straight and normatively gendered. To counter this trend, I thought I would highlight three women leaders who don’t fit this model.
Estela Maris Álvarez is a member of the Enxet people, an indigenous group in Paraguay´s Chaco region, an area of semi-arid grasslands and thorny forests. She lives in La Herencia, a community in the western part of the country, located 340 km from Asunción.
Álvarez, who is 40 and raising two kids on her own, practices natural medicine as a nursing assistant and treats people in her community. From her traditional position as mother and healer, Álvarez has become a more non-traditional leader, taking on sexism and discrimination within her community and from outside it, such as in the governmental National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INDI) which only recognises men as leaders. “If a group of indigenous women turns to INDI to protest about a specific problem that affects us or to demand respect for our rights, they tell us that we’re not tribal chiefs, and just ignore us,” she said. Dismissing women’s voices exists within the Enxet community as well. According to Álvarez, the reality in the indigenous communities is that they’re governed by tribal chiefs with authoritarian and even violent attitudes. “They think that just because they’re chiefs they have the right to decide over the life of the community,” she said. Violence against women is a chronic problem in the patriarchal culture that prevails in indigenous communities, where it is considered acceptable. As a community leader, her position is clear. “The rights of indigenous women must be defended even over the interests of the communities,” because, moreover, it’s not true that you have to choose one or the other, she said.
“I am becoming more radical with age. I have noticed that writers, when they are old, become milder. But for me it is the opposite. Age makes me more angry.” This is the observation of Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian advocate for women’s rights.
El Saadawi trained as a doctor, then worked as a psychiatrist and university lecturer, and has published almost 50 novels, plays and collections of short stories. Her work, which tackles the problems women face in Egypt and across the world, provokes outrage in many ways because she takes on religion, but she doesn’t back down. She continues to address controversial issues such as female circumcision, domestic violence and religious fundamentalism in her writing and speaking. Here is a short video clip of her talking about some of these issues (warning: strong content, annoying ad at the beginning).
Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” in her speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention. Her speech was meant to challenge the race and class privilege of the white women who organized that convention and did not imagine Sojourner’s struggles in their conceptualization of “women’s rights.” More than a 100 years later, women who are outside of privilege have continued to challenge what is meant by “women’s rights,” and who gets included and excluded from the category “woman.” Someone who is widely regarded as a pioneer in this struggle is Sylvia Rivera.
Rivera, a veteran of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, continued throughout her life to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised, particularly homeless LGBT kids and trans people everywhere, as she pointed out the often privileged myopia of the white, middle-class LGBT movement. Part of Sylvia Rivera’s legacy is a more inclusive definition of who is considered a woman and understanding that fighing for “women’s rights” includes transgendered women’s rights.