Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Biblical Secrets: King David, the Secret Service and Male Privilege

Rep. Peter King, Chairman of the House Committee that oversees the Secret Service, in response to the Secret Service scandal, says the key question is whether the prostitutes gained access to "any data or information that could have compromised the president of the United States or made an enemy force aware of the practices and procedures of the Secret Service." I disagree. This is an important question. However, the key question for me is what made these men think that they had the right to access these women’s bodies? What made these men think that they were indeed so privilege that they could break the contract—a commitment to pay for services rendered?

As I listen to this unfolding scandal, I’m reminded of the Biblical tale of King David. 

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then  David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her.” (2 Samuel II 1-4, New International Version)

 Fast forward to 2012

11 Secret Service men, on a recent trip to Cartagena, Colombia, visited a brothel and decided to buy the services offered by the women. Prostitution in some areas of Cartagena, Colombia is legal. At the end of the transaction, at least one agent refused to pay the agreed upon rate. Being mindful of her rights, the young lady sought restitution and reported the theft to the authorities (maybe a story of female empowerment).
This notion that women’s bodies are simply available for the pleasure of men is as long as history itself. We see this in the story of King David and in the story of the Secret Service men “behaving badly” in Colombia. There are a number of underlying similarities connecting this story of Biblical times and the recent behaviors of the Secret Service in Columbia. For one there is the story of the “sex scandal”. The “so-call” male bound is also present in both these stories/events. Also common in these stories is the rationalization of behavior. Finally, connecting the stories is male privilege. My primary focus is on male privilege and how it seems to encourage an ideology that women are property and as such have no rights.

Like King David, the men of the Secret Service “went on the roof” saw what they wanted and decided that they were entitled to possessing and using these women. In both instances the men had some relevant information that they ignored. David knew that Bathsheba was married, he even knew her lineage. The Secret Service men knew the cost of the services. Regardless of this background information, a decision was made. The women were to be used for their pleasure with little thought to the needs of these women. 

The Secret Service men, like King David, flaunted their perceived power.

The Bible does little to tell the story of Bathsheba and whether or not she willingly went to David (some speculate about Bathseba’s motives). Regardless of such speculation we do know at least one thing about Bathsheba. We know nothing of her feelings. She is often rendered invisible in the tale of David’s desire to conquer and possess another man’s wife. The female sex workers in this story of the Secret Service also remain relatively tangential to the unfolding story (sans the pictures of her “voluptuous body” as depicted among some news services). 

George Stephanopoulos, on the ABC show “This Week”, aired April 22, 2012, asked about the representation of women in the Secret Service, to which Maloney replied,

And I can’t help but keep asking this question, where are the women? We probably need to diversify the Secret Service and have more minorities and more women.”

This is but one example of how the female sex workers have become tangential in the development of the Secret Service sex scandal.  When we leave out the women, we are leaving out a critical question: what prompted this man/these men to behave in this manner? What might be an underlying factor that encouraged this man/these men to believe that they could simply use women’s bodies for their pleasure with little thought of the consequences? 

President Obama characterized the Secret Service men as "knuckle heads" and then asked "what were they thinking?" They like King David were thinking that they had the right to these women. Did they feel a right to access these women because they are sex workers, women, or a combination there of? Simply saying that they are knuckle heads does not allow us to have a conversation around these questions. It simply suggests that the men misbehaved as opposed to that they subscribed to an ideology of male privilege. Introducing male privilege into this conversation adds another layer of complexity to the story of the Secret Service. Adding diversity to the Secret Service without explicitly and systematically addressing male privilege will do little to change such behaviors.

There are other reasons for bringing women, not in a symbolic manner but in a substantive manner, into this conversation. If we bring women into this conversation, we can also explore why for many women prostitution is their means of economic survival and not simply a desire to have sex.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More than stay-at-home vs. working-mothers: How the White woman conversation on motherhood ignores the realities of Black women

Breaking News: 
Angelina Jo Lee and Brad Pitt, after years of co-habitating and parenting 6 children out-of-wedlock, recently announced their engagement. 

Breaking News: 
 According to Hilary Rosen, 

“What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that's what I am hearing.  Guess what?  His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we worry - and why we worry about their future.  I think, yes, it's about these positions and, yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions.”

What do these two stories have to do with the so-called “mommy wars”? A whole lot. Both stories speak to privilege—class, racial and heterosexual privilege. 

I’m not particularly interested in the personal lives of Lee and Pitt, but the response to their behaviors and chiefly how the media seems to be going gaga over their presumed nuptials stands in contrast to lesser known, relatively poorer and particularly women of color who have children out-of-wedlock. Furthermore, how this couple is treated even stands in contrast to how married, relatively well known, couples are treated. The first group of women are often treated as suspect, as criminal and in need to monitoring. In the case of the second group of women, in particular Michelle Obama, Fox News constructed her as a “baby momma”—a term typically fraught with negative connotation Black motherhood is often shrouded in a meta-narrative of negativity regardless of family formation, regardless of whether mothers are in the paid labor force or not. 

Rosen’s assertion and the response also speak to a form of privileging of mothers—in terms of class and also race. Many took Rosen’s comments as contributing to and fanning the continual debate of who works harder—mothers who not only mother but work outside of the home or those who choose mothering as their primary responsibility. In other words, it’s the debate about who is a better mother, which is measured in terms of who spends the most hours on the job and what constitutes a job. I’ll leave others to have this conversation. My concern is centered on how this conversation seems to (conveniently) leave out some women. 

Left out of these conversations are women for whom parenting is made that much more difficult as a result of low wages, poverty and the impact of existing laws. While I recognize that these are issues confronted by women regardless of color/ethnicity, I focus on Black women. 

Mothering Black Women
“Black women were about half as likely as White women to be a stay-at-home mother,…married black women have always been employed outside of the home in large numbers, even following World War II, when many of their white counterparts had withdrawn from the labor force.” (Census)
Like so many have eloquently said—Black women often don’t have the choice between staying-at-home or entering the labor force. Several in the blogosphere and on Twitter have focused on issues of pay inequality as a factor in limiting the choices of mothering Black women. As such, I won’t belabor this point. Instead I want to focus on how other policies—and not just labor laws—influence Black women’s functioning as mothers. 

For many women, economic struggle, compounded by race and policies that have racialized outcomes, is their daily reality. 

Consider the following:
Black and Latina women face particularly high rates of poverty. Over a quarter of black women and nearly a quarter of Latina women are poor. Black and Latina women are at least twice as likely as white women to be living in poverty.

In addition,

“The number of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes increased by 433 percent between 1986 and 1991. But for African-American women it rose an astounding 828 percent, while the increase for white women was 241 percent, and for Latina women a 328 percent increase.”


“New research is showing that eviction is a particular burden on low-income black women, often single mothers, who have an easier time renting apartments than their male counterparts, but are vulnerable to losing them because their wages or public benefits have not kept up with the cost of housing. And evictions, in turn, can easily throw families into cascades of turmoil and debt.” 

Back to the uproar caused by Rosen. I don’t think that Rosen was really discussing which mother has it easier/harder. This seems to belittle her larger point around privilege—economic privilege and I add white economic privilege. So yes, I agree with Rosen. The Romneys have never dealt with “economic issues”. They have not struggled with paying rent versus paying the light bill. They, like most families, probably faced their own struggles, but more than likely they were not economic struggles. However, this is not my primary concern.

What I’m arguing is that many Black women don’t have the choice to stay-at-home—if they even have a home. The choice seems to be taken away from them either as a result of poverty, incarceration, their own or their partners’, or some combination. These issues cannot only be addressed via pay equity—yes this is a start. Pay equity, when not grounded in the realities of existing racial hierarchies, does little to change the fact that in many urban and rural communities, there is little to no access to jobs as a result of economic development policies. Furthermore, these women often have limited access to health care and education. These are all factors that impact the resources we have available to us and how we mother. A debate centered solely on pay equity or which mom works harder does little to address the fact that for many Black women, structural violence is a daily factor in their lives.

Interestingly most of the initial (mainstream) responses to Rosen’s comments seem to ignore these issues. Instead, they seem focused on having a debate that women of color feminists/womanists have long criticized traditional feminists of having. The construction of womanhood and motherhood, underlying the discussion of Rosen’s comments, relies on a hierarchy based on race and class. Black feminists and womanists have long argued that Black women have never been privileged as mothers. Instead, they have been thought of as dangerous, unfit (primarily because of the poverty they experience and their race) and to be controlled. Dorothy Roberts in Killing the Black Body eloquently speaks of the denigration of Black women’s bodies and as a consequence their performance of motherhood.

As a result of the often degeneration of Black women, regardless of class, policies are often designed not to encourage (poor—in terms of income and perceived moral failings) Black women to stay-at-home, but to join the paid labor force. Where they can undergo a different type of monitoring and have limited access to “corrupting” their offspring (as believed by some). They are forced to find a job with little thought given to accessible and affordable child care, access to health care and whether or not the job pays a livable wage, among other issues. Policies seem less concern about addressing the growing incarceration of Black women and the increasing impact of foreclosures and evictions among this group of women.

So Rosen, maybe you shouldn’t have been so quick to apologize to Ann Romney. Stick to your guns. Force a discussion on privilege. However, I encourage you to consider how race intersects with class to render some more privilege than others. Then maybe we can bring Black women into this conversation in a way that treats them with dignity and respect.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Stand-in-your-house Rule: A “Different” Take on Trayvon Martin and Violence in the Public Sphere

 The recent murder of Trayvon Martin in this so-called “post”-race era shows what some in the Black community have been arguing for some time—race matters. This case has also brought to the forefront the intersection of public governance and private influence—who has access to make decisions in this so-called democracy (but that is a completely different post). Let me get back to the conversation at hand. For me, this recent violent removal of a Black body from public space makes me think critically about our understanding of community in this “post” state. And by post, I don’t mean post-racism or post-gender, but post human interactions (where race still matters). In a state where our interactions take place in virtual reality, if at all, how do we (re)define our understanding of community? Beyond this, how do we begin to think of our responsibilities to each other—that is the common good? 
I lived in a community in Prince George’s County, MD for five years. It wasn’t gated, but seems rather similar to the one where Trayvon Martin was murdered. During that time, I hardly saw children playing in the neighborhood. I knew that they existed because I would see them getting off the school bus and trekking home with loaded backpacks. Folk came home and went immediately into their homes never to be seen again, until maybe the next morning. We stayed behind our curtains, just like the folk who stayed safely in their homes as Trayvon Martin was murdered. Yes, some called 911, but might we have had a different outcome if someone had ventured outside and yelled? Might it have been different if we didn’t consciously or unconsciously follow the “stand-in-your-house rule?  It’s easy for me to sit here and wonder what if. But I have to.

I argue that this stand-in-your house rule is common and reflects the evolution of our modern day communities. This rule results from fear and an unwillingness to talk to each other, but is further reinforced by our virtual realities. We talk about racial profiling which I believe was at the center of the killer’s actions in the case of Trayvon Martin. However, what we haven’t really talked about, in a systematic way, is how a different type of fear played a factor in the murder of Trayvon. At the end of the day, the stand-in-your-home rule causes some of us to turn the other-eye at worst or engage in the “smallest” effort so that we can at least say, “I tried”. But have we tried? While we sit in our homes and lament about the decline of our neighborhoods have we sincerely and honestly tried to create a different type of community?

As we attempt to comprehend what occurred in this gated community, we have not reflected on how, regardless of race, we have become prisoners to fear. White fear and Black fear share a similar well spring—racism. However, they have different repercussions.  

Black folk, and no I don’t mean all Black folk, are living with a type of stand-in-your-home rule. We’ve become prisoners in our homes out of fear. Fear that we won’t be accepted in our larger communities, fear that we won’t achieve the American Dream. This is the type of fear that have caused us to lose sight of community and instead replace it with a form of individualism. I’m talking about the type of fear that causes us to work constantly, putting aside opportunities to build community, to come outside with our children and sit on our front steps as they ride their bikes. This fear is fostered by institutional and structural racism. This is how the fears of Whites and Blacks overlap—racism is at the core. White folk, regardless of socio-economic status, are also victims of this type of fear that has been cultivated via racism. Without knowing Black folk, in a substantive manner, White folk can operate under the assumption that we all pose a danger to their way of life—again, I’m not speaking of all White folk.  

 Racism plays a monumental role in the breakdown of our communities. We don’t trust each other and we don’t look out for each other. It seems that our actions are guided primarily by our individualistic desires to get a piece of the American Pie. In exchange we’ve forfeited getting to know each other.

As I reflect on Trayvon Martin, I’m reminded of a time when my neighbor was being physically and verbally abused. In the middle of the night I jumped up from bed in response to her cries. Without thought, I ran down the stairs and out the door. I rang the bell and asked, “Is everything ok?” I looked over my shoulder only to find my husband (who is a strong sleeper) standing behind me. No, I’m not a “hero” (a word often causally thrown around), neither am I “crazy” as some suggested when I told them this story. My intent was to use whatever means necessary to intervene on behalf of my sister who was crying out for help. Trayvon Martin cried out for help. But out of fear many in his gated “community” followed the rule, “stand-in-your-house” and left this boy out there on his own to die. How does this reflect on our understanding of community?

The question that I’m now left with is how do we mount a campaign, not only against ALEC, but against the fear that keeps us prisoners in our homes?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Who will Cry for Me? Silence, HIV/AIDS and Black Women

The Oscar awards brought the intersection of race and gender to the forefront. The recent shooting of Trayvon Martin brought the intersection of race and gender to the forefront. To be Black and male and to be Black and female means something in the U.S.—even in this so-call post-racial state. We’ve tweeted, we’ve faced-booked, we challenged The Help; we challenged the criminal justice system (or at least some of us) in the name of the injustices that occur as a result of the nexus of race and gender. The question I have is: Where are we in challenging this silent but growing epidemic among Black women? How many more Black women must become infected with HIV and die from AIDS before someone, other than a love one, publicly cries for them?

HIV/AIDS brings center stage the intersection of race and gender and class in a fascinating way. What this disease (which is as much social as it is medical) does is show how, indeed, Black women can be rendered invisible and the danger of such invisibility. Cathy Cohen, among others, charts how Black women are systematically excluded in our conversations on HIV and AIDS. While the "band has marched on" it seems that Black women are left with nothing more than Dust Tracks on [the] Road

ABC has proclaimed that the rates of HIV/AIDS among Black women is SHOCKING. No! 

The HIV rate among black women living in some U.S. cities is the same rate as that of some African countries, according to a new multicenter study presented Thursday at the 19th Conference of Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. The jarring findings acknowledge that HIV is not an infection that has been eradicated, but one that has been somewhat forgotten, researchers said.”

What have we learned about HIV/AIDS in the last 30 years—the spread of the disease maps itself onto already existing inequalities. In the past 30 years we have yet to confront, in a systematic way, the structural violence (which manifest and perpetuates the inequalities experienced by Black women) that is experienced by Black women. Instead, we’ve told these women to change their behaviors; thereby, absolving the larger society from its behaviors to address inequitable health care, education, and the blight of many urban communities. Instead, we’ve told them to shut their legs. Guess what, it is human to be sexual. Also, not everyone who is sexually active is promiscuous or the victim of a so-called “down-low brother” (a word that I wish we could ban from our lexicon). Do we really believe that these Black women are all engaging in risky behaviors?

Something to think about, how does our understanding of the spread of HIV/AIDS among Black women incorporate many of the negative images often mapped onto Black women’s bodies? Images such as promiscuous, angry and uncontrollable, and welfare queen, the same images that we tend to fight against. But somehow we’ve been rendered silent in how we confront these images and HIV/AIDS.

So as I sit here and ponder the reports that document the spread of HIV/AIDS among Black women, I wonder where are the hastags with #BlackwomenandAIDS for example? Where is the media? Where are my White “sisters” in the name of feminism? Left alone to bear this burden, Black women have to fill in the gap. We have to actively engage in actions that challenge HIV/AIDS at many levels—political, religious, educational, social and economic. We need to lobby our elected officials, we need to not sit quietly in the pews and say our prayers silently. Will you publicly cry for her?