A couple years ago I guest lectured for a colleague. Her class, a master’s level course, was discussing diversity and corporate America. I was asked to speak on my experiences as a woman of color in a majority White institution. I walked in and wanted to declare “yes indeed, I’m live and in color.” I sure did bring color to the room. But at this stage of my career, I’m, relatively speaking, accustom to being the “only one”. This is something that I live with, although I’m never really accepting of it—but that’s a totally different post.
I did the standard introduction--this is who I am, here are my credentials, etc. Then I spoke to my experiences of disrupting racialized and gendered spaces. I told these MBA perspective students of my experiences of being stopped when entering campus. I’m sometimes stopped, although my parking decal is visibly displayed, and asked to identify which building I’m going to. I’m often asked, in a discreet manner, if I’m faculty. When I respond that I am, I sometimes hear “you look so young”. I don’t look that young. But I accept the flattery. My stop and ask experiences occur in the same library where some personnel request that students prove that they are actually students.
As I speak, I see the look of discomfort on some faces. After all, these stories can’t be true. Some students discreetly look away from me. Some boldly stare me down waiting for their opportunity to show me how my experiences are not the result of race-gendered structures. One young man said to me that maybe I’m stopped as a result of the car I drive. With a smile I replied “I drive a Mitsubishi Outlander. I’m not rolling up in here on 20-inch rims blasting Snoop.” Over time, I’ve learn that humor is to racism was sugar is to medicine. Just a smile makes the bitter pill of racism go down (caution, this only works in some circumstances). One student asked if I’d considered that I was stopped as I result of my style of dress. “Oh, they can tell how I’m dressed as I sit behind the wheel?” was my response. But this is not what stirred my ire.
What stirred my ire was the young White woman who declared “Oh, I don’t see you as a Black woman. I just see an intelligent woman.” This was meant as a compliment. However, I’m never sure how I’m expected to respond after such a declaration. Am I supposed to say good for you that somehow you have been able to evolve where race is no longer something you see? How does a 30-something-year old woman who has lived her entire life as Black respond to such a statement?
I responded by saying “You’re not going to like my response.” All the while with a genuine smile on my face. I then explained to her how this statement, in essence, erases me and fails to see me for who and what I am. I also asked her if she ever stopped to think how I wanted to be seen. For those who at this point might think that I’m bitter or the so-called angry stereotypical Black woman—I’m not. Just like my Italian-American neighbors I want to celebrate who and what I am. They wave flags, speak in Italian, name their children in so-called typical Italian names, yet rarely do I ever hear someone condemn them for doing such. So why can’t I be Black? I AM A BLACK WOMAN. This means something to me. And equally, it means something to others in the world who use my race to tell me how and what I should be in society.
I guess that I simply don’t have the privilege to define myself. Instead, I must be seen as the “intelligent” woman—as though my intelligence can be determined by simply looking at me. Or even worse, blackness and intelligence can't co-exist. So I'm required to pick one and only one--Blackness or intelligence. I also asked her why was it important to her not to see me as a Black woman and how this might result from her experiences while having nothing to do with Black women? I received a blank stare and then a tucking of the head. In an instant, I morphed from the intelligent Black woman to the evil Black woman because I resisted someone’s definition of me.
Black women don’t seem to be permitted to exist in the imagination or even the social reality of some white women. Consider the recent article that appeared in a Utah Magazine titled “Utah Magazine Celebrates Women Of Color.” All of the women on the cover appear white. The picture under the heading displayed seven women all dressed in bright colored clothing. According to Taylor, who reported on the response to this piece,
“Our good friends at Gawker caught up with Bennett and she was completely clueless as to what the term means to the rest of the world. “That was not intended as an ethnic comment,” Bennett told Gawker when they called to ask her if she was familiar with the traditional understanding of the adjectival phrase in question. “It was just clever wordplay. It was that women add color, and there’s more than one meaning of color.” (emphasis added)
Vanity Fair, in 2010, show-cased rising stars on its cover. Amanda Seyfried, one of the stars gracing the cover, was interviewed on the View. Whoopie Goldberg asked her about the absence of persons of color on the cover and why she was surprised by someone asking her to reflect on this absence. She replied, “I hadn’t thought about it. I mean I hadn’t seen it….It’s true, but there is a lot of different hair color.” The conversation quickly turned to the wonderful women of color who had been nominated for Oscars and her other acting roles. Wow! There are diverse hair colors. Does this compensate for the marked absence of women of color? As I watched this, and even years later I am saddened, angered, and dismayed. I feel the same way after reading Bennet’s display and her claim that there’s more than one meaning of color. Even if Bennet didn't know of the politics of this naming process, there was no one at the magazine who knew differently? Theoretically I understand the absence of women who look like me from our cultural representations. However, psychologically it is painful to comprehend.
The students, Bennett and Seyfried all seem clueless; clueless about their privilege and clueless about others’ experiences with race, class and gender. They are unaware of the struggles Black women, and women of color more generally, encounter in naming themselves. They are unaware of the politics of a self actualization. Not to belabor you with a history lesson, but the term woman of color originated in 1977. Yet, in 2012 some aren’t even aware of the term and the politics of this naming process. This speaks to a larger project that seeks to erase Black women from our social imagination.
Such erasure is not only taking place in the social realm, but it is also occurring in the realm of politics. Since the passage of the welfare reform legislation in 1996 do we speak of Black women in our policy discussions? Think about it. There is an alleged circle of sistas in the Obama administration. I dare you to name five of them without doing a Google search. Michele Obama has become a darling among some, is it because she is a Black woman or is it because she is a fashion icon that allows people not to see her raced body? Where are the Black women who publicly challenge our foreign policies? How are they positioned in the main-stream media? Where are the Black women in the discussion on reproductive health? Many critiqued the recent House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on religious liberty and the birth control rule for its representation of patriarchy—the hearing was dominated by men. Very few analyzed this hearing via a lens of race, gender, and class and their intersections. Where were the women of color at the hearing?
Not seeing Black women in our social and political realms and even in our imaginations (as in the case of the TV show Girls) is a telling story. This is part of a larger political and social movement to erase Blackness in the hopes that we “can all just get along”. The erasure of Black women speaks to the dark-side of multiculturalism; one that strives to encourage us not to see differences among and between groups. Seeing differences is not the problem. The problem is that people use differences to oppress. Multicultural teachings and ideals have not resulted in the dismantling of the oppressions. Instead, it has rendered the material consequences of differences invisible. Multiculturalism gives those in power the tools to ignore some segments of our community with claims such as I don’t see you as a Black woman. This claim suggests that I’m just like you. No I’m not. Race has real consequences. One only has to look at the rate of HIV infection among Black women—and no, this is not the result of higher promiscuity among this group or the actions of men on the down low. One only has to consider the rates of breast cancer and resulting deaths among Black women to realize that race and its intersection with class and gender still matter. One only has to walk the halls of academia to realize that, yes, race matters.
Black women are the canaries in the mine. We are disappearing and no one seems to notice. If we were ever in need of a Black feminist movement, the time is now.