Saturday, September 29, 2012

Slaves & Athletes: Seeing (or not) Black Women

It seems to me that the some in society are unable and/or unwilling to see Black women. Consider the photos of Michele Obama and of Gabby Douglas.

taken from Girls on the Run Facebook Page

“Michelle Tataranieta De Esclava, Dueña De América” (Michelle Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America) was the recent featured article of the magazine Fuera de Serie. The article seems to praise Mrs. Obama by recognizing her struggles and accomplishments. And even calls her the “gran mujer” (great lady) behind the President Obama. The article, in comparison to the cover, drew minimum attention.

The cover became the story. On the cover was Michele Obama’s face superimposed on the body of the art-historical body of an African Guadeloupean female slave originally painted in the 1800s by Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist—a French artist.

The image used to portray the “success” of Michele Obama belies the so-called narrative of success. Why impose her face on an enslaved individual? Why use an image of a partially bare-breasted enslaved woman? These choices, conscious or unconscious, mean something. They send messages to society about how Black women should be valued and ultimately treated.

At the recent 2012 Olympics Black women were celebrated. They were celebrated for winning gold medals in gymnastics and women’s track and field among other sports.  But how do we see these champions?

On their Facebook page, Girls on the Run International posted a picture of the women’s team. The status update read,

We love this image of the USA Gymnastics Women's team holding hands after they won the gold in the Women's Team final yesterday in London. This image reminds us of how so many Girls on the Run cross the finish line holding hands with their teammates. The women of the gymnastics team are an example to us all, not just because they won the gold, but because of the friendship and teamwork they have shown the world. They are truly inspiring! 
Girls on the Run characterizes itself as an inclusive, multi-cultural program designed to encourage/foster a “world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams[JJ-Z1].”

The image they used to celebrate the friendships fostered between girls seems to belie, consciously or unconsciously, their commitment to multiculturalism. The women’s team, not including alternates, comprise of five young women. In the foreground of the picture, brightly lit, front and center are four girls with tightly clasped hands celebrating a victory. In the background, off to the side, with her back to the camera stands Gabby. Her so-called electric and engaging smile is now invisible to the viewing public. Her very African features are removed from sight. In this picture that “depicts” the team we see Gabby but yet we do not see Gabby. In a picture that depicts friendships, Gabby is excluded from the clasp. What does this suggest about interracial friendships—Gabby is the one African American young woman on the team? What narrative is conveyed in separating Gabby from whiteness?

In a “post” civil rights, “post” racial and “post” gender era, both pictures are steeped in coded language. These images are based on statements—that is, background assumptions of the “proper” place of Black women in society.

 It’s not enough to ask are these images racist; to do such ignores the gendered element of the pictures and the intersection of gender and race. Thus, we lose sight of how and why these images resonate.

Knowingly or not these images are political acts. These images reinforce race and gender divisions and as such they serve as an element in the system of social control. These system of control sees Black women as highly sexualized (in the case of the Obama "picture" and as servants—there to support others and as such not worthy of being celebrated for their individual contributions. As I argue in Black Women, Cultural Images and Social Policy and as argued by Black feminists, such as Patricia Hill Collins and Beverly Guy Sheftall among others, the use of these images results in the often negative treatment of Black women.

Even when Black women are successful in their chosen professions, they are often not seen. Even when Black women “play” by the rules they are often ignored. There is a continual and sustained attempt to categorize Black women as less than or ignore them all together. Mariah Stewart warned against this. Like she did in the 1800s, we in the 21st Century must also challenge the impact of the intersection of race and gender (and other oppressive structures) on our lives. As a result of the intersection of oppressive structures we are constrained and can become boxed into others expectations (often negative) of us. We must challenge multiple and intersecting oppressive structures that are deployed in various domains such as: education, politics, religion, and culture. To do such helps us not only to find our voices and speak for ourselves, but brings us that much closer to freedom.

 [JJ-Z1]August 4, 2012

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Weezy: Did they forget about you?

Unfortunately, “George Jefferson”—Sherman Hemsley—recently died. At the news of his passing, after saying a quick pray, I busted out singing and dancing. I was doing the George Jefferson while singing (and I use this term loosely)
Well we're movin on up,
To the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Movin on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie

Of course I had to belt out the last line and hold the note at pie. My poor child, born in 1999, looked at me as though I’d suddenly grown another head. Oh well, she’ll understand one day why and how I justified my behavior. 

As a child of the 70s it was not often that I saw any situation or even folk that looked like me on TV. So for the few that where there, they represented more than just a TV show. Please don’t get me started on the love affair I had with Penny (aka Janet Jackson from Good Times) or even Tootie (Kim Fields) from Facts of Life. I have to chuckle when I think of how I looked forward to seeing someone who closely resembled me in our cultural depictions. The Jefferson's was right up there in my must see shows. 

The passing of Hemsley caused me to think of not what his show, The Jeffersons, represented at that time in history; but to think about how we “see” black women socially, culturally, politically, and economically. One of my favorite moments, it happened in just about every show, was George yelling for Weezy. She was his backbone, his rock, his stabilizers. Weezy brought reason to an often unreasonable man. George Jefferson could not have existed without Weezy. Weezy the fictional Black woman played the often (projected upon us) role of the "real" Black woman—she brought humanity to her man. However, we rarely heard Weezy as an individual, who was worthy of concern. What were Weezy’s concerns outside of those for her family and friends? What was she passionate about except to ensure that George behaved? These are important questions for us to consider at this moment in time when the ideologies of “post-race” and “post-gender” are being rammed downed our throats and the public space for Black women to protest seems to be disappearing.

So have Black women as a group finally moved up and got a piece of the pie? As a group, not exactly. Simply put, Black women remain among the poorest of the poor in the U.S. and also globally.

Black women as a group are poor, financially!

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. 

Some might argue that Black women are poor because they lack the necessary values—work ethic, etc. This ideology of the culture of poverty is often used to punish Black women. Some argue that Black women are poor because we emasucalte our men and don’t allow them be “real” men. By “real” I assume that they are constructing men as the primary breadwinner, the disciplinarian—the roles we often seen displayed when folk are talking about the “normal” family.

Yet, no one seems to be talking about Black women and poverty.  Why? What do we do about this? How do we stop being the backbones or the mules (to borrow from Zora Neal Hurston) for everyone else and claim our piece of the pie? 

There is a systematic failure to "see" Black women and our poverty. Weezy's story of invisibility or visibility as it serves to reflect light on others, is in-part the story of Black women. I won’t spend time deconstructing Weezy and how she played, to some extent, a stereotypical woman. Instead, I want to focus on what does movin’ on up for Black women look like and whether or not we finally get our piece of the pie.

When I ask the question, Weezy did they forget you and did you get your piece of the pie, I am really asking a question about privilege. 

As I listen to the rhetoric of the current presidential election cycle, I hear all the stories of men and women who pulled themselves up by their boot strap (often ignored is how these individuals have access to a set of resources not always available to Black women). Anny Romeny would have us to believe that her experience of having to eat tuna represents economic hardships she and Mitt endured. Left out of this narrative is her privilege—her economic, racial, and political privilege. This narrative, that we can overcome with hard work, does not tell the story of Black women’s survival. I often wonder how a group of people can do so much with so little. 

To unpack the story of Black women and poverty requires us to consider how gender, race, and class intersect. Relying on a narrative of personal will ignores how structures, processes, and practices influence how we are able to live our lives on a daily basis. Such narratives ignore how decisions, made in the past, provide different paths to different groups of people. For example, many Black women cannot get a seat at the table of academia as a result of a legacy—our fore-mothers and fathers often didn’t attend college. It’s not a result of ability; they didn't attend because they were not afforded the opportunity to do such. 

So when I hear folk speaking about how they pulled themselves up by their boot strap, I often want to ask, how did your legacy help you—directly or indirectly. Often White female students condemn affirmative action with claims that had it not be for affirmative action, they would be in better schools. In response, I often ask if they ever heard of legacy seats. More often than not, they haven’t. Many often they don’t appreciate my response as it reminds them of white privilege.

Michael Hurwitz, in a 2007 Harvard University study, shows that legacy preferences increases the applicant’s chances of admissions by approximately 23 percentage points. Sons and daughters of alums, in comparison to siblings, nieces, etc., were more likely to be advantaged, 45 percentage points, relatively to others. 

Who you are matters? Yet, we continue to deny this. I’m not suggesting that one is doomed if you weren’t born into a particular legacy. However, we must recognize that for some of us without this legacy, life comes with a particular set of struggles that are further compounded by the legacy of the intersection of race, class, and gender. It is only when we recognize the functioning of these structures, challenge them, and replace them with a more just and equitable set of practices and processes can we claim that Weezy has a chance at getting her piece of the pie.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Who gets to claim a painful past? Hardship and political discourse

I admit it. I watched some of the Republican National Convention. It might be surprising that even as a political scientist I am not necessarily drawn to doing such—for a number of reasons. Primarily, I find the pageantry of such events distracting and annoying and I also see them as more symbolic than substantive. However, I love rhetoric. For some reason, I find myself drawn to words and symbols and how they are used not only politically but also culturally. Needless to say, I was intrigued by the symbolic acts used by the various speakers. 

Primarily, I was intrigued by how some folk invoked the notion of a painful/difficult past in their narratives. These narratives of pain and hardship are designed, I guess, to show us that they are “regular” folk. Well, I’m not buying it.

Take Ann Romney’s claim for example, 

“We were very young. Both still in college. There were many reasons to delay marriage, and you know? We just didn't care. We got married and moved into a basement apartment. We walked to class together, shared the housekeeping, and ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish. Our desk was a door propped up on sawhorses. Our dining room table was a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen. Those were very special days.” 

Paul Ryan said,

“Mom was 50 when my Dad died. She got on a bus every weekday for years, and rode 40 miles each morning to Madison. She earned a new degree and learned new skills to start her small business. It wasn't just a new livelihood. It was a new life. And it transformed my Mom from a widow in grief to a small businesswoman whose happiness wasn't just in the past. Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my Mom is my role model.”

Both assertions drew considerable applause. As I listened to the applause, I stopped and wondered whose “hardships” are celebrated? And who is even allowed to speak about their hardships?

Welfare Rights Movement:
Could an average Black woman, a woman with the net wealth of $1.00 get up and speak of her hardships? Or are Black women only allowed to speak of hardships in terms of overcoming welfare and slavery (as was the case of Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's story of overcoming racism)?

I do believe that all of us at some point in time, regardless of social location, face challenges. I don’t take lightly the death of Ryan’s dad and the challenges this family more than likely faced in the aftermath. Neither do I negate Mrs. Ryan’s reinvention. What I find problematic is the use of these challenges to claim a form of “humble beginnings.” What rings false to me is the use of these stories to suggest that “I’m just like you.” No you are not. Both individuals were and are privileged and it is through this privilege that they were able to overcome these challenges. 

According to Ralph Vartabedian, Richard A. Serranoand Ken Bensinger, of the Los Angeles Time,

“Ryan, 42, was born into one of the most prominent families in Janesville, Wis., the son of a successful attorney and the grandson of the top federal prosecutor for the western region of the state. Ryan grew up in a big Colonial house on a wooded lot, and his extended clan includes investment managers, corporate executives and owners of major construction companies.”

Can Ryan claim that he did not benefit, directly or indirectly, from this privilege?

Regarding Ann Romney, she said,

I am the granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner who was determined that his kids get out of the mines. My dad got his first job when he was six years old, in a little village in Wales called Nantyffyllon, cleaning bottles at the Colliers Arms.
 When he was 15, dad came to America. In our country, he saw hope and an opportunity to escape from poverty. He moved to a small town in the great state of Michigan. There, he started a business — one he built himself, by the way.
He raised a family. And he became mayor of our town.” (emphasis added)

Did she and Mitt not benefit from the fact they were part of a political power elite?

Why is it that these privileged individuals can’t humbly claim their privilege? Why can’t they simply say that yes, we hit some rough patches, but because of our parents and our lineage, we were able to overcome. Yes, we also had to work hard to overcome, but because of access—to education, to wealth, to connections, etc. we made it. This is part of your story. 

I wanted to say to both individuals, “Just tell the whole truth.” Please don’t tell me half of a story and then expect me to applaud and think that you are just like me. Also, please don’t use your privilege to mute others’ stories of hardship. 

As I listened to Paul Ryan’s story of his mom riding the bus, the story of my grandmother and countless other Black women came to mind. First, when is riding the bus in and of itself a hardship? Indeed doing such is a hardship from many poor Black women or those who live in particularly poor communities. Yet, these folks get no applause.

In 1991, seventeen year old Cynthia Wiggins was killed because a private mall did not allow public transportation from the inner-city onto its property.

“According to regional transit officials, the mall's developers refused to allow it on their property, which meant anyone coming from central Buffalo had to disembark 300 yards away, on the other side of seven-lane Walden Avenue, a highway feeding into the New York State Thruway without a sidewalk or crossing. Then, just before Christmas, a young, single mother from Buffalo was killed by a dump truck as she walked from the No. 6 bus stop to her job at the mall.”

I have a student, who often came to class with a candy bar. I asked her, “why are you always eating candy bars?” She replied, “It’s what I can afford. When I don’t have money this is what I eat.” Tuna fish would have been a luxury to her. 

Is there room on the platform for these stories? If not, we have to ask why. 

These stories of these women are left out of this narrative. There are also other elements left out the Ryan and Romney’s narratives. For one, Mrs. Romney does not explain how they overcame these hardships in their marriage? Let’s stop a moment and unpack the spoken and the unspoken. 

We have to differentiate choice from suffering. I’m not suggesting that our choices cannot lead to suffering. Because God knows that I’ve made some choices that have led to suffering. But in deed there is a difference. I admit that I know nothing about the Romney’s except what Ann told “us” the night of her speech. She admitted that she and Mitt were of two different faiths and that they choose to get married young. Reading between the lines, they choose to get married without the blessings of their parents. Choice! Both grew up in wealthy families, yet opted to leave that behind (temporarily) and build a life together. Choice! Mitt had completed his undergraduate degree and was working on his law and business degrees. Choice, and access! Additionally, left out of the narrative is that at least one family allowed them back into the fold and that they were financially taken care of—there goes the days of eating tuna. Regardless of how they walked away from their parents’ money, they still had privilege. So Ann, yes you had to eat tuna, but you had a choice.

Some of us don’t have that choice. We are not born into privilege.

My 80 plus year old grandmother takes the bus to work (don’t ask why she still works at her age). In fact, she takes the bus and the train. My grandmother tells a story of working from about the age of eight. Hard labor, working on a plantation is what allowed her to survive. She had NO CHOICE. This is a woman who was motherless at the age of three and found a way, she and my grandfather, to successfully raise two daughters, three grand children and six great-grand children; all of this with little formal education. Wait, here’s your cue to applaud her sacrifices. Very few people will hear her story, because women like her tend to be muted because their stories challenge race, gender, and class hierarchies.

What about the mother of the 12 year old boy who died from complication of an abscessed tooth.  The problem was not necessarily the tooth; it was that he lacked access to dental insurance. Does she get to tell her story?

This is not about whose story is worse? I’m more concerned about who gets to tell their story and how stories are used, politically, to include or exclude some of us. When Black women tell their stories of hardship, we are told to be quiet and stop acting angry. There is no legitimacy afforded to us. 

Will we be invited to speak at any of these conventions? Will anyone listen to us or will they attempt to silence us with their stares and comments that “it’s bad, but it could be worse?” Is there space to hear Black women’s stories of hardship?