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.

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