When I first read the article in Time magazine by Steve Friess “Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away,” I was stunned. He was writing in response to a previous opinion piece in Time by Sierra Mannie, a black woman who criticized white gay men appropriating black women’s culture.
Friess dismissed her, based on the idea that white gay men are the “truest friends black women can have in American society.” He had this idea that gay white men and straight black women are really natural allies and that the only problem is our ability, as black women, to understand that. I thought, great, now I even have white gay men mansplaining to me. I was ready to get outraged: “Based on your attendance at a concert featuring black women you think you know me?”
But I think a lot about allies. I wrote a couple of pieces a while back in conversation with Black Girl Dangerous on the limitations of allies, and attacks on Britney Cooper where allies were MIA. As Yvonne put it in Autostraddle, Friess “offers no actual proof of how white gay men are allies to black women other than they share similar musical tastes.” But then I thought about it. I’m working on being more optimistic. I never thought we’d have a black president. So go ahead, surprise me.
Friess, if you wanna be an ally to straight black women, here’s one basic thing you need to know. Black women are not always good at asking for help. We’ve been taught we don’t deserve help. Even the president left us out of his signature racial justice legislation My Brother’s Keeper. We have been taught that we are the help. As you may recall, there was a bestseller written about it. The Help. But black women could certainly use help. We are overworked in every sector of our lives. I am not in a position to speak for what queer or trans black women need, and when I come across the posts those sisters inevitably start putting up, I will start linking. Here’s a great post from a black queer man Preston Mitchum on Role Reboot. But if you want to be helpful to heterosexual black women, then there’s actually a long to-do list that we could use an ally for:
Watch my kids. I don’t just mean babysit a couple of times. I mean build strong, committed, supportive, relationships with them so you can be in their lives and watch them grow up. And yes, commit a 2-3 hour block of time weekly to be with them, so I can get other things done.
If I’m single, go meet straight black men and vet them for me. I’ve been following Peechington Marie trying to date on OK Cupid and these brothers is crazy. So please check them out. Make sure that they like black women, they are interested in a relationship not just quick sex, they have an overall positive response to feminism, and above everything, confirm that they have emotional intelligence/communication skills. By the way, if you see anyone with potential, feel free to mentor them to see if they can make the cut with a little assistance.
If I’m in a long-term relationship or marriage with a black man, can you PLEASE build him a community of progressive men that he can express his feelings with? The heterosexual drinking buddy relationships can only get him so far. I mean a group of men who really express their feelings. Think of it as Queer Cry For the Straight Guy. It’s nice that you claim responsibility for the metrosexual trend, but I actually need help transforming men’s insides, not their outsides.
If I have a day job, come by my office and pretend to poach me. Nobody gets taken for granted in the workplace like women of color. Remember, we are supposed to be the help. Doesn’t really matter if we’re the executive director or CEO, everyone is still looking for us to take care of them at some level. We are underpaid, underpromoted, undervalued, and our leadership is undermined. Come by and act like some bigwig from a competing company who might hire us. See if you can help drum up a little respect for us in the home office.
If I’m an artist, pose as my agent/manager when I go to events. Gatekeepers will more likely take me seriously if they think a white man has invested in me. Or you might pose as an interested patron or audience member. The prevailing understanding of creative industries is that men in general and white men in particular don’t care about women of color. That you all don’t read our stories, see our movies, buy our visual arts, attend our theater. We know you love our singing, but doesn’t everyone? Are you listening to the lyrics? And while you’re at it, don’t just pose as a consumer, patronize our work and support women of color artists. And that would NOT include using a massive platform like Time Magazine to dismiss and criticize our analysis. I didn’t mean that kind of patronizing.
And while you’re at it, support feminist media and movements. Subscribe to our publications, join feminist organizations that support issues that disproportionately affect women of color. Turn up at our rallies. Sign our petitions. Donate to our Kickstarters.
You’re hooked on Orange is the New Black? Great! Go volunteer some time in a women’s prison. Women of color are being disproportionately locked up. We need legal support, moral support, spiritual support, educational support, creative programming. Whatever you do out in the world, come do it for some women in prison.
Write a letter to Marissa Alexander. The black woman who’s doing time for shooting in the air to defend herself against her abusive partner and whose “stand your ground” defense was ignored. Stand our ground with us when the government won’t
Come with us to defend abortion clinics. Now that SCOTUS has struck down the buffer zone law with the McCullen decision, we may be seeing more anti-abortion violence. Can you squeeze a little Saturday outdoor time into your schedule?
If I’m receiving any government assistance, come with me to visit my social worker, parole officer, or other bureaucratic institution for food stamps, general assistance, section 8, disability, court date. Come see how I get treated by the system. And, if there’s an opportunity, please speak up on my behalf.
Be in the car with me when cops pull me over. And with my male partner or son if they’re driving.
Finally, please come clean my house with me. Let me be clear, I mean clean not decorate. I know you have ideas of what could really highlight the lovely wood features of the space, but I’m not going for Better Homes and Gardens, I’m going for Reasonably Clean and Orderly. It would be a welcome novelty to have a white man cleaning by my side.
So after a long day of being an ally to my black womanhood, we’ll be pretty tired. We may not have a lot of time to sit around at retro concerts drinking and hanging out while you get points for having a cool black girlfriend, but my life would actually be much better. And that’s the whole point. Right, ally? In other words, unless you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and really help a sista out, don’t act like you know me and that your alleged allyship entitles you to appropriate my community’s culture.
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be part of the audience for a webinar conducted by the African American Policy Forum on #MyBrothersKeeper:
On June 17 a letter from over 1,400 Women of Color entitled “Why We Can’t Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in ‘My Brother’s Keeper’” was sent to President Obama. The open letter questions how attempts to address the challenges facing males of color – without integrating a comparable focus on the complex lives of girls and women who live and struggle together in the same families, homes, schools, and neighborhoods – advances the interests of the community as a whole. The women who came together to lift up this issue come from all walks of life. They are activists, academics, artists, students, teachers, nurses, day laborers, business owners, community leaders, stakeholders, mothers of sons, and mothers of daughters. These women, identifying as straight, queer and transgender, all share a commitment to the expansion of “My Brothers Keeper” (MBK) and all other national youth interventions to include an explicit focus on the structural conditions that negatively impact all youth of color. Please join some of the activists and thought leaders behind the open letter for a frank discussion on why we can’t wait to include women and girls in the President’s most significant racial justice initiative to date.
The conversation will provide information about the content of ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ and will present a case for the inclusion of girls and women in this exclusively-male initiative. (from the website)
Participants included Kimberle Crenshaw, Brittney Cooper, Salamishah Tillet, Joanne Smith, Christie Dotson, Rosa Linda Fregoso, Nakisha Lewis, and Rachel Gilmer. During the webinar, a clear picture emerged on #WhyWeCantWait to include women and girls in the initiative.
I have previously written in xojane.com that I believe that selectively resourcing boys and young men would be fine if the focus was to help them unlearn misogyny.
What a difference it would make for young women of color if a massive infusion of resources was poured into our communities to help young men stop acting out the learned patterns of male domination toward the women and girls in their lives. The current plan is to invest in boys to become more resilient in the face of racism. What type of impact would it make if the resources were used to eliminate male domination so young women and men could build strong alliances and fight racism together? The vulnerabilities of young men — incarceration, drug abuse, sexual irresponsibility, and all types of violence — often stem from the unhealthy ideas of manhood that are tied up in misogyny. What if we worked on pulling out that thread? Would the whole fabric fall apart? Ending sexism would not only transform the lives of women of color, but it would transform men’s lives, as well.
Having referenced the groundbreaking intersectionality work of Kimberle Crenshaw and the current work of Brittney Cooper in my article, I was eager to see what these smart, fierce compassionate women had to say. I live tweeted the webinar, and have posted some highlights on my own blog. The webinar did not disappoint: from naming sexual violence to statistics about the low net wealth of black women to the call to action: “‘We’re asking our president to be extremely brave right now’ and take lead on including girls & women in #MyBrothersKeeper.” Due to technical difficulties, it ended up being a conference call, and I was unable to effectively track who said what, so much of the written record is from what panelists and audience members shared on twitter.
As a woman with African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latina roots, I also noticed that the conversation bounced back and forth between discussing the plight of African American girls and a broader definition of girls of color. This is in no way the fault of African American Policy Forum, rather, the conversation has inherited the racial vagueness of the original initiative. MBK is ambiguous as to who is defined as a boy/young man of color. In the language of the original call to action, it begins with statistics about black and Latino boys, but then includes Native, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander stats, as well. However, the entire focus of the initiative is geared toward the problems of boys of color who are born in the US and do not live on reservations. Nowhere are the specific problems related to immigrants or children of immigrants or reservation politics addressed.
Further, the image of MBK is of a black president with a group of black young men. So although the statistical language of the initiative does name the problems that non-African American boys share, the overall visual story does not include them.
The #WhyWeCantWait campaign has inherited these contradictions. I appreciated the inclusion of Rosa Linda Fregoso on the panel, and was glad every time the moderator Laura Flanders asked her to weigh in on the experience of Latina girls and Latinas who push for the rights of women and girls. As Britney Cooper tweeted, quoting Fregoso, “One issue 4 Latina families is the ‘parentification of the child, girls esp’ making girls responsible 4 families prematurely.” At the same time, the conversation was primarily about African American women and girls.
It was interesting for me. As a mixed race (black and Latina) woman, I mostly had my “black hat” on for the conversation. I tracked the conversation from inside my African American cultural perspective. Whenever Fregoso spoke, I would catch myself, and realize that I wasn’t thinking in a larger, more inclusive way.
Again, this is not a problem of African American Policy Forum’s making. First of all, African American Policy Forum has a focus on African Americans and has every right to talk about the needs of African American women and girls. But second of all, and perhaps more significantly, the larger public conversation is happening in largely separate pockets. I am part of a set of conversations African American women are having, a set of convos Latinas are having, and a third set of conversations WoC are having, as well as broader conversations that include everyone. Further, the statistical evidence and philanthropic inititatives are often specific to a single “racial” group (Latinos are not actually defined as a race, but an ethnicity) and there are separate tracks to focus on African American and Lat. Natives, Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians are even more invisible in this conversation. Natives for reasons having to do with the particular history of genocide, marginalization and oppression in the US. Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians due to a toxic combination of circumstances. These nations have been brutally targeted with US imperialism, and are more likely to come to the US as refugees. But then they get swallowed up in the Asian “model minority” myth that has been developed to target and dismiss the challenges of East and South Asians. Also, conversations about African Americans generally foucs on the experiences of those of us who came to the Americas via the US South during slavery, as opposed to immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean.
The women on the African American Policy Forum webinar did a spectacular job of documenting the plight of young African American women and why MBK not only prioritizes boys, but actually undermines girls. For example, since the announcement of the MBK funding, some youth organizations who have never had gender-specific initiatives are now developing programs that only serve boys.
Further, the women on the panel have challenged the underlying misogynist fury that targets any woman who asks “what about girls?” The women asking the question are labeled “divisive” when the initiative that only excludes half the community is really the problem. These challenges not only come from male leaders. I got a tweet from a woman who claimed that “Title IX put such emphasis on girls that boys were let behind for a while. Playing catch up.” But as I tweeted previously “Kim Crenshaw’s orig intersectional idea=WoC get lost in convos on race that prioritize men & gender that focus on white women.” This narrative that black girls and women have been so profoundly helped by Title IX and other legislation aimed at girls and women in general is not supported statistically. One statistic in particular about net wealth is that “net worth for black women = $100. for white women = $42,000 for black men = $8000. That’s #WhyWeCantWait” tweeted by Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin. In response to this myth that black girls/women are “ahead,” of their male counterparts, Cooper tweeted “We won’t accept frames that say there is a softer/gentler racism [that targets girls as opposed to boys] or that we are strong enough & can take it.”
Also, statistics about greater number of women of color in higher education are often used to identify that women are “doing better.” But as I said in my xojane article: “Policymakers need to stop reinforcing the myth that a college education is a guarantee of upward mobility. I teach at an elite university, and every day I see millennials of all races who graduate and can’t get jobs.”
Because MBK focuses so strongly on education, one panelist noted that sexual assault is a leading cause of young women not finishing high school. Such has been the challenge of women of color, to explain how racism has historically been defined in terms of how it affects men, and to demand that the fight against racism also take on the ways that it affects women. Another hashtag that emerged was #SomeOfUsAreBrave, from book All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some Of Us Are Brave, the Black Women’s Studies volume edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith.
Black women have played a critical leadership role in the development of feminism for women of color, and still, we can fall into the black/white binary racial thinking. We absolutely get to have the conversation in the black community about the problems with MBK, and to couch it in African American terms, such as referencing Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait for racial justice. Again, this is in no way to blame black women for this challenge, or to say that it is our responsibility to carry everyone as “de mule of de world.” In fact, Dr. Britney Cooper has been viciously attacked for her advocacy on behalf of black women. In reviewing the tweets from the webinar, I will quote just one troll who responded viciously: When Cooper, using her twitter handle “ProfessorCrunk said “We won’t accept frames that say there is a softer/gentler racism or that we are strong enough & can take it.”…#WhyWeCantWait,” he responded “@ProfessorCrunk cut the shit, you fat slug.” This is not even the most brutal type of trolling, which can include threats of sexual violence and murder.
Under these hostile conditions, I look forward to the day that our “wait, what about black girls?” question will be addressed, and we can even get to a more nuanced conversation about young people of color. It would be amazing to have the luxury to explore what our shared and different issues are based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and immigration status, whether we live in cities, suburbs, rural locations or the reservation. Meanwhile, it is a fight just to get the humanity of girls and young women of color acknowledged, and to have our struggles seen and recognized as deserving of resources to help.
I hate family squabbles.
Two overlapping communities that are important to me are the feminist community and the transgender community. Feminists and trans folks are fighters. We’ve had to be in order to survive and many of us haven’t survived. Unfortunately, lately we’ve been fighting each other.
Last month I followed the #YesAllWomen conversation on Twitter, and this week I have been reading the #YesAllTransWomen hashtag.
As I read perspectives on the struggles between feminists and trans activists (or, like tonight, I’ve been reading the twitter accounts of an actual argument) I want to add my voice to the mix, particularly in service to figuring out how to build effective alliances across our differences, celebrate our commonalities, and fight our shared enemies (whom I perceive to be misogyny & male domination).
As I develop my thoughts on the topic, I invite people to please send me links on twitter (@ayadeleon) to any smart articles you would recommend to anyone thinking about feminism and trans activism. I’m also interested in writing about black women, racism, and trans politics.
Thanks in advance & everyone be safe this weekend.
Tomorrow at this time, I’ll be part of a live Tweet Up on the film Sleep Dealer, with director Alex Rivera, Van Jones, and Favianna Rodriguez of CultureStrike.
Sleep Dealer is a near future dystopic film set in Mexico about immigration, labor, war, imperialism, the environment, and how technology brings people together and tears us apart.
Check me out on Twitter @ayadeleon and follow the convo from 7-8pm PST or 10-11pm EST on the hashtag #SleepDealer.
Hope you’ll join us!
People who have known me for any period of time know that I’ve been working on one novel or another for my entire adult life. Always. Since the late 1980s. And they might wonder why a motivated, get-it-done kind of woman like me would be pushing three decades without having closed the deal. There are many reasons, but in light of this week’s Supreme Court decision, I would like to focus on one in particular: the fear of reprisals for depicting a story of abortion.
On Thursday, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down the law in Massachusetts, which forced anti-abortion protesters to stand a significant distance away from clinics. These sorts of laws were developed after the 80s and 90s saw many incidents of murder and other violence toward doctors, health workers, and patients. The new anti-abortion tactic is “street counseling.” The legal issue is framed as one of free speech, and the right of the protesters to access their target audience: women going in to have abortions. The face of the case was a gentle elderly woman, Eleanor McCullen. “You’ve got to hand it to the anti-choice movement,” Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote on the blog RH Reality Check. “When they picked Eleanor McCullen to be the face of their First Amendment attack on abortion clinic access, they knew exactly what they were doing. The trope of anti-choice protesters as ‘plump grandmas’ helped the media and the U.S. Supreme Court not just gloss over the very real threats of violence that abortion providers and patients face, but also erase providers and patients from the Supreme Court’s analysis almost entirely.”
I had gone with friends to an abortion clinic–in Massachusetts in the early 90s–and been screamed at by Operation Rescue protesters. I had read about the murders of doctors and other health workers. I had seen firsthand some of the damage to clinics. And that level of violent threat has has censored me as a writer for over a decade.
Starting in 1991, I began working on a story of a group of women in college who create a spiritual/emotional healing circle. At the time, I was only a few years out of college, and I had discovered some incredible healing spaces. I began to imagine the circle of women I had desperately needed in college. It began as a short short story. Then was a long short story. Then a short novella. Then a long novella. I didn’t actually want to write it as a novel. I knew I didn’t have the attention span, at the time. But every writing group/buddy/workshop/circle kept telling me to say more. Show more. Unpack this or that abstract idea. The story had a main character and six secondary characters who all experienced a level of emotional growth. It took a lot of unpacking to do justice to everyone’s emotional arc. But I worked hard on it for years.
By 2005 I had a great novel…except it was 900 pages long. For anyone unclear on the industry, there is no way a first time novelist (who is not a celebrity pop star) can sell such a thing. Especially not a feminist novel about black women fighting racism and healing from trauma. Of course, there was a simple solution—cut the book in half and make it two novels. There was only one problem: a main character has an abortion in the middle of the novel. So if I cut it into two, the first novel becomes a story about a woman who—unapologetically—gets an abortion. That’s not really the character arc of the whole story. And I didn’t want to write the abortion book. I wasn’t prepared to put my life on the line for an artistic statement that was dictated by page length, and wasn’t even the statement I was actually trying to make. My statement was about young black women and trauma, and how—as teens and young adults—they face a number of challenges that include domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy, racism, classism, sexism, sexual harassment, and more. I posted the abortion clinic scene from the novel last year for 1 in 3 day, acknowledging the reality that 1 in 3 women in the US has an abortion in her lifetime.
Back when I was still working on the novel, I performed excerpts publicly, I even made a CD of several scenes, but I didn’t pursue publishing. Instead, I put it away and decided to develop a more commercial piece for my debut novel, hoping that I would be able to publish the previous one later on in my career. I have recently gotten an agent for my sex worker heist novel, and she hopes to shop it to editors next month. Isn’t it interesting that I am much less afraid to publish a book about sex workers who go around robbing rich corrupt corporate CEOs than a woman having a perfectly legal abortion.
And now that I know a bit more about the publishing industry, I know that no one (other than a pop celebrity) can publish a 900 page novel, even a novelist with a successful debut book. Fortunately, however, there have been other changes in the publishing industry. One is the development of the category of “new adult” novels. These focus on late teen early 20s age protagonists. If I split the book into three books, the word count works and doesn’t leave me with a first book about a girl who has an abortion. So I am hopeful that the book will one day see the light of publication.
I am, however, chilled by the Supreme Court’s decision about McCullen. I am known as a bold and fearless writer/performer. With regard to freedom of speech, this is the one issue where I don’t feel free and am afraid to speak.
Women writers will use any excuse to organize ourselves and connect. During the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney alienated over half the country with his remark about having “binders full of women” he had no idea that he would serve as inspiration for an internet joke that caught fire. The hashtags #binders, #bindersfullofwomen, and #binderwriters have been trending for a couple of days among female writers. And I’m really enjoying the community.
Here are a few of my favorite tweets:
I loved this tweet from Angela Jackson Brown! I thought about how women writers need to be more shameless in our ambition and celebratory in our successes. I just snapped this #selfie of me pretending to act clueless about wanting an agent, as if I didn’t desperately struggle to get one for nearly a decade. I’m pictured at my desk, in front of my collage from VONA 2012 that boldly states my ambition. The collage’s background is a Manhattan subway map representing the epicenter of the publishing industry. The images are of nine books I hope to write that are in some form of concept, outline, first draft or multi-draft manuscripts. My manifesto says, “I aspire to write WELL-CRAFTED, SEXY AND WILDLY SUCCESSFUL COMMERCIAL NOVELS that bring FEMINISM to a new generation of women who have been intentionally confused into thinking that sexual exploitation, objectification and consumerism equals liberation. I hope to infuse the mainstream with stories about BADASS WOMEN OF COLOR FIGHTING MALE DOMINATION and changing the world.”
#Binderwriters has given me the courage to post this for the first time.
Writing can be solitary. It’s just exciting to be in a conversation with other women that I can access on my phone in the cracks between parenting, running a household, teaching, and writing.
Okay, enough twitter fun for tonight. I need to get up early tomorrow. To write.