All across the US yesterday, people–particularly black women–sought to expand the national conversation about police violence to include the reality that black women are not only grieving mothers, daughters and partners of black men slain by police, but we are directly targeted. A critical paper by The African American Policy Forum was released on Wednesday: “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” Although women are not targeted as often as men, the statistics clearly show that within the gender categories, black women are targeted in the same disproportionate numbers as black men. This day of action is critical in fighting the erasure of black women’s stories. According to the report’s introduction:
We have emphasized that Black women and women of color’s experiences of racial profiling and police brutality are not aberrations or distractions from the central conversation, which features cisgender, heterosexual Black men and men of color as the prime protagonists, but rather are central to our understanding of the impacts of policing on our communities, and to the solutions we pursue.
Last week, I was driving across Massachusetts on a multi-lane freeway. I pulled over to offer comfort when my kid was upset. With a crying five-year-old on my lap, I was startled to hear a tap on my window. A white cop was asking if everything was okay. It was an appropriate action. I had my hazards on (to make sure no one hit me) and I might have needed help. But the terror I felt in my chest, the concern that somehow it wouldn’t go well for me, was visceral and immediate. As it turned out, the cop was friendly and respectful. But it isn’t always that way.
Black women are often scared to ask police for help. And in many ways we should be. In 2013, in my own hometown of Berkeley, police killed a black woman who called asking for help. Not Ferguson. Not Baltimore. Not Ohio, but Berkeley. Home of the Free Speech Movement and widely seen as a bastion of liberalism. She grew up here in Berkeley, just like me. We probably went to the same high school, but didn’t overlap years.
I read about her in a piece by Nomy Lamm on the website TheBodyIsNotAnApology. Kayla Moore was a black disabled trans woman. She worked as a phone sex operator. She had a mental health diagnosis and was having a hard time. The following is from Lamm’s article:
The night she died, Kayla’s roommate and in-home caregiver were there. They could tell she wasn’t taking her medication, and they called 9-1-1 to have someone come do an evaluation. This had happened before. She would go to the hospital and get stabilized; she would be there a couple weeks and come out. That’s what they expected that night.
When the police came, they didn’t talk to Kayla. Instead, they ran warrant checks. They arrested her roommate, and then told Kayla they were going to take her in, too. But she knew that wasn’t right, that it wasn’t for her. The warrant they had found was for somebody with the same birth name but a different birth date. She turned around to make a phone call, and they grabbed her. A struggle ensued, and they fell backwards into the apartment, onto a futon. Six officers were on top of her. She was on her stomach, and they were trying to tie her down. They got the cuffs on her and were trying to put a hood on her head, but after two minutes they realized she wasn’t breathing. They did chest compressions, but not mouth-to-mouth. When the EMTs came, she was dead.
The police initially blamed her obesity. But the only excess flesh that led to her death was the weight of six officers crushing the breath out of her. Her body wasn’t wrong, wasn’t culpable. Police violence was. The police were willing to touch her with deadly force but not willing to use their CPR skills to save her life?
Black lives matter.
Black women’s lives matter.
The lives of fat black disabled trans women in the sex industries matter.
Kayla Moore matters.
So I went to the Smith College graduation yesterday. And, sap that I am, I started crying the moment I watched the young women’s procession into the quad. Graduations are a joyful celebration of accomplishment, and the worldwide fight to make sure women have access to education is a matter of life and death in many countries. Smith, like all US colleges, has a challenging history of elitism and is still heavily white, but the graduation was inspiring and powerful. In addition, there were many powerful women of color whose work was highlighted. The senior class president, Milanes Morejon, who spoke was an Afro-Latina from Roxbury, and they gave out honorary degrees to several activists, including Adelaide Cromwell, who was on the vanguard of black/African studies and feminism. The speaker, Juliet Garcia, was a bit more mainstream, but her story of being a first generation Xicana to go to college and becoming an educator in South Texas was still moving. And the young women I met were powerful, vibrant, and ornery, just as I would expect. I was pleased to be able to take my preschool daughter to watch young adult women celebrating their accomplishments, and to see a huge quad of men and women who had come to cheer for them.
So here’s my meme for Smith:
I usually post on Fridays, but I’m on the road, so I posted earlier this week. However, tonight I’ve managed to have a blast on the #ReverseAFilmPlot twitter hashtag. Here are my tweets.
Earlier this year, romance author Stephanie Dray was outed for some comments that implied she was planning a BDSM romance between United States founding father and slaveowner Thomas Jefferson, and the enslaved African woman with whom he had a long-term sexual relationship, Sally Hemmings. Many people tweeted outrage as several authors and possible publishing houses were called to task. Dray and her writing partner apologized. She claims that the book is not about Jefferson and Hemmings, but rather Jefferson’s daughter. However, romance author Jenny Trout circulated a screenshot which exposes Dray clearly joking on twitter about “Thomas Jefferson show[ing] Sally Hemmings some shackles.” As people have pointed out over the years, “romance” is a misnomer between two people in a society that enforces the ownership of one over another.
Dray’s comments created a great deal of upset and outrage in the romance community, especially the community of women of color authors and their allies. In particular, Dray’s apology rang false to many. One reason for this is that the racism is not an isolated incident. In a previous post, I outlined the other instances of racism in her work. So, although she was apologizing for the Jefferson/Hemings BDSM comments, her language and body of work showed repeated examples of racist language and racist appropriation.
As a writer of online criticism, I am committed not only to pointing out what’s wrong in what others write, but to offer positive solutions. In this vein, I would point Dray, or anyone else who is interested in truly cleaning up a mistake, to notions of restorative or transformative justice.
It’s easy to point out what is wrong with others, let me use an example of my own shortcomings as an example.
Recently, in my teaching, I made a big mistake. I teach a class that trains student teachers. They develop lectures that they will present to a large undergraduate class with a focus in the humanities. Many of the students who will receive the lecture have very little experience with the subject matter. In particular, many students are science, business or technology majors, and are unfamiliar with humanities perspectives.
In the teaching class, one of my student teachers was developing a lecture. She was an immigrant from several other marginalized constituencies. In my feedback on her lecture, I kept telling her she needed to “break it down more” and “provide more background” because the undergraduate students wouldn’t be able to understand her. It was “too complicated.” One of the other student teachers consistently agreed with me.
She took the feedback, but then came back to class the next week really upset. She was angry and felt that we had mistreated her.
We had a very tense conversation. I listened and validated her, but internally I was defensive. After all, I was right that the students wouldn’t understand it. I was right that it needed to be easier to digest. I was a teacher of teachers. I was just doing my job. But I stayed open-minded. I listened to her extensively, and we then did some paired listening. When it was my turn in my pair, I spoke to another student teacher about my frustration. As I spoke, I began to understand how my feedback landed for her: basically, it felt like I was telling her that she needed to start from scratch in explaining herself to a group that wouldn’t understand her context, because so many aspects of her identity had been marginalized. Given the stack of her intersectional marginalized identities, my feedback was reinforcing her outsider status. I was demanding she explain herself, yet again.
After the paired listening, we returned to the full group discussion. I could see I was wrong and I apologized. I was thorough and humble about it, but things stayed tense. Then at some point, I brightened. All we needed was a transformative justice solution. I began to think out loud.
Here was the problem: there were many marginalized parts of her identity, and the undergraduate class wouldn’t understand them without a proper foundation. But she had been forced into the position of explaining herself to people all her life. It was a multiple burden to have to do so again. And then the solution came to me. She didn’t need to explain herself, she needed the support of her teaching community, so that she didn’t have to.
Suddenly everything changed in the room. The students who had felt uncomfortable, guilty or upset became inspired and committed. Four of us each took building block concepts and developed short lectures on those topics in support of her lecture. On the day of her lecture, we presented these mini-lectures before her longer lecture. So when she finally got up to the podium, her team had created the foundation so that the class could understand her perspective. In the big class, we became the allies she deserved. It was painful for her to get the difficult feedback in the first place, but it transformed the hurt when she got our support and didn’t have to go up there alone. She had hoped to be understood by her peers and supported to speak her truth to the larger class, even if no one understood her. But instead, she got others to do the heavy lifting so that she could speak her truth and not need to translate herself, and still be understood by an audience that was previously ignorant about her many identities. This turned out to be a wonderful example of transformative justice. It makes things better than before the mistake or injury took place.
In our culture, you’re either right or wrong. People either agree or disagree. If you’re wrong, you apologize. But if you don’t do anything to make it better, it doesn’t transform the hurt. If Stephanie Dray is really interested in making it right, she might think about what she can do to transform racism in the romance writing community.
So I’m watching TV today as I’m cooking dinner, and several of the commercials are for Dove products. Other writers have effectively pointed out how Dove has these faux feminist ads, which are problematic for a few reasons: 1.the ads ultimately suggest that the problem with sexist beauty standards can be solved by buying beauty products. 2. They reinforce appearance and grooming as central preoccupations for women. 3. They don’t reflect a real corporate commitment to eliminating sexism in our culture, because Dove is owned by Unilever, the same corporation that owns Axe body spray, which has notoriously sexist advertising. Their advertising gives give faux feminist messages to women and misogynist messages to men.
But today I still managed to be outraged by their curly hair commercial. It opens with a lightskinned African heritage mom attempting to pull the hair of her lightskinned African heritage daughter into a puff on top of her head. The voice over says: when you try to tame my curls, it’s like you’re trying to tame ME. The girl “escapes,” from the mom, her perfectly coiffed ringlets bouncing down around her head as she runs away. Dove then goes on to offer their curly hair product to curly haired females as an act of liberation. The ad shows a mix of white women and lightskinned and/or multiracial women of African heritage. There are decidedly NO women with what might be called “kinky” hair. To be specific, all the curl patterns in the hair of the women in the ad are about the size of a quarter or larger. No nickels, no dimes, and certainly nothing like the size of macaroni. In other words, it’s fine for your curls to be liberated, as long as they’re not too African looking.
During the same show, Dove had another ad for an antiperspirant. In that ad, Dove had no problem showing another lightskinned African heritage woman with a tightly kinky afro, but women with her hair texture, like women with dark skin, were conspicuously absent from the hair commercial. Dove’s message is clear, they are coopting Afrocentric notions of self-acceptance, offering a “love your curls” message to women whose curls obey gravity, and aren’t too far outside white beauty standards. To be clear, I am in no way saying that these lightskinned African heritage women aren’t black enough or don’t deserve to have their beauty affirmed. Instead, I am saying that—as usual—corporate America offers a divide-and-conquer vision of beauty, which appropriates the language of liberation in an attempt to sell us their products.
In an attempt to study the commercial more closely, I went onto YouTube to try to watch it again. Unfortunately, on Dove’s YouTube channel, there was this awful video that showed very young curly haired girls (ages 5-10) in interviews expressing their disgust for their hair. They were a mix of white girls and girls of color who were all decidedly on the light end of the spectrum. But the ad completely erased the context of racism. In particular, the struggles for self-acceptance among girls of color and white girls were presented as interchangeable.
And Dove’s remedy? The girls’ mothers should buy Dove products to celebrate their own curls. This–not an end to racism–would solve the girls’ problems with self-hate. Then they all have a dance party with a band of curly-haired musicians where they all celebrate their hair. There were a few browner moms and girls in the big crowd scenes, but the overall image was of lightskinned and white women.
In the climactic dance party scene, the blonde girl flipping her barely curly hair and expressing her love for it was particularly absurd. Dove uses the “statistic” that girls are seven times more likely to love their curly hair if women around them do. This is beyond laughable when you consider the following: consider the above photo. In it, one of the darker African American moms in this commercial is seen dancing with her daughter. She wears an obvious weave or press and curl. Really? Are you kidding me? Dove says celebrate your curls, but can’t even show the most African-looking actresses with their natural hair?
The hypocrisy in #LoveYourCurls hashtag is unbelievable. It’s not about loving my curls. I don’t have curls. My hair is nappy. My daughter’s hair is nappy. It doesn’t hang down and bounce. We wear afros. Dove’s campaign co-opts the history of Black is Beautiful ideology and limits who among us gets to be beautiful in our natural state.
Dove’s message promises liberation, but delivers racism. Epic fail.
Since becoming a mom, it takes me forever to read anything. Especially anything intense. Since I’m most likely “reading” in audio format, I’m listening while driving, rushing to get things done while my daughter is at school, or falling asleep at night. This means that much of my listening time needs to be relaxing content. I can’t fall asleep if things are too suspenseful, and don’t want to arrive to pick up my daughter all uptight and on a cliffhanger, wondering how the protagonist will survive.
With these criteria in mind, it has taken me surprisingly long to get through Natalie Baszile’s fabulous novel, Queen Sugar. Don’t let the lovely dragonflies on the cover fool you, or the family-sugar-cane-farm-saga mislead you. This is a very suspenseful book. What a masterful job Baszile does of mixing in both mystery and thriller elements into a deep exploration of African American people’s relationship with the south, farming, and our labor histories in relation to cash crops. She also creates a stunning and complex portrait of African American family dynamics, trauma, violence, and structural racism. Best of all, for those of us who have limited capacity for heaviness in our pleasure reading, she manages to achieve all this while delivering an overall upbeat story.
A great read. No wonder Oprah’s TV network will be making it into a series. I will definitely be watching.