I’ve always set goals aggressively. By the time I was 12, I had a meticulous plan to get into the college of my dreams and go on to immediate, phenomenal success in my chosen career field. But the time I was old enough to drink, I discovered sometimes your plans aren’t worth the moleskin notebook your scratched them in. Life happens. Priorities change. Desires wane
I never planned my personal life, that of marriage and family, with quite the same ambition. I picked a general age around which I’d like to be married, but it never felt quite as urgent. Building a life with a partner I love and trust is my ideal, but this is the only area in wherein baby steps have always been acceptable.
To be clear, I’ve entertained my fair share of, let’s say, less than desirable men. But even during those romantic entanglements, I never imagined entering into a life-long covenant with them.
As a heterosexual woman who wants to be a mother, I believe the single most important decision I will make in my life is choosing the father of my children. An active, engaged partner can make a tremendous difference in kid’s lives, and I have a responsibility to unborn Laila and Charlotte (my baby names of the moment) to choose wisely. Of course, you never know what type of father a man will be, but my intention is to minimize risk. That’s how I approach dating.
As a professionally ambitious woman, my desire to find the “right” mate isn’t simply about the well-being of my future kids. It’s about self-preservation. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said time and again that the single defining factor for the success of working women with children is the support of their spouse. Because patriarchal society expects women to assume the role of primary caregiver and homemaker as default, picking the wrong mate can derail a career.
But I am more than what I wish to achieve. After reading Justice, Gender, And The Family, I felt affirmed in my refusal to commit to a man who doesn’t “get” my faith or my feminism. Families are the building blocks of our society. What happens inside of them are important in shaping the kind of world we want. These are points that I cannot concede.
No matter how clearly I’ve thought through my decision to remain single until I find the right person, moments of doubt creep into my consciousness often. Have I doomed myself to a life of being the “cool aunt” and overly ambitious “sister/daughter/friend?” Who will I care for? Who will care for me?
If you’re luck, young women learn the importance of these concerns, but we also receive constant messaging that to have a man, any man, means to be validated and valued. The push and pull of societal expectations pressures women to settle — settle not only for partners who don’t share their goals or views, but for men who don’t make them feel consistently extraordinary.
Too many define women by their ability to keep a man. How many times have you heard men and women discuss finding a romantic partner like an achievement? Those who can maintain a happy, healthy relationship deserve commendation, but when women are ridiculed as “forever alone” that’s not what we hear. The commentary is if you are a woman without a significant other, no one finds you worthy of “wifing.” It’s what causes us to chase and seek affection from anyone no matter how trifling ill-matched.
My decision to wait it out means I have to validate my damn self. Despite the stigma that accompanies being unpartnered. Single isn’t a bad word. My life is overflowing with every type of love imaginable. My goal is to be too busy basking in it to concern myself about a lack of romance. Loneliness doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the discontent of living an unfulfilled life. And if I don’t meet a man I can build with until I’m 30, 35, 40, or never. That’s fine. Though one can hardly ignore the (in)fertility hysteria, but even the thought of rapidly deteriorating eggs doesn’t scare me enough to sway me. The universe gives us what we need, and I’m enough.
Against my better judgement, last night I watched Bravo’s “Fashion Queens.” Let’s begin by saying the show is a train wreck. Bravo’s Andy Cohen loves to trot caricatures of Black gay culture for his amusement, and this show was no exception. I might have been able to overlook the fact that this show clearly sprung from a privileged white man’s hood fantasies had the hosts delivered anything near quality. Instead we got thirty minutes of unwitty shade. Perhaps someone wants to tune into to three hosts tearing women down to mask their own insecurities, but I’m certainly not the one.
I knew the show was unsalvageable when host Bevy Smith asked professional hair stylists Miss Lawrence and Derek J for their opinion on “the natural hair movement.” Derek J replied without hesitation. “the natural hair movement isn’t for everyone.” Miss Lawrence chimed in with something along the lines of “if you have short hair, you need a perm.” He said this with a triumphant swoop of his permed/weaved side bang. Their answers came as no surprise. If I made my living perming and weaving Black women, I’d probably say the same. Plus, I’ve seen the show. These men sport “women’s” apparel and accoutrements, but they are far from progressive.
The comments serve as a reminder of just how important men, all men, can be in shaping the aesthetic expectations placed on women. Men attempt to exert control over women’s bodies. This extends beyond heretosexual men policing the femininity of women they feel their won. Gay men feel just as entitled. Despite the historic alliance between black women and black gay men, we have to tune them out.
Black women spend far too much time at the mercy of men’s preferences to our own detriment. Women who desire partnership and/or validation from men (in a patriarchal society that’s basically all of us) are cautioned to walk the tight-rope of narrow beauty because if our self-presentation doesn’t meet men’s approval, we’ll face rejection. We’re warned of consequences without thought of how we, personally, will suffer. We know exactly what happens to women internalize these messages of deficiency. Some of us come out relatively unscathed. While others can’t hide their gaping wounds. Navigating men’s desires while attempting to reconcile your own takes a toll. As a woman, you being to doubt yourself—your attractiveness and value.
Men need to shut up about what women choose to do with their bodies, but that’s unlikely. Tearing down our physical appearances keeps them in control. Women will have to change the standard. Freeing ourselves from the oppressive male gaze requires us to affirm each other and ignore the noise.
Lovers of a quality pop music spectacle can breathe a sigh of relief because the preeminent entertainer of her generation has reemerged on the world’s stage. What I have pre-emptively termed The Year of Beyoncé began with the singer in her underwear on the February cover of GQ Magazine. It continued with an almost perfectly executed Super Bowl halftime show, and in just a few days, she’ll give us a cinematic glimpse into her private life on HBO.
With every move, Mrs. Carter provides onlookers with more than enough fodder for endless scrutiny and debate. Beyoncé is a particularly compelling figure for those tasked with analyzing pop culture online chiefly because she’s so darn good at her job. She keeps us talking, but why do conversations that surround the singer feel so stale?
For the past few weeks, pop culture and feminist writers have published article after article questioning Beyoncé’s pro-woman positions. Bloggers attack her because she seems to have no desire to be a perfect feminist. (Although she hasn’t completely eschewed the label.)
The onslaught is unfathomable. Beyoncé clearly loves women; she tributes and celebrates them in her work often. But Beyonce also loves her sexually provocative wardrobe and her enormously successful husband. That makes many feminists uncomfortable. The writers that pick her apart do so in bad faith. The time they dedicate to accusing Bey would be better spent fully examining the context or consequences of her choices. At this point, each blog post feels more like an opportunistic pile-on than a thoughtful critique.
I am a feminist, but the entitlement with which these feminist criticisms are broached concerns me. Beyoncé is an entertainer not an activist. She owes us nothing. Of course we want her on our team, but the self-righteous neighing must stop.
With all this handwringing and finger-wagging, you’d think the fate of the movement lies solely in her hands. Thankfully, that’s never how feminism, or any movement for social good, works. Women on the ground carry the torch. Not the women on top. Countless foot soldiers, whose names you may never know, move the cause forward.
I understand the impulse to project feminism on to celebrities. Visibility matters. Women who espouse feminist beliefs often evade the moniker, but trying to force entertainers into the role of spokesperson neglects the fact that we, the women who claim it proudly, are the face of feminism. Bashing women who mean well produces no converts. It only alienates would-be feminists.
Her recent interview with GQ cemented in my mind that even if she doesn’t claim us, Beyoncé often thinks like a feminist. Bey could, at this point, do whatever she wants, but she’s stuck to her pro-woman guns. That’s a good sign, and a clear refutation of the cynics who claimed she exploited women’s empowerment for personal gain. To tear her down for failing to live up to an impossible standard is to ignore the fact that embracing women, particularly, black women in the way Beyoncé has done for years makes her a target. Even mainstream, marketable girl-power anthems are unpalatable to many. Yet, those who toe a hardline refuse to give her credit even for that.
Nothing would make me happier than seeing Beyoncé come out as a feminist. And, yes, The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour gave me feelings. But as a woman who loves women, I can’t be so quick to dismiss choices I may not agree with.
Those who are truly concerned about the advancement of women must learn how to deconstruct patriarchal culture in a way that doesn’t tear women down. So leave Beyoncé alone.
They never should have given y’all online petitions. In recent weeks, my annoyance with certain digital organizing tactics has reached its peak. These petitions, in particular facilitate offline victories, but now they also symbolize faux activism. Signing and circulating online petitions about every real or imagined indignity reflects the entitlement of the Internet Era. Everyone has a right to be personally offended. Thankfully the web provides a space for us to voice our concerns, but does every grievance necessitate a “movement?” And does every “movement” deserve attention?
Admittedly, I’ve signed a few online petitions. I’ve even started a couple, but I’m starting to regret participating in a spiraling cultural phenomenon wherein everyone feels as though their concerns are the most important. Without vetting or deep exploration, the rallying feels like empty gesture. We are creating more noise than change.
E-petition Culture represents digital populism. Everyone can play a part, no matter how small, in consciousness raising. Individuals can bring to light injustices and misdeeds of major corporations and large institutions. Many worthy and worthwhile causes need the Internet to raise awareness and garner support. This is a great development, in theory, but having no gatekeepers results in wasted time and energy at the top and the bottom.
In September 2011, for example, the Obama Administration created a place on its website that enabled citizens to create petitions. The White House vowed to respond to all those that received 5,000 signatures in 30 days. Then the threshold was raised to 25,000 and now it’s at 100,000. Once again, the President and his staff bridge the digital and the political, but a part of me wonders just how much time White House policy experts spend reviewing petitions to deport Piers Morgan, secede from the union or build a Death Star.
Even if the White House does nothing with the petitions, which seems likely, these ridiculous queries still dominate the news. While we’re discussing and debating causes of questionable import, more pressing issues are neglected. In this sensational media landscape, “the will of the people” gets reduced to that which generates the most pageviews, comments, and likes. That’s the danger of E-petition Culture.
Those who care about social justice should also be worried about the culture’s superficiality. People indiscriminately lending their name and support to causes diminishes the meaningfulness of the gesture. An e-signature is not a revolutionary act. This is the shallow end of political advocacy—only a few steps above total apathy. And when these petitions are victorious, is the sense of accomplishment signees feel warranted? Did we really do anything? We’re concerned enough to sign a petition, write an op-ed or even attend a rally, but by and large we make no sacrifices. Perhaps that’s a sign of our progress, or maybe it reflects our detachment.
Recent, rallying against reality television shows sent me over the edge. These social media campaigns to end “embarrassing” images feel regressive. Yesterday, Oxygen confirmed it will not air Shawty Lo’s reality show “All My Babies’ Mamas.” The decision came after a successful campaign against the show which included a petition that gained nearly 40,000 signatures. Before the cancellation, online activist Sabrina Lamb explained, “We will not support any network and advertiser which exploits the plight of children and targets young women with stereotypical, dangerous, unsafe messages.”
The 13 minute teaser sent the “respectable” men and women of Black America into a frenzy. These petitions are not fighting for the improved conditions of black women or black families, they’re championing the erasure of their stories. According to Lamb, the airing of an atypical Black family presents a threat. But for whom? The social media vigilantes are more occupied with what “they” would say about women and their children. It’s fascinating to see Black women fall over themselves arguing that the decision to air a show about a man with 11 children by 10 women must be the result of abject racism because the situation isn’t peculiar–that Black women’s pathological reproduction makes this a normal occurrence. It seems we are just as good at perpetuating those myths as “they” are.
I, personally, do not believe structural racism is undergirded by reality television. Moreover, even the “worst” representations of Women of Color on reality shows provide teachable moments. Viewers can use these shows as tool to reflect on our own lives and decisions. Few will admit that these real stories inspire self-reflection just as fictional ones do. I may watch television especially closely, but the implication is that other young Black women are too dumb to do the same. That offends me.
The social issues reflected on reality television will not be solved by blocking the airing of one program or starting a movement that effectively pits “good black women” against the “bad.” E-petition Culture flattens complex structural issues into easily shareable publicity-bait, even those who should know better are falling for it.
Any frustrations I have with the paradigm are mediated by the real successes of digital advocacy. Black social media activists have created, from the root, an effective counter-public space and can count several victories—most notably the cases of the Jena 6 and Trayvon Martin. (Though one day we’ll need to discuss the clear gender disparity in these campaigns.) Digital organizing can compel biased institutions to act in the interest of justice. For that reason, it is necessary.
We are, however, witnessing a troubling shift in culture. If only there were a screening process. Although I am annoyed by the rising E-petition Culture, there is no objective way to distinguish legitimate concerns from the oppressive, malicious or imagined. The line is so thin as to be imperceptible; thus, we will just have to endure all of the seemingly pointless and ultimately fruitless causes so that we will not miss those that truly demand action. I do not like it, but these are the times.
After I read this blog post from a woman who regrets the $700 butt shots she received, I couldn’t help but think through my own journey to body acceptance. The blog post reminded me that in recent years, black folks have been our own worst enemy in perpetuating body image issues among black women and girls. In our efforts to defy white supremacy, we adopted an equally unattainable aesthetic ideal. Large breasts, tiny waists, and humongous behinds are the desired anatomy of a substantial segment of Black and brown people. Normal women with 9 to 5s aspire to the video girl dimensions we’ve deemed most attractive. Now those women are dying, and it’s time to rethink our preferences.
Many women of African descent are born with naturally round behinds and supple thighs; however, many are not. Placing this one type of body on a pedestal has cost us dearly. There’s a new generation of women caught between mainstream beauty standards and those of the culture they wish to be validated within. These women have nowhere to turn. They can’t be beautiful because they are not white, and they can’t be sexy because they are not thick.
“Thick” being the current body descriptor used to terrorize Black women. It singles us out and shames us. We all know shame is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. It drives even the most level-headed among us to pursue illogical courses of action. But some of us, by constitution or circumstance, are more vulnerable, and we succumb to the whims of an unforgiving culture.
In order to embody “thick” some Black women began injecting themselves with all manner of toxic sludge. They made themselves attractions. I see these women as attempting to reclaim control of their bodies and the way they will be viewed. Inverting the plight of the Hottentot Venus, they, themselves, put their outlandishly large body parts on display. Trading the white gaze for black leers, these women don’t realize that once you have been reduced to the sum of your body parts, you’ve lost your power.
I, too, lost ownership of my body for a time. I’m still trying to regain it. My lower body has attracted unwanted attention from both sexes and all races since I hit puberty. At around 9, I began to “fill out,” and the comments began. My adolescence is marked by the horrors of shopping for jeans. Each excursion ended in similar bouts of self-loathing. The well-meaning encouragement and compliments only deepen the despair.
Then, of course, there are the not-so-well meaning comments. While exiting a hot tub at 14 or 15 a white teenage boy caught a glimpse of my behind. He unashamedly asked me if all Black girls have “ghettos.” I assume he meant ghetto booties. I laughed nervously, but I wanted to cry. Those moments happened to me often in all-white spaces. The stares and jokes were particularly devastating as I was often the only black girl. They were constant reminders that my body was an oddity. I’d never be like “them.”
The rise booty magazines and butt shots brought a shift in the kind of attention my body attracted. I grew up as well. As I began to pursue adult romantic and sexual relationships, the thing that was once a liability became an asset. It drew men’s attention. I took pride in having fatty, a donk, a booty, an ass. They wanted it, and I wanted…affection. But it seems certain type of men can sense when a woman thinks all she’s worth is poking out of her skintight dress. Those of the type of men who don’t call you the next morning. They don’t take you out for your birthday. They don’t show up to family functions.
Disappointment is a great teacher. It taught me that I’d have to find a new way to cope with trauma of growing up with a tattered body image. Even as a feminist, well-educated woman I fall victim to the lures of male validation. Everyone wants to be wanted. Through personal growth, I understand that being fetishized, even for a personal attribute I used to hate, is not a compliment. But that took work, and it takes time. I can’t fault other women who haven’t started the journey.
Cracking jokes at the expense of women with slim bodies once felt like retribution for years of torment, but I can’t laugh anymore. All women are victims. Black women are losing. All of us. We can only hope to win by resisting boldly those who taught us to hate ourselves.
I took a long time to assemble my thoughts on Shawty Lo’s new show and the outrage it’s inspired primarily because I was deeply conflicted. Shawty Lo’s recklessness is indefensible. I have no desire to defend the show or its right to be on the air. I don’t believe that the arrangement the rapper has with his 10 children’s mothers and 11 children is a justifiable alternative family structure. The discussion around the show, however, has been largely unproductive and intellectually lazy. Too many men and women missed the greater, ongoing tragedies in black communities that this show represents.
Prescriptions of marriage for all Black women who wish to have children are bullheadedly misguided. Marriage, across many segments of American society, is dying, and black folks aren’t going to revive it. Yet compassionate conservatives continue pushing it without acknowledging that this institution simply does not align with the lived experiences of most Americans. Now that white folks are doing it in larger numbers, cohabitation and unwedded co-parenting will be normalized, but it’s a shame that majority culture has to adopt a habit so it will not be seen as pathological among blacks. Out of Wedlock shamers feel emboldened because their ideologies are validated by majority culture. That will soon not be the case.
If teaching young Black couples the value of marriage were the answer to problem of abandoned children, these discussions wouldn’t be necessary. Blacks are extremely conservative when it comes to theoretical moral stances, but morals, standards, and ethics are not fixed. They are situational and contextual. They require continual evaluation. I’ve known many men and women who’ve expressed a belief in the value of marriage who went on to have children out of wedlock. Things happen. Life happens. Stern lectures and catchy slogans don’t displace real trials and tumult life brings.
Marriage fell out of favor in Black communities decades ago because of shifting economies and values, and the shift we’re seeing away from marriage largely reflects that in the whole of America. When black folks do it, it’s primitive behavior. When white folks do it, it’s cultural evolution.
We have yet to discuss real solutions. Pro-marriage advocates refuse to acknowledge that a likelihood to marry is tied closely to education. College-educated women marry later and stay married longer. We also know that better health outcomes and financial stability also accompany formal education. Why then would “personal responsibility” campaigns focus exclusively on fertility. If you want young Black women to lead more stable lives, encourage them to stay in school. Of course, acknowledging that fact requires reading beyond the headlines, and takes away the fun of slut-shaming. But that’s a real solution – not a hash tag. A diploma.
Then again, higher education has become increasingly unattainable for those without family and financial support, and those are the women most at risk. The education solution does not account for the women who will not ever earn a diploma. That means we must turn to the women themselves and the families they produce.
In order to progress past the hand wringing, black communities have to embrace and encourage supportive, non-traditional families. This is, however, difficult to do with a family that is the result of the kinds of coercive sexual relationships that produced Shawty Lo’s situation. The majority of the mothers met the rapper when while they were underage or barely legal. This man is a predator, and he created a family born not of consent and support but of the perceived limits of black women’s romantic options. Without a commitment or assurance of stability, the women had his children. It seems they settled for what was available to them rather than what they deserved. It’s a mindset not uncommon in women – onne that stems from internalizing constant degrading messages.
Our worlds are limited by constant attacks. I question the motives of the black women bloggers who’ve taken this as an opportunity to further degrade women who clearly cannot see how valuable, beautiful and capable they are. You cannot claim to care for black women, especially those at risk of exploitation, and hurl the same insults at them as everyone else. Quite frankly, if you don’t hesitate to refer to black women as livestock, you’re not really for us. If further stripping Black women of their humanity is a central component of your movement, I have no choice but to hope for its speedy demise.
We grossly underestimate the intelligence of the women who find themselves in less than ideal romantic and child-rearing entanglements. In reality, women must get creative in order to navigate the landmines of patriarchy. “Respectable” black women talk down to those they presume don’t know any better and do nothing but preach to the wannabe upper class choir.
Alternative families can be beautiful; however, ideally those family structures would be created with consent and support. Support is more than financial. We must demand men assume emotional responsibility for their children as well as financial culpability. This requires a fundamental reimagining of the foundational roles of fathers. The problem cannot rest solely at the feet of women who birth the children.
Shawty Lo and the mothers of his 11 children didn’t reveal to me anything I hadn’t seen or imagined. But they did force me to think through the ways we can improve the lives of the adults and kids caught up in less than ideal circumstances. Attempting to silence or erase them won’t fix anything for the countless other women who face similar challenges. Empower women to pursue higher education. Empower them to seek partners that will uplift them. Empower them to use birth control and condoms. We must remember that strong families cannot exist without strong women, and the work of building them never ends.
On Oct. 1, a viewer identified as Emmitt Vascocu wrote, “the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady.the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news.what about that (cq).”
Lee replied the same day, “Hello Emmitt—I am the ‘black lady’ to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer. I’m a non-smoking, 5’3, 121 lbs, 25 mile a week running, 37.5 year old woman, and I’m in perfectly healthy physical condition.
“I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. I’m very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.
“Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.
“Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.”
Vascocu replied that Lee was right to be proud of who she is and that he is not a racist, but “… this world has … certain standerd (cq). if youve come from a world of being poor are you going to dress in rags?…” Source
Not only did the station not offer Lee support like that given this Wisconsin television reporter after she was taunted about her weight, Lee says the station’s general manager and news director fired her for violating social media policy that was never placed in writing.
The firing was clearly illegitimate, but Rhonda Lee committed a revolutionary act, albeit a small one. She had two options in this situation: ignore the criticism, or address it. She chose the latter. But even that was too much for the station which expected her to turn the other cheek. You see, it is actually company policy that a measured, articulate defense of your cultural ancestry is inappropriate if it is presented in the wrong platform — the wrong platform being any platform ever.
(Watch: Melissa Harris-Perry and Rhonda Lee Discuss Black Hair in the Workplace)
The predicament exemplifies life as a black woman. No decision is legitimate because we’re not allowed to feel. We’re “strong,” so we should be able to handle it all, and when we bend in either direction, we are weak or angry—never human. Black women have no real options in handling the biased words and actions we face daily. Society places the onus on us to prove racist (or sexist) intent, so we gracefully take the lashings.
But when we continually dismiss ignorant comments where does that leave us? While we contend with the self-doubt and frustration racial innuendos leave behind, the perpetrators of microaggressions remain empowered in their privilege. Picking our battles means we allow whites the continued privilege of trampling on our rights not to be victimized. The man who addressed Lee not only had these thoughts but felt entitled to say them, while demonstrating no command of the English language, publicly. Ms. Lee is a warrior for black women who endure pointed, frustrating questions about our hair, culture,and bodies endlessly, and she took up the fight while maintaining remarkable composure.
When attacked, we often keep quiet out of fear — an understandable fear that striking back in any way will cost us our livelihoods. Of course, no one will blame you ignoring racism in order to keep your job. That’s not cowardice; that is self-preservation. But why shrink away from battles that will cost you nothing? Instead of questioning the audacity of those who perpetuate racism without hesitation, Audre Lorde said it well, “We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” Your silence will not protect your sanity, your pride, your heart nor your spirit. Keeping quiet about overt ignorance only reinforces its presence in our culture.
I’ve come to realize that, as a black woman, everything about my existence will be questioned. I will have to continually assert my worthiness and my womanhood, and that is an daunting task. Of course it would be easier to dismiss the foolishness. My blood pressure and my faith in humanity would benefit greatly, but I also know that if some of us won’t draw a line in the sand, we can expect the same treatment indefinitely. I’m simply unwilling to concede my dignity.
Who will defend a black woman? Others may join in the fight, but we will have to do it ourselves.
Last week, Jada Pinkett-Smith posted an open letter on Facebook about her choice to allow her daughter Willow to make some controversial decisions about her personal appearances. Jada wrote:
The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women,girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It’s also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be. More to come. Another day.
The actress and her husband Will chose a style of parenting that’s given 12 year-old Willow the space to grow into her own woman, and I couldn’t love them more for it.
It’s clear that Jada and Will employ a far more permissive parenting style than many of our parents, and that makes many uncomfortable. This seems to be particularly troubling for some Black folks who are used to a certain unyielding dominance.
Black parents are notoriously strict. Whenever the topic of the way “we” raise our kids arises, Black folks eagerly trade discipline tales like war stories. And no matter how traumatic the ending, the sharer will often note that they’re thankful for their parents’ MO because without it they would either be dead or in jail. As much as that may be true, I do wonder how our communities might be improved by allowing children more opportunities to push boundaries and ask questions.
Willow’s parents gave her the chance to test the waters, and she chose a path that dismisses social expectations. With her androgynous style, Willow is a different type of role model for young women. She’s not one of the the overly-manicured, fashion-obsessed tween Disney or Nickelodeon stars that have come to dominate children’s entertainment.She’s just being Willow — quirky, emotive, bold. These are traits to be celebrated not feared.
I’m more worried that today’s popular singers and actresses promote sexualized aesthetics that seep into consciousnesses of little girls. As a result, younger and younger children are being ushered into the Beauty Industrial Complex. 6 year olds now not only want to be beautiful princesses but sexy celebrities. According to researchers at Knox College, girls know the difference between “sexy” and “not sexy” by the time they get out of kindergarten. When asked,to choose between two dolls, the girls in the study overwhelmingly chose the “sexy” one.
Unsurprisingly, their preference for the more provocatively dressed figure increased with their television consumption. Girls know that they are being judged based on their physical desirability before they know their multiplication tables. Our sexist society does not even give girls an opportunity to develop a healthy self-image or sexuality beyond their bodies or sexual attractiveness. The cycle will not be broken without mothers and fathers actively working against the conditioning.
The Knox College study also points to the importance of mothers in shaping their daughter’s self-perception. Jada deserves credit for her own fearlessness. The Willow we see is a reflection of her mother’s willingness to break the mold. Mothers are our first teachers. They help us gain an understanding of our position in the world. They teach us what it means to be a woman. By giving her body autonomy, Jada has made it clear to her daughter that she is strong and capable by birth.
Parents want the best for their children, but they may not realize how pushing their daughters to conform to narrow modes of femininity might set them up for failure. Young girls, particularly young Black girls, receive endless messaging that they are not enough. The pressure can be dangerous when it comes from outside of the home, but devastating when administered by close family members.
Willow’s personal style challenges traditional gender binaries in a way that’s prompted absurd speculation about her sexuality. The talk is thinly veiled homophobia, and to her credit, Jada never acknowledged the whispers. The rumors are less about the woman Willow will become than the young woman she is now. Willow Smith is fearless and unapologetic—two things many think children should never be.
Jada unchained her daughter. Our mothers, grandmas, and aunties taught us to draw as little attention to ourselves as possible as we make our way through the world — or if we should be noticed, make it only for our exceptional achievements. Too many of us were taught that Willow’s style and demeanor are for white people; “we” don’t behave that way. But personal freedom isn’t just for white girls. Every little Colored girl deserves a chance to grow into the woman she longs to be. I could not be happier that preteens today who look like me now have Willow.
In Willow, I see a confident young woman who sets her own agenda — a beautiful Black girl who knows her worth because her parents chose to empower rather than to control. For better or for worse, we derive much of our identity from how we’re addressed by those closest to us. In every comment and action you’re telling your daughter something about herself. What are you saying?
Jada’s unorthodox mothering frees us all to re-think our intimate relationships. For mothers and daughters, the Smiths represent new possibilities.
I grew up, like so many Black children of upwardly mobile parents, precariously situated between two worlds. Both Black and white women raised me. They were generous and loving, kind and brilliant. But as a kid, I sensed something different about the Black women in my life. They carried — what I can only describe as — a heaviness. The load wasn’t self-pitying sadness but steely resolve. I admired it, even if I didn’t completely understand its usefulness.
As a woman myself, I now recognize that heaviness. It has ensured our survival. That strength in spirit led Ida B. Wells-Barnett to risk life and limb in her crusade against Southern lynching. It directed Angela Davis to combat the prison industrial complex. It has guided innumerable Black women in their own communities to organize, work, and nurture simultaneously. Unfortunately that resolve often gets misread as needless anger even by those who should know better.
That is frustrating, and I’m struggling not to become hardened toward half of Black America. Many Black women have defined ourselves in relation to the men in our communities. As their mothers, wives, sisters, cousins, and friends, we were their keepers. We protected them when they could not protect themselves. All while trying to manage our own lives and livelihoods. Note that I’m using “we” and “us.” I, personally, have done my best to refrain, but I’ve seen self-sacrifice in service of Black manhood too many times to count. I am beginning to wonder where that has left Black women.
While Black women have marched, mothered, and sacrificed, many Black men have used the mythology of the bitter, overbearing matriarchy as an excuse to pile on. This week, D.L. Hughley appeared on NPR to promote his new book. When asked his thoughts on Black women, he said, ”I’ve never met an angrier group of people.” The comment is interesting not only because Hughley has a wife and two daughters but because he, quite simply, would not be in a position to speak with Michel Martin on a national platform without us. Furthermore, he needs Black women to buy his book. Hughley’s comments are representative of how so many Black men do not hesitate to disparage Black women because they know that they can do so without reprisal. Too often Black women do not reprimand Black men for degrading us. We reward them. For example, we allowed Steve Harvey and his army of relationship buffoons to repackage the myth of dysfunctional Black womanhood and sell it back to us.
We made them rich, and in doing so we cosigned the lie. Painting Black women as irrationally angry justifies the verbal and physical violence we endure daily. I did not see Hughley, Harvey or any of the other men who use their huge platforms to tell us how awful we are, comment on the recent viral videos of Black women being assaulted. With few exceptions, men abided a code of silence when video of rapper Lil Reese viciously beating a young became the talk of the internet. They didn’t question why violence against “angry, unladylike” Black women like Shi’Dea Lane in Cleveland is deemed entertainment. And when I attempted to begin a conversation about why men would stand by and watch these woman be attacked, some men I knew opted to confront me about my unfair portrait of black men as abuse apologists. These experiences are disheartening but telling. Even when it is about Black women, it’s about Black men. While we fight for their humanity, they fight for our silence.
Some Black women might be angry, but we are also loyal. We are joyful. We are resilient. Men like D.L. Hughley choose not to highlight those things because it is our anger that proves to be an inconvenience when they wish to dominate without question.
A wise woman once said, “You teach people how to treat you.” Black women have taught black men that we will support them no matter what — that their battles are ours and our devotion is limitless. It’s time to question those limits for this is a load I am unwilling to carry.
We all should share the responsibility of working toward liberation; however, there’s been an unequal division of labor. As someone who loves Black people and revels in Blackness, I cannot dismiss entirely half of Black communities. I have no desire to do so, and I deeply appreciate men like Mychal Smith, Bakari Kitwana and L’heureux Lewis-McCoy who actively fight for the concerns of Black women. Those voices, however, are far too few.
Black women must care for each other and for ourselves because we cannot rely fully on anyone else to do so. This has long been one of the uncomfortable truths of Black womanhood. Fictive unity is worthless; consequently, I can no longer invest in the restoration of Black masculinity as so many of my foremothers did. For the moment, I’m out. Black men will have to fight for themselves. This is my official withdrawal from the Battle for Black Manhood.
Before I begin, please know that the majority of my disgust is reserved for Cynthia Mort and Jimmy Iovine. They hold primary responsibility for your casting in the upcoming film “Nina,” and that choice symbolizes the utter disregard the film industry has shown for telling the stories of Black women faithfully.
But you’re a grown woman, Zoe, and you made the decision to participate in this film despite public objections from Nina’s daughter Simone. Of course you owe nothing to me or the thousands of other people of African descent who find your choice to portray Nina disturbing and offensive.
I do wonder how it must feel to research Nina - to read and watch her critiques of racism and white supremacy in American culture - while preparing for a project that reinforces those very things. Quite simply Cynthia Mort, Jimmy Iovine, and yes, you, are not tributing Nina Simone’s legacy. You’re disrespecting it.
I know enough about the history of Black performance in America to understand that it’s not as easy as “just say no” for Black artists. Zoe, I realize that artists, particularly Women of Color artists, must sometimes be opportunists to survive. But artists must also assume culpability for the work they produce, and this work is damaging.
I’m afraid you lack self-awareness. And in truth, feigning ignorance of colorism doesn’t help your case. I still can’t believe you retweeted this.
omg I just got the petition for someone “blacker” than @zoesaldana to play Nina Simone.. Reverse racism at its best
— Pamela c∕̴Ɩ (@pam_aquino) September 19, 2012
Perhaps you’re just trying to hold on to whatever you can to justify your decision, but no, Zoe, this is not reverse racism. Reverse racism doesn’t exist. Black women are not discriminating against you because you are a light-skinned woman. We are expressing our frustration at a racial hierarchy that renders us too unattractive even to represent ourselves. And if we’re being honest, you got this role, in part, because of the privilege you’ve been accorded as a light-skinned Afro-Latina.
That’s not to say I don’t think you’re a talented actress. You most certainly are. In fact, I think you could surprise us with your performance in the film. That doesn’t change the fact that you are contributing to the ongoing invisibility of women who cannot remove their deep brown complexions, broad noses, and kinky hair every day after work. This project is a testament to the unconscionable arrogance of white supremacy. By taking part, you’ve condoned that arrogance.
But ultimately, Zoe, you’re just a single actress. Despite your privilege, you’re working within a system that exploits you and your image without acknowledging your existence. As the face of a project with many collaborators, you’ve unfairly become the fall girl. I’m not mad at you. I don’t think any of us are. Frankly, I feel more pity than contempt. It’s the same way I feel toward minstrel performers who donned black face at the turn of the century or black women actresses who embodied steretypical mammies 60 years ago. Artists do the best with the opportunities they are given.
Few dark-skinned actresses in Hollywood could open a film. That’s not your fault. However, in the future, I would caution you from making statements like, “..why the f— would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there’s a Black president in my country?” Because even in the United States where Barack Obama is the president, dark skin, kinky hair and African features are still loathed.
I offer this critique in love. I can’t say that I hope your movie will be a success; however, I do hope that you will use your growing influence to speak up when confronted with obvious inequality in the future. You don’t owe that to us. You owe it to yourself.