Author Archives: negrarubia
This week’s news has focused heavily on the death and funeral of singer Whitney Houston, and on the outpouring of praise and of grief from her fans and her peers. In the many reflections on her life, the conversation often turned to her marriage to singer Bobby Brown, whose influence is widely seen as the source of her undoing. I heard mentions of his abusing her and treating her in outrageously disrespectful ways.
This set me to thinking about other examples of abuse among black celebrities. The most colorful recent example is that of Rihanna, who was beaten by Chris Brown in a very public incident. Her bruised photos were all over the web, along with heated commentary from all sides. Another example from a few years ago was that of R. Kelly allegedly having sex with a girl barely in her teens, and performing obscene acts while videotaping the event. The video slipped his control and became widely available on the internet.
What shocked and disturbed me most in each of these examples was the speed at which the perpetrators were sanitized, forgiven, and brought back into the fold. I had conversations after the Rihanna beating (and attempted expulsion from a moving vehicle) in which I was told by young black women that she was the one who started it, and that he was just doing what he had to. Hearing black women make excuses for him and blame his victim left me filled with a strange mix of anger, sadness and pessimism.
It’s as consistent as clockwork; first there are watered-down statements of disapproval by industry peers, and a vigorous public debate about behavior that actually has no room for debate. Then as other events dominate the news, everyone drops the subject and the perpetrator is swiftly and quietly exonerated. Every time we make an excuse for this behavior, every time we blame the victim, every time we go right back to supporting these stars after the news cycle rolls around, we are reinforcing and enabling a system of oppression that needs to be challenged and brought down. When will we begin to hold accountable the perpetrators of violence against us? As the world paused to remember Whitney Houston at last weekend’s Grammy Awards, convicted abuser Chris Brown had a prominent role in a show. Also on the marquee: his victim, Rihanna.
A couple of years ago I attended a weekend retreat in the Black Mountains near Asheville for the staff of the school at which I worked at the time. After the day’s activities a group of us – all Black women – went into Asheville to sight-see and hang out. We pulled up at an Applebees during their peak hours and saw a predominantly white crowd outside waiting to be seated. The van erupted into lively chatter, with everyone telling me to go check out the place since I “looked like them” and report back as to whether I thought our group would be welcome. Unwilling to wait the required 45 minutes, we went to another restaurant where I was once again the designated scout. The whole thing was pretty funny, but in truth it masked a serious concern for many people of color in America.
One piece of this week’s reading dealt with white privilege, that invisible and generally unacknowledged social norm that permeates so many situations, unconsciously influencing assumptions and decisions, and thereby skewing experiences and outcomes in favor of white Americans. Many times I have heard members of my community cite the scarcity of black people in a particular restaurant or other venue as a reason not to go there, commenting that we’re not welcome in these places. This is of course an assumption, and any negative experience or perceived slight is offered as proof that they were unwanted guests.
I think these attitudes are formed as we grow up, hearing our elders speak among themselves, or else telling us in one way or another to stick to our own kind and to avoid those situations. Having grown up in a culture without white dominance, my husband and I never internalized this viewpoint. We also discourage our kids from taking the view that some places or experiences are for other people, but not for them. We go wherever we think we’ll enjoy, and quite often we’re the only non-whites in the room. We enter confidently and project a positive expectation, and so far we’ve never been made to feel unwelcome. While I recognize that there is no guarantee that this will always be the case, I hope that never changes.
On Jan 25 the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristoff titled “How Pimps Use the Web to Sell Girls” (see the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/opinion/how-pimps-use-the-web-to-sell-girls.html ). He opens with a chilling description of a frightened 13-year-old girl banging on the an apartment door and begging the occupant to use the phone, then calling he mom and 911 to report that she’d be held captive and used as a sex-slave. The police arrived and arrested her 21-year-old pimp who had brought her to the building and sent her up to a john’s apartment while he waited downstairs. A runaway, she explained to police that she was bleeding vaginally and had recently been kicked down the stairs for trying to escape a daily routine of being raped by 8 or 9 “customers”, and being beaten with a belt if she didn’t bring her captor enough money.
The article explained that a website called backdoor.com, owned by the parent company of the Village Voice newspaper in New York was a haven for pimps who deliver prostitutes, often very much underage, like pizza to the johns who order them online. There are other sites like this, and craislist was once famous for the same thing until a public and judicial backlash forced them to shut down that section of the site.
Crimes of this nature continue to happen around the world every day, far more commonly than one might believe, often just out of sight. These predators use a variety of means to lure and keep their victims, and those who patronize them frequently prefer very young girls. As with most crimes, the poor are the easiest targets, and with the media slow to report missing children and teenagers of color (who are more often poor than their white counterparts) young girls and women of color make for a more appealing target. Many of them are runaways, or from homes so broken as to be unable to protect them. The most common approach is to offer these lost children food, shelter, kindness, then use physical threats and emotional manipulation to steer them into sexual slavery.
Even though this is illegal, and police departments are increasingly dedicating staff to work exclusively on these cases, the anonymity provided by the web has allowed these crimes to continue and perhaps to escalate. We should all remain alert for situations that don’t look or feel right where young people seem to be in harm’s way. I think that if there’s a doubt, one should call the police anyway. If the situation is innocent, that should be easy enough to clear up. But if your instincts are right and you act, you will likely have saved one of our children from a fate some would consider no different from the kinds of slavery practiced here centuries ago.
I have been watching with interest as the film The Help has been garnering awards, first the Golden Globe and now the Screen Actor Guild top award. So many people have reported a positive response to this production that I had to reexamine my own reaction carefully before voicing an opinion. But here goes. . .
First, a synopsis for those who may not have seen it. The protagonist “Skeeter” is a young white woman who returns from college to a rural Mississippi town after graduation. Armed with a newly expanded worldview, she faces peer group opposition when she speaks up on behalf of the Black domestic helpers. From here she decides to act on her beliefs, and starts a secret writing project with the help of two maids, documenting their experiences and the life of the town. After the book is published, the community discovers what she has done and she leaves town for a writing job in New York. The maids lose their jobs, but stand to collect some royalties from the book.
In all honesty, I found the story to be disingenuous and self-serving to the author and to people like her. It was one more example of the oppressor retelling the story so as to cast him/herself as the hero. The true reign of fear was never confronted, only alluded to in indirect ways. In reality, the maids would have lost far more than just their jobs had this happened in the rural Mississippi of the time. Skeeter seems to be pursuing her career as a writer more so than any particular justice. The black men in the story, when they are mentioned, are all losers and ne’er-do-wells who run off at the first sign of responsibility (Abileen and Constantine have both been abandoned by their man, and Minny’s husband and father are both drunks). Most significantly, the white men in the story are presented as generally genteel and harmless; the worst that could be said of Skeeter’s suitor was that he was overly conventional and lacked courage. In the real history of this time and place, white men were the fountainhead of the great fear that overshadowed the lives of Black men and women alike, but this doesn’t make its way into the narrative.
I feel that this movie glossed over the real history in the service of a feel-good story.
“Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people can get what they want through their own efforts. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.” Stephen Covey
Having given this consideration for a long time now, I’ve come to regard feminism in very pragmatic terms. While I recognize the vital need for feminist theory, to the millions of women outside of academia who struggle to hold it together every day, feminism comes down to a variation of enlightened self-interest on the part of our society. Practical matters like flexible work hours, or the ability to work remotely at least part of the time not only supports a woman’s ability to take care of her children or aging parents, but generally increases her productivity by allowing her to address issues and so free herself to focus on her work. In this way everyone benefits.
I feel that the most successful model of feminism is one where we seek collaboration over confrontation where possible (and I will hasten to add that this is not always possible.) If we can get the buy-in and cooperation of our men-folk, if we can make feminists of them too, we can accomplish far more. When a woman gets equal pay for equal work, that pay goes to the support of her family and loved ones, not just selfish pleasures. When she allowed a work schedule that lets her take better care of her children, those are a man’s children too that benefit.
To go back to the quote above, once we have achieved a measure of independence, the best-case scenario will be a collaborative relationship with our men, one that lets us build something together that is greater than either of us, and will set us on the path to healing the rifts in our social fabric, and strengthen our whole community. That will be the finest example of interdependence.