The past couple of weeks Black women have been the subject of discussion, not just in the blogosphere, but also on the news. If you’re a Sister, you’ve either been ignoring the news or not turning on your computer if you haven’t heard about the latest brouhaha—or, as some would call it, a hot buttered mess—involving Essence magazine’s hiring White fashion director Ellianna Placas.
If you haven’t heard about the Essence controversy, click here to read the original story in Clutch Magazine.
Tomorrow, Sunday, August 8, Esther Armah is on BBC and Michaela angela Davis, will be on CBC Canada on Monday, August 9–both Sisters have been vocal about the Essence hire. (I will try to find a link to both shows and post in a few days!) Davis is a former editor at Essence, and Armah hosts an award-winning radio show, “Off the page”. Both are Sisters who have spoken on subjects affecting Black women and the Black community.
Sidebar: I hate to sound shallow here, but Davis and Armah also have looked fabulous and fierce while voicing their opinions. I take the chance of sounding anti-feminist because sometimes people think that if a Sister voices an intelligent feminist/Womanist opinion, suddenly she stops being cute. And quiet as it’s kept, smart, vocal, opinionated women—of all complexions—are the Certified Dime Pieces on this planet. Recognize.
When I blogged about Essence magazine, I argued that Essence hasn’t served Black women for a long time anyway, so we should just let the magazine go. And cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal wrote that on his blog as well as gave that opinion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Davis and Armah have taken a more complex view, however. Davis has argued that we (Black female magazine readers) shouldn’t abandon Essence but rather, hold them more accountable. Armah has talked about the ways that Black people have not been able to control their images in mainstream America. And both Sisters have used the Essence issue to (continue to) talk about the limited perspective given Black women in media, and how Black women are nearly invisible to the rest of America.
But what has been tripping me out—I can only say it that way—is how the valid statements of Davis and Armah and others concerning the forced invisibility of Black women in the fashion industry—which mirrors the forced invisibility of Black women in the society—have been twisted and thrown back in their faces as “reverse racism.”
Here is version number one of the “reverse racism” accusations: Black women are starting a race riot by wanting a Black magazine to have an editorial board that reflects the demographic that the magazine serves—that would be BLACK WOMEN. And why are we starting a riot? Because supposedly, we Sisters hate White people, and especially White women, so we just want to grind that White-hatred ax.
Or “reverse racism” accusation version number two—the well-mannered, calm version: “Yes, we hear you Sisters about the fashion industry. We sincerely hear you, but if you want to teach us White folks a lesson about racial tolerance, this lesson begins at home. So lead by example and hire a bunch of White folks at your TWO magazines, and then, in a few years, we will hire a couple of Black folks at the DOZENS of mainstream magazines we run because you have shown us your moral superiority. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. would want you to do, after all. And don’t you remember that whole ‘I have a dream’ speech? Because I can recite it verbatim.”
What’s up with people getting attacked and then, when those people turn around and defend themselves—even in a classy, ladylike manner like Davis and Armah—suddenly, the attacked are accused of starting the fight? This classic bait and switch is happening with this Essence controversy. And further, not only are certain White folks going on the offensive in order to confuse the original issue about Black women in the fashion industry, they are using other Black folks to do it.
We have seen this bait and switch against Black women take place quite recently when well-known media outlets like Oprah, and ABC News Nightline wanted to find an “expert” to talk about marriage in the Black community, and specifically, why Black women are having “such a hard time” finding mates. When really, what these outlets wanted to do was go on the attack against Black women.
Though I have my suspicions, I have no proof that these media attacks were fueled by the sustained media appearances of Michelle Obama, a tall, good-looking, physically fit, Harvard-educated, dark-brown-skinned woman in The White House, a woman who does not conform in looks or actions to the images of Black women that America previously has seen.
So first, think about how conservative White people are used to thinking about Black women. And now, think about upset Michelle Obama has made conservative White America. But also, maybe–just maybe– consider that she’s made a few liberal White folks uncomfortable, too. Because it’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another to be about it.
Did either Oprah or ABC Nightline consult Black female experts on the issue of Black females and dating? No. Did either of these shows consult a Black female without credentials, but who would know better than anyone about the experience of Black women and dating? No. Did either of these shows even consult a Brother with credentials in marriage and couples’ counseling? No. Instead, they asked Steve Harvey, a Black man who has been divorced twice and married three times.
I’ve talked about Steve and this Nightline Special before, because it’s been very disturbing to me that, whenever Black women want to air our grievances, we are framed as pathetic or whiny at best, or neck-rolling, finger-pointing crazy women at worst. Thus, when Brother Steve was used as the “host” on Oprah and Nightline and started pushing his tired, male-chauvenist agenda that Black women need to get line with “how men really are,” he spoke in quiet, well-modulated tones.
On Nightline, he used the “palm-down” gesture, while passive-aggressively riling up the two Black women on the panel. The two Sisters got crankier and crankier and “proved” Steve’s point: that a Sister can’t get no man ’cause she can’t stop talking loud to a Brother.
Sidebar: and who wouldn’t talk loud when you are told that some guy’s shadiness is really your fault because you don’t understand his pain as a Black man in this society while certain other women–whose race shall remain nameless–do understand his pain and further, know how to keep their mouths shut, and if you acted like certain other women you might be able to get you a man?
I wonder how long it took for Steve’s second wife—and now ex-wife—to start having fantasies about throwing hot grits on him in his sleep after a few sessions of “I’m a calm Black man and you’re a not-calm Black woman who doesn’t understand my wants and needs,” accompanied by his signature palm-down gesture.
A few days ago, when Michaela angela Davis appeared on CNN’s Anderson 360 to give her opinion about the Essence controversy, Anderson Cooper chose CNN Correspondent Roland S. Martin as the opposing side of the debate. Again, not another Black woman, but a Black man. A Black man who proceeded to smugly lecture Davis about “racial fairness” in hiring practices, when Martin had just made the serious mistake of joining Benjamin Jealous, Black man and head of the NAACP, in attacking a Black woman, Shirley S. Sherrod, and accusing her of racism before the facts were all in.
Now, I have been willing to cut Brother Martin some slack in jumping to speak about the Sherrod issue, as wrong as he was, and as hurtful as his support of the Sherrod attack was to me as a Black woman. Because it’s a twenty-four news cycle, and who among us hasn’t jumped the gun in forming an opinion on something we read online?
But Martin’s definitely standing on some earthquake-shaky ground trying to “read” a sister like Michaela angela Davis who has a twenty-year career in beauty and fashion journalism about hiring practices in fashion magazines. And in addition, it was very disturbing how Martin was cosigning Anderson Cooper’s White male condescension during that segment—Cooper’s “there is no racism towards Black women in this society and it’s all in your mind” remarks. I thought Martin was going to get whiplash, he was nodding so vigorously in agreement with Cooper. I know that Brother has to keep his job, but, dang already.
This issue of who speaks for Black women is not one that just popped up. Back during slavery times, Black people were not allowed to give testimony against Whites, either, only other Blacks, and this prohibition extended to Black women.
Further, the rape of a Black unfree woman was not treated as a crime against her body, but as a crime against a White man’s property, even those few times she was allowed to testify against her attacker. Thus, this sort of dismissal of a Black woman’s testimony, before or after she speaks– forcing her to check with others before she can truly know how she feels– has a tradition in our country with the law, with the media, and unfortunately, sometimes with our own Black community.
So I am watching this Essence conversation very carefully, because this is not just a moment in fashion, it is moment in history.