Most of the time if something big is happening in the world, I wait for someone better to write about it and then I use their words as a jumping-off point. Especially if it deals with race. I take a quote of someone wiser and source it, and then build my thoughts from their wisdom. I’m not great at seeing something happen and then formulating my thoughts myself without influence from smarter people.
Especially 100% of the time when it deals with race. I need guidance.
But this morning I’m at a loss. Two things happened yesterday that are very closely related in terms of race and misogyny and microagressions and I really want someone else to have written about this already so I could piggy-back and add my own comments…but it seems no one has yet. So I’m going to try to just throw my thoughts and feelings out there and hope I don’t do it too terribly.
I saw the video yesterday where Bill O’Reilly snarked on on Maxine Waters – a black Congresswoman from California – by saying, “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.”
And then, separately, Sean Spicer said to April Ryan – a black reporter at his briefing yesterday, “Please, stop shaking your head again.”
I want to discuss those two moments and how they represent similar moments in my life.
My first instinct is to always shift my perspective away from racism when I see and hear microagressions like this. I mean, we’ve heard white women get mocked for hair and attitudes before, so why are these comments “racist” in nature? This is a self-protecting instinct I’m now aware of because racism has become subtle in our society and we’re all so defensive against accusations of it. To protect our dignity, we have trained ourselves to say, “It’s definitely misogynistic, and he’s definitely an asshole, but that’s not inherently racist.”
But then my immediate second – more aware – instinct is: It’s always racism.
First of all…the hair comment: Let’s start by pointing out that any comment on any black woman’s hair is always rooted in racism. It may be subtle, but until we recognize the history of indignities black women have had to suffer because of their hair, we will never see the racism behind the remarks. Hair makes us feel “safe” because it’s not skin. We can inflict regulations on how a black woman styles her hair that we never put on a white woman and we can pretend it’s about hygiene or professionalism and it makes us feel safe because we’re not talking about skin color. Regulating hair for black women has been a way to hold authority over a race without mentioning the race itself. The military has finally rolled back most (all?) of the regulations targeting black women and their hair but here is a good piece about it before these rollbacks. When Black Hair Is Against the Rules.
But in many settings, black hair was still a battleground. In the 1980s civil rights groups led boycotts against the Hyatt hotel chain after it terminated a black female employee for wearing cornrows. In 1999, couriers for Federal Express were fired for wearing dreadlocks. And this past fall, 7-year-old Tiana Parker was told her dreadlocks violated her elementary school’s dress code in Tulsa, Okla., and 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke was threatened with expulsion from her private school in Orlando, Fla., because her natural hair was deemed a “distraction.”
So we must remind ourself: For a black woman? Her hair is the target seen the most. And jeezus, Maxine Waters’ hair actually follows all of these “rules” people have inflicted unfairly over the years and someone STILL snarks on her hair. Because it is the “safe” go-to when insulting a black woman because it doesn’t relate to skin color. But as history has shown us? It always relates to skin color.
Now…let’s visit the other incident.
“Please, stop shaking your head again.”
Another frequent indignity a black woman has to deal with is defending herself against the “Angry Black Woman” trope. Now, this should be something all women can relate to a little bit because we all know that if we get angry at work, we’re being emotional. Whereas if a man gets angry he’s being powerful. So we can all recognize that comments about attitude are inherently misogynistic. But the “Angry Black Woman” trope is another that has been used in history to belittle the response of any black woman towards injustice. If a black woman rages about something? The thing that triggered the rage is dismissed the second she is painted as an Angry Black Woman. It’s how the system shifts focus away from what makes her angry. So if she wants to be taken seriously, she has to remain more calm than her white or male counterparts. This is misogyny AND racism.
Long attributed to black women who have dared to stand up for what they believe in, the “angry black girl” archetype Stenberg refers to is one that reduces having an informed opinion to having a plain ol’ attitude problem. Source
I guarantee you white men shake their heads at Sean Spicer in that room daily. And while he may accuse them of promoting agendas like he did April Ryan, he never mandates they stop shaking their head. Because that’s not a weapon we use against men. Angry men are powerful so we don’t spotlight that. Angry Black Women just need attitude adjustments, so we can minimize their response by spotlighting their “attitude.”
Now, the reason I wanted to talk about these things is because – in my sphere of friends and families – it’s the comments like these that I have previously ignored making me part of the problem in continued racism. I’ve pretended I didn’t hear similar comments numerous times before. I don’t know if it’s living in the South, or if every white person my age has this experience, but I’ve been in countless situations (family, friends, work) where comments about a black woman’s hair or attitude are made and then promptly glossed over by me and every other white person in the room.
(Sidenote: Let me just say I’ve seen my husband call stuff out before. He’s my idol in many ways. He cares not about upsetting people no matter how much he likes or respects them. But I am not like that.)
It comes as no surprise that I fear conflict. And I fear shooting the word: RACIST at people I otherwise like/love and/or respect. But these occurrences yesterday with a bigger spotlight – and the loud blowback I’ve seen from the women of color I follow – have reminded me: WE CAN NOT LET THIS STUFF STAND.
The scary thing about calling these things racist is that we all have to realize that – based on the society we were raised in – we’ve probably said this racist shit too. I mean, I don’t have any concrete memories in my head so I trick myself into believing I’ve never said it, but I’ve ignored worse and does that make me better?
So I’m looking at those two instances yesterday and imagining comments made at a social gathering, or a family gathering, or a professional gathering. Let’s say we’re all watching the news and someone says what O’Reilly said. What do I say? What does someone like me – the avoider of ALL face-to-face conflict – say in situations like this? How do you tell someone their words are racist without calling them a racist? Because the POINT of addressing the comments is to enlight the person, right? To open their minds to the subtle racism we all partake in and don’t realize? So angering them won’t teach them…right? How do I address these issues in a way that might actually open their eyes a little?
Here are my attempts.
Person A: “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.”
Me: “You know what? I learned recently that there has been a long history of black women being persecuted unfairly because of their hair. Even in the military they were held to different standards which required more time and effort just because of their hair. These were terrible indignities only afforded to them because of their race, so I’ve come to understand that any comments about a black woman’s hair carries racist undertones. Therefore, I am trying to teach my kids that – even if think they’re being funny – comments about a black woman’s hair are unacceptable. I just don’t want our words to unintentionally carry any historical reference to racist indignities, you know?”
Or what about with a similar Spicer moment
Person B: “I wish she would stop shaking her head like that.”
Me: “You know what? I was reading recently about how the Angry Black Girl archetype is one used to oppress the voices of black women. When a black woman was angry in the civil rights movement, her words could be dismissed by painting her in this way of just needing an attitude adjustment. Since then I’ve noticed even I seem to reflexively dismiss the voice of an angry black woman and so I’m trying to recognize the racial undertones in commenting on the attitude of a black woman. Because, let’s be honest, we wouldn’t call out a white man for shaking his head, would we?”
I know there are people that say, “Tender-footing racism does no good.” But I learned, and am continuing to learn. Not because someone called me a racist, but because someone kindly pointed out the racism in my words. I don’t want to pass on the opportunities to do the same in the future. I want to be brave. I want my kids to see me calling out these moments instead of glossing over them so that they can learn to do the same.