I was sitting at the bus stop, having a conversation with a middle-aged black man who was seated next to me. I was not looking at him while we spoke. The man stood up and I continued talking, but turned my head to the left to look into his face while we spoke. I thought the bus might have been coming and was about to begin gathering my things.
When I finally looked down–I am still talking non-stop, as some high school girls do–and I notice that the man has the front of his pants unzipped, he has his penis out and is stroking it while I talk. I screamed.
The man ran off and a few seconds later the bus pulled up. I got on the bus–as if I was still going to make it to work–when, all of a sudden, I unraveled emotionally and burst into tears. The passengers tried to comfort me, but I was unable to be soothed. Somehow my parents were called and came to pick me up–I can’t tell you exactly how everything transpired between crying uncontrollably and being rescued by parents, but somehow it happened.
When I told my parents what happened to me and asked if we should call the police to report the man, my step-mother said no. She said that there was no point in calling the police because the police would indiscriminately harass any black man at a bus stop in the area–my father took the bus to work everyday, and he might end up becoming a target as a possibly suspect by the police in an attempt to catch the man who had revealed himself to me. So I was given mace to carry with me from then on to make myself feel safe. I stopped carrying the mace shortly thereafter and never saw that man at the bus stop again.
I thought of this story the other day when I was researching the feminist concept of intersectionality as part of an attempt to piece together my thoughts to form a cogent explication of the Quvenzhané Wallis-gets-called-a-c*nt incident and the ensuing aftermath, including the debates that took place on many blogs.
Intersectionality is a term coined by black feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Intersectionality “is the study of intersections between different groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination.”
Wikipedia has this statement under ‘intersectionality and social work’:
For instance, according to intersectionality, domestic violence counselors in the United States that urged all women to report their abusers to police would be of little use to women of color due to the history of racially-motivated police brutality in that population, and those counselors should therefore develop a different approach appropriate for women of color.
That day, many years ago, when I sat at the bus stop and a black man, who may or may not have been mentally ill, exposed himself to me and my parents advised me not to contact the police, I was experiencing a moment of intersectionality. I had been transgressed by that man but if I reported the incident I would possibly be instigating transgressions against innocent black men.
I never reported what happened to me to the police.
Numerous comparisons have been made between the way that the established media/bloggers reacted to Sandra Fluke being called a “slut” and the way that those pundits reacted to Quvenzhané Wallis being called c*nt. The mainstream black feminist (and black non-feminist) opinion seems to be that the white feminist establishment did not respond as forcefully and critically as it should have to the satire directed at Ms. Wallis. I am a black feminist, and I disagree with that opinion.
There are several critical differences between the Sandra Fluke story and the Quvenzhané Wallis story.
At the time of the incident, Sandra Fluke was a third-year law student at Georgetown University–a Jesuit academic institution–located in Washington, D.C. Fluke testified regarding her institutions’ policy on contraception at an unofficial hearing that was attended by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D. Calif.). Ms. Fluke was arguing that contraception should be covered under the rubric of general health care at religious institutions.
Upon hearing about Fluke’s remarks, Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk show host asked, “What does that make her?” LImbaugh then responded to his rhetorical question: “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”
Not content to simply label Fluke a slut and prostitute, Rush expanded on his assumptions about her personal life: “She wants to be paid to have sex,” and “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.”
The day after Rush’s remarks Ms. Fluke appeared on MSNBC’s The Ed Show and stated that Limbaugh’s statements were “outside of the bounds of civil discourse.”
Three days after his initial comments were made, and after some advertisers dropped his show, Limbaugh finally apologized.
Compare this story to what happened to Quvenzhané Wallis.
On Sunday night, during the Oscars, the Onion tweeted “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a c–t, right? #Oscars2013” Approximately an hour later the tweet was deleted. By the time I even heard about the tweet it had already been deleted–and I checked in with Twitter shortly after the Oscars concluded. By noon on Monday morning the Onion had posted the following apology on its Facebook page:
On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.
No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.
The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.
In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.
Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.
Steve Hannah CEO The Onion
Again, let’s compare and contrast. Quvenzhané Wallis is 9 years old; Sandra Fluke is a grown woman. Quvenzhané Wallis had not commented on the controversy (and honestly, I hope she doesn’t even know about it and that no reporter asks her about it because I think this entire incident makes for a conversation that is too mature for someone her age); Fluke went on at least one television use and used the incident as a choice opportunity to expand the discussion around birth control coverage. Quvenzhané Wallis received an apology in less than 24 hours. Sandra Fluke had to wait three days.
Do you see what I am getting at here? What happened to Sandra Fluke and what happened to Ms. Wallis are two totally different stories. They cannot be compared and they should not be compared. Ms. Wallis deserved an apology because she is a 9-years-old and should not even be jokingly treated as if she is an adult. The Onion snapped-to pretty quickly and issued an apology because the publication had done something that was indefensible–despite the fact that some disagreed with the Onion for apologizing.
White people can have a difficult time understanding and digesting the attitude, flair, and round-the-way attitudinal quality that some black people have. This is part of why Michelle Obama can be difficult to stomach for white people. Mrs. Obama grew up in a working middle-class household; she is a black woman. And, because of these two traits, she has done some things differently than previous first ladies.
Mrs. Obama occasionally needles her husband in public, like when she jokingly said that the President had too many bad habits for her to count.
The things Mrs. Obama does are not bad, but they are not what many white people
OK, white racists are accustomed to.
Quvenzhané Wallis could a diminutive Michelle Obama in-training. Ms. Wallis corrects reporters when they mispronounce her name, and she insists that they call her by her given name, not the name of a character she will play in a movie.
In the eyes of middle-class white reporters that Ms. Wallis sure does have some attitude!
And this is where we get to see why the writer at the Onion thought that calling Ms. Wallis a cunt was justified. Wallis has so much attitude and is so in-your-face and flamboyant–but in a childlike way–that the Onion tweeter felt affronted by her behavior: Little girls are not supposed to be this sassy and this quick to correct you–what a c*nt!
That writer at the Onion was speaking aloud from his or her experience and perspective that a person–particularly a child–is supposed to be subdued and thankful and acquiescent. Instead you’ve got a little black girl who is quick-witted, gracious, talented, but also refusing to pretend to be a little white girl.
Is this what the person who was doing the Onion’s tweeting was thinking? I don’t know, but I think I’m very close to getting at that person’s thought process via my explanation of why he/she thought Quvenzhané’s behavior was good for a joke. Apparently, many non-black people shared the writer’s sentiment, including model Chrissy Teigen, who tweeted that Quvenzhané was a “brat”.
A good friend of mine is from Bangladesh. While my friend currently resides in the United State, the bulk of her friends and family, including her parents, are still in Bangladesh. Currently protests are raging in the streets in anti-government protest. And, honestly, had my friend not been keeping updated of the situation in her homeland, had she not had family and friends in Bangladesh that she corresponds with everyday, and, had she not then been willing to share what she knows with me I probably would have no idea that dozens of people had been killed in her country in the aftermath of a controversial government decision. My friend has even gone to far as to unfriend some people on Facebook due to their attitudes/statements regarding the actions of either the Bangladeshi government or the Muslim extremists that are killing people.
And yet no matter how much my friend shares with me about her country it is unlikely that I will ever be able to experience the deeply personal feelings regarding what is transpiring in Bangladesh in the way that she is experiences those feelings. I have not walked the streets of Dhaka, nor have I ever rode home from work or school via rickshaw. Bengali is not my mother tongue–I only know a word or two that my friend taught me.
I empathise with my friend. I act in solidarity with her by trying to find out at much as I can about what is happening in Bangladesh and by offering my sympathy to her when she is feeling anxious and so far away from home.
Thankfully my friend is not angry with me for being so ignorant about topics that are the utmost of importance to her. She shares what she knows with me; I share what I know with her, and we act in solidarity despite the fact that we each come from a different cultural history. And so it should be between white and black feminists. The bulk of white feminist women will never know or care as much about the black experience–and/or be as emotionally invested in what does or does not happen to black people–as a black women will know and care. To my knowledge, black feminists have not written extensively about the fact that Anne Hathaway was also referred to a cunt on Twitter.
White feminists feel deeply about other white women because white women understand and culturally identify with each other. Black women deeply identified with Quvenzhané Wallis because they can see themselves in her. Neither side is wrong for identifying with and rallying behind an individual who reminds them of themselves. But both sides are wrong if they attack the other side for simply being human; it is human to identify with a person who you feel could be you or someone you know.
White feminists did not do as much blogging and tweeting about the Quvenzhané Wallis incident in part because the Onion effectively squelched much of the controversy by pulling the tweet almost immediately and issuing an apology. Because black women saw so much of themselves in Quvenzhané it should not have been unexpected that black women would take the insult dressed as satire–apology or no apology–particularly hard.
Neither black feminists nor white feminists was wrong in their approach, but both groups of women do have to understand that to err is human and that supporting each other fully does not mean that either side will always respond the way that the other side would prefer. Furthermore, not responding in the way that the other person would like does not make one racist and does not mean that the non-responder has a blind spot–it means that there is a diversity of experience and opinion within the feminist movement; it means that black women will more deeply feel it when the person under the lens is a Quvenzhané Wallis and white women will mirror black women’s reaction when the person under the microscope is Anne Hathaway.
In an article for Slate, Jessica Valenti uses the following quote from Sheryl Sandbergs’ book:
“Every social movement struggles with dissension among its ranks, in part because advocates are passionate and unlikely to agree on every position and solution. There are so many of us who care deeply about these matters. We should strive to resolve our differences quickly, and when we disagree, stay focused on our shared goals. This is not a plea for less debate, but for more constructive debate.”
More constructive debate and a sincere attempt to see the story from the other side is what the feminist movement needs, not more attempts to paint the other side as racist or insensitive for failing to feel a certain way.