For four quarters of the NFL NFC Championship game on Sunday, January 18, Pam Oliver was the person who was dehumanized on social media. Richard Sherman was later criticized for his words; Pam Oliver was mocked for her appearance. There have been hundreds of articles and probably millions of individual discussions since then analyzing Richard Sherman and the characterizations of Black men in the United States. Unfortunately, I've only found two articles (from Philly.com and Howard University Radio) that have discussed the remarks directed at Pam Oliver on the eve of MLK Day.
My experiences growing up in the east side of Austin, Texas and working at schools and youth serving organizations in Washington, DC have made me realize that there seems to be a reluctance in the Black community -- and American society in general -- to publicly confront certain issues, depending on the gender which is affected. I think the gleeful insults directed at Pam Oliver were representative of the disrespect, internal policing, and ridicule that I've seen directed at Black women my entire life.
I don't want to overplay the importance of social media. In my opinion, the new obsession with fighting overt racism or insults of public figures on social media is like the fast food version of attempting social change. It often detracts from a larger analysis of structural oppression and discrimination. Other sites have covered this topic excellently and I highly recommend the following two articles from PostBourgie and Black Girl Dangerous. However, I still think that social media can uncover common attitudes and practices -- like insulting Black women for their appearance.
I also don't want to insinuate that discussions about how racism impacts Black men are not important. Of course they are. But Black male issues constitute the vast majority of conversations about oppression towards the Black community. The federal government has also begun to address policies that disproportionally affect Black men like federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and disparities in school discipline.
The last thing I want to avoid is providing a false appearance that I'm truly knowledgeable or educated about Black Feminism, Womanism, and Intersectionality as it relates to Black women. I'm not. I'd like to fully articulate how the culture of policing of Black women's hair and appearance is a form of misogyny, but I can't. I don't have the tools. I haven't done the work. I haven't done the reading and engagement that would give me those tools. In this respect, I am part of the problem, because I've definitely had the opportunity to learn in the past.
I can expound on racial profiling, education inequality, and other forms of discrimination that impact all Black people and minorities, but I find my knowledge lacking when discussing how misogyny affects women and girls within the Black community. I'd suggest for anyone to start following the blogs Gradient Lair, the aforementioned Black Girl Dangerous, The Feminist Wire, and reading the writing of prominent Black academics like Bell Hooks and others -- which is a process that I've recently begun. I'd also recommend for anyone to be open to listening to criticism and to introspectively examine what privileges they have, and how these privileges influence perceptions. I've definitely made mistakes, and have often tried to defend myself before actually opening my ears to hear the impact of my actions.
I think #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen in the summer of 2013 illuminated that there has been a crisis of indifference in the Black community about Black women's issues. The comments about Pam Oliver were not a wakeup call of any sort. I can't offer a detailed analysis, but I can absolutely say that the Black community needs to examine how we can ensure that Black women are treated appropriately within our community. I'd like to share four stories from recent years in Washington, DC that can help illustrate some of the events and situations which have brought me to this conclusion:
1. In the summer of 2013, I was at a barbecue in a new apartment building in the newly gentrified Eckington area of Washington, DC. The host and almost every attendee at the party were Black professionals.
As it grew later, the night time security guard -- who was a Black woman -- asked us to wrap up the party since the common area closed at 10pm. Instead of acquiescing, the host objected until she finally relented and asked her guests to help clean up.
As we were cleaning up, the other guests started joking about the perceived quality of security guard's hair and how hard it must be to comb. The security guard was still within earshot. To paraphrase some of the remarks, one man said, "I wished someone who can actually afford a better perm kicked us out".
2. I spent most of 2012 working in a non-profit with DC public high school seniors. In the spring, I went to meet a student who was having academic problems for a quick conversation outside of the Anacostia Metro Station. We spoke together for approximately 20 minutes.
Within that 20 minutes, I would estimate that no less than 15 men -- some of whom seemed to be much older than the 17 year old student -- verbally harassed her for attention, or made comments about her body as they passed by.
The harassment got to the point that both the student and I began to argue with the men and boys who were catcalling. We then left the immediate area in order to concentrate and have a conversation. I was just visiting the area; this is the Metro Station that she used every day to go to school.
3. In 2009, I was working at an Elementary school in Northwest, Washington, DC. Many of the girls were Chris Brown fans.
One day in the after-school program, a co-worker noticed that two girls who were using a computer to do their homework, were instead playing a video game. My co-worker and I investigated and it turned out that the goal of the game was to fight and beat Rihanna.
These young Black girls were in the fourth grade, and they justified the violent game because they thought Rihanna was lying about the severity of the brutal assault she received from Chris Brown. They were also looking up photos of Rihanna's battered face as a joke.
4. A rape prevention non-profit organization came to facilitate a workshop with a group of my male students when I was working with various DC high schools.
That organization's model for rape prevention is to work directly with young men in order to encourage introspection and thoughtfulness in their perceptions of young women, relationships, and masculinity.
These young men -- my students -- were all predominantly Black and had spent most of their lives east of the Anacostia River in the socioeconomically and de facto racially segregated Wards 7 and 8.
At the beginning of the session, they asked the 60 young men in room to raise their hand if they knew someone who has been raped. Every single student in the room raised their hand.
The point of this article isn't to make wide comparisons between Black Americans and other groups. What I'm saying is that I've seen too much pain in the community that I am a part of and know best. I know that there is a tremendous amount of good and love in the Black community. My childhood and time in DC have provided innumerable examples of this respect, interdependence, and generosity. However, there are real damn problems. And we need to start listening to our women -- not prominent men speaking for women -- about how to confront these problems.