In the wake of the racist and sexist comments that Bill O’Reilly made about her, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters seems to be getting the last laugh. Last week, sponsors fled his show in response to new revelations of sexual assault claims, and Waters’s voice was resonant and clear in dubbing Fox a “sexual harassment enterprise.” Waters pulled no punches, saying that O’Reilly “needs to go to jail.”
This is the second round in the ongoing war of words between the popular and influential Fox host and his most recent black woman target. As you’ll recall, the first match began, ostensibly, when O’Reilly made fun of Waters’ hair. But it wasn’t really ever about her hair. When O’Reilly made fun of the Congresswoman’s coif, he wasn’t doing so because he took issue with her styling choices. He did it to deflect attention from Waters’ agenda, and, in doing so, illustrated how easily Black women’s concerns are silenced in the public sphere. And, he took his place in a long history of focusing on Black women’s bodies in order to ignore the substance of what they’re saying or doing. Black women are often invisible in American public life, especially in our representative politics―and even when they’re seen, they’re not heard.
Waters responded to O’Reilly’s criticism by speaking out on MSNBC on Chris Hayes: “Let me just say this: I’m a strong black woman and I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined. I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O’Reilly or anybody.” And Waters isn’t alone in her experience, though hers was more public than most. On Twitter, activist Brittney Packett started a hashtag, #BlackWomenAtWork, so that other black women could shed light on the racist and sexist micro-aggressions they routinely experience in the workplace. On Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, staff writers Ashley Nicole Black and Travon Free presented a segment entitled “Shut Your Damn Mouth,” which critiqued O’Reilly’s comments about Waters, and compared them to his previous comments about other Black women like Michelle Obama and Beyoncé. O’Reilly apologized to the Congresswoman―kind of. “She deserves a hearing and should not be marginalized by political opponents. In fact I made that mistake this morning on Fox & Friend,” he said. “I said in a simple jest that the congresswoman’s hair distracted me. Well that was stupid, I apologize. It had no place in the conversation.” Still, he hasn’t stopped going after her on his nightly show.
Attacks on black women’s hair are by no means new, nor did they begin with O’Reilly. Too often, the media’s emphasis on scrutinizing black women’s hair has deflected attention from the important things that they were doing and saying, and from the extraordinary strides that they were making. As law professor Lani Guinier was being considered to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in 1993, neo-conservative Republican opponents misconstrued her policies, stereotyped her as a “quota queen” and widely caricatured her hairstyle in political cartoons.
It’s not only in politics or the workplace where Black women face this intellectual erasure, and it’s not only at the hands of white people. Internalized oppression has meant that African Americans themselves often focus on Black women’s hair rather than the content of their work. During the 2012 Olympics in London, and in the wake of the historic victory of the gymnast Gabby Douglas’s in the all-around competition, a media firestorm erupted related to alleged criticisms of her hair made primarily by black women spectators on Twitter. In the wake of Simone Biles’ historic victory as the second black American to win the All-Around Olympic title, in Rio, a similar conversation about her hair emerged, distracting attention from her extraordinary performance and outstanding achievements.
“Public conversations that turn into referenda on black women’s hair silence black women..."”
If O’Reilly was “joking” about Rep. Waters’ hair to deflect from her agenda, it’s important not to lose sight of what that agenda is. Waters is and has been a vigilant and sustained critic of President Trump’s policies, and has repeatedly suggested that his actions may lead to impeachment. It is crucial not to allow a shouting match about her hair to obscure the historic and even heroic intervention in our national politics. In January, when Congress was certifying the Electoral College vote, Rep. Barbara Lee (also a Black woman) and Rep. Waters opposed it, and no one backed them. This moment helped to sanction the Trump presidency. Rep. Waters was met with silence when she asked, “Is there one United States Senator who will join me in this letter of objection?” Republicans booed her, and no Democratic Senators supported her.
In the speech for which O’Reilly targeted her, Waters remarked that, Trump’s opponents “have suffered discrimination. We have suffered isolation and undermining. But we stand up for America, often times when others who think they are more patriotic, who say they are more patriotic, do not.” Waters and her work matter now, because it builds upon a longstanding legacy of black women’s leadership at the national level. She matters because she has established a salient voice in American politics, and she uses it to promote a more democratic America, while fighting for those who have been excluded from its opportunities. She matters because she ranks among top black women leaders who have made a transformative impact on national politics.
Public conversations that turn into referenda on black women’s hair silence black women, and are a distraction from their important contributions. They have little positive use and are almost always a distraction from issues that urgently need more attention. Next time the conversation turns to a black woman’s hair, remember: it’s not really about the hair.