This past week was a rough one for black women in the news. While I am used to black women being judged quite harshly in society, I am sometimes shocked at the amount of venom that is spewed at my sisters, especially during Women’s History Month.
Now, Women’s History Month is important for all women because at one point women resided on the margins of society, lacking fundamental protections and rights that were granted to men. Many of our stories and accomplishments were overshadowed or excluded because women were considered second-class citizens. Like other disenfranchised groups, women worked and fought hard to gain civil rights. Like Black History Month, Women’s History Month was created to celebrate and commemorate the contributions that women have made to society in order to benefit all of society, including men. Celebrate is the key word here. I find it interesting that most of the headlines about black women were extremely negative last week. Let me share a few with you:
• “New Study Finds Median Wealth for Single Black Women is $5” (Daily KOS)
• “Nearly Half of Black Women Have Herpes” (The Root)
• “Juanita Goggins Dead: Once-Revered South Carolina Lawmaker Freezes to Death Alone” (Huffington Post)
• “Monica Conyers Gets 37-Month Term for Bribery” (BlackAmericaWeb.com)
Even with an Academy Award win for comedian-turned-actress Mo’Nique’s powerhouse performance in the controversial film Precious, most of the pre- and post-award coverage focused on her “open marriage,” and refusal to shave her hairy legs in spite of dominant beauty standards. Mo’Nique’s creepy obsession with her husband, notwithstanding, I did not see other actresses covered in the same way.
In fact, Howard Stern came under fire for saying that Gabourey Sidibe would never make another film in Hollywood because she is too fat and black. In defense of Stern and his “Girl Friday” Robin Quivers, they happened to say what everyone in the Hollywood film industry was thinking, but would not dare say publicly. If you know anything about casting and Hollywood, then you know that Sidibe is working against all odds. The point is, even though this young woman gave an incredible performance in this film and was cast despite all of the factors against her, the media still chose to focus on the negative instead of the positive — the fact that she gave an incredible performance and just might inspire Hollywood to weigh substance over size, pun intended.
It wasn’t just that story — there were so many more. In fact, I posted so many negative headlines about black women that some of my friends boycotted my Facebook page. They turned away from it because there was too much negative information on it about black women in the media. Some of the words that they used included hurtful, mean-spirited, demeaning, harmful and sad. My goal was not to ruin my friends’ week — it was to expose just how negatively black women are talked about in the press, how common it is and the real-world consequences. I didn’t have to go digging; these were major headlines.
In 2008, I wrote a column titled, “Leave us alone: Black women are much more than negative media portrayals,” in which I raged about the venom with which people talk about black women in the media and how freely they do it. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: Black women are tired of being beat up on. Perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to the positive stories that involve African-American women; maybe they aren’t promoted as heavily as the negative stories.
The fact is that black women are constant targets. If you take your cultural cues from the media about black women, then we are too fat, unattractive, unhealthy, bearers of every friggin’ disease in the known world, lazy, too smart, not smart enough, argumentative and combative. Even when we do wonderful things like educate ourselves, gain financial independence, head businesses and organizations and serve the community, it is tied to something negative. For example, single, black, college-educated women in their 30s will never marry because of all of those same factors. It feels like we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
We are sensitive and, like everyone else, black women have feelings, too. I understand that some stories are written to create awareness, but they rarely address the causal factors that create these conditions.
Celebration is something that is missing from Women’s History Month as it relates to black women.
Maybe it’s because people think of us as “black” first and “women” second. Maybe it’s because the media knows that these headlines sell papers or get clicks. Maybe it’s because we don’t matter as a group unless it is that familiar space as a whipping post, pun intended.
I’m here to say that we do matter, and we need to be uplifted and upheld in the ways that other groups are. We are thinking, feeling people who deserve the same level of deference and consideration afforded to others. Let’s make history and show black women some respect in the media, at least during the month of March.
This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing, where Nsenga serves as cultural critic.