bell hooks is good for epiphanies.
Re-reading her collection of essays “Outlaw Culture,” I was awash in her brilliance, and something she said hit me like a board to the head. One gem of this stellar anthology is her interview with a publisher which she titles “Moving Into and Beyond Feminism.” She says:
I wrote about black people really being fearful of white people, and how it’s really become a cliche or a “no-no” to talk about having that fear. . . . In our culture, black men are constructed as such a threat: they can pose on the street corner as people who are in power, in control. And the culture doesn’t ever give black men a space where they can say: “Yes–actually I feel scared when I see white people coming toward me.”
Being that I am neither black nor male, I admit I don’t spend much time pondering the black male experience, though its nearly impossible not to have sympathy for it. Of course black men have much to fear from white people, and they’re understandably reticent to show it. When a system relies on the complacency, weakness, and silence of any population, and when that system will use violence, litigation, and governmental disenfranchisement to keep that population under control, a natural reaction would be to admit or show no weakness. Add to that the macho tendencies of all men to act as though they are fearless at all times, and well, it makes sense that black men wouldn’t be proclaiming their trepidation in white cultures.
From the outset of Africans in America, mythologies were constructed about black men as uncontrollable animals who were opportunistic and violent. As white women were the prize and property of white male land & slave owners, this mythology came to encompass a ever-present threat of black men “taking” white women whether as a form of conscious uprising or as the byproduct of their irrepressible animal natures.
The thing we so easily forget, is that this was a designed and constructed animosity. The idea of the black man and the white woman sharing space, or, god forbid, a home, was so destructive to the established status quo of the white men being the sole power-holders, that an entire mythology persists to this day of black men enacting horrific violence against white women. (Nevermind the real violence that was/is perpetrated by white men or upon black women).
We have been trained to react in fear and rage to one another. White women have been encouraged to mythologize the omnipresent invisible attacker as a young, black man. And black men, so often the victims of profiling and so susceptible to unwarranted prosecution, have become the recipients of our fear and hatred.
Here are some ways we can repair this rift between black men and white women:
1) Acknowledge its origins. It’s a well-used tactic to use two disenfranchised groups against one another to preserve the hegemony. It keeps us wary of the unknown monster rather than keen to the known one.
2) Realize how misguided this fear is: Out of the 194,270 cases of sexual assault reported in 2006 involving white victims, 50.6% had white offenders and 16.7% had black offenders (source). In 8 out of 10 rape cases, the victim knows the perpetrator. Of people who report sexual violence, 64% of women were raped, physically assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner. (source)
3) Acknowledge the inherent privileges of gender and race. Black men generally do not live in fear of rape. They do not usually suffer domestic violence, bear an unequal brunt of child rearing, listen to music that demeans their gender and objectifies them, have to force themselves into absurd and painful grooming rituals or gender-specific dress, and all the other things that women suffer. White women, on the other hand, do not fear racial profiling or disproportionate conviction and sentencing for non-violent crimes. They don’t fear race-based hate crimes. White women can find positive representations of themselves easily in most media. Understanding our own privileges illuminates the inequities of society, and hopefully engenders empathy for our unique experiences of the world.
4) Quoting Ms. hooks again: “I think this has particularly been the case for black men, that we shut off those areas of vulnerability in ourselves. It’s a kind of defense to imitate those who have wounded you, because, to the degree that you become them, you imagine your are safe. I try to talk about the process of “assimilation” as a kind of mask, as an amulet almost whereby you feel, ‘I can ward off the evil of this by becoming it, or by appearing to be it.’”
It’s easy to say that white women need to work on their racism, and black men need to work on their misogyny. But white women need to mend their internalized misogyny: their need to in-fight, to abuse sexuality as a pure commodity, to establish a hierarchy based on false notions of beauty and transient symbols of power. And black men can stop perpetuating the same falseness of “Beyonce” beauty myth, and avoid taking on the white man’s power structure as a paragon of control.
Understandably, both white women and black men are reticent to cede any of our power. The problem is, too often we use that power against one another, rather than against the sexist and racist establishment. Black men and white women can learn to honor one another in our individual, yet linked struggles for equality and recognition, and to direct our efforts to deconstructing and repairing the structures that put us at odds and at war.