The feral attacks against Michelle Obama over at FoxNews bring to mind a question as a black woman I’m asked a lot. How do you know when it’s racism or when it’s sexism that’s driving people to react negatively toward you? Of course, it feels like racism when the white media is doing it. Who can forget Bill O’Reilly’s lynching comment last February where he thought nothing of talking about Michelle Obama being lynched for some position he disagreed with. Then there’s the reference in recent days by the cable station to Michelle Obama as “Obama’s Baby Mama,” an expression which everyone knows (including Fox) is short hand in hip hop lingo to the unmarried mother of a man’s child. The slur that really got to me was the one by Fox guest commentator Cal Thomas who opined recently that of all the insufferable things being shoved at America right now, the first woman having a credible chance of being president, the first African-American having an even more likely chance of becoming president, the possibility of having an “angry black woman” as the First Lady is one that equally dismays him.
Let’s all agree that its open season this election season on women, but especially on women of color.
One thing experience has taught me. There’s something about being black AND female that drive some people insane. Being black and female makes you the object of folks worst fears and basest fantasies. People think that they can say and do whatever they want to you, because… they can. Black women may be praised for their strength and applauded for their courage. But none of that is the same as being respected. How does a black woman get respect in this country is the question that deserves asking?
Who can say for sure whether it’s blackness or femaleness that’s despised most in this country? Meaning, there’s probably no way to parse out which part of you is under attack when as a black woman professor you sit reading the vicious evaluations of your students, or you discover as a black woman in ministry that the church you candidated for chose a man with lesser qualifications than you to be their pastor, or as the wife of a black presidential candidate you hear a television commentator you never met impugn your morality and characterize you as an angry black woman.
Whether it’s because you’re black or female –when it comes to what makes people look up from what they are doing when you walk in the door and decide they’re under no obligation to treat you with civility will have you sitting crouched in a basket like a woman without a god if you let it.
Don’t ask why, but my mind has trailed off to the many stories in the Bible about foreign women and the enormous prejudice directed against them. The foreign woman is both exotic and threatening, desired and despised, a wealth of insight and an object of mystery.
She had nothing to fall back on; not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything. And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may have well have invented herself.” (Toni Morrison, Sula)
What does it mean to be a black woman in this country? It means that you understand race and sex have always been overlapping discourses, and you’ll be wise to take nothing at face value. You understand the nature of oppression, and the interlocking nature of oppressions especially, and how those in power benefit from keeping oppressed groups at each other’s throat. You understand that people fear people who are different from them, and notice how difference is exoticized and exploited by the media.
Albert: Who you think you is? You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You’re black, you’re poor, you’re ugly, you’re a woman, you’re nothing at all!
Celie: Until you do right by me, everything you even think about gonna fail!
Albert: I’ma knock you under…
Celie: Everything you done to me, you already under, you. I’m poor, I’m black, I may even be ugly, but, dear God, I’m here, I’m here!
What does it mean to be a black woman in this country? It means that you are not crippled by the knowledge that you live among people who despise the likes of you. Like Rahab and Ruth in the Old Testament who did not let others’ assumptions about their ”foreignness” deter them from making their impact and like the Canaanite woman who thought nothing of taking on Jesus’ own prejudices for her daughter’s right to be healed you learn how to use your space of marginalization and invisibility to your advantage and that of the cause you are struggling for. It means like Celie you figure out that there’s no shame in being black and female, and ain’t no devil in hell nor one around the dinner table gonna intimidate you into thinking and acting otherwise.