#MeToo: The erasure and fetishization of the Black body

Sunday morning when I logged online, a fluttering ping of status updates rolled into a steady flow of trauma to my feed.

Ping

“Me too.”

Ping

“Me too.”

Ping

“Me too.”

Often accompanied with the words:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed and/or sexually assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as their status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Reading these posts, I was affected and moved. Though not moved enough share, despite my long history with sexual trauma. I confess, when I looked at the updates, they felt like another thing which wasn’t meant for me, like pussy hats or the right to breathe. Each survivor posting was white, mostly cis-het, and comfortably using the term “woman” to describe who the posts were for.

It wasn’t until later in the evening that I spotted a Black femme on my feed had posted, “Me too.” I scrolled, another Black femme, and another, and another. As I scrolled more and more friend’s posts popped up. Black, queer, nonbinary, femme, woman, man. They flooded my feed. Queer friends online had changed the text to highlight PoC, include non-binary and femme folks, as well as those who are woman-identified. Some posts included statistics for trans folks, and PoC.

This shift struck home. I recognized the truth of our experience. Sexual assault is a thing we know happens. Often. Sexual trauma is deeply rooted in the Black experience.

The first thing I learned about my body was shame. Black children, Black girls (as they call us before we can learn to advocate for ourselves) are taught that we are sex objects. We are taught this by our homes, by our society and by our experiences. As a child I taught by my white mother to close my legs to be “proper” and not entice, by my oldest white brother that I was a tool for his continued sexual amusement, and by media and society that I was only good enough to be a sex object.

Black people are taught that we are to be fetishized, sexualized and used. This is a thing which has been ingrained into this culture since its inception. From Black bodies being raped and abused on slave ships and plantations to the degradation of the Black femme and woman, to the oversexualization of the Black man. Think Jezebel, or the Big Black Cock (BBC) tag on porn sites. There is no mediocre white dick (MWD) tag. (For this I can think of many obvious reasons, chief among them is the lack of the fetishization of the white body.)

I recognize not all sexual trauma is racial. But because of the racial make-up of Maine, the struggles of Black and brown people to connect, and the general lack of understanding and appreciation for Black and brown people by white people in Maine and elsewhere, add to that my own lengthy personal experiences, I believe I can safely say that most of the sexual assault on PoC in Maine is racialized.

Given the deeply rooted trauma and intersection between Blackness and sexual abuse, as well as the consistent erasure of Black people and PoC in our stories and movements, it came as no surprise that #MeToo was started nearly a decade ago by a Black woman; try as the internet might to credit it to a white one.

Tarana Burke is a social justice advocate who has been slaying the game for years. She started her own non-profit called Just BE, Inc. which focuses on the “health, well-being and wholeness of brown girls everywhere”, contributed her magic as a consultant on the 2014 film Selma, and is currently working on a documentary entitled Songs Called Survival: The ‘me too.’ Movie. This documentary, as well as #MeToo, is tasked with bringing into the light stories of Black and brown survivors of sexual assault.

I feel it needs to be stated, for the sake of inclusivity and to stave off any arguments, that this is not the Oppression Olympics. One person’s sexual trauma is no more or less significant than another’s. Racialized or not, sexual trauma fucks a person up. Also, it is important to recognize that because of this, the issue of erasure needs to be explored.

I watched white woman after white woman after white woman post about their trauma. While I acknowledge the strength it takes to put oneself out there, I can’t help but see a community all too comfortable with leaving me, and people who look like me, love like me, and don’t love like me, out of the narrative. Can’t help but see how woman after woman was contented to see only themselves in the struggle. See how each post erased the experiences of people who are not white and do not fit into the “woman” box. Maybe women were just trying to raise awareness. Maybe they didn’t know the origins of the #MeToo movement, but to this I say, isn’t that the point?


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Touching my hair and stealing my humanity, or How white supremacy robs us all

Given the current state of race relations, the story that I am about to tell is seemingly small. After all, America is currently being governed by an openly white supremacist madman who lacks compassion and empathy for anyone who falls outside of his base. We are in the midst of a dumpster fire called America and the truth is, we may all burn to death if things don’t change. Hyperbole? Less so than we really want to admit.

However, the truth is that the same thing that is driving our president to destroy our country is the same thing that drives the vast majority of white Americans to fall short when it comes to race relations. The inbred desire to only see whiteness as the one, true way to live life. Anything that falls outside of whiteness and its world is treated as an anomaly, a freak occurrence or a curiosity piece. Rarely are ways of being that fall outside of the white paradigm given the same level of respect and courtesy that whiteness is given and sadly this extends to actual people.

This morning, I went out to breakfast with my co-parent. We are still friends and we take our family and shared financial expenses as seriously as we did when we were a romantic unit. In short, our getting together to break bread and talk is not an unusual experience.

As we were wrapping up breakfast, an older white woman stopped in front our booth and interrupted our conversation to tell me that she loved my hair. I politely said thank you and continued speaking with my co-parent. The woman turned to walk away and as she walked away, I suddenly felt my head being patted while simultaneously watching a look of horror wash across my co-parent’s face. As I felt her hand patting my head, it hit me…this woman who I didn’t know from anyone had just taken it upon herself to touch my hair.

It’s not the first time that a white person has taken liberties with my body (or specifically my hair) and I am pretty certain that it won’t be the last. At least once a year, I encounter a white person who thinks nothing of reaching over to touch my hair, never asking if it would be okay; just assuming that it is perfectly acceptable to touch the head of a perfect stranger. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but in what world is it acceptable to invade the personal space of a perfect stranger? I have never in my life reached out and touched anyone’s head who was not a family member, friend or lover.

Yet ask any Black woman or non-white person and many of us have stories of having our space and persons invaded by white strangers who feel they have the right to touch us. We are touched in the same fashion that one reaches down to pat a dog, cat or other cuddly creature.

I can only conclude given my understanding of how white supremacy operates that this lack of understanding of how to interact with strangers who are Black (or other POCs) is born from the same driver that puts whiteness on a pedestal. It’s the inability to see non-white bodies as equal to their white bodies; the inability to see the humanity of others and to meet people as equal members of the human family.

Yes, I know that white women whose features fall out of white physical norms are also subjected to these invasions of bodily autonomy but it simply does not exist on the same scale that it happens to Black bodies. Whether it is touching our hair, our skin or commenting on our appearance and its “difference.”

While my hair being touched by a stranger is seemingly small, let’s look at the larger picture and see a president who openly attacks women of color via his daily Twitter rants, who openly threatens to pull the much-needed relief aid from Americans of color who are recovering from a hurricane of epic proportions while chiding them for a “lack of responsibility” and who makes time to denigrate Americans of color for exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest, we can see how the dots connect. Especially at a time when white nationalist activity is growing in this country.

The greatest threat to America is not an outside threat; it is the festering sore of white supremacy that is ravaging our national body. All white people are infected by white supremacy. While that may be a hard pill to swallow, especially if you are reading this piece, it doesn’t make it any less true. I work with white people who are committed to dismantling white supremacy and yet too many times, even in doing the work, I have seen people whom I personally like continue to perpetuate the same destructive behavior that they are fighting against. I am sure that the woman I encountered today didn’t see herself as engaging in harmful behavior; after all, she gave me a compliment. But intentions usually mean nothing when compared to the negative impact of those intentions (e.g., if I intended to drive safely and harm no one, but my attention drifted or I disobeyed a driving rule and now you are lying broken and twisted under my vehicle, how much would my intentions matter to you?).

At the end of her encounter with me, that woman at breakfast had dehumanized me. She treated me not like she would an unknown white woman but instead like she would treat a pet or a doll. She reduced me to an object to satisfy her need in that moment. It wasn’t enough to compliment my hair and move on; she needed to touch it without permission, thus taking what might have been a random and possibly warm moment and turning it into a moment of making me feel invaded and demeaned. This is what white supremacy does: It strips the humanity of people. But make no mistake: It’s not just Black and other POC whose humanity it steals, because it makes monsters (large or small) of the white people who invoke that white supremacy.


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Of a crumbling house and bended knees

Today’s post comes by way of Samuel James, a writer, speaker and roots musician. He wields a voice of grit and gravel and is a modern guitar master; his songwriting has been compared to Leonard Cohen’s and his guitar virtuosity to that of Jimi Hendrix. In addition to bringing his music to the stage, he is a Moth-featured storyteller.
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We can all agree that this country is not perfect. Some parts work very well. Other parts are very broken. Naturally, because we want a more perfect union, we want to fix what is broken. Because there are so many of us, it is difficult for all of us to see all of the problems. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing it. Awareness. But because there are so many of us, sometimes it takes a lot of us to solve a problem. We need to spread awareness. One of the many ways we do that is through protest.

“Why are all those people in the street?”

“What does that picket sign say?

“Why is that man kneeling?”

Why is that man kneeling? I’m glad you asked. So many people don’t.

In broad terms, the kneeling man is a citizen who sees a problem with the country that, unfortunately, a lot of other citizens don’t yet see.

“What is the problem he sees?”

He sees that a system, while lauded for its equality, actually serves and protects some while brutalizing and victimizing others.

He’s drawing attention to an emergency.

He wants the country to be better.

He strives for a more perfect union.

You’re an American. You want that.

“Is it the right time?”

There’s an emergency affecting Americans. It needs to be fixed as quickly as possible. Now is always the time to help a fellow American. It is always the time to make this a better country. Plus, that’s the thing about emergencies: they’re…inconvenient.

“Oh, but it’s not so much the ‘when’ as it is the ‘where’.”

Ah, well, again, that’s the thing about emergencies.

“Well, it’s more the ‘how.’ It’s the method of communication.”

OK. Listen, if you get a text that someone’s breaking into your car, and you decide not to do anything because that’s not the kind of thing you like to get texts about…Honestly, you’re starting to sound like you’re not very patriotic.

I mean, you’re being told there’s a crack in the foundation of your house. And I’d hate to think you’re saying that, not only do you not want to fix the crack or even address the crack, you don’t want anyone to even tell you about the crack.

I’d hate to think that you would rather live in a house on the verge of collapse than even hear someone talk about fixing it.

I’d hate to think you had such a self-destructive mind set. That would mean you didn’t care about this country at all. That much would be obvious, but that wouldn’t even be the problem. I mean, if you had that self-destructive mind-set, it would also be obvious that you didn’t care about your fellow Americans. But that also wouldn’t be the problem.

I’d hate to think you had that self-destructive mindset because it would mean that you didn’t even care about yourself.

For the rest of us it won’t matter much. We’ll fix the foundation. It’ll take longer without you, but one way or the other it’ll get fixed.

But for you, you’d be lost. Your fellow citizens would have a difficult time seeing your value. You’d be abandoned and alienated. Your self-destructive behavior would invalidate even your opinions.

I’d hate to think that could happen.

What’s that? It sounded like you said that you believe in his right to protest, but you disagree with the message. It sounded like you said that he can tell everyone about it as much as he wants, but Black people should continue to die in the street– Did I say “Black”? I don’t mean to make this political. Some people don’t like to discuss politics or have their views known. Some people wear their politics on their skin, a skin that loudly shouts their views, even while they sleep.

I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that.

“It’s not about me. This is offensive to the veterans.”

Honestly, if you’re going to bring up the veterans as though you are defending them, I can only hope that you are actually defending them as well. I can only hope that you’re donating your time and money to veterans’ issues. I can only hope that you’re donating your time and money to fight homelessness. I can only hope you’re donating your time and money to suicide prevention. Because if you’re not actually defending the veterans, but instead only invoking the idea of veterans so you can garner pity for yourself…well, that would mean you value being pitied above being an American. That would mean that using nothing but your own putrid bigotry, you’d reduced yourself to just a vulgar thing…

I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that.

You know, my father’s favorite athletes, like a lot of men of his generation, were Jackie Robinson and Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammed Ali…

My father was a veteran.

While serving in Viet Nam, he was wounded physically, mentally and emotionally. Those wounds never healed. They bled the rest of his 71 years. Those wounds bled so people could enjoy the full benefits of this country– Pardon me, his wounds bled so some people could enjoy the full benefits of this country.

But he was not one of those people.

My father was Black.

I hope you’re not saying that his wounds bled so you could point to them as evidence that he was undeserving of the same rights you possess. I hope you’re not saying that the blood from his wounds only serves as a currency for your convenience, but does not even signify his own humanity. I hope you’re not saying that the only use for nigger blood is to ensure and sustain white leisure…because I’ve heard that before.

We’ve all heard that before.

But that’s probably not what you’re saying and if it is, I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.