by Dr. C. Chic Smith
As the threads of America’s sexual predation culture continue to unravel, it is amazing to witness the cast of characters who are utterly shocked and appalled that this pervasive behavior exists in our civilized society. The truth is that alleged perpetrators of sexual predation like Bill Cosby, former senator Al Franken, Ray Moore, Kevin Spacy, President Trump, former congressman Anthony Weiner, Harvey Weinstein, and others did not magically appear. There were (and are) systems, policies, procedures, mindsets, and behaviors in place that were permitted, tolerated, encouraged, and expected. Over time, these aforementioned items created a sexual predation culture.
This culture did not appear magically. Rather it is a by-product of patriarchy. In its simplest form, patriarchy is a social structure whereby males have dominance over females. It is exhibited in values, traditions, institutions, and customs within society and perpetuated by socialization. “In patriarchal societies, the roles and privileges accorded to women are inferior to those assigned to men, and as such, sexism plays a central role in the continuing oppression of women.” And now this nation is being confronted with those inappropriate systems and behaviors that have been viewed as the norm for eons.
If as a nation, we are honest about history, this turn of events might be disappointing, but not surprising. After all, the objectification of women is not a new occurrence. Yet when Black women are objectified, those who are routinely shocked and appalled seem to fall silent.
As the accusations of sexual assault and harassment from former employees, actresses, and a bevy of women in the entertainment industry began to gain traction, Harvey Weinstein initially denounced their claims, but soon adopted a stance of silence. Weinstein’s silence vanished when Oscar winner Lupita Nyongo wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that detailed her personal account of his objectification. Weinstein’s response to Lupita via a statement the next day in Variety offered that he had a “different recollection” of some of those events.
Surely, of the 84 accusers that were identified as of October 2017, Lupita Nyongo cannot be the only person with whom Weinstein had a different recollection of events. It is inconceivable that Salma Hayak, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the scores of other women who accused him of sexual assault and harassment, shared accounts that were identical to Weinstein’s own recollection. What is more plausible is that Weinstein was empowered to quickly voice dissent because he did not fear scrutiny or backlash for publicly disagreeing with and disregarding the views of an African American woman—a member of a group that has traditionally not received public support. In this instance, he found his voice against a Black woman.
In his 30 plus years in media, Weinstein has learned that all women are not created equal and that the risk of backlash from those who follow and/or admire the work of Lupita Nyongo would be little to none. Unfortunately, he was right. In the midst of the unraveling of America’s sexual predation culture, the objectification of Black women is still business as usual.
Historical Objectification of Black Women
The American Psychological Association (2007) notes that girls and women across all ethnicities are sexualized and objectified. However, the reality of slavery in the United States is connected to sexual objectification of Black women in particular. The gender and race stereotypes assigned to African American women today originated from the slave-master dynamic. Collins (1990) notes that for Black women the role of sex object is viewed as un-human, akin to animal behavior, or savage. Cott (1978) states that, from the Renaissance to the Victorian era, conceptions and depictions of women’s sexuality shifted as artistic depictions of sexuality progressed from lasciviousness to moral purity. However, during this same time, the sexuality of Black women did not enjoy the luxury of evolving, shifting, or even being acknowledged. In fact, Winthrop Jordan (2012) argues that, during this era, Black women’s bodies exemplified centuries of long held European views of Africans as “primitive, animal-like, and savage.”
Weinstein was empowered to quickly voice dissent because he did not fear scrutiny or backlash for publicly disagreeing with and disregarding the views of an African American woman—a member of a group that has traditionally not received public support.
Not only was this kind of thinking used to substantiate the enslavement and sexual violation African American women endured at the hands of White slave owners, it further perpetuated the divide between Black women and White women on the human scale. Simply stated, this notion of Africans as animal-like fed into the Eurocentric ideal of Africans and those of African descent being less than human. Further, as a result of a long-held delusional perception of Black women by those in mainstream society, Black women in general have come to symbolize Black sexuality in general.
Donovan & Williams (2002) note that during the antebellum South, before being sold, Black women were stripped and publicly examined on the auction block daily. Furthermore, Black women were routinely the victims of forced breeding and rape. There were no laws to protect Black women from sexual abuse and no legal consequences for the perpetrators of sexual assault.
Contemporary Objectification of Black Women
In November 2006, radio personality Don Imus engaged in an on-air discussion with his producer/sidekick Bernie McGuirk that ridiculed the physical attractiveness of members of the women’s basketball team at Rutgers University. The members of the basketball team were mostly Black. Imus stated the players from Rutgers were some rough girls. Bernie responded by saying they were “some hard core hos.” Imus replies by saying “that’s some nappy headed hoes there.”
During this same time span, three members of Duke University’s men lacrosse team were being exonerated of raping a Black woman stripper in March of 2006. One of the lacrosse players, who was allegedly upset with the stripper’s description of his genitalia, shouted at her “We asked for whites, not niggers.” In March 2006, two strippers were hired by members of the university’s lacrosse team to perform at the private home of two team captains. As a result of the events that occurred at that party, one of the two African-American women filed a complaint about the racial insults shouted at them by the predominantly white partygoers as they left and the other claimed that she had been forcibly detained, raped, sodomized and strangled by a group of men in the bathroom that evening.
These two events garnered national media attention for weeks. The Don Imus story garnered conversations about the vilification of Black women that was regularly propagated by Black male rap artists. At no point did the mainstream media or the talking heads that represented the various organizations that chimed in on the topic include a discussion about the origins and/or construction of Black women as objects in America. No one talked about the European standards of beauty that women who are not of European descent are expected to obtain and uphold in America. At no point did the discussion include an examination of the psychological damage that could be caused to a person (or a group of people) who continuously hears that they are inadequate and in many regards not human.
What was missing from this national discussion following the not guilty verdict of three men from Duke University’s lacrosse team was an examination of the double standard in American society that questions the morality of a woman stripper but not the morality of the men who are soliciting her services.
The Duke lacrosse story simply bolstered the ideals that Don Imus espoused regarding Black women. The focus of this incident raised questions about Black women and morality. What was missing from this national discussion following the not guilty verdict of three men from Duke University’s lacrosse team was an examination of the double standard in American society that questions the morality of a woman stripper but not the morality of the men who are soliciting her services. The absence of the question implies that it is expected and accepted that a Black woman would be a stripper and that it is expected and accepted that White men (attending a prestigious university) would solicit this type of service. No one questioned the disparities in the social, economic, and/or educational opportunities available during the lifetime of the three lacrosse players and their families and compared them to those available to the Black woman stripper who accused the men of rape. This incident is a prime example of inappropriate systems and behaviors that have been viewed as the norm for eons that has led this nation to have a culture of sexual predation.
In 2014, a cover photo of Kim Kardashian in a black sequin gown, balancing a glass on her derriere as she popped the cork of a bottle of champagne sparked conversations of exploitation and objectification of the Black female body. The photo was a recreation of one taken of a naked Black woman balancing a glass on her derriere as she popped the cork of a bottle of champagne for a book titled Jungle Fever in 1982. Both photos were taken by Jean-Paul Goude. The model in the 1982 Jungle Fever photo did not have the luxury of being draped in a designer sequin gown, a neck bathed in pearls, or satin evening gloves. She was naked. The 1982 photograph demonstrates that the belief that Africans (and by extension their descendants) are as “primitive, animal-like, and savage” was alive and well in the psyche of society then, just as it is now. In a society with a history of associating Black women as being unattractive, uncivilized, barbaric, and objects to be used rather than people to be loved, this image perpetuates generations of stereotypes that have been passed down from one generation to the next as truth about Black women.
The conversations that ensued following the Kardashian photo compared the two images and detailed that Kardashian was praised for the very physical feature that has been used to demonize Black women. Historians were quick to point out the similarities with Sarah Baartman, aka, Venus Hottentot, a woman of South Africa’s eastern cape, who by the age of 16 had suffered the loss of her fiancé (killed by Dutch colonists) and her only child (died shortly after birth). She was sold into slavery and later coerced into an agreement with an English ship doctor, whereby she would be exhibited for entertainment purposes in Europe. Baartman was caged and placed on display in early nineteenth-century London to showcase her large, un-human, animalistic derriere. “Baartman was exhibited at a venue in London after her arrival. For 2 shillings, from 1pm to 5pm, at 225 Piccadilly, people could witness Baartman displayed as animal-like and exotic. On stage she wore skin-tight, flesh-coloured clothing, as well as beads and feathers, and smoked a pipe. She was forced to show off her derrière in a cage that was about a metre and half high. Wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her.”
Baartman was subjected to various forms of inhumane treatment, including prodding and poking, as crowds paid to see this spectacle. Yet Kim Kardashian, whose father is of Armenian descent, is plastered on the front cover of a magazine and celebrated globally for the same ass-ets. It is worth mentioning that Kardashian, who is viewed by some as a woman of color, has been applauded and embraced for her protruding derriere. Yet, Black women have been made to feel and believe that their broad hips and full derriere are un-natural and unattractive. Many years later, the very physique that made Sarah Baartman a spectacle akin to a freak of nature, would make Kim Kardashian (and Jennifer Lopez) a sex symbol and the standard of beauty. The objectification of Black women is business as usual.
As people continue to voice their displeasure with the sexual predation culture that has been exposed in numerous sectors of society, the question regarding the value and validation of Black women continues to bubble below the surface. If the rules of engagement truly change for women in America, what does that mean for Black women? Or does white privilege still supersede humanity? Only time will tell. But initiatives like the #metoo campaign give hope to the current and future generations. As far as Black women in the sexual predation culture in America, the time has come to exchange the business as usual mindset and practices that have allowed a double standard of respect and humane treatment. At the very minimum, the next generation of Black women (and all women of color) deserves to be treated with the same level of dignity and respect that White women receive.
Dr. C. Chic Smith is a cultural critic and rhetorician who examines life through the lens of communication. Her research interests are intercultural communication, popular culture, African American English Vernacular, & women studies. She has worked as a strategist for various political campaigns, speech writer for political leaders, and co-founder of the nation’s first think tank examining public policy from the hip hop community’s perspectives. Dr. Smith is currently an Assistant Professor in the Arts & Humanities Division at Allen University. She holds a B.A. from Albertus Magnus College, M.A. from Georgetown University, & Ph.D. from Howard University.
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