Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Invisible Women [pt 3]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

May 14, 2009

The first time I saw anything about the name Stepha Henry was when several friends of mine began joining a group dedicated to her on the social networking site Facebook, and this popped up in my mini feed regularly. If you are unfamiliar with Facebook, I simply refer to a tool on the site that notifies you when your friends do things like join new groups, add new pics and update profiles. Stepha’s cousin, a student in school in Florida, started a group called “My cousin Stepha is missing” and reached out to all of her friends in her school network and beyond and soon the word spread.

Her cousin took it upon herself to start the group in order to help publicize the details surrounding Stepha’s disappearance in the hopes that she would be found. The group’s facebook description inscribed on the front page at its inception, specifically references the media snub on the story with the observation that “unfortunately the news about her missing status is not important enough as Paris Hilton’s jail time escapades.” From early on, it was the internet that helped get the word out about Stepha and not the mainstream media. Unfortunately with the hotel heiress’ arrest dominating the airwaves at this time, it was an especially bad time for any black female to turn up missing. Not that any time is really a good time in America.

Prominent popular Trinidadian soca music artistes on my friends list were in turn, blasting the internet via myspace, sending out bulletins about her with the details about her disappearance, rewards for information, and many placed Stepha’s picture prominently in their default profile pics. Stepha was a US citizen with roots in Trinidad and Tobago and the Trinidadian community in the state of New York. Even before all this happened, my own father (himself an avid purveyor of the US media fear mongering, from his vantage point in the Caribbean) woke me up early one Sunday morning, warning me of the perils of being female and living alone in America, by urging me to be especially careful because of what he had recently read about the “missing Trinidadian college student.”

It would be several weeks before I realized that my dad was in fact, talking about Stepha Henry and several more before I had even heard any whisper of her name through my Facebook mini feed or anywhere. This was largely because it took a while for some of the American news outlets to connect her to her Trinidadian heritage. At least one of the Trinidadian newspapers had reported on the story, posted it in their online edition and followed it from early because she had connections to the island.

Sometime after all this happened, the story took off on the web with media outlets scrambling with PR sound bites explaining why it took them so long to give this story some serious attention and even then, it nowhere nearly matched the coverage of any featured missing white female in the mainstream press. Grassroots mobilization with friends, family and other concerned individuals through the internet did much more for the Stepha Henry story (as far as I can see) than any media affiliation. This kind of mobilization had been taking place before I ever saw any snippet on a major network about her story. Many major news networks were quick to do damage control as soon as bloggers and other observers critiqued the coverage of the Stepha Henry case.

Exploding beyond the person[al]—Stepha became a symbol, prompting frank discussions on race and missing black women and creating a powerful reminder about the perceived value of young black women. We go missing in the night and there is no matching furor, no outpouring of indignation far and wide, except by those concerned and within the community most likely. This creates a kind of universal currency and value for missing white women that women of color do not get. This is why we can all rally around the missing Holloway girl and others like her. We can all connect to the stories of missing white women and girls (which we should) but women of color are never afforded the same coverage, the same universality of human experience, when their stories are even told.

I know nothing more about Stepha Henry other than what I have just written. Yet I know that Natalee was a dancer. I have seen her prom pics on CNN. I have heard testimonials from the mouths of her friends. Coverage time aside, even the way the stories are told when reported are different. Do not think it does not matter. It does. It all matters because it seeps into our consciousness as viewers. In this way, Natalee becomes a full person, more than any statistic and we are all rooting for the Aruban authorities to eventually get to the bottom of this. This can only happen because she is a young white, attractive, blond female and this affords her a particular kind a privilege even in the midst of a missing person mystery and unknown circumstances.

Many in the media went on the defensive with statements online and in print, denying any blatant bias. They tried to rectify a resounding silence that sent an already resounding message loud and clear: black women, we do not care about you. When major media coverage could not be bothered to jump on the case from day one, in fact, yawned in the face of a missing young black college grad and turned to Paris Hilton updates first: a message was sent. As a black female myself, it hurts me to think that I am not as highly valued. Heaven forbid I should go missing one day. Yet still, I trod on and I hold my head high. As we strive from day to day, contemporary black women in a growing changing world, hearing echoes of the past all around us, we have to stay strong and keep going forward. Creating our own currency of self  because we know we are worth it. Even when other people do not.

[an update to this piece: in January 2008, major news outlets were able to report an arrest in the Stepha Henry case.]

You Crazy Bitch!: The Myth of the Insane Woman

March 23, 2009


If you are a woman in a heterosexual relationship now or at any point in your life, I am sure that you have been called “crazy” by the man in your life at some time or the other. I’ll bet money on that. Guys just love to call women crazy, I’ve noticed. If you disagree with them — you’re crazy, if you’re suspicious and have a valid reason to be — then you’re really crazy, if they don’t like what you have to say — you’re crazy. If they just want to get under your skin — you’re crazy. Now there’s crazy as in, wild or spontaneous, brave or willing to do anything and is frequently employed by some young women and girls to one another like: “Girl, you are so crazy!” Some females wear this label proudly, like a badge of honor, espousing things like, “I am one craaaazy bitch*” and they actually like it. (*Also, dismissive of people with mental health concerns and understandably, can be considered offensive too.)

These young women end up reinscribing the same stereotypical qualities of what they have been called because they think it’s cool. But there’s a flipside to the usage still, whenever a  young man employs the word. After all, a really good way to get a woman so-called acting crazy is to call her crazy. And, what’s crazy, really? Many times, crazy is simply female rage. Men are allowed to be angry. Women can only be crazy.

But when young men call the women in their life crazy, it’s often with a particular message encoded within the term that has nothing to do with actual mental health. In fact, they often use this word to simply disregard the opinions of all women as emotional, irrational and inconsequential.  It’s used frequently as a silencer in conversations about to go down a dangerous path as well. (i.e. He’s about to be proven wrong or something along those lines.)

I mean, what can you say to a comment like that but launch off into a tirade professing your non-craziness, only to realize how crazy the whole thing sounds anyway. No woman should need to profess her sanity to a person she is intimately involved with (I hope). And by then, isn’t it kind of too late? Plus really, in the end, it has nothing to do with sanity when the man in your life calls you crazy but it has everything to do with young men using this word as a frequent cop-out any time things get sticky. The range of crazy is far and wide too. Like Diddy’s annoyingly popular  term “bitchassness,” which is another umbrella term referring to a host of undesirable behavior and attitudes. So too is crazy.

Interestingly, when women use the term “crazy,” it usually does refer to someone hanging out in the bushes across from where she lives. Or some other kind of concrete behavior. Men as far as I can see, use crazy to sum up all the emotional aspects of a woman’s personality in any of the myriad of ways that pisses them off or makes them uncomfortable. That is not to say that a man cannot ever have an actual stalker. (Totally hearing Machel’s tune in my head right now: “Elevator. . . she riding up, she riding up, she riding, escalator, she riding down, she riding down. . . .”) But many young men regularly use the word “crazy” to denote some intrinsic quality of women, which is later supposedly (and conveniently) manifested in some situation between the two individuals. Supposedly. That’s when he says something like, “see I told you — you’re crazy.” So it turns out, you’re crazy simply because you’re a woman. Which is a mighty annoying sentiment that is well rooted in history apparently.

According to Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Complaints and Sickness: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, even in today’s medical profession, “it is psychiatry, more than gynecology, that upholds the sexist tenet of women’s fundamental defectiveness” (79-80). And “in classical psychoanalytical theory there is no such thing as a mentally well woman” (80).  Thus assisting the “crazy bitch” and the emotionally unbalanced woman to become a fixture in our cultural landscape. Plus for the men who dominate our health and science industry and dictate where research funds go — it’s certainly more of a money-maker, what with all the potentially, supposedly, emotionally unbalanced females all over the place.

The focus of the inherent ill-health and instability of women, has shifted from the uterus to the psychological, due to some scientific advancements which no longer meant that “doctors found uterine and ovarian ‘disorders’ behind almost every female complaint, from headaches to sore throats and indigestion” (Ehrenreich and English 29). Furthermore, these medical misconceptions are firmly rooted in the notion of “women’s innate sickness” (Ehrenreich and English 32).

So the next time your guy calls you crazy, pause, take a deep breath and recognize it for what it is: a cheap shot most likely. Most of all, don’t believe the hype ladies! Young women should also take the time to explain to their male partners why “crazy” is not an okay default setting anytime he doesn’t agree with you on something.  Constantly discounting a woman’s viewpoint, fears, criticisms, thoughts, observations and what-have-you as crazy is oppressive. Dismissing her anger as craziness is also oppressive. Especially when it’s socially acceptable for a guy to punch his fist through a wall — or a female (as the case might be) because he is upset. And who’s to say what looks like crazy anyway? Seems like any woman who isn’t passive to any extent — must be crazy. The range of what makes us who we are, is as variegated as the experiences that we have had. And that’s something, that we all must keep in mind.

On a reluctantly related side-note update: — speaking of crazy women, in the May 2009 Vibe issue featuring Rihanna — the one with the tag-line echoing Ike-and-Tina on the cover, some alleged source close to the Chris Brown/Rihanna situation is quoted as saying (about Rihanna), “. . . she’s craaazy. . .she’s insane, you have no idea. She gets super-jealous and flips out on him.” Um wtf?

And why is all that equated with being so-called “crazy?” And can we be situation specific without resorting to “she’s crazy,” like that explains anything at all? Why the hell is there no in-between for women! Notice how craziness is conflated with possessiveness, jealousy and/or insecurity (that is to say, any and everything). Not to mention, whether these factors may or may not exist, is irrelevant in the broader scope of what apparently went down between these two individuals. Yet it’s being seen as a justification for the outcome of the situation by many individuals who think along that way. This is what I am talking about! But, meanwhile, no one has been calling Chris Brown a crazy-ass dude quite as much? STEUPS!

Of Grayskull and Gemstones: Girlhood revisited

August 15, 2008

     I am a child of the 80’s. Between my older sister and my brother’s hand me down’s [we’re all 4 yrs apart], I was privy to inherit quite a cache of stuff. Eventually, my dolls were given away to cousins in Guyana and others rounded up for donations while I was away and started school in the US (the bitterness is still waning on that). So only my Paddington bear remains, salvaged and unearthed by my Mum one year, now ever a staple on my pillow. Naked, sans blue coat, time worn fur and all. Poor thing was almost chucked across the room by an errant young man, who grew to learn, that under no circumstances does anyone “disrespect the bear.” After all, he’s all I’ve got. But I do miss my dolls. While there was always a fondness for all things Fisher-Price and the “little people” line especially. I mean, their shit just took a beating and kept on ticking, that ferris wheel toy never once faltered on me–talk about expert craftsmanship. I still loved playing with dolls best.

     Although my brother’s Millennium Falcon and talking Kit car interested me: I was still all about the dollies. All the dolls I owned, for the most part however, came fresh from out beneath a sharp-edged, plastic casing, because my sister had not been a huge fan of dolls. The only thing she ever contributed to the doll stash I so dearly loved, was a bright yellow Barbie brand rv, complete with a shower and roof top lounge deck. The stickered, faux design interior denoting where was the shower was and whatnot, was disintegrating and flaking by this time. I could idly scrape bits of them away with my finger nail if I wanted to. I always wondered how come no Barbies lived to tell the tale. Surely she had a Barbie RV with which to drive Barbies around in. I never did solve that mystery.

     Years later, I thought about the coded “Barbie pink” color of all things Barbie, and all things girl-related for that matter, in the toy aisle of any major retailer, and thought that that old school Barbie rv must have been anomaly. Either that, or that was before the toy makers decided that all Barbie things must be swathed in the socially constructed color of girl-hood. And was I ever a huge fan of dolls! I especially loved all my barbies, the soft, brown-skinned colored rag doll that my mum’s old friend had made for me in America, my Raggedy Ann which was the only white doll that my parents bought me (I grew up in an Afro-centric house), my cute Huggy Bean, down to my “life sized” sweet black baby doll and others. I would create alternate realities and voice extensive conversations and story lines between my dolls from day-to-day. I believe this all helped to facilitate the tremendous range of imagination and creative energy that I now possess. Or borderline psychoses. Whichever. Existing in–immersing in even–alternate realities might not be considered entirely healthy by some folk.

     Mind you, I “played” with my black barbies, acting out socially inscribed anxieties and fears and wishes, relishing in their plethora of storylines and outfits, until the age of 14; which was considered freakishly old by some people, to still be mucking about with dolls. I remember my Dad was particularly concerned, the summer that I turned 14, on a trip to the States, when I made it my business to get two more dolls. Barbie’s little sister Skipper (black Skipper that is), and Kelly. With a side-eye to a recent article I read about the adult and cult-like following of “dollfies” and “super dollfies,” there’s a part of me, with a cringing reluctance, that sees how that could possibly be kinda fun. Seriously.

     With an exposure to feminism and feminist theories, later on, I know much can be said about the real problematic concerns about dolls like Barbie and her friends, and the images that they present, through that lens. For me then, it was always fun times though, of course, clearly oblivious to the cultural, social and gender implications therein. Lots of good times with the occasional bad doll haircut along the way. I was less concerned with what Barbie looked like or what her lifestyle afforded I think, than simply being able to create–my own world, with just me and them. Hairstyling and outfits were just an added bonus. Plus I never did own the dream house or corvette so I just made do with what I had.

     I was never one of those girls who violently mutilated my barbies, no testing the life span of her waxy finished rubbery-ish legs for me–the knee could bend only so far after all. I could hear it pop under each undulation of my hand inside my head right now. It’s a peculiar sound that is. And certainly no snapping off the head of a Barbie to expose the ball joint in the neck, which for the record, is virtually impossible to get back in. Okay so maybe I did that once. Speaking of the marvelous extent of doll-play, I want to pay homage to Golden Girl and the Guardians of the Gemstones, for allowing the premise of action figures for young girls to take flight and for allowing us to participate. Along with She-Ra, they were kick ass women figurines (albeit pretty and appropriately coifed and made up) wielding weapons! And spunk and style and special powers and talents!

     Still, I always wished they were a bit bigger though for some reason. But they are small in comparison to barbies and the like. Small enough to pit against, and take down a Darth Vader or a Storm Trooper. I came across this pic below of Onyx who was among the characters that I loved best and the first Golden Girl which I possessed. I later “inherited” a Catra from a friend–well technically borrowed, didn’t remind her and held on to. She had practically every doll in each line there was. Of course, the lone black character is the black stone, (logical right), embodying its very qualities almost: smooth like obsidian, black and fierce. A veritable warrior, cased in a baby pink outfit no less. She usurps the supposed girliness of the very color she wears; perhaps this is done to off set the fierceness and the blackness of it all. Black warrior, black stone.

     These action dolls allowed girls to explore the multifarious identities of their girlhood. One minute combing doll hair, and adjusting cute dresses lovingly, the next, charging through a court yard, with someone’s mother’s bejeweled letter opener (which we actually did), triumphing that good will eclipse evil. Combined with the irreverence for traditional representations of girls’ fashion dolls, and the girly appropriateness of shiny, pretty things–Onyx and her friends reminded me that girl dolls can carry weapons, kick butt and stave off evildoers, which also reminds me, that so can I (no really, I can!).  Anyway, I’m off to rouse up a band of females to conquer a villainous nemesis.  Ok, not quite. But it’s a fun thought anyway.


March 27, 2007

So here is my inaugural blog. Initially I thought about calling my ruminations “constructive commess” but I decided against it. While I cannot promise to always be constructive (in fact, many times I am not), I am however frequently creative minded. Now commess is a popular Trinbagonian colloquialism or trini-ism as I like to say. The word commess struck me as totally apt because of the way in which I imagined a space where I could dig into a variety of sometimes random and poignant observations or thoughts on things in my life, all through a Trini-esque lens of course. Sometimes it’s confusion cause I am totally random and that’s the way that my mind works. The following thoughts deal with black women’s hair. This blog really grew out of me writing a response to a friend’s myspace blog about her thoughts and concerns with wearing her hair natural. She explored the response from men (specifically black men) and their inability to accept that her hair is beautiful. She was constantly being plagued with assertions like, “you’re really pretty BUT…(insert appropriate criticism of Afro-textured unpermed hair here). Now seeing that she epitomizes the look of the stereotypical mixed race sister, faced framed with a mass of soft, fuzzy curls. And yes, I used the word “soft” there strategically cause you know, REAL black hair supposedly isn’t.

All this got me thinking about the ways in which black women’s hair functions as this politicized space. Hair can be political, it totally can and it really doesn’t matter what “type” of black girl you are either. Decisions, decisions. Fraught with so much meaning and imbued symbolism. To straighten or not to straighten? A conscious sister has got to rock dreads or an afro right? It also made me think about how growing up West Indian doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with all this either. I grew up in the West Indies and I’ve never had a perm in my life, which is really not an anomaly where I come from. Part of this stemmed from my parents and the way I was raised, it just wasn’t something we were swayed to do. My mother wears her hair natural as well and she never indoctrinated me into the world of relaxers and whatnot. Of course women perm there all the time and there are enough people still existing in some post-colonial fog about what constitutes beauty and “good hair” (more on that later). We have all of that. But despite that, it’s still not all that uncommon to see plenty women rocking their natural hair. So when I came to the states for school, it was amazing the numbers of people on any given week who were befuddled by my hair enough to ask questions and/or touch.

First and foremost, people are always amazed that I never had a perm. Especially black people. Most significantly black people. People are always amazed that I am a dark skinned female with natural hair that supposedly has some “length” allegedly. This is really what makes it a kind of “good hair” for some people. It’s good because it’s been know to graze the tops of the shoulder blades. That in and of itself apparently boggles the mind. People of African descent have some ill conceived notion that black hair “does not grow.” It’s hair! It grows! This obsession with length and what constitutes length. This obsession with movement and what constitutes movement as if natural hair does not “move.” Oddly enough, these are the same people who don’t seem to connect the use of chemicals with unhealthy hair. If one is so inclined to think obsessively about length and all, then leaving your hair chemical free and natural would probably benefit it tremendously. More mind-boggling are the people who grab a fistful of my hair strands and proclaim something like, “wow, it’s so–soft,” many times in an awe filled voice tinged with surprise. Again, usually but not always limited to people of color. What do they expect? It’s hair. Sigh.

As for the popular rationale behind this supposed need for relaxers, as my mother once said to me, something is seriously wrong with a people saying that they cannot deal with their own hair. The psyche must be in crisis. I mean it’s YOUR hair. If you can’t “deal” with it, then who can? Added to which, there seems to be this social construction of black women out there revolving around the beauty industry. It’s true, there is a versatility in black hair that is reflected in the products and possibly the buying power of black women when it comes to hair care products. We can relax, texturize, color, braid, perm, weave etc. and apparently we do so with enough regularity to support a thriving hair and beauty industry. The array of possibilities and the way in which it is presumed that all black women are predisposed to indulge in this market is everywhere. In my life, it is always other women of color saying, “girl, when you going to do something different?”

There is this presupposition that I must somehow eventually get bored with my kind of hair. With MY hair. With my being. I am frequently running into yet another young black woman trying to entice me to change something hair-wise. Straighten it and get some versatility even though it is versatile already in its own way. And to be different. Different as opposed to what though? Me? First of all I don’t have the desire, time, energy or disposable income to be running around changing weaves and refreshing micros and touching up relaxers on the regular. Second of all no one ever asks my white friends who have had their hair exactly the same for as long as I have known them (a lil trim here and there notwithstanding), just straight and natural all their life to switch it up.

So, hair is complicated. It’s just always been a part of me, like the color of my eyes or the hue of my skin. I didn’t choose one day to cut off a perm and find myself. And it’s okay if someone chooses to go that route or not. It’s always just been, me and this hair. I just think it’s very important to contextualize why we think the way we do and understand where this all comes from. Your hair is not difficult but if someone tells you that long enough from every angle, then you might just think it is. It’s sometimes annoying having to consistently validate to random other black women why it’s okay for me and my hair to have the freedom to just be. According to India.Arie, even though “I am not my hair,” if I was though, I’d be cool with that. Though that is not all that I am, personally I’d prefer that than people trying to make a concerted effort to separate me from well, me.