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February 2013

Black Bodies: Objects For White Profit, Power and Pleasure

Black bodies, the bodies of Black Americans, have a sordid and complicated history. The babies of slaves used as alligator bait is a reality often forgotten when people think of the Jewish babies killed by Nazi guards. Indeed, the latter wasn’t the first time that something reprehensible happened to infants and toddlers solely based on identity. Images of whipped slaves’ backs have been permanently etched into my mind. The parallels between slavery and sports (as documented in the seminal book Forty Million Dollar Slaves) is painful to think about. Photographs of Black women forced to nurse White children, with despair, not joy in their eyes are hard to examine (and when White women blog these photographs with glee, I feel rage). Examining the intersections of science and racism (in a way that many atheists forget to when examining the intersections religion and racism) as revealed in the book Medical Apartheid hurts me now, today. Black women used as objects for White male pleasure and their punishment (through rape), as production tools through rape (to make more slaves), as chattel, farmers, cooks, housekeepers, wet nurses, and as forced quasi-mothers of White children—bodies devalued and only viewed as tools—is a reality that cannot be ignored. Even in death, Black bodies were displayed for examination and spectacle, used without permission for research and Black grave robbing persisted. Even in death, our bodies weren’t (and actually, still aren’t) safe. As this country owes its very existence, from infrastructure to its economy, literally to Black bodies, from being sold and used as actual products, to building, to agriculture to modern medicine (i.e. gynecology wouldn’t truly exist without the ABUSE and DEATH Black women suffered, as procedures were performed and perfected without our ancestors’ consent so that White women could be made healthy) to objects of pleasure, I can’t stop thinking about this history when I think of the modern reaction to Black bodies. This isn’t to say that I think of our bodies as separate from our beings; this is to say that this is how we’re treated in society—as if no persons, no faces, no names, and no souls are connected to our bodies. Black Chicago murder victims are reported in counts; White murder victims are reported by name. Every name mentioned.

Even in less serious, but still salient circumstances today, many White people demand the right—the right, to touch Black women’s hair. (And what’s been weird, in my experience, is that White women seem to think they have this right more than White men, because we share gender.) It’s outrageous to them not to have the right to put their hands on our bodies. How dare we object; I mean, if it makes Whites happy, what right do we have to say no in 2013? What could be more important than the power and pleasure of a White person in the history of this country? Apparently, nothing. Black people exist for their pleasure and entertainment above all, it seems.

Barbara Walters had to touch Tanika Ray’s hair. Justin Beiber had to touch Esperanza Spalding’s hair. Adrian Brody had to kiss Halle Berry on the mouth. Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson’s costume, yet if you ask most Americans, he wasn’t even there. Most remember Janet being there alone. Katie Couric had to touch Beyonce. Regis Philbin had to touch Nicki Minaj’s butt and Kelly Ripa had to dress up like her. Miley Cyrus had to become “empowered” (by behaving like a sex-obsessed, patriarchal White male) and hire and touch a “big booty ho” (in her words) who of course had to be a Black adult dancer. Meryl Streep had to pet Viola Davis’ face. Caroline Wozniacki had to mock Serena’s body. White Jewish comedians such as Billy Crystal and Sarah Silverman have to do blackface. White cisgender gay men have to mock Black women, reduce us down to nothing, by claiming a “fat” one is inside of them anytime they appropriate Black culture. They have to. It’s their right, it seems.

Whites will quickly claim that the celebrities in question didn’t care or applauded the touching without permission or mocking, as if that’s solely the point. The point is these public behaviors reinforce stereotypical norms that impact the rest of the world. It’s never solely about celebrities. Every time someone White thinks they have a right to put their hands on my body, they cite an example of when someone Black told them it’s okay (as if there’s blanket permission that one can give for the whole race) or when someone White was “nice” about it, as if I am then required to care and allow it. Any rejection of their claim is viewed as conceit on our part. Having basic personal sovereignty over our own bodies, what they themselves have, is a form of…arrogance?

As social beings we touch; as humans, we learn and share information and emotion through touch. This is true. But to pretend that every touch is equal in intention and effect or must be endured when it comes from Whites is no longer about being social or being human; it’s about White supremacy and White privilege. And, when it comes to the hierarchy of worth that this corrupt social construct and ideology creates, Black bodies, especially women’s, are the most degraded, attacked, disrespected and devalued. Very few people would place their hands on a White man’s body without permission, unless with the full intention of committing a crime. And a crime—meaning that they recognize the “value” of whom they’re touching and think twice before doing so unless for a criminal purpose. They’ve learned the subtle and not so subtle cues of who’s valuable and who isn’t. (I deal with intraracial issues of unwanted touching as well; I’ve encountered Black men who during street harassment have tried to touch me yet completely shifted gears when a White woman walked by. She got respect from them, not me. They too have their views on who’s worth something or not. And it’s not arbitrary, of course. Internalized racist devaluation of our whole race due to White supremacy, a long history of Black men being punished or killed for interacting with White women, and Eurocentric beauty myths that confer worth coupled with sexism that makes a woman’s worth beauty-related are the core causes of this.)

The sheer act of being a Black person or a woman opens the door for devaluation. Combine these and it’s my experience. Black women, specifically, are sexualized without our consent and regardless of our behavior. We are devalued solely because we exist. It doesn’t matter what we actually do. In no circumstance has a Black woman been the victim of anything and people, other than a small handful amidst the Black community and truthful non-Black allies, openly supported her. Victim blaming intensifies for a person without White or male privilege. I have neither. And for Black women further marginalized because of membership in the LGBTQ community, socioeconomics, weight and/or complexion, they know all too well how deep the devaluation can run in terms of their bodies and their lives.

Now some will argue that if someone is beautiful (or “ugly”), famous and/or in a field where their sexuality is a part of their image, they no longer deserve respect from Whites or anyone else. They lose their right to discern who may touch them. I’m fully aware of how the politics of respectability and Eurocentric beauty myths manifest for Black people, especially Black women. However, I don’t agree with this. I will NEVER accept the faulty logic that if anyone perceives someone as “not respecting themselves,” everyone else has the “right” to disrespect them as well. This thought process is a tangent of victim blaming as many ideologies amidst American culture are. Besides, even if I did perform the "look at me, I’m a special and ‘good’ Black woman who is a ‘lady’ that follows all of the racist and sexist rules of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy" schtick, my mind, my body, my worth, would still be devalued in this society.

What’s sad, truly sad, is if I entered a White person’s home or even their yard, and began to touch OBJECTS, not people, OBJECTS, they would gladly have me arrested or shoot me. Yet these same people think they have the right to touch other human beings. I’ve already been personally acquainted with the idea that objects are deemed more valuable than I am. I was burglarized some years ago and received endless sympathy for lost objects, yet none when I, a person, was threatened and stalked by several men.

I’m no one’s object and definitely not one solely for pleasure. If this means setting boundaries and reminding Whites of this daily, so be it. Don’t touch me without permission. Don’t. Don’t even ask for permission if you don’t know me. Don’t.

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