All I Want For Christmas Is For Sports Misogynoir to Have A Seat

I woke up this morning with every intention not to write anything today.  Recently, life for me ain’t been no kinds of a crystal stair.  For the past three weeks through a cold, stomach virus, work fatigue and life in general, I’d been reading and writing for finals in both my classes.  After confirming that I scored another 4.0 for the semester, I decided that for the next three days I was on a writing break.  I needed time for my brain to breathe and fingers to relax.  But then I got an email from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists congratulating me on my second paper abstract being accepted for this year’s conference.  Doing the “me” thing, I decided to bend my rules a little and brush up on some of the reading I did for the submission.  Given that my topic is on Black Female Sexuality and its present reception in society, a lot of my readings were based on theory as well as pop culture things like Amber Rose’s SlutWalk and Brelyn Bowman’s purity pledge.  Scouring the internet for more pop culture examples to dissect in my presentation, I happened upon the whole uproar with Gilbert talking shit about the WBNA.  Admittedly, I heard about his comments before, but that was around the time I was in a post-finals/sick fog where I couldn’t lend it the random pop culture intellect I can now (read as: I was far too tired to give a fuck).  But now that I have my second wind and while I’m in the zone of Black feminist/Womanist thought, let’s have a quick chat about how incredibly stupid comments like Gilly’s really are.  

 

While blog site after blog site can tell you numerous ways how asininely sexist the comments were, I want to take a step back for a minute and look at the framework from whence this bullshit came.  The bigger problem with Gilbert’s incredibly fucked-up, sexist comments is that they stem from the long-standing tradition and practice of undermining Black women’s sports acumen by criticizing their appearance.  This isn’t an isolated incident.  We’ve been here before.  

 

We were there in 2000 with Love and Basketball.  Aside from the constant crooning of Maxwell everytime Monica and Quincy were around each other and Zeke keeping his wife’s fine ass in Gucci and gold (such a joy of a quote), one of the subplots in the movie touched on this subject.   While there were no direct comments correlating Monica’s appearance to her basketball ability, one of her constant conflicts throughout the film was the expectation of balancing (or at times outweighing) society’s standard of “being ladylike” against her passion for the sport.  The most compelling scene in the film on this topic was the debate Monica and Quincy had in the car regarding how her “attitude” on the court could cost her being selected for a college team.  When Quincy advises that she should calm down when playing, Monica points out the double standard that women have when playing the sport,

 

Please, you jump in some guy’s face, talk smack and you get a pat on your ass.  But because I’m a female, I get told to calm down and act like a “lady”.  I’m a ballplayer, okay?  

 

While rooted in fiction, this example stems from a serious, real-life quagmire female athletes, particularly Black, find themselves in.  When their ability is top-notch, they are often the targets of ad hominem attacks with their femininity being called into question.

We were there in 2007 with Don Imus.  While most of the public outrage was directed to the fact that Imus referred to the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball Team as “nappy headed hoes,” what wasn’t discussed as much was the underlying sentiment that the University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball Team won because they were the “prettier” (and not-so-ironically fairer-skinned) team.  Such reasoning feeds into the erroneous assumption that appearance influences ability.  If that were truly the case, there should be a whole rack of people in the NBA, NFL, and whatever else 3 or 4-lettered sports organizations on unemployment because their looks don’t compare to their ability.  

 

We were there in 2012 with Gabby Douglas.  Here we had young Miss Douglas slaying the gymnastics competition in the OLYMPICS, yet there was all this controversy about how she wore her hair.  Of course some people in the pithole of opinion hell aka Twitter went just as far to say that Gabby’s hair was the missing element in her being the quintessential Black female athlete role model.

 

Seriously.  

 

For starters, she is an athlete.  Having gone to an all-girl high school, it really wasn’t an uncommon thing at all for ANY athlete regardless of the sport they played to have a ponytail.  Secondly, she was 16 at the time.  Have any of you people met 16-year-olds?  Their appearances can range from gorge to plain and everything in between.  This includes hairstyle.  When you blend together Gabby’s age and her profession (a profession that she has not even out of high school, mind you), I was neither shocked nor outraged by any of it.  In fact, I expected it.  Watching student athletes in action, who would want to invest time away from practices and working out and money into going to the hairdresser if you’re only going to sweat your hair out hours later?  What was our problem that we were far more concerned with the girl’s snatchback than we were with her snatching gold medals in the name of these United States?

 

My God, when are we NOT there with Serena?  If I listed every, single example of how her appearance undermined her sports skills, I’d most likely still be writing this “short” piece well into 2016.  Her incidents include Tomasz Wiktorowski comparing Agnieszka Radwanska to Serena stating that they keep her small “because first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman, being called arrogant and cocky, to the most bizarre recent pandering that a horse be more deserving of Sports Illustrated’s 2015 SportsPERSON of the year honor.  But again, much of the grievances against Williams harken back to the misogynoir framework that a Black female athlete can’t simply be a good athlete without her appearance being called in for critique as well.   

 

So how do we resolve this conundrum?  For starters, we can continue to serving seats for folks comments, posts, articles, and whatnot that perpetuate this kind of bullshit.  And said seats can be occupied by both men and women (believe me, there were just as many women standing by Arenas as there were men).  But in making this mass purchase order, it will take the effort for both men and women to be vocal about this.   It was great and expected that the WNBA spoke out, and yet we’ve heard next to nothing from the NBA.  Perhaps because deep down, whether they would admit it or not, there is room on the row for them to take a seat as well because they feel the exact same way Arenas does.  As I always say, folks should listen to who speaks and hear who is silent.

 

“I Know Why The Baltimore Girl Scowls”: Street Harassment in Retrospect

Jada Pinkett Face

It’s amazing how the undergraduate experience in college can reveal so much of yourself.  Most of my freshman year we would have various programs around campus designed to “bring the Bowie women together.”  They were pretty good efforts, even better because most of them involved food.  One day when I missed dinner in the cafe because a nap after class seemed way more important, I decided to hit up one of these events to grab some free pizza.  It was the typical girl talk kind of session, bringing girls from Philly, New York, Baltimore, D.C., Prince George’s County, Jersey and other places together to discuss their first year cheers and jeers.  While doing a balancing act of three slices of pizza, a cupcake, chips, and a Sprite, a girl from P.G. asked a question that I didn’t realize would eventually be so poignant.

“I have a question for the Baltimore girls.  Whenever I see ya’ll walking across campus, ya’ll always have such a mad look on your face.  Why do Baltimore girls scowl like that?”  Without any hesitation or thought, a fellow Baltimore student answered the inquiry, “To keep people from bothering us.”  The other girls from Baltimore, both freshmen and upper classmen, agreed with the response, sharing their own experiences of when they wear the scowl.

This was eleven years ago.  Let’s flash forward to today.

Recently, the internet has been abuzz with a recent video released by an anti-street harassment group called Hollaback.  The one minute video documents a young woman walking down the streets of New York for 10 hours and her various encounters with men on the street.  Some of them call out to her.  Some of them are really close in her space.  Two walked along side of her for a few blocks.  The video sparked a debate from both men and women regarding the realness of street harassment, if anything should be done about it, or were women just overreacting?

Before I get into my view about the whole thing, I will admit early that this “social experiment” does have its flaws.  I’m not feeling the narrative of this lone, seemingly non-Black girl going through the streets of New York while being pounced upon by mostly men of color. It definitely gives you that Birth of a Nation vibe, further perpetuating the Brute stereotype that has plagued our Black men for centuries.  Furthermore, street harassment goes beyond the urban settings this video focuses on.  I would have been interested to see an uncut full-length video of the walker going to other places as well (if she did).

But with all that aside, the video does have a bigger point that gave me flashbacks.

I first developed my scowl when I entered the 9th grade.  The summer before school started, all incoming freshmen were required to attend an introductory program for a few weeks to prepare them for their first year at Western.  With my mother working on the Westside all summer long teaching college courses, that meant I had to hit the bus circuit.  It wasn’t an uncommon thing, as this is what most kids attending Baltimore City Public School did.  Once I got on the bus or the subway, I was safe.  It was getting there that was the challenge.

It started with the cars honking.  Me being obliviously new to this kind of attention at all of 12 years old, I didn’t know what was going on.   At first I thought it was just angry drivers signaling to others to get out of their way.  I didn’t start to catch on that something was different until I noticed I would always hear the honks whenever I walked down the street.  Observing the drivers, they mostly came from adult men who would smile with the cheesiest and creepiest looks on their faces.  I honestly had no idea what to make of it (as I wouldn’t think any 12 year old would or should know).  Feeling confused as to maybe it was something I was doing wrong to warrant this kind of attention, I started to be more cognizant of what I was wearing.  In the dead of summer heat, I would walk down the street in a sweatshirt or loose fitting t-shirt in hopes of solving my problem.  Unfortunately, the cars kept honking anyways.

The catcalls followed the honking, particularly on the days when I had to meet my mother at her job at Coppin State College (now University).  Walking from the station or getting off at the bus in front of the school, I would feel the stares of groups of guys looking my young body up and down.  I would hear the whispers of “Damn, girl” as I hurried to the door, hoping it would shut behind me fast enough before they said the sexualized “Hello.”  Some of these guys looked around my age; some of them were not.

This went on for a few weeks up until school started.  I really didn’t tell my mother that all this was happening mainly because I didn’t know it was an option.  Listening to similar accounts from the other rising 9th graders at school, this was a common thing we just had to deal with.  A twisted rites of passage, I guess.  Some liked the attention, others didn’t.  But it was from those experiences where I learned the only weapon we had to get through the day on our daily journeys throughout the city: the scowl.  The scowl is a quintessential piece of Baltimore Black girl bravado at its finest.  It’s a slight scrunching of the eyebrows to match the glaring, cold stare of narrowed eyes, a tightness of the lips emitting all vibes that you are not to be fucked with on that day. For the most part, men would respect the scowl.  You did have your select few that would request you to “smile” or still try to violate your personal space.  The scowl still didn’t stop them from checking you out, but it did give a sense of protection no matter how false.

Coupling my personal experience with the overall experience of this video leaves me with many mixed emotions, mostly because I see the situation through different perspectives.  As the little Black girl in Baltimore going to high school, I feel empathy.  I understand the struggle of women in city streets all too well.  While yes, I am very familiar with what the statistics say regarding women and rape in that 51% of the reported perpetrators were intimate partners as opposed to 13% being strangers, that still does not relieve the anxiety I feel walking down the street wondering if this will be the day I become part of that 13%.  Needless to say it does not help to have known people and to hear on the news about the bad experiences of catcalling resulting in women being berated extremely, physically assaulted, or murdered by men whose advances they rejected.  My empathy then leads to frustration as a grown woman living in D.C..  Why should I have to live my life with this kind of anxiety on an almost daily basis?  Why can’t it be understood that the root of the problem is not in all “hellos” from men, but the ones with heavy sexualized overtones? (Note: Yes, there is a difference and more often than not, the signs are clear.  Your sentiments can speak louder than your words, guys).  Why is it when we discuss these kinds of issues the conversation is never around the need for a society that stops objectifying women but rather the need for women to conform to an objectifying society (Which really doesn’t make a difference no matter what you are told to do or wear)? As a scholar studying Black Politics, I feel skeptical.  Why is this particular issue a thing right now?  It’s interesting how there is now attention to such issues in the age of gentrification when such problems existed in these same areas heavily populated with Black and Brown girls and women facing the same issues.  As articles have reported, both Black and Latina women are most likely to endure street harassment at higher rates than any other race of women. Growing up in this environment, this really wasn’t breaking news.  But where was the uproar and outcry for us?  Where was the help for us to feel more empowered and to know that we had a right to walk down the street unbothered?  Where were those organizations to arm us with more than a cold stare and a shoulder?  Why do we care now?  Such questions will probably never be answered, but all I can do now is ask.

At 29 years old, when I think of my scowl I am reminded of the poem “We Wear The Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  The scowl is our mask.  It is designed to protect us from the situations where the subtlest hellos could led to the most brutal of rapes (or so we think).  Aside from silent prayers that we would make it to and from our destinations in one piece and unharmed, it is one of our defense mechanisms.  I guess if I were to remix the poem to fit this situation, it would go a little something like this:

she wears the scowl

because it knows

it matters not

the clothes she chose

her makeup, her hair

her shoes, her rings

on the street, she’s not a person or place,

but a thing

the coldness of her stare

the tightness of her lips

she silently must remind herself

she’s more than between her hips

she hopes to be unbothered

with a bothered look on her face

so she can journey peacefully

and they won’t disturb her space

she battles through lust-filled energies

creepy glares, honks, and howls

a daily struggle to which i know

why the Baltimore girl scowls

The Ballad of the Post-Racialism Bullshit

trying to make be believe

because OUR president is Black

that equality is here

so they can have my voting rights back

 

trying to make me believe

because OUR president is Black

that equality is here

so they can take the quota back

 

trying to make me believe

because OUR president is Black

that equality is here

so they can take King’s dream back

 

that the price of my mind

is on the struggle sakes rack

$25 mill on the tag

can’t we see through that?

that my schools have to go

yet they won’t let me in their doors

and when they do, it’s a limit

that they keep suing schools for

saying, “oh that’s not fair.

because the president is black. 

he’s done enough for those people.

he’s pulled up all their bootstraps.”

what if i straightened my hair?

what if he pulled up his pants?

we’d magically change our status

we would be given a chance

and let’s ignore the fact

riding a Benz from a hoop

as Mr. West has said

i’m still a nigger in a Coup

white women are enraged

about this unequal wage

but low-key

they’d still make more than me

depending on shade

oh the shade my shade

plays in our daily lives

since they gave us a black president

they can also give us lies

 

trying to make me believe

because OUR President is Black

playing with toy guns in Wal-Mart

means that i’m shot in the back

that a hoodie is a threat

when you’re armed with snacks

jaywalking costs your life

so does loose cigarette packs

this shit ain’t Martin’s dream

this our reality

that i’m still subjected to

police brutality

from cradles to caskets

from playpens to prisons

profits from infancy to inmatehood

the American vision

 

trying to make me believe

because OUR President is Black

there’s no need for me to fight

because i’m not under attack

but if America has changed

why do i feel chains?

not the ones on your ankles

but the ones in your brain?

we say we live in a time

where race means nothing anymore

we’ll if that’s the case

why am i still followed in the store?

if that’s the case

why am i still beaten till i’m sore?

trying to use my rights

to protest my fight

against moral double standards

my people’s daily fight

 

trying to make me believe

because OUR president is Black

we good, let’s clear the hood

and take those ghetto slums back

“let’s give them all the police

they asked about for weeks

let’s build new condo spots

let’s clean up all these streets

let’s have a whole foods here

let’s have a day spa there

let’s charge them over their checks

let’s raise up all the bus fare

let’s force them over yonder

so they’ll never bother

to come back home

they’re not welcomed back at all, Mr. Kotter”

displacement through replacement

of all our residents

 

but it’s all good

after all

WE have a Black President