An Apology To Black Women: On Feminism, Meryl Streep, MMA & Jesus
January 11, 2017 by 11 Comments
Hollywood, as an art form (stop laughing — it is an art form) has a job to do: to reflect life back to us and make us think. When Hollywood is at its best (I said stop laughing) it does this really well. I love movies. I love actors. I was an actor in my past life (STOP LAUGHING). There are a multitude of amazing pieces of cinematic art, regardless of your personal taste in film. I’ve had Empire Of The Sun on my mind a lot lately, and that is a perfect, if dated, example. My point is, when Hollywood is doing its art thing, if it makes us feel something and think a thought, it’s doing its job.
I agreed with a lot of what Meryl Streep said in her speech at the Golden Globes, obviously. If you’ve read pretty much anything I’ve written, you already know that. And I’ve already had the arguments on Facebook about whether it was appropriate for her to speak out at the awards (the short story: hell yes it was appropriate! Have a platform, use it for good! Not to mention, this is an awards night for actors. It’s their night. They get to do what they want.). This blog isn’t about that.
This post is about what was wrong with Meryl’s speech.
I got the tiniest hint at the very end, when she made a comment about martial arts not being “the arts”. Stay with me. I’m getting there.
As a martial artist myself, I felt this jab, and I didn’t like it. It’s not about arguing the semantics of whether she meant “fine arts” or not, whether you consider MMA an art or not (I do), or any of the other multitude of details you could argue about there. It’s not any of that.
It was the way she said it.
It was condescending and elitist. It wasn’t a gentle semantic argument; it was a put-down. And as she said it, I realized how completely out of touch she was with a huge community of people for whom martial arts is intricately important.
I’m one of those people. It changed my life. It’s as much a part of me as the color of my hair. I don’t own a school or compete and I’ve never had to use it in real life, but it’s a part of my identity and one I hold dear, at that.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how that (pun-intended) jab would open up my understanding of how black women have felt disenfranchised from white American feminism since, well, forever.
As I perused social media the day after the awards, my MMA friends were up in arms, arguing their views on what she said. There were the usual Trump supporters who were telling her to shut up. And there were a lot of people praising the talk. This group all had one thing in common: they were white. Mostly, they were white women. This might start getting uncomfortable for you. Stick with me.
As I started noticing the comments of my black friends, I saw something different. Her feminism is not my feminism, they said. I don’t trust her, they said. Remember that Suffragette movie and those tee-shirts?
It’s not news to me that black women have felt disenfranchised from white feminism, but I’m still doing the work of learning why and what to do about it. Turns out, the answer is pretty easy to find. While it’s true that many suffragettes were also abolitionists, eventually the whole women’s rights movement took a decidedly anti-black woman stance.
In fact, for many suffragettes, abolition created a new kind of urgency, because the idea that a black man might have voting rights when white women didn’t was to them an abomination worthy of good lynching, or two. Or, maybe, a thousand. Check out the words of the first ever female senator, Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton:
If it takes lynching to protect a woman’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.
How utterly lovely. And she became our first female lawmaker. Next to her, Jeff Sessions is practically lovable like Kermit the Frog.
While white women have enjoyed the right to vote since 1920, black women were not permitted to fully exercise that right until the 1960’s. THE 1960’s PEOPLE.
Today, while white feminists talk a very nice talk about inclusiveness and many millennial women don’t want to call themselves feminists at all, black women are still making less than all of us. They fight battles we white women will never understand. They still must maneuver through days full of micro-agressions that white women will never endure.
(For the love of all that is good and holy can we PLEASE stop touching their hair? Don’t even ask to touch it. Don’t be stupid. Just leave. It. Alone.)
And when black women try to speak about the injustices they’ve endured by the white feminist movement, we white women do to them what we complain about men doing to us: we shut them down.
Get over it. That was so long ago, we say.
Focus on the positive. We have to work together, we tell them, ironically.
Stop being so angry all the time, just be nice, we instruct, as if saying that will automatically control emotions.
(I just LOVE it when someone tells me to relax, as if I had a button. I’ll show you a button, alright.)
Just like Meryl is with MMA, we white feminists are completely out of touch with black women’s experience, and it has this really bizarre effect on us: it makes us think we’re worthy of judging and advising how black women should act.
It’s as absurd as the idea of hiring Meryl to coach you for a cage fight. Meryl knows nothing about MMA, and so her condescension was completely out of line. So, too, is the condescension of white women to our black sisters when they are attempting to process and communicate their experience to us.
So what does this all have to do with Jesus? Well, I do believe that Jesus calls us to be socially active, but that’s not the reason I’m writing this. No.
I’m writing this because of Matthew 5:23-24(MSG).
This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.
White American Feminism owes an apology to black women, and I’m writing this blog post to get that party started.
I’m sorry. I apologize for every time you were silenced by a white woman who should have made room for you at the table and given you a microphone to embolden your voice. I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for every time you were shunned and quieted, forgotten and denied your rights as human beings by people who really should have known much better.
I’m sorry for every micro-aggression you’ve experienced. Every backward, “You’re really pretty for a black girl,” kind of comment; every time someone reached out to manhandle your hair as if they were entitled to do so, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that you get left out of movies and television shows, and when you are included you are stereotyped.
I’m sorry for the incredible fear you feel for your sons. Your daughters, too, but right now, especially, your sons.
I’m sorry we haven’t made room for your issues, your voices, your brains, your smarts, your talents, your stories.
I promise to do better.
I humbly ask for your forgiveness.
And while I’m at it, here’s my chair, and here’s my microphone. Have at it.