Commentary Race

The Brutal Lust of the “Jigaboo” Fantasy “Mammyfied” Through Fashion

Jasmine Burnett

It is my hope that at least, every Black woman who sees these “Mammy” earrings is going to say they are racist without a second thought or question in their mind. Let’s stop being surprised by the ignorance of this country and challenge ourselves to be proactive about our images. The exploitation will continue if we don’t provide an alternative. 

Published in partnership with the Black Women’s Media Collective.

Cross-posted with permission from jasmineburnett.com.

It is my hope that at least, every Black woman who sees these “Mammy” earrings is going to say they are racist without a second thought or question in their mind. I say that because, the fact that there have been “polls” to prove how racist it is, further indicates that “Post Racial” is only real in the definition of the word, not in the lives and conditions of Black women and girls. I have no patience to tell you why this among many other structural and institutional things that society profits from is racist, nor, will I ever become immune to society’s constant disrespect of Black women and girls. What should have happened as those designs were being sketched was a simple consideration, who is harmed by this luxury product created for profit? Of course, its Black women and girls and our dignity but again, no one asked us what we thought or how we felt.

I imagine what bores black people about the racism of well-meaning white people is watching them struggle with this shroud and entangle themselves in it and blow at it and touch it and ignore it and disown it, all the while remaining rapt in the drama, the spectacle of our own anxiety, at the expense of the encounter itself.

Naomi Wolf, “The Racism of Well-Meaning White People”

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Yet, I’m clear that society still only sees us in one way, those fantasies that percolates in its DNA: Hottentot, Jigaboo, Mammy, Sapphire and I could name more. How do I know this? Because I and millions of other Black women walk in the legacy of that experience every day. Due to the lessons taught by my ancestors and our collective lived experience, I am hyper-aware of what that means and represents in every setting and interaction. But, I also understand that society must be taught to acknowledge and respect the level of empowerment I embody—for that acknowledgement is certainly not something Black women and girls can simply expect from a society that has evolved little, despite what we’ve been told.

Let’s just demand what we desire and require to live healthy lives. Let’s stop expecting too much only to receive the same minimum amount from this stagnant society. Let’s stop being disappointed about something that we know this society is acutely familiar with, the ability to package our identities for its sick and barbaric consumption. When you know the idea of the thing you’re far more clear about how to handle it. Within that, we can’t expect much from an industry where many Black women still do not reflect, nor are represented our self defined standards of beauty.

Let’s stop being surprised by the ignorance of this country and challenge ourselves to be proactive about our images. The exploitation will continue if we don’t provide an alternative. I personally plan to make Dolce & Gabbana an example of the ongoing racial ignorance in society and a non factor to how I work to strengthen and empower Black women and girls.

Culture & Conversation Violence

Breaking Through the Fear: How One Woman Investigated the Life of Her Rapist

Ilana Masad

Ignorance is caused by fear, reporter Joanna Connors writes, and it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped, she begins the process of trying to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.”

She was fine. That’s what she told everyone, including herself. After filing a report with the Cleveland police and getting her rapist locked up, she was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Except she wasn’t.

In I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, reporter Joanna Connors realizes that she is most assuredly not fine during a college campus visit with her daughter.

Ignorance is caused by fear, Connors writes. And it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped—she immediately reported her rape to the police, and her rapist was caught the next day—she begins the process of breaking through the fear to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.” She had thought she was over it, but it wasn’t until breaking down during that college tour that she realized she was still afraid of her rapist and still terrified he would find her.

When Connors was 30, she went to a Case Western Reserve University theater where a rehearsal of a play that she was covering for her newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, was taking place.

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A man inside the empty theater—the actors had left by the time Connors arrived—beckoned her inside, saying that he was working on the lights. Then, brandishing a sharpened pair of scissors, he threatened to kill her if she didn’t do what he said and spent more than an hour raping her.

The chapter detailing her rape is chilling, as she describes the various acts performed, the way she went along with what her rapist told her to do, coaxing him on, hoping to make the ordeal end more quickly. By describing specifics of her rape, Connors is confronting and stripping away the shame she experienced by showing the reader the cold, hard facts of what a rape can be like.

Her words demonstrate how a person who was raped becomes a survivor. Even in her dissociative state, she didn’t want to die there at the hands of a man she didn’t know. She managed to convince him to stop and leave, and he kissed her goodbye outside, as if what had just happened was completely, utterly normal. Maybe, for him, a man whom she says was smoking menthols and who had a tattoo on his arm with his own name on it—”DAVE”—it was.

Connors found an eerie irony in that she was raped on a college campus before such rapes were more widely discussed. In recent years, there has been a rise in awareness regarding the frequency of rapes at institutions of higher learning. There are now websites dedicated to explaining the statistics as well as documentaries like The Hunting Ground, which explores the sexual violence that happens on U.S. college campuses and how students are pushing back against institutional cover-ups and injustices. Since Connors’ experience, society has begun to more broadly understand the terms “rape” and “sexual assault,” and there has been more discussion about the rapes and sexual assaults that happen within existing relationships; eight out of ten rapes occur between people who know one another.

It’s perhaps less common these days to find discussions of the other kind of rape: the kind that we’re warned about when we’re young and told not to take candy from strangers, the kind that makes us automatically cross the street when a group of men we find threatening happens to be walking toward us, the kind that happens when a complete stranger attacks us. This was Connors’ experience.

I Will Find You takes the reader through two distinct processes. The first is Connors’ discovery that her rapist may have been a sexual-violence survivor in his own right. The second, which carries the narrative, is how Connors came to terms with how being raped by David Francis, the “DAVE”-tattooed man, separated her life into a “before” and an “after.”

Before the rape, she was a reporter who lived largely without fear. Connors explains that she went into the theater, where her rapist, a young Black man, was beckoning her, for one reason: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”

But after, she writes, “this new fear of black men shamed me more than the rape.” Connors explains she didn’t want to be the stereotypical white woman of privilege, who clutches her purse and crosses the street when she sees a Black man walking her way. As a woman aware of her socioeconomic and racial privilege, she didn’t want to participate in oppression.

But it wasn’t just Black men that she feared—it was everything:

I turned my life into performance art. I acted normal, or as normal as I could manage, all the while living on my secret island of fear. As time went on, the list of my fears continued to grow. I was afraid of flying. Afraid of driving. Afraid of riding in a car while someone else drove. Afraid of driving over bridges. Afraid of elevators. Afraid of enclosed spaces. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of going into crowds. Afraid of being alone. Afraid, most of all, to let my children out of my sight.

From the outside, my performance worked. I looked and acted like most other mothers. Only I knew that my entire body vibrated with dread, poised to flee when necessary.

Years after her rape, Connors tells her children about it—both were born after the living nightmare in the theater and are college-aged by then—and begins to confront the fact that she has never “gotten over” it, even though she’s told countless therapists that she has. It is then, despite her husband’s protests and her own fears, that she decides that she must also confront her ignorance regarding her rapist and find him, just as he once threatened that he would find her.

Connors’ investigation is difficult, as she finds out almost at once that her rapist died in a prison hospital some years before. This, however, doesn’t stop her: She begins to investigate his family, trying to find anyone who may have known him and could explain, perhaps, why he did what he did.

Connors regards what she finds out about her rapist with empathy. Connors doesn’t forgive and forget—rather, she forgives, in a sense, by remembering, by finding others who remember, by dredging up a past that is as unpleasant for her interviewees as it is for her.

She eventually gets support from her newspaper to research and write her own story. At every one of the interviews, she expresses discomfort with what she’s doing and almost backs off. Pushed on by her photographer co-worker—and her own need to know—she continues on what has become a journalistic mission. Connors knows she is intruding into people’s lives and realizes she’s coming from a place of privilege, but ends up relating to so much of their stories that she finds her rage toward her rapist fizzling.

It’s with great care, too, that Connors treats the racial tensions that arise during her investigation. Connors talks to women of color who, in 2007 when she conducted her interviews, had never reported their rapes: “I know about rape,” one of Francis’ relatives says. “I was raped myself. Three times. But I asked for it because I was on drugs and I was prostituting.” Connors tells the woman that she didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but the woman tells her the story of how one of her rapes happened and concludes with: “And besides that […] he was a white guy.” This woman felt that nothing would be done about it, even if she did report it.

Connors also writes that in her case, she served as the “perfect witness”; she explains that her rape “isn’t [hers] at all. It’s the state’s, as in The State of Ohio v. David Francis.” The prosecutor tells her: “You’re the ideal witness,” because she is “a journalist, trained to observe details and remember them.” She adds:

I know what he really means. To him, I’m the perfect victim because I happen to fulfill just about all the requirements of a woman accusing a man of rape, going back before the Civil War. I am white, educated, and middle-class. I resisted, and I have a cut on my neck, bruises still healing on my spine, and a torn and blood-stained blouse to prove it. I immediately ran to report the rape.

Needless to say, David Francis is the perfect defendant: black, poor, and uneducated, with a criminal record.

In fact, as she finds out during her investigation, her assailant was both Black and Native American, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, starting at age 12. Connors looks at the racial disparity in prisons, at the rate of poverty in the areas of Cleveland that she visits, at the way socioeconomic status and race are interwoven, how violence and drug abuse feed into those factors as well, and how sexual assault and abusive environments are so often passed down through generations. Connors discovered fellow survivors in her rapist’s family—his sister Laura, with whom Connors is still in touch, described her mother’s boyfriend raping her in a church. His entire family, she discovers, have been survivors of one kind or another.

Connors believes that her rapist was likely raped himself. During her assault, she had a clear feeling that Francis was re-enacting something done to him. And after learning that rape was common at the juvenile detention center where Francis did many stints, she assumes that he had been abused there and during his time spent locked up as an adult.

What is most striking about Connors’ book is not its bravery—though it is brave—or its shock value, which exists. The book is valuable because Connors recognizes and conveys to readers the cyclical nature of abuse, its pathological nature, and one of its sources: in David Francis’ case, perhaps learning by example.

Commentary Abortion

Looking at the Racial Disparity in Abortion Rates Completely Misses the Point

Kate Castle

A recent Wall Street Journal article accuses the American left of being hypocritical by advocating for Black Lives Matter while failing to address racial inequities in U.S. abortion rates. This claim is a deliberate attempt to justify the deterioration of reproductive rights for women in the United States under the guise of racial justice.

In his Wall Street Journal article titled “Let’s Talk About the Racial Disparity in Abortions,” Jason Riley, a conservative Black journalist, accuses the left of being hypocritical by advocating for Black Lives Matter while failing to address racial inequities in U.S. abortion rates. He calls on the left to develop a critique of racial disparity in abortion rates:

A popular explanation for the racial divide is that abortion rates are a function of poverty. Low-income women are more likely to terminate a pregnancy, and black women are more likely to be low-income. Yet there are limits to this argument. Hispanic households are comparable to black ones in finances, sexual activity and use of birth control. Yet Hispanic women choose to abort at a rate much closer to that of white women than black women. Even when controlling for income, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, black women still have significantly higher rates of abortion.

The sad truth is that many black women are not acting irrationally when they decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They are playing the odds. Out-of-wedlock Hispanic birthrates are above average, but Hispanic marriage rates are comparable to those of whites, which is not the case among blacks. Most Hispanic children are raised by two parents, while most black children are not. Many black women may be choosing to abort because they don’t believe the father will stick around to help raise the child. 

The left plays down the discomfiting incentives and unintended consequence that have resulted from Roe v. Wade. But if liberal activist and their media allies are going to lecture America about the value of black lives, the staggering disparity in abortion rates ought to be part of the discussion. [Emphasis added.]

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Riley’s argument is narrow-minded at best and extremely dangerous to the reproductive rights movement at worst.

I would like to address a few points of his piece here and argue that his focus on racial disparities in abortion rates is a deliberate attempt to justify the deterioration of reproductive rights for women in the United States under the guise of racial justice.

Riley’s argument is nothing novel. It echoes sentiments of the Black genocide campaigns. We’ve all seen the billboards that shame Black women with headlines like “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” What stands out about Riley’s argument is the way he frames his “concern.” Instead of accusing Black women of committing murder, Riley blames their partners. He says, “Many black women may be choosing to abort because they don’t believe the father will stick around to help raise the child.”

His claim about the root cause of why Black women have higher rates of abortion is both racist and sexist. By shifting the focus from systematic factors to Black women’s partners, presumably Black men, and an “unconventional” family structure among Black people (lower marriage rates and cohabitation), Riley is downplaying the importance of structural racism and blaming individuals for being “irresponsible.” He is attempting to depoliticize poverty by focusing on a very narrow and conservative view of morality.

Further, by inserting “the father” into the conversation, Riley is stripping Black women of their agency. In Riley’s world, Black women are merely subjects reacting to conditions they have no control over. This depiction of Black women as puppets disregards the complexities they grapple with and the strength they embody when making decisions about their reproduction and their lives. Black women, according to Riley, are not actors in their own lives.

However, as Monica Simpson of SisterSong explains in an article at Rewire, Black women “are making decisions every day to plan and care for ourselves and for our children.” Simpson adds:

We deal with attacks on our ability to access reproductive health care and obstacles to raising our children—the need for better education, difficulty affording child care, a broken criminal justice system that perpetuates mass incarceration and police violence, continued health disparities, and a lack of access to high quality health services. We are struggling, but we are also striving to get by in a world that far too often wants to push us down.

….

There is a real health crisis for Black women in this country that is only exacerbated by an organized attempt to strip us of our rights and our bodily autonomy. People should not be forced to be pregnant when they are not ready, and we will not be told that we cannot be parents or that we should have to endure having our children grow up in a climate of fear or without a safe and healthy place to call home.

Riley’s logic—that higher rates of abortion among Black women are linked to lower marriage rates among Black couples—can be traced back to the theory of social disorganization. Sociologists at the University of Chicago described social disorganization theory as an explanation for why individuals undergoing major social changes (such as migration) were unable to conform to certain social “norms” such as a nuclear family unit. High crime rates, sexually promiscuous behavior, desertion, and delinquency were considered by the theorists as attributes of social disorganization.

During and after World War II there was an influx of Black Americans into northern industrial cities from the South. Many cities did not have the infrastructure to accommodate the rapidly growing population. This, in turn, led to overcrowding and housing deterioration in Black neighborhoods. Black housing reformers, in search of an explanation for the housing crisis in Chicago, adopted the social disorganization theory.

In Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Post-War Chicago, political scientist Preston H. Smith II explains:

The idea of social disorganization appealed to black civic leaders for a number of reasons. Since all African Americans were subject to racial segregation, for these black elites, social disorganization helped to explain why some succeeded in escaping poverty while others failed. Not only was it a convenient concept to explain class differences in the black community but it also paid racial democratic dividends. Black policy elites could single out low-income blacks as the bearers of personal and family disorganization, and thus contest whites who generalized pathology to blacks of all economic strata. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, Black elites were able to draw a class distinction in order to separate themselves from low-income Black individuals. They did so by embracing white middle-class values and using “self-help” rhetoric (preaching these values to working-class Blacks). The fact that Chicago school theorists depicted social disorganization as a process allowed for an understanding that it could be disrupted. Smith goes on:

Black civic leaders could attack social disorganization in two ways: by confronting racial segregation that produced slum conditions, and/or by correcting the values and behavior of working-class blacks in the segregated institutions that they managed. Black elites became invested in inculcating middle-class values into their poorer brethren.

This is a historical account of how Black elites took on a managerial role toward low-income Black individuals in the post-war era. “Self-help” rhetoric became popularized with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. As Preston H. Smith explains in “Self-Help,” Black Conservatives, and the Reemergence of Black Privatism:

The term “self-help” was used by political commentators, politicians, and ministers during the Reagan-Bush era to indicate a shift in black politics. Often invoked, self-help was associated with phrases such as “self-reliance” and “individual responsibility” to indicate that the source of black social problems came, and certainly alleviation should come, from within the black community.

Once understood to be a product of structural forces, with the help of self-help rhetoric, poverty is reduced to a character flaw. This focus on the individual depoliticizes poverty and perpetuates the idea that there is a Black underclass that needs to be “managed.” Riley’s use of self-help rhetoric to inflict shame on Black men, accusing them of being irresponsible, is a perfect example of how this logic is very much prevalent in Black politics today. Riley’s claim that Black men are not around to help raise their children reinforces this idea that poverty is a function of values and character. As a Black professional, he is attempting to take on the role of racial manager to tell low-income Black men how to be “responsible fathers.”

Riley’s accusation that Black men are not there to help Black women raise their children not only ignores structural factors that reproduce racial and economic inequality, such as mass incarceration and the lack of access to adequate health care and education, but it is also simply not true. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that Black dads are just as involved with their children as white and Latino dads in similar living situations. While Black dads are less likely to live with their children, they are more likely to see them at least once a month compared to their white and Latino counterparts.

While I would like to go more in depth into how neoliberal self-help rhetoric functions to depoliticize poverty, I want to get back to Riley’s central claim. Riley would like his readers to understand higher rates of abortion among Black women as a moral atrocity. He uses language like “babies” in the place of fetus intentionally to distract from the real issue at hand: controlling Black women’s reproduction and lives.

Reasons U.S. Women have Abortions, a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, found that 73 percent of women cited not being able to afford a baby right now as a reason for having an abortion. Over 60 percent of women having abortions already had children and 48 percent of women cited they were having relationship problems or did not want to be a single parent.

Of all the reasons women give for having abortions, not being able to afford to have another child is one of the most common. So yes, Mr. Riley, this is about economics.

Riley is correct that relationships play a role in women’s reproductive decisions. It is true that 48 percent of women cited relationship problems or avoiding single motherhood as a reason for having an abortion. But this doesn’t mean what Riley thinks it does. He blames higher abortion rates among Black women on allegedly irresponsible partners and dysfunctional family structure. He seems to want to say that it’s not poverty that matters, it’s “good” values, like personal responsibility. The reality is that relationships have an economic component. As the social safety net deteriorates, it’s low-income people who are hit the hardest. The desire to have a partner (and two incomes) to help raise a child is a matter of economic survival.

When I look at the disparity in abortion rates, I see women making difficult decisions based on their life circumstances. It is an undeniable truth that the evaluation of material conditions and relationships plays an important role in making reproductive decisions on an individual level. Of course they do. What is happening in our lives always influences the decisions that we make. But to attribute higher abortion rates to one factor (Black men’s “failure to father”) is ignorant at best. First, as I’ve already established, dominant stereotypes about Black fatherhood are simply wrong; the data says so. Secondly, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 89 percent of women selected at least two reasons they were choosing to have an abortion, and 72 percent selected three or more. What this tells us is that reasons for abortion are not clear-cut; they are multifaceted, just like the women who have them. There is no singular narrative to abortion and to suggest so minimizes the strength and compassion women exert in deciding to end a pregnancy.

This is only part of a much larger discussion our society needs to have surrounding abortion rights. We need to focus on women and the reality of their lives, including the structures that shape them, because that is what reproductive rights and justice is really about.

Riley may have fooled some by appealing to sentiments of racial unity. But I’ve attempted to unmask his motivations and highlight that this attack on Black women’s partners not “sticking around” as the primary reason why they have abortions at a higher rate than white women is part of a larger attempt to depoliticize poverty and blame individuals for their own systematic oppression. Riley’s accusation that the left is being hypocritical by mobilizing for Black Lives Matter without critiquing racial disparity in abortion rates completely misses the point. While Black Lives Matter activists target systems of oppression, specifically the prison industrial complex and police brutality, Riley is stuck on analyzing a symptom of the system. His accusation that Black men need to be better fathers and use of self-help rhetoric only act to further distract from the root of the problem: racial oppression and economic exploitation. It is insulting for Riley to suggest he cares about Black lives when he doesn’t respect Black women enough to value their lives and moral agency. If Riley was honestly concerned with Black lives, he would spend his time writing about racism in the justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, job creation, the campaign for a living wage, comprehensive health care (including access to affordable birth control options), and public education (including comprehensive sex ed programs).

Editor’s note: The author’s affiliation is included for informational purposes only; this work was not conducted under the auspices of the Guttmacher Institute. The views expressed herein are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Guttmacher Institute.