Weinstein, White Privilege And The Limits Of Black Women’s Empathy
Despite the absence of other folks’ compassion when Black people need it most, my immediate reaction to stories of sexual assault and harassment is almost always instinctively, deeply empathetic, race be damned. For that reason, this is one of the more challenging pieces that I’ve ever written.
As I read yet another account of post-Harvey Weinstein trauma from a white woman who apparently matters more to the world than I—or even her fellow accuser Lupita Nyong’o—ever will, I had a thought that made me recoil a bit at myself:
“There is no role that white women can ever play better than that of ‘victim.’”
What a harsh response, right? And, yet, it is as true as anything I’ve ever said in my life.
Be clear, I didn’t feel bad for having this thought; rather, I was disconcerted that it came to mind at this particular moment. After all, these white women aren’t crying because a Black female colleague raised her voice in a meeting or because one of her own had a change of heart about a consensual sexual encounter with a Black man. These women are sharing horrific stories of alleged assault and harassment at the hands of Weinstein, a man who had the power to either catapult or end their careers.
The appropriate response to the mounting allegations against the Hollywood magnate seems clear: a mixture of sympathy for the harmed and concern for what sort of action will be taken to address predators in the film industry and beyond.
Yet, in this case, the all-too complicated politics of my own identity make that a difficult set of feelings to channel.
You see, white women know how to be victims. They know just how to bleed and weep in the public square, they fundamentally understand that they are entitled to sympathy. Conversely, Black women, when victimized, know that we need to tuck that shit in and keep it moving, that few people will care what we’ve endured or even believe that it happened—and a lot of us seem to struggle with the idea that we can be victimized in the first place.
A despicable 2014 Washington Post column argues that women are likely to falsify rape accusations because victimhood is a “coveted status that confers privileges.” This could not be farther from the truth. However, if there is privilege meted out among this devastating sorority of female assault survivors (I crossed those burning sands in 2007), it would be the increased ability to garner more sympathy than contempt, more outrage than dismissal and the capacity to make such charges against a man who looks like you without being accused of treason. Class, gender identity/expression and sexual behaviors (real and imagined) are certainly factors, but it seems fair to say that Black women fail to meet the requirements for public empathy more often than not.
The inconvenient truth is that when it comes to the abuse of Black women, our white counterparts have been both actors and accomplices. White women have hurt us; the history of this country is wrought with examples, from the plantation to the ballot box, with a horrifying story emerging from the University of Hartford just this week, as a white co-ed faces charges for poisoning her Black roommate in hopes that she would move out. It seems that it was only once the victim’s friends took to social media, claiming that the school wasn’t taking these allegations seriously, that punishment became a real possibility.
In both a historical and modern context, white women have consistently benefited from our third-class citizen status and demanded solidarity of Black women while never actually recognizing us as part of their circle of womanhood.
Consider Megyn Kelly, the Fox News ex-pat who rode mediocre interview skills and virulent racism into an expanded platform at NBC, complete with a choice morning show slot (excuse me while I #standwithTamron). This same woman who described a 14-year-old Black girl who was brutalized by a Texas police officer as “no saint either” (and also declared that he likely didn’t realize her age when he wrestled her to the ground and pulled a gun on her) has dared to position herself a “fierce” voice for women in the midst of the sexual harassment scandals that have most recently rocked the media. Presumably, because she too was a victim of such harassment, she wears the crown.
Look at how the temporary suspension of Weinstein rape accuser Rose McGowan’s Twitter account was positioned as a moment for everyone with Internet service to rally about online harassment against women—a slap in the face to the legion of Black women who’ve suffered from violent threats and sexist bullying for years. Yes, #ustoo. McGowan would then go on to suggest that a joke about the sexual assault accusations wouldn’t be acceptable if you “replace the word ‘women’ with the N-word.’”
Good thing N-word women and girls don’t exist.
Black women are expected to cheer the undoing of Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood empire whilst knowing that such consequences would likely never befall a man who’d abused us. My natural compassion for those alleged victims is tempered by the likelihood that majority of them, as well the men who have come forward to offer empty edicts in their defense, wouldn’t be able to spare as much as a retweet if there had instead been dozens of Black women coming forward to say that a single industry titan had violated them.
Of course, we don’t need to drum up an imaginary predator to talk about how that situation would play out. Two words: R. Kelly. Remember him? R.Kelly, the award-winning producer and R & B singer who has continued to record and perform despite a documented history of abusing Black women and girls. New allegations of abuse surfaced against him just months after millions of women filled streets across the country and promised to eschew white feminism for the real kind. Shamed into feigning an intersectional approach to ‘resistance’ by organizers of color and long-time allies who brought validity to what could have easily been just a photo op, these ‘woke’ white women said they were ready to stand up for all women and girls. But on R. Kelly and the string of victims in his wake, crickets.
In fact, yet another Kelly accuser came forward only last week, but predictably failed to garner the interest that has swirled around other victims of powerful men outed as alleged predators in the wake of Weinstein’s undoing. Why are we still hearing relative silence from all but the same voices that have been demanding consequences for the “Pied Piper” for years?
It’s worth noting that the white women and men who have circled around those who have come forward about Weinstein have nothing to lose from speaking up for the alleged Kelly victims, as an aging urban crooner would have zero sway over their careers. Alas, because that would require actually recognizing the full personhood of Black women and girls, such a gesture is damn near unfathomable.
Aside: I’d bet whatever I have in my purse that at least one white woman who has dared to read this far has teared up by now, feeling guilty and attacked all at once. Two others are angered and absent the first emotion. At least one of my own sisters will make a point of publicly distancing herself from everything I’ve said here, because we often perform the sort of empathy we want to receive from white folks, with the same sort of results you might expect from teaching a lesson in English to a room of people who’ve never heard the language in their lives: someone might repeat something that sounds pretty clear, but you’d be a fool to assume they even understood what they’ve said.
Don’t get it twisted. I’m not bitter enough to lose sight of the fact that white women and girls are vulnerable and violated constantly—all women and girls are—we wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. I’m also clear that the current media circus centering the abuse of otherwise-privileged women in Hollywood isn’t enough to be considered justice for them, and it’s damn sure not going to do much for the poor, othered and colored girls that have historically endured what the Weinsteins of the world and other brutal men have done to them since fucking forever.
This may offend my political connects, but I will admit that there is one element of white feminine identity that I wish me and my sisters could access: the ability to be valued as that delicate flower of womanhood that is only seen in fields of white. I want the world to see red and want blood when we have been harmed, or, at the very least, I’d like for our abuse to inspire the sort of performative compassion and outrage afforded the women who have spared so little for me and mine.
Living at the intersection of Black and womanhood strips Black women of our basic humanity in broad, measurable strokes, but also in small, nuanced ways that are all too easy to miss. Sure, there has been elevated discourse in recent years about wage gaps, healthcare, the school-to-prison pipeline and the other disparities and inequities that meet us in most of the spaces that define quality of life in the United States. But it’s worth considering how we’re challenged when trying to simply feel, for ourselves and for others, without complication.
For that reason, I can’t simply stand with this group of victims without reminding the world that some of us still do not have the ability to be recognized as victims in the first place. Feel free to hate me now—that is, if you didn’t already.
Jamilah Lemieux is the VP of News and Men’s Programming. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk: @jamilahlemieux
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