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Law and politics, Morality, rationality and self-interest

Breaking The Mold – On Bitches, Ditzes and Angry Black Men.


In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen a lot of ink on the pressures women face in juggling their various roles as mothers, wives, executives, teachers and leaders. Various writers have put pen to paper to address the seeming double standards faced by women in being expected to take on the challenge of breaking various glass ceilings while simultaneously being loving wives and super, socermoms. Many women are finding themselves exhausted while trying to enjoy the benefits live up to the pressures of the “post feminist” world in which women can must do everything a man can – and do it better. Julie Zeilinger’s recent piece on why modern women fail to lead and Amanda Fortini’s recent piece on “how the Year of the Woman reinforced the two most pernicious sexist stereotypes and actually set women back”, are the latest to question the impact of cultural biases against women at a time when we’re supposed to be living in a post-racial, post-feminist era, where everyone gets a fair shake.

Both authors raise good questions. The opposite and yet equally sexist cliches that Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin struggled against (“the Bitch and the Ditz”) reminded me of some of the contrasting stereotypes of black men in the U.S: The Angry Black Man (the criminal) and the servile, smiling, eloquent, perhaps preppy and self-loathing “exception” to the Angry Black Man rule.

The biggest problem with these and all stereo-types, I think, is that they are often based on half-truths. If they were entirely fictitious, they wouldn’t stick – they wouldn’t turn into cliches in the first place and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Many black men were angry and with good reasons, following slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and all the brutalities and injustices in this country’s struggles with race in the 19th and 20th centuries. But to many young white Americans growing up in the 70s, 80s and even 90s without the historical context to understand their black counterparts’ apparently unjustified rage, and with the inherited luxury of taking their own privilege for granted, the simmering black anger that got filtered through rap & hip-hop into mainstream culture perhaps seemed inscrutable. (Think artists like  Ice Cube (“Fuck The Police”, “AmeriKKKa’s most wanted”), Ice Tea (“Cop killer”), Tupac (“Me Against The World”) etc.).

Yes, many black men were angry, and that became a cliche that the mostly white, upper-middle class establishment came to fear. Not a good thing for educated (or uneducated) black men trying to succeed in a predominantly white and at times hostile America. Some black men lashed out at the establishment (either through legal ways and through media and artwork with an angry political message, or through criminal activity, gang violence or the kind of confrontational militant approach that eventually derailed the Black Panther movement etc.), and others permed their hair, bleached their skin, covered up their “black twang” with polished diction and tried to blend in while creating as few waves as possible.

In much the same way, unfortunately, the cliches of the bitch and the ditz are also founded in some myopic reality. Over the years, women have employed various strategies to succeed in what was pretty much a man’s world. Some chose to play along to the powers that be by trying to “use what their mother gave them” to get ahead, depending on male favors in exchange for sexual favors while playing dumb and hoping for a knight in shining armor with a flashy car to sweep them away to a big castle on a hill where they could play happy families (cue clip of some of the Mad-men-esque “dolls”). Others fought against male dominance through protests, marches, academic writing and political activism. The former played into and helped create the ditz cliche, and the latter – those at the forefront of the feminist movement – both the bra-burners and the intellectuals who threatened the male strangle-hold on power – played the role of “bitches”.

Sadly, though we have come a long way since the “bad old days” of Jim Crow era lynchings and “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” type hostility and work-place sexual harassment, the stereo-types that once permeated the psyche of the white, male dominance of much of 20th century America remains deeply imbedded within American culture. Women are still presented in the media as sex objects to be enjoyed by men and blacks still appear on TV predominantly either as entertainers or athletes – owned and traded by the predominantly white owners of their NFL and NBA teams. Other minorities also remain the periphery of mainstream entertainment.

Progress has been made in Hollywood, with women and minorities occasionally receiving leading roles and eventually, even Oscars – though several minorities continue to be presented as one-dimensional, “token Indian/Chinese” characters. But outside of the silver screen, many minority Americans still work in companies where there are next to no black, brown or female C-suite level executives or upper management. This is not to say the reasons for the lack of minority representation (including women) in these areas is due solely or even primarily to bias. Certainly not. However, because stereo-types and cliches are only weakened and eventually dismantled by exposure to counter-examples that break those molds, in environments where the white, male domination persists, there are relatively few opportunities for minorities and women to shake those stereotypes and break those molds if they are not present in the numbers required to do so.

Politics is no different. We have to remember that before we had Barack Obama, we had Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who though successful in fighting the evils of their day, unfortunately played into other stereotypes that continue today. And for every Hilary Clinton, you’ll have a Sarah Palin or a Michelle Bachman or a Martha Stewart (see ditzes and bitches cliche above). We need more Oprah Winfreys and Obamas to help breakdown some of those persisting stereo-types and also to give women, black people and other minorities positive role models that break the mold. Sadly, these stereotypes take a long time to break.

So while it is frustrating to deal with, that we’re aware of these biases and actively debating their unfairness to folks seeking to be judged on their own strengths and weaknesses rather than by reference to some faux standard of blackness/femininity, is indicative of progress. We are going through the slow work needed to gradually chip away at those old ideas and move closer to the sexism and racism free, meritocratic, egalitarian and ideal, fair society we seek to live in. How long it takes us to get there will depend on how hard we strive to be the counter-examples of those stereo-types that we’re each having to wrestle with in our own daily lives.

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About tettehotuteye

www.tettehotuteye.com

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