Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Big Sort

One of the books I have been reading recently is entitled "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart." The book, written by journalist Bill Bishop with retired sociology professor Robert G. Cushing, argues that Americans are segregating themselves more than ever--by political beliefs and life-style. Well-educated liberals have been flocking to Portland, Oregon while conservative Evangelicals are swarming the exurbs of Phoenix, Arizona. Of course, Mr. Bishop assumes when he speaks of "Americans," "liberals," and "conservatives," that he is talking primarily or exclusively about whites; despite the fact that the white population of this country is steadily declining, it is hard for many whites to lose the habit of thinking of themselves as "people" who have varying characteristics, while thinking about others as just that: "others," who are monolithic and generally, can be safely ignored.

However, Bishop's insight about white working- and middle-class settlement habits does have some value to us as well, even if it is a value that he perhaps would not recognize: it explains why increasing numbers of black women are willing to seek out interracial relationships.

As Bishop points out, ideology and "lifestyle" considerations are shaping where greater numbers of Americans choose live, and those they choose to live around, than ever before. Bishop views this sorting through the prism of "Democrats" and "Republicans," and while most Americans probably lean more towards one party or the other, I think this kind of labeling is probably less than useful, considering the number of people who, if asked, would reject identification with either one. "Liberal" and "conservative" may be more constructive labels, but ultimately it is the sorting by a wide variety of values and lifestyle choices that characterizes the way that people choose to live today in the United States, a sorting that cannot neatly fit within traditional, narrow definitions, even if people all too often feel compelled to try and fit themselves within the existing constraints in the absence of any other options for socialization.

"Unchurched," pro-choice, affluent professionals with advanced degrees can be found in the suburbs of Dallas, but they are often clustered in the gentrified lofts of New York and L.A.--even if only psychologically. Born-again, blue-collar, anti-gay marriage activists without college degrees can be located throughout Manhattan, but more and more they are flocking to the suburbs of Orlando, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina. These are certainly generalizations, but the statistics reflect a kernel of truth to these images that cannot be ignored.

This "sorting" process has not bypassed black women, and it has worked a fundamental change in the way many of us view romantic compatibility and relationships. While race still has huge importance in our society, a black women who loves old-school hip-hop--AND Japenese anime, rock-climbing, and Foucault--can find a population of black men who share her interests, but she will find an even larger population of non-black men who do. This isn't because black people are monolithic, but because as education and affluence frees more people--including black women in particular--to focus on their individual interests and needs, it inevitably renders race merely one of many touchstones of attraction and compatibility--or may even render it largely irrelevant in the individual case. Similarly, sisters whose lives revolve, for example, around their Pentecostal church and sharing their faith, may find a dearth of men among their congregations--and if their faith is paramount in their lives, it may well be more important to them that the men they consider marrying share their beliefs as much, if not more, than their racial background.

Bishop finds this "clustering" phenomenon disturbing, because he fears the fault lines that it has created in white America. But for black women with options, choosing men based on shared values and interests is ultimately freeing--and healthy. Rather than a retreat to groupthink, for us, it is an escape from it. And while we can be as susceptible as anyone to a rigid of closing of our minds to different ideas, the very act of refusing to be restricted by race in choosing our mates serves as a tremendous opportunity to liberate us from knee-jerk thinking and reaction. Instead of continuing to huddle in "clusters," we are becoming more and more empowered to choose to be open. For us, this is a crucial opportunity, and I hope more and more sisters grab hold of it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Reinterpreting Wesley Snipes

Wesley Snipes, by Laura B. Randolph
Ebony Magazine, September 1991,
v.46 n.11 p84

Hollywood's Hottest New Star Talks About: His Divorce, His Days on the Streets and Why He Doesn't Have 'Jungle Fever'

"I like a woman who is aware of her womaness in its universal form; a woman who isn't defined by what she's been told, or what she's been dictated to believe she's supposed to be. Those are the women who attract me. Women who allow that to embody them . . . and at the same time they're not in conflict with you because you're a man. They see the interconnectedness and the necessity of having a man--not a boy or male but a man--in their life. A woman who has that going on, she will grab my attention every time."

And, unlike the object of his onscreen character's desire, she probably won't be White. Though he allows, "If two people love one another that should be all that matters," offscreen, Wesley Snipes definitely doesn't have jungle fever. "It's more important to me to try and develop a good . . . relationship between a Black man and a Black woman," he says. 'That's the agenda right now and that's totally where my head is -- to redefine the image of Black male/female relationships and how important and valuable they are. We have to work on that tip. Once we work on that and relate to one another on a personal, professional, sexual and social sense, then we can venture out. Until then, we ain't ready for it."

Wesley Snipes, by Lynn Norment
Ebony Magazine, November 1997, v.53 n.1 p188

On the personal level, Snipes, a divorced father of a "precocious" 8-year-old son, Jelani, says he enjoys spending time with "spirited" women. "Either the hot-headed ones or the ones who just think they're divas," he explains. "I like them because they have spice and creativity. I like a woman who reads. I think a number of my
relationships [ended] because she didn't read and we didn't have anything to talk about.... But I'm not into the ones who want to jump up and fight and get loud. That's not my flavor."

The Asian model and restaurateur he introduces as "my lady, Donna [Wong]" has been Snipes' companion for the past year and a half. When asked if he dates Black women, he says: "Primarily all of my life I've dated Black women.... Oh, most definitely. Oh, my God. Mostly. But it just so happens that now I'm dating an Asian woman. It's different. Different energy, different spirit, but a nice person." He says he is not ready for marriage; nor is Donna. "She's got to learn to deal with the love scenes in the movies first," says Snipes as he chuckles. "Got to get to a place where it's very comfortable."

Wesley says he realizes that there are Black women still who get an attitude about Black men with Asian, White or Hispanic women. "I know we've all been hurt, and we're all very wounded," he says, addressing Black women. "We have to acknowledge that, both male and female, in the Black experience. We're a wounded people. And we want to possess and we want to own. We don't want to compromise. We feel like we've compromised enough. But in any relationship you have to compromise. There's no way around it. And I say to Black women also, Brothers who are very, very successful, or who have become somewhat successful, usually it's been at a great expense, unseen by the camera's eye.... "He doesn't want to come home to someone who's going to be mean and aggravating and unkind and who is going to be `please me, please me.' He doesn't want to come home to that. He doesn't want to come home to have a fight with someone who is supposed to be his helpmate. So it's very natural that he's going to turn to some place that's more compassionate.... You've worked hard and you deserve to come home to comforting. And usually a man who has that will appreciate it. Because I've never known one cat, all those cats I've hung out with and still hang out with, who found something that they really, really like and didn't go back to it. They all go back. It's very simple."

When asked for clarification, Snipes emphasizes that he is not saying that a Black woman can not be that type of woman a man wants to come home to. "Not at all," he declares. "Absolutely not. That's the point. I want to come home and I don't want to argue. I want to be pleasing, but if I ask you to get me a glass of water, you're going to say, `Them days is over.' Please. Come on," Wesley says. "A man likes that. I don't know why. It's been that way forever. It makes him proud, you know, like when the guys come over and your lady comes out with a tray of food and says `I made this up for you.' And the guys are like, `Oh man, you've got a great women.' And the man says, `Yeah, I do.' A man will appreciate it when you're kind and when you're nice. "For successful women, it's hard," he continues, obviously quite comfortable and articulate on the subject of relationships. "The competition is fierce. And if he's a man of success and power who happens to be handsome, of course you're not the only one who thinks he's handsome. But you don't have to punish him because of that once you get with him. Don't punish him because somebody else likes him."

Continuing with his openness, Snipes says he's had his heart broken more than once, and at times by Black women. "Most definitely. Most definitely," he says. In his new film, the dramatic love-triangle "One Night Stand" hearts are broken as Snipes' character is caught in a love triangle between two beautiful women--one of whom is blond(Nastassja Kinski), the other Asian (Ming-Na Wen) . . .

"One Night Stand" originally was written for Nicholas Cage, but Cage was preoccupied with another film. The director sought Snipes because he wanted someone with a strong acting background but who also would be attractive to Nastassja Kinski. "It was never an issue of the interracial aspect at all," Snipes says, adding that "the only thing we don't have in this film is a Sister."

He says there were discussions concerning whether his character's wife should be Black or whether she should be White. "Early on there were concerns about the Black community reminiscing to Jungle Fever, and missing the point of the story," he says. "So we didn't want to go that route. And I've done a lot of movies where I've had White women as my co-stars. That would have been kind of redundant. So I said, `Well, let me go either Spanish or Asian. That's something unusual.'"

Wesley Snipes has been in the news recently primarily because of his troubles with the Internal Revenue Service. The 45-year-old actor was sentenced last month to three years in prison on three misdemeanor counts of willful failure to file income tax returns since 1998. Wesley Snipes has long been notorious among black women, however, for a different reason—for his being an icon of the specific type of interracial dater that black people often state they resent above all others: the one who not only dates “outside his race,” but justifies his doing so by insulting and belittling the members of the opposite sex of his own race. This loathsome reputation was earned by Mr. Snipes through the above statements quoted from at length above from the second article featured in Ebony magazine where he discloses his relationship with Ms. Wong, who is apparently now his wife.

I remember reading this article, and yes, finding it pretty offensive. It seemed to rely implicitly on the most common stereotypes about black women (“mean and aggravating and unkind, argumentative, unyielding, blah, blah, blah). Yet, at the same time, I tried to take Snipes at his word, and view his words from the perspective that he claimed to be offering them, as equally applicable to both black men and black women in the dating world. And viewing his statements from a gender neutral perspective (even if he did not actually express them in that way), he articulated an uncomfortable but very real factor that does haunt many relationships between black people, romantic and otherwise: the way that the stresses we face as a people in the larger society effect the manner in which we interact with each other.

Typically, those black people who oppose IRRs who bother to formulate a non-emotional rationale for their opposition usually found their reasoning on the belief that no other people can understand this stress, this “woundedness” that Snipes refers to, and that attempting to explain to clueless non-black (especially white) partners what we have to cope with would only add stress to a relationship. How would you feel coming home to a white husband or wife after being called a “nigger” in traffic? Or worse, being denied a job you were qualified for, or a promotion you had earned? Could they even comprehend what it means when you show up for an interview which HR had expressed nothing but enthusiasm about, only to see their faces fall when YOU walk through the door? Can they really empathize when you express frustration with always being last hired and first fired, with always having to be twice as good to get half as far? What if your lover, your best friend, that one person who is supposed to have your back, dismissed your distress, and suggested that you simply wore the wrong shoes or hairstyle, or someone else was just more “qualified”?

However, what Snipes expressed was the other side of this equation—what if coming home to someone who doesn’t bear that particular burden is not additionally stressful, but less so? Are there benefits to sharing life with someone with a “different energy,” as he put it?

One of the main reasons that black women have often reacted with such knee-jerk resentment to IRRs is precisely because, too often, black men’s preference for non-black women is expressed in terms of such women possessing a “lightness” and “ease” that black women do not—a lightness that, to the extent it exists, comes at least in part from not having the same kind of struggles with our society that black men try to escape by pursuing non-black women, and, of course, from having a level of support as women from their men that black women have not enjoyed. To be rejected not only because you bring the same involuntarily shouldered burdens to the relationship as the man, but also the additional burdens of his neglect, hostility and exploitation, has often been too much for black women to bear.

As Halima’s concept of racio-misogyny articulates, for some black men, sexism against black women is not merely a function of gender but also of race—resentment is derived as much from black women’s nappy hair, dark skin, broad features, “lack of femininity,” the way in which her blackness precludes her from being the trophy that Snipes describes (“the guys are like, `Oh man, you've got a great women.' And the man says, `Yeah, I do. ”)--as it is from her being a woman. His words here remind me of the scene in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in which Tea Cake brags about the fair-skinned Janie’s susceptibility to bruising after a beating. Black equals strong, loud, unsusceptible to bruising--mule-like in toughness and resiliency. As Snipes notes, a man wants to be proud of his woman: he wants someone pleasing, someone compromising, someone compassionate—to him. But as Snipes acknowledges in passing, black women, who must cope with many of the same stresses as black men, plus others that black men don’t experience, may also want these some qualities in a mate. And while black women are constantly discouraged from being too black, too loud, too angry and too tough, these qualities are considered the sine qua non of black manhood in our society. When a black woman finds a man who is comfortable in his manhood without the barrier of this armor, is she expected not to find the experience as appealing as all the black men who have lauded the comparative “softness” of non-black women?

I have always argued that there is no group in Western society that is more restricted from being gentle, nurturing, vulnerable, and humane than black men. Our history makes it clear how this restriction has occurred, as well as it’s tragic results. But, today, much of the enforcement of “hardness” for black men in our society comes from other black men and the “community” at large. Robbed of other avenues of achieving manhood, too many brothers settle for a caricature of masculinity that consists of little more than the ability to brutalize and exploit others without conscience. And while we must always remember the historical roots of this tragic phenomenon, as black women, we are not somehow obligated to lay down and sacrifice ourselves too it. We, like Mr. Snipes, have a right to enjoy a “different energy” in our intimate relationships, to be respected, to be pleased, to come home to peace and compromise. Certainly, that energy can be found with a black man—but it might also be found with a non-black man, and if it is, you should feel no more guilt or shame about that fact than Mr. Snipes. While many have argued that a to reject a damaged brother, especially one damaged by racism, when you have it in your power to nurture him “back to health” is a betrayal, your first concern must always be what cost will such nurturance impose on you? Certainly the mean, aggravating, unkind women that Mr. Snipes left behind for Ms. Wong could probably use some “nurturance” as well, but is that really Mr. Snipes’ responsibility? Would it even be the most effective way for him to have a positive impact on his people’s well being as a whole—to attempt to save one angry woman from herself? In the same way, we as black women must be grateful when we find that “different energy” in our personal relationships, that peace and security that allows us to blossom in every aspect of our lives, and empowers us to be that much more effective in all that we do. We deserve that as much as Mr. Snipes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I had an interesting experience at lunch with a number of co-workers, almost all black women, the other day that encouraged me to think about “standards,” and how we decide what is important to us in a potential mate.

As many of you know, I work for a large law firm, that pays its attorneys fairly well in exchange for a pretty grueling work schedule. As a result, I often find that my peers have developed an appreciation for the “finer things” in life that I don’t entirely share; I try not to judge it, because I am sure there are things I spend my money on that they could find fault with, but some of their choices are just not for me. Our conversation at lunch generally revolved around work, popular culture, etc., and then some ladies started discussing automobiles. There was a general agreement that the Lexus SUV was the vehicle of choice—the BMW just didn’t feel “luxurious” inside, the Range Rover isn’t dependable, the Mercedes looks like a minivan, and the Porsche Cayenne doesn’t even come with Bluetooth standard! Only I, and a first year who received a Lexus coupe as a graduation present for graduating from law school, didn’t own one of these automobiles—and believe me, I felt quite out of place with my little Chrysler!

From cars, the talk segued to weekend jaunts to Paris and St. Barths and finally, to men. One former co-worker, who had acknowledged on a previous occasion to being “bougie,” described a suitor who drove a white Mercedes convertible, and due to successful real estate investments, had retired from paid employment in his 30s. Another woman pointed out that you can’t judge a man’s wealth by his vehicle, and the first sister assured us that she makes no such judgments, but a man certainly can’t expect her to pick him up in her Lexus SUV or date her when he isn’t “pushing” something equally plush!

I joined in the laughter, but I wondered—what our are REAL standards? I know that many of these sisters were probably perfectly sincere—they could never date a man who did not have a certain level of education, a certain level of income, a certain level of wealth, a certain type of car, etc. I also know from prior conversations, that most of them wouldn’t even consider dating a non-black man. In NYC, or anywhere else in the U.S., this certainly makes their situation rather . . . challenging. The competition for men who meet this kind of criteria is fierce: not only do these sisters have to face off against other lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, engineers, and other professionals, but against models, actresses, and women who’s entire lives are invested in their looks. And, again, the pink elephant at the table is that many of the men that such sisters see as compatible don’t necessarily limit themselves to black women, or have any interest in black women at all. Unsurprisingly, I was one of only a few women at the table who was married, and ironically, my completely unpretentious, non-luxury automobile driving husband probably comes closer to the “baller” ideal being touted simply by virtue of family background and career trajectory than the husbands of the other women there who were also married.

Halima and Evia have blogged repeatedly about the need to help sisters “get free” by sharing with them as much information as possible about their options and their ability not to limit themselves needlessly. I agree wholeheartedly when the issue is simply one of not allowing the social expectations of others to dictate your individual choices; and yet, I am hesitant to directly address the choices and criteria of many of the women I know. After all, these women are in essence “ballers” of sorts themselves—they aren’t seeking anything from a man that they don’t themselves possess in terms of social status, education, income, professional achievement, etc. Just because I eschew flash, why should they? If they find flash attractive, can they ever feel real passion for a man who lives more simply but has more (in my opinion) substance? If you drive a Lexus, is it really so wrong to want your man too as well?

On the other hand, almost all of these sisters want to meet a life-partner and marry, but have yet to find him. In a city like NYC in particular, even the most forgiving standards do not place the odds in favor of a single woman. If a different approach could help, would it be better for them to take such an approach? Please note that I ask the above with full knowledge that I am speaking of a very tiny percentage of the single black woman population—that for most black women the problem is perhaps not needing “different” standards, but needing some standard other than race alone. However, I would like to hear what the women and men out there think about the role of “standards,” in finding a mate, and whether they make any difference at all?

Monday, March 24, 2008

"White Men Don't Want You!"

While many black women cope with psychological or social hurdles in their path to dating interracially, one of the most potent barriers is the claim that black woman are unattractive, to non-black men and/or to men generally. This claim is generally hurled along two dimensions: (1) that black African characteristics such as kinky hair, dark skin, full lips and broad noses are simply unattractive on women and/or (2) that black women are more prone to obesity and less likely to properly care for themselves physically, and that it is this "self-neglect" that makes black women less attractive than other women.

Historically, the first level of prejudice was most likely to be openly displayed: black women were generally invisible in mainstream culture unless relegated to sexless mammy roles, but when they did appear as in anyway attractive, they were invariably light skinned, with narrower facial features and straighter hair than other black women, a phenomenon that continues to this day, though it is rarely explicitly acknowledged. Within the black community, black people also openly embraced the European standard of beauty, with elite black men almost invariably marrying light-skinned women, and all black women utilizing whatever tools they could find, from lye to skin bleach, to emulate the appearance of those women who were clearly most preferred.
In a post-"black is beautiful"/paper-bag test world, it is considered unacceptable to state openly that one considers blackness ugly. White people fear that making such statements publicly would result in them being called racist, and black people fear that making such claims would result in them being viewed as self-loathing. Unfortunately, merely because people stop saying things aloud does not mean that they have stopped believing them. Thus, a consistent riposte aimed at black women who express an interest in interracial relationships is the threat that non-black men will not find them attractive. The potency of this threat can be measured not only by the absence of black women from most mainstream images of feminine beauty, but even more so by the limited experience that many black women have had with being approached with the same assertiveness by non-black men that they have experienced with black men.

Obviously, the fact that I and many black women like me have happily dated, partnered, and married non-black men makes it clear that there ARE non-black men who find black women attractive, and the fact that so many mixed race people, most of whom are the offspring of black mothers, have existed throughout history is a testimony to the fact that there always have been. Nevertheless, I have been hesitant to write about this issue, even though I have seen it repeatedly come up in posts here and at other blogs. This is primarily because, in many ways I fit neatly within our society's parameters of "conventional beauty": I'm fairly tall, a size 6, with biggish breasts, a small waist, and curvy hips, with smallish, even facial features. Probably more importantly, I went to private, highly desegregated schools for most of my life, and my parents made a point of exposing me to a variety of people and cultures. This has given me a certain "social ease" with a variety of people that may not come naturally to those who have been socialized in more segregated environments, even if they don't have segregated attractions. The result has been that I haven't had a particularly hard time meeting men of different races--picking up on social signals, displaying interests in recognizable ways, shared interests in music and popular culture, etc. What I want from this post is for other sisters to share their own experience on this topic, especially the sisters who have also managed to date men from across the racial spectrum, and believe they have some tips to share with sisters who have the inclination, but aren't sure they know exactly HOW to actually meet the interesting, worthwhile men that they're interested in. Please share!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Race and Gender, Part II

I did it! I don't get my results until May, but just finishing the NY Bar Exam itself feels like a huge load off of my shoulders. I returned to a ton of work at the office, but at least I have a bit of breathing room, and a bit of time to devote to the blog!

In any case, like most Americans, much of my non-Bar related attention has been focused recently on the presidential race, and more specifically, on the Democratic primaries. I should state from the outset that I don't consider myself a Democrat or a fan of either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama; but the contest between them has fascinated me for a reason I'm sure many of you could guess (though, of course, it has been rarely addressed in the mainstream media): the echoes of earlier conflicts between black men and white women, and the complete invisibility of black women as a part of the political discourse on the issue.

As we know, much of the white suffragist leadership after the Civil War actively opposed the grant of the vote to the black freedmen under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in crudely racist terms, appealing to white men's sense of race loyalty and white supremacy in an effort to win the vote for themselves instead of the recently freed black man. As Susan B. Anthony wrote about the issue:

While the dominant party have with one hand lifted up TWO MILLION BLACK MEN and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship with the other they have
dethroned FIFTEEN MILLION WHITE WOMEN - their own mothers and sisters, their own wives and daughters - and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of

Elizabeth Cady Stanton warned white men that giving black men the vote instead of "their own mothers and sisters, wives and daughters," would "culminate in fearful outrages on [white] womanhood, especially in the southern states."

Though both Anthony and Stanton had been ardent abolitionists, their opposition to slavery had less to do with a belief in the equality of the races than in the idea that the inhumanity of slavery was not only cruel to blacks, but debasing to otherwise superior whites (just as many "liberal" whites today support affirmative action only to the degree which it provides "diverse" experiences for white students and workers--the primary wrong redressed must always be the threat imposed to the interests of whites). While they did not believe blacks should be slaves, though also did not believe that blacks should have the same rights and social status as whites--which is why, unlike black feminists like Frances Ellen Harper, they did not advocate suffrage for all (including all male and female citizens), but rather, suffrage for white women instead of black men.

Today, Gloria Steinam complains of a similar perceived relative advantaging of black men at the expense of white women as reflected in the Clinton vs. Obama race, asserting in a recent New York Times op-ed:

Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were
allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power,
from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible
exception of obedient family members in the latter).

While many black men seem certain that it is black women who are their traitorous enemies, they are strangely forgiving of white women, who have a long and continuing history of appealing to white men's basest instincts in an effort to maintain a relative advantage over black men--even if it means remaining in an inferior position to white men. In a similar fashion, many black men who seem perfectly comfortable seeing white male and white female CEOs and millionaires grumble incessently about Oprah, and reject any positive claim about black female achievement--while seemingly comfortable with material and social inferiority to any and all whites, they are outraged by black women's attempts to achieve greater wealth, education, and power, seeing any upward movement on our part as somehow being at their expense.

What the two groups share, as always, is their comfort with the invisibility of black women as anything other than as props or as silent, mulish support for their interests. We are not presumed to have interests of our own, separate and distinct from either group's, and our proper role appears to be simply laboring silently on behalf of the "struggles" of whoever chooses to claim us when convenient. If either Hilary or Barack has considered crafting a special message to appeal to black women in order to win our votes, I have yet to hear it--both seem to assume that we "belong" to them, and are only roused from their black woman-induced slumber if it appears there is a revolt in the ranks--in which case they are properly outraged by our "betrayal."

Well guess what: I am a black woman. I believe in equality for all, but I unapologetically advocate for the interests of myself and my sisters first and foremost: I don't "owe" black men or white women my support. I want to see more black women in the professions, in higher education, in positions of political power and business influence. I am concerned about our physical and mental health, and about the special challenges we face as mothers. I am outraged by our exclusion from public visibility, from the political theater to the beauty industry. And nobody gets my support for free. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum sisters, make sure that your support comes with a price. We must properly value ourselves before we expect the same from others--even our supposed "natural allies."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Blameless White Womanhood

The Britney Spears debacle has managed to pierce the veil of my all-consuming (though involuntary) focus on the applicability of the parol evidence rule, primarily through sheer, unavoidable, repetition. In all honesty, however, Ms. Spears' case has long nagged at me for another reason--the way in which it encapsulates the tendency of our media, and our culture more generally, to rationalize the bad conduct of white women in ways that will render them "blameless."

I do not know Ms. Spears, and I have been as irritated by the strangers who would presume to judge her harshly as by those inclined to spout endless excuses on her behalf. She may well suffer from post-partum depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or any combination of the above or some other form(s) of mental illness; not being a therapist, of the professional or armchair variety, I can't speculate about her mental health.

Nor am I suggesting that genuine mental illness, in and of itself, is somehow not "real" and cannot provide a genuine explanation for aberrant behaviors. What I am referring to is the use of mental illness (or abuse, or any other concept) as a means of reducing Ms. Spears' culpability for her behavior and garnering her sympathy instead of blame.

Many in the public insist that Britney "must be crazy," because she has behaved erratically and irresponsibly, at least as the media as has portrayed her. But having grown up with a mother who was a therapist, and who treated many addicts, I know that perfectly "sane" junkies and alcoholics behave in similarly erratic and irresponsible ways when it comes to their children and their lives in general. It is atypical for the public to express much sympathy for the average addict-mother who treats her children like possessions, to be alternately "loved" and utilized as a cudgel in order to manipulate family and friends to do their bidding when they would otherwise be inclined to wash their hands of the ne'er do well.

Yet whether it be Britney Spears, Susan Smith, Karla Faye Tucker, Paula Yates or Mary Winkler (all the latter of whom, of course, committed horrific crimes), the American public seems more inclined to look for ways to excuse white women of responsibility for their crimes, than to hold them responsible in keeping with our general "get tough on crime" resolve. This disconnect is particularly jarring when it comes to the differing treatment of black and white mothers.

For instance, though white women are marginally more likely to use drugs while pregnant, black women are substantially more likely to have their newborns tested for drug exposure. Similarly, black women are also significantly more likely to have the care of their children investigated, to be adjudicated "negligent," and to have their custody of their children either suspended or terminated as a result.

Above all, and in a not at all unrelated point, the portrayal of black women's "bad behavior," is distinctly different from that accorded white women. First of all, black women are generally ignored as individuals by our media and our culture. Instead, our presence is reduced to purportedly representative stereotypical imagery, that permits our individual existences (and narratives) to be eliminated from public view. Thus, when a black women engages in wrong-doing (or, all too often, even when she does not) or is victimized, there is no effort made to "figure out" why she may have done what she did or to consider how her victimization may have come to be. Her blackness is considered explanation enough for bad behavior (just as her blackness becomes irrelevant when she does something good--then, we "just happen to be black), and her blackness renders her victimization invisible, or even culpable.

Secondly, the process is in many ways reversed for white women--their images are the primary focus of our media and culture, and anything "bad" that happens in their lives (whether it is done to them or by them) requires intensive examination, analysis, and explanation. Thus, white female wrong-doers are almost always portrayed as suffering from some sort of mental or emotional illness, and white female victims are typically sanitized to the point of sainthood. Essentially, white women are always "victims," always blameless, regardless of their conduct and its consequences for others. Admittedly, some white feminists have struggled with this imagery, recognizing that the downside of being placed on a pedestal is a severe restriction of mobility. But most white women have either blithely embraced or silently accepted the benefits of presumed purity, the presumed purity which is the bedrock of white supremacy. This presumption of purity is the implicit fount from which sympathy for white "bad girls" in popular culture, from the "Runaway Bride" to Lindsay Lohan to Paris Hilton, beneficently flows.

And this imagery has powerful consequences for black women of which we must be aware, particularly since we have historically been posited as the white woman's "impure" foil--the mule who carries the burdens of all the stereotypes about feminine badness that infect our patriarchal culture, while white women are purported to embody all that our culture has determined to be feminine "good": she is the good mother vs. our bad mother, the good wife vs. our bad wife, the lady vs. our whore, June Cleaver vs. Sapphire.

My point isn't that we should view white women as the "enemy, but that we should understand how our culture perpetuates images of white vs. black womanhood that are false and destructive--and that we must acknowledge the extent to which white women not only benefit from this false dichotomy, but do so willingly. Just as we have had to face the destructive role that DBRBM play in black communities, we must also face the fact that others among our supposed "natural" allies are not always on our side, and may be unwilling to forgo their own relative privilege in order to take on the challenge of forging a healthier society for all of us. As black women, we must always remember to place our own interests first, and to carefully analyze the motivations of those who would claim a share of our efforts, while rejecting any part of our struggles.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sharing the Wealth

Apologies to all for my neglect of the blog—with my new job came the obligation to prepare for another bar exam, so anytime not spent on billable hours I spend trying to remember when the Rule Against Perpetuities does and doesn’t apply (don’t ask!).

In any case, the new year has put me in mind of resolutions, since for many, January 1 tends to act as a catalyst for change, or at least promises to do so. For all of my sisters and those who love us out there, I hope that you will agree with me that one of the most important resolutions that we can make (and keep) to ourselves is to get our financial houses in order.

Black women as a group have lower individual incomes, lower household incomes and assets, and less income stability (i.e., last hired, first fired) then virtually any demographic group in this country. We still collectively face real and daunting barriers to our material progress, not the least of which is that we are less likely to be married and more likely to be the sole or primary supporters of households with dependents that lack secondary incomes. These challenges make building financial security both more difficult and more crucial for black women than for virtually any other group. All too often, we are the safety net in our communities—and thus have no soft place of our own to land when inevitable financial calamities strike.

This will only be increasingly true as the U.S. enters a recession that will have negative economic ramifications the world over. I’m far from a financial guru, but I’ve lived and observed enough to come to some general conclusions as to the best ways to both protect and enrich ourselves financially in an increasingly uncertain economic climate:

1. Save and Invest FIRST!
This one is nothing that we haven’t all heard before, but it bears repeating since so few Americans actually do it. Many of us have come to rely on credit cards and home equity as “emergency funds,” letting our precious earned income flow through our fingers to taxes, consumption, and any and every expenditure BEFORE we pay ourselves. Thus, we become trapped in a downward spiral, where increased debt requires increased debt service, thereby further limiting the funds available to commit to building our own financial security.

If you find yourself in this spiral—STOP! Before you pay rent/mortgage, buy groceries, pay MasterCard or Visa, your first and foremost creditor is YOU. Quite often people say “I can’t afford to save—after all, I have to eat/have a place to live/clothes to wear, etc.” However, in the event of a financial crisis, you will not have the ability to pay for any of these things without having savings to tap. It is better to put aside a dollar BEFORE paying anyone else anything, than to put away nothing at all. Too often, if we can’t afford to save large amounts, we become discouraged from saving anything at all—a recipe for disaster. Credit in the coming years will become harder to access and more expensive than ever, which makes having cash on hand more crucial than ever. Whatever your needs may be and whoever you may owe, start paying yourself SOMETHING today.

2. Pay Down Debt
Another “no brainer” most readers will say—we all know we should, and most of us try our best to do it. What tends to undermine our efforts is the factor discussed in point 1: the lack of savings means that we must rely on credit to finance needs (and too often wants), so as soon as we reduce a debt, it simply climbs back up again. This is why it cannot be said too often: pay yourself first, pay for needs (necessary food, necessary shelter, necessary clothes and medical care) second, and pay debt third. Ironically perhaps, the only way to retire debt for good is not to make it your number one priority.

3. Learn to Distinguish Wants and Needs
Americans and other Westerners have often been raised in such an atmosphere of affluence and materialism, that we identify our very selves with our money and possessions. This is dangerous, because when you derive your identity from something, you are dependent on it—i.e., you need it. Thus people scoff at poor children who long for iPods and overpriced tennis shoes, when many solidly “middle class” adults are financially capsizing because they put 50% or more of their income into having the “right” house in the “right” neighborhood. Why? Because to be “middle class” requires living in a “middle class” neighborhood, driving at least two “middle class” vehicles per household, wearing “middle class” clothes, sending your children to “middle class” schools, etc. Too many Americans haven’t heard the news: all but the highest incomes have been stagnant for decades, while the costs of maintaining a “middle class” lifestyle have blown through the roof. In other words, many Americans are really no longer “middle class,” simply because we increasingly no longer have a “middle class.” We have the top 20% of income-earners and wealth-owners, and everybody else, just like most of the countries in the world.

This inability to recognize the fundamental change that our economy has undergone is the root cause of the “ bubble,” the “subprime bubble,” and all the bubbles to come: Americans can no longer depend on earning a middle class income, so they have been reduced to trying to scramble into the top 20%, through stock-trading and selling each other overpriced houses (to paraphrase Paul Krugman). I have strong opinions about what our response to this crisis should be on a collective level—but on the individual level, I think the answer is unavoidable: we in the majority need to withdraw from the consumer society, and stop defining ourselves through our possessions.

For example, we have friends who thought my husband I were “nuts” not to buy a home in the NYC metro area over the past five years: a home is your best investment, with the tax writeoff it’s cheaper than renting, mortgage rates are lower than ever, etc. Left unsaid was the presumption that those who can afford to buy (i.e., the "middle class"), buy, while only poor losers rent. We are educated, earn good incomes, can "afford" to buy--in other words, we are "middle class." So why haven't we bought?

Because a home should not be your “best investment”; it should be a place to live, just as your car is a means of transportation, and nutritious food is fuel for your body. Your goal in purchasing such items is not to mistake them for investments, but to minimize their cost while maximizing their utility. Certainly, historically, residential real estate has steadily increased in value—but that doesn’t mean that it always has or that it always will. Today, millions of people are learning this lesson the hardest possible way: through foreclosure, insolvency and bankruptcy.

For too many Americans, their homes have become, in the words of Elizabeth Warren, a “cement life raft,” that they cling to desperately, even as it pushes them ever deeper underwater. All around us we can see the disastrous consequences of 125% ARM mortgages and home equity loans, used to increase the “value” of our “investments” through the installation of granite countertops and stainless appliances—after all, realtors insist, “middle class” buyers expect nothing less, and we should always be looking for a buyer—right?

My point isn’t that no one should buy a home, or even that our needs are concrete and uniform. After all, if you live in NJ, you need a heavy winter coat; if you live in Florida, you probably don’t. My point is only that we must all look closely at our own lives in order to determine what we really need vs. what we only want—our perhaps have been taught to want—instead of allowing our consumer culture to convince us that we are what we drive, where we live, the clothes we wear, and thus can’t afford to stop spending, least we cease to be meaningful and worthwhile beings. Today, our friends don’t call us “nuts” anymore for renting a modest home that we can afford, and instead saving and investing the excess that would have gone into purchasing a home in currently overpriced Bergen County. We will buy when houses are affordable—and we will decide what “affordable” means for us, not a bank, realtor, or mortgage broker.

I would appreciate it if some of the smart, savvy sisters and those who love us out there who often share their wisdom on this blog will expand on the thoughts I have shared here, and share some of their best financial insights in response to this post. We only have ourselves to depend on, so sharing your wisdom means sharing the wealth!