Last weekend, two articles caused consternation among black women. The first concerned tennis ace Serena Williams’ photoshoot for the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, and the second focused on the way singer Beyoncé Knowles announced her pregnancy.
Reporter Sinéad Kissane headlined her column in the Irish Independent as follows: “Serena Williams sabotages own equality battle with soft-porn photo shoot”.
A piece on why Serena Williams sabotages equality battle with soft-porn photo shoothttps://t.co/FTYrI6PZ5G
— Sinéad Kissane (@sineadkissane) February 18, 2017
Kissane went on to vent against Williams’ swimsuit poses with unbridled vitriol, accusing her of hypocrisy. Using faulty logic in defining feminism, Kissane claims Williams’s choice to pose for the photographs “reinforces the sexist view that what women look like is more important than their achievements”.
This is unsurprising for black women. Kissane was against Williams making a choice to portray her body as she saw fit. Choice, one of the tenets of intersectional feminism, was used to castigate a black woman for having agency over her body.
In poet Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a meditation on race, she refers to the way the media characterises Williams as being hypersexual, aggressive and animalistic.
When Williams dares to express frustration, she is stamped with the “angry black woman” stereotype.
As for Beyoncé’s surprise revelation of her pregnancy – made via a post on Instagram, in which she posed in a veil and underwear – many white women responded by reprimanding the singer and calling the shoot tacky and attention-seeking.
Black women do not have the same relationship with maternity as white women do. The history of gynaecology exemplifies years of violence meted out against black women in the name of science. This, coupled with negative portrayals of black motherhood, assaults our senses daily.
It is ironic, given that nannies and domestic workers are usually black women tasked with looking after other people’s children but cannot be trusted to look after their own.
To say Beyoncé is showing off and, in so doing, hurting women who cannot conceive is misleading. Should she not make dinner plans because there are people who are starving?
Pregnancy and labour tend to be riskier for black women, given the historically systemic racism in the healthcare sector and limited access for many to quality maternity care before and after the birth.
In addition, Beyoncé has made no secret of the fact that she suffered a miscarriage.
Many white women fought for reproductive rights, but black women fought too – for reproductive justice.
Forced sterilisations were a hallmark of Germany’s past forays into Namibia and eugenics programmes were carried out globally in our not-too-distant past. For many black women, Beyoncé’s pregnancy means so much more than procreation.
In the memoir 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, an African-American man who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery, the racist Mary Epps, married to the owner of a plantation where Northup is enslaved, becomes resentful when her husband starts raping a slave, Patsey. Mary demands that he sell Patsey, but he refuses and Mary also begins to physically abuse Patsey. She tries to bribe other workers and slaves to kill her, to no avail.
Even though Patsey is productive and a favourite of Epps, she is not given special treatment.
I mention Mary to show how black women’s sexuality and agency are considered repulsive by some of their white counterparts. Patsey’s body is scorned by Mary, who regards it as something to be dissected and managed. White feminism seems to espouse the notion that only white women have the fragility and beauty that are a prerequisite for protection.
Fast-forward to 2015, when Dylann Roof, an American racist, killed nine black people during a prayer session at a church, claiming he did so to protect white women.
The protection of white women is a motive common to racists. Emmett Till’s 1955 murder springs to mind. He was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. And more recently, Muslim migrants being accused of mass sexual assault. Both these incidents were fabricated.
This was a major story about sexual assault by refugees in Germany.
Turns out it’s not true. pic.twitter.com/MfMWo1fnIE
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) February 22, 2017
Mary’s embodiment of white feminism is, in turn, sympathetic and sly. Her suggested attraction to black men, which she cannot easily communicate, repulses her and appears to drive her rage, malice and sense of entitlement over black women.
Similarly, male whiteness often expresses itself in the belief, however inchoate, that white women’s “virtue” must be protected at all costs.
What black women wear, be it a bikini or a niqab, matters not. There will be pushback, veiled in notions of respectability or restrictive freedom, because white feminism doesn’t recognise the humanity and agency of black women.
Before you decide what black women ought to do with their bodies, remember the words of James Baldwin: “I am not your negro.”
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s social media editor