A guest post from Dani McClain, a writer living in Oakland. She is on the campaigns team at ColorOfChange.org.
Aside from a few online clips, I didn’t watch last week’s ABC Nightline special titled “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” But I’ve been following enough of the recent media frenzy around straight, unmarried black women to make an educated guess about the analysis and diagnosis that emerged from the show. The takeaways were likely as follows:
Professional black women aren’t getting married because we’re unlovable, inflexible and have an inflated sense of ourselves and the lives we deserve. Our character flaws are compounded by the fact that black men are too busy chasing white women or serving time for non-violent drug offenses to look in our direction. Let’s be honest: Men of all races run screaming because they find us ugly, mannish and overbearing. We should be thankful for self-proclaimed Black Woman Expert Steve Harvey, because even when he demeans and talks down to us, his intentions are pure.
There’s so much to unpack from the recent trend of corporate media excursions into black women’s presumed desire for marriage, and I’m thankful that women like Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Gina McCauley and Farai Chideya have been deconstructing the madness. What interests me most about the trend are what I see as its parallel underlying purposes:
1) To shame, ridicule and pathologize unmarried black women so that we become the cautionary tale, lest more women of other races start questioning whether marriage will actually contribute to their happiness, and
2) To distract us from raising hell over all the legal and social benefits that aren’t available to us that would be if we were married.
So, why are my conspiracy theory wheels turning over some bad television and magazine articles?
Nothing about the tone of or approach to these stories tells me they’re actually for me or other unmarried black women. Just as I can’t imagine 19th century black women flocking to catch a glimpse of the Hottentot Venus, I don’t imagine that I’m the target audience for these contemporary public humiliations. So for whom are these stories being produced? What’s causing editors to green-light the inane pitches that develop into these media train wrecks? The executives who assume their audiences have an appetite for these portrayals of black dysfunction sense a bubbling panic coming from somewhere in the American political and cultural landscape. That panic is rooted in the sense that too many professional women (of any race) not getting married means too many people pushing back on sex-based pay disparities in the workplace. It means too many people questioning the logic of tying health care benefits, property rights, hospital visitation rights, etc. to marriage. To me, these articles and “news” programs are being published and broadcast in an effort to stem this coming tide. And those of us black women who feel offended and mischaracterized by the media onslaught should take this as our cue to claim our rights and our rightful place as trailblazers in the 21st century reconfiguration of family and adulthood.
Rather than take the bait and feel terrible about ourselves when some media outlet tells us we’re both cause and victim of an “epidemic” or “crisis” in the black community, let’s assert that we are grown-ass human beings, and thus deserving of the same social, economic, civil and political rights that married people can access.
A vocal segment of the LGBTQ activist community has been making this argument for a while now. People like Kenyon Farrow, Jasmyne Cannick and Yasmin Nair have long been arguing that rather than making marriage the be all end all, we should be supporting each other in creating custom-made families that work for us. They’ve pointed out the folly of fighting to mimic and reproduce the patriarchal, nuclear families that continue to be held up as the only legitimate model in this country. These writers argue – and straight, unmarried black women would be smart to join the chorus — that rather than focusing on getting more people married, we should be de-linking human rights from marriage and creating space for a broader acceptance of the cobbled together, nontraditional families that many of us came up in. I know I’m not the only one who was raised by a thoroughly capable single parent and the family members she kept close to make sure I was surrounded by love and good care at all times. My family has never been illegitimate.
So where have we been while this segment of the LGBT community has been crafting the arguments we need to be firing off to Essence every time they let Steve Harvey ruminate on how much we should hate ourselves? While segments of the gay community are planning for a time when non-sexual domestic partner benefits are available nationwide, why aren’t those of us who still don’t quite get how marriage would enrich our lives spiritually, romantically or materially supporting that fight? Even if we do think we might want to marry some day, why not join forces now with people like Farrow and Cannick as they argue for the kind of movement that would benefit us just as much as it would benefit them?
Sadly, we’ve been too caught up posting our gag reflex responses on Facebook every time there’s some new show about us but not for us. Or we’ve been taking advantage of this weird media moment to wage a class war on black men. Or we’ve been perfecting our bootstraps narrative and telling ourselves and anyone who’ll listen that we don’t need a man because we can do it all ourselves thank you very much.
Well, yes, I’m sure we can. But the idea is there’s no reason why we should have to. Let’s claim the way we’re living our lives as a political identity and demand that we’re not sitting at the kiddie table of human rights any more. It’s time, sisters. Come out, come out, wherever you are.