The Language of Possession

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Jeanann Verlee. Jeanann is an author, performance poet, editor, and former punk rocker based in New York City.

The possession of bodies is a trickle-down, systemic problem that has rendered much of our population with what amounts to, and arguably is, PTSD. Brown bodies have been possessed by white bodies. Female bodies possessed by male bodies. Brown female bodies possessed by all other bodies combined. I’m speaking of course in the obvious way of the once-legal actual ownership of others’ bodies—but also the latent way in which this possessiveness is rooted in our language. In our body language. In the way our mouths shape the words. Damn well into the enamel of our own teeth.

In the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence case—while Ferguson still smolders in the very present distance—I am astonished by the enormity of this possession problem. As one who, like many, surrounds herself with seemingly like-minded individuals, it astounds me that in countless Facebook comments/Tweets/Tumbl’s/Instagrams and barroom/water cooler/grocery line conversations I’ve read or witnessed over the last five weeks, people’s typically carefully hidden hate is showing. It’s extensively documented. Just last week, Mychal Denzel Smith here at Feministing addressed the notion of hating women, and there is wide-scale examination of the palpable hatred of black and brown men by white police throughout media revisited since the heinous murder of Michael Brown.

It’s glaring to me the sweeping way we individually speak about these atrocities in ways that belittle, undermine, abuse, mock, and even erase not only those individuals at the core of each tragedy, but those with whom we are engaging. Just check any comment section online–articles, YouTube, all manner of social media.

Women of color were at the frontlines (again) for the protests in Ferguson (while, no, Darren Wilson still has not been arrested) yet on timeline after timeline, in newsfeed upon newsfeed, I’ve read women of color confounded, asking where men of color have vanished to in addressing domestic violence after the release of the video wherein Ray Rice used his body to render Janay Rice (then-Palmer) unconscious. I’ve read and watched as a number of men flop raucously between opinions, first against Ray Rice, then against the Ravens and NFL, then for Janay Rice, against, and back again in circles, all the while spewing power language that serves only to negate the very women they are waffling to “support.”

In a recent Facebook post in my newsfeed, a black woman posed her concerns about feeling unsupported by black men in the face of domestic violence discussions surrounding the Rice video only to have her point fully derailed by others in the comments vilifying Janay Rice and (again) dismissing the autonomy of black women with arguments about sexuality, loyalty, and the puzzling notion that “at least black women have the ‘women’s movement'”—which, as has largely been covered, is wildly problematic in its own right.

Meanwhile, celebrities, media, and sports figures can’t seem to excavate the hate from their language, either. Floyd Mayweather thinks the NFL went too far and Paul George tweeted (and then deleted, with an apology) a few cutting statements, including, “I don’t condone hittin women or think it’s coo BUT if SHE ain’t trippin then I ain’t trippin.. Lets keep it movin lol let that man play!” Then of course two days ago, a white colleague asked me in earnest—after the disclaimer “it’s not her fault but…”—why in the world Janay Rice would go forward into marriage with Ray Rice after such violence.

This eerily righteous possessive instinct seeps into every interaction. It is appalling that somewhere deep inside, Person A really believes he/she has the right to judge or govern Person B’s ideas, voice, intent, or body—judgments indicative of a sense of possession. So much so that these judgments come tumbling out freely not only in casual conversation, but in socially and politically charged interactions.

“No, Ray Rice shouldn’t have done it but Janay Rice shouldn’t have…” Stop. “No, Darren Wilson shouldn’t have done it but Michael Brown shouldn’t have…” Stop. I don’t intend to compare atrocities, here. I mean only to ask who we all think we are, ignorantly employing such rampant judgmental language as if it’s simply OKAY to inflict scorn and judgment—possession—on someone else.

If you don’t really blame Michael Brown, then don’t put the “but” in your statement. Don’t talk about anything he did or didn’t do. He is the victim, it its most ultimate sense. Discussing what he did or didn’t do is victim blaming. It is asserting dominance over his autonomy—taking possession of him. Don’t discuss his clothes, his cigarellos, or his would-be college career. Discuss Darren Wilson. The person in power who erased young Brown. Talk about how we can eradicate the assertion of power over people of color from this white supremacy. Likewise, if you don’t really blame Janay Rice, then get the should-have’s, what-if’s, and why-did-she’s out of your mouth. Talk about where Ray Rice went wrong. Talk about how we can eradicate the assertion of power over women from this patriarchy.

As Smith poignantly stated in the aforementioned article, “There is a tendency to judge the actions of those with the least amount of power the same as those with more power and then ask, ‘Isn’t that what equality means?’ It’s a clever rhetorical evasion of the issue. Equality is the goal, but to pretend that we actually exist as equals right now is to ignore reality.”

So let’s maybe stop talking for a minute. Let’s take a long, juicy time-out and go get educated. There are thousands of articles at the drop of Google. Books and essays and testimonies at our fingertips. Let’s start by learning about what systems of power are doing to the oppressed—in real world ways. Read the experiences of survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Read the experiences of young black and brown men under the helm of Stop-and-Frisk and Stand-Your-Ground, under the hateful watch of the Zimmermans and Wilsons. Read the experiences of sexual assault and abuse survivors. Read the experiences of women of color trying to reconcile race within patriarchy, murder within motherhood, hypersexualization within autonomy. Read.

And when you feel the blood rising to your face and the buttery “bbbbut” struggling to leap off your tongue, bite down hard. That moment you “just can’t understand why Janay still married—” or think “that girl in Steubenville shouldn’t have been—” or wonder “if Trayvon Martin had just—” No. Stop talking. Start learning. Dictation of the lives, choices, actions, and bodies of oppressed (and violated) persons by those with more power must stop. It’s the only way we can even begin.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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