White Feminist Privilege and the War on Mother’s Day

Over the past few days, I have watched a stark racial divide develop among my social media friends, many of whom are progressive clergy, academics, and social justice activists. The divide in itself is not unusual. I have noticed it each time that some major social justice concern has occurred, whether it is the impending execution of a White woman, the videorecording of police killing an unarmed Black person, or the unjust conviction and sentencing of a Black women defending herself from an abusive partner.  Just like most of U.S. society, social justice concerns tend to be divided along racial/ethnic and class lines. So the mostly White activists organizing on behalf of Kelly Gissandaner are largely silent about Marissa Alexander. And the mostly Black female crowd organizing on behalf of Marissa are largely silent about Kelly.

mothers-dayBut the latest issue that divides my Facebook and Twitter pals is not a social justice concern. It’s Mother’s Day. For some reason this year, the holiday is engendering some vigorous antipathy. There’s been a proliferation of anti-Mother’s Day articles. Anne Lamott’s 2010 Salon article, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day,” seems to have started a new genre of writing. Several writers have joined their voices with hers to lament this holiday that celebrates mothers to the exclusion of non-mothers. One writer agrees with Lamott’s disdain for the holiday but says that it’s for an entirely different reason. Another argues that “Mother’s Day is NOT a Liturgical Holiday.” Every article has some variation of the same argument: Mother’s Day is bad because it makes too big a deal of mothers.

It’s bizarre that so many people are spending time complaining about a day that they think receives too much attention. It’s even more bizarre that it’s mostly my White feminist friends who keep posting these articles on social media, with comments such as “This writer says everything I ever thought about Mother’s Day.” In contrast, my Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American friends and acquaintances are largely silent on the issue.

Actually, they’re not silent. They are posting photos of and tributes to the women who have mothered them, to those whose mothering they admire, and even to the children who have made them mothers. They are posting articles about women of color whose rights to mother were taken away by hospitals and Christian missionaries who stole their babies, by states who forcibly sterilized them, and by a society that undervalues them.

moms14n-1-webThey are reminding us to pray for the exclusive mothers’ club whose membership consists of women whose unarmed Black and Latino children have been killed by police and white civilians. They are grieving along with people who are motherless or childless for a number of reasons – death, neglect, abuse, infertility. They are acknowledging that all mothering is not good and that many people have complicated relationships with their mothers. In the  best traditions of womanist, mujerista, and Native and Asian American feminist thought, women and men of color are both celebrating Mother’s Day and lamenting the sources of individual and systemic pain that the day can bring.

I suppose it’s much easier to denigrate a day that venerates motherhood when it is your culture’s ideal of motherhood that’s being elevated, when your right and capacity to mother have never been systemically questioned, threatened, or denied. But for some of us, motherhood has not always been a crystal stair.

Tread lightly, my white feminist sisters. Your privilege is showing.

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Interview with Rachel Held Evans

Last month, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans asked to interview me about Too Heavy a Yoke. Here’s an excerpt below.

Today I am thrilled to introduce you to Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a theologian and psychologist whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for healing, justice, and reconciliation in the Christian church and beyond.

I first learned about Dr. Walker-Barnes when Christena Cleveland wrote a stirring response to her first book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which examines the impact that the icon of the StrongBlackWoman has upon the health and well-being of African American women. I was so intrigued I read the book myself and was challenged, encouraged, and moved by it. The chapter on the Trinity profoundly changed the way I think about self-sacrifice and interdependence, particularly as a woman, so I knew the moment I finished the book I had to have the author on the blog. 

Read the rest of the interview here.

On Being an Icon

“That’s a ghetto name!”, he said. I didn’t have time to respond. His classmate, another teen court-ordered to participate in an intervention program for juvenile gun offenders, immediately admonished him: “Don’t call people’s name ‘ghetto.’ That’s rude!”

Over the past two decades, I have grown accustomed to my name – Chanequa – becoming the iconic ghetto name – used by comedians, singers (remember Oran “Juice” Jones: “Shaniquaaaa…ya got me whupped”), and celebrities who mistake themselves as intellectuals (remember Bill Cosby’s 2004 speech to the NAACP?). Whenever someone wants to evoke the image of a gum-popping, neck-wagging, eye-rolling, hand-on-hip-placing, lower class African American woman, Chanequa (and all its variations: Sheniqua, Shaniqua, Shenikwa, etc.) becomes a common target.

I was born in 1972. As Lisa Jones would say, I am a movement baby whose Mississippi-born mother reached back to Africa for some sonic inspiration when naming her first-born. She had no book of African baby names to draw upon, just a deep longing to give her baby girl a name that would mark her as special, as touched by the ancestors. Pulling from a rich family heritage of unique names (Laquitta, Lunetha, Sarita, and so on), she sat down one day and started putting letters together.

I find it ironic that my name has become identified with some of the worst stereotypes of African American women. As far as I know, I am the original Chanequa. While the name has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, I have never heard of a Chanequa who is older than me (and trust me, I always ask). So until someone proves otherwise, I am the prototype.

And just to be clear about what the prototype looks like: I am a highly educated (Mr. Cosby – that’s 3 graduate degrees, each of them earned, not honorary), sophisticated, ambitious woman. Happily married for 13 years, I live in the suburbs and drive a mid-sized SUV (the last two are not necessarily points of pride, just counterpoints to the prevailing image). I am a voracious reader of theology, cultural criticism, historical fiction, fantasy, and memoir.

I love documentaries and hip-hop. I make my own granola and can cook up a mean pot of greens. I love being among the folk, but I’m also comfortable in environments where I am the first, the only, or the youngest. I am grounded in what I believe to be the best of my culture even as I try to transcend and transform some of its worst elements. And I love seeing the looks on people’s faces when they realize that this icon of all things “ghetto” is capable of deconstructing the classist and racist assumptions behind the term with minimal intellectual effort.

In other words, my name is Chanequa and I am the ish. So stop taking my name in vain.

Stay Tuned

I’ve been AWOL from this blog for much of the past year. Actually, AWOL isn’t the best term…let’s say I’ve been on maternity leave. But I think it’s time to write again. So new blogs should begin appearing within the next week. In the meantime, blessings on your journey!

Barkley Hendricks and the White Imagination

Last night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I went to see an exhibit by Barkley L. Hendricks. Known for his life-size paintings of ordinary African Americans, Hendricks’ work is shockingly realistic. I spent about 45 minutes walking through the exhibit. Most museum exhibits that I have seen have focused on the novel and the unfamiliar. But
surrounded by more than fifty of Hendricks’ huge paintings, I felt at home. These were faces that I knew. The detail to clothing, posture, and emotional expression was so remarkable that I expected each painting to come to life and begin talking to me as I gazed at it.

Later, there was a dialogue about African American men and body image that was inspired by Hendricks’ work. Did I mention that there were more than fifty paintings depicting a diverse array of black women and men from across the diaspora? Well, the sponsors of the dialogue chose to focus on one painting – Hendricks’ Brilliantly Endowed, a self-portrait of the artist
wearing nothing but a fedora, wristband, tube socks and sneakers.

Because I’d stepped outside of the exhibit hall for a drink of water and had gotten waylaid by a conversation with a friend, I missed the first part of the discussion. When I returned, I found a group of mostly white (and some Asian) faces sitting and standing in front of Hendricks’ exposed
penis. On an easel at the front of the group there was a flipchart with these words:

BLACK MALES TODAY

BLACK MALES IN HIS ART

flashy

basketball

crime

unemployed

hip hop

hypermasculine

power

drugs

style

homophobia

rap

danger

soul

un(der)educated

ghetto

really nice guys

confident

cool

defiant

in control

thoughtful

in your face

meditative

well-dressed

muscular

serene

comfortable

relaxed

challenging

attitude

angry

deep

successful

suave

sexy

As I stood looking at the chart, a few African American couples joined the crowd, including my friend and her companion. Each pair began murmuring among themselves. Finally, a young man leaned over and whispered, “Were you here when they put together that list?” None of us were.

And we were all wondering what question had led to that left side. Perhaps they had specifically asked for negative stereotypes about black men. That was my hope anyway, even though I suspected otherwise.

At one point my friends’ companion spoke to the group at large: “It’s disturbing to walk in here and to feel so good about being surrounded by paintings of people who look like men, and then to come over here and see how the artist’s work is being received. I suspect that it tells us less about the artist than it does about the audience.” A middle-aged white woman spoke up cheerily, trying to reassure: “I don’t think you were here when we did the exercise. The left side wasn’t actually in response to his work.” As if that made it better.

At the end of the dialogue, I asked one of the facilitators, a young Asian woman, about the question that had prompted the list. She responded brightly, “Oh, we didn’t have anything on the paper other than the two headings, Black Males Today and Black Males in His Art. We just
asked people to say what came to mind when they thought of black males today. It could have been from media, from perception, from anything. Then for the other side, we told them to say what comes to mind when they thought of black males in his art.”

Ironic. At a time when a black man has made history by becoming the first person of color to have a viable chance of becoming the presidential nominee for one of our major parties, it is the stereotyped representations of African American men that whites spontaneously report (and
yes, I’m ignoring the “really nice guys” given that it’s a pathetically absurd attempt to make up for what came before it). That this was supposedly the educated, progressive crowd made it even worse.

But perhaps the real tragedy is that there are some African Americans, including those in high-profile positions, who seek to capitalize off of and perpetuate this image. BET (aka Booties Every Time) comes to mind. Which image do you think a white cop is more likely to have in mind when he encounters a black man with a wallet in his hand? How about a white human resources manager when she receives an application from a black man? Based on the list above, it is certainly not Barack Obama’s “bright, clean, and articulate” self. Clearly, this is not just entertainment.

Directly across from Brilliantly Endowed was another image, Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins), a painting of one of Hendricks’ black female students from Connecticut College. Slumped on a sofa, hand up to her head, the sister has a look of resigned frustration that is reminiscent of Fanny
Lou Hamer’s, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I’d been drawn to the painting my first time through the gallery. After the group discussion, it became my clear favorite. Looks like that sister had just been around a group of white folks having a discussion just like this one.

A Chance Encounter

I just had an interesting encounter. Sitting in the campus coffee shop at Duke University, where I teach part-time, a woman approached me.

“Are you a graduate student?” she asked.
“Actually, I’m a professor,” I replied.
“Oh! What department?”
“Women’s studies.”
“What class do you teach?”
“Black Love.”
“Wow! That must be explosive.”
“It’s quite enjoyable. I’ve just come from there.” Indeed, I was still unpacking my computer.
“Well, I’m from the Caribbean and you want to know what I think of black men in America?” I nodded and she proceeded to gesture from the tabletop to the floor.
“I’m not sure what that means,” I said.

She clarified by giving a thumbs-down sign. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“Really?” I finally said, hoping the lift in my voice would encourage her to say more.
“Black men in America are no good. Every now and then you find a good one here or there. But most of them are no good.”

I wondered whether I should tell her about my husband, my brothers, my brothers-in-law, my cousins, my uncles, etc. – all the good black men in my life. I was tempted to invite the young brother at the next table to join our conversation. I wished that some of my students were around.

She continued. “Then again, I’m not a feminist. Are you a feminist?”
“Yes, I am.”

She gave me that look, the one that sisters use – no matter if they’re from U.S., the Caribbean, or Africa – when we’re sizing you up. She announced that she was going outside to smoke. But as she turned to walk away, something caught her eye – the gleam from the ring finger on my left hand.

“You’re married?!” she asked incredulously.
“Yes I am,” I said.
“And you’re a feminist?!”
“Absolutely. They are not mutually exclusive.” I found it ironic that the woman with such a dismal view of black men was surprised to discover that a feminist liked men.

She went outside for a few minutes. Coming back in, she grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the table.

“Are you religious?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m a Christian. In fact, I’m a minister and I teach at Shaw Divinity School.”

Her mouth fell open. We talked for nearly an hour before exchanging telephone numbers and promising to keep in touch.

Ironically, my class today was about the way in which our imaginations are shaped by popular culture such that we hold judgments about each other based upon what we think we know. Many of us walk around with scripts in our head that tell us what to expect from other people based upon a label. Black man = no good. Feminist = hates men. Christian = not feminist. These are a few that my conversation partner seemed to hold at the beginning of our encounter.

With rare exceptions, most of us have some sort of script in our head. And for those in the United States, these scripts are heavily tainted by the legacies of racism and sexism. And these scripts, in turn, poison our romantic relationships. They are the walls that box us in. They limit our imaginations in terms of who we see as romantic partners, how we function in relationships, and how we expect our partners to function. And quite often, they prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves.

People are usually more complicated than labels. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s time to think outside the box.

In The Beginning

This didn’t start out as a project on love, at least not a project about finding love/being in love/making love with someone other than yourself. It was about black women. About healing the hurts that have been done and get redone to black women during our existence in this country. By racistsexistclassistheterosexist society. By the church, which is supposed to be a place for healing but has far too often also been racistsexistclassistheterosexist. By people who looked like us and who were supposed to love us, who said that they did in fact love us but were so scar(r)ed themselves that they didn’t know how.

But the further I went into the mission of healing the sisters, the more I was drawn into the pain of the brothers. Because she can’t love herself for the same reason that he can’t love himself and he can’t love her and she can only offer him a broken…wounded…battered love. Because the greatest commandment is love: love God love your neighbor love yourself. And if she/he can’t love her/him, how can she/he love him/her and how can they love God?

And so this is a project about love. And about faith. And about the folk. About faithfully and joyously loving the folk in a world bent on making it impossible.