Black Women and the Body Police

From Rachel Jeantel, who was treated like a criminal because of her size, to Renisha McBride, who literally lost her life because she was viewed as a threat, 2013 was a challenging year for black women's bodies.

By Ayana Byrd Dec 16, 2013

When "12 Years a Slave" was released in October, Time magazine wanted to go that extra step. Instead of a review or a 300-word treatise on how this was the hardest and the best film they had ever seen, the publication decided to get tough in an online piece called "The True Story of ’12 Years a Slave.’" It promised to "break down what’s fact–and fiction–in the new movie about slavery in the antebellum South." And so writer Eliana Docterman did just that, summarizing key plot points and labeling them as "fiction," "fact" or "mostly fact" based on the memoir written by Solomon Northup. Only two moments are written off as fiction, one involving the cause of death of another man on the ship that took Northup to the South (he did die, but not in the way the film said). The other fictional flight of fancy, according to Time, was the plantation owner’s wife’s violence against an enslaved woman Patsy.

In actuality, Northup did detail this abuse in his book; it was not added by screenwriters who wanted to garner more sympathy for Patsy or outrage against Mary Epps. And yet, even though all they had to do was flip through the pages of the memoir, Time instead implied that in real life the body of a (black) woman would not be enough of a threat to drive this (white) woman to violence. Ignoring commenters who let them know–repeatedly–that they were wrong, the site did not add an update or correction to the article. Patsy’s abuse at the hands of the wife of the man who owned her by law and raped her without remorse is still officially listed as "fiction."

It is a fitting reminder of the continued collusion of the mainstream media and other sources to label the crimes visited upon black women’s bodies as either "fiction" (because, the argument goes, she was being too sensitive) or "mostly fiction" (she was exaggerating, it wasn’t that bad) or, in a category Time could have also used, "legally justifiable."

In years past, a look back on the ways black women and girls’ bodies were misused and assaulted would be able to focus heavily on pop culture. And while 2013 is not without its examples, they are far from the real problem. Miley Cyrus’s video and MTV Awards performance of "We Can’t Stop" were poorly choreographed reminders of the music industry’s shameless dependence on black female bodies to sell records and get much-desired street cred. And Lily Allen’s "Hard Out Here" video is guilty of an astounding lack of introspection. The clip, which satirizes Robin Thicke’s "Blurred Lines" and Cyrus’s "We Can’t Stop," doesn’t account for the fact that it is not ethical or even ironic hipster cool to critique men’s sexist treatment of women while using ass-shaking, crotch-grabbing black women as props. But neither Cyrus nor Allen was original, as much as they both believe themselves to be. And at the end of the day, their dancers went home with a check and the rest of us could focus on the real issue at hand: how 2013 emphasized how black women’s bodies are becoming synonymous with danger that must be stopped or controlled.

The murder of Renisha McBride is the clearest example of how being female and black increasingly means to be viewed as dangerous. Black male bodies have long been seen as shorthand for criminality, but the night of November 2, when 19-year-old McBride knocked on the door of suburban Detroit homeowner Theodore Wafer looking for help after a car accident, she was a threat–such a threat that he shot her in the face. Though he shot through a closed and locked screen door that she was not attempting to kick in or break down, he claimed self-defense. Writer Jelani Cobbs, when dissecting the McBride murder in the New Yorker, surmised "self-defense is now a matter of interpretation, divining the truth of what we see when we look at another person." Wafer looked at a black woman and even though he was the one holding the shotgun, that was apparently enough for him to feel his life was in danger.

Next year when the trial unfolds, we will learn if there can be legal justice for Renisha McBride, murdered in part because the color of her skin marked her as undeserving of help. If Wafer is cleared of second-degree murder, it will reinforce the message that her very presence represented danger, although her actions were not threatening. Seeing criminality in black women’s bodies is not new, though the stereotype is not as discussed as the mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire images. But the 1980s ushered in the Welfare Queen caricature, claiming black women were using our wombs, instead of guns, as the weapons to rob the government and hard-working taxpayers of their money. And following the logic that bodies that are dangerous need to be curtailed and restrained, there was an increase in rules, laws and policies that made that possible.

This year the world also was able to watch in real time as a young black woman was discredited in the eyes of the law, even though she had not committed a crime. When Rachel Jeantel took the stand in June as a witness for the prosecution in the trial of George Zimmerman, criticism was hurled at the teen for "not speaking the Queen’s English," and being "unpolished." More than one black Twitter user claimed that she was a collective embarrassment to the race. Jokes were made and pundits had a field day lambasting her hair, her weight and their general feelings that she was distasteful, someone they didn’t want to look at, listen to or believe could give a clear account of a phone call she had with a friend.

The backlash against Jeantel prompted Salon to ask "why is the star witness…being treated like a defendant," and the writer, Mary Elizabeth Williams, reasoned that it was because "she is not thin or blond or demure. So there goes her credibility." Jeantel reminded Black women that while the law may not protect us from assaults, it also might not allow us to even be credible enough to defend others.

Seeking, perhaps, to undo some of the damning insults aimed at Jeantel’s weight, hair and dark brown skin, Ebony magazine and thought a makeover might be the answer. "We want to give her a look that’s going to translate from campus life, to any internships, or employment that she may be doing while she’s at school," the magazine’s style director, Marielle Bobo, said. And in November, the media outlets teamed up and gave her new extensions and different makeup. Jeantel said she felt "blessed," but many saw the makeover as confusing. Was it really necessary to change her appearance to ease the people who did not want to see a black woman looking a certain way? And is the type of weave that she has going to be able to make a dent in prejudiced thinking, both within and outside of the black community, on size and skin tone? If a makeover was needed, it would be on our regressive thinking, not her hair.

The policing of black women’s hair sadly dates back as long as black women have been in this country. Yet because it is now illegal to say that certain textures of hair are bad or ugly, companies and schools get creative with vocabulary. That was the case just before Thanksgiving for Vanessa VanDyck, a 12-year-old whose mane of un-straightened hair was labeled "distracting" by her school, Faith Christian Academy in Orlando, Fla. At the school, distracting hair is against the rules and has to be altered. Since Vanessa loves what she calls her "puffy" hair, she feared expulsion. Her mother did not see this as an issue of breaking school policy as much as blaming the victim, for the school never cared about Vanessa’s hair until her mother asked them to discipline the students who were bullying her daughter because of it. After a lot of negative press, the school made a statement saying they would not expel Vanessa, but they did not fully back down and added "we’re not asking her to put products in her hair or cut her hair. We’re asking her to style her hair within the guidelines according to the school handbook." Such smooth-talk from Faith Christian Academy has left the issue undecided and Vanessa’s hair unchanged, at least for now.

While Vanessa’s can be considered a small victory, this year has also seen, through a combination of black female love, anger and technological savvy, a new way to protest injustice. In September, when school officials told the father of 7-year-old, A student Tiana Parker that her locs were "faddish," "inappropriate" and in violation of school policy at Deborah Browne Community School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there was outrage. When she cried on the nightly news, saying her old school "didn’t like her dreads," there was also heartache at seeing a young girl forced to acknowledge that she was not okay and not welcome in her black girl form. Her parents transferred her to another school and Deborah Browne revoked its policy after being publicly shamed, but Tiana’s father knew more was at stake. "Our focus is on Tiana and all of the ‘Tiana’s’ in the world who have ever been made to feel this way," he said. "This is now much bigger than Tiana, and we know that the conversation cannot end here."

And the conversation did not. In online petitions and Facebook updates, there was an outpouring of support letting Tiana know that her old school might not like her dreads, but plenty of people did. There was also a digital book, "A Care Package for Tiana: Locs of Love." Created by author and professor Yaba Blay, it includes photos and messages from 111 black women and girls who wear locs and wanted Tiana to know that she is beautiful. Blay explained the project by saying, "I’m calling on everyone to join me in ‘singing a black girl’s song,’ not only for Tiana, but for all the little girls who could benefit from the affirmation of their beauty and their value."

It may be in these spaces, places of supportive resistance that black women will be able to psychically survive the assaults that will not end when a new calendar year begins.