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Removing the Blinders, Part III
Don't get me wrong. The title may suggest that I have no love for the black community, even though I am a member. I'm actually very proud of my people. We went from being property that could be destroyed at will during slavery' to a community under siege during formal Jim Crow; to a group that, despite being discouraged and intimidated away from voting in 2012, voted anyway in record numbers, numbers that surpass those of our white counterparts. Black folks have met just about every obstacle and overcome them; there wasn't a challenge that black folks couldn't overcome. Put another way, black people were not supposed to make it to the twenty-first century, and yet we did. And that is amazing.
However, I can't help but think of how much further black America can and should go. There are a series of problems and ideals both inside and outside of the community that have somehow managed to outlive their usefulness. The three that stick out most in my mind, and the subject of this essay, are the politics of respectability, patriarchy within the black community, and white privilege. These ideas do more harm than good. And, while they may appear to be non-issues for some, they show up unexpectedly, wield a lot of influence, and cause a lot of problems. My question is this: How can the black community ever go any further without truly confronting these problems? The longer that respectability politics goes unquestioned, shaming around difficult personal choices will continue. As long as white privilege is allowed to operate silently, only to be called out some of the time, no real progress can truly be made. And while patriarchy continues its chokehold on the black community, stifling the voices of those who aren't cis gendered, heterosexual males, discrimination with its many nuances can never be done away with.
The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.
PROBLEM #3: PATRIARCHY WITHIN THE BLACK COMMUNITY
The American Heritage Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines "patriarchy" quite simply as, "A social system in which the father is the head of the family."
Webster's New World Dictionary is a bit more detailed, but still very simple to understand:
"1. a form of social organization in which the father is the head of the family or tribe, descent being traced through the male line; 2. rule or domination by men"
Yes, both definitions sound similar, but the latter expands the definition of patriarchy and states that patriarchy is also 'rule or domination by men', implying that patriarchy includes men both inside and outside the family structure.
In The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, Bakari Kitwana details what a resurgence in patriarchal thinking means in black America. Though published in 2002, barely out of the 1990s, the following quote still holds true today:
"There seems to be a resurgence among many young black men of outdated ways of thinking, like keeping women in their place by any means necessary. One small group of young black men who attended the Million Man March, for example, instead of focusing on the goals of the march itself, was searching out women who did attend and telling them to go home. ... Attitudes like these have helped to spark a brasher brand of feminist radicalism among some women who have become more militant in their struggle against all things oppressive, including Black men. In a scathing attack on the march and what she saw as its anti-Black woman agenda, feminist critic Kristal Brent Zook, in the November 12, 1995 issue of the New York Times Magazine wrote:
'It was being told to stay home with the children, to be quiet, and prepare food for our warrior kings. What infuriated progressive black women was that the rhetoric of protection and atonement was just a seductive mask for old fashioned sexism. ... The notion of black authenticity tricks us into equating support for the Million Man March, or O.J. Simpson for the matter, with support for black people, because anything else is considered race treason. well, many of us have grown tired of such backwoodsman reasoning.' " (p. 91-92)
The rule of the patriarch operates differently within the black community, especially since black men have been denied power in a variety of ways. The above quote is but one example.
The way that patriarchy functions within the black community creates an environment that can be tense on one extreme, like in Kitwana quote, and incredibly dangerous on the other. If the idea is to shut down/shut out black women and women in general 'by any means necessary', one can imagine how violent and abusive some situations can become.
Though Kitwana's book was written a little over a decade ago, not much has changed between then and now (except for the fact that we now have a black President of the United States). As a matter of fact, the push for patriarchy has become more intense in the wake of the election of Barack Obama to the White House. "Experts" are louder than ever, coming forward and claiming that the solutions to the problems in the black community can be solved if only: 1.) Black women would shut up and step behind their men, staying in their place at all times; and 2.) Black men were allowed power within relationships and simply "allowed to be men."
Patriarchy within the black community is a problem because it disregards black women, children, and the LGBTQ within the community. It keeps the spotlight, attention, concern, and rewards focused solely on black men. Everyone else can pretty much go to hell; if you aren't a black man or are willing to offer dog-like loyalty to black men, prepared to be ignored.
Black patriarchy also reinforces a very rigid view of gender roles, abandoning those who don't answer to or fit into gender roles. Once again, the politics of respectability rears its ugly head. Because female-headed households are viewed as deviant, especially if headed by a black single mother, the community has adopted this standard, going so far as to blame single mothers for the problems in the community. Thus, the idea that the father should head the household is used as a shaming tool against black women, the children of single mothers, and the LGBTQ community of color (the assumption being that if you're gay, your father probably wasn't in the picture, or some such nonsense). The people shaming the aforementioned groups are usually black men.
Patriarchy within the black community is just so unpalatable. For a community that appears to be so forgiving and loving of its women and children, the ways that patriarchy undergirds sexism and misogyny with the community is an example of hypocrisy.
Black patriarchy can be -- and should be -- demolished. As long as black folks subscribe to outdated notions of gender, however, no progress can be made. By abandoning patriarchy in favor of more equitable partnerships and relationships, the way can be opened to discuss more diverse experiences with the same types of discrimination. For example, black women and black gay men should be allowed the same time and space afforded to black straight men to discuss their experiences with racism.
We must also be aware that patriarchy can destroy the community, either by violence or abuse against black women and children; implicit acceptance of discrimination against women, children and gays; of both coming together in a dangerous mix. Is patriarchy that important?
These -- the politics of respectability, white privilege, and patriarchy within the black community -- I see within the community, and I spoke in broad strokes to address them as best I could. Of course, I probably sound like every other black progressive who isn't preaching a boot-strapping agenda. However, I just hope that the community can remove its blinders and turn its energy toward solving these issues instead of cannibalizing itself.
WORKS CITED (PARTS 1-3):
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in he Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. p.212
Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. New York: Perseus, 2002. pp. 91-92.
"Patriarchy". The American Heritage Dictionary and Thesaurus. 2005
"Patriarchy". Webster's New World Dictionary with Student Handbook. Concise Edition. 1974
Valenti, Jessica. Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2007. pp. 230-231.