I like Gina McCauley, the creator of What About Our Daughters (WAOD). She is smart, and she comes across as poised, even in the face of unjust criticism. I applaud her success at promoting her cause and her site, which attracts scores of intelligent, passionate readers. I am especially thrilled that she calls attention to the double standards of so-called black leaders who are quick to jump in front of a camera and protest when a black person is victimized by a white person, but who aren’t nearly as interested in bringing attention to the insane levels of black on black crime. So even though I am usually suspicious of activists who frame their issues as matters of “protecting our children,” I had very high hopes for WAOD before I ever visited the site.
McCauley’s stated goal is to combat negative images of black women in popular culture. Now there’s a goal this respectable negro can support! I am always looking for resources to which I can direct young black girls and boys (yes, young men need positive depictions of women too). But given this professed goal, what sense does it make that most of the site’s posts are dedicated to publicizing and valorizing black female victims? These include victims of serious, violent crimes, as well as the “victims” of Don Imus’ “assault on black women.” But what about the women forced at gunpoint to gyrate half-naked in videos, while various rappers douse them with champagne and charge their services via American Ass-press…or is it American Expr-Ass)?
Now, I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the horrific crimes committed against the first group, and I understand that such cases can never go national via the mainstream media because the victims aren’t white women, but how is this focus supposed to combat popular negative images of black women? What does the current emphasis say to black girls: you too can one day attract the attention of and be exploited by a handful of journalists and media hustlers…but only if you’re brutalized by a (black) man? Keep those fingers crossed, girls!!!
McCauley and her supporters claim that WAOD is at the vanguard of a new activist revolution. The black bloggers on board cast themselves opposite the old guard Civil Rights establishment, which, these bloggers argue, does not stand up for black women. Yet WAOD’s strategy consists largely of appealing to (or shaming) old establishment leaders and organizations into taking up particular causes. I’m sorry to disappoint y’all, but that doesn’t sound like a revolution to me; that sounds like the same-ol’ same-ol’. In two major respects, those behind WAOD are considerably similar to the media circus-driven race crusaders they criticize:
1. They share the same M.O. of victim-based rallying. WAOD merely seeks to replace one victim (black people vis-à-vis white people) with another (black women vis-à-vis black men, white men, men in general, the “entertainment industrial complex”*). But why not dispense with the victim framework altogether and adopt one that prizes agency, one that lauds black women who make great things happen rather than black women who have terrible things happen to them?
2. They also share the same superficial, almost childish focus on the entertainment industry as a primary site of political and social activism. The NAACP, for instance, is concerned with defending Mike Vick, celebrating sociopaths like R Kelly and Isaiah Washington, and castigating Imus, KKKramer, and The Academy Awards; WAOD focuses on BET, Imus (plus black comedians who have the audacity to defend his right to free speech), and various rappers.
When you press these “activists” on why so much of their effort revolves around athletes, musicians, actors, TV personalities, etc., they answer that it’s because many look up to these celebrities and that the images propagated by the entertainment industry have an adverse effect on the perception of black people generally, or black women specifically. They usually fall into one of two camps, though sometimes they have a foot in both. The first is concerned about these images influencing black children, especially those with absentee parents; the second is worried about how these images make black people look to outsiders. Not one of these “activists” addresses why mothers and fathers (regardless of race) are not raising children with enough common sense to know that what is depicted on TV, movie screens, radio stations, albums, and the Internet is not reality. If McCauley and co. were truly interested in combating the negative effects of popular culture, the site would be called What About Their Parents?
Furthermore, if people are so impressionable and/or dim-witted that they allow entertainment to govern their behavior, how on earth will simply removing a few stimuli solve their problems? The sheep who reproduce what they absorb from entertainment (as opposed to exercising critical thought and free will) exhibit serious cognitive and social deficiencies. These issues cannot be addressed with microwave measures. And this is not even taking into account the loathsome policy of censorship, soft or hard.
At times, I look at WAOD and think, “What a colossal waste of creative energy and resources.” But it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that McCauley and co. know that their “victories” have no real practical value.
Since WAOD is not about practical results, one can only assume that its purpose is symbolic in nature. Underlying WAOD’s stated goal is the idea that strengthening the self-esteem of black girls should be a top priority because our society does not love or respect them. Again, this is a noble cause. We do need to encourage among young black women forms of self-esteem that do not rely on boys or sex. This implicit idea is the key to explaining WAOD’s main strategies: publicizing black women who are victims of violent crimes and leading meaningless crusades against entertainers who say or do things that some black women find offensive.
In short, WAOD is driven by these black women’s desire to be loved and valued. By emphasizing black women as victims, McCauley and co. hope to elicit sympathy and love. By boycotting entertainers who degrade black women, they wish to signal that black women’s feelings are hurt and that they do not feel desired, respected, and loved. Thus, those behind WAOD are not political activists; they’re participants in a self-esteem building therapy session writ large. In addition, the self-esteem of the contributors seems to be more important than the self-esteem of the website’s titular daughters. These things aren’t inherently bad. I can anticipate the argument that, because of all they have to endure, black women need and deserve this type of collective affirmation. From this perspective, the misleading nature of the site is harmless at worst, cathartic and therapeutic at best.
But I have a huge problem with WAOD using the victim narrative to fuel its self-esteem building efforts and supposed “political activism.” As I will detail in the next installment of this series, there are formidable political and psychological drawbacks to over-emphasizing victimhood, especially for historically disenfranchised, less privileged people.
If McCauley ever decides to try to realize WAOD’s stated goal, I have a very simple suggestion: feature more professional black women who defy stereotypes by excelling in medicine, art, academia, business, government, etc. (a few “good news” links at the end of the year aren’t enough). I can think of at least one successful lawyer/networker who would be perfect for such a feature.
It’s time for folks to throw the question back at McCauley and WAOD**: When it comes to offering positive images of black women, what about our daughters (and sons), indeed?
*I am a product of left academia, where prison riots are often dubbed “rebellions,” and irresponsible, risky sexual behavior is fashioned as political resistance, but I wasn’t aware that activists were employing this bit of rhetorical claptrap in an attempt to elevate popular music, sports, film, and TV to the level of importance of the military and prison industrial complexes. Part of me thinks this shit is satire. TAN, are you reading?**I wonder if criticizing WAOD makes me an “Internet Ike Turner.”