I like to juxtapose dominant images in the media. Today, I would like to take a look at the 14 year old Black girl who was abused by the McKinney police officer, and Caitlyn Jenner.
By now, many of us are aware of the 14 year old Black girl who was assaulted by, now suspended, officer David Eric Casebolt. If you are not, Brittney Cooper recounts the incident here.
I have not been able to watch the video more than two times. I cannot look at it. The pain that that child suffered and will suffer before she heals, renders me speechless. And yet, it is a familiar pain known to many Black girls and women in this country. The first thing that came to mind, after I caught my breath, was Sojourner Truth’s "Ain’t I A Woman" speech. Specifically, this segment, “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!” In the instance of this 14 year old, I thought, damn, “Ain’t I a girl”. Sojourner was questioning the long, troubled legacy of what it is to be Black and a girl or a woman in a country that exploited and tortured our bodies for their pleasure and economic gain.
Casebolt was one, in centuries of men, who have defiled, traumatized, abused and rendered invisible, Black female personhood. To grow up in a Black girl body in America is to grow up within a type of prison. And no matter how the Black girl presents (I was a tomboy that climbed trees, could outrun most at my age and loved to rock my favorite jeans instead of dresses, still experienced sexual violence, was cast off as unattractive and had to spend a great deal of my adulthood recovering from wounds, physical and psychological, inflicted on my Black girl body), the tales of abuse are rampant.
Over the course of my life, I have seen America parade White feminine identity as the ideal standard of beauty for girls and women. The effects of that cannot be quantified in statistics or in the relation of a story. Although, the 1939 Kenneth Clark doll study can give you an idea, it does not give you a full sense of the layered impact on one’s personhood. Until something like a Casebolt assault appears to bring it front and center. Casebolt, an armed police officer, assaulted a girl, a Black girl.
It is an odd thing to make such a statement as I live in America, where girl, in the dominant culture, represents the feminine. Femininity is classified as “fragile”, “soft”, “precious”, you get the idea. Femininity is to be “cared for”, “pampered”, “protected”. As a Black girl, I knew those adjectives were not ascribed to me. Black girls and women are only afforded the traditional labels of femininity when our sexuality is front and center. (If we recall, the Onion couldn’t even conceive of an adorable Quvenzhané Wallis without framing her inappropriately.)
Femininity is generously ascribed to a range of White women: Kate Middleton, Chelsea Clinton, the list is varied and endless. Maria Sharapova was regaled with tennis commercials and beauty spreads in magazines. However, it took the media some time to catch up to the stunning beauty and femininity of Serena and Venus Williams. Initially, they were described as “handsome”. In America, 2015, fortunately, Black femininity is marketed and valued. For example, Kerry Washington, Lupita N’yongo, Janelle Monae, Michelle Obama, etc. being the torch bearers. However, I do wonder what Black girls are experiencing who don’t live within the safe spaces of magazine spreads and tailored lighting.
The media erupted over Caitlyn Jenner’s spread in Vanity Fair. Caitlyn Jenner, who is part of a family that has prized and profited from the most shallow and marketable aspects of feminine identity. A family that has done very little to empower women beyond the physical. I am observing the current battle lines being drawn around Caitlyn, issues of feminism and identity. However, the same word count given to Caitlyn, the same degree of thought, care and attention offered in support of her transition, by Feminists, was not offered to a 14 year old Black girl. Why is that?
We still honor and admire the White feminine identity in this culture – even Feminists do. If we are to look at Caitlyn’s photos, “demure”, “coy”, “fragile” presented as if she is a gift, wrapped in a bow, and juxtapose those images with the 14 year old Black girl, lying face down on the ground with a police officer sitting atop her, we will understand what is prized female identification and what is not.
Certainly, I am comparing a 65 year old woman with a 14 year old girl. One was, actually, in her most vulnerable, demure state – a 14 year old girl in a bikini. The other, sculpted by a team of stylists, makeup artists and a marketing team. Who do Feminists rally behind? Caitlyn. A Black girl was abused on the world stage and there is barely an outcry from women. A Black girl is assaulted, aggressed and harmed and she received faux, performative, tossed crumbs of support.
Similarly, as trans women of color get murdered throughout the country, there are few spaces that cover that news with the degree of fervor and attention that Caitlyn Jenner received. Beaten and murdered does not trump nail polish and a red dress.
A Feminism that rallies to support a transition to womanhood but does not include the abuse of a Black girl, is an atrocity. My desire to keep the label of Feminist is waning as I bear witness to this consistent practice of neglect and disregard of women of color in spaces that are reserved for the protection and defense of girls and women.
As I watch trans women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock speak to the complexity of these issues, I know that the spectacled aspects of Caitlyn Jenner are being countered with analysis. I have watched these trans women (Laverne and Janet) in conversation with bell hooks at the New School. They are thinking through the complicated issues around femininity, performance and identity. And, the very specific pains that Black girls and women face in America. I expect nothing less. Black women, who have lead lives that require hyper vigilance and intense introspection, tend to think in angles and process information to take care of, not just themselves, but people who look like them.
So, it is possible to have a Feminism where Black girls and women, cis or trans, are in step. It is possible to see all girls and women as valuable. It is possible to see our femininity, our beauty and vulnerability as Black girls and women. I am noting, however, that that is in the eyes of other Black girls and women and our allies.
That 14 year old Black girl was vulnerable and brave and a survivor, like so many Black girls and women have had to be in America. In this time of honoring the bravery of Caitlyn Jenner, let’s honor the bravery of that 14 year old Black girl who bore our cross in front of the world.