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(DV) Sharpe: On Race, Kinship, and Black Women





On Race, Kinship, and Black Women 
by Christina Sharpe
April 18, 2007

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“You must not forget that we are students first and then we’re athletes. And before the student lies the daughter.”  

-- Essence Carson

It took almost a week to generate "public outrage" about the remarks that Don Imus and producer Bernard McGuirk made about the Rutgers Women's basketball team.

In that same week the media consistently reported that three white lacrosse players from Duke University were found innocent of the charges against them. It's true that the charges of rape/sexual assault against the three white Duke players have been dropped, but they are not innocent of either misogynist or racist acts. After all, these young men whom, I suspect, like most young white men of their class have very little social interaction with black people or, at least, little social interaction with black people of vastly different class and circumstances, hired these young black women from the other side of the tracks to dance at their party. The two women hired to dance agree on this: the players subjected them to racial and sexist abuse. And, let’s not forget that after Ms. Roberts’ accusations became public, a number of women on the Duke Campus came forward to say that they believed her because they, and other women they knew, had been assaulted as well.   

But, one (white) mother makes clear in her letter to the Boston Globe [1] the differences between what sons and daughters across a race/sex/class divide are told and who one imagines to be one’s son or daughter. She writes, “Any mother could have told those boys a party with alcohol, young men, and a stripper of unknown origins had the potential for trouble.”  Many a black mother could have told that daughter (those girls) about the potential trouble to them in interactions involving alcohol and young white men with pedigrees and power attached to race, sex, and class privilege.

As for Imus and McGuirk, they, like many of the producers who get rich on the very narrow spectrum of commercially successful hip-hop and rap, are middle-aged white men who claim social familiarity with blackness and black people. (Mis)citing Spike Lee's School Daze as Do the Right Thing, McGuirk calls the Rutgers women “hard core ho’s” (Imus adds “nappy-headed hos”) and McGuirk carries it further, calling the game between the Rutgers team (mostly black) and the Tennessee team (also mostly black) like “that thing (in the film) between the ‘Jigaboos and the Wannabes.’” 

By the end of the week Imus had lost his job and the attention was now being focused as much on what Imus said as from whom he learned such things. And guess what?  Imus and McGuirk learned them from black people and from Snoop Dogg in particular (a reference which takes the focus off of hair and places it on ho). Imus says, “This phrase that I use, it originated in the black community. That didn’t give me a right to use it, but that’s where it originated. Who calls who that and why? We need to know that. I need to know that.”  And now some people argue that as a nation it’s black people, and for some commentators and critics black people alone, who are to be held responsible for constructing and perpetuating these stereotypes, categories, etc. (Black people do think about the perpetuation of these images that aren’t images of our invention but that are taken up both inside and outside of the “black community.”) But very few people connect the misogyny in rap music with the rampant misogyny and racism that are part of the larger “mainstream” culture (as if the rap they're talking about isn’t itself mainstream and produced like so much else largely for consumption by young white men) and on display every night on television.  In other words, nothing they said is surprising, and neither is the variety of responses to their comments.

Zine Magubane writes (April 12th, Boston Globe op-ed) that for black women during slavery, legal segregation and after, nappy hair as an indicator of humanity “can mean the difference between being a citizen and being a subject; being enslaved or free; alive or dead.” [2] And like hair, what is said about us in public largely without public outrage is all too often the difference between who does and does not claim and imagine us (the descendants of slaves, women of “unknown origins,” etc.) as mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, wives, and partners: as kin. 

If I could have spoken with these young women (students, athletes, and daughters) I would have asked them why they wanted to meet with Imus. I would have let them know that I understood their desire to communicate their hurt to him and I would have told them that they had no responsibility, no obligation, to meet with him to tell him what he, by this time, knew. I would also have said that Mr. Imus is a grown man who has built a powerful and profitable career on these kinds of remarks, and who, up until now, has suffered few or no real setbacks. I would have asked these young women what they hoped to gain from this meeting (and if there were another way to achieve this goal) and what they thought he hoped to gain from it. I’d want them to know and to remember, without crushing their spirits or immobilizing them with the knowledge, that what Imus did was not an anomaly, not just one person acting up. I would have told them what very few other people will admit: “Imus didn't set out to hurt you because until black people reacted to his words you, as human beings, didn't factor into the equation at all. Imus wasn't thinking about you.”  And then, I would tell them that they are claimed as somebody’s children, somebody’s daughter, sister, friend, cousin, and (future) partner. 

Christina Sharpe is an associate professor of English at Tufts University.


[1] Marjorie Morgan, Letter to Editor, Boston Globe.

[2] Zine Magubane. "Why 'nappy' is Offensive," Boston Globe