Breaking Out of the Silo: On (un)Seeing Multiple Oppressions

As someone who’s worked in the civil rights community for many years, I’ve worked on a number of issues.  I name many of them in the beginning of this post.  In one of my many coalitions, we joke frequently about what each of our “t-shirts” says.  By that we mean, what issue does each of us frequently bring up, or what preoccupation do we have with respect to the bill we might be working on.  Often, I say that my t-shirt says the following:  “Silo politics will be the death of us all.”  It can be tough to work at intersections or to acknowledge that, for instance, solving a problem for “women,” does not always a yield a workable solution for women of color, or women with disabilities, or immigrant women or that a coalition that is inclusive of LGBT folks on the one hand, and people of color on the other may nevertheless fall short of comprehensively addressing issues for LGBT folks of color. The vital discussion that took place this week on twitter under the tag #solidarityisforwhitewomen suggests that there is still much vital work to be done not only to ensure that we’re reaching comprehensive and inclusive results in our work, but as importantly to live into and not just give lip service to the notion of being a good ally to other groups in the struggle.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve heard a lot this week about the misogynist misstep of Russell Simmons who promoted and characterized as “hilarious” a so-called Harriet Tubman sex tape. Not only was it not hilarious, it served to trigger and bring up awful recollections of sexual assault for more than one survivor.  Simmons and his colleagues at AllDefDigital have been rightfully and righteously pilloried for making a video where Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad and the only woman to lead men in battle during the Civil War, is portrayed as a wily seducer, and ultimately, blackmailer of her slavemaster.  The myriad ways in which finding this amusing, much less endorsing it as a form of amusement is misogynist, a perversion of history and wrong in general, much less coming from someone who called Don Lemon to account, defy comprehension.  But it also distracts, crucially, from the other hideous parody gone wrong in the same video.

Although most of the video is focused is on Tubman’s attempts to entrap “massa,” she has an accomplice.  The video opens with her plotting with her cameraman about “the sting,” or entrapment that she’s about to engage in.  Her willing accomplice then hides in the closet with a video camera and assures her that he “won’t leave her hanging.”   While you could dismiss that allusion to lynching without more, you aren’t allowed to do so as the actor playing the accomplice pantomimes tying a rope around his neck at the very moment that he says it.  So, not only are the repeated sexual assaults endured by black women during slavery an appropriate subject for mockery, so is lynching.

Thus, although she features more prominently in this assault on African American women and history, Harriet Tubman is not the only one whose life and times are being parodied.  Ida B. Wells, all that she contributed to the anti-lynching movement, and the nearly 5,000 blacks and whites who were murdered when lynching was at its peak (1882 -1920) are being  mocked and denigrated along with her.

Why, I’m wondering, has there been so much attention to the Tubman part of the parody, but none to the lynching comment?  Was it just overlooked since the video was hastily removed before folks had a chance to review it thoroughly?  Was it inconvenient because what folks really wanted to do was to call out Russell Simmons for sexism in light of his critique of Don Lemon?  Did it render the deconstruction too messy to have to deal with both misogyny and xenophobia?   Was it just disregarded as a one off comment?  It should not have been.  For me, seeing a black man making an imaginary noose in the middle of a parody set in slavery times was nothing short of chilling.  

All of my theories about why everyone seems to have missed the lynching issue are both unsatisfying, and slightly disturbing because we’re reduced to having only one part of a broader discussion.  That video was most certainly about misogyny, but it was also about the deepest most destructive kind of self loathing there is.  The kind that can find any humor in extra-judicial murder.  The kind that fails to understand that lynching was simultaneously an instrument of repression and terror, even as the event of a lynching was often treated as a social occasion and spectacle to which people would bring their children and picnic baskets.  Also the kind that fails to understand that many communities, black, brown, LGBT, immigrant continue to live in terror in 2013.  Continue to fear that they could be tasered by cops, stopped for no reason, murdered while walking home from 7-11, or repeatedly see their children taken out of state and put into adoption proceedings in contravention of state and federal laws.  To overlook the justifiable terror of many communities as you satirize them for fun and cash is profiteering at its worst.  But we must do our part to hold profiteers accountable for all the damage they do, not just the most visible or easily attacked aspects of it. 

What the ???

Cheers   

Credit where credit is due.  Despite wreaking havoc in everything from more restrictive abortion laws, to voting rights restrictions, the Gov. of North Carolina,  Bill McCrory, did the right thing yesterday when he vetoed a law that would have imposed drug testing requirements on some welfare recipients.

Jeers

To the GOP Super PAC that thought that a video game that slapped Hillary Clinton for speaking was in any way appropriate.

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