Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fear of a Smart Black woman

This morning's New York Times has a commentary from Maureen Dowd entitled, " Feliz Cumpleanos, and Adios". The article is in reference to Michelle Obama going to Spain for a holiday with her friends and their daughters.

The criticism of Mrs. Obama has been steady for the last week regarding her vacation. Some news organizations have seen her as a vacation grubbing first lady, going on as many as 7 vacations since she's lived in the White House. Others (like Ms. Dowd) have seen her as anti-marriage this week because she wasn't with her husband for his 49th birthday. Others have suggested that she is a bad mother because her oldest daughter Malia was a camp while Sasha was home. While supporters of Mrs. Obama have been many, not many of them have been White women.

It's an interesting conundrum. I remember President Obama's presidential campaign. Geraldine Ferraro, and Gloria Steinem were livid that Mr. Obama was tangling with Hillary Clinton in a way that suggested patriarchal superiority. That it was politically expedient to love Barack Obama, but not Hillary Clinton. I believe the part of their argument was right. What wasn't right and what so many feminists refuse to acknowledge is the idea of privilege that White women share in this country. My favorite essay on this is White Privilege by Peggy McIntosh. She writes, "White Privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks."

This is a knapsack that Laura Bush was able to carry in her 8 years in White House. A 8 year tenure in which her agenda as the "literacy first lady" was carried out in bits and drabs while she was in the "second" white house in Texas. As First Lady she offered a half apology for ordering ornate and ostentatious china while her husband started two wars, but could not send it back since it had already been set. No one went to her alma mater and found her senior dissertation, dissected it and determined that she hated Black People. In fact, it wasn't until well into her second term as First Lady that anyone really brought up the fact that she had killed someone. Yet, Michelle Obama goes on a trip to Spain and all hell breaks loose.

During the Presidential campaign there was such intense scrutiny on Mrs. Obama, that if the camera got any closer to her face you would have seen her skin cells. Her clothes were picked apart. Why didn't she wear American designers? Is she too good for Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren? (She wore a Michael Kors dress for her official photograph). The infamous statement on how she was finally proud of her country, led McCain's wife to profess how she was always proud of "her" country. Trying to negate Michelle's Americaness while showing the "folks"see, told you they don't love their country. And of course who could forget the fist bump, and the senior dissertation that landed her on the cover of the New Yorker as an Angela Davis afro wearing, black panther who hated all white people.

The scrutiny continues. When she came to the White House she told the press she wanted to be "Mom-in -Chief" a reference to wanting to get her children acclimated to life in the spotlight and the White House. An article in the Times blasted her for not carrying the feminist flag far enough for women in this country. Last year she was scrutinized for wearing shorts, and vacationing in Paris. She was harangued for planting a vegetable garden and not wearing a dress and heels while she planted. She was hurled to the wolves for buying an expensive pair of sneakers, (with the headline, "First Lady buys sneakers while Americans don't have jobs") This year it's Espanol-gate.

It astounds me that declared feminists like Ms. Dowd would find this a topic worthy of mention. That they would actually declare that Mrs. Obama doesn't respect the President and as a result doesn't respect America, because of a jaunt to Spain. Where is the support for the FLOTUS? Doesn't she garner that respect just because she is the First Lady.

As I read the column, I could have sworn I heard Tammy Wynette singing, "Stand by your Man"

Give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to come to
when nights are cold and lonely

Stand by your man
And show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man

Do I want my First Lady to be submissive to her husband and her country? Do I want her to abandon herself for 4-8 years and sacrifice her family to the fire that is America? Not me (and if polls on Mrs. Obama are correct most women don't want her to do that either). But the bruhaha over Mrs. Obama going to Spain makes me think that this is about a woman of color making decisions that are not predicated on the opinion of her husband or anyone else for that matter? Is this just fear of a smart black woman who exerts her own brand of power?

Maybe the real problem is that White feminists and those that hold white privilege as sacrosanct have a hard time with a woman of color who just doesn't care what anyone thinks.

Too bad....Mrs. Obama can definitely teach America a thing or two about what it is to be a Woman.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Essence and the Publishing Industry

So Essence Magazine has hired a white woman to be the Fashion Director. I, like a lot of black women am upset about this. So much so that I've objectified Elliana Placas by just calling her a white woman and moving on with whatever criticism of Essence I've felt like making. But the hiring of Ms. Placas is just part of the problem, the other problem is the dearth of Black women in powerful positions in publishing. matter who the Fashion Director is at Essence, if there's no editor, or editorial director to shape her sensibility there will be no African American aesthetic. Fashion Directors may put out ideas, but editors are the ones who put their visions into words. So at Essence, maybe this won't be as big a problem, but let's think about other magazines. Look at Vogue, even though Andre Talley was there (he's now a contributing editor), there was no editor or director to push his aesthetic and therefore introduce a fashion sense that had women of color as part of the overall ideology. Welcome to publishing....

Publishing is tricky. Career ascendancy is based on an internship system. While publishing may have changed in some ways, getting on to a career track in publishing has not. Internships start for many in college in their freshman years. Most are not paid. So many African American college students don't see the use in applying, and many are not steered in that direction by their career offices even if they are interested, (I was interested, and I was not steered in that direction). Once you're in the business, many assistants seem to find their "expert trainer" in their boss. Their boss introduces them to everyone, a huge email is sent to everyone heralding their accolades and after a year they are moved to the next step in their career track.

Well, let's just say that doesn't happen so easily for black women in publishing. The first problem is finding that "expert trainer."When I started my job, there were five production editors, two were black. No one wanted to train me. So I went to the black editors thinking I'd at least get tips on what to do. One was in her late 40s and another in her late 20s. The older more distinguished woman was wary of me the entire time and while she was very nice, never wanted to teach me anything outside of my position. "For fear", she told me one day, "of being labeled as the 'Black' production editor, and being denigrated amongst her peers." The younger production editor took me under her wing, and taught me how to produce books, without fear. Her philosophy was, "If I don't teach you, you'll be a production assistant forever!" Without her I wouldn't have advanced. And trust, I EARNED every advancement. I had bosses that put me through the fire, while I saw many of my white counterparts who had less experience and less ambition than I did be promoted. I had a boss tell me that my ambition was unsuitable for the business, because there weren't a lot people like me in the industry. He concluded that I'd never be a production director.

My story is not unique. This is a story that is told time, and time again at black women publishing seminars and forums. And while my story is in book publishing, black women in magazines and newspapers have similar (if not worse stories than mine). And trust me, this is only PART of my story. I could go on all day. But not having positions of power in the media only helps to reinforce the stereotypes that black women endure and suffer through on a daily basis. The problem with the hiring at Essence is that Essence was the one place where the racial indignities of publishing were not supposed to happen (yet I have a sneaking suspicion there are other indignities...but that's for another time). It was a haven of sorts, to see a product that was developed by African Americans and showed African Americans. Those opportunities are too few and far between.

The time now is for more internships that pay, for college advisors to see us as media material and for our community as a whole to inspire black women to write, create and express their unique perspective to the world. I also think it's high time for another magazine, that is owned and focused on us. While more black book publishers are great, the focus should also be on black owned book distributors. And of course the Internet is where you can do and say it all.

And as much pain as I've felt being a part of the media game, I'm still in it. I'm going to take it in a different direction in the next few years (combining media knowledge with the creation of social programs for African American women and young girls) but I'm still here. I'm definitely not as idealistic as I was 15 years ago, but I've survived, ready to pass on my knowledge to the next generation.