As mainstream America slowly forgets that the Oscars even happened on Sunday, that space on the internet where feminism and race intersect is broiling. In case you missed it, nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was called a cunt in a joke tweeted by The Onion (since deleted and apologized for) during the Oscars. As a feminist, as a mom, as a person who thinks children should be able to retain some innocence even in these modern times, I’m disgusted by this story. She’s 9! I know I already mentioned this in my Oscars-recap, but judging from the heated conversations happening around me, it warrants more discussion.
In the one corner, there are (predominantly) white feminists who have no children (we’re going to circle back around to that part), who have seized a kind of opportunity in this firestorm to rekindle the talk about reclaiming the word cunt, or how it’s not that bad. I’ve seen the Vagina Monologues. I get where you’re going with this. And I’m telling you — one white feminist to another — shutthefuckup. The fact that you skipped completely over the overt racist tone of the jokes (including Seth MacFarlane’s Clooney quip) hurled at Wallis that night, highlights and exacerbates the problem.
Your White Privilege is showing!
The other side of this heated debate is a much more meaningful discussion. The question about calling Oscar-nominated Wallis a “cunt” is not about whether or not it’s okay to use the word cunt. It’s about the fact that you aren’t going to see such a hypersexualized expletive hurled — live and in public — for your Suri Cruises and Shiloh Jolie-Pitts. Calling a nine-year-old black actress a cunt on the biggest night of her young life is not just a deplorable act for its crudeness or the fact that some people find the word “cunt” to be demeaning in a sexist way. Nobody called a then-13-year-old Kirsten Dunst a cunt when she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Interview with a Vampire. But somehow young Wallis is fair game, because she’s black. It’s fucking racist! It is the epitome of the cultural stereotype that black women (and girls) are hypersexualized objects for the (white) male gaze. It says that no matter how talented, brave, smart, and lovely you are, if you are a black child, then you are worth less than any white person — adult or child. And if you think I’m exaggerating or just another feminist without a sense of humor, let’s look at Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas or the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.
And, frankly, the reaction to the Wallis tweet, reveals just how tone-deaf the white feminist community still is. We claim we’ve grown up and learned about the intersectionality of race, class, sexuality, gender conformity, able-bodiedness, and so on… But I completely understand why Kirsten West Savali takes us to task for our irresponsible collective silence.
The arc of white feminist dialogue on social media in the wake of the barbaric, misogynistic tweet emerged as tepid awareness – maybe, possibly, there’s racism – before curving towards the indefensible position of their white, male counterparts – it’s just brilliant satire – before ultimately coming to rest at dismissal. The lack of concern that white feminists displayed for this little, brown girl could not have been more obvious even if they donned a head scarf and said a raspy, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” before scurrying off to chide Oscar host Seth MacFarlane for his song about boobs or the Academy for only awarding 9 out of 30 awards to women.
It’s as if the white feminist community shrugged their shoulders, choosing to focus almost exclusively on the boob song and whether or not Seth MacFarlane called Jennifer Aniston a stripper. As I said in my recap, the Oscars actually presented multiple examples of Hollywood’s race problem — from MacFarlane’s all-black-people-look-alike Eddie Murphy/Denzel Washington joke to his derogatory quip about Rihanna and Chris Brown. The Onion‘s tweet is just another contextual layer in a many tiered cake. (Tastes like racism.)
As West Savali puts it:
The conversation surrounding the lack of inclusiveness and diversity within the feminist movement is one that never progresses because many white feminists feign ignorance of their privilege.
As a white feminist, these are tough words to read. But true on many levels. I can’t say that I always see past my own white privilege. I do try. But as long as the dominant feminist community is still fixated on debates like whether or not a mother should work outside the home or stay at home — as if every mother regardless of race and class has the same experience and options — we’re guilty. Be it by omission or ignorance, we are guilty of hiding behind our privilege. We have learned to acknowledge it just enough to avoid being called racists, but often have not bothered to do the uncomfortable work of dismantling it in our own lives, let alone our work. Just think about how the fair pay issue is often reported: Women make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. And then, a little lower down, and it’s worse for women of color. Considering the fact that poverty disproportionately effects women of color, shouldn’t the lead be: Hispanic women make 58 cents for every dollar a man earns! (And I’m calling myself out on this one, as much as anyone.)
So, the real reason why white feminists need to stop reframing the cunt-tweet debate is because that very reframing is an example of our white privilege. Pick another day to dust off the reclaim-cunt-speech. This is not that moment. And when you do it anyway, you prove how intrinsic racism is within American society and the feminist movement.
And I’m not saying all this as some sort of thinly veiled mea culpa on behalf of the white feminist community. First of all, I only speak for myself. Second of all, this is about serving notice on myself and all the rest of us. Check your privilege. Engage. If you don’t know about white privilege and racism in our “post-race” society, learn. Open your ears and listen. Read. Have meaningful conversations with the people of color in your life. (But, for God’s sake, do not make them responsible for your education!) If there aren’t any people of color in your life… ask yourself why. How have you subconsciously insulated yourself with white privilege? The time to dismantle it is right now.
And one more thing… To all the people out there who are saying that the backlash against the cunt-tweet is over-blown… How many of you are parents? How many of you have held your child while s/he is crying because something awful happened to them? Seen heartbreak in your child’s eyes? Have you had to explain racism to them, yet? (If not, you’re probably white.) Until you have had to console a child from the harsh cruelty of the world around them, well, you can shutthefuckup, too. What do you think that conversation was like at Wallis’ house? How do you think her family felt? How do you explain to a nine-year-old what the word cunt means, why someone tweeted it, and then how to hold your head high as the ENTIRE COUNTRY proceeds to debate your sexuality, your blackness, and your innocence?
Yeah. I thought so.