January 22, 2014

Black Women: The "New" Pop (Prop) Art

Sisters...how many of you have had this moment:

While out dancing with my boyfriend a couple of weeks ago, a young, seemingly inebriated white woman with whom we were not acquainted--nor she with us--interrupted us by slapping me on my butt...out of absolutely nowhere. I didn't see her coming; didn't even see where she came from, but there she was in all her intoxicated glory, landing her drunken hand on my hind parts. As if my look of horror and exclamation of "What the hell?!" when I whipped around wasn't enough, she then proclaimed loudly, "You have the best ass! I just wanna squeeze it! Can I grab it?!"

Now...all those acquainted with me know I'm a very non-violent, non-confrontational person, but when this woman did and said this, it was all I could do not to return a slap of my own...to her face. Instead, I batted her hand away and stated firmly, "No, you can't. Please don't touch me." She then proceeded to laugh and say something to my boyfriend about me, which I could tell she thought was a compliment...again regarding my butt. I didn't hear what she said because I was too busy hearing the shrill, siren-like music from Kill Bill in my head that signals danger is extremely nigh, but my boyfriend told me she said, "Make sure you slap that ass for me tonight!"


She must have read my energy because after that comment to my boyfriend regarding me, she sashayed away to rejoin her drunken crew. I maintained my cool, as this was not the first time something like this had happened to me recently, but for the rest of the evening, I contemplated the very notion that made her feel like what she did was okay/cute/cool. And it eventually brought to mind all of the images of  White Female artists using Black Women as artistic props here of late. Images that undoubtedly reinforce the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle idea that black women's bodies are nothing more than playthings to give a heaping dose of sexual taboo and provocative color (pun intended) to some White Women's worlds.

Trust me, this is not an indictment on White Women as a whole. I have far too many White Sisters who support me as I confront these issues and probably would have offered to slap the drunken one for me. This is simply a question as to why on earth this "artistic" trend has started re-emerging, and does it have anything to do with this new-found comfort of some White Women coming up to complete strangers to touch their butts, breasts, hair, etc. (yes, I've seen similar situations occur with other body parts)? It's certainly nothing new, as the denigrating displays of Black Female bodies passing for "art" or "exhibition" dates back to slavery and the tragic, disturbing history of Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman. It's also not new in the sense that I'm sure something like what I described above has happened to a lot of you as well. However, from my perspective, two recent events have put this idea back on the world stage.

First, we had THE Miley Cyrus incident. Yes...you know the one. The one you're probably tired of hearing about by now, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, say a quick prayer/meditation to arm yourself, then watch this. Her use of black female strippers as these part-human, part-naughty, twerking teddy bear props was nothing short of ghastly, going as far as motor-boating and slapping one of the women's butts, as you may unfortunately remember. Now, that's not to say that the women in question were not complicit in their own objectification, but that's another post for another day. The point is: here is this former, real-life Disney Princess, coming-of-age before the world; asserting her sexual freedom with the use of black female bodies as the ultimate provocative props. As if hyper-sexuality is synonymous with black female bodies (faces and identities not important, as the women's faces were covered either by the enormous teddy bear costumes or partially hidden by sunglasses). Yet there were those who rushed to her defense as an artist, citing "artistic freedom" as a justification for the degrading, appropriating display. I guess it's her party, she can do what she wants.

Next up, just two days ago--on MLK Day, no less--came the photo accompanying this post. The Russian Socialite, art promoter, and Editor-in-Chief of Garage Magazine, Dasha Zhukova, did an interview with Russian online magazine, Buro 24/7 and posed for the above picture for the article; sitting ever-so-calmly, yet dominantly atop a "bondage chair" made of a Black female mannequin that appears extremely lifelike. Of course, after much deserved Internet Armageddon, the editors of Buro 24/7 have now cropped the image so that you cannot see the identity of the mannequin on the site. But the damage is done; most of us have already seen it and know, Ms. Zhukova, that you felt it was perfectly okay to pose for a magazine with this as the image you wanted people to see in the name of "art." It's really hard for me to swallow the "I didn't intend for it to be racist" pill, as the authority-on-all-things-not-racist, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian, flippantly tells us from his privileged perch as a white male in his article, "Why There's Nothing Racist About the 'Racist Chair.'" As a matter of fact, that pill doesn't even make it all the way into my system, because its nauseating and requires me to vomit it back up immediately. Because--quite frankly--how dare you tell me that me staring at an image of a Black female body being sat on dominantly by a white woman shouldn't qualify as racist--or at the very least, culturally ignorant and insensitive--to me? I guess the history of Black Women being used as exhibitions for art and science, and the history of Black Women being subjugated to the most horrific forms of sexual submission should just be struck from my consciousness, huh? We're all just making a big deal about nothing, huh? I truly can't believe he typed the entirety of that article with a straight face. I care not one iota about the original exhibit of Allen Jones (which used White Women bondage chairs); the choice was made to use a BLACK female bondage chair for THAT article...for the world to see. Which I'm sure Ms. Zhukova and Ms. Miroslava Duma--the editor of Buro 24/7--knew would draw traffic to the article because of the provocative and offensive nature of the image. Don't even try to feign as if you didn't know it would bring eyeballs, Ladies. And nothing...NOTHING infuriates me more than when an educated, privileged, White person tries to insinuate that we're all just "playing the race card" (just sit down somewhere, Sarah Palin, please...well, I wouldn't call her educated but still...); that we're all just seeing something that's not there, and now he or she is going to intelligently break it down to us less-enlightened Black folk who just can't understand the intricate, satirical nuance of what's being expressed. Nice try, Mr. Jones, but give me a break. Give. Me. A. Break.

With the advent of Miley Mania and Russian Race-Art, I find myself holding my breath for the next use of a body that looks like mine--or my mother's, or my sister's, or my friends'--as props in Eurocentric expressions of art. I also find myself wondering about the people who actually sign off on these things: the producers who felt like Miley's performance was okay to air; the editor who felt like the photo of a White Woman squashing a Black Woman was perfect for her article; the CEO who felt like it was just fine to use a white woman in black face to sell a Charcoal Dunkin Donut in Thailand. What runs through these people's minds?? Profit, I'm sure. Which is why it's vital that we keep raising our voices when our images are sold to the highest bidder. Because the more we do, maybe...just maybe...things will change. We can't be faux-intellectually intimidated into thinking we're playing some mythical, insulting race card. We are not crazy. We know what we see. The more we speak up, the more people will have to start thinking before they sign off on such craziness.

And as a result, just maybe the drunk white woman in the club will stop touching us like sex pets. Maybe.



  1. Speak truth, TC. I saw the Zhukova photo yesterday and was absolutely disgusted. I am appalled that anyone thought that this was appropriate to shoot, let alone publish.

    Also, appalled that someone would dare touch your body without permission and comment so offensively-- especially another woman, who must know what it is like to be objectified.
    Thanks for shedding light on oppressive ideas and behaviors so that we (and I) will be better able to stand up and speak up against it.

  2. The objectification of black women is becoming a trend more and more...resembling the past. Every time we ignore....the bolder they get...not the opposite. When you objectify someone, you turn them into a "thing" rather than a person. That justifies violence against them. And with this country's history...it's walking a thin line that should be avoided if we are to ever be truly post racial. Great read!