In less than 24 hours, a prominent black Congresswoman was ridiculed over her hair because she dared to speak up, while another respected black veteran reporter was chastised like a child for simply doing her job.
“I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said Tuesday morning of Rep. Maxine Waters. O’Reilly had just finished watching her House floor address criticizing President Donald Trump.
Earlier that same day at the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer scolded correspondent April Ryan for shaking her head during his answer.
“Stop shaking your head,” Spicer demanded of Ryan like he was a teacher and she was a child in his classroom.
Sadly, this kind of hostility and disrespect toward black women in American media and politics is nothing new.
— theGrio.com (@theGrio) March 29, 2017
Not surprisingly, these disgusting sexist and racist assaults against Waters and Ryan were made by conservative white men.
Too often, this is their playbook.
But what’s not surprising is that their political punching bags, if you will, were not their male peers nor their white women counterparts — they were black women. This is by no means a coincidence when you consider this nation’s long history of disregarding humanity.
In addition to combating the toxic and damaging stereotypes that depict them as sexual commodities, welfare queens and “baby mamas,” African-American women are faced with the tall task of maneuvering through a white supremacist patriarchal society that diminishes their value, regardless of their ability to survive its crippling grip, to gain access to American liberties like education and socio-economic mobility. If women in America are held down by sexism and patriarchy, black women are tied down by their hands and feet.
Despite attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School, despite being gracious and warm in the face of the racial political climate that was no fault of her own, Michelle Obama was treated like a second-class citizen and reduced to her skin color, her hair and her body stature — all of which were markers of her blackness.
We understood then the political right’s proclivity to tear down a strong, accomplished black woman at all costs for no other reason than being confident and unapologetically black.
Throughout time, black women in America have endured enslavement, domestic terrorism, political and social onslaught and outright neglect. Despite this reality, many African-American women have managed to crawl their way out of poverty and the low expectations that could have easily trapped them. But not even hard work and exceptional achievements can safeguard the black woman from the perceived dominance of white male patriarchy. As evidenced by Waters and Ryan’s treatment by a White House spokesman and beloved conservative talk show host, patriarchy lives on through the political right’s apparent obsession with putting women in their place.
No one political party is a monolith, and so it’s important to acknowledge that all Republicans are not racist or sexist. There is a clear correlation, however, between the GOP’s long documented problem with diversity and the bigoted and sexist rhetoric that roars from the right. What does it say about a political party when its leadership resorts to racist and demeaning discourse to address women, people who identify as LGBTQ, Muslims and other minority groups?
It’s time that the Republican Party acknowledge its antipathy toward women, minorities and the poor looming from its corners, and its ineptitude at correcting it.
Until conservatives start speaking against the party’s own ills, it will (rightfully) be billed as the party for white, wealthy men. As long as members of the party continue to think that being condescending toward women and people of color is okay, America will always fall short of being the ‘Great’ nation it claims to be.
But judging by the GOP’s refusal to call out then-presidential candidate Donald Trump after he bragged about grabbing women by their vaginas and called his opponent Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” — among many of his moral shortcomings —it doesn’t look promising.
Clinton knows all too well about sexist opposition, as she’s had to endure it throughout her entire political career. And despite her noted wealth and white privilege, even she recognized the racial undertones to the obvious sexism against Waters and Ryan earlier this week.
“Now, too many women, especially women of color, have had a lifetime of practice taking precisely these kinds of indignities in stride. But why should we have to?” she asked. “And any woman that thinks it couldn’t be directed at her is living in a dream world.”
It’s safe to assume that the women who are “living in a dream world,” as Clinton said, are Republican white women, Kellyanne Conway for example, who would rather prop up white male patriarchy and make excuses for their misogyny rather than use their voices as women to speak against it.
In fact, it seems like those on the left, the center and on the outer margins of society have, for quite some time, been calling on Republicans to put partisan politics aside and adopt a bit more compassion. Compassion is the great moral equalizer, and it is the very thing missing in our American politics. Compassion for black innocent lives killed by the hands of reckless policing. Compassion for families being ripped apart and deported to countries that are foreign to them. Compassion for trans women being murdered because society says their womanhood is based on the sum of their parts. Just imagine the progress this country could make if the conservative right chose compassion even when there is no political nor personal benefit that comes with it.
Because black women are often not viewed through a lens of compassion, it’s no wonder why O’Reilly would ignore Maxine Waters’ political discourse and instead choose to focus on her looks. Particularly, his comfortability with taking a personal jab at a black woman’s hair. It’s no wonder why Sean Spicer would pay more attention to April Ryan shaking her head than answering a very legitimate question about a president with a 35-percent approval rating within his first two months in office and who is at the center of a FBI investigation.
O’Reilly and Spicer, or any man who chooses to demean women, will often use intimidation to control or manipulate, but thankfully, it’s no longer the 1950s. It’s quite arguable that neither of them would have said such things to a white woman, and until we are able to have honest conversation about why that is, the Republican Party will continue to be the outdated and rigid party that it is.
Obviously, Waters and Ryan are on to something, because as they say: a hit dog will holler. And as one knows, when one is weak, he or she will often act out of rage and desperation. While it’s unfortunate their assertiveness was met with name-calling and chastisement, it’s a sobering reminder of who is standing on the right side of history and who is not. Thankfully, America is not defined by one political party, and there seems to be more people who are willing to stand against the systematic prejudices that make it okay for so-called men to say the things we witnessed earlier this week.
Maxine Waters said it best herself: “When a woman stands up and speaks truth to power… there will be attempts to put her down.”
It is our moral obligation and American right to call out injustice and bigotry when we see it, from the studios at Fox News all the way to the White House in Washington, D.C.
If we allow the rhetoric from the right to persist, we risk the normalization of the very things that go against what it means to be American. And that is a risk we simply cannot afford.