When a person born into an identity associated with privilege & power wants to access spaces and identities of those associated with less privilege & power, the media praises them as some kind of Messiah and spins it as progress. Yet, when it’s the other way around, where a less privileged person is seeking access to or identifying as a member of the more privileged group, the media is either dead silent on the issue or it’s presented as a topic to discuss, debate and opine on rather than presented as a sign of social change and progress and cause for celebration. Why is that?

Take Dolezal, for example (and this is the most I will ever speak of her existence again).  Dolezal was treated like a mini-celebrity, as if she had cured cancer, simply for pretending to be Black. And come to find out, there were many people in on her lie protecting her. Yet, when Black people passed for White there was no popping of the bottles to celebrate their “bravery”.  Quite the opposite in fact. If their cover was ever blown, it came with the very real risk of losing everything, including their very lives.  Absolutely no one could know their true identity, not even their own spouse or children. For example, take the case of Anatole Broyard, the Black New York Times writer who successfully passed for White-not even his children knew he was Black- in order to have a writing career. He is not a household name the way Dolezal has become.  And when his story got some mainstream coverage, Broyard’s experience was not celebrated in the media like Dolezal’s experience. Rather, it was analyzed, studied, critiqued and then quietly tucked away. He was not heralded as some sort of American cultural revolutionary like Dolezal, inspiring the country to come up with new words or new meanings to old words (i.e. “transracial” is a word originally for families who adopted children of a different race. It was not a word meant for White people donning Blackface) to validate his experience as a Black man passing for White. Nor was he made out to be some kind of standard for Whiteness that White people should look to in the way Dolezal was presented as some kind of ideal Black, with remarks like “Well, she does more for Black people than most Black people.”

And to be frank, I see the media (and society) apply a similar double standard on the issue of trans and gender identity: There is much fanfare for transwomen yet transmen remain strangely invisible. To date, I have not seen one transman land a cover page of one leading male magazine like XXL, Esquire, or GQ. But Laverne Cox has been on the cover of Essence twice and when Bruce became Kaitlyn, the transformation was front and center on Vanity Fair magazine with Jenner declaring, without equivocation, “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman”.  Nor do I see transmen landing central character roles on hit TV series marketed to men. And at this point Kaitlyn Jenner, Janet Mock, and Laverne Cox are household names but I cannot name not even one transman.And while women are being asked to rearrange their identities or use new words to accommodate transwomen, the same is not being asked of men.

But I am not surprised. The media has operated to maintain the status quo not challenge it. It hijacks race conversations to maintain the racial hierarchy as it is ( i.e.exaggerating Black criminality but downplaying White criminality), it’s to be expected that the media would hijack the issue of gender identity to reinforce patriarchy, which values men over women.

I think the reason transmen are not in the mainstream spotlight or being granted access to male-dominated media spaces as readily as transwomen are being granted access to women-dominates spaces is because there is a double-standard that says those with privilege, in this case men, get to be more exclusive of their spaces than those with less privilege. They are the only king in their castle. But women are not generally permitted to exercise the same dominion over their spaces. Similarly, White people are entitled to keep their spaces and identity exclusive (e.g. not anyone can be considered White or be granted access to White dominated spaces without consequence, see McKinney and Trayvon) but Black people are expected to be open, accepting and accommodating (see gentrification). Men are entitled to keep their spaces and identity exclusive, but women are expected to be accepting and accommodating, no questions asked. Transmen are not as visible in the media as transwomen are because male identity is valued over female identity. Men are taken more seriously than women, therefore male spaces and male identity will be more fiercely defended. Men are not going to be asked to redefine themselves overnight to accommodate a few transmen.

And this practice of the more privileged maintaining staunch control over and exclusivity of their spaces has also played out outside of the context of media spaces.  Men and White people have historically been known to keep their spaces very exclusive, sometimes manifesting downright hostility towards outsiders.  They have both been known to demonstrate a grandiose sense of entitlement to their appointed spaces. They have shed blood, destroyed property or at least paid hefty attorneys fees to defend their spaces. Racially restrictive housing covenants are one example. With these housing covenants, White people went above and beyond to maintain the Whiteness of their neighborhood space. And the moment someone broke the covenant, all hell broke loose and long court battles ensued as a result. Yet, on the other hand, Black people are expected to grin and bear the gentrifying of their neighborhood spaces (and “gentrification” is another example of creating a trendy and progressive sounding buzz words to validate the experience of privileged seeking access to spaces dominated by the non-privileged).  Men were (and still are) notorious for working to keep certain professional spaces male dominated and laws had to be put in place to grant women access to male dominated professions. And any Black person who has ever lived in the inner city knows that the street corners were dominated by the men. The men felt entitled to the streets and any woman who wanted to simply walk down the block often had to endure micro-aggressive reminders that she was being granted access to THEIR space. Sometimes verbal altercations ensued. The corners were not hers. They belonged to the men. Male identity and White identity have this notorious track record of being based almost entirely on a sense of “us vs. them” (i.e an identity based on not being Black or not acting like a woman). They then arrogantly dictate who gets to be an “us” and who must remain a lowly “them”. It’s like they create their own little cozy “circle of winners” and anyone seeking access to their space-which conveniently has most of the resources- must usually walk through the valley of the shadow of death and then cross the lake of burning coals barefoot in order to do so.

But yet something magical happens, especially in the media, when White people or men/male-born individuals want access to Black or women-dominated spaces: They are simply granted access to the space. No questions asked. And then there are “requests” put upon Black people or women to accept new words, new phrases and new identities to accommodate a White person or a person who is born with a penis. Like how the meaning of the word “transracial” literally changed overnight to accommodate one random White woman. And now there is talk of replacing “vagina” with “front hole” to accommodate transwomen. Umm, nah. I’m good. Transwomen are free to call theirs a “front hole” but they don’t get to tell me what to call mine. It’s a vagina, a cunt, or pu$$y, thank you very much. #Getitright. Again, I don’t hear men being asked to rename the penis to accommodate transmen.

(see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?_r=0 for more on the topic).

And it’s strange how those born into identities associated with privilege and power are celebrated when they engage in behavior or immolate the characteristics associated with the less privileged, but the less privileged are criticized for engaging in the very same behaviors? While Dolezal was applauded for being Black and Black-facing her way through life, Black people are denigrated for acting “too Black”. While transwomen are applauded for plastic surgery or cosmetic changes as a way of living out their truth,  women are told they don’t love themselves if they get work done, or even if they tend to wear a lot of makeup. No one really mentioned Cox’s breast implants but people engaged in long drawn out discussions to determine if Beyonce had a boob job or not. And when I witnessed how quickly a lot of (Black) people were willing to pit Dolezal against Black people – holding her up as some kind of standard of Blackness that Black people should aspire to be like – I really have to wonder if there will be attempts to pit transwomen against women, holding them up as the standard of womanhood that women should aspire to be like. I have questions. So many questions. And Sway don’t got the answers.

{**Update: So, not too long ago Bravo Network’s Andy Cohen publicly insulted Amandla Stenberg calling her a “jackhole” because she spoke out on the issue of White people appropriating Black culture and aesthetic while remaining silent on Black issues, specifically commenting on with Kylie Jenner. While Amandla was speaking generally about Black culture, there was a gendered element to her commentary as it relates to White women rocking Black women aesthetic and mannerisms, something that has been going on for many, many, many years. Cohen decided to have this “conversation” with an older man, Andre Talley and Laverne Cox, a transgendered individual. Laverne Cox being transgendered means that Cox was born in a male body and socialized as such until transitioning and Talley is well, a man. So, tell me, please, how could these two really add any substantial understanding to the topic of Black female aesthetic being appropriated by and praised on White women if it’s not something they would have personally experienced their entire lives? Bravo is home to a number of shows featuring Black women who were born female AND socialized as such from birth AND have continuously identified as female-including Blood, Sweat and Heels and RHOA-who could have contributed much more to the dialogue (assuming Cohen was even looking to have a meaningful dialogue, which I sincerely doubt) than an old Black man and a transgendered woman. Demetria Lucas of Blood, Sweat and Heels would have been the perfect guest to facilitate that discussion. So why didn’t Cohen have her or even Nene Leakes on instead of Cox and Talley- who both ended up helping Cohen throw Amandla under the bus and basically gave the middle finger to a Black woman voicing her concerns? The answer is simply that Cohen didn’t want to. He was looking to fulfill his desire to trash Amandla for speaking out on something that doesn’t even impact his rich White male ass personally and he used guests who would help him do that. That segment sent the message that Black women are not the authority of their own stories and issues but Black men and transgendered women are. He did not have one “cis”Black woman on that segment (And I put “cis” in quotes because it’s still a very new term that I have not fully come to embrace for myself. It’s kind of like how I don’t like “African-American” or “colored” but prefer “Black” when it comes to how I want to identify myself or relate to the Black community). That is problematic and I do not applaud that as a sign of progress and it only adds to continual erasure of Black women. Sometimes, it is best to stay in your own lane.}

There’s also this double-standard of who gets to dictate what constitutes “social progress”.  Let me tell you what progress is for me as a Black woman. Progress is being able to talk about abortions without judgment, or not having men dictate the rules governing abortion. Progress is not having to explain why Ray Rice is wrong without having to implicate Janay. Progress is getting people to understand that rapists don’t have a particular look. Progress would be getting through one rap song or one hour of social media browsing and not hearing or seeing Black women publicly humiliated as “dark butts”,  hoes, or bitter but when I turn on my television, Black women are either invisible, stereotypical or playing someone’s sidekick.  Progress is Black girls getting to just be little girls and not having to worry about some fuckboy cop kneeing her in the back and laying her facedown at a pool party and then having the gall to offer a justification for it. Progress would be never hearing another Arnesha Brower story, the young woman in Baltimore City who was raped, strangled, and burned. Progress would be my mother not having to navigate awkward conversations with my 12 year old sister to prepare her for the realities of being stared at like meat by grown men if her shorts are really short AND that if something bad happened to her, people will still in 2015 , imply she was somehow inviting it. If I could see these things change, I could comfortably say that I am witnessing some social progress. Yet these things are still happening. So excuse me if I’m personally not ready to hitch a ride on the “Progress Party Bus” to celebrate requests to rename my vagina a front hole to accommodate another person’s decision to cut their penis off (because let’s be very clear, cosmetic surgery is not a fundamental right, it’s a privilege and a luxury) or requests that I rename myself cisgender to be more inclusive but we still can’t be named anything too Black without fear that despite being qualified for a job, our resume will be shuffled to the bottom of the pile. For some reason I’m just not feeling all that festive.

And on this topic of labels, why are we pretending like creating new words and categories automatically means progress? It doesn’t. Sure, it indicates a heightened level of awareness, but it does not necessarily indicate progress. It’s like a select group of people decided to throw an epic label-making party like words are going out of style. Listen, we can come up with new words until the we’ve exhausted every possible letter combination under the damn sun but that doesn’t mean we’ve progressed as a civilization. It doesn’t mean racism or misogyny are going away anytime soon. In fact, I think all this labeling and recreating words or new meanings from old words is extremely counterproductive and distracting because it doesn’t encourage any real conversations on what it means to be born male or female or what it means to be socialized in that way. When it’s all said and done, Whiteness will still be valued over Blackness and maleness will remain valued over femaleness.

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Black woman. Birthright Woman. Twenty-something. Writer. Thinker. Dancer. Singer. Lawyer. Matriarchist. Afro-wearer. History and genealogy enthusiast. Bronx born, Harlem rooted, Queens adopted & Brooklyn educated. This blog is where I share my thoughts on the world.

One Comment on “Labels, Exclusivity of the Privileged and One-sided Social “Progress”

  1. Pingback: Janet Mock on the “Underground Railroad” into Child Prostitution for Transgender Youth- and why he thinks that’s a good thing. | A Thinkers Delight

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