The Rose That Grew From Madison Avenue: Adidas, Powerade and the Marketing of Derrick Rose

…late-capitalist economic practices…led to deindustrialization and the decline of black urban communities in the post-World War II United States [and] also produced the black basketball star as a commodity and an object of desire for mass consumption…  (Gitanja Maharaj:1997, 98).

The Coca-Cola owned sports drink brand Powerade’s 2015 advertising campaign centers around the duel taglines “Just a Kid” and “We are All Just a Kid from Somewhere.” The ads feature a range of professional athletes. Among the athletes featured are; football player Jimmy Graham, “just a kid from Goldsboro,” hockey player Steve Stamkos, “just a kid from Ontario,” and baseball player David Ortiz, as “just a kid from Santo Domingo.” NBA player Derrick Rose is featured in a television commercial which began airing in February. The Rose commercial is entitled “Rose from concrete,” and bills him as “just a kid from Chicago.”

The majority of the athletes featured in the commercials play for American professional sports leagues. The campaign plays upon the notion of the “American Dream,” the mythical belief that in the United States, anyone can start from humble beginnings and attain wealth and possibly fame. The Rose commercial also plays upon the core false narratives and stereotypes that have come to be linked with African-American NBA players. Among them:

  1. the players mainly emerge from poor black urban communities (i.e. LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, and Carmelo Anthony from Baltimore, Maryland, the now retired Allen Iverson from Hampton, Virginia)
  2. the majority are the products of ‘broken homes’ made up of single mothers and absent fathers
  3. through sheer talent, hard work and personal resolve alone they overcome poverty

The 60-second Rose Powerade commercial uses the voice of the late rapper Tupac Shakur reciting a stanza from Shakur’s poem “The Rose that grew from the concrete.” The commercial opens with a young actor portraying young Derrick Rose in his bedroom in Chicago. Young Derrick will symbolically journey on his bicycle from the impoverished South Side of Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, fueled by Powerade, to NBA stardom. The choice of Tupac Shakur’s “Rose that grew from concrete,” of course is a play on Derrick’s last name. The choice of Shakur is also connected to the Hip-Hop cultural cachet attached to Shakur, who died at the age of 25.  Shakur is now a cultural icon, who represents rebellion, black cool, and a particular brand of black hyper-masculinity. The commercial uses the last stanza of the recorded version of Shakur’s poem:

You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete
had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its
tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.
Well, we are the rose – this is the concrete – and these are
my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why, thank God nigga, ask me how!

The commercial omits the line “thank God nigga.” A shorter version of this poem appears in Shakur’s posthumous collection of poetry, entitled The Rose that grew From Concrete, published in 1999. The version of the poem that appears in the book consists of eight lines and does not include the stanza that Shakur is heard reciting in the commercial. The book offers a photocopy of Shakur’s handwritten version of the poem, in it Shakur identifies the poem,  as “Autobiographical.”

A biography of Derrick Rose is what the Powerade commercial purports to offer. Derrick Rose was born in 1988, Shakur was born in 1971 and died in 1996. Rose was eight years old when Shakur died. The commercial attempts to construct a link between Shakur, who has been deceased for nearly 20 years and the 27-year-old Rose. In the video documenting the making of the commercial Rose states, “I loved Pac for what he stood for, he stood for something more than music, he knew where he was at in this life, he knew where he wanted to go.” Rose  never shares what exactly he believes Shakur stood for. It is clear that the association with Shakur is something that is desired by Rose. The fictionalized biography of Rose that the commercial  offers, is really a corporate construct of black masculinity. It is a false narrative which depends on an essentialized, simplistic concept of black manhood in urban America.

The corporate co-option of Hip-Hop is highly visible in sports related marketing. Hip-Hop music has emerged from the South Bronx of the 1970s to become a global commodity of the 21st century, utilized by Madison Ave advertising firms to hawk everything from hamburgers to automobiles. The Rose Powerade commercial was crafted by the Portland, Oregon based, global advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy. The agency has offices in New York  and Brazil as well as other major cities. On the Wieden + Kennedy website, the agency describes the idea behind the Rose ad as, “[no] matter where athletes get their start, or what obstacles they face in life, through hard work and determination, they can advance from the very bottom to the very top.”

While Madison Ave, like the NBA, once shunned Hip-Hop, it has now engaged in a corporate embrace of Hip-Hop music and many of its cultural elements. Sociologist Celia Lury writes that “Nike makes extensive use of the marketing technique of personification, in which the properties of a product…are associated with the characteristics of a person” (2004, Loc 2075). It can be argued that companies such as Nike, Adidas and in this case Powerade, are making use of the now common marketing technique of Hip-Hop personification. In this process the identified elements of Hip-Hop culture—blackness, urbanity, youth, authenticity, hyper-masculinity—that are imagined to be embodied in the black athlete are transferred from the athlete to the product being advertised. The Rose Powerade commercial attempts to use this technique of Hip-Hop personification, however, Rose may not necessarily be perceived to embody all these Hip-Hop related elements. Shakur also serves the purpose in the commercial of helping to enhance Rose’s Hip-Hop authenticity.

The comercial offers a “single story” (Adichie: 2013), narrative of the contemporary black male experience in urban America. This single story approach to the black male urban experience features an archetypal black male athletic hero. This archetypal black male athletic hero’s story always begins in an urban impoverished black metropolis. In the case of Derrick Rose, it is the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. Through the gift of this archetypal black male athletic hero’s talent, his work ethic, his resistance to the temptations of the ‘Hood,’ gangs and drug dealing, he is able to escape the urban ghetto. It is not government social programs that allow his escape from poverty and his dire community. According to the scripted advertising narrative, it is solely through the athlete’s own tenacity and effort that he rises from the ghetto. The Rose Powerade commercial follows the script quite closely, depicting Rose as the archetypal black athletic hero, rising from Chicago’s impoverished South Side. In addition to his own tenacity, young Rose, starts out with a bottle of Powerade which is stored in his backpack as he rides on his bicycle through a neighborhood of which the viewer is provided with multiple visual cues of its decay.

The commercial opens with the young Rose in his small bedroom which has a twin bed with no headboard or footboard. Clothes are strewn about. He walks into the kitchen, where a woman, presumably his mother, is taking care of a basket full of laundry. We never see this woman’s face. There is no father present. Young Rose places a bottle of Powerade in his backpack and he departs on his bicycle. No neighborhood friends join Rose on this journey through the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood scenery presented is that of the type of urban decay which is often depicted in Rap videos and films set in the inner city. Rose rides on streets with cracked asphalt, we see broken fences and garbage strewn about. Young Rose stops in the middle of the street and looks back at his impoverished neighborhood, and then he continues his solitary journey towards fame and fortune.

In the next visual, young Rose finds himself standing outside of the United Center Arena, the home arena of Chicago Bulls, the team for which Rose plays. He starts walking towards the arena. The scene dissolves into the adult Derek Rose, who is now inside the arena walking unto court. Rose is wearing a jacket, with the Adidas logo on his upper sleeve. His own Derrick Rose logo which incorporates the letter D placed in the center on an outline of a rose is on the front of his jacket. According to Forbes magazine “Each leaf of the rose on the…logo represents Rose in a unique way. The three leaves, or rose pedals, represent each of his older brothers. The No. 1 in the middle not only signifies his jersey number, but also his mother.” The Rose logo was crafted by Adidas and appears on Rose’s signature Adidas shoe collection. The logo design and the Powerade commercial aim for authenticity and intimacy by purporting to offer the consumer not just a product, but a personal piece of Derrick Rose.

In 2011, Rose was named the league MVP, the youngest ever, and his team the Chicago Bulls made it to the NBA Eastern Conference finals where they faced LeBron James and the Miami Heat. In 2012, Adidas signed Derrick Rose to a 13-year, $185 million endorsement deal. In Rose, Adidas thought they had found the superstar athlete who could helped them steal some market share from Nike. Rose’s appeal was not merely his athletic talent and performance on the basketball court, but also his back story. Rose’s story of being from the South Side of Chicago, neighborhood of Englewood, which has been described as being “one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods,” and being  raised by a single mother, also made him appealing. Adidas certainly hoped that Rose could do for them what a former Chicago Bulls player, Michael Jordan, had done for Nike, in terms of increasing the sales of Adidas sneakers.

With his endorsement deals with companies such as Adidas, Giordana’s pizza chain and the Coca-Cola owned Powerade, Derrick Rose has become a “commodity and an object…for mass consumption,” (Maharaj: 1997). Rose has sustained a range of devastating injuries over the last three years. These injuries have stymied Rose’s career. Rose has missed more games than he has played, in the last three years. A successful ingredient to the marketability of NBA athletes from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant and to LeBron James, has been winning. Each of these three players has won at least two NBA championships. Since 2011, Rose and the Chicago Bulls, have not even made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Rose is a full participant in the process of making him into a commodity, as evidenced by the creation of his own logo, which is not just meant to sell more sneakers, but in the larger context to build and further promote the Derrick Rose brand.

The Powerade commercial is unable to completely suppress Shakur’s intended meaning from his words and voice. Shakur’s poetic intentions subtly shadows the commercial. We hear Shakur’s voice reciting:

You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete
had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its
tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.
Well, we are the rose – this is the concrete – and these are
my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why,… ask me how!

The commercial promotes a narrative of personal responsibility, where institutionalized racism, deindustrialization, mass incarceration and welfare reform, poor public schools, all of  which form and impact neighborhoods like Englewood, Chicago, are ignored.  Shakur’s poem is about how he and other young black men responded to the conditions of urban poverty and racism by turning to gangs, drug dealing, and in Shakur’s case rapping. Rather than being celebrated for finding some means of surviving under these harsh economic and social conditions, these young men are instead labeled as thugs. Shakur famously had the words Thug Life tattooed on his abdomen. The “concrete” can be interpreted as a metaphor for crime-ridden, poor, urban communities like Englewood, Chicago. The “roses” can be interpreted as a symbol of  the youths who inhabit these neighborhoods. The “damaged petals” could be perceived as the likely psychological scars that the youth of these neighborhoods have obtained from suffering from years of economic and violent trauma and generational poverty.

The Rose Powerade commercial offers a corporate fairy tale, in which, athletes at least, can escape places like Englewood, Chicago and their blight, through personal effort alone. As the advertising agency states “[n]o matter where athletes get their start, or what obstacles they face in life, through hard work and determination, they can advance from the very bottom to the very top.” It is very telling that in the commercial, Rose rides out of the neighborhood alone. While he may have escaped the violence and poverty of Englewood, Chicago, thousands of other black youth remain in that neighborhood, without extraordinary athletic ability to serve as their ticket out.

Lury, Celia. Brands: The logos of the global economy. London: Routledge, 2004. Kindle

Maharaj, Gitanjali. “Talking Trash: Late Capitalism, Black (Re) Productivity, and Professional Basketball.” Social Text No. 50 (Spring 1997): 97-110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/466817. Accessed January 4, 2015.

Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova: We Have NOT Come a Long Way Baby

ri•val
1. a person who is competing for the same object or goal as another, or who tries to equal or outdo another; competitor.
2. a person or thing that is in a position to dispute another’s preeminence or superiority.

‘Beauty? To me it is a word without sense because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to.” Beauty was a mystery even to painter Pablo Picasso.
Contemporary concepts of beauty are inherently racialized and are the product of centuries of European colonialism. Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer in a 2010 book wrote “[y]ou are not born with a race in the same way you are born with fingers and eyes and hair. Fingers and eyes and hair are natural creations,…race is a social fabrication.” According to them prior to “the sixteenth century, race as we know it today, did not exist.” (pg.51). They characterize the development of the racial social fabrication project in the United States in this manner, “[w]hiteness and blackness were invented as antipodes within the context of English, and later American slavery”( pg.95).

Today in the twenty-first century we are still using racial concepts invented in the sixteenth century to categorize and place value on human beings. In our ongoing racial drama white women have been cast as the beautiful, desirable, respectable heroines, while black women have been cast as the ugly, least desirable, and unworthy of respect step-sisters. White women are the norm, the beauty standard to which all other women are compared. We can see how racialized, Eurocentric concepts of beauty and femininity influence the differences in the public perception and media portrayal of tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Williams and Sharapova are “antipodes,” who represent two vastly different aesthetics. The white, blond and slim Maria Sharapova has won four majors and is currently ranked the number two  player in the world. However, she has been unable to legitimately dispute Serena Williams preeminence as the greatest female tennis player right now, and perhaps of all-time. Serena Williams, black with a muscular and curvaceous body, holds a 14-2 record against Sharapova. For nine years Serena has defeated Sharapova in quarterfinals, semi-finals, Olympic and grand slam matches with outrageous score lines, 6-1, 6-2, in the 2007 Australian Open final and 6-0, 6-1 in the 2012 Olympic gold medal match. Where a rivalry truly exists between the two women is off-the court, in the competition for marketing dollars.

Serena the number one-ranked player, is undeniably the best female player in tennis right now, although she has not earned endorsement revenue in the manner of her male counterpart for the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) title, Roger Federer, or other athletes who are or have been the best in their field like Tiger Woods or LeBron James. This is because she is both black and a woman. While Roger Federer is white, the other two athletes are black and male. According to Forbes:

“Federer has the most impressive endorsement portfolio in sports, with 10 sponsors that collectively pay him more than $40 million annually, including long-term deals with Nike, Rolex, Wilson and Credit Suisse.”

While being the best in one’s field is good enough for male athletes, for female athletes the market also requires that they also be “attractive” and “desirable.” In fact, for the female athlete, being attractive can trump the need to excel. Witness the case of hurdler Lolo Jones who has more endorsement deals that her primarily African-American track-and-field competitors and U.S. Olympic teammates, in two consecutive Olympics Jones has failed to bring home the gold, or even the bronze. Jones who is of “French, African-American, Native American and Norwegian descent,” is fair-complexioned with blonde hair. She offers her sponsors an acceptable Eurocentric appearance, which they can be comfortable with. Whiteness or the approximation of whiteness is a lucrative commodity in the sports and entertainment world.

Cameron Russell, a model who has worked for Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and who has been featured in the pages of Vogue, and worked the fashion runways of the likes of Chanel, Prada and Versace, recently stated.

“The real way that I became a model is that I won a genetic lottery, and I am the recipient of a legacy. What do I mean by legacy? Well, for the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we’re biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall, slender figures, and femininity and white skin. And this is a legacy that was built for me, and it’s a legacy that I’ve been cashing in on.”

This is also a legacy that the likes of Sharapova and race car driver Danica Patrick have also been cashing in on, whiteness, attractiveness and willingness to use sexuality as a marketing total, has created a steady revenue stream for both women.

In a 2012, Fortune article entitled, “Sex, muscles, basketball: How do you sell an athletic woman?” Shelley DuBois wrote:

“Today, more than 3 million high school girls play sports. Women now comprise nearly 40% of all interscholastic and intercollegiate sport participation. Yet they see many more male athlete role models than professional athletic women on television and in ads. It all comes down to marketability; Americans won’t forget you if a company can sell you. But four decades since Title IX and 16 years since the launch of the WNBA, organizations are still figuring out how to attract consumers by marketing female pro athletes, especially those who might not conform to traditional notions of femininity.”

Sharapova in her 12-year professional career has won each of the four majors once. For her very first, the 2004 Wimbledon title she defeated Serena in the final. The 2004 Wimbledon victory transformed Sharapova into the sports marketing world’s golden girl. ESPN tennis writer Greg Garber described it this way:

Sharapova, …became the biggest thing in tennis with a victory in early July at Wimbledon (over Serena Williams, no less),… She is a marketing dream, combining Anna Kournikova’s off-court game with Williams’ power and mental toughness between the lines.”

Anna Kournikova, a former Russian blond tennis player, who at one time,

“was pulling in $15 million a year in endorsements despite never winning a professional tournament.”

White, and male sports journalist Will Swanton, writing in The Australian newspaper provided his assessment of the true reasons behind the recent public feud between Sharapova and Serena on the eve of the Wimbledon Championships.

“The truth is a fascinating psychological study. Williams dislikes Sharapova because no matter how many matches and titles the world No 1 wins, she can never be what she also pines to be: the most beautiful and glamorous figure in the sport. Sharapova loathes Williams because even though the Russian is the richest and one of the most alluring sportswomen in the world, the face of Porsche and Evian and the focus of countless magazine covers, she would swap it all to be the greatest female player who ever lived.”

Now it is important to note that Swanton is a white male, after all, white males were the primary architects of the social fabrication of race, and in our white patriarchal system where they continue to be overrepresented in positions of power in every field in the public and private sector, white males continue to frame and define our understanding of the world. Swanton subjects Serena to to his white male gaze and finds her lacking. Just this Saturday when the white French tennis player Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon ladies championship, Sports Illustrated reported that John Inverdale, a white male radio journalist made the following comment during his broadcast;

“John Inverdale asked listeners on BBC Radio, “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.”

When told of the comments Bartoli remarked

“It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry.But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”

We have not come a long way in terms of the criteria we use to analyze women in the public arena and in how women’s professional accomplishments are discussed. When a man achieves something notable there is never any concern or discussion about whether or not he is a “looker.” Men are given the privilege of being judged and appraised on their ability and achievements. People continue to perceive ‘looks’ as an acceptable criteria on which to judge a woman, no matter how extraordinary her professional accomplishments.

If Mr. Swanton is to be believed Serena is not the “most beautiful and glamorous,” woman in the sport of tennis. He is expressing a personal opinion likely shared by many others; that Serena has the talent and the greatness but, Sharapova has the beauty. Search the internet for any news story on Serena Williams, whether it is about her winning a championship or committing an on-court faux-pas, many of the readers comments will carry the same themes and language. Many will use words like “monkey,” to describe Williams suggesting also that perhaps she is a “man,” or on steroids. If the news story includes Sharapova there are sure to be comments lauding Sharapava’s attractiveness in comparison to Williams. Swanton feels comfortable making his assertion, and assuming that everyone will agree with him that Maria Sharapova is the “most beautiful and glamorous” woman in the sport of tennis because Sharapova exactly matches the Eurocentric model of beauty that is consistently venerated by Hollywood films, advertisers and magazines in his country Australia, in Europe, the U.S. and other regions.

The story of Maria vs. Serena exists in a wide socio-historical context, but journalists and sports writers have failed to analyze the imagined rivalry in its proper context. When the professional rivalry between male tennis players Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer is discussed there is no mention of their looks or of them pining to be the “most handsome and glamorous” man in their sport. A male athlete’s marketability is based on his ability to make male sports spectators desire to emulate his achievements “be like Mike,” while a female athlete’s marketability is based on her ability to make male sports spectators desire her.

Serena has won 16 grand slam titles and earned $20 million more than Sharapova in total career prize money. However, when it comes to endorsement money Sharapova is the Queen. According to Forbes Magazine’s 2013 annual list of the highest paid athletes in the world Maria Sharapova is the 22nd highest earning athlete in the world, while Serena is ranked 68th. In fact, only three female athletes made the list, all tennis players, Sharapova, Williams and Li Na. Li Na ranks “ranks 85th overall with earnings of $18.2 million,” according to Forbes. The income disparity comes in endorsement money, while Serena earned $2 million dollars more than Maria in 2012 prize money, Maria earned $11 million dollars more than Serena in endorsement money.

One can easily argue that the world of women’s tennis is filled with attractive Eastern European blondes (Daniella Hantuchova, Maria Kirelenko) who are not earning tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money like the Russian-born Sharapova. For example, Victoria Azarenka, the number three ranked player in the world, who won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, and earned 7.9 million in prize money in 2012, was not even included in the Forbes list of highest-earning athletes. She is signed to Nike, just like Williams and Sharapova. Azarenka also has endorsement deals with American Express and Citizen watches. While Azarenka is young, blond and has won grand slams like Sharapova, she has not significantly engaged in marketing her sexuality and validating “traditional notions of femininity’ in the manner of Sharapova. Azarenka and Sharapova are both outfitted for the tennis court by Nike, for the 2012 Australian Open Nike dressed Azarenka in shorts while Sharapova was attired in a traditional tennis dress. Sharapova posed for the 2006 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and is appearing on the June 2013 of Esquire Latin America adorned in a bikini. She has been very willing to play the sex symbol role that has been created for her.

Having athletes act-out the racial anxieties and desires of society is not a recent phenomenon. Journalist and sports historian David Zirin writes that when:

“[Jack] Johnson became the first heavyweight boxing champion with black skin in 1908, his victory created a serious crisis in the conventional wisdom about race. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for “a great white hope” (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore order to the boxing world-and the world in general. Former champion Jim Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” (pg. 42).

Jeffries ended up being defeated by Johnson. The search for an athlete who could be the “great white hope”continued. Seven decades after the Johnson-Jeffries fight, there emerged a basketball white hope in the form of Larry Bird, matched with a black rival named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Bird of Indiana State and Johnson of Michigan State played against each other in the 1979 NCAA college basketball championship game, a game deemed the highest-rated televised college basketball game ever. Bird and Johnson would go on to became storied rivals as professional players in the NBA, in the 1980s. Sportswriter Andy Katz writes:

“…the Lakers and Celtics battled for NBA supremacy throughout the 1980s. Bird represented Boston, a blue-collar city. Magic’s GQ persona was the right fit in Hollywood. It didn’t hurt that Bird was white, playing in Boston, a city with a history of racial intolerance. It certainly helped that Magic was in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the nation.”

Just as Johnson stood in the boxing arena embodying black hopes and Jeffries stood there with him in 1908 as the “Great White Hope” embodying white desires and white anxiety, in 2004 Williams stood on Wimbledon’s center court embodying black hopes, while Sharapova stood opposing her on the other side of the court, as the Nouveaux “great white hope.” Sharapova emerged victorious that day, calming white anxiety and fulfilling white hopes. However, this is not to suggest that Sharapova herself plays tennis to affirm any kind of racial superiority, she is a fierce competitor who is playing for her own reward.

Serena’s father Richard Williams claims it was watching the winner of a tennis tournament receive a large prize check on television that inspired him to train his daughters Venus and Serena to be tennis players. He most likely was not naive enough to believe that when his daughters arrived in the predominantly white tennis world, as two dark-complexioned black girls from Compton, California, with braided hair adorned with beads that they were going to be solely judged by the contents of their character and the quality of their backhands. Race is an inescapable, integral, oppressive part of his daughters triumphant, yet to conclude story? Everyone has a legacy, some get a legacy they get to cash in on and others inherit a legacy that they have to overcome.

THE ULTIMATE TROPHY: What the Phenomenon of Sports WAGS tells us about Sexism, Race and Beauty

“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”                            -Tony Montana (Scarface)

 

WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends) is an acronym coined by the British tabloids to refer to the wives and girlfriends of British soccer players. WAGS has now been expanded to refer to the wives and girlfriends of male athletes in all major sports. Viewing the featured images of athlete’s significant others in  British tabloids, Vogue Magazine which put together “WAGs “R” Us: A Style Guide to World Cup Soccer Wives and Girlfriends,”  this recent listing by the New York Daily NewsThe hottest WAGs of the World Cup” and a website’s list of “The 11 Most Desired Wags of Mexican Soccer,” leads you to believe that every soccer player is either married to a Sports Illustrated model, Victoria’s Secret model, playboy playmate, or pop singer, actress who coincidentally is 99% likely to be white. Of the over 50 soccer player’s wives and girlfriends that the Daily News showcased, only four appear to be black. Of the 12 women selected by Vogue only two were non-white; Japanese player Misako Honda’s wife Keisuke Honda and Inter Milan player Mario Ballotelli’s girlfriend Fanny Neguesha who is of African descent.  According to a 2012 article in the British newspaper The Guardian “25% of premiership players are black or from ethnic minorities.”   There are significant numbers of black players or players of African ancestry playing in the soccer clubs of Europe. Here in the United States 78% of NBA players are African-American and about 68% of NFL players are black, now even if only half of these players were married to or dating a black women, that is a significant pool of black WAGS for the media to showcase. However, one rarely sees the black wives of professional athletes showcased in the non-black media, with few exceptions. Actress Gabrielle Union who is engaged to Miami Heat Player Dwayne Wade is among the few exceptions.

These WAG lists tend to remind me of the Robert Palmer music video “Addicted to Love,” from the mid-1980s, where make-up and clothing was utilized to make the multiple women standing behind Palmer resemble clones of each other. The WAG lists and the Palmer video both reduce women to one-dimensional sexual objects; whose sole purpose is to be desirable and appealing to men. These lists also serve to support the notion that there is a singular form of acceptable female beauty; white and thin. After Tiger Woods had his public adultery scandal, Elin Nordgren after divorcing Woods was featured on the cover of People Magazine. I wondered if Elin had not been an attractive Swedish blonde would she have been on the cover of People Magazine, no matter how high-profile her now ex-husband was. What if Woods wife had been Thai like his mother or African-American like his father and his serial adultery was revealed in the same fashion would his Thai or black wife have been a People Magazine cover story?

Historically, societies everywhere have always tried to direct women’s aspirations towards marriage and snagging some version of prince charming. If Joan of Arc had visions of marrying the guy who would save France; rather than ambitiously saving France herself, she would not have been burned at the stake. From fairy tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty to modern Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, the myth of the happy ever has been packaged and sold to girls and women; all you need to do is find Mr. Right/ Prince Charming and all will be right with the world. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman had to be beautiful in order to be blessed with the attention of Prince Charming or in the case of Ms. Roberts character the attention of a millionaire. These WAG lists are modern versions of fairy tales, instead of prince’s of the realm, we have star quarterbacks, midfielders and point guards and instead of sleeping beauties we have fashion models, Playboy models and reality stars.

A beautiful woman is the ultimate trophy for a man who has achieved what society defines as success; rock star ( see Tommy Lee), NFL quarterback (see Tom Brady and Giselle), billionaire (see Francois-Henri Pinault and Selma Hayek) or movie star (see George Clooney).  Interestingly enough Clooney after dating countless models  is set to marry a multilingual human rights lawyer. We have been conditioned to believe that beauty is a woman’s greatest asset; this is why Kim Kardishian and her predecessors like Zsa Zsa Gabor were able to become famous for being famous. Modeling is one of the few professions were women out-earned men by a wide margin. Giselle the supermodel wife of Tom Brady has been estimated to make as much as $42 million dollars a year.

As an avid tennis fan, I can be guaranteed that whenever I am watching the Wimbledon tennis championship and Andy Murray is playing that I will be provided with multiple camera shots of his very attractive girlfriend Kim Sears. If the New England Patriots are playing, Tom Brady’s wife Giselle will definitely earn some camera time. The NFL just drafted its first openly gay player Michael Sam; I look forward to the start of the NFL season to see if during St. Louis Rams games to see if Sam’s boyfriend Vito Cammisano will be getting as much camera time as Giselle.

Secondly, if I may paraphrase George Orwell, All WAGS are equal, but some WAGS are more equal than others, it is clearer that there is a specific racial and aesthetic preference when it comes to the wives and girlfriends  of professional athletes that the media showcases. During the World Cup, profiles of the wives of the players on the West African teams were conspicuously absent. When I searched the the internet for images of the wives of African soccer players I was able to find multiple African-based websites that profiled these women such as kamerstories.com . However, outside of such African websites or black blogs one rarely gets to see black wives and romantic partners of professional black athletes. We get to see the romantic partners of African-American, Afro-European and Afro-Latino men only when those women are white or of some other non-black ethnicity.

I am disturbed by the media driven phenomenon of  WAGS, first and foremost it objectifies women.  Historian Maria Aparecida da Silva states  “In a sexist society, women are seen as an object of consumption. And consumer goods confer status and power to whoever acquires them,” . The WAG phenomenon reduces women to objects whose sole value lies in their physical attributes. In order for those physical attributes to be considered valuable they have to meet the strict qualifications that have been set for female beauty; whiteness or near whiteness, thinness, long straight and hyper traditional femininity. It is very telling that so many publications can find editorial space to feature athletes girlfriends but cannot find editorial space to feature female athletes.

Just as magazines and television programs love to showcase the material possessions of wealthy athletes, high end cars, jewelry and mansions; so to they showcase the women these athletes are dating. The women become objects just like the cars; after all just like Tony Montana preached in the film Scarface, once you have the money and power, you get the women. The dangers of cultivating a culture in which women are seen merely as objects, was brought to our attention in the extreme case of Elliot Rodgers, the California college student who went on a killing spree stating “All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise and loathe me, I will destroy.

All forms of objectification of women have negative consequences in our societies, mass murder is obviously not the typical response. What is common is the negative impact on the self-esteem of girls and women. It teaches men that women are objects that they are entitled to and failure to acquire a beautiful woman is failure as a man. It is part of the whole consumption, celebrity driven culture that constantly tells us that the bar for our professional and personal lives should be like the lives of professional athletes, movie stars, pop stars and wealthy CEOs. This is something that is unattainable for 99% percent of the human population. People who receive and absorb this message spend their money to acquire products and to undergo surgical procedures to try to achieve this impossible goal.

I know that I am not one right shade of  L’oreal lipstick or nose job away from looking like Giselle and furthermore I have no desire to do so and no woman should waste her time on such a quixotic pursuit.

THE EMPRESS HAS NO CLOTHES: Beyoncé and The Quixotic Search for a Black Feminist Icon

On December 13, 2013 the black “IT” girl of the millennium Beyoncé released a surprise visual album entitled Beyoncé, consisting of 14 new songs and 17 videos exclusively on iTunes causing an instantaneous digital frenzy and creating a record for digital album sales. Tulane University professor and MSNBC talk-show host Melissa Harris-Perry, declared that the album was Beyoncé’s “feminist manifesto.”

Beyonce

What parades as progress in the culture industry, as the incessantly new which it offers up, remains the disguise for an eternal sameness; everywhere the changes mask a skeleton which has changed just as little as the profit motive itself since the time it first gained its predominance over culture. –Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry

The album to Harris-Perry and others is not merely a feminist manifesto, but first and foremost, a black feminist manifesto. The Beyoncé album includes an excerpt from a TedxEuston lecture entitled “We should all be feminists,” given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the song “Flawless.” The other 13 songs on the album are pretty much about sex. As the Rolling Stone review describes it;

She hits nasty highs all through the album, from the squishy slow jam “Rocket” (“Let me sit this ass on you” – now there’s an opening line) to the Frank Ocean duet “Superpower.” In the fractured Timbaland production “Partition,” she and Jay get kind of rough in the back of the limousine. She has to warn the chauffeur, “Driver roll up the partition please/I don’t need you seeing ‘Yonce on her knees.” But the car doesn’t even get to the club before, as Beyoncé puts it, “He Monica Lewinsky’d all over my gown.”

This album is hardly any kind of manifesto. It is a seductive, slick package of the pop culture industry; it purports to be groundbreaking, imaginative and daring while merely regurgitating the false idea of sexuality as a legitimate avenue to female empowerment. Rapper Lil’ Kim was making lyrical nods to fellatio in 1996 on her debut album Hard Core  (“I used to be scared of the dick, Now I throw lips to the shit, Handle it like a real bitch”), but no one thought to anoint her album a feminist manifesto. The inclusion of Adichie’s words on a single song is insufficient to render Beyoncé’s hypersexualized album a feminist project.

Beyoncé along with 25 others is given writing and producing credits on the album. Sia Furler and Caroline Polacheck, two non-black women, are the only female contributors. Furler and Polacheck each contribute one song. Among the cadre of songwriters/producers, are a bevy of well-known male Hip-Hop and R&B producers, Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Aubrey “Drake” Graham, Frank Ocean, and Pharrell Williams. Janet Jackson’s former Super Bowl duet partner, pop artist Justin Timberlake is also a creative contributor. Anyone who has any familiarity with the public profiles and work of these men would never accuse of them of creating a feminist manifesto. Beyoncé is offering a particular brand of feminism, one which instead of contesting the stereotypes of women as sex and beauty objects, accepts, exaggerates and plays to the stereotype. It is hard to see how this album whose primary subject matter is sex, which is mainly constructed by 23 non-feminist males can be a feminist manifesto as Harris-Perry as claims.

One wonders how much Harris-Perry and others are projecting their own feminists ambitions unto Beyoncé without having engaged in critical analysis of  Beyoncé’s own words on the subject of feminism. Does Beyoncé identify herself as a feminist? This is what she told British Vogue in April 2013. That word can be very extreme … But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman. … I do believe in equality and that we have a way to go and it’s something that’s pushed aside and something that we have been conditioned to accept. … But I’m happily married. I love my husband.”

Beyoncé’s hesitant labeling of herself as a “modern-day feminist,” is qualified by declaring that she is both happily married and loves her husband. Susan J. Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done writes, “…[o]ne of the reasons so many women say “I’m not a feminist but…” (and then put forward a feminist position), is that in addition to being stereotyped as man-hating Amazons, feminists have also been cast as anti-family and anti-motherhood.” Beyoncé seems to believe that  being married and loving one’s husband is incompatible with being a feminist. Perhaps, Beyoncé should listen more carefully to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s full lecture, where she derides the notion that “feminists are women who cannot find husbands.”

Beyoncé’s feminist supporters feel that those who critique the legitimacy of Beyoncé’s brand of feminism do so because they have outdated and conservative notions about how a feminist should behave. Nicole Froio writing in a Ms. magazine blog is of the opinion that “Beyoncé’s path to self-knowledge has been met with a puzzling amount of hatred: In the eyes of some, she’s the “wrong kind of feminist” because she wears thongs on magazine covers, dances suggestively and claims her sexuality on stage, pampers her husband, wears high heels and tells men to “put a ring on it.” But, as  Adichie says and Beyoncé obviously agrees, feminism is personal.” Froio is wrong feminism is not simply a matter of the personal and she has mischaracterize Adichie’s position. Adichie’s entire talk is about how micro, personal action alone cannot fix the problem of sexism and gender equality, stating  “[i]t’s easy for us to say, “Oh, but women can just say ‘no’ to all of this.” But the reality is more difficult and more complex. We are all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization.” One woman’s choice of fashion attire or how she chooses to express her sexuality will not alter how children are socialized to accept sexist and outdated notions of what it means to be a woman or man in contemporary society.

Froio and others fail to notice that the increase sexualization in Beyoncé’s music and image coincided with her marriage to rapper Jay-Z, her duet partner on the new album and previous records; as naughty as the on the record/off the record sex Beyoncé is having is, it is state and church certified sex. She is not challenging any Judeo-Christian, heterosexual concepts of female sexuality. Beyoncé is managing to perform a neat trick of  projecting herself as a lady in the streets, who may be a freak behind closed doors. A new twist on the Madonna/Whore complex. Celebrity journalist Amethyst Tate writing in The International Business Journal embraces the notion of Beyoncé as a modern day feminist, writing:

Beyoncé is truly a feminist, who has simply expanded the idea of who a feminist can be. Beyoncé is every woman. She is bold, she is confident, and she is openly proud of simultaneously being a career woman and a wife. And to boot, she is projecting the idea that, as women, we don’t have to hide our sexuality, that we can flaunt it in a tasteful manner. She is also promoting the ideal that women don’t have to choose a career or family. What she’s saying, in short, is that we, too, can have it all.

The problem is not that Beyoncé is being rejected for being the wrong kind of feminist, but that she is being embraced for being a marketable feminism image, rather than for any substantive action or ideas that she is contributing to the feminist movement.

Beyoncé is absolutely not every woman and it is ridiculous to suggest that she represents every woman. She is an elite, privileged woman, her economic reality is the fantasy of the majority of women in the world today. The truth of the matter is that women cannot have it all as Tate suggests. I am not certain that we have a universal definition of what having it all means, nor whether the pursuit of “all,” whatever it may be is a desirable or attainable goal. Beyoncé perhaps can have it all because she is enormously wealthy, she is married to an enormously wealthy man and she resides in a Western industrialist country, instead of a non-Western developing or under-developing country where many women labor in factories to provide the consumer products and luxury goods that the the citizenry of the Western industrialized world demand. The majority of the women in the world cannot even dream of “rockin’ chinchilla coats,” “getting the house off the coast,” and “rockin them VVS stones,” that Beyoncé sings about in “Ring the Alarm,” on her 2006 B-Day album.

Why has Beyoncé been drafted as some kind of pop culture black feminist icon and not some other black female musical artists? Grammy-award winning singer Tracy Chapman is an accomplished songwriter with socially conscious lyrics, but she is a lesbian, with an androgynous appearance, who never bothers to wear lipstick.  Erykah Badu is also an excellent songwriter whose songs possess far more gravitas than Beyoncé’s pop offerings; however she is a never married woman with three children fathered by three different men. Therefore, Badu fails the ‘respectability test.’ Janalle Monáe is an attractive woman, an exciting live entertainer and a serious singer/songwriter, who is also a spokesperson for Cover Girl cosmetics. Monáe insists on wearing what she calls her “uniform” a black and white tuxedo outfit. She deliberately refuses to use her sexuality as a marketing tool.

Janaelle Monáe in a May, 2013 Essence magazine cover story, told the publication “People don’t ask Jay-Z to take his shirt off when he rhymes,” “Showing my skin is not what makes me sexy.” “I like skirts and dresses just like everyone else, but I had a message I needed to put out there. It was up to me to show people and young girls there was another way.” Chapman, Badu and Monáe have not had the tremendous mainstream commercial success that Beyoncé has had and they likely never will. These three women in their music ponder problems like poverty, inequality and racism. To Beyoncé’s question; Who run the world? these ladies might presumably respond, ‘white men, didn’t cha know.’

Beyoncé is not a singer-songwriter in the tradition of a Nina Simone or a Carole King. She cannot read or write music, nor can she play an instrument. Just about all the music in her catalog uses samples, with the exception of songs penned by the likes of famed songwriter Diane Warren. Sampling borrows music from previous records and adds new lyrics. While there have been many questions raised about Beyoncé as a songwriter, with many whispers that she is attaching her name to songs written by others. Chapman, Badu and Monáe’s legitimacy as songwriters has never been questioned. The evidence does not seem to suggest that Beyoncé is making significant lyrical contribution to her albums, despite her having won an ASCAP songwriter of the year award.  Daniel D’Addario writes in Salon;

When Beyoncé “was writing” Destiny’s Child songs, she did so with help: There is not a single song on any of the group’s four albums that Beyoncé wrote herself. She, more and more as the group’s run went on, was involved in writing, but a more typical Destiny’s Child song was their single “Lose My Breath,” with seven credited writers. On the group’s final album, several songs were credited to all three singers in the group. And songwriting credits are often arbitrary — Beyoncé was disqualified before three much less notable writers from an Academy Award nomination for the “Dreamgirls” song “Listen,” which she co-wrote.” 

The Los Angeles Times remarked on Beyoncé ‘s disqualification for a songwriting Oscar; “Is this just one of those cases of where the singer insisted upon having her name added to credits as part of her performance deal?”

A 2009 New York Daily News article hinted, “…Beyoncé’s songwriting credits have been publicly questioned several times. In 2006, for example, she declared she wrote the breakup anthem “Irreplaceable” “for [her] girls” – causing singer/songwriter Ne-Yo to angrily announce that he penned all the lyrics for the song, then got minimal help from Beyoncé on the melody. But even that may have been generous: Rumors swirled that B’s composer credit was added only as a courtesy.”  It is hard to believe that a woman  who probably is not writing her own songs could have penned a musical feminist manifesto.

Monáe and Badu performed together on the song Q.U.E.E.N. written by Monáe, in it Monáe raps: I asked a question like this
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City.

In  interview with Elle magazine Monáe explains what inspires her to write these kinds of lyrics;

“I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in the language of the oppressed and the oppressor. I just felt that it was time to talk about that. It made me want to continue to unite people with music and bring awareness to the working class, the have-nots, and those who are discriminated against. “… I consider myself to be part of the other just by being a woman and being black. There’s still certain stereotypes that I have to fight off, and there’s still a certain struggle that we all individually have to go through.”

Beyoncé is an entertainer, while there is a long tradition of black entertainers who have also chosen to be political and social activists, not every celebrity has the necessary political knowledge, intellectual maturity and skills to function in such a role. There is often a political and economic price to pay for such a sacrifice. This is an issue that is not just about race, the Country music group the Dixie Chicks, made up of white southern women paid a heavy price for publicly criticizing former President George W. Bush about the Iraq War. Radio stations stopped playing their music and they received death threats. It is understandable if someone is not willing to pay the high price of being an entertain who expresses political opinions and engages in political activity.

We should note that there is a difference between philanthropic/charitable activities and actual political activism. People often conflate the two, but they are not the same. Being part of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign to get children and youth to eat healthy and exercise is charity work. Although, doing that while promoting the sugary soft drink Pepsi seems hypocritical. However, challenging city and state governments to reinstate physical education programs in public schools (particularly in urban public schools), and build athletic facilities would be political activism. Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z suggestion that his mere “presence is charity,” is incorrect. Neither his presence nor his wife’s presence is charity or activism. Their hosting of an Obama fundraiser or standing silently at a Trayvon Martin rally will ultimately have no impact on city, state or federal policy. Neither will the release of the Beyoncé album have any significant impact on gender equality or the status of black women in America.

Beyoncé is not known for giving cerebral interviews and she hardly engages in discussing social problems. She has however, offered opinions on gender inequality something that fits in with her ‘girl power’ image. You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

I agree with Beyoncé that “equality is a myth,” but not with what she imagines is the source of gender inequality nor the simple solution to resolving it. In the case of black women who have always been in the labor force, functioning as breadwinners for their families by working as domestics, cooks and washerwomen; their monetary earnings led to accusations of emasculating black men not equality( see Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report on black Matriarchy). Perhaps that is why the super successful Beyoncé, who earns tens of millions of dollars annually is careful to characterize herself as “Mrs. Carter,” less she be accused of emasculating Jay-Z. The inequality of women to men in our society is rooted in the fundamental belief that women and their labor are of lesser value; that women are less capable and that the domestic sphere is women’s natural habitat. While income equality plays a role in female oppression, it is simplistic to believe that the realization of gender equality is a matter of financial parity.

Beyoncé’s statement suggests that gender oppression is something that takes place only within the confines of a woman’s intimate relationship, and that is where the matter of inequality should be legislated and resolved. However, gender inequality is ingrained into all our institutions, the body politic, our houses of worship, educational institutions and more. Take the case of the black church in America where the majority of the congregation are black women and they are the ones who provide the tithes that keep the church operational, but it is black men who are at the helm of the pulpit. In October, 2013 Pastor Marvin Winans reportedly refused to offer a public blessing to the son of a single mother congregant in his The Perfecting Church in Detroit, the reason given that Pastor Winans has a policy of not publicly blessing the children of unwed mothers.

There seems to always be a black “It girl,” of the moment, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill or  Halle Berry whose appearance on mainstream magazine covers, in mainstream films and red carpets convinces many; that finally black women have arrived and are being appreciated and celebrated. However, every “It” black girl’s moment passes, some sadly like Whitney and some in unexpected ways like Janet Jackson’s whose 2004 Super Bowl ‘wardrobe malfunction,’ seems to have permanently derailed her career. None of these women have opened the floodgates for other black women in show business. Beyoncé’s former Destiny’s Child group members post-Destiny’s Child careers are non-existent in comparison to Beyoncé. Even during slavery Phyllis Wheatley became a published poet. There seems to always be room for a few “exceptional” black woman at the top, but the gates never open to allow a large pool of other talented and qualified black women to enter. You have your highly visible tokens, while institutional and structural velvet ropes remained firmly in place.

Black feminists cannot engage in wholesale acceptance of Beyoncé’s success without recognizing and being willing to critique how that success is a product of and authorized by a white patriarchal power system. Harris-Perry among others praise Beyoncé ‘s genius in ‘independently’ releasing an album outside of the corporate recording industry. The album was first released on Itunes, which is owned by Apple a multinational corporation that has its products being assembled in China (not a utopia of human and labor rights) by Chinese men and women in factories. The album has now been released in disc format, and is being distributed by Columbia Records (a subsidiary of SONY), while Target declined to stock it, it is being sold at Wal-Mart, the giant corporation which is able to sell goods at low prices due to the low-wage labor of men and many women in the developing world.

The midnight digital release of the album was not a creative strategy, or an anti-music establishment strategy, but a marketing strategy. Beyoncé’s last album “4” was not as successful as her previous album. The primary purpose of Beyoncé’s music is to maintain the value of what has been described as her  “carefully curated brand” which allows her to sell her fragrances, her clothing line and the products she endorses like Pepsi and L’Oreal cosmetics. Beyoncé proclaims herself to be an “independent woman.” I would suggest that we do not actually know who is the Wizard behind the Beyoncé pop culture illusion that is hypnotizing the world. The public support of highly visible women will always be beneficial to the feminism movement. Feminism however, is not a product or a brand it does not need celebrity endorsers.

DREAMING of a WHITE PRINCE: Town & Country’s Top 50 Bachelors

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So Town & Country Magazine just published its list “of the most notably eligible men in the universe right now.” Being that this magazine is Town and Country, one should not expect to see any profiles of working-class blue collar guys. The list is an outstanding celebration of elitism, privilege, whiteness and inequality. Perhaps the editors of Town & Country should have been more specific in delineating which universe they were speaking of; its clear their universe consists only of Paris, London, Manhattan, Miami and Beverly Hills. The list includes only three non-white individuals, four Kennedy offspring’s, European princes, an earl, and other sons of privilege. Asia which has 60 percent of the World’s population, only has one representative on the list. Although, the magazine seems confused about him writing “Brushing up on the history of his homeland may be difficult: Is it Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon?” Africa the second most populous continent, sort of has one representative in actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is the British born son of Nigerian parents.

The bachelors range in age from seven-month old Prince George Alexander of Britain to fifty-year old actor Johnny Depp. While the inclusion of Prince George is all the proof needed that this list should be thought of as a joke, the glaring racism and sexism of the list however, demands serious critique and analysis. Almost all the men on the list are the sons of celebrities and wealthy families. Two of the three black males on the list include Theo Spielbierg, the adopted son of film director Steven Spielbierg and Corey Robinson the eighteen year-old son of retired NBA player David Robinson. The inclusion of three black males and Ivan Pun the “oxford-educated son of Burmese property developer Serge Pun,” was intended perhaps to shield the magazine from the very accusations of exclusion, that this essay is making.

By ‘bachelor’ the magazine simply means unmarried male, there is no clarification of who is gay or straight, and some profiles admit that the bachelor’s have a significant other. Let us go ahead and assume that there are no seven-month old little girls right now who can either read Town &Country Magazine or who are already on the lookout for a future husband. So why the inclusion of seven-month old Prince George and some teenage males who are likely not looking to settle down at 18 and 19 years old?

The dream of white American elites has always been to recreate the British aristocracy stateside. Many an American WASP heiress has gone off to London to snag a British baron, earl or duke. The plucky Yankee Wallis Simpson managed to snag the Prince of Wales himself. Princes of Wales have been the Holy Grail in the white American romantic imagination. Now that Kate has snagged William, seven month old George the latest Prince of Wales, has to become the new prize. Setting aside the possibly pedophiliac connotations of the magazine’s inclusion of George, his inclusion does have a purpose. Its purpose is to reinforce the old idea that the ultimate ambition of women should be to snag a husband, not to dream of being CEOs, presidents, doctors and lawyers, police officers, or professors when they grow up, but to be wives and mothers, and if lucky duchesses and princesses; and it is apparently never too early to get started.

The term trophy wife is often used, but there also exists the idea of the trophy husband, a trophy husband is white, rich, royal or aristocratic and hopefully handsome. Intelligence and character are not necessary to make a man a trophy husband. This list reaffirms that the only prize a woman should keep her eye on is a potential husband. People magazine publishes its annual list of the most beautiful women in the world and Maxim magazine publishes the Hot 100 list, a list of women, mainly models and actresses it considers desirable, both lists are just as problematic as the bachelor list in terms of offering a narrow Eurocentric concept of what is beautiful and in demarcating who is worthy to be loved and desired.

The answer is not to institute a diversity program to make sure these kinds of lists are geographically and ethnically inclusive, but to abandon these kinds of lists altogether; that seek to quantify human value in terms of wealth and presumed physical attractiveness. They reduce men to matrimonial trophies and women to desperate damsels waiting for their billionaire/duke/princes to come. Town & Country‘s eligible bachelor list is an ethnocentric exercise in WASP cultural masturbation and pure sexism. There is a universal human need for love and companionship, love does not have to necessarily take place within the traditional context of heterosexual marriage. If the great fairy tale of Charles and Diana taught us anything it is that Happily Ever After, only happens in books and movies. Some gals may be dreaming of snagging a white prince like Harry, and some may be dreaming of a nice Filipino, Haitian, Jamaican, Ghanaian, Chinese, Jewish, Lebanese, Mexican guy/gal.

Stop and Frisk Now, Stop and Frisk Tomorrow, Stop and Frisk Forever/Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
― Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.
― Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

The morning after a federal judge ruled that “Stop, Question and Frisk (SQF)” as it was being practiced by the New York City police department was unconstitutional, I found myself watching the MSNBC television program Morning Joe hosted by former Congressman Joe Scarborough and journalist Mika Brzezinski. The topic of discussion was the ruling. The guest panelists were advertising executive Donny Deutsch, former New York State Governor George Pataki, journalist Mike Barnicle and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. Robinson the lone person of color on the panel was not physically located in studio, but was offering commentary from a live video feed. Robinson’s physical absence was rather symbolic, it was clear that Deutsch, Barnicle and Pataki, all white males over the age of 50 were nicely insulated in their bubble of white male privilege, in which an appropriate space for black Eugene Robinson did not exist. The reality is that neither Deutsch, Barnicle, Pataki, or Scarborough have ever or will ever be the victims of racial profiling or any form of SQF. Their children and nephews will never be victims of ‘stop, question and frisk.’ It was quite clear that an empathy gap existed, where they simply could not put themselves in the shoes of a black or Latino male, to imagine the indignity and unfairness of being constantly stopped and frisked. Rather than argue against the inhumanity of the process they saw it as a necessary evil.

W.E.B DuBois in his landmark work The Souls of Black Folk, wrote about the double-consciousness of black Americans. It has occurred to me while black Americans may possess double-consciousness, and in my case being black, female, Haitian and American, I sometimes feel that I possess quadruple-consciousness. In my view some white Americans posses a singular-consciousness, which renders them incapable of perceiving, imagining and empathizing with the viewpoints, concerns and suffering of non-whites. It may be possible that no one in New York City posses a more singular-consciousness than its current mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. Bloomberg is racially tone-deaf and insensitive and filled with zealous self-righteousness. Watching Bloomberg’s defiant post-ruling press conference, I saw shades of George Wallace 1963. On January 14, 1963, George Wallace as the newly elected governor of Alabama delivered an inaugural address, written by a known Ku Klux Klansman, Asa Carter, which has lived in infamy. Mr. Wallace declared “I draw the line in the dust at the feet of tyranny, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace assured white Alabamans that they were going to let Washington know that were not going to abide by federal decisions against segregation in the south. In the same manner Bloomberg accompanied by police commissioner Ray Kelly, let white New Yorkers know that were not going to abide by the ruling of the federal judge, its goings to be, stop and frisk today, stop and frisk tomorrow, stop and frisk forever.

Bloomberg’s message was intended for white New Yorkers. He was was not addressing his comments to the black and Hispanic communities who together make-up about 50% of New York City’s population, but account for almost 83% of the people who are stopped and frisked. The black and Hispanic men of New York City do not want to be constantly stopped and frisked. Black and Hispanic mothers and fathers do not want their sons to constantly be the subject of police scrutiny. Black and Hispanic women do not want their brothers, husbands, uncles and nephews to be constantly stopped and frisked. If Bloomberg or Kelly ever took the time to ask the black and Hispanic community how they wanted issues like crime addressed in their neighborhoods, instead of paternalistically assuming that they know what is best for these communities, they would discover that black and Hispanic communities in New York are wholeheartedly against Stop and Frisk.

In his press conference denouncing the judge’s ruling Bloomberg stated “I worry for my kids and I worry for your kids”, really Mike? You are worried about Emma and Georgina Bloomberg? Are you worried that some random black or Hispanic man is going to try to steal equestrian Georgina’s horse? In George Wallace’s day among the rationale for the indiscriminate lynching of black men was the need to protect the virtue of white women. Bloomberg evoking concern about his two white daughters, who are living a life of privilege, far removed from the poor black and Hispanic communities where young black and Hispanic men have to deal with police harassment everyday is ludicrous. Bloomberg showed he had no concern whatsoever for black and Hispanic children when he appointed his thoroughly unqualified friend Cathleen P. Black to be the chancellor of New York City’s Public Schools. To Bloomberg’s assertion that he is concerned about minority children, I think black mothers would say to him, Mr. Bloomberg, your blues ain’t like ours. If you want to know about the ‘blues’ of black mothers, go speak with Patrick Dorismond’s mother, go speak with Amadou Diallo’s mother, or go speak with Abner Louima’s mother.

Writing in the New York Times Michael Powell described Bloomberg and Kelly this way in their Monday press conference

They are the aging Dead End twins, the billionaire mayor with his Hamptons-by-way-of-Bermuda tan and the square-jawed, crew-cut commissioner. Again and again, they displayed a fossil-like rigidity, refusing to concede even a jot of a point to the federal judge who imposed a monitor on the Police Department, or to the many critics who warned so often that a once-reasonable stop-and-frisk program had metastasized.

The panelists on Morning Joe, all accepted Kelly and Bloomberg’s argument that Stop and Frisk is an effective crime prevention tactic (“evidence…suggest that stop and frisk is, at best, ineffective, and, at worst, actively alienates communities with whom the police need to engage”) but it was never about the effectiveness of stop and frisk as a crime prevention tactic, it was about whether or not targeting a specific group of New York’s population (aka racial profiling) was constitutional, the judge ruled that it was not. On Page 2 of her opinion, Judge Scheindlin writes,

“I emphasize at the outset, as I have throughout the litigation, that this case is not about the effectiveness of stop and frisk in deterring or combating crime. This Court’s mandate is solely to judge the constitutionality of police behavior, not its effectiveness as a law enforcement tool. Many police practices may be useful for fighting crime—preventive detention or coerced confessions, for example—but because they are unconstitutional they cannot be used, no matter how effective.

Bloomberg and his ilk understand that the constitution is the supreme law of the land, maybe the confusion for them is whether the constitution applies to black and brown folk. After all, the United States Constitution originally counted black persons as three-fifths of a man. “We the People,” originally referred to white property owning males like Michael Bloomberg, and today in 2013 it is still being debated whether the constitution’s protection extends to non-whites.

WANTED: Objects of Desire, Black Girls Need Not Apply

“A fetish is a story masquerading as an object.”

For over four hundred years in the United States, a combination of law, social restriction and cultural taboo has discouraged interracial marriages from taking place. Up until 1967, most states had laws prohibiting interracial marriages. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that all such laws were unconstitutional. As a recent USA Today article notes:

Since that landmark Loving v. Virginia ruling, the number of interracial marriages has soared; for example, black-white marriages increased from 65,000 in 1970 to 422,000 in 2005, according to Census Bureau figures. Factoring in all racial combinations, Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld calculates that more than 7% of America’s 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than 2% in 1970. (Crary, 2007)

The level of attention and debate directed at interracial marriages seems disproportionate to the actual occurrence of interracial marriages. The ongoing debate on interracial marriage is sharp, passionate and critical, taking place on radio programs and Internet blogs, in academic circles, books, beauty salons and barbershops. A quick search of Amazon.com on the topic will bring up several books with provocative titles such as: Why Black Men Love White Women, by Rajen Persaud; Black Men in Interracial Relationships: What’s Love Got To Do With It? by psychologist Kellina Craig-Henderson, Ph.D.; and It Ain’t All Good: Why Black Men Should Not Date White Women, by John Johnson. The focus is not just on interracial relationships, but interracial relationships between black men and white women. Sexual and romantic unions between black males and white females provoke strong visceral and critical reactions from many, but particularly from black women.

Black men are marrying outside their race at nearly triple the rate of black women. In addition, it is the most eligible black men—educated, affluent, high profile and professionally successful—who are disproportionally marrying white women. This is significant because statistical evidence indicates that the pool of eligible, educated and professionally successful black men is very small. The ABC Television news program Nightline reported in a December 23, 2009 broadcast that black women outnumber black men by 1.8 million.  Nightline estimated that if one began with a group of 100 black men, and then subtracted men without high school diplomas, unemployed men, and incarcerated black men between the ages of 25 to 34, there would be only 54 eligible black men left. Nightline did not account for the portion of the 100 black men who may be gay, which would further reduce the pool.  Forty-two percent of black women have never been married, double the percent of white women who have never been married (Davis & Karar, 2009). The following additional statistics further illustrate how small the pool of eligible educated black men is, especially in comparison to the pool of eligible educated black women:

  • High mortality and incarceration rates exist among black men (Crowder & Tolnay, 2000)
  • Black women make up 24 percent of the professional-managerial class vs. 17 percent of black men (Cose, 2003).
  • Thirty-five percent of black women are enrolled in college vs. 25 percent of black men (Cose, 2003).
  • Black men have lower earnings and lower levels of education relative to whites (Crowder &Tolnay, 2000).

Interracial marriage is not limited to black men and white women, as white men are marrying Asian women at a rapid rate. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (2002) notes that “[a]bout 40 percent of Asian-Americans and 6 percent of blacks have married whites in recent years.” Journalist and blogger Steve Sailer (2003) analyzed the 2000 U.S. Census data and concluded that “18 percent of Asian wives have white husbands.” The black male/white female and white male/Asian female pairings are the subjects of diverse and loaded critical theories that seek to explain the across-racial-line attraction:

Some say the most common black-white pairing—a black man married to a white woman—may be more frequent because of shared feelings of powerlessness. “They both occupy an incongruent status in society,” said Prof. Charles Willie, a black sociologist at Harvard University, who is himself married to a white woman. “They both should be dominant, he because he is male, she because she is white. But because of racism and sexism, they are not respected as dominant.” (Wilkerson, 1991)

The suggestion is that these relationships are not born from genuine “mutual affection” but from other, more powerful economic and socio-psychological influences. Black men are accused of subscribing to Eurocentric beauty standards, of rejecting their own race and of trying to culturally assimilate when they date and marry white women. The central criticism leveled at white men involved with Asian women is that these white men are inspired by fetish fantasies. Black men are also accused of having fetish impulses towards white women. The fetish theory proposes that white and Asian women become fantasy objects regarded with awe, eliciting unquestioning reverence, provoking desire, sparking curiosity and embodying the ideals of beauty (“Fetish,” 2010).

When we examine the similarities in black male/white female and white male/Asian female relationships, we will discover evidence that these marriages speak to the ongoing presence of patriarchy and of race and class divisions in the U.S. They also speak to America’s ongoing valuing of a Eurocentric aesthetic as superior, and its devaluation, relegation to the exotic category, or non-recognition of what does not fit the Eurocentric aesthetic model. When media mogul Rupert Murdoch married his third wife, Chinese-born Wendi Deng, he conferred a higher social status on her; when Tiger Woods married white, Swedish-born Elin Nordegren, he engaged in bargaining for the privileged status of her whiteness. Aaron Gullickson (2006) explains this as the theory of “status exchange”: “Unions are …formed through an exchange relationship in which both white and black partners benefit by trading status characteristics. (p 673)” Black women’s anger towards black men who marry white women is situated in their belief that black men are rejecting educated professional black women for less educated non-professional white women whose chief social capital is their “whiteness.” A high-profile example is Woods, whose wife is not a college graduate, although she did attend college for a few semesters. In private conversations black women often point out that Nordegren was working as a nanny for a Swedish golfer when she caught Woods’ attention. They wonder about the odds of a successful professional white golfer noticing a black nanny and considering her as a potential mate.

Journalist Ying Chu (2009) writes that for white males, the Asian wife is usually the second or third wife. This pattern does not seem to follow suit for the black male/white female pairing: for black males, the white wife can be the first wife or the second wife, possibly after a divorce from a black spouse. The list of prominent black men with white wives who also happen to be their first spouses include: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former NBA player Charles Barkley, Citigroup Board Chair Richard “Dick” Parsons, actor Taye Diggs, and singer Seal. Actor Harry Belafonte, television journalist Bryant Gumbel and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad have all divorced black wives and subsequently married white women. It seems as if the white female is the first choice, the Asian the second choice, and the black female the least desired.

Modern interracial marriages are a manifestation of the historical narratives of race, gender, capitalism and patriarchy in America. In a patriarchal and capitalist society, males desire and attempt to pursue wealth, status and power. When such a society is also racially stratified, there are limitations on which males are able to acquire wealth and power. In American society, white males have been able to secure the lion’s share of wealth and power. However, a few black males have been able to acquire wealth, if not power.  The most visible of these black males are the professional athletes and entertainers. One of the rewards of wealth and power for a male is being able to acquire the most desirable females as mistresses and wives. The term “trophy wife” indicates that a wife not only provides love, companionship and offspring, but also validates the husband as a winner. A trophy is defined as “evidence of victory or achievement” (“Trophy,” 2010). The passionate anger that high-profile black men marrying white women incites in black women is rooted in the conviction that when these men marry white they are affirming that black women cannot be trophy wives. Black women cannot endow a male with status; therefore, they are not worthy objects of desire.

In a recent broadcast, National Public Radio (NPR) discussed the subject of successful black women remaining unmarried. According to NPR (2009), “research from Yale University suggests that highly educated black women are twice as likely to have never been married by age 45 as white women with similar education.” Black women face the paradox of being penalized for their success. NPR also points out that “[b]lack men are more likely to marry outside of their race.” Niambi Carter, an unmarried black woman with a Ph.D., states “[b]lack women are not seen as marriageable by those outside of their race…we are not seen as adding status” (NPR, 2009).

Is it true that a black wife does not contribute status to a marriage and may in fact diminish her spouse’s status? We can test the validity of this idea by looking at the marriages of men in corporate America and American politics. Historically in the U.S., wives of political candidates are heavily scrutinized and become an essential part of their husbands’ political image. Journalist Jodi Wilgoren (2004) writes, “[p]olitical experts say spouses often help humanize the candidates they are married to. A spouse, the person presumably closest to the candidate, also provides a window into a politician’s character…and acts, as a kind of validator.” The more the political wife represents the traditional ideals of femininity, the more she will be accepted; the more she contradicts those ideals, the more challenging it will be for her to be accepted. Hence, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—young, beautiful, glamorous—is celebrated as an ideal first lady, and Hillary Rodham Clinton
—who declared during the 1992 presidential campaign, about choosing career over domesticity, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” (cited in Toner, 1992)—becomes a victim of “antifeminist hazing” (Stanley, 2008). Wives in the corporate arena also contribute to their husband’s image and reputation and, like political wives, contribute to their husbands’ professional possibilities.

Under this system of spousal validation, how would a black man seeking to become president of the United States meet the requirement of having a spouse who embodied the American ideals of feminine beauty, virtue and respectability? These characteristics translate into status for the husband. It has been suggested repeatedly that black women do not represent the feminine ideal and are incapable of endowing a man with status. In 2007, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency of the U.S. with his black wife Michelle Obama by his side. Did Obama’s choice of a black mate have any impact, negative or positive, on his presidential prospects?

Early in his political career in Illinois, Obama faced questions about his racial authenticity and commitment to the black community. In 2007 journalist Michael A. Fletcher wrote in the Washington Post:

Despite his record of grass-roots work, questions about Obama’s racial credentials formed a critical subplot for his ill-fated primary challenge of Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) in 2000. Rush, a former Black Panther, appeared politically wounded after failing badly in his campaign to unseat Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley the year before. But Rush trounced Obama 2 to 1. …Rush won in part by depicting Obama as a Harvard elitist who was out of touch with the concerns of workaday African Americans.

In pursuit of the presidency, Obama encountered the same challenges to his authenticity that he faced during the 2000 Congressional campaign. Somehow, he was able to meet the authenticity challenge and win the confidence of black voters. A subsequent Washington Post article discovered that:

Clinton’s and Obama’s support among white voters changed little since December, but the shifts among black Democrats were dramatic. In December and January Post-ABC News polls, Clinton led Obama among African Americans by 60 percent to 20 percent. In the new poll, Obama held a narrow advantage among blacks, 44 percent to 33 percent. The shift came despite four in five blacks having a favorable impression of the New York senator. (Balz & Cohen, 2007)

How did Barack Obama manage to wrestle away black support from Hillary Clinton, whose husband, former president Bill Clinton, had acquired so much political capital in the black community during and after his presidency? Obama’s early caucus and primary victories—especially in Iowa, a predominantly white state—started to persuade black voters that white voters would vote for him, which meant that he had a legitimate chance of victory (Brazille, 2008). Barack Obama’s background—being the biracial child of a white mother and a black African father, growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii—made him seem different and exotic in the eyes of many inside and outside the black community. Journalist David Samuels (2009) writes: “Barack Obama alone would make us uncomfortable. Michelle neutralizes our response to her husband’s existential estrangement by sharing our discomfort while still being in love with him” (p. 30).

Obama’s marriage to Michelle unquestionably won him the support of black women. In its December 1, 2008 issue, Newsweek published an article titled, “What Michelle Means to Us,” which examined the affinity and pride black women felt towards Michelle Obama:

“When I see Michelle Obama on the cover of magazines and on TV shows, I think, Wow, look at her and her brown skin,” said Charisse Hollands, a 30-year old mail carrier from Inglewood, Calif., with flawless ebony skin. “And I don’t mean any disrespect to my sisters who aren’t dark brown, but gee it’s nice to see a brown girl get some attention, be called beautiful by the world. That just doesn’t happen a lot, and our little girls need to see that—my little girl needs to see it. (A. Samuels)

Outside of the black community, Michelle Obama did not immediately win such praise. During the 2008 presidential campaign Mrs. Obama, a Harvard law graduate, had to overcome the stereotype of “the angry black woman”: “Conservative columnists accuse her of being unpatriotic and say she simmers with undigested racial anger…Fox News called her ‘Obama’s baby mama,’ a derogatory term for an unwed mother…National Review presented her as a scowling ‘Mrs. Grievance’” (Powell & Kantor, 2008). In the midst of these accusations towards Mrs. Obama, many questioned whether she was a political liability or an asset to her husband. Did some wonder if Obama’s chances for becoming president would have been more viable if he had a different wife, perhaps a white wife?

That Barack Obama succeeded in his quest to become president of the United States with a black woman by his side is something meaningful for black women; they see in it the possibility for future change in black relationships and in the public perception of black women. Kimberly C. Ellis, scholar of American and Africana Studies, who is 36 and single, tells Ebony: “That Barack loves her so much demonstrates that black men can…love black women who are intelligent, strong, witty, cultured and centered….Further, that he lovingly embraces her in both form and fashion, calling her ‘the rock of our family and the love of my life’ is astounding.” (Cole, 2009). Journalist Margo Jefferson (2009) writes in New York,“[Michelle’s] gone from upstart to feminine role model. After all, ‘First Lady’ isn’t a job; it’s a cornerstone of the feminine mystique. And since pre-Emancipation, black ‘females’ have had to fight for the whites-only privilege of being deemed ‘ladies’: cultured, educated, sexually desirable in a socially respectable way” (p. 29).

President Obama is not the first man to achieve incredible success while married to a black woman. Many prominent black men have been able to achieve unprecedented success while married to black women. Gen. Colin Powell was able to become the first black chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black Secretary of State with his black wife, Alma, by his side. Eric Holder, the current and first black Attorney General of the United States is married to Dr. Sharon Malone, M.D., a black woman. Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, is married to fellow attorney Diane Patrick. American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault is married to Kathryn Cassell, an attorney. In the field of entertainment, box office superstar Will Smith is married to actress Jada Pinkett Smith; rapper and entrepreneur Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is married to pop music superstar Beyoncé. These black men have reached the highest levels in their respective fields—the military, government, corporate America, and entertainment—with black wives either by their side when they started or whom they married after they succeeded.  Prominent white men are also married to black women, like William Cohen, former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate economist, and Peter Norton, creator of Norton ant-virus software, who is currently married to his second black wife. These public couples challenge the notion that a black woman cannot be a partner in a marriage that is a visible, influential, high-status partnership.

Why do some black men continue to believe that a white wife is necessary to help them gain acceptance into and navigate within the most powerful social circles?  Why do so many black women decline to pursue relationships with white, Asian, Hispanic or other men in the absence of relationship opportunities with black men? Rajen Persaud (2004) provides an argument in his mass-market book, Why Black Men Love White Women. He suggests that these black men and black women are being driven by the psycho-social legacy of slavery in their choices. During slavery, white men had unlimited sexual access to black women’s bodies, and raped black women with impunity. The remembrance of this history of sexual coercion fosters unwillingness among black women towards intimacy with white men.

The slave trade and the system of slavery established a racial hierarchy in the United States that places whiteness at the top and blackness at the bottom. By marrying white women, black men are aspiring to place themselves closer to the top of the racial hierarchy and to acquire all the privileges that come with whiteness in American society:

In all racialized social systems the placement of actors in racial categories involves some form of hierarchy that produces definite social relations among races. The race placed in the superior position tends to receive greater economic remuneration and access to better occupations and prospects in the labor market, occupies a primary position in the political system, is granted higher social estimation (e.g., is viewed as “smarter” or “better looking”)… (Bonilla-Silva, 2001, p. 46)

Blacks, because of the visible marker of their pigmentation and the “one-drop rule,” which states that anyone with even a drop of black blood is black, have been unable to become “white” in the manner that formerly ostracized ethnic groups like Italians and Irish have. By marrying whites, some blacks are attempting to become white by proxy. But black writer Garry Pierre-Pierre (2001) refutes the multitude of accusations leveled at black men who marry white women. He writes:

Some black women…seem to feel that my marrying a white woman is downright pathological. I must hate my mother or maybe myself, right? Wrong. I’m not ashamed or sorry or the least bit uncomfortable with my mother, myself, or my marriage….I’m nobody’s traitor; I simply followed my heart…(p. 95)

…if the sight of a black-and-white couple…offends you, it’s your problem. We’re busy leading our lives and rearing our children and keeping our love alive(p. 100)

With all due respect to Mr. Pierre-Pierre’s arguments of the unpremeditated nature of his personal choice, sociological and ideological constructs of race and gender can and do influence a person’s choice of a spouse. “Scientists who study the human genome say that race is mostly a bogus distinction reflecting very little genetic difference, perhaps one-hundredth of 1 percent of our DNA” (Kristof, 2002). Race therefore is not a biological reality but a social construction.  Race is a social reality that permeates American society, while engaging in an intimate relationship with class. Many would like to see the divisive fiction of race discarded as a method of human classification. Discarding a symbol is not the same as neutralizing the real power system that the symbol represents, however. Race is an institutionalized and psychologically entrenched part of American society. While we may also believe and accept that the gender-specific behaviors and roles played by men and women are natural and biological, Nancy Bonvillian (2007) writes that they are the products of “…ideological constructs that sustain, legitimate, and reinforce gender-linked behavior. (p. 24)”

Persaud (2004) writes that among the reasons that black men offer for choosing white women over black women are white women’s alleged prowess at fellatio, that “white women [are] more controllable,” or that they don’t have an “attitude” like black women.( p. 143, 163, 164) These statements by black men support the assertion that black men are fetishizing white women and viewing them as the fantasy counterpart to black women. They are also paying homage to a particular “ideological construct” of gender that defines femininity as soft, submissive and dedicated to pleasing men. This idea of femininity may be working against professional black women; the attributes and achievements that these women are proud of—bachelors and masters degrees, managerial positions, and home ownership—do not necessarily make these women more attractive to black men. Their self-sufficiency repels rather than attracts black men to them.

Interracial relationship patterns expose the objectification of all women. All the women in this dynamic, whether they are chosen or rejected, are objectified. An object is acted upon, does not possess power and does not act. To be an object, even an object of desire, is an impotent position. Why do women vie to be chosen, and become angry if they are rejected in this patriarchal system? The system turns female beauty, sexuality and ethnicity into commodities that can be transformed into real wealth for women who possess the physical attributes the market values and desires.

Interracial relationships also expose the interplay of race and class. Marriage is not solely about companionship, the production of offspring, or the satisfaction of sexual desire. Marriage is also about the maintenance or advancement of class position and the attainment and preservation of wealth. The following theory presented by Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century can be applied to understanding the socio-economic influences behind the marriage decisions being made today:

…[I]n the modern world monogamy and prostitution, though antitheses, are inseparable and poles of the same social condition….Hence the full freedom of marriage can become general only after all…economic considerations, that still exert such a powerful influence on the choice of a mate for life, have been removed by the abolition of capitalistic production and of the property relations created by it. Then no other motive will remain but mutual fondness. (cited in Agonito, 1977, p. 286-287)

The comparison between monogamy and prostitution is being made because in marriage, a woman is bartering her sexuality/reproductive ability for the economic protection provided by one man, while the prostitute is exchanging the sexual use of her body for financial compensation from multiple men. They are both operating in a patriarchial-capitalist sphere where the female body is a commodity. Rosemary Agonito (1977), in analyzing the Marx-Engel communist interpratation of marriage, writes, “…the first class struggle [is in] the antogonism between the sexes—in the family, man is bourgeois and woman is proletarian(p 272).” This first class struggle is the pursuit of patriarchial power. The pursuit of patriarchial power can be seen in the dynamics of interracial relationships. Men are far more willing than women to  pursue non-homogeneous romantic partners. They will date and marry women of different racial  categories, younger women and seek women internationally; all to assure that they find the right “trophy wife.”

There was a trend not too long ago of white males acquiring Russian mail order brides: “Over the last five years, tens of thousands of American men unable to find their ideal mates at home have resorted to international matrimonial agencies. There are more than 40 in Moscow alone…” (Stanley, 1997). Since there was no shortage of marriageable white women in America in the late 1990s, it can be theorized that these white men were looking for “traditional” wives: women who had not fallen under the influence of the women’s liberation movement. Influential, wealthy and powerful white males like Rupert Murdoch and George Soros are not just choosing to marry Asian women, but Asian women who are fifteen to twenty (or even more) years younger than they are. Their wealth allows them to compete successfully against men who are younger and may possess all the desired attributes associated with youth: health, virility, and beauty.

In his book Persaud (2004) talks about the “phantom power” of black males. An underlying narrative of interacial relationships is the story of authentic power versus phantom power. The authentic power of white male patriarchy is supported by hegemonic control of the culture and control of industry. The white male owns the team, while the black man plays for the team. The sexual power of a woman, regardless of her ethnicity, is phantom power. As a woman ages she loses her reproductive ability and the physical attributes that make her an object of desire. The pattern of Asian wives, being second and third wives, supports the theory of the real power of the white male patriarch and the phantom power of the white woman cast aside to be replaced by the Asian woman. It was the white male who placed her on a pedestal as the ideal of feminine beauty and virtue and he alone can remove her from that pedestal and replace her with another.

Imagine a century as a book of ten chapters. The first chapter of the 21st century has been a narative of crisis and chaos, but mainly because of the election of Barack Obama, the rise of interracial relationships and the presence of a significant population of interracial children many see the prologue to a “post-racial” America (Hsu, 2009).  Harvard law professor and author Randall Kennedy states that “against the tragic backdrop of American history, the flowering of multicultural intimacy is a profoundly moving and encouraging development” (cited in Crary, 2007).

This said, the psychologist and current president of Spelman College, Beverly Daniel Tatum, is quoted in a 2000 New York Times article as offering one definition of racism as “an intricate web of individual attitudes, cultural messages and institutional practices that systematically advantage whites and disadvantage people of color” (“Conversation”). Clearly, the patterns established by the statistical data on interracial relationships indicate that people of color, especially black women and Asian men, are devalued in the marriage market.  This is not post-racial. Let us examine the intricacies of interracial marriages and see if they indicate progress or a continuation of the old systems of race, class and privilege.

In the modern American marriage market, the white male is the one with the first right of choice. He has the most presumed class status and mate options. His marriage options include marrying a white female and staying within his racial group and most likely within his socioeconomic and education status. According to Census data, 95 percent of white males choose this homogenous route (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). He can also choose to marry any of the other racial and ethnic groups that reside in America. He likely will chose to marry an Asian woman if he does not marry a white woman; according to the 2000 Census the largest interracial marriage group is white men and Asian women (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

The white female has the choice of marrying a white male of equal status or, in light of the fact that women makeup of 57 percent of all college students and are earning more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than American men (Gibbs, 2009), she may marry a white male of lesser economic or educational status. If she is a white woman of lesser educational and socioeconomic status, she may make a “status exchange” marriage by marrying a black male with a higher income or educational status. Aaron Gullickson (2006) writes, “whiteness is a valued resource on the marriage market….whites are able to acquire black spouses of higher education than the black spouses of fellow blacks (p. 675).”

The Asian woman has the choice of marrying an Asian man, which the majority of Asian women choose to do. According to the 2000 Census, less than one percent of Asian women are married to black or Hispanic men (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

The black man, especially if he is among the elite pool of black men who are educated, with professional prestige and wealth, can choose from the entire pool of eligible black women. He can also choose from a small pool of white women who are not already married to white men and who are willing to date black men. From this pool the black man can choose a white mate and possibly engage in a “status exchange” marriage. At the bottom of this marriage market pyramid are black women and Asian men. The online dating site okcupid.com, by analyzing the message data of their subscribers, identified evidence of racial preferences in dating. They claimed to have analyzed “the message habits of over a million people.” They concluded that:

• White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else—and Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively.
• Black women reply the most (to messages), yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.
• White males receive more responses from every ethnic group. (“How Your Race,” 2009)

Eighteen percent of Asian wives have white husbands but only nine percent of Asian husbands have non-Asian wives, according to 2000 Census data (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). Asian men, like black women, have an image problem. A 2000 article in Newsweek describes the stereotypical image of Asian males as “weak, sexless and unable to offer the status and security that white men could. Marlon Villa, a Filipino…whose wife is white, says that the old idea was ‘black guys are studs, white guys have all the power and Asian guys are the nerdy little wimps that women won’t glance at’” (Pan).

Chu writes that colonial stereotypes of Asian women as “submissive, domestic, hypersexual” are still in operation. Chu uses the term “yellow fever ” to describe white men’s presumed fixation with Asian women. The term “jungle fever” is often used to describe romantic relationships between blacks and whites. A fever is “an abnormal condition of the body” (“Fever,” 2010). The use of the word “fever” suggests that the people involved in these relationships are engaged in some kind of abnormality. Is it an abnormality of the mind? In the case of the black-white relationships, the use of the word “jungle” suggests a descent into barbarianism. The use of these terms characterizes interracial relationships as the product of base sexual curiosity and not as a rational choice made from the human heart or intellect. These terms are insulting because they suggest that some kind of mental impairment is necessary for people to be willing to engage in sexual intimacy outside of their race.

Examination of interracial marriage patterns, therefore, reveals that they represent a continuation of white privilege for white men and white women. There is also male privilege for white men and black men, but not for Asian men. The late novelist Bebe Moore Campbell summarized the feelings of black women in this manner: “For sisters, the message that we don’t measure up is the nightmare side of integration” (cited in Childs, 2005, p. 555). Randall Kennedy conceded that interracial marriage would not necessarily result in a post-racial America: “Various peoples of color—Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and light-skinned African-Americans—could well intermarry with whites in increasingly large numbers and join with them in a de facto alliance against darker-skinned blacks, who might remain racial outcasts even in a more racially mixed society” (2002). Ellis Cose writes that “[i]n a more perfect world, more people would refuse to see others as stereotypes. Unfortunately, the politics of gender and the politics of race have made it much harder for any of us to be simply human beings” (1995).

Race and class have both concrete and symbolic meaning in America. Whenever there is interaction between individuals of different racial groups in a racially stratified society, subjective meaning is always assigned. The politics of race and gender in America have made it hard for many people to be simply human. They have made the process of human actualization uniquely challenging for black women, and this essay has addressed this challenge in regard to black women’s dating and marriage opportunities. In conclusion, the challenge to marry is not rooted in any innate deficiency or cultural or physical characteristics of black women, but in the myriad racial and gender inequalities of America.

References

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Bonilla-Silva, E. (2001). Racialized social system approach. In E. Bonilla-Silva, White supremacy and racism in the post-Civil Rights era. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Bonvillian, N. (2007). Women and men: Cultural constructs of gender (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson.

Brazille, D. (2008, April). Does black America owe a debt the Clintons? A pragmatic view. Ebony, 144.

Childs, E. C. (2005, August). Looking behind the stereotypes of the “angry black woman”: An exploration of black women’s responses to interracial relationships. Gender and Society, 19, 544-561.

Chu, Y. (2009, September). The new trophy wife. Marie Claire, 124-126.

Cole, H. (2009, February). Real love: What we all crave, what Barack and Michelle Obama have. Ebony, 64-69.

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