At some point this year, my partner informed me of the fury that was rising surrounding the new bestselling “mommy porn,” Fifty Shades of Greyby British author E.L. James. With a course load of readings from my masters program, little down time and absolutely no interest in reading yet another text that supported the submission of women in relationships, I was quick to push this book out of my mind and off my bookshelf.
But, after reading one critique after another from my fellow feminists, I realized it was silly of me to ignore a piece of literature that had so many people up in arms. And so, I sat down to read the first book of Fifty Shades of Grey while celebrating my birthday at a little hot springs in Costa Rica.
To be honest, I began reading this novel with the belief that I would ultimately find the concept okay; I had heard that it was largely about BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Dominance, Submission, Sadomasochism, Sadism, Masochism) and though I don’t believe I could ever partake in such a relationship, I have never denied the fact that others obtain pleasure from this subculture. However, what I found to be the basis of Fifty Shades of Grey was not erotica or BDSM, rather it was the story of a man, Christian Grey, who had experienced severe amounts of physical and emotional trauma as a child and whose only way of feeling sexual and emotional pleasure was by dominating others.
In the book, Christian Grey’s partner, Ana, has fallen in love with a man with a dark past and she tries to save him all the while negotiating whether or not she can actually be the submissive partner he wants and “needs.” But the submission isn’t only in the bedroom or the “Red Room of Pain,” as she calls it. Grey’s desire to dominate and control Ana is translated into their daily lives where Grey demands that Ana remains obedient: doesn’t talk with other people, dresses in the clothes he chooses, waxes all of her body hair and exercises based on his schedule (oh, and she is able to negotiate this one to only work out three days a week rather than four, Yippie! - insert sarcasm). Yes, Grey learns to love it when Ana talks back and asks questions, but largely because it means that her “defiance” will lead to punishment, which Grey deeply enjoys giving by “fucking” and “spanking” her.
In my personal experience, this is a tell-tale sign of domestic abuse… of a man who is only able to work through his past traumas through, often literally, beating others into submission. In reading this book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of many cases of domestic violence that I know of - of men and women who were victims of violence in the home as children and grew up to act out that violence on others.
The author, E.L. James, appears to want her readers to feel bad for Christian Grey and to understand the root of his violation on the bodies of others. I agree that it is certainly important to understand the root causes of violence and provide those who have experienced it with the necessary support - but it is not, and will never be a sexy or erotic journey.
I did not find Fifty Shades of Grey as a book that could or should have all the girls desiring a man who dominates them, as major newspapers and articles have expressed. It is a book about one man’s violence over another, of the desire and need to be healed, and of a young woman’s tumultuous and heartbreaking journey of falling in love with a man who doesn’t know how to love her tenderly.
I admit that I will most likely read the other books to see how the author chooses to continue this sad and often disturbing story. But I will be crossing my fingers that Grey gets the help that he needs and deserves, and that Ana finds the strength to love herself enough to walk away.
Some excerpts from the book:
"Why don’t you like to be touched?" I whisper, staring up into soft grey eyes. "Because I’m fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia." Oh… his honesty is completely disarming. I blink up at him
"Because I think I love you, and you just see me as a toy. Because I can’t touch you, because I’m too frightened to show you any affection in case you flinch or tell me off or worse - beat me? What can I say? - Ana
And after spanking her: Siting beside me, he gently pulls my sweatpants down again. Up and down like whores’ drawers, my subconscious remakers bitterly. In my head, I tell her where to go. Christian squirts baby oil into his hand and then rubs my behind with careful tenderness — from makeup remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid. - Ana
He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light? - Ana
We exists as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.
Michele Wallace - Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood (via jasmineburnett)
In an article posted by the NYTimes yesterday, it was reported that “[m]ore than half of all of African-Americans and other non-Hispanic blacks in the [New York] city who were old enough to work had no job at all this year…” And, if that isn’t enough of a staggering number, black New Yorkers who lose there jobs spend an average of one year trying to find a new one.
The article claims one reason for this is that blacks have been largely employed in government agencies, construction and manufacturing - all fields that have suffered the most in the economic depression. Moreover, blacks tend to occupy what Dr. Frank Braconi, chief economist for the city comptroller’s office, calls the middle market in the labor force in terms of wages and education. And it is this middle market that has been the most affected by the recession.
Blacks are now required to hold a Bachelors or Masters degree to compete in the market they once occupied in order to obtain economic stability. But as most people of color know, a long list of academic accomplishments doesn’t and has never necessarily lead to the equivalent salary and benefits as our non-black counterparts.
Though I have no doubt that this study is spot-on, the reality is that people of color across time have always faced either the lowest employment rates and/or the lowest salaries/benefits.
Historically the unemployment rate for African Americans age 16 years and over has been higher than that of the total labor force:
And though the number of African Americans in the labor force that have graduated from college increased from 16 percent in 1992 to 24 percent in 2009:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2010, that unemployment rates actually fall as educational attainment increases. “In 2009, the unemployment rate for African Americans 25 years and over without a high school diploma was over 21 percent, while the jobless rates for high school graduates and those graduating with a bachelor’s degree and higher were 14.0 and 7.3, respectively.”
There is no doubt in my mind that we continue to live in a society that conveniently places people of color in service industries where increased education and skills training make it more difficult for us to reach the top. Perhaps we need to stop putting all of our attention in looking at the economy and begin looking at the social dynamics that have placed “minority” groups in positions of lesser economic prosperity.
Cait Oppermann and Yael Malka* are recent graduates of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. They received their BFAs in Photography and are now preparing for a two-month long trip across Europe (as well as Turkey and hopefully Morocco) starting in July. What they really want to do is make a book of the photographs and text they collect on their trip.
Because their work is so deeply rooted in American culture, they’re both excited and curious about taking on a completely different set of cultures and visual language.
To learn more about the project, check out their Kickstarter page!
*Yael Malka also happens to be the sister of one of my oldest and kindest friends from High School, The Beacon School.
In previous posts (first here, then here), I spoke about the eurocentric symbolism of the graduation cap and the difficulties it has given to natural haired people of color who are embarking on the glorious journey of graduating from their academic institutions.
I made a strong personal stance and stated that I would choose to break the tradition of the academic regalia by not wearing the cap at my graduation. With this, I asked that all of you do the same in honor of your self, your accomplishment, heritages, decisions to go natural and/or in support of your natural haired colleagues.
The response that I received was outstanding - Young women with natural hair, whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting, wrote to me to say that they were struggling with their graduation cap and were grateful that I had given them a space to honor who they were. Friends of friends from Europe wrote that they had experienced the same issues as graduating students, and members of my own graduating class at the United Nations University For Peace came out in numbers to show their support by removing the cap.
I was further surprised by the reaction of my universities Vice Rector and Rector, who made positive references to my decision to remove the cap, and told our class that we were “mature” in the ways that we challenged the institution, and “the cap was a symbol of that.”
The reactions of my local and global community stand as an example of the power of standing up for what you believe in. You never know how your community or institution will react unless you take action.
With that, I am sharing with you an image from my cap-less graduation. I hope that you will share yours with me as well and continue to encourage graduating students to remove the cap in the years to come.
In a previous post, I discussed the need for a “paradigm shift” surrounding the old standards of power and prestige that come from the graduation regalia. I was surprised by the number of responses that I received from natural haired women of color from around the world exclaiming how they, too, were disappointed by the expectation to wear a graduation cap which a. they couldn’t get to fit on their head b. didn’t necessarily believe in. Friends who had never questioned the graduation regalia even vowed to pledged their support by not wearing the cap on graduation day.
I was looking forward to this moment of change… until I received an email from my universities graduation coordinators exclaiming all students were expected to wear the full graduation regalia if they wanted their names to be called at the podium (underlined and in bold, mind you).
For a brief moment, I felt that this was a personal attack on the the political and highly personal statement that I was about to make (I now doubt this is true). Rather than waiting around and even risking not being called on graduation day, I decided to write a kind email to the coordinators explaining to them all the reasons why I wouldn’t be wearing a cap on graduation - I wanted to be honest and sincere about my intentions.
To my surprise, the graduation coordinators agreed to let me go sans-cap and encouraged me to share the message with anyone else who felt that the cap would restrict their cultural, political, social beliefs.
So here it is: I encourage all those in a similar position of not being able to or wanting to wear the graduation regalia, to reach out to their institutions and let them know why. Every student deserves to walk across the stage in a way that honors who they are and celebrates the growing diversity of academia.
Just in case you are having trouble with that email to your graduation coordinators, here is a sample below. Feel free to use it and spread it around!
I hope that you are doing well. Thank you so much for all of the work that you have and continue to put into the graduation planning. I am writing this letter as I wanted to discuss the graduation regalia. I understand that it is a requirement of the school to wear the full regalia, however, as an African American woman with natural hair, it will be a challenge for me to wear the cap. I know this is something that few people think about, and I have debated whether or not to mention it myself. However, after speaking with members of my community, I realized that this was not just an individual desire, but a cultural and personal issue that affects many people. For me, my hair is such a huge part of my identity, not for the physical, but for what it stands for - for the decision to be able to honor myself and what I was given without fitting into a mold. And while the obvious suggestion would be to ask me to straighten my hair just for the moment, it would mean that I would not be walking across the stage honoring who I am and the promises that I have made to myself and to my community. I respect that other people want to hold onto this tradition of the cap and gown however I believe that I, as well as others, also reserve the space to honor our cultural and individual traditions and norms on this momentous day. I believe that this is the basis of UNIVERSITY NAME HERE- an appreciation and understanding of our different backgrounds, beliefs, bodies, etc. For this reason, I ask that the cap (AND GOWN IF YOU CHOOSE) be made optional for students. I sincerely appreciate your understanding, and hope that we can all work together to make this possible.
In exactly three weeks, students from the UN University For Peace will be walking across the stage to accept our M.A. Diplomas. We will all wear our universities signature white-and-blue caps and gowns as a symbol of our achievements. This will be a moment of sheer excitement for our successes and the future that we have worked hard to create for ourselves.
I have taken part in this tradition since the age of homemade-caps in Kindergarden. And each year, I have asked myself, “What am I going to do with my hair?” In Kindergarden, I walked across the stage with a mishap bees nest on my head (one of many attempts in my childhood made by my biracial mother to style my natural hair). In Middle School and High School, I found the solution of braids - although I admit it was a tight squeeze into those small caps. And then in College, I walked across the stage with permed hair pulled back into a simple bun.
This year is a bit different as I have moved away from chemical straightening and synthetic extensions, and have learned to adore the beauty of my natural afro. And so, as I looked over the graduation attire requirements given to us this week, I paused at the word: CAP. The dreaded thought came back, “How am I going to wear this cap now??”
For many people, this may seem absolutely ridiculous - I should just be grateful that I am graduating. I admit, I was thinking the same thing as I started coming up with alternatives to my natural hair for the big day - not taking my cap off until I go home so no one has to see my flattened hair, and even blowing out my hair to fit the tradition. Searching for ideas, I spent a few hours away from work Googling, “Caps with Afro Style,” “Afro Hair Cap and Gowns” and “Caps Natural Hair” so many times to find ideas and yet it seemed that virtually no had ever posted about it, at least online.
Though I was frustrated, it wasn’t until my (white) partner said that this tradition was “unfair to people of color with natural hair” that I really begin to think about it. Where does this tradition come from? Why would an institution with a multitude of races and ethnicities ask people to wear this? And why didn’t anyone at these academic institutions ever think about how it would affect us?
A little research revealed that the Cap and Gown or ‘Academic Dress’ originated from the early 19th Century Europe. As the tradition moved into the United States, committees were organized to develop the standard of academic dress. It goes without saying that people of color were neither included in this conversation, nor were they (heavily) represented within academia at the time. Essentially, the construction of the cap and gown (including shape, height and structure) never included the bodies of people like me.
But how is it that we have never considered changing this system of celebration to suit people from all over the world? How can an academic institution that encourages diversity within their system, not understand just how stressful a moment of celebration can become for us? Even in an international institution, it appears as though no one’s paradigms (or realities) have allowed them to see this issue for those of us who have learned to appreciate our natural hair and bodies.
I may end up walking down the aisle feeling completely out of place, but I will certainly not revert to an old standard of beauty and tradition that doesn’t include my physical, but also very political, identity as an African American woman. We simply cannot accept an age-old tradition that does not include all members of its communities. I hope that other natural-haired women and men (and our supporters) graduating this year will join me in shifting the paradigms by rejecting a tradition that never included us by rocking our natural hair sans cap.
Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.