This summer, Twitter was the stage of a global conversation about race and mainstream feminism catalyzed by writer Mikki Kendall’s hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen.
#Solidarityisforwhitewomen enabled women of color to speak truth to bastions of feminist power. It transformed Twitter into an epicenter of womanist discourse. But as everyone knows, the social web is a highly volatile space and Twitter is no exception.
Less than three months after #solidarityisforwhitewomen elevated discourse on black women’s humanity, #stopblackgirls2013 became the number two trending topic on Twitter on the last Sunday of October.
#Stopblackgirls2013’s popularity was appalling because, as journalist Sherri Williams writes, this “ugly trending topic compared black women’s bodies [with] animals, furniture [and] food.”
A recurring theme in #stopblackgirls2013 was the mockery of black female bodies. One user shared a photo of a bikini-clad pregnant woman who held a gun in one hand and pointed at her stomach with the other. The text he tweeted with the picture read: “she best be getting her child support.”
I am intrigued by the effortless dissemination of images like the aforementioned versus photos like, say, one of Naomi Campbell. The supermodel’s uncharacteristic vulnerability in this image inspired Okayafrica Editor Derica Shields to blog about how Campbell’s body was presented in the photograph.
“Naomi Campbell’s skin is not mahogany or ebony – which is to say, she is not an ornament,” she writes in a Tumblr post. “This is skin usually evened out for editorials to create smooth lengths of mahogany and ebony. Here we’re confronted by the skin’s life and history,” Shields continues.
On catwalks Naomi Campbell has reigned as a lost goddess of beauty, drawing the fashion world’s undivided devotion. Photographers made her image ubiquitous and her complexion famously incandescent. It was not until recently that I considered that her skin’s false flawlessness was the erasure of its story and Campbell’s humanness.
Thought Catalog contributor Britt Julious once wrote that black women’s images in pop culture are oversimplified as “the tragic and the divine.”
“More often than not,” Julious wrote, “we are given the tragic figure, one that either asks for our pity, or provides a source of ridicule.”
A phenomenon like #stopblackgirls2013 is indicative of our culture’s bipolar relationship with black womanhood. We are obsessed with imagining black femininity as either pathological or exalted. Only images of Campbell’s impossibly beautiful body or the rotund form of a woman in a small swimsuit penetrate the mainstream. The body presented in the first image draws our awe and the latter becomes the target of our disrespect. The presentation of both women’s bodies can work in concert to divest black women of their humanity.
Shields recounts the story of a party at which some attendees began watching interracial porn. After seeing a black woman’s genitals splashed across the screen, Shields’ friend yells “yuck!” She subsequently turns to Shields “and demands to know if [her] labia are also black like the woman’s in the film.”
Did the manipulation of famous black women’s images make this woman think black women’s bodies mimicked Barbie dolls monochromatic coloring?
Would Shields’ friend ever understand the unclothed black female form as something other than an alien object of disgust?
Just as photographers use Naomi Campbell’s form to make artistic statements, the proponents of #stopblackgirls2013 used black women’s bodies to illustrate the so-called pathology of black femininity.
It’s like Williams said in the Storify she created to summarize #stopblackgirls2013. When the very vessels that we inhabit are seen as pathological, then “Black women’s existence [becomes] a joke.