Let’s imagine this scenario for a moment: there is a presidential debate with four male candidates standing behind podiums on a stage that’s covered with blue carpet and has a huge American flag in the background. Tom Brokaw poses the question: “Americans list healthcare, and the price of it as one of their biggest concerns. Should you become president, how will you deal with the exorbitant medical costs
A candidate in a blue suit, clears his voice and answers, “Tom, this has been a question that has concerned me for some time now. All Americans deserve the right to ensure that they and their loved ones can afford healthcare should they need it. It is an American right. To make things right, however, will take an effort on all of our parts. One of the reasons medical prices are so high is that people often seek unnecessary medical treatments. Let’s take something as routine as childbirth. 88% of mothers receive an epidural to reduce pain when in labor, when childbirth is simply NOT that painful. I have watched all four of my kids be born. It is a natural thing—a thing that women’s bodies were designed to do—and there is minimal pain caused by it.”
How well do you think this candidate’s assertion would go over with women? Not well, right? Women would be outraged at his arrogance and his obliviousness. How can this candidate, a man who doesn’t have a uterus, has never had a baby or even a period cramp, speak on a woman’s pain?
So, I wonder why so many White people feel comfortable speaking about Black people’s pain? I constantly see situations where someone’s actions or words are being questioned and I see and hear comments such as:
- “that wasn’t hurtful”
- “that wasn’t inappropriate”
- “you/they are too sensitive”
- “you/ they are looking for something to be angry about”
I ask this question because I got into my first “comment room battle” this week. I read the comments associated with articles most of the time. I don’t just care about the information; I’m particularly interested in how people receive and perceive the information. I never comment, however.
But before I went to bed Monday night, as I do most nights; I jumped on my laptop to cruise Facebook and a couple of blogs that I follow when I saw the mini-hoopla over the Gap Ad featuring 5 gymnasts. I quickly looked at the ad image at issue, saw how it could be off putting to some, but didn’t have a huge reaction to it. I then read the comments and went from slightly perturbed to completely pissed off.
Overwhelmingly, the concerns and pain expressed by many Black people were immediately dismissed by other commenters. Multiple (mainly White women) commented that the ad was “nothing to be upset about.”
What I wanted to ask these commenters is, “How do you know?” How long have you been Black? What is your Black experience? Why do you feel so comfortable and confident in speaking about what should and shouldn’t hurt a Black person?”
How would it be received if I said, “sunburn doesn’t really hurt.” Or “getting kicked in the balls doesn’t hurt.” I can’t speak on these things. It’s not my experience. So when I was growing up and my friends would complain about their burnt skin; or the boys on the kickball field would writhe in pain when they got hit by a ball, I wouldn’t dismiss their pain — though from my view and perspective neither looked to be that big of a deal.
If you respect a person and see them as your equal–you must at least respect their experience and their feelings though they are different from yours. It is nothing but arrogance to think that your way of thinking about something trumps another person’s. It suggests that you know the person — and what should or should not hurt them — better than they know themselves. Not even parenthood makes us experts on our children’s experiences and their feelings surrounding them.
As a matter of fact, the mother of the two girls’ in the ad, Brooke Smith (an actress on Grey’s Anatomy) has announced that the girls are indeed sisters, so there is nothing to be upset about. Brooke actually proves my point. Brooke is a White woman who adopted a Black girl from Ethiopia. She is foolish, as is the public, if she thinks that this makes her an authority about Black pain, the Black experience. I think that she would serve her child better if she said that she was confused by the controversy but was eager to learn. Don’t shut down the conversation and discredit the objectors to the ad by immediately siding with the Gap and telling people to calm down. The primary reason Black women were upset with the ad is because they are raising Black little girls. So is she. Perhaps these Black women have an understanding that she doesn’t. She should reach out to, respect and listen to the Black community. Of all people, she should be wondering “why” the reaction was what it was.
I tried to engage with and have a thoughtful dialogue with the commenters. A woman posted a picture of a similar Gap ad with a Black girl resting herself on a White Girl and said, “what about this? You don’t see White woman making a big deal about this.” There were also several White women who said that people use them as hand rest all of the time because they are short and we don’t see them complaining about it. I tried to explain that history causes all people to react to things differently. Black people were once sold, treated and seen as property, so it’s offensive when you see a White girl use the Black girl as a hand rest — as a prop.”
To the man who said that “it’s just an ad, what’s the big deal?” Advertising IS a big deal. Companies spend millions on advertising and marketing budgets because ads completely affect what we buy and how we think. Black parents don’t want their Black girls to think that they are a White girl’s armrest. It has been explained that this was not the intent of the little girl but advertisement is ALL about perception. Regardless of what the intent was, the marketing team should have questioned, “how will the ad be received by their buying public? The campaigns total focus was “to prove girls can do anything.” Did the little Black girl exude that sentiment?
Then there were several people who said that Black people are always looking for a reason to be angry. At first I was a smart ass and replied something similar to, “ You are right. Black people just sit around all day looking for reasons to get upset because it’s just so incredibly fun.” I’m just sick and tired of Black people (Black women in particular) being portrayed as angry. It is such an incredibly dismissive tactic. Instead of listening to Black people’s concerns, instead of respecting someone’s pain, it’s easier to completely shut a person down by saying in some form –“your concerns aren’t valid. You are simply angry.”
I can’t think of any other group that people would feel comfortable doing this to. A woman complains about sexist behavior and the general public reacts by saying, “Women are just oversensitive whiners.” Nah—wouldn’t happen. But these same protected women have no problem discounting an entire race of people.
Are there Black people who cry wolf, who are too sensitive, who claim racism when there is none—absolutely. Just as there are women who have falsely accused companies of sexism and are too sensitive. You should not conveniently use this as an excuse to close your ears and your heart to Black people’s concerns. Is it easier for you this way—probably; is it better for the world and race relations in the long run this way—nope. Again, my concern was not with the ad itself, but with the reaction it caused and the ease with which people discounted the views of the affected group.
Racism (or being racially insensitive) isn’t always conscious. It isn’t always a burning cross or a white hood. It is sometimes unconscious. It is oftentimes inadvertent. Do I think that Gap was intentionally being racist—not at all. Do I think that they even thought for a minute that this ad would be controversial—nope. I think that there was a non-diverse marketing team, who innocently created an ad and did not have the experience to recognize how the placement of those girls could be hurtful. If they are smart: they will listen; they will sympathize (even if they can’t empathize); they will learn and they will improve (and perhaps understand the value of a diverse and inclusive marketing team. But that’s another article and topic for another day).