Growing up in the South, I’ve always had a firm grasp on racism. It meant the loss of life, like that of Loyal Garner, Jr., a Black man who was beaten to death while in police custody up the road from me in Hemphill, Texas, when I was 12. Racism had consequences that were concrete and tangible. Sexism, on the other hand, was a fuzzier concept. I viewed it as a mild annoyance.
Sexism in hip-hop wasn’t a threat to me when I was growing up because the music was different then. When we danced to “Parents Just Don’t Understand” or “U Can’t Touch This,” we were all invited; the girls were more than mere party favors. The group 2 Live Crew, best known for the hit “Me So Horny,” was considered controversial. So I kept dancing, even as misogynistic lyrics and images crept into the mainstream. When Dre rhymed that “bitches ain’t sh– but hoes and tricks,” he might as well have been talking about space aliens, because he wasn’t talking about me. I wasn’t a bitch. I wasn’t a trick. I wasn’t a ho.
My rude awakening came in the form of the television program BET: Uncut, a music video show that aired from 2000 to 2006. It featured jiggling body parts surrounded by men spewing the most vile, disgusting things about women I had ever heard. Who was the demented, woman-hating individual, I thought, that created this as a form of entertainment? I felt bad for myself and for the unfortunate souls I saw on-screen, and it no longer mattered whether they were talking about me or not.
I grasped the horror: I realized that the constant portrayal of Black women as sex objects sends the message that we are less than human. But I still didn’t wage war against it.
Then last year Don Imus came along with his “nappy headed hos” comment. Apparently he hadn’t gotten the memo that a group of college-educated Black women were exempt from that epithet. When the fallout shifted from White racism to sexism within Black popular culture, that spring Oprah Winfrey hosted two town hall meetings titled “After Imus: Now What?” She included a group of young women from Spelman College as part of her panel. In their discussion, they confronted the forces of misogyny. What I saw were accomplished Black women asking for someone to recognize the fullness of their humanity. All they got was this reply from some of the men on the panel: “Let’s have a meeting to talk about it after the show.” The young women’s frustration was visible and familiar. It brought to mind the hot lump so many of us have felt-the one that formed in your throat after your third-grade classmate called you “nigger,” and you faced the bitter knowledge that no matter what you said or did, another person was going to think you were less than they were based on some factor you could not change.
One panelist explained how the marriage between hip-hop and sexual exploitation had become so mainstream that corporations are using these artists as spokespersons. The desperation I felt during the town hall meeting, along with the realization that we consumers are financing our own degradation, pricked my conscience and pushed me to do something. I started a blog with a simple post asking if anyone else thought it was insane for Black women to hand their money to corporations who, in turn, pay rappers for treating us like props and prostitutes. The answer has been resounding: I am not the only one.
The revelation that sexism is just as hateful as racism changes how you see a five-year-old dancing to Soulja Boy’s lyric “superman that ho.” No matter how banging the beat, hearing a hook about what “freaky girls” do in the “front seat of a Hummer” isn’t entertaining. It’s a reminder that Black women have become the entertainment. We are no longer guests at the party; we’re the sideshow, and that’s not merely an annoyance. It’s a tragedy, and it happened on my watch.
Gina McCauley blogs at WhatAboutOur Daughters.com, which is dedicated to challenging negative media images of Black women.