Say it with me: kwuh-VEN-zhuh-nay. This young lady with a beautiful name is the youngest-ever Academy Award nominee for Best Actress. It’s time that she is treated with the dignity that she deserves. In fact, it is high time that we begin a larger dialogue about treatment of our girls, particularly minorities, who are the future of this nation and of this world.
Remember the outrage that ensued after the media called Miley Cyrus, Dakota Fanning, and Abigail Breslin the c-word? Right, me either, because it never happened. Of course, as women, we are no strangers to sexist insults being hurled at us with the expressed intent of silencing us. That’s what makes the Onion’s tweet referring to Oscar-nominated African-American actress, Quvenzhané Wallis, as a "c*nt" all the more repugnant: Wallis is not yet a woman, but a child.
At nine years old, young Quvenzhané brought a dog purse with her to the Academy Awards. Quvenzhane told Ryan Seacrest, "This is a special dog. It's renamed after my puppy I have at home — Sandy."
What were you doing when you were nine? I can tell you with certainty that I was not being interviewed on the red carpet by Ryan Seacrest, and if I was, I could never have done it with the poise that young Quvenzhané did. In fact, at nine, I was likely throwing a fit over a Barbie doll or scraping my knee on the concrete. At nine, most have not yet been exposed to the ugliness that is misogyny and that is racism. And yet Quvenzhané Wallis had the best night of her life thus far marred by sexism. One cannot do a simple Google search for her without coming across the disgusting tweet sent out by The Onion. For shame.
Yesterday, female-driven website Jezebel ran a piece entitled, “Cunt is Not a Bad Word” (yes, seriously) in which the author argued that the c-word is fantastic and should be used often. What a grand thing to say in the days following that young woman’s ordeal surrounding that epithet.
The problem is not The Onion’s tweet. That is a symptom. The problem is the hyper-sexualization of black women’s bodies. The problem is the way society prioritizes issues affecting white women versus women of color. Wallis is only nine, but it was deemed acceptable to attach a derogatory word for female genitalia to this young black girl. It was seen as "alright" by Oscars host Seth MacFarlane to quip that Ms. Wallis was not too far away from being able to date actor George Clooney — who is 51. And unfortunately, the outrage surrounding the treatment of this young lady was muffled and short. The media coverage was abysmal, the reaction from feminist groups was pathetic, and it quickly fizzed out. Why?
Because even in progressive movements whose purpose is to institute change, issues affecting women of color are still deemed less important. The way that we value our young women of color is embarrassing and reprehensible.
What would the reaction have been if a similar comment had been made about a young white woman? The most recent example, certainly not a perfect equivalent, is when radio host Rush Limbaugh called 30 year old law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" after she testified about the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The reaction to that was swift, loud, and persistent — rightfully so. As a result, Limbaugh quickly lost advertisers and people from both sides of the political aisle spoke up in support of Fluke. Indeed, even President Obama intervened to offer Fluke his support.
I’m not asking for a presidential phone call. I’m asking for some sustained outrage in support of one of our sisters. Feminists and feminist organizations fought hard in defense of Fluke and now Fluke is a force to be reckoned with. Marginalized people within the feminist movement — women of color, trans folk, disabled people, etc — rushed to Fluke’s defense without so much as a second thought.
So why the hesitance from our white feminist sisters to come to the defense of a more vulnerable, far younger, even more marginalized person in Quvenzhané Wallis? That answer can be found buried deep in the racial roots of the feminist movement.
This ordeal begs an even more terrifying question: why do we view black women as less important than white women? When a young black girl goes missing, the news media rarely picks up on it. In the shocking event that the abduction of a woman of color is reported, the vigor and priority with which it is reported is not comparable to their white counterparts. Indeed, conversely, we see nationwide manhunts for young white girls constantly. We have seen constant media coverage in the missing child cases of Elizabeth Smart, Lisa Irwin, JonBenét Ramsey, Natalee Holloway, and Jaycee Dugard — all of whom are or were white women. This persistence has helped find many of these young girls by commanding the attention of the masses. But what about Alexis Patterson, a young black girl who went missing after leaving for school around the same time as Elizabeth Smart was abducted? Is she not worthy of attention paid to white girls? Or Jaquilla Scales, Bianca Jones, Athena Curry, or Jahessye Shockley?
When we, as a society, choose that one group is more important than another, the consequences can be literally life or death. Those who defended The Onion and Seth MacFarlane for alleged “satire” are missing the bigger picture and missing the fact that these jokes do not come out of thin air.
These comments have deeply rooted and dangerous implications for the young woman that they were directed at. They show a disrespect for someone who has achieved more in her nine years of life than most of us will in an entire lifetime. This ugly disrespect further perpetuates violence against women, particularly those color, by reducing us to anatomy. The next time a young girl is the target of such hatred (and I promise that there will be a next time), think about what this implies about how we value our girls and stand up loud in support of that young woman.