Letter to the editor: Why we must center black women’s experiences

Posted on Sep 25 2018 - 5:50am by Jodi Skipper and Jessica Wilkerson

As educators who study race, gender and women’s history and as citizens of the city of Oxford, we were outraged to learn of Ed Meek’s Facebook post. In it, he targeted two black female students by making their images representative of what he sees as a larger problem in the city of Oxford. He didn’t have to say that he has a problem with black people being in the Square, the Grove or the university. He showed it. Unsurprisingly, he used the images of two black women to do it.

In fact, the night that the post began to circulate on social media, we had assigned an article on the history of “the Jezebel” stereotype to students in our Intro to Southern Studies course. As explained by historian Deborah Gray White, the Jezebel character, a figment of the white American imagination, “was the counter-image of the mid-19th century ideal of the Victorian lady.” She continues, “lewd and lascivious,” the Jezebel “invited sexual overtures from white men.” She and other stereotypes of black women, like that of the Mammy, were designed to excuse white men’s sexual exploitation of black women rooted in slavery and the Jim Crow era. By claiming that black women are naturally lascivious, white Americans have sought to erase the hundreds of years of sexual exploitation, assault and abuse that black women have endured at the hands of white men and women. These kinds of images are so ingrained in our collective psyche that Meek didn’t have to say it for so many of us to know how problematic this is.

Meek’s representations of these young women is an insidious form of sexual harassment that seeks to legitimize white men’s authority and power in the world. The power of these images is in their ability to force gazes upon these women, without their permission. The power of these images is in their ability to continue normalizing the sexual exploitation of black women for hundreds of years. Their power is in our making excuses for white men like Meek, who turn the bodies of black women into objects of consumption, titillation and vitriol.

As we discussed Meek’s post with our students on Thursday, we realized that some of them believed that Meek had called the women prostitutes in the text of the post. But he did not, and he did not need to. Regardless of intent, he exploited these young women by making them representatives of something they didn’t ask to be representatives of. He didn’t ask their permission to have their images splattered across thousands of strangers’ screens. These women had no say in his “report” on the Square.  

We are proud of these women’s ability to speak up against their abuse, but they shouldn’t have had to. They shouldn’t have to educate our community, especially its white members, on the history of racist and sexist violence that black women encounter daily. But they did what black women so often do in our society — educate the public about the reality and complexity of their experiences. As a university community, we owe it to them and the others who attend school here, work at the university and live in Oxford to center their experiences as we consider how we make our city and our campus safer spaces for all. To date, that hasn’t been done.

For those of you who still think that this has all been blown out of proportion, we ask that you try to picture what it would be like to have an image of your daughter or your friend being used to represent all that is wrong with a community — and her having no say in that.

Jodi Skipper

Associate Professor Of Anthropology

Jessica Wilkerson

Assistant Professor Of History & Southern Studies