The phrase “whiteness gone white” rings all the more true every time a talented-beyond-measure black woman graces us with her presence and is criticized for it. And white women are continually leading this cause.
On Sunday, Feb. 12, a very pregnant Beyoncé graced our television screens as she levitated onto the Grammy stage with an ethereal, queenly performance of several of her hits from last year’s Lemonade album. She performed her now-iconic chair-tilt routine that had most of us on the edges of our seats while dressed as Oshun, a Yoruba deity of fertility and love. Her explicit nod to the African Diaspora resonated with so many who witnessed the performance. But apparently a white woman with a pen wasn’t impressed.
New York Post contributor Naomi Schaefer Riley was so unenthusiastic about Beyoncé’s performance that she attempted to undermine the entire idea that having a baby is a miracle, calling the routine a “pagan fertility worship ceremony.” She even described Bey’s performance as “self-indulgent,” alleging that Bey’s “endless Virgin Mary/Sun Goddess routine” gave the message that “Pregnancy is sexy. Motherhood is divine.” Oddly, Bey didn’t say either of these things Grammy night. In fact, she said little more than “Thank you so much,” even while being denied the much deserved award for Album of the Year that Adele attempted to split with her.
Just days after Bey’s performance, photos were released of Serena Williams—Bey’s Formation World Tour twerking partner and co-goddess, who slays our souls—for the 2017 Swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Williams bared her beauty in a thong bikini, sandy feet and scrumptiousness. The spread came after Williams expressed on record that she wants to empower more women to love their bodies through her #DoItForYourself campaign with sportswear producer Berlei.
In response, writer Sinead Kissane suggested that Serena’s baring of her flawless body was hypocritical because “it shows success doesn’t change some women’s desire to be validated for how they look.” Calling Serena’s prior images “sassy,” Kissane echoes Schaefer by finding no value in this sort of bodily display. For Kissane, Serena “taking her clothes off for a magazine” undermines her performance on the tennis court. It is as if she can only be one or the other: athlete or sexy woman. Apparently there is no room in this white woman’s mind for the two to exist simultaneously.
Taken together, these critiques suggest that when black women like Williams and Bey define their womanhood on their own terms, whether by taking racy images or floating across the Grammy stage like a reincarnated spirit, they are somehow breaching some unspoken contract that they should exist only on the terms set for them by others. To these women, Bey and Serena aren’t following the rules. And it comes as no surprise that white women are acting as the womanhood police.
On one hand, Bey and Serena are pushing back against forces that deny them the diversity of their experiences (like being sexy and talented and/or pregnant at the same time).
On the other hand, these reactions shine light on the ways that black women are unfairly censored and wrested from experiencing womanhood in their own complex and unique ways. It points to an ongoing issue with white women propping themselves up as images of beauty and sexiness. Their work in denying the fullness of womanhood to black women isn’t new.
White women have long positioned themselves as the enforcers of womanhood. From the denials of black women’s child-rearing rights in the era of enslavement to the exclusion of black women from early suffrage movements and women’s clubs in the early 20th century, these types of critiques are meant to control the behaviors of black women and have a long and ugly history. It’s still happening today.
What both of these writers fail to recognize is that both of these women are black entertainers who have, throughout their careers, faced incredible opposition to their mere existence. Serena has openly faced issues of racism, some that even drove her to boycott tournaments where she was booed and called “nigger.” Her body has been scrutinized, she has been called “masculine” and she has even been paid less than Maria Sharapova, a tennis star who was later suspended for doping.
Likewise, I assume, a large part of why Beyoncé has been so open with this pregnancy is that so many pregnancy-conspiracy theorists denied that she was ever pregnant with Blue Ivy in the first place. That these women have to push back against systemic racism and misogynoir just to do their jobs is bad enough. But for white women to extend the scrutiny into their expressions of womanhood is measurably worse.
Instances like these underscore the work of people like Mikki Kendall, who coined the term #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. When white women ignore the uniquely marginalizing experiences faced by black women, they uphold white supremacy while making the possibility of larger feminist movements nearly impossible. For Bey and Serena, their complexity is political. Their embodiment of the fullness womanhood is political. Their actions should be treated as such.
Until white women begin to grapple with their complicity in the systems that harm and oppress black women, even highly successful women like Bey and Serena, we will continue to see “think pieces” like these. But when we begin to see more white women using their station and platforms to center and highlight the experiences of black women, we might have a chance at this solidarity thing.
I won’t hold my breath, though.