Until black women are seen as full citizens and treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else, society will get nowhere.
It’s been about a week since the story broke of Django Unchained actress Danielle Watts’ mistreatment at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, and every time I sit down to write about it, all I can think of is a famous scene from the 1985 film The Color Purple, that includes this quote:
“Until you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble.”
Part-vow, part-curse, this is a mantra uttered by Celie, the major black female protagonist (played by Whoopi Goldberg). This line marks a turning point in the plot, a moment in which Celie is finally able to speak back to her tormentor husband, the physically and emotionally abusive “Mr.”—a symbolic stand-in for many oppressed black men who take out their rage and disempowerment through the domination and control of female partners. During a tense dinner scene, Celie plunges a knife into the dining room table, crooks her fingers, points them at her husband, and delivers her edict as she follows her new lover out the door.
“Until you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble.”
It is a perfect movie moment. And it sums up how I feel about the Danielle Watts incident.
Last weekend, news of the actress’s wrongful detention by the LAPD swept through the Internet. According to Watts, police accosted her after she was seen kissing her boyfriend in public. “I knew that I had done nothing wrong, that I wasn’t harming anyone, so I walked away,” she said in a Facebook post. “A few minutes later,” she was in handcuffs.
As Watts is black and her boyfriend is white, most people quickly assumed that it was their interracial relationship that had drawn the attention of law enforcement, with concerned headlines declaring that “Police Allegedly Mistake Black Actress Kissing White Partner For A Prostitute.” While Watts claimed she was unfairly targeted because she was black, her boyfriend said he thought that she had been stopped because police thought he was her “trick” and she his “ho.” Unsurprisingly, it was this sexualized narrative that stuck.
And quickly, the shit-show began.
First, a black woman CNN anchor harangued Watts on live TV for refusing to show her ID to the police. Next, a full-length recording of police interactions with Watts showed her boyfriend playing what should be considered the ultimate race card as he bro-talked with the cops handcuffing and placing his sobbing girlfriend in the back of their patrol car. “It’s her first time being in the car. It’ll be good,” he told them.
And then came the release of photos that supposedly justified the police officers’ actions, reportedly showing Watts engaging in illicit sexual behavior with her (duplicitous) boyfriend. People claimed Watts was lying all along. Except, of course, the grainy images showed, at worst, Danielle sitting fully clothed on her boyfriend’s lap and making out with him. Which she described from the beginning.
By Friday, several self-proclaimed black male civil rights activists in Los Angeles were getting a lot of media attention for saying Watts “should be embarrassed” and needed to “apologize to the community.” (To whom? For what?)
Watts went from righteous victim to rebellious jezebel in six days flat.
I would explain how black women are constantly caricatured and portrayed negatively in the media, but Jezebel writer Kara Brown probably says it best when she writes:
“Black women aren’t allowed to be complicated—they’re just angry. Black women aren’t allowed to be upset or vulnerable—they’re just angry. Black women are not allowed justifiable reactions to the myriad of bullshit—racist, sexist, and otherwise—that they face. Oh, you know those black ladies are just so angry all the time.”
According to the politics of respectability, good black women are expected to live up to ideals of propriety and virtue that were originally made for white women—frailty, purity, and passivity. Historically, an American lady has been expected to only avail herself to men of her own race, producing their children and attending to their needs. For women, racial loyalty and sexual exclusivity has gone hand-in-hand.
And, in one powerful moment, Watts violated all of these conventions—she refused to concede to the physical coercion and intimidation of white male officers; she stood up against what she saw as racial profiling; she defended her right to be intimate with a man of her own choosing; and she claimed a white man as a lover. Any wall of sympathy initially built around Watts would inevitably collapse under so many layers of confounding impropriety and defiance.
And so we saw betrayal after betrayal—from a high-profile black woman, from the previously supportive public, from self-appointed “civil rights leaders” in Los Angeles, and even from the man she claims to love.
In an online thread, my colleague Brittney Cooper sums it up:
“Anytime women (or children) are involved, we will let any little thing cloud the issue. But let it be one of our shining strapping brothers, and we are crystal clear in our stand. I’m tired of it. We are capable of more nuance. We are capable of more sophisticated political analysis. All the blacks who are not men deserve better.”
I’m sick to death of the endless search for the perfect black woman victim. You know, the kind that gets mythologized as a tired seamstress and buried in national monuments. Truth is, a lot more of us are Claudette Colvin than Rosa Parks. But we’re all sick and tired of giving up our seats.
To be clear, Watts did not escalate the situation by refusing to turn over her papers to police on demand (a practice that has an extensive and problematic history when it comes to segregation and apartheid). Police officers escalated it by putting her in handcuffs for not doing so. As one ACLU attorney points out, “Having an ID does not help them determine if there was a lewd act committed.”
So I’m just going to say it: Until folks do right by black women, everything our country schemes, plans, and hopes for in terms of progress will crumble.
Until black women—and by this I mean black women who caress lovers publicly, black women who drink, black women who are homeless, black women who are sex workers, black women who have arrest records or have more children than you might deem appropriate—are seen as full citizens and treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else, we will get nowhere.
Too often, black women have been the victims of the worst of systematic failures, bearing the brunt of paternalistic and punitive policies and practices that demean, surveil, starve, diminish, and kill them.
Even online, we can’t escape it. For every Medgar Evers, there is a Mary Lou Hawkins. For every DuBois, there’s a Wells. Black women help map the lines of America’s cruelest inequalities and our greatest societal failures. And until we learn to stand by them, until we refute any efforts to tarnish their names and defend their very humanity like we fight for Mike Brown and Eric Garner, until we treasure their lives more than their respectability and spark movements over their cries of pain and anguish—until all of that happens, we will get nowhere. Not as a community and not as a nation. A body that cripples itself doesn’t get very far.
Watts objected to being treated as a criminal when she was breaking no laws. She tried her best to defend her rights as she understood them. She thought, mistakenly, that her word should matter just as much as whatever crotchety citizen called the police to report public displays of affection. In the face of men holding weapons, men who could kill her with impunity and still get home in time for dinner, she used her voice to resist. And, steadfast, she continues to assert that “It is a constitutional right that we do not have to present ID to any member of law enforcement unless we are being charged with a crime.” She still wants to “believe in America.”
Like Trayvon and Jordan Davis, a young black person stood up for herself within a system that has been shown empirically to regularly harass, detain, and abuse people of color. She used her words, tears, pleas, and will to defend her right to be. And for that, she’s been slut-shamed, interrogated, disavowed, dismissed, ridiculed, and thrown away. She stood up, and folks backed down.
Do better. Or crumble.
It’s really as simple as that.
Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.