The protests in Ferguson center around the killing of yet another young innocent Black male, and of course, Black media sources including the thousands of everyday contributions via social media have helped document the evolution of this story and the movement taking root around the country. It stands to reason that all publications with any kind of investment in news, social commentary and women’s issues should be aggressively covering Brown’s story. So it is curious, though not surprising, that many of the most popular and prestigious websites for social commentary seem unable to do just that, and problematic because thus far, the killing of Black children has largely been constructed as a concern exclusively for Black women in feminist media and activism.
I’m curious about the feminist and women’s publications that are known for catering to largely White audiences and how they’ve chosen to cover—or not cover—a national story that is a defining a moment in our country’s legal history. To their credit, Jezebel, XoJane, The Frisky and Feministing have been discussing Brown’s case since its inception but their coverage was light in comparison to the aggressive and exhaustive coverage they executed to discuss rape allegations against Bill Cosby and other past sexual assault scandals. The fact that these publications were relatively quiet about Ferguson in the weeks leading up to and directly following Robert McCulluch’s announcement is striking because Brown’s murder case has had a severe impact on the psyche of marginalized people (more specifically, women and people of color) in America.
Many of these concerns are encapsulated by the Black community’s frustration with mainstream (read: predominantly White) media institutions and their failure to tell our stories with accuracy and nuance—that is if they tell our stories at all. More than that, the events that unfolded in Ferguson, MO speak directly to the issue of reproductive rights as it affects people of color. The question of whether or not Darren Wilson would be indicted for Brown’s murder appeared synonymous with asking ridiculous yet uncomfortably mundane questions: who deserves the right to life in this country? Is the murder of a Black child a punishable act, even if he was innocent and unarmed? If innocent Black children are being murdered by authority figures with impunity, then can Black people—or for our purposes, Black women—actually exercise their freedom to give life and to raise families as protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments?
If the feminist movement will continue to grow, it has to treat the concerns of women from all socioeconomic backgrounds equally. The murder of Black and Brown people (male and female) is just as urgent and relevant as feminist issues surrounding divisions of labor, media/political representation, gendered/sexualized violence and other iterations of social inequality. It deserves to be treated as such—especially by our White counterparts in the movement.
Analyzing the murder of Michael Brown is an amazingly complex (and outright exhausting) feat because the story epitomizes so many facets of Black people’s concerns in today’s America. It touches on racial stereotypes, the criminalization of Black youth, police brutality and even gun control—particularly for those with concerns on how to protect themselves in the wake of the protests and riots.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. There were an impressive number of White people from all ages and backgrounds that were out marching in the streets in response to Robert McCulloch’s announcement on Monday night. I would expect that these publications would do more to cater to their interests, but maybe these publications felt that they were entitled to discuss Cosby’s story in greater depth because as women’s publications, they feel entitled to discuss stories around sexual violence as opposed to racialized police brutality. Furthermore, the trope of the Black male rapist is one that they’re accustomed to engaging with (whether that’s consciously or subconsciously).
Or maybe they’re just as oblivious as I always feared they were.
Recently, one of my fellow panelists on an evening television broadcast asked me how Black feminism fit into contemporary conversations about civil rights, social justice and identity politics. I didn’t know how to answer his question. I’ve reached a point where I see feminist theory as being ubiquitous and essential to all of those subjects and many more. Being asked to point out how (Black) feminism is still relevant to activism in the 21st century is like being asked to point out how mainstream hip hop is connected to consumerism and capitalism in contemporary America. There is no beginning or end to that response.
I see the murder of Michael Brown as an immensely important (and iconic example of a) contemporary Black feminist issue out of many in today’s world, thereby making it a feminist issue, thereby a women’s issue. On the surface, White feminist/women’s publications’ relative quietness and/or complete silence on the Mike Brown story harkens back to the #SolidarityisForWhiteWomen. These publications see Brown as a random Black man that was shot by a rookie cop. We see Mike Brown as someone’s son, someone’s brother, and maybe even someone’s to-be life partner if he had been able to live long enough to build a family of his own.
In any case, all women’s publications should be talking about Michael Brown’s story in depth because (Black) women are at the heart of the #Blacklivesmatter movement. There is the obvious narrative of (Black) women being the ones to carry the seed of life in our community. But more than that, we have also historically been some of the most important and knowledgeable leaders that served as the foundation of the Civil Rights Movements whether or not we’ve been on the front lines. It isn’t a coincidence that so many have turned their questions and commentary around the story to Lesley McSpadden. Nor is it a coincidence that women like Jo Ann Robinson, Ella Baker and Elaine Brown are slowly making their way into textbooks.
Yes, our contributions to Black power/civil rights movements are still often downplayed by others—most painfully by the Black men that stand alongside us in these movements. But we fight for Black men’s lives because there is a love and bond between the sexes in our community that can never fully be broken or even articulated. Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty was published in 1997 but it is still relevant because it speaks to the connection between the criminalization of Black children and to the oppression/fears of Black mothers for their children. Our country has a history of policing Black and brown female bodies through policing overall Black life—targeting their children for cradle to prison pipelines and limiting our options in reproduction and family planning through non-consensual sterilization practices. Maybe these predominantly White female publications don’t know how to talk about or analyze these things. However, it is imperative that they learn how.
The ultimate challenge these publications face is in learning to tune out the White noise to get down to the things that are most important and what best reflects the realities of today’s world. There are White people offering guidance on how to respond to these situations:
Then you have the Don Lemons of the world clouding these conversations (and news coverage) with their opportunistic jabs at oppressed people, harping on their inability to fall-in-line with respectability politics. You have the Rudy Giulianis of the world who blame us for our own deaths. You have the people who are more concerned with the damage done to property during the recent lootings and riots, than the loss of a Black life. And there are still a lot of White people out there who either are unaware to our stories, don’t care about our stories, or do in fact care about our stories but have no idea how to contribute to them or acknowledge them in a way that’s fair or meaningful. I can’t tell these publications exactly how they are to go about solving this problem, nor it is my job to. I just call it like I see it and what I see is a group of writers and editors that need to expand their scope of what’s happening in the world beyond their own lives and viewpoints if they’re going to be successful in tackling the wide scope of news and social issues that are impacting women each day.
Publications have the right to limit their content to what they feel comfortable with covering and/or what they think is relevant for their audience. But there is an undeniable trend of alienation (and misinformation) surrounding people of color in the media and in our government. This is specifically in reference with this strange facet of “Teapublicans” that have popped up in recent years and are now controlling Congress. Black people are tired and don’t know what to do with their anger in this moment. The least publications can do across the web is pay tribute to that. As Emma Akpan quipped in her article, “What Is a ‘Women’s Issue’? Women of Color Challenge the Prevailing Narrative” at RH Reality Check, White feminists’ failure to engage with their Black colleagues’ concerns about violence against the youth is like “asking us to host a dinner party and cook the food, but not letting us choose what’s on the menu.”
My own words regarding this give me pause because just as I don’t trust Lena Dunham to tell my story (she’s clearly too narcissistic and sheltered to understand experiences and identities outside of her own) I’m not sure if I would trust a blog post from The Gloss discussing the case if they don’t have the analysis to do right by Mike Brown’s legacy. But I’m willing to appreciate the effort even if they don’t get it entirely right.
What are your thoughts? Have mainstream feminist publications done enough cover Ferguson? Are they obligated to be covering these kinds of stories? Sound off below.
[Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Bustle.com had only covered Ferguson for a week.]