Value and Empathy: Too Much to Ask?
I will be the first to admit when comedienne Mo’Nique took to social media a couple months ago to ask people to boycott Netflix, I laughed. I heard her request and wrote her off. There was just no way I was going to give up a pleasure because she was upset about a bum deal. Girl, bye! Since then, however, I’ve had time to do some digging, observing and thinking, and I’ve drawn some conclusions.
Wrong! I was wrong. The way I wrote her off; the way I discredited her feelings; the way I minimized her experience. It was just another recitation of the ways the world treats Black women on a daily basis, in all sorts of relationships—professional, romantic and platonic. As the controversy gained some traction in the news and online, I was convicted to stop and listen. Allow me to recount some recent history. My conviction was mainly due to Charlamagne Tha God, a nationally syndicated radio host, giving Mo’Nique the title of “Donkey of the Day” on his hit show The Breakfast Club. The host customarily reserves this title for people who have exhibited laughable or foolish behaviors that week. On January 22, Charlamagne named Mo’Nique “Donkey of the Day” shortly after she released her call for people to boycott Netflix for gender and race bias.
Let me just say this guy is no lover of Black women. His rhetoric rarely sides with the perspective of the Black woman. I knew then that my rush to judgment in Mo’Nique’s situation was probably rash if my view was lining up with Charlamagne.
While the memes are funny, if we get to the heart of the controversy, we must address the treatment of Black women in society on a number of levels, not race and gender bias (i.e., misogynoir). Getting to the heart of the treatment of Black women by society is something that people, and the Black community as a whole, must do.
As this conversation specifically (and in a larger context) continues I challenged myself to go back, listen to Mo’Nique’s plea and empathize with her. What I found, unsurprisingly, is she was not at all misguided. She, of course, had a right to value herself, her work, and her commitment to excellence, even when others don’t. She had a right to call out the hypocrisy of the entertainment industry and other things that affect her. She had and has the right to ask for her community to support her—the one she’s been loyal and committed to in many ways.
Here is what we too often do, especially to the women among us: We take. We take because Black mothers, lovers, sisters, aunts, and friends are willing to give. We even have the nerve to take with stipulations.
The gift Mo’Nique has shared with us, if we chose to take it, is entertainment. Her raw, boisterous stage presence captures many. It makes us feel good. It causes laughter to build up from deep within our bellies and rush out in full force. When she reached the first glass ceiling, we said she was too fat. If she wanted to go further, she needed to lose weight. We said she was “pretty for a big girl.” When she crashed through that ceiling anyway, on her own terms, deciding to become healthier for herself and her family, we shunned her. We said she was washed up, that her comedy wasn’t funny anymore. We said that she had forgotten about us because she was taking care of herself. When her fame increased, we complained she was a diva. And then, we allowed the powers that be to whisper in our ears and turn us against her.
She stood up for herself after being, what she has called, blacklisted by Hollywood’s Black elite; we stood with them, instead of her. During a “Breakfast Club” interview after her “Donkey of the Day” designation, Charlamagne (whose government name, we learned, is Lenard), repeatedly asked Mo’Nique the same question: “Why do you think you deserve more money?”
Despite her detailed and candid answer each time, he asked again. Lenard’s rude and unprofessional interviewing technique made me realize I had done the same thing to Mo’Nique. I ignored what she was saying.
And so the question must be asked why? Why can’t we really hear her? More importantly, why don’t we hear Black women?
Mo’Nique gave the most honest and raw answer to this question to Lenard during her interview in short order: “I am a fat Black woman” she said emphatically.
This is the answer society doesn’t want to hear because it’s hard to admit the perspective and experience of Black women are constantly overlooked and avoided. Society still isn’t wholly ready to admit and address the fact there is a bolstering women’s movement in this country that disproportionately ignores and mutes the protests, questions, and needs of the multidimensional, yet parallel experiences of Black women. This is the way of the world, yet this is how some of us have treated Mo’Nique and of our other sisters.
When you hear Black women say we are fighting for our lives, we mean that in allegorical and literal senses. We are not saying it to be or dramatic. It is the truth. It is our truth. Here is the long answer for why we Mo’Niques aren’t heard:
She refuses to be a mule. In “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, Nanny tells Janie, “de nigger woman is the mule of the world. “While this metaphor of the Black woman suggests degradation, the true meaning speaks more to the strength and resilience of the Black woman. The quote also shows us that the world expects Black women to be available to work, no matter her personal needs.
Because Mo’Nique did not allow Netflix to take her leverage, positioning and, ultimately, her career in exchange for two years of a bum deal, people have discredited her experience. According to her manager and husband, Sidney Hicks, Netflix not only offered Mo’Nique $500,000, but they also included a clause that restricted the comedienne from telling a joke for two years post-special. For the entertainer, her livelihood, based on her celebrity status, was both challenged and disrespected by the deal Netflix offered her.
For those of us in more traditional industries, we continue to fight for equal pay as well. According to AAUW, “pay equity for women will be achieved in 2119.” But the women’s rights organization does not give a time frame for when pay equity will be achieved for Black women, which AAUW studies say make 63 cents for every dollar made by white men. This is still at least 20 cents lower than white women.
Mo’Nique wasn’t willing to give her talents to people who didn’t value her accomplishments or her ability to accomplish more. In our continuous fight for fair wages, we should celebrate and encourage any woman who stands against pay bias. We should celebrate and encourage women to champion their crafts, especially when they place a reasonable monetary value on their work.
She is not the “poster child” the Black community wants and expects. Stay with me, I am going to go somewhere with this one. Claudette Colvin was a young, black teenage mother who refused to move to the back of a segregated Alabama bus in 1955. She made this brave decision before Rosa Parks’ iconic protest. The issue surrounding Claudette Colvin’s legacy is that hers has a backstory. Her story is neither mainstream nor is it taught in usual history lessons.
The Black power structure during that time (NAACP and SNCC, among them), believed Colvin wasn’t the right person to lead the charge against segregation because she was too young, at 15, and an unwed mother. This combination, they thought, would draw negative attention to the cause. The power structure ignored and invalidated Colvin’s protest and courage, even though her actions were necessary for that time period.
Mo’Nique’s experience with the Netflix executives has similarly been invalidated. Society knows, based on quantitative and qualitative data, that Black women are paid less across different professions. It also knows something should be done to correct the gender pay gap. But society doesn’t want a fat, black woman to be the champion of that cause … or any cause for that matter. In turn, the community invalidates her experience and waits for a more appropriate/safe option to come forth.
The social climate is constantly shifting, you will find more non-traditional advocates at the front of some of the country’s most relevant movements. Black Lives Matter, for example, was founded and driven by the work and passion of three queer organizers, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. The organization came onto the scene with a fiery, yet keen focus on social justice issues as only a group led by Black women could. You may recall a fearless approach to protesting through marches. Society may not have expected the drivers behind that force to be Black women, but they were, they are. But even with the shift, are we ready for a loud-mouthed, plus-sized confident Black woman demanding what she deserves? The survey, so far, says “no.”
At the very least, Black women, all of us, should hear Mo’Nique and our other sisters, if not support her cause. It’s impossible for Black women not to be able to look at Mo’Nique’s current fight and recall a time she was also asked to do more work for less pay. Who can’t think of a time when the people around her expected a lot, she gave her all, and when she needed them, in return, they were gone? Who among us remembers a time when our weight, hair or skin color (or sadly a combination of these all) caused us to be overlooked and ignored for positions we were more than qualified to hold?
You may not have canceled your Netflix subscription, and that’s OK. But it’s important we start taking the grievances of our sisters more seriously, questioning what it is (besides internalized oppression?) that causes us to dismiss, make fun of and question the exclamations of those who can empathize with us best.