The case of Trayvon Martin has been widely compared to that of Emmett Till, a young black man who was murdered in 1955 for wolf-whistling at a white female shopkeeper. Later that night two white men crept into Emmett’s room, kidnapped him, beat him and shot him dead.
Though Trayvon and Emmett were victims of atrocious crimes that no doubt had to do with their race, Emmett’s story is one that intrigues me because of it sexual politics. Though it might seem harmless to many wolf-whistling is sexual harassment. And doing so to a white woman was a death sentence since the ‘purity’ of her womanhood would be tainted.
There are no excuses for the deaths of these men, and there is nothing I can add to the discussion of violence against young men like them. But in reading an article about Emmett’s cousin, who was sleeping next to him when he got abducted, in last Saturday’s The Times one of his quotes made me think about the oppression of women of colour as opposed to that of men.
“Mr Wright, then 12, was there when Emmett wolf-whistled a white shop-keeper called Carolyn Bryant. ‘He scared us half to death, we couldn’t get out of town fast enough. He whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. You don’t do that, not in 1955. Probably can’t do that now in certain areas.’ ”
Though Wright is focusing on what happened to Emmett as a result of his actions he recognizes something that is still extremely present in society nowadays – the difference between the expectations men have of black and white women.
Almost five decades after Emmett’s death feminism struggles with intersectionality, the comprehension of privilege and the diversity of women. As hard as we might try to make feminism a one-size-fits-all solution, women are diverse and so are their problems – and inclusion is the key.
“In regard to gender, there have been two, pronounced, conflicting and unjust narratives concerning female sexuality in America. Although all women who were viewed or accused as loose or promiscuous faced the ire and consternation of a (predominantly white) male-dominated society, there has always been this duplicitous racial application of the penalties incurred for committing perceived “moral” crimes against society. Historically, White women, as a category, have been portrayed as examples of self-respect, self-control, and modesty — even sexual purity — but Black women were often (and still are) portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory.”
Though all women suffer under patriarchy, sexism, misogyny and objectification women of colour are expected to be sexual and are, at the same time, shamed if they comply with that expectation.
Wright’s statement resonates with this so much – it is unlikely that Emmett would have been killed if the woman he wolf-whistled was of colour. And this is of great significance to the discussion of sexual politics today, as from Wright’s statement he says ‘probably can’t do that now in certain areas’ – and so, in these areas, it is okay to harass women of colour but not white women.
I am not a woman of colour and I will never claim to speak for them. But I am Brazilian and, though I could never compare one to the other – as I haven’t lived both – my place of origin carries a certain kind of sexual mystique. In the streets of Rio being harassed is just a part of your routine. It is certainly sad and disappointing that our colours, in addition to our gender, affect the way society treats us or expects us to act – but that is a problem that exists and there is not use in denying it. Feminism should be all inclusive so conversations like this can be had.
Wright’s quote gave me a bit of space to think and write about something I have been reading on the internet for a while, the need to recognize differences between gender-related grievances for women of different backgrounds.