In April, GAP posted an advert meant to support girls. The aim was to encourage girls to celebrate individuality and diversity. The caption under the image read, “Meet the kids who are proving that girls can do anything.” In the advert (above), a white girl from youth performance group Le Petit Cirque is leaning her arm on the head of a fellow black troupe member. It caused race controversy. GAP apologised and withdrew it. This advert is another in a line of passively racist adverts demeaning black females. I dare say it will not be the last. Images of black women appearing to be props for white women have continued unabashed by large corporations as black women fight for their very survival. At the same time race tensions, as demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter movement, are at an all-time high. It was not enough to apologise; the advert should not have existed in the first place but it illustrates the indifference to black women.
During slavery, just 150 years ago, black women were forced to breastfeed the babies of the white enslavers. These children got priority over the black woman’s child and there were strict rules about the children not sharing the same breast. Refusal meant being beaten and whipped. The power imbalance has shifted only marginally. When the 19th Amendment for women to be given the vote was being discussed white women argued that to include black women would undermine their cause.
Black women are still marginalised and maligned. When exercising their right to vote now as then, images suggest black women are second-class citizens or “welfare queens”. The Swedish Government used a Golliwog cake to represent a black woman to highlight the plight of FGM. The head of the cake was the black Swedish artist Makode Linde. For Black women hair is a point of controversy. Simone Powderly, had braids in her hair when she went for an interview at an agency. Later they told her that she could not wear her hair braided for work. White women e.g. Katy Perry and Kesha wear the same style and it is perfectly acceptable but black women are supposed to deny their culture and vision of beauty.
Black women have always fought and still continue to fight against marginalisation and negative stereotypes. From the once enslaved Georgia E. Lee Patton, who became a physician to NASA Astronauts Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Mae Jemison, Yvonne Cagle, and Sharon McDougle. High-achieving black women and there are hundreds, do not have the high profile they deserve.
Against this background of slavery, negative stereotypes and a historical lack of solidarity, black women are subject to being props for white women. There has been the indignity of a white woman sitting upon a black sexualized mannequin and the Playstation advert of a white woman towering over a black woman and painfully squeezing her face. There are also celebrities like Mylie Cyrus using black women as props, e.g., when she is twerking (a black cultural dance). The GAP advert has continued the tradition, with a child in tow.
Black women have hyper-visibility but as a stereotype, a prop or a punchline but not with respect or pride of place. I think that is most important that we (as Kifah Shah said) “Start teaching our daughters to be somebodies instead of somebody’s” but this must include black girls in powerful, meaningful images, not as props. GAP was indifferent to the feeling and history of black women at a time when they had absolutely no excuse. It is high time that popular culture recognises the humanity and historical context of black women.
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