I hate metaphors. I find them overdone and rarely effective. Certain things should stand on their own and exceed comparison. For example, the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act was not President Obama’s “Hurricane Katrina.” The magnitude of that storm’s aftermath didn’t result from technical glitches or inadequate troubleshooting. Katrina’s significance rests on a deliberate indifference to human suffering by an ambivalent administration. And contrary to the Romney campaign’s claims, Michigan is not “ground zero” for the challenges facing the United States. Ground Zero is ground zero. Period. The wanton application of metaphors undermines their usefulness by creating false equivalencies. Most metaphors aren’t just intellectually lazy they’re purposely misleading. And yet a well-placed metaphor, when skillfully used, can provoke critical engagement even if that discussion centers on vigorous disagreement.
Last week, noted scholar and cultural critic bell hooks created an internet firestorm after a panel discussion at the New School titled, “Are you Still a Slave?” While many describe Beyonce as an iconoclast, hooks chose a different appellation by asserting, “I see a part of Beyonce that is, in fact, anti-feminist—that is, a terrorist—especially in terms of the impact on young girls.” The timing of hooks’ remarks is particularly important given the intense international focus on the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria. If Beyonce is a terrorist, then we are all Boko Haram. Let me explain.
Members of Boko Haram brutally abducted and raped young women whose only crime was trying to earn an education. The group has also claimed responsibility for murdering 150 people in a neighboring village and slaughtering 29 young boys by barricading their dorm and setting it on fire. International interest in the girls’ fate comes nearly 3 weeks after a small group of Nigerian women took to the internet. Social media can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and stimulating our collective consciousness. Indeed it was intense pressure from social media consumers and Black journalists that prompted Florida State’s Attorney Angela Corey to pursue murder charges against George Zimmerman in 2012. The impassioned pleas of activists such as Hadiza Bala Usman prompted US leaders to offer resources to rescue the girls and increased the international bounty for Abubakar Shekau. Everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama, to Malala Yousafzai, to Chris Brown (yep. Him too), have demanded that the militant group #BringBackOurGirls. Some have dismissed the viral interest in the girls of Chibok as little more than a popular fad. I am not one of those people. Americans can and should become involved in global efforts to return these young women to their families. Boko Haram is driven by a rigid belief that girls exist solely for the pleasure of others. When we condemn the kidnapping of girls in Chibok while defending jokes about the rape of enslaved women in the name of comedic license, we become complicit in the global marginalization of girls and women of color. When we post empathetic memes about the pain of mothers separated from their daughters while simultaneously laughing along as one reality star attacks another based on her inability to bear children, we lose the moral high ground.
Black girls’ pain must be more than fodder for mediocre comedy and flawed social norms.
In many cultures, young women who are sexually assaulted become social pariah blamed for their abuse. Before you dismiss this as some backwards African tradition, let’s be clear that this same view is pervasive here in the United States. It’s easy to condemn religious extremists who would rather see girls sold off into abusive marriages than see them assert themselves via education. But it’s much harder to acknowledge how our puritanical views of sex teaches young women how to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault without ever teaching young men to avoid being a perpetrator. Our tendency to shame victims and hold them more accountable than their abusers is why sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S. Especially in the very spaces where girls are supposed to be nurtured and protected. Most folks know the University of Connecticut for clenching both the men’s and women’s national championships in basketball. But four current UCONN students are suing the university over the way it handles sexual violence on campus. The women allege that the university’s careless approach subjected them to severe emotional distress and threats of bodily harm. Including numerous rape threats. Similar allegations at nearly 50 universities across the U.S. have prompted the White House to announce an aggressive effort to hold colleges accountable for eliminating sexual assault. From Steubenville to Storrs, we must cultivate educational environments that nurture girls’ intellectual curiosity while protecting their safety. Boko Haram uses fear and intimidation to cement girls’ lower social status. Fear of reproach keeps sexual assault victims in the shadows.
The phrase “our girls” implies a sense of ownership and an abiding interest in their well-being. Yet where is the federal funding for a “My Sister’s Keeper” initiative designed to tackle the challenges facing young women of color? For far too many Black and brown women, domestic violence rests as a persistent threat. According to data from the Violence Policy Center, Black women are murdered at a rate nearly three times the rate for White women. 94% of Black women are murdered by someone they know with over half of those murders resulting from domestic violence. One year ago searchers found the remains of Alyssiah Marie Wiley, a twenty-year-old college student who told friends she feared for her safety after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend. That ex-boyfriend, Jermaine Richards, has now been charged with murder and first-degree kidnapping. Wiley’s concerns reflect a broader pattern that is far too common in the U.S. A recent study by Michele Ybarra suggests that 41% of girls and 37% of boys between the ages of 14 and 20 report that they have been the victim of dating abuse. In spite of the documented increases in violent abuse, comedian D.L. Hughley made headlines for chastising Tanee McCall-Short after allegations surfaced that her estranged husband, Columbus Short, had been both verbally and physically abusive:
“When you’re very young, you’re very volatile. I’ve been in situations where the police were called. I don’t believe that every time someone says something in the heat of anger, they actually mean it. Everybody want a thug dude, a passionate dude, until you gotta live with your mother in an undisclosed location. You know what kind of dude you picked. Stop it.”
Yes, please. Stop it. Stop excusing violent behavior as passion. Stop condoning abusive behavior as entertainment. Stop creating a market for it. Because while we’re debating the boundaries of feminism, a video of a girl being attacked with a shovel just went viral. Stop it.
Bring back our girls. Bring back eight-year-old Relisha Rudd, who authorities believe was taken by a man who took his own life after killing his wife. Bring back 17-year-old Alexis Murphy, whose family spent last week in a tiny Virginia courtroom listening to grisly testimony in the murder trial of Randy Taylor. Taylor faces a double life sentence for murder and kidnapping with the intent to defile even though Murphy’s body has not been found. Our collective silence toward the deep, banal suffering endured by girls across the diaspora renders us no better than those who actively suppress their advancement. My hope is that our focus on Chibok will inspire a broader movement to protect our girls. Affirm our girls. Bring back our girls.