My daughter is 11 years old. Like other girls her age, she enjoys text messaging, going to movies, and she wants braces. She also happens to be a straight A student, winner of her school's science fair, and an accomplished classical dancer at a premier ballet school in Chicago. She is also African-American. Despite her accomplishments and what some might say is a "good start," I am a helicopter parent (I hover constantly).
Because the horrible images portrayed of black girls and women as gyrating, hypersexual, insolent, irresponsible, and utterly available prey may stigmatize her and could lead to violence against her, I worry. Naively, I assumed this could be managed by monitoring the MTV, VH1, and, worst of all, BET television channels in our home. Yet, I shouldn't have been surprised when my daughter's new classmate from the Philippines, unprovoked, called my daughter a "stupid ho" and "b–ch," terms of endearment used by some black men in videos and rap music. When confronted by the principal, the boy admitted addressing my daughter that way, but argued in his defense that he learned it from black men on TV.
A controversy earlier this summer involving Troi Torian (aka DJ Star), a popular New York disc jockey, and his spate of on-air sexual and violent threats against a little girl illustrates the perverse state of affairs. To taunt a rival disc jockey, DJ Star asked callers to reveal the whereabouts of Rashawn Casey's 4-year-old daughter. He made highly descriptive, on-air references to possible sexual interactions with her. He offered a $500 reward for any information about where the little girl attends school.
This kind of lewd public commentary demonstrates a certain kind of 21st-century minstrelsy and reveals a complex state of intraracial affairs. Within the African-American community, issues of sexual violence, including rape, incest, and abuse are typically closeted. Black people seem to fear that if whites were to get wind of such problems it might exacerbate racism and perpetuate stereotypes.
For example, Michael Eric Dyson, winner of the 2006 NAACP Image Award, has publicly criticized Bill Cosby for exposing dirty little secrets such as drug use, parental neglect, and other issues in the black community. Professor Dyson describes Mr. Cosby as being insensitive and pushing a "destructive" agenda. Dyson claims Cosby won't admit that racism exists. Nothing could be further from the truth than the notion that accountability, integrity, and self-growth are "destructive" to black Americans. Neither are these right-wing, Republican, or "white" values.
Moreover, we are only deluding ourselves to think no one notices this terrible self-destruction. After all, BET is quite public, as are videos on MTV and the criminal records of those caught in the matrix of celebrity and "gangsta" life. Ironically, it remains black men who primarily portray black women as hypersexual. From once exporting images of respected if not noble civil rights leaders and activists, the black image now includes desperate sexual depravity. Most important, I wonder why these conversations must happen in the race closet when the videos and behavior are very public, unapologetic, and ubiquitous.
• Michele Goodwin is a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago.