Pick your paternalism poison

In his column, “America’s obsession with missing white women,” Miami Herald writer Leonard Pitts asserts that the incessant news coverage of the latest young, pretty missing white woman is a “back-handed compliment” and the latest form of a “certain condescending paternalism” that casts white women as helpless damsels in need of rescue or of protection.

I read his column after I attended a lecture by Pearl Cleage in which she talked about domestic violence. And after I saw a staging of her book, “Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s guide to truth,” also about the intimate partner abuse black men inflict upon black women. And after I read of a report which found that 60 percent of black girls are sexually assaulted by black men before the age of 18. I’m writing this post after viewing the trailer for “The Purity Myth,” a documentary that examines why a woman’s worth is still determined by her virginity or promiscuity.


Now that you know the context, I’ll ask the question: If a back-handed compliment says your life is cherished and that you are valued above all others, is it really just an insult?


While white men are throwing white girls parties as grand as weddings to celebrate their virginity, black males are raping or otherwise abusing black girls. (Yes, I know those are simplistic, broad, generalized statements and that most crime is intraracial, so there are plenty of white men raping white girls, but go with it for a minute please.)


Is it paternalistic to have girls who barely know what sex is pledge to remain virgins until marriage and delusional for fathers to believe they can protect their daughters once they are adults and leave the house? Yes. But does it have no redeeming qualities, and is it worse than the other extreme?


Both sexual assault and purity pledges teach girls to be ashamed of their bodies. In both cases, secrecy abounds because of the shame. Both are about men taking a woman’s power over her body away from her, and both can take a long time to get over.


But one is the result, I believe, of fear of women’s sexuality and of misguided but genuine love and care while the other is the result of anger, aggression, violence and hate.


While I have to question the results of a survey with a small sample size (300) and have to acknowledge abuse of every kind happens in white communities, too, my weekend with Ms. Cleage’s words capped off with Pitts’s column forces me to ask not why we’re not as valued by our own—history makes those answers obvious—but rather, in spite of history, how can we not be?


Even if white women are insulted by paternalism in the form of media attention, they benefit from it immensely. No men of any race have the right “to police the sexuality of ‘their’ women,” but if I could pick my paternalism poison, it would be nice if all black women felt genuine love and care from all the black men around them and if an obcession with their welfare could be played out in the media.


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