Reality bites

By making the irrelevant Mike Tyson case a big PR issue, the National Organization for Women has demonstrated once again that it is run by imperious and out-of-touch white women -- aka 'Miss Anne.'

By Karen Grigsby Bates
Published July 30, 1998 7:39PM (EDT)

Every couple of years someone will write an article musing as to why more black women aren't willing to call themselves feminist. Why, for instance, aren't there more black members of the National Organization for Women, when at least some of its goals are common to theirs? But the answer's always the same, and it's always ignored, because it makes many white women uncomfortable. You could boil it down to two words: Miss Anne. NOW is, to be blunt about it, an organization established and run by Miss Anne.

Miss Anne, of course, is code in my community, and has been for years, for the imperious kind of white woman who reverts, in a moment's notice, to the position of privilege that being white in America affords her. She may be 'buked and scorned as a woman, but when she has to, she pulls rank on her sisters -- sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not -- based on her historic position as American icon. And when she does, the ghost of our antebellum history wafts to the fore. Sisterhood may indeed be powerful, but it takes an exceptional white woman to recognize -- and effectively renounce -- the privilege inherent in being one.

Many black women find feminists' disavowal of personal responsibility offensive, counter to the motherwit (common sense) that has helped black Americans survive generations of slavery and second-class citizenship. So when a young white investment banker was beaten nearly to death during a late-night jog in Central Park several years ago, the black women I knew were horrified, yes. But they were also disgusted that anyone smart enough to get degrees from two Ivy League schools did not have the street smarts to stay out of Central Park after dark. ("What did she expect was going to happen to her at 10 o'clock at night, alone?" one asked. "I know cops who don't want to go in there at night!")

Our acknowledgment of simple reality -- it's dark and dangerous out there and if you elect to go out there you may well not come back in the same shape as when you left -- outraged many white feminists. "You're blaming the victim!" we were told, angrily. "People should be able to walk the streets safely, whether they're women or men."

"Should" and reality often inhabit separate worlds, however. And the world of "should" is certainly not the reality of black women. We're used to watching our backs, used to assuming harm may well come to us if we're not scrupulously careful -- and sometimes even if we are. (That antebellum thing again.) We're used to our darker selves being less valued than our fairer sisters. After all, the same day the Central Park jogger was attacked, two women of color were assaulted and killed -- and made very small print in the Times' Metro section a few days later. Donald Trump did not, as he had with the jogger, take out a full-page ad offering $25,000 for information that would lead to the assailants' capture. What conclusions should we draw from such things?

Which is why, when the Southern Nevada chapter of NOW recently announced it was starting a letter-writing campaign to keep Mike Tyson, suspended from boxing a year ago for biting Evander Holyfield's ears in a championship fight, from being reinstated by the Nevada Athletic Commission, black reaction in some corners was swift and predictable: "Uh-huh -- what do they really want, 'cause you know those white girls weren't speaking up about this before now!"

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What, indeed. According to the press release of the Southern Nevada chapter of NOW, "We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to strike decisive dual blows against violence towards women and unsportsmanlike conduct at the most prominent level of sports in our country." So the Southern Nevada chapter organized a write-in campaign to the state Athletic Commission urging it to reject Tyson's anticipated reapplication for a license. Which turned out to be moot, because Tyson circumvented Nevada by applying to the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, which is not bound by Nevada's suspension -- although Nevada hopes that it will be universally acknowledged.

NOW's latest Action Update, run on the National's letterhead, states, "YOU CAN RUN, MIKE, BUT YOU CAN'T HIDE," and urges activists to "keep the pressure on the New Jersey Athletic Control Board" and to petition Gov. Christine Todd Whitman "to use her influence and make a statement that New Jersey is not a haven for violent, convicted rapists to make millions of dollars."

Well gee, girls, I hate to break it to you, but boxing is not considered a genteel sport. All sorts of unsavory characters run it, profit from it and come out for it. A heavyweight championship match looks like an integrated version of the Players' Ball: The purses might be full, but the taste-o-meter runs on E most of the time. (It's not coincidental that most of the women look like their clothes came from, as one friend smugly noted, "Ho's 'R Us.") This shouldn't be a news flash, but boxing being overly concerned about morality is kind of like beauty pageants being overly concerned about intelligence. Both institutions are, to borrow a line from a current rap favorite, "all about the cheddar." And the nasty reality of it is, there's plenty of cheddar to be made -- by everybody -- in professional boxing.

I don't remember a whole lot of NOW support for Desiree Washington, although I do remember being severely chastised by several feminist readers of the Los Angeles Times when I suggested it didn't take a Ph.D. to figure out that going alone to Tyson's room at 2:30 a.m. was an imprudent thing to do, given his reputation for brutalizing objects of his affection. Women, apparently, must be free to come and go as we please, with no thought as to the appropriateness of our actions. No should mean no, true -- but if it's prefaced with mixed signals beforehand, a lot of its potency is diluted. Simple reality.

I'm not by any stretch a Mike Tyson fan (or apologist). Nor do I subscribe to black conspiracy theorists' hypothesis that NOW's current action is a tool of the white racist establishment bent on emasculating the black man. Uh-uh. What NOW smelled when it decided to challenge Tyson was the opportunity to shore up its sagging public image, which took a precipitous dive when its leadership declined, for ever so long, to say much on President Clinton's Babegate dilemma. And I can't say that I feel strongly one way or the other as to whether Tyson's license should be reinstated. (Interestingly enough, Holyfield, Tyson's biting victim, says he wouldn't mind if Tyson came back -- "not at all.") But I do feel strongly about NOW's insertion into the process. There are enough other issues that are more pressing to regular working women out here in the Real World than whether Mike Tyson gets to box again. But Miss Anne, living in a different reality from the rest of us, may not agree.

Karen Grigsby Bates

Karen Grigsby Bates is a news correspondent for the West Coast Bureau of People Magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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