AFRICANGLOBE – The claims of Black actress Daniele Watts, who says American police handcuffed her after presuming she was a prostitute for kissing her White boyfriend, is disgusting on so many levels, argues Reni Eddo-Lodge.
The news that Django Unchained actress Daniele Watts was allegedly handcuffed and detained whilst out with her White boyfriend after being mistaken for a prostitute did not come as a surprise. It’s a horrible story that has understandably, spread across the internet like wildfire. For many, it’s hard to believe that this kind of racism still exists until it’s shoved into your news feed.
But the reasons to be outraged are complicated and messy. So let’s unpick this, layer by layer. For couples with the will and the disposable income, travelling together shouldn’t be a big deal. But for interracial couples, it’s just not that easy, as I’ve learned in the past. Stares, glares and snide comments are par for the course. You quickly learn to stick to the big cities instead of heading towards rural areas, because it’s just common sense.
Travelling the non-Black world whilst visibly Black is hard enough – I’ve been accosted by strange men on a beach in Turkey before- but travelling as a Black and White couple can be migraine inducing. The world turns in on itself, suddenly becoming limited. You have to be hyper aware of where you travel, the politics of the region, and the reactions you might elicit walking down the road together. All the while, your White partner has their eyes opened because they are experiencing racism by proximity, learning the intricacies of a problem they’ve never had to deal with before. This obliviousness until confronted with such a glaring problem is almost the definition of White privilege.
I doubt that any of this is a revelation to Daniele Watts who wasn’t even travelling abroad. She was in her own country; you know America – the land of the free. But culturally, we’re in a weird place right now. Black women’s affectations are experiencing a fashion moment. Thanks to Mercury Prize nominated artist FKA Twigs; gelled down baby hairs, the hairstyle of choice for me and my secondary school classmates in 2004, were on the catwalk at New York Fashion Week a few days ago. Various smiley White pop stars are accessorising with big black bums, and some Black female pop stars seem to be reclaiming it. Meanwhile, actually inhabiting a Black woman’s body continues to hold indelible hazards- ascribed with meanings that we didn’t ask for, but constantly have to deal with.
What happened to Daniele Watts is disgusting for many reasons. That Black women are assumed to be sex workers because White men are perceived to be too good for us, is a popular ideology loaded with racist implications. This is not because sex workers are disgusting. I’m not talking about people who have been trafficked, coerced, or held against their will – that’s a different issue. Sex workers suffer stigma, disdain and discrimination because of their work, no matter how they have come by it. This is what author Melissa Gira Grant calls ‘whore stigma’- the kind of stigma that sees sex workers fired from jobs and ostracised from family and friendship groups.
Sex workers are as diverse as people are diverse. But if Daniele Watts were White, walking down the street with her White partner, I very much doubt that she would have been affected by that whore stigma. I doubt that those police officers would have paid any attention to the couple at all.
As long as sex workers are regarded as the lowest of the low, whore stigma exists. As long as racism exists, Black women will be assumed to be sex workers. It’s an ugly intersection. Above all, what’s truly disgusting is the brazen audacity of a police force that treats those assumed to be sex workers with such contempt. That’s the real story here. Brothel raids, violence, arrests, being detained without charge – this is the kind of state regulation sex workers face globally on a daily basis, all under the guise of ‘help’- and it’s truly terrifying.
By: Reni Eddo-Lodge