'Bad Joke'?

12.22.11

The Rihanna Racism Storm

A Dutch magazine used a combination of two of the nastiest words you can call any black woman to describe Rihanna. She fired back, and the editor’s out of a job—but we’re out of a lot more, says Ayana Byrd.

Black women have had to endure a lot in the name of popular entertainment. We’ve been martyred mammies, oversexed nearly naked whores, wisecracking know-it-alls, and lazy welfare mothers in disproportionately higher numbers than even the most Republican-tainted report has ever claimed we were in real life. And for the most part, we could complain but not expect any change to come from the media powers that be, the ones making a lot of money off representations that kept us as caretakers or hypersexual stereotypes that sprung out of slavery. Things took a minor step in the right direction this week when an Internet-led, quick-fire grassroots protest showed that black women—young, old, famous, and anonymous—were not going to be OK being casually cast as “niggabitches.”

What exactly is a niggabitch? Aside from being a combo of two of the vilest words you can call any black woman, it is the headline of a fashion story just published by the Dutch magazine Jackie. In an article on how to dress like “De Niggabitch” Rihanna, the story, translated by Parlour magazine, says, “She has street cred, she has a ghetto a-- and she has a golden throat. Rihanna, the good girl gone bad, is the ultimate niggabitch and displays that gladly, and for her that means: what’s on can come off. If that means she’ll be on stage half naked, then so be it.

Not only was it insulting, it was bizarre in its attempts to be aspirational to the other niggabitches who may hope to be the “ultimate,” like Rihanna. But, said Jackie editor in chief Eva Hoeke, it was also a “joke.” The humor was lost on a number of black women in Holland, including one who emailed her friend Sherry Bitting, cofounder of Parlour, an online American magazine dedicated to global news for progressive women. “I was so appalled that I felt compelled to share it with our readers,” says Bitting, who adds that within hours the site was flooded with comments from angry, alarmed women in the U.S. and abroad.

Soon Bitting’s story was picked up by other blogs and was being linked and shared on Facebook and Twitter. Says Hillary Crosley, another Parlour cofounder, “You’d like to think in 2011 with a black president of the United States, we as a global culture have moved past the dark days these words conjure up—but no. Shock and outrage, and a well-timed translation, led the piece to viral madness.”

After being bombarded with hundreds of angry emails, Jackie’s Hoeke took to Facebook to write: “The title of the article was intended as a joke.” Explains Dana Saxon, an American lawyer and graduate student living in Amsterdam who has written extensively on racism in Holland: “The use of the words ‘nigga’ and ‘bitch’ to describe a black woman would normally go unnoticed or be deemed meaningless, with most Dutch people assuming that anyone who takes offense is too sensitive. And this explains the editor’s initial response to the complaints, annoyed that people were unable to [see the humor].”

Why Rihanna went so on-the-record ballistic without any filter from a publicist: it is the vilest combination of words that you can call a black woman.

Hoeke conceded that it was “a bad joke,” adding, “sucks for all.” It was about to suck worse for her. Rihanna got wind of the situation and shot off her own series of tweets:

“@evajackie I hope u can read english, because your magazine is a poor representation of the evolution of human rights! I find you disrespectful, and rather desperate!! You ran out of legit, civilized information to print! There are 1000’s of Dutch girls who would love to be recognized for their contributions to your country, you could have given them an article. Instead, u paid to print one degrading an entire race! That’s your contribution to this world! To encourage segregation, to mislead the future leaders to act in the past! You put two words together, with the intent of abasement, that made no sense…‘NIGGA BITCH’?!….Well with all respect, on behalf of my race, here are my two words for you…F--- YOU!!!”

Let’s repeat what a niggabitch is, to underline why Rihanna went so on-the-record ballistic without any filter from a publicist: it is the vilest combination of words that you can call a black woman. It is not, as Hoeke claimed, “slang” pulled from American hip-hop vernacular and wittily included in her magazine. Even in an art form that at times seems to relish its misogyny, rappers do not call black women this. In a musical genre that often seems to have no lines to cross, here is one. We are only familiar with the word because we are familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, slavery, and plantation rape. It is from this slice of American culture that Jackie magazine borrowed its slang.

Not surprisingly, Hoeke’s explanation and half-hearted apology didn’t soothe anyone, and within a day of Parlour’s article, Hoeke was left with little recourse but to step down over what she still insisted was a misunderstanding.

However, she’s not that sorry—she’s just out of a job. But black women are out of a lot more, namely the chance to believe that we’re seen as equals and deserving of more respect than a niggabitch could ever expect.