On Quvenzhané Wallis: A letter from a white woman to a black friend

Dear Denise, 

I've thought a lot about Quvenzhané Wallis. I've thought about the joke made about her, why it happened, what it means. I don't have simple answers, but it's heavy on my mind. 

I watched the Oscars faithfully but did not keep up with "commentary" that night. So I learned about what happened, from you, on Monday morning. I felt your anger and your pain clearly through your words. 

At first it seemed to me that the joke was, had to be, about the absurdity of hurling an insult like that at a child -- "What if we talk as if she's a 62-year-old, and a hateful one?" -- though obviously the "humor" didn't scan.

Then I began to realize that wasn't all. (Was it my whiteness that delayed my understanding?) This little (black!) girl sure seemed confident at the ceremony. She pumped her fists in the air; she corrected people who mispronounced her name. Had "cunt" become an obscene, modern-day version of "uppity"? Were they attacking this (black!) girl's strong character as much as joking about her youth? 

We have no idea who wrote this thing about this girl; my friend Jeremy points out that, hell, it could have been written by a black woman. But he admits that's unlikely. More probably, the person who wrote this is used to seeing women (black women; all women; and by extension, girls) criticized in our culture but is not actually a woman. And furthermore, is used to seeing them criticized in certain vicious ways when they insist on holding their ground.

Would this ill-fated joke have been made if Wallis were white? There's a lot of debate on that, in general and among my friends. At first I would have said yes, but now I'm unsure. It's hard to imagine this exact word being used in this context, this joke being made, against a non-minority child. (Maybe "asshole" would be used instead? "Bitch"?) I know that you, Denise, feel that the word choice and Quvenzhané's blackness go intimately, horribly together -- that she is vulnerable and attackable in our society in a way that a white girl would not be. My friend Yvette, who also is black, compared it to a known disparity seen in missing-child cases in this country: "It's like saying black missing children are given the same priority as white missing children. It's horrible but they are not." 

Another question is whether any such joke would have been made against a male child of any ethnicity. Would a boy, any boy, be called out for pumping fists in pride? But Wallis is a black girl. And so....

I am very sad thinking about her family—that they would have to hear that this happened, on the night of her big triumph. How appalling. And though I'm sure she was shielded from this on Sunday, eventually Wallis herself will learn what happened, too.

But I can only hope -- and I do imagine -- that when she learns it, it will fuel her, strengthening her drive and determination. The people that lobbed this joke at her got fired, while she got Oscar-nominated. They fucked up; she continues on. All doors are opening for her, while they will be left to explain why they were terminated from their last job.

Denise, I know you realize this, but I'll say it once more: It's not only black people who care about what happened here. And it's not only women. People who care all over the country, all over the world, have rallied to this girl's side. This joke tried to take her power, to "put her in her place." It failed. They failed. Quvenzhané Wallis is a force -- a dynamic and exceptional young girl with her whole, remarkable life ahead of her. 

Love, Pam

P.S. As a Jew, I also was not happy with the bit about how being Jewish opens special doors of opportunity. The only doors I feel my Jewishness has opened for me were the doors to feelings of discomfort and "otherness" in my WASP-y hometown. But that is another story. - Pamela Grossman

Author's note: In the days since I wrote this piece, it has come to light that the death of Marco McMillian, a gay black mayoral candidate in Mississippi, appears to be the result of a hate crime. We have a tremendous amount of work to do on the path toward justice for all.

Editor's note: And yet Justice Scalia calls the Voting Rights Act a "racial entitlement." He and his ilk are a huge roadblock in "the path toward justice for all."

Pamela Grossman is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her work has been published in Ms., Salon.com, The Village Voice, and Filmmaker magazine, among other outlets, and she is a regular contributor to Women's Enews.