I am very disappointed to learn that Chairman Phil Mendelson is refusing to approve the nominations of Natalie Hopkinson and Cora Masters Barry to the Commission on the Arts and Humanities. These women are being scapegoated and their nominations have been allowed to linger in the DC Council where they will die on November 3rd if the Council does not act. This is unacceptable. I am introducing an emergency bill to approve their nominations in the legislative meeting tomorrow, Nov. 2nd.
Today, both inside and outside the Commission on the Arts and Humanities, there is pride and consensus around the Commission’s increased focus on racial equity. I applaud the Commission’s hard work to alter its priorities and funding structure in order to get more resources to smaller arts organizations and to more diverse grant recipients. This progress was not the result of a sudden shift. In fact, I introduced an amendment to the city’s budget two years ago to make arts funding more equitable, but my amendment failed after intense lobbying. This shift was the result of a lot of hard work and difficult conversations. The two women who have led this effort from inside the Commission are Natalie Hopkinson and Cora Masters Barry.
The inequity in DC arts funding is a long-documented problem. And re-orienting the Commission was not going to be an easy task. But it really bothers me that two Black women who would not take no for an answer are being described as angry Black women.
Bad tempers and hostile dialogue are on display daily, especially in politics. They are a small subset of tools of persuasion that most of us have the privilege of using. There is, however, a long-documented stereotype of the angry Black woman that characterizes them as aggressive and hostile. We have seen this used against Serena Williams and Michelle Obama, among countless others. Black women are punished for their anger in a way that others are not. We must take this seriously because the angry Black women stereotype is a weapon to silence and discredit them. We must check ourselves sometimes.
When we give permission to the angry Black women stereotype, we put Black women and little Black girls in a box. We remind them they must be nice and hope to make change instead of demanding change. We assert that, even if others have the privilege to use diverse tactics and honest emotions, Black women must play nice or suffer the consequences. I’m not prepared to do that— not after we have seen Black women save our country from the brink of collapse in last year’s presidential election, and not while I am the father of two little Black girls who will go out into this world with the rights and privileges of every man and not have to apologize for it.
None of us are exempt from unconscious bias. But nor are we exempt from the obligation to do better. It might be true that Ms. Barry and Ms. Hopkinson were objectively aggressive. If so, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions. Is there no time and place where that is necessary? Would their words and actions have been viewed the same if they were men? As we work to make an incredible leap from discussions about racial equity to the much more difficult step of making those discussions real, are we going to do that without some difficult conversations?
A few weeks ago, the Council voted to rename a school to honor the late Congressman John Lewis. With the distance of history, we celebrate this giant of the Civil Rights movement for making “good trouble,” yet we must remember that, as he was making it, this trouble was not universally received as good. This is usually the case when we call for changes that are hard but just.
While we were not in the Commission meetings, we have heard from Commissioners and the Commission chair. They have asked the Council to approve these nominees, and that is what we should do.