Bill O’Reilly’s tasteless, racist, and sexist joke about Maxine Waters’s appearance wasn’t the first time America has encountered a white onlooker inspecting and commenting on the body of a black woman. And it probably won’t be the last. But the pushback to O’Reilly—by Waters herself and by black feminists on social media—is a powerful sign that white commentators aren’t the only ones with power any more.
In case you missed it: On Tuesday morning, four TV personalities sat on a couch and discussed the day’s news on Fox & Friends. Their jaunty back-and-forth led one, Bill O’Reilly, to invoke the name of Maxine Waters, the senior black representative in Congress from California. O’Reilly liked how “angry” Waters made people, he told the couch, and he wanted “more” of it. “I’m so glad you asked,” one of the show’s hosts said. With a giant grin on her face, she tossed to a clip of Waters on the House floor speaking about President Trump. “We have suffered discrimination,” Waters says, “We’ve suffered isolation.” Then suddenly the screen splits; on one side appears O’Reilly, who is mocking Waters, and on the other side is Waters, still on the House floor talking about her patriotism in the face of a hostile administration. Fox cuts away from Waters, and we’re back on the couch. “I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly jeers, “I was looking at the James Brown wig.” His couch mates laugh in the background.
Later in the day, after a social-media outcry denounced O’Reilly’s comments as racist and sexist, he apologized for his “jest,” calling it “stupid.” Indeed, O’Reilly’s remarks were dumb, racist, and sexist, but it should be noted too, that this kind of behavior has a long history. It was a prerequisite, for example, when black women were brought, forcibly, to this country. During slavery, black women were placed on auction blocks to be looked at and evaluated for potential sale. They were often poked and prodded, sometimes they were stripped. “The auction was often a government-sponsored event, taking place on the courthouse steps,” wrote University of Pennsylvania professor Dorothy Roberts in her book Killing the Black Body. From the beginning, white men were given free rein to scrutinize the black woman’s body. It was on the courthouse steps; it was institutional.
The end of slavery didn’t stop white America from commenting on black women’s bodies, either. It happens now, though we are more than 150 years out of slavery. Take, for example, when Michelle Obama was criticized for showing her bare arms on the cover of Vogue back in 2009. She was called “inappropriate,” and her arms were labeled “muscular,” as if that were a bad and unfeminine thing.