excerpted from: Imani Jackson, On V. Stiviano, Donald Sterling's Companion: Exploring Whiteness as Property, 10 Florida A & M University Law Review 245 (Fall 2014) (Note) (138 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Much maligned billionaire and former Clippers owner Donald Sterling (hereinafter “Sterling”) ignited national race relations discourse after his companion, V. Stiviano (hereinafter “Stiviano”), was connected to the leak of a conversation in which Sterling made anti-black comments. During the conversation, Sterling told Stiviano she could have sex with black people and “do whatever” she wants. However, he added, “The little I ask you is not to promote it on that [social media] . . . and not to bring them to my games.” Sterling and Stiviano's chat was called “the most disruptive audio recording of a private conversation unwillingly made public since Watergate.” In response to the tape's release, the Clippers players, most of whom are black or of mixed race, staged a silent protest.
Although Sterling's words to Stiviano were disgusting, his racist practices make anti-black quips seem innocuous. To this extent, Sterling's statements highlight a continuing American legacy of racist othering. Further, National Public Radio reported that the wealthy Jewish man “made the largest-ever payout in a housing discrimination case involving rentals.” The publication further documented Sterling was routinely “accused of not renting to blacks, Latinos and people with children.” In 2003, Sterling was enjoined from using the word “Korean” in apartment building names and from asking tenants their national origin or place of birth on documents after black and Latino tenants brought suit alleging discrimination. In Housing Rights Center v. Donald Sterling Corp., the plaintiffs alleged that Sterling, individually and along with his wife, treated black and Latino tenants disparately from Korean tenants, and that Koreans were invidiously preferred as tenants.
The Supreme Court addressed racially restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer. The Shelley Court determined that the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection clause applied, and could be used to bar enforcement of the fifty-year covenant against blacks and “Mongolian” people living in the neighborhood. The Court also determined that the restrictive covenant was a deprivation of petitioners' property. As art often imitates life, Lorraine Hansberry penned the classic play A Raisin in the Sun after she experienced a racially restrictive covenant.
Housing discrimination, like social discrimination, can be difficult to prove due to social norms. Consistent with this challenge, legal scholar Victoria Roberts addressed the difficulties with establishing housing discrimination. Roberts' research conveyed that “housing discrimination is often practiced with a ‘handshake and a smile.”’ As a result, “there is tremendous difficulty in proving discrimination unless testers are available.”
While Shelley highlighted overt racism, as evidenced by a discriminatory covenant, Sterling's words to Stiviano and racist actions evince covert and overt racism. Racism is “a set of policies that is exhibited by a person or persons toward a group of people of a different race.” When something is covert it is “not openly shown, engaged in, or avowed.” Conversely, overt means “open to view or knowledge; not concealed or secret.” As applied to Sterling and Stiviano's relationship, one could argue that Sterling's racist words and actions connote a longstanding white interest in proprietary hoarding. As one writer noted, historically “whites used the idea of race to advance their own interests on the assumption that the more rights and property blacks gained, the less whites themselves would possess.”
This author posits that Sterling's command that his companion Stiviano disassociate with people of color, particularly black people, is covertly and overtly racist. Covert racism is implicit in the nature of their conversation. Sterling likely believed the notions he espoused would be confined to the two parties who participated in the discussion. Overt racism is inherent is commanding a woman, who is self-described as Mexican and black, to distance herself from people with whom her race and ethnicity align. During the conversation, Stiviano reminded Sterling of her ancestry by asking, “Do you know that I'm mixed?” Sterling later told her that she is “supposed to be a delicate white or delicate Latina girl.”
Embattled Stiviano faced personal attacks after the scandalous conversation leaked. Talk show host Sharon Osbourne even called Stiviano a “young street rat” and a “ho” on the television show The Talk. The video of Osbourne's statements was later pulled from the Web. Despite other people's assessments of her, Stiviano describes herself, via her Instagram page, as an “[a]rtist, [l]over, [w]riter, [c]hef, [p]oet, [s]tylist, [and] [p] hilanthropist.” Further, Stiviano and Sterling's story has not come without counterpoints. One writer lambasted popular culture's willingness to place culpability on Stiviano and absolve Sterling.
Reporters, bloggers, and everyday people know Stiviano as a highly compensated “side chick” who was investigated on possible extortion charges. Then, critics maligned Stiviano once the media discovered that she was recorded making anti-black comments. What is lesser known is that Stiviano is a foster mother to two adolescent males of color and working toward adoption of the boys.
Media reports and a buzzing blogosphere were not the only issues Stiviano confronted. She was punched in the face by two men after leaving a restaurant in the Meatpacking District and called racial epithets by another. The Daily Mail published pictures of her injuries. Stiviano's life and portrayal appear consistent with tropes black and Latina women have historically faced and continue to face in the United States.
The “Jezebel” is a “bad-black-girl, who is depicted as alluring and seductive as she either indiscriminately mesmerizes men and lures them into her bed, or very deliberately lures into her snares” people who have something of value that she could obtain. Similarly, the “gold-digger” has been chronicled in pop culture, including rapper Kanye West's song of the same name. These stereotypes take on a racial nature when applied to women of color. Women of color are more likely to be “stereotyped as sexually available,” “and in the case of black and Latina women, [are] the most economically vulnerable.” The “mamacita” or “harlot” is a Latina stereotype for a woman who is “lusty and hot-tempered; a slave to her passions.” Additional Latina stereotypes include “The Mexican Spitfire” and “The Hot Pepper.” Because Stiviano is a black Latina with a scrutinized life, black woman and Latina stereotypes are attributed to her. Admittedly, Stiviano played into racist and ethnic stereotypes of her personhood by dodging claims of being a mistress, while calling herself Sterling's “silly rabbit.”
This paper will not address morality and matrimony. Instead, the focus is on Stiviano's identity and the violence white men inflicted upon her because of her race and the circumstances surrounding her relationship with Sterling. This author contends that Stiviano attempted to distance herself from being racially identifiable due to at least a cursory understanding of the subjugation accompanying being a woman of color, particularly a black woman. While Stiviano's story includes name changes and plastic surgery to establish an ethnically ambiguous beauty and exotic existence, when she was demonized in the media, punched in the face, maligned in the media, and called racist and sexist slurs, historical racial and gender hierarchies were reinforced. Thus, this research suggests that America's white supremacist, misogynistic classifications of women of color should be replaced with critical race feminist self-identification and severe hate crime penalties.
This author argues three main points. First, the master's conduit has no associative freedom -- demonstrated when Sterling perpetuated the system used by white men and white male institutions to exert control over black women in the United States. Second, if blackness is property, then black men own larger shares than black women. Patriarchy affords black men more societal value than black women. Finally, pretty canvases cannot escape bigotry and violence. Though Stiviano actively constructed a Eurocentric and materialistic identity, she was still subjected to bigotry and violence.
. . .
Women of color deserve the freedom to live according to personal convictions, while free of disparate reputational and physical harms. In light of American history and contemporary events, modern society needs open-minded identity perceptions and severe legal punishments for hate-based crimes. The combination of pedagogy and punishment would leave Stiviano and other women freer to be their multi-faceted selves. On top of this combination, American populations of color continually increase. More women of color live in America, and their identification and personhood maintain significance. Regardless of the masses' perceptions and misperceptions, women of color should be allowed to live as they see fit, without ill repute. For Stiviano, this means she is free to live parallel to the protagonist in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem “A Song in the Front Yard.” Brooks wrote: “But I say it's fine/ Honest I do./ And I'd like to be a bad woman too, and wear the brave stockings of night-black lace./And strut down the streets with paint on my face.”
Imani J. Jackson, J.D., is a 2015 graduate of Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, Florida.