How Society Failed Black Women

Black liberation activist Malcolm X once eloquently said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Considering the historical context of Malcolm X’s quote, the times of segregation, racism, structural injustice and civil rights protests are just as applicable in our modern times. It is no secret Black women are regarded as “loud,” “difficult,” “arrogant,” “impossible” and “ghetto,” but where do these racist and sexist behaviors originate and how can you hold yourself accountable for the ways in which you aid in the degradation of Black women and their humanity?

Being a Black woman is an experience that is complex, multifaceted and laced with intersectionalities. It consists of racism coincided with sexism. There is a continuation of murders against Black Trans women, which systems fail to acknowledge or seek justice. Our lives, our bodies and our perspectives are persistently under attack and degraded by other communities with white supremacy, which seek to suppress our voices. Our contributions are the backbone of many “mainstream” social justice movements but with white feminism and the continuation of societal privilege, our voices are overshadowed by the privileged. The harsh reality is: you are not informed or educated enough to address your own biases against Black women. You have grown in a society that profits off of our bodies and shows false stereotypical behavior on reality television. You praise us as your “Queens” yet you fail to defend Black women, protect Black women, support Black women and hold structures responsible. All of these choices fall entirely on you and the systems you uphold. woman wearing a white dress and jewelry Photo by nappy from Pexels Via nappy on Pexels

Microaggressions

Oftentimes, people believe bigoted perpetrators to be the stereotypical racist conservative type. Or someone who says the n-word. Or someone who noticeably excludes Black people from spaces. While these examples are true to racism, microaggressions are equally as violent. Varying forms of racism thrive and coexist to create complex structures built on intentional oppression and violence. Verbal and subtle racism is not exempt. They hold immeasurable weight to demean, deter and intimidate Black women in any given circumstance. These methods are utilized to make Black women feel “less-than” through racists who seek to hide their own insecurities by failing to acknowledge their internal issues. 

There needs to be an unlearning process from microaggressions. They are blatant and evolve into subtle attacks against Black women for the purpose of feeding ego. Examples of microaggressions include asking Black women which country they’re from, assuming the entire Black woman experience is monolithic, asking about (and/or touching) Black women’s hair, engaging in racist accents in order to “relate” to Black women, etc. It should be known that Black women are subjected to these behaviors in every environment. Imagine having to hear disrespectful comments, assumptions and ignorance about your culture, gender and race daily. Not only is it exhausting but it further pushes a cycle of trauma impacting their mental and emotional well-being.

Related: Women in Black History

Health

J. Marion Sims is deemed as the “Father of Gynecology” yet he operated on enslaved Black women for his studies. In a podcast by NPR, narrators go into specific detail concerning his transgressions against Black women and the horrors inflicted on their bodies. The concept of Policing Black Bodies makes the case for a dire conversation as society has an unhealthy obsession with Black women. For a modern example, Lizzo, a powerful Black woman who is body positive and unapologetic, continues to endure racist and sexual harassment on social media through people persistently policing her body, dietary choices and appearance. The idea that a Black woman has to meet society’s view of “sexy” and “desirable” plays into the same pipeline of Black women being overtly sexualized by white men and the concept of their bodies not being theirs. 

During the times of slavery, the Three-Fifths Compromise expanded loopholes for Black bodies to be further policed. This law indicated that Black people were considered ⅗’s of a person. Rape and molestation against Black women and girls were unfortunately common. The inclusion of this context is to stress the historical connections to the obsession of Black bodies by society as they seek to police and conquer. Black women are thrust into the ever-racist world of healthcare, one that does not listen when they are in pain, a system that refuses to acknowledge its own part in Black death and institutions which uphold the same racist beliefs Sims did during his days of racist and inhumane objectification. Black mortality rates continue to rise as hospitals persistently ignore Black women at their detriment. Black women and their perspectives are not protected in the health environment. For our mental and emotional health, each day consists of another disappearance or murder of a Black life which is overplayed on Social Media, thus adding to our trauma. What needs to be considered is the brutality and violence against Black women which leaves them with no support. Society with its individuals, systems and institutions specifically enables historic and current prospects to discipline Black women for simply existing.

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Erasure

Bringing honesty into the conversation, it is important to note that Black women were (are) active in many wide-known social justice movements. However, our narratives are disregarded and excused as “side notes” to the bigger picture. The #MeToo movement's purpose was to support and elevate victims and survivors of sexual crimes then it was cycled through the machine of media coverage, white feminism, celebrity culture and racism. The very #MeToo you celebrate is based off of efforts founded by a Black woman, Tarana Burke. A name many have failed to educate themselves about. #MeToo is not the only example. 

The first, second and third waves of feminism have all played roles in the exclusion of Black women and their contributions. The Women’s Suffrage Movement was notoriously racist and excluded centering diverse narratives. With the attempted ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the origins of Second Wave feminism, white activists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan were applauded amidst Black-female organizations such as the Combahee River Collective receiving less support. Erasure is a racist practice that is done to eradicate any perspective that goes against the status quo. It aids in social, economic and environmental constraints used to filter Black thought and Black intervention. When we examine who is in the spotlight, it is normally racist white women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for their contribution to white suffrage. Not women such as Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells who brought attention to lynching, disenfranchisement and the importance of Black liberation. Such practices in educational systems are designed to whitewash history and continue the toxic narrative of oppressors being heroes for the sake of the most precious “American democracy.”

Related: The Misrepresentation of Black Women

Classroom environments

After the numerous acts of performative activism across social media since late May, the same energy has not been applied during the Fall Semester, from my experience. The shared tactic is to hide behind the idea of false progress and denial about problematic leaders and practices for the sole excuse of providing pardons based on it just being “history.” Let’s be clear when you occupy a space, your job is not to talk over Black women or instruct them of what they should do but rather listen and actively seek ways to unlearn harmful behaviors. However, this process does not excuse you from taking accountability in places where it is uncomfortable to do so. 

Slavery was not comfortable. Disenfranchisement is not comfortable. Poverty is not comfortable. Murder certainly is not comfortable. The very least you can do is recognize and own your privilege. Less than the bare minimum is knowing how you aid systems of oppression yet making the conscious choice to follow those who adamantly seek silence against Black liberation. You have an obligation each class period to know when to take up space versus listening. You have an opportunity to acknowledge, own it and begin a path of allyship and constant dedication to our community. The same energy you have for TikTok and Instagram needs to be the same if not more for what you have in regards to a group of human beings being subjected to horrid oppression for the past four centuries. It is interesting to see the one-dimensional responses to defending frameworks of feminism (dry and unseasoned) yet being silent with the complex analyses of inclusivity and intersectionality.

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Tokenism 

I have constantly heard many wanting Black women to educate as if that is our responsibility. It is not. Our job is not to grab you by the hand and walk you through every single part of your anti-racism journey. Last time I checked, the systems and institutions in place are ones we did not create. Therefore, it must be said that tokenism in any way, shape or form is not a solution to eradicating racism. Tokenism is the practice of using Black people (or any marginalized group) in order to explain your comments, meet diversity quotas and/or attempt to excuse yourself from accountability because you hired a couple of Black people. This practice is used as a last resort in order for corporations, schools and other societal structures to avoid any responsibility for the policing structures which aid in racial oppression. Tokenism has been used by every political sector as well as in classroom environments in order to have Black students explain and be “representatives” for discussing Black issues. Professors, your practice of putting Black students on the spot in this manner is not indicative of seeking change. Rather, you are participating in a form of racism that persistently pushes the Black community to respond to each instance racism is brought up. I challenge you to instead engage with your non-Black students to be accountable and think about those systems of oppression. Create discussions that are centered around making an environment that calls for all to reflect on their actions and participation in our society.

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A Message

To my beautiful Black queens: This is my address to you. Our beauty expands beyond constructs. Our intelligence, our dedication and our leadership are some of the many testaments to our power. Our Blackness is universal. Every time we step into the arena, we win. To see the plethora of amazing Black women who have graced my life, I am beyond grateful to know you, to work with you and to engage in a sacred sisterhood that is treasurable beyond measure. We know our worth. We know our power. And it is because of you and the paths you’ve paved that I will forever be unapologetically Black. We build, we cultivate, we initiate and we embody every fabric of our culture and individualities. We are unscathed and immeasurable. The power was and always will be with us.

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Conclusion 

When was the last time you checked on a Black woman? It is important to conjoin your “thoughts” with your advocacy. This climate has reiterated the notion of trauma against the Black community; a concept which has further added to the societal headaches inflicted by corruption, racism and universal oppression. Never make assumptions about experiences you don’t identify with. In predominantly oppressive spaces, it is essential to use your power and privilege to hold others and yourself accountable. If Black women mean something to you, foster safe spaces, do not insult their intelligence and hold your non-Black peers accountable for the times they make spaces uncomfortable and complicit in bigotry. In order for you to grow, you have to realize that when a Black woman discusses their experiences, they are not being “difficult” or “negative” but rather disclosing the circumstances they have to face. Such should be a time for you to listen and consider their experiences to be valid, without centering yourself. Your push for equality should be one based on disrupting frameworks of silence and doing your own research. There are plenty of resources at your disposal to educate yourself. This is the time where you will have to decide to either be performative or willing to commit to service. 

There is a harmful idea that Black women will save the United States. Upon reading this, I could not help but laugh. Black women owe you absolutely nothing. We do not owe you our time, our coins, our presence or our opinions. The last thing that should be expected is for us to save a country where you and your ancestors were and are responsible for the greater injustices present. If anything, we’re still waiting on equity, reparations and systemic change, which we and our ancestors have spent over four hundred years fighting for. Since the beginning, Black women have lent support and demands in regards to what we seek. Those requirements have not been met. Recognize this climate as your time to put in work. 

So get busy.