A collage of Black women at a 1960s Civil Rights protest and one of a Black woman at a Black Lives Matter protest

Public Domain via Wikipedia, Gerry Lauzon/CC 2.0

disability rights

Public Domain via Wikipedia, Gerry Lauzon/CC 2.0

When Will We Learn to Listen to Black Women?

Black women are culturally silenced—even on the left, and especially among white feminists. Which is one reason many women of color sat out last week’s Twitter boycott.

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The saying goes that the world hasn’t been the same since November 9, 2016, and it hasn’t. We have a proud and out white supremacist and accused sexual predator in the White House, Nazis and the KKK hold  “rallies” espousing the genocide of anyone who doesn’t look like them, and the president, instead of condemning them, assures us that there are “bad people on both sides.”

Yes, things seem different now because they are so obvious, but in many ways, they are the same as they have always been. We have never stopped seeing the mass killing of unarmed black and brown people at the hands of police officers, we have spent decades fighting for gun control in the hopes of curtailing mass shootings, we have never done enough to tackle global warming, and we still aren’t listening to black women.

The decision to ignore Black women isn’t a new one. We are often ignored and undervalued at work, in our own communities, and by the world at large. We aren’t given agency and the violence against us is systematic and guarded by the idea that we are not human. This began long before me. Consider the case of Saartjie Baartman, a Black woman forced to perform at freak shows and held captive. After her passing in 1815, her brain, sexual organs, and skeleton sat in a Paris museum until 1974, and her remains were not buried until 2002. This was one of the first documented instances of Black women and our bodies being treated inhumanely, exploited, ridiculed, and sexualized by science and scientists we still celebrate today. When people, organizations, and institutions don’t see you as human in the first place, it’s not likely that they’ll listen to your words.  

Black women see this treatment from all sides now despite history showing just how wrong it is. We are culturally silenced as well. I have lost count of the number of white women who have asked me to forget being black in favor of their movement. The recent Twitter boycott is a good example. The boycott was created as a day where women would leave Twitter in protest of Rose McGowan’s account being suspended briefly after she spoke out about Harvey Weinstein. I did not participate, not because I don’t support Rose and victims of sexual assault, but because women of color, especially Black women, are never supported when we are harassed or threatened on social media, and because we are silenced so much by so many that the idea of silencing ourselves does not feel empowering. When the women who participated in the boycott returned to Twitter, some were upset to find that April Reign had started the #WOCAffirmation hashtag in their absence. Black women are silenced enough in this country in ways both obvious and not, and many black women took issue with the idea of further silencing ourselves. Some women took our stance as a personal attack on them and a way to divide feminism, refusing to consider that the boycott may have been flawed and that they themselves had long ignored us in the same way they felt they were being ignored by others.

It’s a perfect example of the lack of education and understanding around intersectionality, which is fundamental to finally giving black women a voice. Even in various marginalized identity groups, we are left with the expectation of shedding other parts of ourselves to mold into one identity. For Clarkisha Kent, 23, it happens in the black community.

“I’m a fat, dark-skinned, Bisexual Black femme. Someone is always telling me to discount my womanness to elevate my Blackness or disregard how colorism affects my life day in and day out or celebrate the queer community unconditionally even though my queerness is not seen as legitimate. Every day is a constant negotiation between the world and I and how much of my identity I will truly get to stand in that day. Some days are harder than others.”

We also face this treatment in the workplace. According to the Institute For Women’s Policy Research, Black women won’t see pay equity until the year 2124 while white women are projected to see it in 2059 and Hispanic women in 2248. Black women, irrespective of title or field, are often given the cold shoulder by superiors and co-workers, our word constantly being second-guessed. This can cause conflict in the workplace, tension where there should be none and, often, results in less effective work. Stephanie Williams is 29 and an Electron Microscopy Tech in Charlotte, NC. At her previous lab she discovered a long-standing mistake and paid the price for being the Black woman to point it out. “I was in charge of genotyping the mice, and I discovered that they had been genotyped incorrectly for the last several months,” she says. “When I brought this to the attention of the principal investigator, they were in denial. After having to prove that my discovery was indeed correct, things instantly got more hostile between the PI and myself.”

As a disabled Black woman, I often feel ignored and undervalued in my black, female, and disabled communities for different reasons. In the female/feminist community my blackness and disability are ignored. In the disability community it is the opposite, my gender and race are ignored for what the community likes to call “the bigger picture,” which winds up being about proper representation that’s suited only for white disabled folks; and in the black community I find that my womanhood and disability are ignored and undervalued. In fact, the latter is made into memes and comedy fodder for retweets, likes, and shares on social media platforms. These communities need to do better by me and people who are like me. They need to listen.

We face a world in which Black women are expected to be so many things at once, a caregiver, a strong and silent type, a problem-solver, and a scapegoat. We are both coveted and constantly told to stay in our places at the same time. Black women greatly influence the culture we are living in. Our lips, hips, and curves are celebrated on bodies that are unlike our own and we still don’t see the respect that we deserve or the compensation we are owed relative to the impact we have on the culture. Our society treats us the same way our individual communities treat us and it’s not okay. Williams sums up the plight of Black women brilliantly.

“It’s annoying, it’s frustrating, it’s disheartening. The world wants us, Black women, to save it but at the same time completely speaks over us or completely ignores us. There are so many instances, the election for one, that if people had listened to black women, perhaps we wouldn’t have a tyrant in office.”

In order to be better, we have to do better. Inclusion is important but so is listening. The problem lies in the fact that Black women aren’t listened to until it’s too late. Stop reaching out to black women after the mess, stop questioning us when we warn you, and start implementing our ideas with credit when we give them to you. Our words, ideas, and experiences hold merit and it’s a shame that we have to constantly say it. Listen to black women when we tell you that being a woman, black, in the LGBTQ+ community, or the disabled community gives us unique experiences and insight that you may not understand, and that shouldn’t mean you dismiss them—it should make you listen harder. It is not Black women’s job to save you but maybe we’ll help when you start respecting who we are and listening when we speak. 


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