The conversation to prepare children of color for the dangers of living in a white supremacist society is often focused on boys, but it shouldn't be.
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Since Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, media has been grossly infatuated with dissecting “the talk” that Black parents have with their Black sons about the police. Over time, I wince in anticipation of these conversations after the rolling high profile cases of police brutality. Surely, Black daughters are educated about dealing with the police. Why aren’t our experiences part of the conversation?
My parents raised three Black girls and one Black boy in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s in Houston, Texas. When each of us became of driving age, we all got the same talk for dealing with the police. My mom, a schoolteacher, laminated our insurance cards (easier to grab without fumbling in the glove compartment) and implored us to keep our cars in tip-top shape and to abide by all traffic rules, so as not to make it easy for a cop to pull us over. We were told to be as respectful to the police as we were to any other adult. And that was it. “They aren’t any better than you, so there was no need to overdo it,” my mom reflected. My parents were both raised in the deep South and radically decided to de-emphasize police in our household. On the surface, this might seem dismissive. But my parents had a distinct vision for their kids: that they are valuable and need not grovel to white supremacy. Not everyone’s experiences have been the same.
“Hands on the steering wheel, be very respectful, make sure your insurance is where you can get to it and not search for it,” is what the father of Bianca Carpenter, an educator, told her at a young age. For Blaise Allysen Kearsely, a writer and teacher with a white mother and a Black father, “the talk” came in two different versions. “My mom always said if I ever got lost or in trouble, I should look for a police officer,” she told me. “My dad showed me that they couldn’t be trusted.”
Black girls like Bianca, Blaise, and myself get “the talk” for surviving the police, but rarely does the media portray the urgency of our safety. It’s true that Black men are killed by the police more frequently than Black women, but Black women are killed by the police more frequently than non-Black women. There’s plenty of airtime to discuss both of these sobering realities, so why don’t we hear more about Black women in issues of police brutality and state violence?
“I think it goes back to the conversation about structures of power,” says Jamia Wilson, a feminist activist, writer, speaker, and director of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. “Although white supremacy is something that all Black people are affected by, patriarchy and misogyny are at play.”
While both Black men and Black women are oppressed, Black women are historically forgotten in conversations around equality. Whether it was Black women being left out of the Suffrage Movement, Black women’s concerns about sexual violence being de-prioritized during the Civil Rights Movement, or Black women dying at disproportionately high rates during pregnancy, Black women still have to fight for their voices to be heard in life and death.
“Black men’s lives don’t matter. Black girl’s lives matter even less,” Kearsley told me. “Breonna Taylor is a good example. She’s only coming up so much now because of the murder of George Floyd. Shot eight times in her bed? Home invasion with a battering ram? No-knock warrant? And still no arrest has been made. Why was she not getting just as much attention?” Some argue that George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, both Black people murdered around the same time as Breonna Taylor, gained more justice-demanding attention because their horrific murders were filmed. We need only look at Trayvon Martin as evidence that footage isn’t the only factor in the drumming up public interest that moves the needle towards justice. It’s also gender. “I think it’s important to connect those dots for folks they know why we aren’t hearing our names,” Wilson said, citing the #SayHerName campaign, co-created by civil rights activist and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw to bring awareness to the deafening silence on Black women murdered by the police. “The reason we aren’t hearing our name as much is that it’s so normalized. There’s a numbness. We are expected to suffer.”
More often than receiving “the talk” about police brutality, Black girls and women, myself included, are subject to endless talks about being “fast,” which is to talk, walk, dress, and simply exist in a way that is sexually mature. We are warned that fast behavior, our behavior, will attract sexual violence. “We are often taught that we get what we deserve,” says Gennette Cordova, a writer at The Lorraine House and social justice Revolve TV team member. In Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, Mikki Kendall’s compelling essay collection released this year, she describes the reality of these talks with brutal honesty:
“For young Black American girls there is no presumption of innocence by people outside of our communities, and too many inside our communities have bought into the victim-blaming ideology that respectability will save us, not acknowledging that we are so often targeted regardless of how we behave.”
While it’s wholly unfair to ignore our innocence while scrutinizing and demonizing our own sexuality, this too is rooted in white supremacy. Georgetown University’s seminal study, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure Of Black Girls’ Childhood” showed that participants assumed Black girls need less protection and know more about adult topics and sex than their white peers. These modern-day assumptions support historical findings from the University of Florida’s “The Violent State: Black Women’s Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence.” Michelle S. Jacobs details that since Emancipation, white people have attempted to paint Black women as being “governed libido and loose morals,” “liars,” and “as ‘man-like’ and aggressive.” Jacobs plainly states, “The popular image of this Black oversexed creature was a convenient cover for white men brutally raping Black women.” These stereotypes are carried into the inhumane ways Black women have been treated by men, including by the police. Many of us internalize these stereotypes, spending energy on debunking them by policing the behavior of ourselves and each other.
It’s no wonder that the Pew Research Center reported 59 percent of Black men surveyed said they’d been unfairly stopped by the police, compared to only 31 percent of Black women. This statistic doesn’t report how many Black women are stopped by the police relative to Black men, but how many think they’ve been stopped unfairly. “Maybe we’re less inclined to think we’re stopped unfairly, and because we don’t have ‘the talk’ that it’s instinctively unfair or about racism, maybe that’s not our knee jerk reaction to interactions with police.”
Black women’s relationship with the police is extremely complicated. There are no centralized statistics on police brutality for Black women, which is telling in and of itself. Local statistics help us piece together the story Black women have long suspected. “Black women in San Francisco make up 5.8 percent of the population but they constitute 45.5 percent of women arrested.” Whether it’s the child violently pinned down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney or the arrest and eventual death of Sandra Bland, we know Black women’s interactions with police are violent.
It’s this same violent police force a Black woman must consider when she is brutalized by a partner. The 2010-2012 National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community found that 41 percent of Black women experience physical violence by a romantic partner in their lifetime, compared to only 31 percent of white women. To further complicate things, the Pew Research center estimates that only 12 percent of Black women have intermarried, so it’s likely that the majority of these romantic partners are Black men. For a Black woman abused by a Black partner, she must decide whose safety matters most: hers or his.
It might seem intuitive to simply call the police on any person who is harming another person, but even that decision is weighed down by white supremacy. During slavery, Black people weren’t protected by the law, so the smallest infraction (proven or not) could lead to a savage death. While Black women were being raped and brutalized by white men, they also had to do everything in their power to protect Black men from being brutalized and murdered by white men. This need to protect Black men from white men in violent power has woven itself into our cultural DNA and is fully present today. Black women who are harmed by Black men must decide if reporting a Black man’s harmful behavior is worth the inevitable backlash. “If a Black woman calls the police on a Black man, it’s such a violation. It’s such a betrayal,” says Cordova, articulating cultural beliefs around protecting Black men at our own expense. “Not only will he feel that way, but a lot of people around you will feel that way.”
We’ve seen this ideology in high profile cases of brutalized Black women by sexual predators like Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and Russell Simmons. Weighing a Black woman’s trauma against her abuser’s triumphs as a successful Black man, friends, family, and the community at large might question why a Black woman had to take down an otherwise “good Black man.” The expectation is that, no matter what happens to a Black woman, she’ll support a Black man, even if he causes her suffering. Wilson calls this the “ride or die model.” She explains, “There are some real gendered problems with the ride-or-die model that always relied on Black women repressing, absorbing, and being the vestibules of suffering without getting the support that we need.”
“If we don’t solve for gender-based violence, we’re not solving for racialized violence. They’re tied together, rooted together, and rely upon each other,” Wilson says. “The same sort of toxic masculinity and toxic patriarchy that prevails to allow for the insidious killings of Black men is the same toxic masculinity and patriarchy and white supremacy that’s responsible for killing trans girls and trans women and Black women and Black girls.”
“Black women are fighting so many different wars,” said Cordova in a tweet that speaks directly to the intersectionality of our suffering, harkened responses from people saying that Black men are fighting more and that non-black women shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. Who gets to have their injustices justified first is colloquially known as “the oppression olympics.”
“A function of patriarchy is to get us to a place where we’re competing for a hierarchy of oppression. I really want people to think about colonialism, capitalism, competition, and value, to want to be upfront, to be the priority,” Wilson explained. “The saying that ‘my pain is greater than yours because I’m a Black man’ is rooted in white supremacy in its origins that we are conditioned in.”
Society seems wholly uninterested in what Black parents talk about with Black girls when it comes to police brutality and state violence, because the state of being a Black woman, dead or alive, centers around everyone else. We can’t keep fighting for everyone else without reciprocity. There will never be equality and justice for all if Black women and trans Black women continue to be devalued and forgotten.
Malcolm X’s haunting observation that we are the most disrespected women, unprotected people, and neglected people in America rang true in the 60s and echoes even louder today. Our ability to achieve equality hinges on our ability to embrace the fact that all Black lives matter. “We have to do the work of really understanding when that’s coming to play in our community. And restoratively interrupting that with collaborative coalition and intersectional accountability,” said Wilson. “We’re going to have to work together to liberate ourselves.”
Frankly, I’m exhausted, but I also know that no one is coming to save us. Black women have to continue doing the work to save ourselves.
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