FF 2016 Day 7: Black [women’s] Lives Matter

This post contains descriptions of violence which may be upsetting to read- please take care.

Police brutality against black women
Black women and the state
Sidelining black women and girls
Black women and the feminist movement

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Just like saying ‘black lives matter’ doesn’t mean ‘other lives don’t matter,’ saying ‘black women’s lives matter’ doesn’t mean ‘black men’s lives don’t matter.’ The point is to draw attention to a problem which is being neglected.

This post is mainly about the US, but some of the issues looked at here- especially when it comes to some of the failings of the feminist movement- are definitely not confined to the US.
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Malcolm X

 

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The Black Lives Matter movement has mobilised as a mass movement against institutional racism and police brutality, sparked by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other victims of extrajudicial killings. The original ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag was created by three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon Martin’s death.  However, as Kaavya Asoka writes:
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“So far, the movement’s attention primarily to the experiences of black men has shaped our understanding of what constitutes police brutality, where it occurs, and how to address it. But black women—like Rekia Boyd, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Shelly Frey, Yvette Smith, Eleanor Bumpurs, and others—have also been killed, assaulted, and victimized by the police. Often, women are targeted in exactly the same ways as men—shootings, police stops, racial profiling. They also experience police violence in distinctly gendered ways, such as sexual harassment and sexual assault. Yet such cases have failed to mold our analysis of the broader picture of police violence; nor have they drawn equal public attention or outrage.”

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Rachel Gilmer, Associate Director of the African American policy forum, pointed out:
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“When we wear the hoodie, we know that we’re embodying Trayvon. When we hold our hands up, we know we’re doing what Mike Brown did in the moments before he was killed. When we say ‘I can’t breathe,’ we’re embodying Eric Garner’s final words […] We haven’t been able to do the same thing for black women and girls. We haven’t carried their stories in the same way.”

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Police brutality against black women

No-one was punished for the murder of Natasha McKenna, despite a video being released of police officers tasering her repeatedly while her arms and legs were cuffed together.

sandra bland.pngNo-one was punished for the murder of Tanisha Anderson, despite the fact that the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide after police offers slammed Anderson into the concrete.

No-one was punished for the murder of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was shot dead during a ‘no-knock’ raid, despite the fact that she was seven years old and asleep.

No-one was punished for the murder of Sandra Bland, despite dashcam footage showing her being manhandled and threatened by a police officer while being needlessly arrested for a minor traffic offence, before she being found dead in her cell 3 days later.

Kimberlé Crenshaw is an activist fighting for those women who have been sidelined by the movement, starting the campaign #SayHerName to raise awareness of police brutality and killing of black women and girls. She has pointed out the lack of media attention to police attacks on women, in particular criticising the lack of US coverage of Daniel Holtzclaw’s conviction- Holtzclaw was an Oklahoma police officer convicted of 18 of 36 charges of sexual assault against black women. The case received the bare minimum of media coverage, despite the number of women involved.

Police violence and killing of black women is rife in the US, and black girls are being treated like adult criminals in the same way that black boys are seen as less young and less innocent. A black girl was thrown on the ground and forcefully arrested in a classroom, black children were criminalised, subject to police violence and threatened with guns at a pool party.

This problem isn’t restricted to the US- institutional racism and police brutality clearly exist in the UK and Europe, too. British black woman Sarah Reed died in her cell at Holloway just this past year in mysterious circumstances, after previously being subjected to police brutality which was caught on CCTV, and her family were told contradictory stories about how she was found.
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uk not innocent

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Black women and the state

In countries like the US and the UK, black women are not just being failed by the state, but are disproportionately being targeted and victimised by the state.

  • Black women make only 6% of the population of San Francisco, but made 45.5% of all women arrested there in 2013, and have been arrested at rates higher than all other groups of women there for the past 23 years
  • Black women are imprisoned at more than twice the rate of white women in state and federal prisons in the US
  • In the UK, austerity policies which have cut a million public sector jobs have been disproportionately harmful to black women.
  • Black children are more than four times more likely than white children to be taken away from their parents by social services in New Jersey. “White children in homes where there was drug use or domestic violence were seen as safer than black children in the same situations.”

Black women in the US are significantly overrepresented in the nation’s poor and in single-parent households. The same is true in the UK. The absence of sufficient welfare support systems in the US, as in the UK, allows existing inequality to be reproduced over and over- poverty, discrimination in education and in access to support programmes, discrimination by police, and discrimination at work, and the school-to-prison pipeline all connect together in ways which continue to oppress black women, and which will keep doing so unless something is done by governments to eradicate these different forms of inequality.

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Sidelining black women and girls

Kimberlé Crenshaw has criticised initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper (a program which will provide support through mentorships, summer jobs, etc. to boys and young men of colour) for ignoring the challenges faced by women of colour. The report Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, led by Crenshaw, calls attention, among other things, to excessive disciplinary action against young black girls in the US.

For example: the most recent data from the US Department of Education shows that black girls are suspended six times more than white girls, while black boys are suspended three times more than white boys.  In NYC public schools, black girls are disciplined ten times more often than white girls, and black boys six times more often than white boys. “Rates of expulsion were even more strikingly disproportionate between black and white students, especially among girls.”

Crenshaw points out:
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“The question “compared with whom?” often focuses on racial disparities among boys and men while overlooking similar disparities among girls and women. Yet, like their male counterparts, black and Hispanic girls are at or near the bottom level of reading and math scores. Black girls have the highest levels of school suspension of any girls. They also face gender-specific risks: They are more likely than other girls to be victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking, more likely to be involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and more likely to die violently. The disparities among girls of different races are sometimes even greater than among boys.”

 

Black women and the feminist movement

Audre Lorde: 

Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism. Even within the women’s movement, we have had to fight, and still do, for that very visibility which also renders us most vulnerable, our Blackness.” (I am Your Sister, p.41)

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bell hooks writes about the women’s liberation movement of the 19th Century and points to the racism embedded in the movement in which today’s feminist movements have their roots:
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“The most glaring example of their support of the exclusion of black women was revealed when they drew analogies between ‘women’ and ‘blacks’ when what they were really comparing was the social status of white women with that of black people. Like many people in our racist society, white feminists could feel perfectly comfortable writing books or articles on the ‘woman question’ in which they drew analogies between ‘women’ and ‘blacks’… for white women to acknowledge the overlap between the terms ‘blacks’ and ‘women’ (that is the existence of black women) would render this analogy unnecessary. By continuing to make this analogy, they unwittingly suggest that to them the term ‘woman’ is synonymous with ‘white women’ and the term ‘blacks’ is synonymous with ‘white women.'”

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white feminism

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Though the feminist movement (as much as it’s possible to talk about it in the singular given how fragmented it is) has improved, it still tends to focus on issues affecting all women, tending to overlook or altogether ignore those issues specifically affecting black women- for example, by criticising unrealistic beauty standards without also recognising that black women are held to white beauty standards, or by fighting against sexual objectification generally without pointing to the different kind of sexual objectification experienced by black women and recognising that it needs to be addressed separately.

Niki McGloster writes:
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“…black women are often shut out of political conversations. Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette fight against gender pay wages without shedding light on how these issues affect black women in their industry. Following her inspiring Oscars speech, Arquette mentioned “women” and “people of color” as if women aren’t included in the latter. White feminists still often ignore the fact that race and gender overlap. Most of us are both women and people of color.”

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The “angry black woman” stereotype also pushes down and sidelines black women within the feminist movement. After Nicki Minaj criticised MTV’s Musice Video Awards for their unrealistic and racist expectations of women’s bodies and was immediately painted by the media as the stereotypical irrational, outspoken black woman, journalist Christina Coleman pointed out that:
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“Too often, women of color are painted as aggressive, an action that leads to the disenfranchisement and abuse of Black women, sanctioned by the false idea that they are angry, strong-willed, and never in need of support or protection. It’s this same trope that no doubt fuels the high number of Black girls that are suspended in school — Black girls are suspended six times more often than White girls — or targeted by police as we witnessed in McKinney, Texas, when a young Black teenage girl was roughly handled by an officer.”

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Women of colour, when they criticise other women within feminist circles for racism, often find themselves faced with the same kind of response- that they’re being “divisive” or that they should think of themselves as united with white women as “women first”- that women received when trying to fight sexism in socialist worker’s movements (accused of dividing the working class, told that they should think of men and women as “workers first”).
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Sarah Ahmed (2010) p.554

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As white women and men in the feminist movement, there are times that we need to get over ourselves, sit down, and shut up. It’s easy for white women to shout that we should see ourselves as “women first” when we’re oppressed only on the axis of sex, not of race- we don’t have to see ourselves as anything different. We need to recognise that racism and sexism come together to produce an intersectional oppression which women of colour face, and we do not. What we can do is to listen, and to use the space we have in society to help raise platforms for voices, like those of women of colour, that so often go unheard and ignored.

 

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