These are just a few of the hashtags that have become popular in the past years to bring attention to violence experienced by black women. There has been much discussion lately about the invisibility of violence against black women, whether this violence happens at the hands of the police, on the streets, or in the home.
I contend that violence and sexism against black women aren’t invisible at all. In fact, the violence is highly visible. It’s just deemed acceptable, inevitable, and inconsequential. Women as a whole, and black women in particular, have been conditioned to expect violence in our lives. Think about it for a second. From the time we come out of the womb, we are taught to expect violence. Black women’s bodies are hypersexualized to the point that many of us choose to modify our dress, the time of day we go out, our routes, and other aspects of our behavior in order to avoid the male gaze or worse. When we leave our homes, we arm ourselves with some type of device – whether it be keys or pepper spray – that we hope will protect us from an assault from a stranger. When we go out to a club, we do so in groups. We watch our drinks. And we never leave a woman behind.
In 2010, queer black feminist scholar Moya Baile coined the term misogynoir to describe anti-black sexism. Black women are often denied the mantle of womanhood within the context of the black woman-white woman binary. Sojourner Truth spoke to this fact in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio when she declared, again and again, “Ain’t I a Woman?” We were deemed un-womanly but were hypersexualized to justify rape and other forms of brutalization. Today, the femininity of black women is constantly questioned. Famous black women, from First Lady Michelle Obama to Serena and Venus Williams, have been described negatively as masculine because their bodies don’t fit into the mold of a very limited white feminine ideal.
In the past, our very body parts were deemed undesirable. Our hair was too kinky. Our skin was too black. Our lips were too thick. Our thighs and behinds were too big. Now big lips, thick thighs, and big behinds have been deemed attractive – and even celebrated – but only when attached to white female bodies. So, even when our parts are supposedly lauded, what is natural to us is still declared unacceptable.
As a culture, we are only beginning to tell the stories of rape that black women were subjected to during the Civil Rights era. Black women who were arrested for protesting had to endure sexism from men who demanded to be the face of the movement. But they were also subjected to sexual violence at the hands of the white supremacist police. The book At the End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power challenges the mythologized history of Rosa Parks as a woman who got tired one day while riding the bus and decided to sit down. The book reveals that she was already an activist and had investigated the gang rape by seven white men of a black woman named Racy Taylor. Racy Taylor’s assault wasn’t an anomaly. During slavery, and all through Jim Crow, white men continually raped black women as an act of terrorism. Jim Crow was an undeclared war, and the bodies of black women were the battleground.
My grandmother was steeped in colorism and prided herself on her light skin. Although it wasn’t verbalized, most of her friends where what one would call “high yellow.” They would most definitely be able to pass the paper bag test. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered that most of these women were the children of rape – the children of black women and girl domestics raped by their white employers. It’s taken hundreds of years for historians to acknowledge the brutality that black women have experienced in the past. So it’s no wonder that it seems nearly impossible to speak about the violence experienced by black women today.
Unfortunately, naming the violence we experience at the hands of black men is often viewed by both men and women in the community as “airing our dirty laundry.” My first awareness of this phenomenon occurred in 1985 when the film version of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” was released. Many African-Americans protested the film for its supposedly racist depiction of black men. Despite the fact that two of the most violent men in the film, Mister and Harpo, change their ways, make amends to the women they hurt, and seek redemption, the film was still protested. Part of the reaction was due to respectability politics, but most of it was just patriarchy rearing its ugly head.
For several reasons, many black women have been reluctant to name violence perpetrated by black men. Some are fearful of perpetuating stereotypes and lies about supposed black male violence and criminality. When white pathological racism hypercriminalizes all black men, it also denies the criminality of very dangerous white men. Think about the recent events in Waco. About school shootings. About George Zimmerman.
In intimate partner violence, there is the fear of what might happen if the police are called. With a police culture and criminal justice system that disproportionately target African-American men, a black woman may be more than reluctant to call the police on someone she loves. Although these kinds of decisions might be viewed through the lens of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” black women have historically legitimate reasons to protect the very men who are not protecting them. Couple that with limited resources for domestic violence victims, and it complicates the mix.
Which leads me to ask: While we have been standing by our men, who is standing by us?
Celie in “The Color Purple” heals her trauma through support, nurturing, love, and hard truth telling by the women in her life. Many black women have experienced so many traumas that they are in encased in fear. It is important to act and speak up when and where we can for those who can’t speak up for themselves. As a community, we need to stand up and support the women in our lives who need help when they are unable to do so for themselves. Some are doing just that.
In No! The Rape Documentary, filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons seeks to break the silence about rape within the black community. In the film, black women talk about the rapes they have experienced at the hands of black men, community reactions, and how they healed and are healing from the trauma. Simmons also highlights African-American men’s groups who are creating a new masculinity not steeped in domination or control.
Established in 1993, The University of Minnesota’s Institute of Domestic Violence in the African-American Community was established with the goal of raising awareness and developing policy to end all forms of domestic violence: intimate partner violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and community violence.
In her TED talk, My Vagina is Not a Car, Australian feminist Clementine Ford states, “I do believe it is an act of terrorism to raise girls to believe that the world is not safe for them. It means that we diminish ourselves.”
When we don’t speak up for victims of domestic violence – if we only tell them they are being disloyal because they seek help to get out of demeaning situations – it does nothing to uplift the race. African-Americans cannot rise above when more half of us exist under a patriarchal, sexist thumb. Violence against black women in all its forms needs to be denormalized and recognized for the horror that it is.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a black women with black hair. She is wearing a peach-colored shirt with a white sweater over it. She is holding her head in her hands and looking down with a sad expression.]