Yesterday, while we lamented the SCOTUS decision to exempt Hobby Lobby and other Corporations-cum-People from paying for birth control because it violates their religious freedom, I learned that 30 Black women released a signed letter offering their support for the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. This letter from women like former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin and Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., comes on the heels of two major letters from the African American Policy Forum, one from a group of 200 Black men asking for the inclusion of women and girls in My Brother’s Keeper and one from over 1400 women of color, including Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Anita Hill, asking for the same.
In a moment when it is so clear that the war on women is real, I wonder how Black women can accept analyses coming out of the White House re: MBK that marginalize Black women’s struggle. I have been thinking on this for weeks, as I have participated with the group of folks helping to organize a response to MBK. When I initially saw those sisters caping for the President, I thought of a favorite line from Project Pat: “Don’t Save ‘Em…They Don’t Wanna Be Saved.”
But I know that’s not productive. So let me think it through out loud with you.
Is our struggle invisible to us, too? I don’t believe that. Do we really believe that men have it worse than we do? I think many sisters do. I also think that while we have received and transmitted an incredibly sophisticated analysis of the nuances of racism and how it impacts our lives, we have been more reticent to think through the effects of patriarchy and sexism, primarily because it creates a rift between us and Black men. And at an affective level, we feel connected to Black men. Moreover, what so many sisters want, straight sisters who dominate the discourse on this, is a strong Black man, a knight in shining armor type, to show up for us, save us, love us, care for us, ride for us, and provide for us. Hell I want that, too, but not at the cost of political invisibility. And even though most Black women know this program won’t make that happen, we would support almost any program that makes it possible for us to have more Baracks for our many Michelles.
Also when we dare to assert that our womanhood matters, that sexism is a racial concern, there is hell to pay. The charges of race traitor get thrown like so many grenades. As all the conflagrations pop off, brothers can’t hear us when we say, yes, young Black men and boys are in crisis. And they need all the help they can get. If that is all we were saying, they would hear that, but because we dare to say this:
Black girls need help, too.
We get branded as race traitors.
There’s a deep psychology to this that is disturbing. What will it take for us to become a both/and kind of people? What will it take for us to build racial freedom visions that include everyone? What will it take for Black men to stop telling the lie that our desire to be included is a call for Black men’s exclusion? The opposite is far more true. When Black men call for their inclusion it is frequently predicated on our exclusion. Brothers feel very little political allegiance to Black women as Black women. Their political analyses make very little space for gender, other than their own.
At the heart of this though is a far more inconvenient truth. To deal with Black women’s struggles would be to have to confront issues of male privilege, rampant sexism, and copious amounts of sexual and physical violence perpetrated on Black women at the hands of Black men. With us, it ain’t just the system that beats us. Our brothers beat us, too. Not all brothers. Not even most brothers. But far too damn many. And no one wants to address those issues because it seems then like we are pathologizing Black men.
So instead, they say simply help the race, and by helping the race, they mean Black men.
This is unacceptable.
It is unacceptable because we go to the same schools, live in the same unsafe communities, deal with the same systemic lack of access to resources that Black boys do.
It is unacceptable because like Ersula Ore, a professor at Arizona State University, Black women are frequently harassed by and violently engaged by police, who have no problem using excessive force, even when it is clear that we pose no threat to anyone’s safety.
But here’s the thing: I’m not going to spend this post engaging in attempts to prove that Black women and girls are doing worse than Black men.
For one thing, I don’t have to prove that. I simply have to show that Black girls are doing badly and are in need of help. The idea that two severely sick people don’t both need medical care is absurd. The measure by which we determine wellness is not whether you are as sick as another person but whether you are in fact well. And it would behoove us not to forget that.
This whole conversation isn’t about facts. The facts are on the side of helping women & girls alongside boys and men.
This is about feelings. This is about the President’s feelings about not having a father. This is about Black men’s feelings of invisibility in a system that makes clear in so many way that they are first and foremost, a problem with which to be reckoned. This is about Black men’s feelings of pride at having the leader of the free world, a Black man, stand up finally and say “Black men matter.” And this is also about Black men’s deep and inexplicable feelings of hatred and resentment toward Black women, summed up the best by Chris Brown and pastor Jamal Harrison Bryant: “These Hoes Ain’t Loyal.”
And it is those feelings, rooted as most of them are (sans the disloyalty) in actual social realities, that make it seemingly impossible for brothers (and sisters) to get out of their feelings and assimilate new facts into their frame.
So rather than engage facts, they use accusations. “You academics are elitist, out of touch, and you are letting feminism run amok.”
To be clear, I grew up in a family where most of the men have had some level of interaction with the prison industrial complex. This shit is not theoretical for me. But I also grew up in a community where lots of young girls had babies before they had the resources to parent. My own father was taken out by gun violence, but he was a terrible domestic abuser, and that meant that I had to deal with those things while going to school and trying to make excellent grades. Correcting his abuse would have helped, certainly. But resources to help my mom not struggle to make it would also have helped. Mainly having governmental resources that not dictate what kind of family structure my mother should choose to be well mattered most.
When I went to school I dealt with racist teachers who made me cry everyday, teachers who saw my questions and my right answers as a challenge to their authority, teachers who tried in big and small ways to break my spirit. I made it, but so many of the other Black children – boys and girls—didn’t. Again, this shit isn’t theoretical.
Here are three prevailing responses to our advocacy for women and girls of color.
Let the boys/men go first. Well we’ve heard that one before.
The Council on Women & Girls helps women and girls of color. Oh I thought our race was always supposed to matter first. Let us not forget the way the brothers tripped in 2008 over Hillary. As one man said to me, the question is “what matters more? Your Blackness or your womanhood?” To him I replied, “find me the moment in which I’m not one of those at exactly the same moment that I am the other and I will answer your question.”
But now all of a sudden, we are women first. And we need to lay our claims for resources that acknowledge the realities of both race and gender to the side.
That is the most insidious and wrong-headed cooptation of intersectional discourse I’ve ever seen. As it goes, if it’s not white women, then it’s Black men, coopting the project of intersectionality to narrow the parameters of our freedom vision rather than make them more expansive and inclusive.
Women and girls of color are doing just fine. To quote Clair Huxtable, “Let the Record Show” that that is complete and total bullshit.
The frame that governs Black politics at large remains deeply patriarchal. That frame says a few things. Among them, slavery emasculated Black men and made it impossible for them to assume their rightful place at the head of Black families and communities. 2nd, Black men are targeted by racist policies in which they are killed, locked up, and otherwise disfranchised by police. 3rd, even though Black women have also been harmed by slavery, Jim Crow, and modern day iterations, rape is a lesser crime than lynching. Moreover if our men were able to lead families, they could protect “our” women from rape. So rape is first and foremost a disrespect to the Black man’s right of sexual entitlement over his woman. 4th, Brothers are an endangered species. 5th, if we could just restore Black men to the head of communities, all would be well.
President Obama may not subscribe to every idea listed above, but he subscribes to and traffics in the father-lack narrative that binds these ideas together, going around giving copious speeches about how much he missed having a dad. A father lack narrative is not the basis of good social policy. Black feminist scholars have talked about forever how this idea of father lack, which also translates to the larger idea of needing men to lead shit, functions to pathologize the work of Black mothers and to minimize the leadership capacity of Black women.
In this regard, the President has become Moynihan 2.0. And the fact that he is progressive about women’s issues more generally does not mean he is progressive on the role that Black women play in communities. More to the point, whatever he may know intellectually about the role Black women play, that knowledge is trumped by the emotive force of his father lack narrative. Long way to say, the President remains all in his feelings about not having a daddy and we are paying for it.
Let me also take this opportunity to respond to those critics who say, “why would we on the left or far left actually expect or look to the federal government to save Black people’s lives?”
Good question. And valid point. At best, MBK is a neoliberal framework that abdicates the federal government of actual monetary responsibility to ameliorate the social conditions it created. It suggests that helping men and boys of color is a public good, but that the actual machinery to lift them up is a private duty. It simply outsources that private duty from communities of color to corporations.
And in a world where corporations are people, (rich, white male people who can practice religion apparently) outsourcing the fate of Black boys to said corporations is dubious at best.
But here’s the issue: MBK is the president’s signature racial justice initiative. I know it doesn’t deserve that designation, but such as it is, it is what we have. And what this initiative does at a discursive level is make a powerful and unprecedented argument about the ways that long-standing racial structures have structurally disadvantaged and limited the pathways to success for men and boys of color, particularly Black men.
Thus the initiative suggests that when a group is structurally disadvantaged the government has a prevailing responsibility to stand up and offer resources to ameliorate those conditions.
This is an important argument, despite the fact that I have serious reservations about its execution.
But when juridical structures interpellate identities, which is a fancy way of saying that when the law recognizes your unique structural position, it sets a precedent for future forms of recognition.
What MBK does is remove Black women, very particularly, from this social equation. By arguing forthrightly for the legitimacy of excluding us, it suggests that we are not structurally disadvantaged by long standing systems of racism. Or if we are, the refusal to commit resources to help us, suggests that we have magical powers to overcome these systems.
Of course, neither of these things is true.
And while it is true that helping Black boys and men does help Black women, my question is “Are we only worthy of trickle down racial justice?”
When Kimberle Crenshaw theorized intersectionality 25 years ago, she was offering a solution to a specific problem. Existing legal frameworks could not account for forms of employment discrimination that were unique to Black women. They could help if all Black people were excluded or all women were excluded but not if Black women as an intersecting category were excluded, for say, wearing braids.
A quarter century later, our first Black president, who enjoys the overwhelming support of Black women, is using the logic and social analyses pioneered by Black women to argue for our active exclusion. And some of our most powerful Black women are actively co-signing the madness.
Black women deserve better. Even the ones who don’t know they do. And we won’t stop fighting till we get it.
Further Reading: Paul D. Butler, “Black Male Exceptionalism? The Problems and Potential of Black Male Focused Interventions” DuBois Review, Vol. 10, 2013. (PDF Here)