Why Don’t We Know Their Names? The Invisibility of Black Women and Girls

28 Mar

Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.”- Audre Lorde

My heart is saddened by the murder of Trayvon Martin-a child. My heart is also saddened at the subsequent media frenzy around his death because I know in every part of my body that when black women and girls are raped and murdered, not a damn thing happens-there is no rally or CNN coverage, but instead an instant blame game or mitigation of the facts.  This post is about the inherent value of black women and black girls. If once you read “Trayvon Martin”, you thought this post would be about how white supremacist ideologies define black males as inherently “suspicious” and “dangerous” and, thus, black men and boys need our support- this is not the post for you. Luckily, almost every other blog has posted analyses very similar to this that you can read and comment on. I have no interest in doing so-not because the criminalization of black men and boys doesn’t enrage me but because I believe that the black women and girls are just as valuable.  Not to mention that the ways we are inherently criminalized and stigmatized must continue to be unpacked. I write this because NO ONE comes to our defense or sees us as worthy of marching behind, and I will bear witness to this.

We invisibilize black women when we narrowly equate black men as representative of black people; when we focus on the criminalization of black men as if this is the only narrative of criminalization; and when we enable or participate in the collective amnesia that most black women NOT ONLY die as a result of the deadly combination of gender and racial profiling at the hands of private citizens and law enforcement agencies, but also from the hands of our black partners and family members. The black female body, including black trans women, is perceived as inherently sexually deviant and, thus, worthless. We DO DIE just walking down the street-whether we are profiled as a sex worker and raped and killed or, much like Trayvon Martin, just standing there.  We also die at the hands of law enforcement-because to be black and woman, or to be perceived as possessing feminine characteristics, is to be unsafe in a world where you can be raped and/or murdered-by your partner, your neighbor, or police precinct # 9 AND to live with the knowledge that no one will come to your defense.   But UNLIKE black men, we also die when we rely on law enforcement in the aftermath of interpersonal violence or sexual violence.

As soon as I heard of Trayvon’s murder and the outrage popping up in my emails and on my twitter timeline, I immediately thought:

  • Why don’t we interrogate racial profiling when it occurs on the bodies of black women and girls?
  • Why aren’t these same people outraged when black women are raped and murdered for just being themselves?
  • Where are my black feminists-what are we doing at this critical moment to hold the humanity of black men next to the value and visibility of black women?
  • What names will I get called if I speak about this?
  • Why do we know-thanks  to indie media and black mainstream media (Mike Baisden, Steve Harvey, Roland Martin, Tom Joyner, etc) who Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Troy Davis, Oscar Grant, Wendell Allen are?
  • Do we know who Phylicia Barnes, Kathryn Johnston, Tarika Wilson, Aiyana Stanley JonesCrystal Mangum, Brenting Dolliole, or LeAndra Jackson are? If not, why don’t we?
  • What about Remember Me-a Baltimore-based group centered on documenting the murders and/or disappearances of black women and girls? What resources are being allocated to them to increase their capacity to bear witness?
  • Why was so much media attention centered on the Jena 6 when almost no one knows, or seems to care, who the New Jersey 7 were?
  • Do we even know who Jeremy Sweat and Dustin Evans are, since we like to focus on individuals like George Zimmerman instead of systems?

Now here’s the part where people (including “good white allies” who co-sign anything to seem less racist- even when it marginalizes black women, which in turn allows white supremacy to grow and prosper) start saying dumb shit because they can’t deal with the fact that- GASP- they are willfully invisibilizing black women, and so they get defensive:- “well, those women were lesbians!” or “she was a stripper!” or “they thought she was a prostitute and that is why they killed her and it’s not ok to kill any innocent person, but this is more understandable” or “it’s just not the same!” Lemme just remind people of how quickly they checked and side-eyed those who pointed out irrelevant facts like “technically, Trayvon didn’t live there, but was visiting his stepmom and dad” or “well, he was suspended from school, so clearly he had criminal tendencies.” We were right to call them out, but let us also rally behind black women and girls unconditionally. It’s not like we believe there is a justification for violence against black women and girls, do we? Because that would make us fucked up and complicit with white supremacy, right? Oh shit-maybe we are.

13 Responses to “Why Don’t We Know Their Names? The Invisibility of Black Women and Girls”

  1. Pam March 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    Tarika Wilson was killed by police in Lima Ohio, just 25 minutes south of Bluffton, Ohio where I lived for close to 10 years before moving to New Orleans. So I knew of the horrifics of her kiling, the trial of the cop who killed her, the community’s response, etc. BUT more to the point, I have to admit I either hadn’t heard or didn’t remember the names of all the other women you mentioned although I knew all of the men’s names. Deep. Thanks for this reminder, Mandisa.

    I also think its telling that even in the aftermath of all the response to Trayvon Martin’s killing, there’s been little national attention to the police killing of Rekia Boyd, a 23 year old woman killed by Chicago police just a week ago. http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2012/03/justice-for-rekia-boyd-whos-rallying-for-murdered-black-women/

    Our focus on individual cases, including individual perpetrators — and what determines who gets focus and who doesn’t –is really troubling…

    • S. Mandisa Moore April 3, 2012 at 12:42 am #

      Pam-thank you for your thoughtful response. There are sooo many women we can add to the list of whose forgotten-most recently rekia boyd and shaima alawadi.

      I am always intrigued when white women have an active politic that seems to invisibilize parts of their identity, or what I think of as part of their idenity-namely the commodification and exploitation of the feminine and it’s twin misogyny. I focused my piece on how black communities dont holistically value black women and girls, but I could write another piece on how white feminists (of all genders) dont either. What does it mean when white women also invisivilize the lives and experiences of black women and girls? Is this what it means to be in racial solidarity-to consciously or unconsciously choose to center a politic that prioritizes men of color? These questions are not directed at you-instead your post brought up these questions for me. I would love to hear your thoughts and others.

      • m Andrea April 5, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

        Thank You Thank You THANK YOU for this post!!!! I am so tired of seeing Black women and girls marginalized, and frankly am totally disheartened that Gina, the blogger at WhatAboutOurDaughters is preparing to close up shop. Seriously, nobody gets more screwed over than Black women and girls (except hey Black lesbians), and no group is in more need of a champion. YAY YOU. xoxo!!

        I am always intrigued when white women have an active politic that seems to invisibilize parts of their identity, or what I think of as part of their idenity-namely the commodification and exploitation of the feminine and it’s twin misogyny. I focused my piece on how black communities dont holistically value black women and girls, but I could write another piece on how white feminists (of all genders) dont either. What does it mean when white women also invisivilize the lives and experiences of black women and girls? Is this what it means to be in racial solidarity-to consciously or unconsciously choose to center a politic that prioritizes men of color?

        It drives me absolutely nuts when women contribute to their own exploitation by constantly excusing and justifying the misogyny of men, whether that be men of their own ethnicity or that of others. Women have a vested interest in denying the extent of misogyny, lest they admit how deep the hatred goes. Us women can’t exactly run off to WomanIsland to get away from them, after all. If we could, things would probably be different. So white women ignore all but the grossest of sexism when it’s experienced by a Black woman — and that’s because of racism. But another part of it is also because they can’t really admit even to themselves how profoundly they are conditioned to view racial oppression through the Male Gaze.

        Almost every woman does this, no matter her ethnicity. The only difference begins once the oppression changes from sexism (without the presence of any racism) to sexism + racism. All of a sudden, women of every ethnicity forgets that they tend to view sexism+racism through the needs of men. Most women first unconsciously run it though a filter, the how-does-this-effect-the-precious-Black-man lens.

        And until S. Mandisa Moore said something (THANKS) I never realized white women did it too. I was thinking it was only something that Black women did, and that was the thing which was holding me back from extending the same amount of empathy to Black women as I do towards white women when the subject was sexism. wow, thank you so much.

        Did that make sense? Maybe not? I have been thinking for a long time that almost all Black women are so conditioned to protect the Black man (from very real injustice) that they won’t object to his foot on their own neck. But I put women first, of every ethnicity, before I’ll ever concern myself with the injustices experienced by any man, and I do that because most men not only don’t seem to care about examining a toxic masculinity, but because most of them actively excuse and/or perpetuate sexist beliefs — which puts all women dead last, all the time. So my attitude towards men is “I’ll care about your rights when *more than 0.00000001% of men* actually start caring about women”.

        But it’s been difficult for me to extend a whole lot of empathy for Black women, when they don’t even seem to care about themselves. They’re too busy protecting the Black man. Hardly ever do I see any Black women holding Black men accountable for sexism (in the same way that most Black women hold whites accountable for racism), or talking about what they do to raise Black boys so that their sons would hold more pro-feminist views. One Black woman said to me that Black women wouldn’t discuss any of that “publicly” because “talking about how sexist BM are to BW would give racists yet another opportunity to diss Black folks”. And I can see her point and it’s got some validity. But racists already have a million ways to display their racism, so is one more really a good reason to give sexism *almost* a free pass? Especially when it is Black women who suffer the most when BM are sexist? Apologies, but my impression was that her response is an excuse, that those types of conversations about holding BM accountable for sexism aren’t in fact occurring even behind “closed” doors.

        Yep, that’s the part that gets me labeled a “racist”. I’m supposed to care more about Black women than they appear to care about themselves. Or I’m supposed to believe that the two women who speak out somehow represent the 5 million who don’t. Okay, I’m going to contemplate what I’ve learned here from you and how that alters my previous perceptions: If white women do it too, then it makes no sense for me to limit my irritation to only Black women. THANK YOU and apologies for rambling and any general incoherency. Anyway, I’m thrilled to have found this blog and women who are willing to champion Black women and girls. WOOT!! AWESOME!!

        • S. Mandisa Moore April 5, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

          Hey Andrea:

          Thank you for the affirmation and very reflective comment.
          I also think its important for all of us to consider white women’s investment in maintaining white supremacy (even as they claim to be all about deconstructing patriachy, when in actuality you cant deconstruct one without the other…..almost like lay’s potato chips)-which often translates into maintaining themselves at the center of conversations about oppression, especially patriarchy. This is most evident in how you talk about how you used to blame black women for their own oppression, which I find extremely problematic. As kate mentions in her comment, the work of black women deconstructing the multiple forms of oppression we experience is often invisible-so my challenge to you would be just because you werent aware of the ways black women were doing this doesnt mean we werent-I think it more means that we do this work very differently from how white women do and often arent afforded the same visibility as some white women have historically had access to. Im also intrigued at how you said “Im supposed to care for blak women more than they care for themselves” when I wonder if that same level of apathy is applied to white women who dont actively (and visibly) advocate for “women’s issues.” Im glad this article has been a change in consciousness for you. Women are always blamed for their own social situations, and this definitely extends to black women and/or low-income women-I think we need to be consistently conscious about how and when we do this-I know I do!

          • m Andrea April 6, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

            Ah, in case it wasn’t clear, I did realize that part of my apathy (or perhaps most of it) was due to unexamined prejudice/racism. So I was extremely excited to find it, so I can get rid of it!!

            TOTALLY LOVING THIS POST!! As that Jay Smooth guy noticed, non-Black folks have a tendency to view racism as a medical condition involving removal of bodily organs. As in, “hey I had my racism removed back in ’94 so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, or wonder if I still have any leftover bits still hanging around”.

            Im also intrigued at how you said “Im supposed to care for blak women more than they care for themselves” when I wonder if that same level of apathy is applied to white women who dont actively (and visibly) advocate for “women’s issues.”

            Oh no, definitely racism still in play. My entire comment was a bit incoherent, in the sense that I had trouble making it clear which parts were my previous thinking, and which parts were subsequently altered by what you said (and opens up a whole new level for continued contemplation, yay).

            Again, totally awesome, you are fabulous, thank you so much!!

      • Pam April 12, 2012 at 3:32 am #

        Mandisa: I’ve continued to think about your post and follow up comment. You asked: “Is this what it means to be in racial solidarity-to consciously or unconsciously choose to center a politic that prioritizes men of color?” That’s surely not what it SHOULD mean, but I continue to learn about the ways that I have sometimes fallen into that trap by not viewing things through an intersectional lens

        I didn’t mention it in my earlier response, but your reference to “‘good white allies’ who co-sign anything to seem less racist- even when it marginalizes black women” raised lots of questions for me about my own limitations in terms of figuring out how to respond justly to the sorts of compromises I and others are faced with regularly. I struggled with whether or not to sign the change.org petition re: Trayvon Martin. I was concerned about the focus on just one individual. I was concerned about the focus on the prison-industrial complex as the solution that was demanded. I was concerned about the focus on the “innocent victim” meme. At some point, I reflected on how ridiculous it was that I was ruminating on whether or not to sign a petition, an action that likely has limited impact anyway. (“How self-important can I get?” I thought.) And I went ahead and signed it. Did I do this just to “seem less racist”? Maybe. (If so, probably only in my own eyes because I wasn’t self-important enough to think that anyone would notice that I had signed or that my name was missing). But it felt more like in this mixed up world where so many things are compromise and where simple truths like “black life matters” seem to be in short supply, I wanted to stand with those who were saying it mattered. But your blog made me wonder again about those compromises I make.

        I do want to say that in addition to the questions your blog has raised, it also has resulted in some small intentional action on my part as I continue to work at incorporating intersectionality into my analysis and practice: I talk about Rekia Boyd–and call her name–and tell the story of how police killed her– whenever Trayvon or Wendell or Justin or Ramarley come up. A small thing, but still a sign of my efforts to be accountable to the things I am learning from you and other black womanists.

        Like Kate notes, I owe all of what I am coming to understand about intersectionality to the influence that you and other black women in New Orleans and beyond have had on my politics. You wrote of “white women [who] have an active politic that seems to invisibilize parts of their identity” I think I’m doing this less and less, and have found myself increasingly hungry for conversations with white women about the intersections of race and gender. This is one way I’ve come to see my liberation as bound up in the liberation of others. And I know that this means that I also need to continue to discern ways to both “pay it back” and “pay it forward.”

        Thanks for the things you have taught me.

  2. C. Banks March 29, 2012 at 3:42 am #

    Thank you. I’ve posted about this same thing. The response, or better the lack of response, and the silence was deafening. Yes, I’m outraged about the apparent murder of Trayvon Martin but, I’m equally outraged about the seeming indifference that many have when the victim is female. The same lack of interest is also evident when the victim is LBGTQ. So yes, I joined in and marched in support of justice for Trayvon. But I’m also asking for people to show the same level of outrage for other victims, especially Black women and girls.

  3. Kate Scott April 5, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Mandisa I feel like I could write several blog posts about the issue you’re referring to regarding white feminists devaluing the lives and dignity of Black women and other women of color by showing out for Black men and ignoring the dehumanization of Black women and girls.. It is partially through my (at times challenging) friendship with you that I have been able to be more responsible about not doing this (as much).

    I came to social justice work through an interest in racial justice and it has taken me an embarrassingly long time to develop an intersectional lens that allows me to both analyze and then act responsibly regarding very complicated webs of oppression. I don’t say that to excuse myself from taking responsibility for taking so long to develop that analysis, only to partially explain why it happened. There was a lot more institutional investment in my developing an anti-racist politic than an intersectional one- that happened by me fumbling around, the investment of women like you, and probably the grace of god. It is also easier in a practical sense to work from a politic that focuses on anti-racism (read: addressing the dehumanization of Black men and boys while invisiblizing Black women and girls) than it is to work from one that acknowledges intersectionality. For example, I could go online right now and find multiple petitions to sign that call for an end to police brutality or racial profiling and all would feature the stories of brutalized or profiled young Black men. Not Black women. I guess I’d have to write my own petition for that. That would take at least 30 minutes of extra work on my part(*snark*).

    When I look back at times when I have been a part of upholding misogyny by jumping to support black men without interrogating what it means for black women (either individually or as part of a collective like European Dissent), there was usually a silence from Black women. Sometimes you would mention your irritation and then I got clued in. Part of this had to do with my lack of investment in relationships with Black women. And I’ve come to realize after being more intentional about remedying that issue, that a lot of it has to do with the astonishing lack of support that Black women have to do this work. Hence, it seems to me that many times, there is no capacity to call shit out. And it takes even more of that nonexistent capacity to do it in a way that is not perceived as aggressive or mean (another function of misogyny and racism!). So all of that rambling to say, I think that in order for all of the issues you’ve raised to be addressed, we (meaning progressives, for a seriously deficient lack of a better term) have to invest in Black Feminists and their work- financially, emotionally, etc etc etc. The rest of us will not figure this shit out without the guidance and leadership of Black Feminists and it’s dehumanizing of us to expect for Black Feminists to provide that guidance and leadership for free (not just in a financial sense).

    Finally, I also think there is something about the way that white guilt affects a lot of people who have been socialized as white women that sometimes makes it really difficult to acknowledge our own oppressive relationships with patriarchy. When I was newer at this work, it was ingrained in me and I accepted that it was beside the point to focus on how I am oppressed as a woman, and that to do so would perpetuate racism. It has taken my getting much clearer about how patriarchy and misogyny dehumanize me in order to, as you say, have an active politic that doesn’t invisiblize a major part of my identity. Doing so has also helped me to be more active about not dehumanizing Black women and girls (I can only hope).

  4. rochelle April 12, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    thank you mandisa, and all the sista’s above who have weighed in here…i feel such a kinship and sweet solidarity from all of you here in this forum…it has ALWAYS saddened me, when our young black girls and our black women get dissed/dismissed/degraded/dehumanized in the media and society at large! this has been a problem for as long as i have lived, 54 years and counting, and it remains one, sadly enough…but this reinforces my strength, my desire, my passion to continue to fight for US!
    i appreciate all the love and care and intelligent thought you all have place here.

    • S. Mandisa Moore April 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

      And thank you, Rochelle, for your love and support and for forwarding this.

      Yes, we will continue to fight for US!!!!

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