“The reality is that African-American women face discrimination through both their race and gender. Spheres of social identities—from race to gender to sexuality to disability—operate on multiple levels, creating multidimensional experiences.”
— Kimberlé Crenshaw
When I first started writing about racism back in 2003, barely anyone wanted to touch what I was selling except other people of color and a few hardy white people who had swallowed the red pill and had the intestinal fortitude to touch the uncomfortable. Ours is not a culture that willingly embraces the uncomfortable yet, in recent years, technology’s ability to capture what has been normalized for centuries in this country—that is, to literally show people proof of what Black people have been saying has been happening to them all along (and rarely being fully believed)—has made discussions of racism almost hip and trendy.
Talk of white privilege and white supremacy has now entered the mainstream lexicon and, while many are genuinely making the effort to labor for racial justice, the reality is that we don’t have a shared vision of what racial justice and racial equity actually look like. It should be quite clear by now, for example that a few well-placed people of color in highly visible roles or in positions of wealth doesn’t indicate a post-racial era and words on pages (notably, anti-racism and civil rights laws) often fail to lead to actual justice for victims of racism. More people are aware of systemic racism and institutional bias and all that thanks to the growing evidence, video and otherwise, shared online and elsewhere, but that awareness hasn’t brought us any closer to solutions…yet.
Instead, what we are actually often doing is working for the continued existence of whiteness as the cultural standard bearer and as the baseline norm, with the vision of bringing marginalized people into that norm. It’s the old assimilation thing in new clothing in many cases. Applying a form of justice to everyone that continues to support whiteness as the best and most normal standard. Or maleness or any other privileged class as being the standard.
We often talk about how Black and Brown people in this country have been dehumanized but what is truly dehumanizing is how whiteness as the cultural norm doesn’t recognize individual or collective humanity nor does it often respect cultural differences. It demands the blood and sweat of all and it rarely sees the individual. And yet we hold this concept of whiteness up as our norm and something to aspire to. It should instead be destroyed…and to be clear, I am not saying that white people should be destroyed. I am however saying that the cultural norm of whiteness should be destroyed. After all, a “value system” that cannot see people’s individual or cultural worth is not healthy for anyone, regardless of race. Whiteness benefits white people but it is not a healthy benefit even for white people; for all that it gives, it demands the soul in return.
True racial justice should honor the inherent worth and dignity of all people and should not require one standard of “normal.” But it doesn’t, and as someone who works in the racial justice and anti-racism world, it has become increasingly clear to me that much of the work that we do is especially harmful to women of color. Because just like in other areas of life, women of color (and particularly Black women) are asked to serve as the pack mules for the greater cause.
For the past several months, I have found myself quietly noticing how women of color are treated on an interpersonal level and after a conversation with a fellow sister activist of color, frankly I am dismayed. Given that we all live within the context of whiteness as our cultural norm, we live with a system that devalues women of color and particularly Black women in the United States. Black women have historically been relegated to one of several archetypes, with the most popular being: Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and the Angry Black Woman.
Even in 2016 with talk of race and racial justice being an almost daily occurrence, rarely are we willing to discuss how we still put Black women in the boxes that whiteness created for them even in the context of dismantling racism. Far too often, we expect the Black women in our lives to be our personal Mammy, to be of service to us all. To nourish us, to teach us, to lift us up, to carry the loads. And yet when do we see their individual humanity? When do we really grasp the intersectionality of a a Black woman’s life with other groups and classes of people? (For example, in feminism, Black women’s racial concerns are often glossed over because the goal is often more focused on white women’s equality first and foremost.) Do we really concern ourselves with the special struggles they face, or do we just pay lip service and throw around jargon while feeling good about ourselves and passing out collective high fives because we think we know a little something?
To be a Black woman in America is to hold multiple identities that start at the intersection of Black and woman and, as Kimberle Crenshaw states, it creates a multidimensional experience. To exist in many spaces and to be validated in none of them. A life with many facets that is rich, complex, and often disheartening but rarely appreciated except in the private spaces where Black women hold each other up…rarely understood except by others at that same race and gender intersection.
Right now in America, the only person who truly sees a Black woman is another Black woman because patriarchy and misogyny often creates too many layers for even a Black man to see a Black women without the frame of whiteness and its unreasonable expectations.
We can talk about race, we can join groups, we can write, we can attend conferences, we can educate, we can march. But at some point we need to shift the discussion to realize that we are all swimming in a toxic sea called whiteness that threatens us all. The cure requires more than the busy work of showing up; it actually requires nuance and intentionality at a level that is frankly missing in many racial justice spaces. If your praxis creates harm to women of color, then your ally-ship is not enough.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.