Can We Talk About How Black Women Are Treated as Threats, Too?

We tend to focus on the consequences of stereotypes about men, but black women are victims of racialized violence as well. Understanding this is a matter of life and death.

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A girl holds a sign on Aug. 21, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., as she protests the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014.

Joshua LOTT/AFP/Getty Images

Like The Root’s Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele, who recently penned the essay “Michael Brown’s Death Reopened My Eyes to My Privileges as a Black Woman,” I understand that, as a woman, I behave differently in public spaces than the black men I know and love. Actually, as an activist who has been involved in various rallies against police violence and “cop watches” in my community, I even have a habit of “mouthing off” to police officers when I know they are behaving in ways that are inappropriate and sometimes illegal.

But as I witness the national response to Michael Brown’s slaying, and how the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., are being terrorized by a militarized police force, I am forced to take a long, hard look at my behaviors and how dangerous they are. The truth is that, although cases of state and racialized violence against black women may happen less frequently than with black men, black women are still constantly perceived as threats by law enforcement and others, and must begin behaving with that awareness.

It’s no wonder that I’m just now coming to terms with this. The message that men are the only ones in danger when it comes to racialized violence is a strong one.

My mother’s conversations with me regarding how to be safe in the world generally centered on my femaleness—how to carry myself to ward off sexual harassment and assault, and which men to trust and which men not to. They were starkly different conversations from those she had with my brother.

She never spoke to me about how the sheer presence of my black skin might cause me to be beaten mercilessly by a highway patrolman; that knocking on a stranger’s door for help might mean him shooting me in the face; that being involved with a man whom police suspect of criminal activity might mean my home being raided, my infant child being injured and me being killed; that my female children aren’t safe from police violence; that, even at the age of 92, I could still suffer death at the hands of the police. My mother, although unintentionally, made a serious parenting mistake.

As I raise my own daughter, I realize that I can’t make the errors my mother did. I have to teach her, as I would teach my son, that the police and random strangers may mean her more harm than good, that she has to be alert and mindful of the way her black body moves. 

To aid in teaching her these lessons, I’d like to see more media coverage of cases where black women are injured and murdered by random homeowners and those sworn to serve and protect. I’d like to take her to a rally against police brutality that includes the names of women like Rekia Boyd, Raven Dozier and Ersula Ore. I want her to see herself—hell, I want to see myself—in these fights against violent, institutionalized racism. And I wonder why this isn’t happening already.

As I attended a local #NMOS14 rally commemorating Mike Brown’s death, and the names of victims of police violence were called out, I noticed quickly that none of the girls’ and women’s names I mentioned above were spoken. As Rutgers University professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies Brittney Cooper said in a Huffington Post Live segment on the topic, “We have a narrative when [a slaying like Trayvon Martin’s] happens to young black men ... it’s lynching. They’re lynching us. They’re doing the thing that they’ve always done. But we don’t acknowledge that black women were lynched, too, and that black women have these violent encounters with white folks, too.” Cooper also noted that attention and advocacy surrounding violence against black women are almost entirely focused on rape.

Why is this? Rutgers University professor of journalism and media studies Khadijah White suggests, “In a nation literally built for white men, whiteness and maleness becomes a neutral identity. Compounding it (with sexuality, with gender, with disability, etc.) becomes too complex for quick and easy storytelling. So black women sit at the margins of both black and female identities, never really encapsulating the way we think about either one [but bearing the brunt of the societal effects of each].”

Another piece of the problem, she says, is what she calls the “routinization of violence against women, and the cultural blind spot regarding violence against women of color.”

David J. Leonard, professor of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University in Pullman, offers even more insight concerning what some may consider the erasure of black women from the narrative of racialized violence against blacks. He asserts that mainstream media is invested in presenting the “so-called criminality and pathology of black communities,” and also blames “the presumption of black guilt and a desire to exonerate society, whiteness and the criminal justice system.”

Of course, when stories of black female victims go underreported, lesser outcries for justice result and fewer actions take place on their behalf. But what may be more damaging and dangerous, if we don’t put a spotlight on racialized violence against black women, is that they won’t enter public spaces with the caution that may be necessary to save their lives. Black women’s lives matter as much as black men’s, and black women are equally deserving of the truth about the dangers they face. We are in this together not only as protesters against what MGMX calls the extrajudicial killings of black people but also as victims of that violence.

Josie Pickens is an educator, writer and culture critic who seeks to create and further conversations about race, gender and otherness. Follow her on Twitter.

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