Perhaps you’ve heard these names. They are all Black women who have been killed by police. Do you know their stories? Are you aware of the circumstances of their killings? If you’ve answered “no” to either of these questions, do you care to know why?
Let there be no mistake, Black women are killed by the police (please note that the names of slain Black women listed above is by no means exhaustive). But, there is a long history of Black women being erased from conversations of state-sanctioned violence. In the United States, this erasure of violence towards Black women started with the institution of slavery. Slave owners killed and maimed enslaved Black people willy-nilly. Enslaved women were also raped by slave owners, with no repercussions—after all, Black women were considered property.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, and also the executive director of the African American Policy Forum. Crenshaw first came to the realization as a student in law school that Black women and girls weren’t seen as objects of racist violence.
“I was taking a class on race and slavery and the professor was talking about racist violence and the institutionalization of slavery.” Crenshaw continued, “And when he touched on the kind of violence, the specific violence that Black women experience, the violence that allowed slavery to be reproduced through the forced reproduction through our bodies, namely rape. What he said was, ‘Can you imagine what it would be like to be a father, a husband, a son who had to stand by helplessly as your mother, sister, daughter was raped?’ And my reaction was, I know that was bad, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been as bad as being that daughter, wife or sister who was, you know, sexually abused.”
Crenshaw says that Black women aren’t protected because the larger society isn’t telling the stories of the racist and gendered violence that Black women experience, in all of its forms. If we’re not telling these stories, we can’t link current forms of oppression with the horrors of history.
In 2014, Crenshaw—who coined the term “intersectionality” 30 years ago—created #SayHerName to honor the Black women whose lives were taken by the police. Over time, the campaign pulled together the names of these slain Black women and the circumstances of their killings. And the #SayHerName movement includes all Black women: trans, cis, femmes and girls. Crenshaw memorializes the forgotten by telling their stories—shifting the narrative of racial violence.
“I think there are some folks who still believe that introducing the recognition that there are some who are left out is being divisive. But it’s the same way that some people think Black Lives Matter is divisive. We have to say all lives matter. Well we know all lives matter. The point is that we live in a society that acts as though some lives don’t. That’s why we say Black Lives Matter. And that’s why we ‘Say Her Name’.”
In this episode of Unpack That, we delve into the history of how Black women are erased from conversations of police violence, social justice movements and intra-racial violence. Watch the full video above.