Our Brothers Can Do Better: The Black Woman Activist's Struggle for Reciprocity

by Candace Simpson

If you ask any sister-activist, she’ll tell you she’s tired.

As sisters, we have been intentional with organizing on behalf of Eric Garner, Islan Nettles, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Latandra Ellington, and Trayvon Martin. We know we must work for everyone. We are so accustomed to being excluded from the table that we make sure everyone eats when we cook.

But the kitchen is getting hot, and I’m about tired of making plates.

I was sickened to find the same men who wanted me to be their rottweiler during #BlackLivesMatter protests then wanted me to be a church mouse in discussing allegations of rape against Bill Cosby. And it confused me that the same men who were “proud of how I hold down 'the nation'” when we marched together in New York for Eric Garner were nowhere to be found for Rekia Boyd’s rally last month

This is a pattern that goes beyond protest spaces. Most brothers can cite Tupac’s prophetic decree, “Since we all came from a woman… I wonder why we take from our women,” but it is not clear they have concrete examples of how to show respect for their sisters and the work we do.

We demand reciprocity—in our protesting, in our intellectual work, in our homes. Below are four ways we need Black men to show up and reciprocate.

1. In professional settings, treat us like your peers. 

When I taught first and second grade, my peers were mostly women. Then I ended up in seminary (that’s a story for another day) and my peer group was mostly men. Any time I’m at a major service event, conference, or involved in project in which mostly men will show up, I am treated one of two ways: as their daughter or their date. The daughter-date matrix makes it so that women are always someone to mentor, but never considered as a partner or leader. We are forever eye-candy, but rarely a peer-advisor.

If you meet us in a conference room or at an organizing meeting, please give us the courtesy of treating us like professionals. Look us in the eye when you speak. After you talk about your project, ask us about ours. Connect us with people doing similar work.

If you meet us at a speed-dating event, feel free to turn the swag on. Otherwise, it’s just messy. Especially in industries based on the apprenticeship model—such as law, medicine, and ministry—where women in your professional networks are already vulnerable. The power dynamic makes it so that women feel less comfortable saying “no”—whether that’s to a request for her to take on an additional project or a request for dinner.

When young women break into these industries, they experience additional pressures. If you are interested in providing opportunities for a Black woman in your professional and community spaces, make sure she feels like she is neither your daughter or your date. Treat her like she should be treated: as your colleague.

2. Be mindful of the space you take up at conferences or speaking events.

This past Holy Week, I was jarred when I saw the all male line-up of the “7 Last Words” series. We’ve come to this odd convergence of new technology and old thinking. We have not yet decolonized our idea of what a “good” preaching line-up can be.

When contacted by a program coordinator, ask one question: “How many women have been invited to participate in this event?” This will give the coordinator the opportunity to reflect on inclusivity. It’s a gentle way to raise the concerns of those who’ve been forgotten. In the age of social media, an all-male flyer at ANY event is likely to be critiqued. (#BlackTwitter is especially brutal.) If you’re comfortable being seen as yet another reminder that most spaces do not lift up the voices of women, go ahead. But at the very least, asking this question will spare you the embarrassment of being associated with an event without any sort of gender diversity.

Bonus tip: If you know a woman who would be a better fit for a speaking engagement you’ve been invited to, raise up her name as a suggestion.

3. Read the work of women.

Black women have been writing, speaking, creating, organizing, and leading just as long as men have. There are several timeless works that can help orient you to the concerns and issues of Black women. Beverly Guy-Sheftall published the anthology, Words of Fire, which includes a wide range of Black women’s writing. Maria Stewart, Ida B. Wells, Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Assata Shakur, Brittney Cooper, Emilie Townes, Jamilah Lemieux, and Farah Jasmine Griffin are names you should know. But trust, there are many more. 

Learn the names of Black women who are leaders and innovators in your field. There is no excuse for ignorance in 2015. When you are more familiar with the work of your sisters, your world will change. It’s impossible to challenge the idea of the charismatic Black male as the only example for activist leadership if you’ve only engaged the ideas of Martin, Malcolm, and Huey.

4. Show up for your sisters.

I’m not surprised the rally in honor of Rekia Boyd’s in New York’s Union Square last month had significantly less attendees than we’ve seen at rallies for male victims of state violence. I’m not surprised the St. Louis-based organizers of Millennial Activists United experienced low turnout for their recent #BlackWomensLivesMatter protest.

But I’m angry that the same folks who couldn’t make it to Rekia’s march last month were moving hell and earth to get to Baltimore. I’m speaking specifically to my NYC based brothers. It took a car with snacks and a full tank of gas, as well as extra clothes, vacation days, and a toothbrush to go to Baltimore. It only cost $2.75 to get to Union Square for Rekia’s protest. Where were you? And why are you so eager to support movements that require interstate travel when sisters in your own community have been calling on you for the longest?

I choose to believe that Black men want to do better, but misogynoir is a hard habit to break.

Supporting Black women means we must constantly unlearn and undo years of oppressive behaviors and thinking. I have this gloomy sense that if Black women do not feel supported by the men we call our “brothers,” we will soon go on strike. I’ve hit that point. I’m tired of feeling the issues I am most affected by are not seen as being urgent. I’m tired of being silenced when I speak about my own needs, and guilt-tripped into serving as a human chariot for Black men’s pain.

Enough is enough. Prove us wrong. Show us that you can give as much as you can take. We’re asking you to do better—for your sake and ours.

As Lauryn Hill sings: Tell me who I have to be to gain some reciprocity? See, no one loves you more than me… And no one ever will.

Photo: Marino Mauricette / For Harriet

Candace Simpson is a seminary student and a Brooklyn native. She is also a regular contributor to For Harriet. You can follow her on Twitter: @CandyCornball.

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