Dear Melissa Harris-Perry: Black Womanhood Cannot Be "Opted" Into

by Briana Dixon for Amplify

Dear Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry:

As news broke of the Charleston shooting, I found myself in the midst of another nationwide mourning session as black people everywhere took to their computers and asked a question that plagues us all: Where are we safe?

It is the same question I found myself asking over and over as I watched your disturbing interview with Rachel Dolezal. It was never Rachel herself that made me infuriated with her story, but to see so many indulging yet more violence against black women as black women (and girls) die in the streets. For many black women, we recognize that the appropriation of black womanhood, the reduction of our identities into “feeling black”, and the erasure of actual black women is violence. Rachel stole our stories and life experiences to take up space that could have gone to authentic black women, and it is no surprise that in response, society rushed to her defense. Such violence is regularly enacted on black women by mainstream media every day, as everyone appropriates our bodies, lives, and deaths in order to profit from our greatness and our destruction.

What is most infuriating about Rachel Dolezal is the idea that black womanhood is something as simple as a “deep feeling.” That marveling at my brown skin as I lay on the beach when I was a kid is not part of my black womanhood. That being told by the white kids I went abroad with that it was disgusting I didn’t wash my hair every day isn’t part of my black womanhood. That being relentlessly teased for my natural hair in high school isn’t a part of my black womanhood. That being praised and admired for my natural hair in college isn’t part of my black womanhood. That unlearning white supremacy at Spelman College isn’t part of my black womanhood. That being constantly exposed to anti-blackness in so much of our media isn’t part of my black womanhood. That the stories of my black mother and black grandmothers and black aunties is not part of my black womanhood. That the black women—like Maya Angelou and Lorraine Hansberry and Octavia Butler—whose work did not only inspire me but saved me, are not part of my black womanhood. That it isn’t a complicated and nuanced experience that started at birth and will continue until I die. That the idea you can choose when black womanhood starts, that you can choose when subjugation, resistance, sadness, joy, and erasure begins and ends (though I will give her credit for staying true to her rouse) is not, within and of itself, a privilege.

It is perhaps the utmost privilege for this woman to say MY LIFE and the lives of MY SISTERS, MOTHERS, AUNTS, FRIENDS, CLASSMATES, FOREMOTHERS, and SPIRIT MOTHERS is something she so greatly “identifies” with, that she can claim it for herself. It is a privilege to choose black womanhood because you think it’s beautiful, instead of finding the beauty in black womanhood because it is actually what you are.

Colonizers did not take our lands, our work, our lives, our bodies, our spirits, and our identities away from us because they thought they had no value. To suggest we should indulge this woman’s colonization because she obviously admires blackness is to state the obvious. Of course she values blackness. We do not steal things that we do not value.

Colonizers colonize because they believe they are entitled to do so because of their superiority. This woman’s forefathers felt like they could force entire societies to accept their modes of thinking, from toxic hetero-patriarchy to bastardized religion, and now we all live in a world that is so enamored with the subjugation and erasure of people of color that we are willing to praise someone for finding a new innovative way to enact this violence.

It is important to understand that race, as a tool of social stratification and as a social construct, is not the same as race as a culture and a community. Blackness is born of social stratification, but social stratification does not fully encompass the complexity of being black. The same is true of gender. However, at their root, they are tools of social stratification, and to ignore that is to ignore the ways in which we are specifically stratified in order to facilitate oppression.

Addressing that oppression requires acknowledgement of how we are targeted and discriminated against due to intentional stratification. Those who are gendered as feminine are discriminated against because of prejudice targeting feminine people. Those who are people of color—especially black people in our anti-black society—are discriminated against because of prejudice targeting people of color, especially black people. Though we have, in all our magical glory, taken stratification and turned it into community, it is a community born of resisting and overcoming the effects of subjugation post-stratification. For that reason, our communities must be valued and protected, and overcoming oppression isn’t as simple as ignoring the ways we are stratified, but addressing how and why discrimination occurs along the lines of certain stratifications. To attempt to gain entrance into a community without authentically embodying the traits that makes people of an oppressed group targets is to take all of the magic without any of the hardship. This. Is. Violence

I heard your argument that if we draw the lines of what constitutes blackness, we risk creating an “authentic” blackness that is unattainable for more than this deluded colonizer. The re-institution of the “one-drop” rule to prove one’s blackness would be concerning, but there are not many people who are asking for that. Most of the people rejecting this white woman’s falsehoods are not saying there is only one way to be authentically black, but there are definite ways to be INAUTHENTICALLY black. Being born to white parents, as a white baby, with white privilege, and living your life as a white woman for over twenty years, is a pretty good way to NOT BE BLACK.

Dr. Perry, do you not find it opportunistic that as black women are more visible than ever in their celebration of black womanhood, all of sudden our society demands we share it? Do you not find it odd that as we expose how powerful black women are in spite of centuries of subjugation, how much joy we manage to create in spite of concentrated efforts to destroy us, how wonderful we continue to be in spite of blatant attacks on our very selves EVERY DAY, that suddenly we are something people think they can opt into?

Do you not find it convenient that this woman, steeped in unconscious white supremacy, claims black womanhood when it can afford her power as a professor, as president of the NAACP, as a person of multiracial background on the police board, and as a paid speaker on blackness (which included fabrications about her black youth)? Do you not find it a little amazing that she chose to be a black woman when that identity afforded her inordinate amounts of space, without any of the struggle and exclusion that usually precludes that space for women who are actually born black?

Continue reading at Amplify.

Briana Dixon is a Spelmanite & Creativity Addict. She gets her daily fix through writing, acting, vlogging, & dreaming of an idealistic future, one for which she frequently advocates.

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