Yes, Black Women Can Focus on More than One Social Issue at a Time8/07/2015
by Jenn M. Jackson “You do realize that I am capable of complex human emotion, right?” I have s...
by Jenn M. Jackson
“You do realize that I am capable of complex human emotion, right?”
I have said this more times than I should ever have to. I have said it to men of all races and ethnicities. I have said it to White women. I have said it to multi-racial coworkers. Usually, it is in reaction to the idea that, as a Black woman, I need to focus my attention and energy on what is “really” important. And, that other people somehow determine exactly what “important” should mean to me.
Where this style of thinking is especially dangerous is in the world of social justice. Remember, it was bell hooks who told us in her book Ain’t I a Woman (1982) that social actions typically imply that “all women are White and all Blacks are men.” But, what many overlook from that text is her assertion that, “Racism has always been a divisive force separating black men and white men, and sexism has been a force that unites the two groups.” In essence, many – Black men in particular – feel that all Black folks’ energies should be aimed with a laser-like focus at specific issues of racism, like police brutality and mass incarceration, rather than spread broadly across a multitude of issues including homophobia, sexism, transmisogyny, and rape culture. This lack of desire to embrace political actions that are intersectional, a term coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, has historically centered Black men while simultaneously silencing Black women.
I have witnessed this type of outrage and energy policing regularly in the social movements and activism via social media. A few weeks ago, prominent male activists on Twitter told Black women in that space, specifically, that the altercation between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift was distracting us from bigger issues like the deaths of numerous Black women in police custody. They swooped in on their “Save a Black Woman When There’s an Issue I Can Relate To” Capes and demanded that Black women stop talking about (a) the lack of diversity in entertainment, (b) the obvious snubbing of entertainers of color at annual awards shows, and (c) the audacious privilege of Taylor Swift suggesting that Nicki Minaj join her on stage if she wins so she could be her proverbial “Black friend.” These types of men see themselves as allies when, in actuality, their actions reproduce the very same systems of oppression Black women are seeking to dismantle.
Just this week, the #ArchThatBackChallenge hashtag was hijacked by men, many of color, who expressed they would rather women focus on getting “degrees” than empowering one another’s bodily autonomy via social media. It’s as if Black women can’t be both concerned about educational disparities in our communities while expressing frustration at the erasure and exploitation of Black women’s bodies in mass media. Even some women chimed in noting that Black women’s priorities were out of order and that they couldn’t fight exploitation, unwanted consumption, and marginalization of their bodies by sharing them freely via public images. In an effort to subvert Black women’s call to mainstream media and others in their communities to stop over-sexualizing and dehumanizing their bodies, the Black women who participated in this event spotlighted the very contradiction at the base of Black collective action today.
Time and again, rather than consulting with and deferring to Black women, societal actors would rather tell us how best to address social issues which overwhelmingly affect us and us alone. They step in when our organizing and activism challenges their own conceptions of who a “respectable Black woman” should be. Most frequently, they police our collective action when they believe our energies can push forward social issues they care about.
This intentional disregard for matters affecting Black women fuels messages from men in support of rapists like Bill Cosby, telling us that his resume is more important than his acts of sexual violence. Most importantly though, the notion that Black women not only cannot but should not focus on a broad array of issues affecting us suggests that we should deny parts of ourselves while simultaneously securing protection and safety for those seeking to erase us.
The policing of Black women’s activism, pain, and collective social movements stems from a desire to further silence Black women’s lived experiences within the very movements we create. Unrespectable Black women leaders like Ida B. Wells and Ella Baker vehemently fought against structural racism affecting all Blacks whilst critiquing internalized hetero-patriarchy within Black communities. Three Black women have been at the helm of the intersectionally-focused #BlackLivesMatter movement from the beginning. Therefore, it is possible to both hate the oppression we all face while pushing back against the abuse, silencing, marginalization, and exclusion we experience at the hands of our own.
At this point, it might be best to simply trust Black women. We have proven many times that our intersectional focus on a broad number of social issues does more to defeat racial, gender, and sexual oppression and repression than does our silence and exclusion. Until Black men – and any other folks seeking to control Black women’s activism – grasp this clear fact, efforts toward unifying Black communities behind social issues will remain incomplete, watered down, and frankly, undone.
Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.