#BlackTransLivesMatter: How Black Cis-Women are Part of the Problem

by Ashleigh Shackelford

In the words of the Trans Women of Color Collective National Director, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, “Every breath a Black trans woman takes is an act of revolution.” It is no secret that Black transwomen are hyper-visible in our society and within the Black community. Black transwomen are targeted and simultaneously erased because it is assumed that their identities are not valid nor is their humanity seen as worthy. The concept of validity and worthiness is based in oppressive beauty standards, violent binary expectations, and anti-Black racism perpetuated on a systemic level but also reproduced and enacted by individuals within our society.

When we talk about how Black transwomen are at risk for being violated, murdered, and forgotten in the same breath, we have to remember who is responsible for this violence. It’s rare that we (as a community and individually) accountably name who is killing our Black trans sisters outside of institutional marginalization. Black transwomen are most likely killed by an acquaintance, a significant other, or pushed into a deadly circumstance created by family rejection. These acquaintances and partners are primarily Black cisgender men. But it’s not just Black men who are at fault. The family rejection, interpersonal violence, and transphobic norms are highly perpetuated by people like me - Black cisgender women. In reality, Black families out of all racial groups are the most accepting of their out trans family members, but when we’re not accepting, we’re extremely violent. Black ciswomen perpetuate a deeply rooted racialized gender construct that upholds ideas of masculinity and femininity that limit fluidity and humanity.
Black cisgender women - queer, bisexual, straight, disabled, working class, fat, etc. - are part of the problem. Our role in perpetuating this violence adds to creating a continuum of transphobic lineage in our communities. Our hands are stained yet we’re unwilling to address our role in how we are violent against other Black women. We use our proximity to gender privilege to invalidate Black transwomen’s womanhood and humanity. We utilize a veil of access to femininity and binary affirmation to oppress Black transwomen who present (through our problematic perception) less in proximity to these oppressive standards. And when Black transwomen present in a way that make us feel seemingly comfortable, then it feels like deception or an invalidation of our worthiness. But the reality is that Black ciswomen do not have access to gender conformity whatsoever nor do we have the ability to navigate gender performance without speculation either.

Under white supremacist beauty standards and gender expectations, Black cisgender women are scripted as hyper-masculine and simultaneously hyper-sexual. This has been evident from the enslavement of Black women to the current evolution of anti-Black misogynistic culture. Often, Black cisgender women are fighting for respectability and femininity based on standards created to exclude us. Our hair, our skin color, our bodies, our strength, our anger, our pain, and our humanity does not fit within the norms we are trying to subscribe to. Black cisgender women’s bodies have always been considered too big, too hard, impure, overly sexual, and beastly. A perfect example is how Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman was ridiculed, dehumanized, and put on display in a cage because her Black body was seen as animalistic, foreign, and grotesque to the white gaze and white gender norms.

When we look at transphobic memes and violent gender indictments of Serena Williams, Caster Semenya, Ciara, Wendy Williams, and Joseline Hernandez, we can see how all Black women are scrutinized as not woman enough, nor feminine enough. Even scientists and the study of science has tried to prove Black women as animalistic for centuries. More recently, in 2011, Psychology Today’s Satoshi Kanazawa published his infamous piece, A Look at the Hard Truths About Human Nature,” which went into detail about why Black women are less attractive than other women. Kanazawa, who is a psychologist at the London School of Economics, claimed that Black women are less physically attractive due to being much heavier, less intelligent, and that Black women have higher levels of testosterone - making us more masculine.

All Black women are unable to achieve gender conformity under white supremacist gender norms. Gender construction is a tool of colonization and works in conjunction with other oppressive systems such as anti-Blackness, queerphobia, capitalism, sizism, colorism, and ableism. In our society, the more extreme your gender nonconformity, the more extreme the discrimination and violence will be. When race is added in this equation, it complicates how the gender spectrum limits us. When culture and society has created institutional means to perpetuate a standard of beauty, health, scientific basis, and acceptability, it forces all Black folks to continuously remain reaching for the unattainable.

In order to address our violence against Black transwomen, we have to be able to unpack gender expectation and the limitation of accessing femininity and/or womanhood. We cannot expect Black transwomen to have access to our ideas of femininity or “soft” womanhood when we’ve continued to fight for that same affirmed womanhood for centuries and have yet to achieve these standards we’ve been imprisoned to. Our humanity as Black ciswomen is more accessible because Black transwomen’s distance from gender conformity is further than ours. That means our humanity is based upon the dehumanization of Black transwomen, hence our ability to enact our privilege and carry out this violence. Our ostensibly comfortable navigation of gender is based on the erasure of our Black trans sisters, and our silence and complacency in this reality is even more violent.

As a Black cisgender woman, my privilege in being able to have this conversation means that I’m able to speak freely on my privilege when it’s convenient and when it feels comfortable. But I have to recognize that I’m part of the problem even in penning this article. I might even be praised for these same points that many Black transwomen have continuously strived to bring to light but go unheard. It is on us as Black ciswomen to end violence against other Black women. When we judge another Black woman, cisgender or transgender, for presenting in ways that are not feminine enough or not woman enough, we are upholding anti-Black transmisogynistic violence but also enacting ideas of gender that should be more fluid than definitive. We have to challenge our ideas of beauty and gender in order to not only save our Black trans sisters, but ourselves. We are restricted to a benchmark that we can never achieve. We are confined to violent ideas of beauty that were never created to celebrate our Blackness, our fullness, or our individual representations of womanhood. But if we perpetuate these standards against Black transwomen in order to push us closer to acceptability, we are responsible for killing them. We are responsible for creating an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ reality. We are responsible for continuing to use the word ‘women’ and only mean ‘some.’
When Black transwomen are free, only then can we expect to be free too. This is not to make the humanity of our Black trans sisters a priority out of selfishness, privilege, or a savior complex. This is a call to action for all Black ciswomen to unpack that gender, gender presentation, and gender performance are violent, racist constructs. There are no defined body characteristics of certain genders, nor is there one way to identify as a particular gender. We have to address our internalization of gender expectations of others and ourselves. No one can be free to perform, present, or interpret femininity and/or womanhood without prioritizing the safety of Black transwomen. No one can be free without understanding our responsibility in the violence against Black transwomen. The world cannot be free without the liberation and celebration of Black transwomen, and it’s time that we do more to support and protect our sisters.

Ashleigh Shackelford is a radical Black fat femme queer writer that resides in Baltimore, MD. Ashleigh is a pop-culture enthusiast, a community organizer at Black Action Now, and the founder of a body positivity organization Free Figure Revolution. She is currently pursuing her master's in Africana Studies at Morgan State University.

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