Black Women Must Be More Than the Canaries in Your Coal Mines

by Candace Simpson @CandyCornball

To be a “canary in a coal mine” means that one is so sensitive to environmental conditions that one’s suffering sends a warning signal to others nearby. The expression comes from the practice of using canaries as alarms in mining tunnels. The canary’s lungs were so delicate that it would be affected by toxic gases and die. The canary, vulnerable and small, helped to signal danger for the miners.

This is great news for the miners, but not at all for canaries. In an effort to be intersectional in our organizing for Black lives, I worry that we have made Black women the canaries of our coal mines.
We are missing something with our analysis of the Daniel Holtzclaw case in Oklahoma. Daniel Holtzclaw's trial in Oklahoma started earlier this month, and his jury is all-White. He is charged with the rape and sexual assault of thirteen Black girls and women in the area he patrolled as an officer. This story teaches us about the nature of Power. Daniel Holtzclaw represents White Supremacy, Sexism, Rape Culture, and the Police State. This case is not just about the unique vulnerability of Black women in the context of police brutality, though that’s important. This case is about the investment this Empire has in the continued oppression of its citizenry.

Disturbingly, Holtzclaw knew exactly what he was doing by targeting Black women. The news of his trial comes alongside another story, in which hundreds of cops lost their licenses due to documented sexual misconduct. We will easily miss the point if we reduce this to being about Holtzclaw, or even Oklahoma. Instead, we should be moved to wonder “What kind of system do we have here? What kind of world gives space to this predatory behavior?What kind of system allows for an all-White jury to try this case? And who stands to win when we hide these stories from public discourse?”

Try as we might, it is impossible to protect the canaries in a toxic environment. We must eliminate the coal mine completely. There is no piecemeal reform that would adequately preserve our lives. We have to wonder about the canary and the toxic coal mine.

Our world is set up to privilege the State (and its agents) over the person, proximity to Whiteness over all others, manhood over womanhood. Holtzclaw is a representative of the powerful agent in those admittedly limiting binaries. When someone with power is accused of misconduct, we invert common sense to protect the powerful. That is how an all-White jury was selected to decide a clearly racially motivated case. This coal mine must be named for what it is-- it is one which fuels itself through the systematic exploitation of the very beings it has made weak and vulnerable.

The inversion of logic to suit the powerful is an example of what ethicist Emilie Townes calls a “fantastic hegemonic imagination.” In her book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, she argues that this imagination “uses a politicized sense of history and memory to create and shape its worldview.” Simply put, much of what we imagine to be true is not. This imagination is within all of us, which makes it particularly hard to challenge. As such, we have to learn to question the news we watch, the books we read, and the memes we see shared on Facebook.

This is why so many of us cheered the Ebony cover featuring the shattered image of Bill Cosby. This is why we do not take the stories of Bill Cosby, Ray Rice, or R. Kelly lightly. When men like the aforementioned are forgiven as if nothing happened, what do we imagine will happen with men like Daniel Holtzclaw? If anyone can get away with violence against Black women and girls, it makes sense that Officer Holtzclaw, a symbolic Steward of the System, gets just as much grace and more.

Centering Black womanhood helps paint a more accurate picture of the system built upon the scriptures of sexism, racism, economic exploitation, and several other forms of oppression. I have several privileges which make it almost impossible for me to even see oppressions outside of my own experience. And that’s okay, so long as we commit to learning more every day.Tackling these issues one tentacle at a time does nothing to kill the monster. The more I can name each claw, each fang, each tail, the better I am able to understand the Beast.
I am grateful for the work of organizations like Black Youth Project 100, which organize through a queer Black feminist lens.This group, among many others across the country, uses the stories of Black women to seek a truth we might not otherwise find. That is how this work will be successful. In our quest to follow and be involved, however, we must be cautious of turning Black women and girls into canaries just to prove a point. Instead, we should get out of the dangerous mines and take everyone with us. That is what many organizations (and individuals) work towards. Otherwise, an opportunity for our national conversation around justice will soon disintegrate into neoliberal chatter about diversity and inclusion. It is for this reason that intersectional organizing is more than simply smacking the names of Black women and girls at the end of a litany of Black men’s names. Intersectional organizing is meant to teach us the evil of the system so that we imagine a world without it. Can we imagine a world where Black women, and all people of the historically marginalized communities, no longer must be used as currency to prove a point? What will it take us to get there?

I’m ready for all the canaries to fly free.

Photo: Shutterstock

Candace Simpson is a Brooklyn native and a seminary student. You can follow her tweets about faith, Nicki Minaj, and shea butter at @CandyCornball.

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