silent abuse : the invalidation of Black Women

Who taught you to hate yourself? Who taught you to invalidate yourself? Who taught you that you’re worthless? Who taught you that you don’t even deserve life?

My light and my dark complexion are tools for a white man’s mark; let my feet carry me away from here; let your freedom not be slaughtered

Young girl whose body lies in the streets; sheets spotted with blood; how did you break? was it the words you spoke; the sharpness of your tongue

Was is the way your body threatened those who made their way around it? The boldness to be brown; your forever radical existence

Young black girl who’s been told to choose; from the color of her skin to the thing between her legs; who has been told time and time again that she isn’t worthy; that she hasn’t done enough; that she has to work harder; that her body is too big; that her voice is too loud; that she can’t be too proud of her achievements because they are worth nothing

Find the right road

Keep to the code

Find your way through your dark

Never stray to the trees

Never begging on your knees

Strange fruit swinging on the vines

Black color in the lines

Keep your eyes on the signs

The western redefine

A new society must be born –Nubia Celis-Etienne

Since the nineteenth century, Black women activists, later joined by other women of color, have advocated on the importance of problematizing race in the struggle for women’s rights. As such, the burden of making race central to women’s social justice movements has mostly fallen on the shoulders of women of color. Women of color have never had the luxury of simply focusing on “women’s issues.”

Considerations of race, racism, and economic and social injustices have always intertwined with issues of patriarchy and sexism. However, even if this holds true, Black women are frequently absent from discussion and analyses of either gender/sex oppression or racism, since the first has been focused primarily on the experiences of white women and the second on Black men.  

Women of color who hold feminist beliefs are aware of how their communities are affected by outside forces, systems of oppression, and as Black feminist lesbian Audre Lorde would state, the “master’s tools”. In full, Lorde says, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” For us, the difference between white feminism and intersectional feminism is that intersectional feminism is about getting rid of the master’s tools that perpetuate systems of oppression and build new ones for our liberation.

Audre Lorde (photo credit: Poetry Foundation)

“The Black Feminist Statement” written by the Combahee River Collective told of the “genesis” of the conditions that Black feminists faced such as racism and sexism. Their statements still resonate today. The statement importantly noted that Black feminists were interested in combating a “range of oppressions.” They wrote, “We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess any one of these types of privilege have.” Black feminists have battled with interconnected oppressions and we cannot enforce a hierarchy of oppression because we are affected in a way that doesn’t allow us to prioritize one violence over another as they all act against us simultaneously. 

Kitchen Table Press: Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Cherrie Moraga, Demita Frazier

Black women are especially discriminated against in ways that often do not fit neatly into the categories of either “racism” or “sexism” but rather as a combination of both racism and sexism. Yet sexism and the feminist movement has generally been focused on the work and struggle of white women fighting for equality in the workplace, while men of color have received credit for the fight for rights of all people of color. This framework frequently renders Black women invisible to simultaneous injustices. Thus, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in her essay, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, the term intersectionality was widely adopted because it managed to encompass in a single word the simultaneous experience of the multiple oppressions faced by Black women. However, it’s important to note that this concept is not a new one.

While I am not saying that the work of white feminists or even male civil rights activists is invalid, however, due to their failure of recognizing violence in all its forms, especially against women of color, further perpetuates violence and asserts privilege. Such actions can be summed up in the statement:

“If your commitments are aligned with or entrenched in a system that harms women, it can’t be considered inherently feminist simply because a woman deems it so.”

Violence against women and women of color is seen in many forms, silence is one of those many forms. Silence, especially on issues regarding race, class, gender, and ability, is a luxury only a few can bear. If you go through your life never having to discuss any of these systemic oppressions then your silence is a privilege.

Lorde once illuminated the consequences of silence and of waiting for others to speak up for you in her short essay: “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She exposes the idea of fear of speaking out and how it holds us back from implementing reform and healing. It is up to each individual to share their own story, their own knowledge. This is the spark of change.

However, if the majority is held back by fear, we will never make it to what Lorde calls the “final luxury” of freedom. The absence and loss of “language” and “action” further enforces disparities and the rule of oppressive systems. Many more of our silences and your silences are yet to be broken.

Yet, there is no easy way to break these. The systems we live in don’t allow our voices to be heard, as this system has made it clear that the lives of women of color are not valued, that violence is tolerated behavior, and that others are allowed to look away. Lorde explains in her essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,”  that we are living “within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive.” 

In the same essay, the Lorde proclaims,`“I feel, therefore I can be free.” Those who have authority over their own feelings and emotions have a free mind. To have your own conscience free from the tyrannical hold of white supremacist thought is to have freedom. To have freedom is to finally destroy the white supremacy that keeps violence against women alive. 

Angela Peoples holding sign at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, January 2017 (Kevin Banatte)

The erasure of women of color and the refusal to acknowledge race sends the message that cis, straight, able-bodied, white womanhood is prioritized above all else. It’s important that this is not overlooked because true feminism cannot exist without intersectionality, which demands the dismantling of racism and white supremacy.

Ignoring our common struggles and presence because of white privilege and historical ignorance is no longer an excuse. Solidarity cannot come from only one group reaching out to the other. White feminists must come to grips with their own internalized structures of racism, classism, and even sexism that prevent them from seeing feminists of color.

This year marks the 40th year of the founding of the Combahee River Collective and their Black Feminist Statement, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” Today, we see a deepening of their words. We even saw this deepening in relation to the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s inauguration. On that day, Angela Davis said: 

“Inclusive and intersectional feminism … calls upon all of us to join the resistance to racism, to Islamophobia, to anti-Semitism, to misogyny, to capitalist exploitation…resistance to the attacks on Muslims and on immigrants, disabled people, state violence perpetrated by the police and through the prison industrial complex, [and] institutional and intimate gender violence, especially against trans women of color”

Our systems need to be recognized, broken down, and rewritten. Our liberation must progress through intersectionality and highlight individualism and unity simultaneously. Our emancipation must eliminate the need for domination and the use of the “master’s tools.” 

Abolition is possible and as a collective, so is healing.

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