When I read that Nate Parker had been accused of raping a woman in 1999, I felt anger and disgust. But most of all, I felt dread. I felt dread deep in my bones because I knew that I would be placed in the all too familiar position of feeling alone. As a Black feminist, I feel this way whenever a story breaks that involves both race and gender issues.
I’m not lonely because I sense that I’m the only one with my point of view. Rather, at these times I feel abandoned because my usual allies are not there. Here is a list of my potential allies and why they sometimes fall short.
Black men and Black women stand together in the fight against racism. However, when “the Black community” is discussed, Black men are usually the focus of the discussion. Thus, as a group, we have learned to prioritize Black men.
Let me be clear — protecting Black men is NOT a bad thing. However, when a Black man is accused of victimizing a woman, and the first impulse is to defend the man at any cost, the defensiveness becomes a problem. Over the years, time and again, I have watched Black men rally around famous Black men accused of victimizing women. The pattern held with Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson, Tupac Shakur, and Clarence Thomas in the 1990s, Kobe Bryant and R. Kelly in the 2000s, and most recently, Bill Cosby. At these times, Black men use the “Trite Defenses List™,” which includes standards like, “She knew what to expect when she went to his room/house alone,” “But we don’t know all the facts,” and other gems.
The urge to defend your own would not necessarily be a bad thing if Black women received the same treatment from Black men. But some of the men listed above victimized Black women and they still received support from Black men. In fact, in my lifetime, I have only seen Black men stand unified for Black women, no questions asked, when it appeared that their attackers were white. (Think Tawana Brawley, the Duke Lacrosse victim, and the young lady at Spring Valley High School.) So, while Black men may experience some patriarchal discomfort when “their” women are attacked by white men, they remain silent about women being victimized in other circumstances. They do everything they can to minimize the allegations, just as many whites do with claims of police brutality.
There are many Black men that identify as feminist, and thankfully, that number is growing. I am encouraged by the fact that I’ve seen so many Black men refusing to blindly support Parker out of shared male privilege. But sadly, there are still not enough Black men raising their voices against gender violence. The end result is that Black women who speak out against such violence must generally do so without the support of their brothers. In other words, we do it alone.
Feminist women share a commonality of experience. We all care deeply about protecting our right to do with our bodies whatever we want, whenever we want. We also all know what is like to feel vulnerable to men’s violence. But historically, white feminists have wavered in their allyship. Whether it’s making Ida B. Wells and other Black women march at the back of a suffrage parade or shaming Black voters for favoring Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, even with our shared experiences, working with white feminists can be difficult.
White feminists may not understand why some Black people still want to see Birth of a Nation, even if they are troubled by the allegations against Parker. They don’t understand what it’s like for any depiction of you on film to be rare and for a positive depiction to be rarer still. They may not understand Black folks’ outrage at the fact that white pedophiles such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are still lauded in Hollywood circles. They may not understand that this outrage leads to skepticism about why these rape allegations resurfaced just as Parker was poised to have a major career breakthrough. Even if white feminists don’t agree with these points, they need to understand them.
The best thing that has happened to feminism in decades is the fact that most feminists now adopt an intersectional approach. Intersectionality means that a true feminist will attempt to see all issues not just through a gender lens, but through lenses of race, religion, sexual orientation, class, age, and any of the other issues that impact the way a woman moves through the world. No longer is it considered acceptable to assert that what’s good for middle class white women is good for all women. There are many more white feminists now who “get” racial issues. And while this is undoubtedly a good thing, there are still not enough white feminists of this type. And because there aren’t enough, the lack of trust that has been built through history persists, preventing the kind of full throated conversations that need to happen around these issues. Once again, it’s a lonely fight.
Based on the prior sections, one might think I’m building to the conclusion that Black women can only rely on each other. But even that is not true. Like any other group, Black women have many and varied life experiences. So, just as not all white women are feminists, not every Black woman identifies as feminist.
I do not dare berate my sisters who do not identify as feminist. Because of the history mentioned above, there are reasons to be skeptical of white feminism. (In fact, even some Black feminists prefer the term “womanist.”) Because of the way racial issues have been framed by the media and certain Black leaders for generations, most Black women either learn or are taught that you are Black first, woman second. (I certainly did as a young girl.) And because of this race-first view, many Black women are skeptical of any attack on a Black man. This is especially true when the crime is sexual assault, the victim is a white woman, and the alleged perpetrator is a Black man. Black women know that the history of white women falsely accusing Black men is very real. When this knowledge of history is coupled with a sincere love for the Black men that we know and encounter daily, it makes sense that some Black women would be suspicious of the allegations against Parker.
I understand where these women are coming from because they are right about the history. I just wish that they would go a little further. I wish that instead of stopping with recognizing our horrible history of racism, they would ask questions about the role of gender as well. I wish that instead of prioritizing the men in our community, more women would ask what sort of community we are building when we assert — in deeds, words, or both — that our daughters don’t matter as much as our sons. I wish that they’d ask these questions because I know I’d feel a little less lonely if they did.
In college, I stumbled upon a book called “All the Blacks are Men, All the Whites are Women, But Some of Us Are Brave.” After reading that book, I realized that I could not choose between being Black or being a woman. I am both. And because I am both, I am outraged by both racism and sexism. Unfortunately, because some don’t see the connection between the struggles, I feel as though I inhabit the middle ground between two groups. And while there are a number of people (Black and white, male and female) who see that we can’t fight sexism without fighting racism and vice versa, there are not enough.
Living in the middle is stressful. As long as these groups remain separate, some Black men will call me a traitor for daring to suggest that the Black community take gender issues seriously. Similarly, as long as the groups are not merged, when I rail against racism, I run the risk of offending whites I agree with on gender issues with my “anger.” The pressure of living as a “go-between” is too much at times.
The way to relieve the strain on those in the middle is easy — make the middle larger. We must increase the number of Black men (and white men, and Asian men, and Latino men. . .) that understand sexism in all of its forms. And we desperately need more white people that understand racism. Many problems that are framed as racial issues have a gender component. And most gender issues look different when viewed through a racial lens. When we improve our way of looking at problems, we improve our chances of solving them.
People fighting against racism and sexism have a common goal — making this country a better place. Creating change is certainly not easy. But it’s easier to do it together than alone.
Originally published at lawprofessors.typepad.com.