July 13th makes it 120 days since Breonna Taylor was shot and killed while sleeping in her own bed by officers Brett Hankinson, Jonathan Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove. When protests first erupted back in June, any American — at least for a little while — could not escape the reality of America’s racial struggle. And with that inescapable reality — and its accompanying media coverage — Breonna’s name became something of a household staple.
No matter one’s individual stance on the nature of American racism, Breonna Taylor’s entire existence became only a dot on a long historical spectrum of racial injustice. Her memory was carried by the voices of protestors; her name was spoken on radio shows and podcasts; her face became an emblem of outrage and petitions were churned out en masse for the arrest of her officers. As with George Floyd’s death, Breonna served as a spark to the reactive underbelly of suffering that had gone unlistened to for far too long.
But then something strange happened to Breonna Taylor.
While it is painstakingly obvious that the officers who killed her were not arrested — and free to this day — as they did the officers who killed George Floyd, where George’s “justice” led the subsequent retirement of his name, Breonna’s name remained enmeshed in the dregs of public afterthought.
Once media coverage died down on the protests, life seemed to quiet down for those privileged enough to not have to deal with the harsh realities of intersectional oppression. However, under the reign of the coronavirus pandemic, while quiet, things couldn’t be normal again. The sheer anguish and rage and exhaustion that Americans showed in retaliation to the violation of civil and individual rights created a disruption that could not allow continued ignorance to settle as it once did before. Simply put, it wasn’t cool to not be conscious.
Yet as weeks went by and the officers who killed Breonna had still not been arrested, Breonna herself became a trend.
She became a replicated image on T-shirts and napkins and hats and hoodies. She became a quirky caption for social media users to use, as they concealed their bald-faced vanity under the guise of empathy and social justice. ‘Influencers’ and normal people alike returned to posting their selfies while tacking on Breonna’s name somewhere in their bios or their captions as lazy performances of allyship. Catchy dances on apps like Tiktok were generated, with audios in the background that used Breonna Taylor’s name as the hook to a beat. Graphic designers replaced descriptions of their art for a demand that eventually became a meme: “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” Anyone with a phone had that phrase somewhere, floating on the web. On the surface, it seemed like the public still cared about the tragic ending of Breonna’s life.
But in reality, the opposite was happening.
It wasn’t Breonna Taylor’s memory that was being honored, but her likeness that had become profitable.
A renewed vigor should have been born when Breonna’s killers still maintained their freedom. But instead, the lack of political and social pressure to do for a Black woman what had been done for a Black man had turned a very real woman’s life into a caricature. And that should have been more disturbing, it should have been deemed more offensive, more people should have thought through their actions before trying to sell napkins with Breonna’s face on it for $10. But that sort of empathy wasn’t there for Breonna Taylor. And that sort of reality spoke volumes. Performance shouldn’t have been equated with justice for Breonna Taylor. Yet it was.
And this returns back to an argument that has been made about the dehumanization of Black women for a long, long, long time. Public concern with the treatment of Breonna’s killing had dwindled down to pockets of active resistance overshadowed by careless, self-serving, and empty gestures. Yet another Black female body had been turned into a carcass to be picked at by cultural vultures and not enough people saw an issue with it.
Breonna illustrates how exploited Black women are, by every social participant in our American culture.
It is common knowledge that Black women produce a vast-majority of original fashion and beauty trends that are eventually stolen by non-Black people; what is deemed “ghetto” one year when it debuts in poor Black communities becomes wildly popular in real-world and digital social circles another year, after someone more socially desirable, I.e. someone who isn’t a poor, dark-skinned Black woman, appropriates it and makes it more ‘appealing’. The intellectual and physical labor of Black women — which has historically been a diverse and rich diaspora — throughout academia and in the workforce also illustrates how Black women are policed for aspects of their existence, like their hair or even the tone that they speak in, that they naturally embody. If not for the work of other activists, many times Black women, the Breonna Taylor memes would have never been called out to begin with. And this is the frustrating truth that Black women oftentimes have to live with: while having to defend themselves against social prejudices, Black women are often burdened with the task of finding challenging, dismantling, and explaining their own oppression to the public at large.
This is such common knowledge that the very stereotype of Black femininity and womanhood is directly tied to the supposed strength and toughness of the Black female body.
But truthfully, Black women are astoundedly alone in the fights which they face. Across the board, judicial and social protections do not exist for Black women as they do for non-Black women. Further outside of the sphere of race and sex, Black women are frighteningly diminished in comparison to women of other racial and ethnic identities. While their suffering is not measured, it is blatantly apparent both in the digital and the real world that if Black women don’t show up and defend themselves first, nobody else will.
What the societal perception of the Black female body tells is a long and strange story about how women like Breonna Taylor are at once valued and devalued.
When it is said that Black women are consistently failed by every societal participant, across culture and class, it means that as a collective, the mere reality of Breonna Taylor’s violent death becoming a meme and a commodity is an aberration and it shouldn’t exist. But it does. And that says a lot. Black women like Breonna Taylor are treated this way every day. In life and in death. Non-Black men and women use the labor of Black women to their benefit and too many Black men do not do enough to protect Black women from the realities of patriarchic sexism and violent misogyny. For many Black women, their mere existence is a complex web of various oppressions that they have to navigate.
It’s bizarre, it’s tragic, but the truth of the matter is that it is not new.
Unpacking the treatment of Black women is essential to understanding root causes of racial and sexual injustice. But before that work can be done we must first address the fact that there is simply not enough empathy or humanity extended to Black women, to begin with. The Breonna Taylor memes should have been an intolerable offense; there should have been an overall social inclination to preserve and honor the life of a young woman taken too soon, without the need or the desire to make her death of some use. But there wasn’t.
And until that changes, Black women will continue to be outnumbered in the fight for their own lives. Women like Breonna Taylor will only continue to serve as tragic examples of how sadly alone Black women truly are.