Believe Black Women, Too
The past few months have shown that vocal black women are particularly vulnerable to suppression. In the age of #BelieveWomen and #MeToo, it’s essential that their voices are amplified.
An ever-escalating number of women have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault. The women vary in age, nationality, and relative fame. But until recently, Weinstein had only challenged one accuser’s account by name. This accuser — Academy Award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o — is also the only black woman on the roster of Weinstein’s alleged victims.
Nyong’o’s New York Times allegation is detailed and measured in the way sexual assault accusations have to be in order to be taken seriously. (Denials of sexual assault, on the other hand, can be incoherent, insulting, and implausible, yet held in the same regard.) Despite the similarities between Nyong’o’s account and those of other actresses, Weinstein thought it important to cast doubt upon Nyong’o’s account in particular.
The targeting of Nyong’o didn’t go unnoticed:
Weinstein’s denial is one of many recent examples of powerful white men publicly undermining black women. Last month, President Donald Trump and his chief of staff John F. Kelly rushed to discredit two black women — Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) and Myeshia Johnson, the widow of a fallen solider — when they recounted Trump’s clumsy, insensitive remarks regarding the soldier’s death. Trump predictably took to Twitter to voice his disdain for Wilson. Then, in a transparent smear attempt, Kelly claimed that Wilson made improper remarks at a filmed 2015 dedication ceremony. (Spoiler alert: she didn’t.)
This brazen contempt for black women is no surprise. At the intersection of blackness and womanhood, we’re at the mercy of both white supremacy and the patriarchy. The consequences of existing in that intersection range from annoying to outright dangerous. If you’re an internet troll (including the Twitter Troll-in-Chief), the opportunity to be both sexist and racist is too good to pass up. And when you’re a white man in power, abuse from behind the keyboard can have real-life implications.
After Rep. Wilson criticized President Trump, she received racially-motivated threats of violence that forced her to miss work. Neither Trump nor Kelly have apologized to Wilson for falsely vilifying her — Kelly, in fact, refuses to apologize — and why would they? By targeting the people who are most vulnerable within the power structures of white supremacy and patriarchy, white men are likely to get away with doing so.
The compounded marginalization black women face is most simply illustrated by a few negative stereotypes. These abstractions render black people malicious, unsophisticated, and cartoonish, while women are presumed hysterical, manipulative, and incapable. The amalgamation of these stereotypes typically results in the Angry Black Woman (ABW) trope. As Ann Marie Kerwin writes in AdAge, the ABW not only paints a negative picture of black women, but it also serves to discredit them:
[The angry black woman stereotype is] a taunt that’s been used in recent months against women from Rep. Maxine Waters to Serena Williams to ESPN’s Jemele Hill. … She is unreasonable, and that gives us permission to dismiss her statements and her concerns.
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did his best to frame Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as an Angry Black Woman. In response to her intense, courtroom-style questioning, he accused her of making him nervous. Harris’s approach was regarded as normal for a courtroom setting, but Sessions made her appear aggressive in comparison by playing up his affable, grandfatherly demeanor.
Especially in professional settings, men responding to women’s intensity with amusement is a common way men minimize women’s concerns. It also forces women to recalibrate their tone from one of seriousness to one of equal irreverence, lest they appear “hysterical.”
This is exactly what happened to Harris. Not only was she repeatedly interrupted by her (white male) colleagues, but she was also deemed “hysterical” by a (white male) pundit. These tactics should be familiar to most women; it’s no different than being to told calm down when you are calm or to be nicer when you are speaking with conviction. They say “speak differently, and we’ll listen,” but they really mean “don’t speak at all.” Both women and black people know this well.
Despite the power of women’s shared experiences, that power is often undermined by our racially- and politically-motivated tribalism. We hire people like ourselves, live among people like ourselves, and send our kids to school with kids like our own. We’re also more likely to award the benefit of the doubt to the people most like us, whether or not we believe they truly deserve it.
This dynamic was brought to the fore in the 2016 presidential election: Evangelical Christians made dramatic concessions for a thrice-married fair-weather Christian; the white working class turned out for a businessman who stiffed his own workers; and a majority of white women overlooked the type of accusations that brought Harvey Weinstein down to elevate Trump to the highest office in the land.
With the last revelation comes a hard truth: white women still play a major role in upholding white patriarchy. From the women’s suffrage movement to the present, white women have encouraged racism, benefitted from racism, dismissed racism, and/or co-opted racism to make a point. Even if they aren’t racist themselves, white women can inadvertently alienate women of color by centering their experiences as white women and ignoring the role race plays in gender dynamics.
For example, celebrated suffragette Susan B. Anthony once said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” While one may (almost) understand the sentiment—why them and not me?—it’s notable that Anthony considered “the Negro” and “the woman” to be mutually exclusive. And today, it seems Taylor Swift would like be excluded from this narrative altogether; she has yet to denounce the white supremacists who adore her and has remained noticeably silent about social issues.
If it seems like I’m being hard on white women, it’s because I am. In the age of #MeToo and #BelieveWomen, it’s disheartening when white women refuse to empathize with the experiences of women of color, and it’s infuriating when they employ the same tactics men do to silence or discredit us. And perhaps most upsetting is when white women — out of fear, discomfort, or ignorance — avoid acknowledging the experiences of women of color altogether.
That said, I’m hard on white women because I believe in what all women can accomplish together. With our health, agency, economic security, and safety under what feels like constant threat, women have so much in common to fight for. And because black women are disproportionally affected by these threats, we need white women to understand when our experiences are similar to—but not exactly like—their own. We need them to help amplify our voices when they might otherwise go unheard.
And when the Harvey Weinsteins of the world try to discredit us, we need you to believe us, too.