On May 31st, CNN aired a special titled, “I Can’t Breathe: Black Men Living & Dying In America.”
— CNN (@CNN) May 30, 2020
When I saw an advertisement for the special, It was pretty upsetting. As a Black girl, it stung to see such a huge news source seemingly exclude Black women from the conversation about being Black in America.
Since the recent protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, I’ve seen many people, including my peers, ignore the consequences of police brutality on Black women. Many people I follow reposted a viral chain post that read, “I am a Boy’s Sister. He’s African American and his life matters.” The posts were meant to show the fear that many black women have for their brother’s safety in America. While the intention of these posts may have been good, when I saw them all over my timeline, all I could think to myself was, What about Black women?
I’m not the only one who has noticed this issue.
“Time and time again, the world proves that Black women are an afterthought,” says Lauren, a 17-year-old Black girl who attends St. Pius X Catholic High School. “Right now, it is clear as day that people such as Breonna Taylor are not given the same energy and outrage as other male victims of police brutality.”
Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old black woman who was shot dead in her own home. The police attempted to enter her home with a no-knock warrant as they believed that drug dealers were using Taylor’s apartment to receive packages. When Breonna and her boyfriend heard loud knocks on their door, they had a brief exchange with the police which led to Breonna getting shot at least six times. None of the officers involved have been charged with her murder, and the media attention for Breonna’s death compared to that of George Floyd’s has been relatively little.
Writer Alisha Haridasani Gupta pointed out that, “No celebrities have offered to pay for her funeral or taken out full-page ads in newspapers across the country dedicated to her and few brands have started campaigns in her name.” like what was done for the male victims of police brutality.
On social media, users have even gone as far as making Breonna’s death into somewhat of a joke or catchphrase, Photoshopping “Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” on tubs of butter and shots from the movie “Toy Story”.
“I don’t believe we’re acknowledged like Black men when it comes to us dying,” says Cayla, a 17-year-old Black girl who attends online school. “Like on the Don Lemon show it’s called ‘Black Men Living and Dying in America.’ Where is the acknowledgement of the Black women who have died in America?”
Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw asked her audience to continue standing when they hear a name that they recognize and to sit down when they didn't. pic.twitter.com/F9IllI0ttJ
— Fiona Applebum says block Shaun King! (@WrittenByHanna) June 11, 2020
A TEDTALK lecture by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw went viral on Twitter recently. In the video, Dr. Crenshaw performed an exercise where she asked her audience to stand up. She started to read off a list of names. She asked that they sit down when they hear a name they don’t recognize. Dr. Crenshaw began listing the first set of names: Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. A majority of the crowd remained standing. Dr. Crenshaw then began listening to the second set of names: Michelle Cusseaux, Megan Hockaday, Aura Rosser, and Tanisha Anderson, all Black women who were killed by the police. The crowd slowly started to sit down, until only about 4 people remained standing.
You may think that this was just an isolated incident, that maybe this crowd was just uneducated on the matter. However, Dr. Crenshaw stated in the video that she’s done this exercise with multiple groups, including women’s rights organizations and progressive members of congress, all to the same result.
If you look at all of the deaths that have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, George Floyd), you’ll notice a pattern. Black cisgender men are centered at the forefront of the movement. Sometimes, as a young Black woman, I often think to myself, if I died, would anyone besides Black women march for me?
“[I have a] fear of being shot and little to no one hearing about it because I’m a Black woman,” says Jaya, a 17-year old homeschool student.
Many argue that the reason why Black women who have been killed by police aren’t given much attention is because their deaths weren’t recorded, compared to those of Black male victims. However, as professor and author Brittney Cooper pointed out, the Black Lives Matter movement was ignited by the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, whose deaths were not caught on film.
Although Black men are statistically killed more by police than Black women, Black women are still 1.4 times more likely to get killed by police than white women, according to one study. Black women are more likely to die at a young age than women of other racial groups. Not to mention Black Trans women, who have a life expectancy of 35 years, compared to the average American life expectancy of 78.54 years old. A 2011 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality says that half of Black trans people are incarcerated, where Trans women face an added risk of being assigned to a male facility. Trans women are also seven times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police than cis women, according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
One of the reasons why Black women may get less attention or energy when they are hurt is the societal lack of empathy for Black female bodies. People tend to herald Black women for their nurturing and strength in the face of adversity, placing the “strong Black woman” label on us even while we’re young. According to Greater Good Magazine, many Black women have reported that this identity pressures them to be self-sacrificing and advocate for others before themselves. This label ultimately strips Black women of their humanity and emotions, and assumes that Black women don’t need protection from harm.
Even research shows that Black women are continuously seen as more aggressive and deviant compared to white women. According to a 2014 report by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, although Black and white girls have similar rates of misconduct, Black girls are more likely to be arrested. According to HuffPost, “adults perceive Black girls as needing less nurturing, protection and support than white girls of the same age…these negative perceptions lead adults to believe that Black girls deserve harsher punishment.”
Colorism also plays a part in this issue. Darker skinned Black women have historically been viewed as more threatening and aggressive than lighter skinned women, who tend to be viewed as more delicate and soft. Studies show that darker-skinned women are given longer prison sentences than light-skinned women. Even at an early age, dark-skinned girls are three times more likely to be suspended from school than light-skinned girls.
“In almost every encounter with the police, I fear that they would be overly aggressive with me because not only am I Black, I’m also dark,” remarks Cayla.
You would think that Black men would go to bat for Black women: After all, they are familiar with our struggle and should be more than willing to reciprocate the passion that we always have for them. However, many Black women know the feeling of being put down by Black men and feeling like they turn a blind eye to our issues. When our concerns are brought up, it sometimes feels like talking to a void—a gaslighting and patronizing void, that is.
“No, I don’t feel protected and advocated for by Black men.” says Isabella, a 16-year-old student at Westlake High School. “I feel like women bring all their energy to support Black men. But men lack in reciprocating the same energy to support us .”
“On social media, Black men praise white women and use the same stereotypes white men use against Black women,” says Rhyanna, a 16-year-old student who attends Carver Early College High School. “It amazes me how full blood Black men will bash Black women who only care for them and lift them up. They act like their mom is not Black. And I don’t feel protected. I feel like if me and a white girl are about the die, the Black man would care for the white woman first.”
Although hashtags like #SayHerName have arisen to bring awareness to the Black women dying from police brutality, the hashtag has since been co-opted by Black men who have changed the term to #SayHisName, further contributing to the erasure of Black female lives.
What hurts even more is that Black women are the bedrock of the Black Lives Matter movement. Three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, created the movement after the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Throughout history, Black women have contributed to many social movements and are always using their voice to advocate and defend Black men. “[Black women] are on the front lines constantly.” adds Rhyanna.
Some Black men will proudly wear the “Black Lives Matter” motto on their T-shirts and Instagram bios, but in their daily lives, they contribute to the violence against Black women. Black women statistically experience higher rates of physical, sexual, and psychological violence than other groups. Black women are also two and a half times more likely than their white counterparts to be murdered by men. Of those killings, 92% are intra-racial, meaning that they were committed by black men against black women. “A lot of the time I feel like Black women are put down by Black men, [only to then be] lifted up by them.” reflects Jaya. It shouldn’t be a radical idea to ask that Black women be defended and cared for in their lives and their deaths. How can we continue fighting for people who are committed to not hearing us, seeing us, or fighting for us?
So what can Black men do to better protect Black women?
“Black men can support Black women by speaking up for us,” says Lauren. “It is important that Black men advocate for Black women in all scenarios and make a place for us in conversations that normally exclude us. Whether it be confronting your friend for an insensitive joke about Black women or speaking up for a victim of police brutality, Black men must continue to support and advocate for Black women and not let us be forgotten. To add to that, I saw an important quote that fits — ‘Stop letting Black women be the only ones who stand up for Black women’. It is important that Black men support and back Black women, as we cannot do it alone.”
Jaya says Black men can help by “not putting us down just so that they can lift other women up. By listening to what we have to say about the issue we face and then backing us up when we talk about those issues to others. By not invalidating us, our struggles or our feelings. By standing up for us and encouraging us.”
“They just gotta be more careful in how they talk about us, and change the way they speak on us. I gotta deal with everyone else disrespecting me, and now they don’t respect us? If they took the time to understand us and listen to us, they would know that we are in just as much danger as them. We want [justice] for all Black people, they just want it for them. All people of color are in danger and Black men have to put their preferences aside,” says Rhyanna.
“Black men can support Black women by actively listening to our stories without trying to start a debate and check their friends when they disrespect Black women,” says Cayla.
“Speak out more on our behalf,” says Isabella.
As for me, I ask that Black men analyze what they’re doing to protect the Black women in their lives. That means holding your male friends who mistreat Black women accountable. That means respecting the identities of all Black women, not just the ones that you find attractive. That means acknowledging the Black trans women who are being killed by police. That means marching for the Black women who were killed at the hands of police brutality. That means saying their names.