Skip to navigationSkip to content

How black women have been erased from America’s race debate

black lives matter
Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff
All the lives—not just black men.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Myriad thoughtful articles have been published about the invisibility of black women and girls in the context of police brutality. We now have sufficient resources to correct anyone who forgets black women are also killed by police. We’ve also learned that black women have led and organized solidarity actions across the country. Yet, if you read most signs at any protest or scroll through most Facebook timelines, you get the impression that black men are the only ones in the community who’ve been persecuted.

The story of Oklahoma officer Daniel Holtzclaw—who was charged with rape and sexual assault black women between 34 and 58 threatening them of arresting or harming them—reminds us that Black women are especially vulnerable in complicated ways. We must disrupt the romantic notion that we might wake up to find our sons gone and our daughters will be fine. It’s also disrespectful to deny the presence of black women, and particularly queer black Women, both in this movement and in terms of our vulnerability. I believe that the three Black queer women who started #BlackLivesMatter utilized a framework that we are not ready to adopt—intersectionality.

I still wonder. Why, after all the facts and gentle nudges, do we still choose to center the story around some black lives and exclude others? For what reason might this be convenient?

Like sweet manna from heaven, the answer fell from the sky.

First, I saw a flyer for a church program that advertised a “special prayer for all men” on #BlackLivesMatter Sunday. We thought nothing of this because of course, Black men deserve special prayers.

Then, Bill Cosby’s wife Camille expressed discontent in “attacking a victim.” She then wondered “Who is the victim?” We thought nothing of this. Because of course, Mrs. Cosby was displaying true “love and the strength of womanhood” by defending her husband.

And last week, I read the work of a black male blogger who tried to place rape culture in the context of race relations. We thought nothing of this. Because of course, white media was just out to get Bill Cosby.

It hit me. We have a hard time acknowledging that black women are victims of police violence because it completely dismantles the a priori truth we’ve been holding onto for so long—that black men are an endangered species in America.

This faulty logic knows no racial boundaries. I’ve heard it from friends, news correspondents, classmates, and politicians. President Obama shifted from “Trayvon could have been my son” to “Trayvon could have been me”. He missed that his wife could have been Rekia Boyd and his daughters could have been Aiyana Jones. Mayor Bill de Blasio has lamented over conversations with his son, but forgot to talk about his wife and daughter. Convenient amnesia is suspicious.

To be clear, black men are indeed vulnerable, especially compared to their white peers. Black men face disproportionate rates of incarceration, unemployment and poverty. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. The prison industrial complex is real, and the pain is not imaginary.

But Black men are not the only victims of structural racism: one in 111 White women will be imprisoned in her lifetime, 1 in 18 women black women will be imprisoned in hers. 26% of Black women live at or beneath the poverty line, compared to 11% of White women and 9% of White men. And after the housing crash, Black households lost 27% of their assets while whites lost 7%. These facts are not meant to distract from the realities black men face but to remember that men do not hurt in isolation. Capitalist interest in the marginalization of communities of color does not discriminate between black men and women.

The instinct to label black men as “endangered” makes cropping black women out of the picture easy. This is the pseudo-truth encouraged President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program. Soon after, men AND women wrote about this initiative’s inability to cover all black children. Black girls suffer from racist school policies, but if you let a certain popular education reformer tell it, boys deserve all the attention. Why? Because patriarchy sure tastes a lot like freedom and misogynoir smells like liberation.

The truth is simple. No black person is safe. We are vulnerable, even if we had an “elite upbringing.” Our blackness is the target. When we scream “Black Lives Matter,” we mean ALL of us. Black men, women, children are important. Black queer, lesbian, gay, and trans people are important. Black people of all abilities matter. Undocumented black people matter. All of us are just as entitled to the phrase “#BlackLivesMatter”. No Black person has a monopoly on being free.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Each time we hear a story related to Black culture, it imprints information into our consciousness. We falsely believe that each story is separate and distinct. Instead, these ideas compound one another and reify each other’s magnitude. Racism and sexism are not positive and negative integers of the same value; they do not cancel each other out. America is still working out issues with racism, but that doesn’t mean sexism specifically aimed at Black women disappeared.

Here’s an analogy. A few months ago Quartz published an article circulated about bikes, racism, and privilege. It had its limits, but it was helpful to explain the ways that privilege manifests. We might stretch this analogy further to encapsulate the current narrative of invisible black womanhood. Presently, we imagine the vulnerable cyclist as a black man, and the black woman as his helmet. He is the sole actor. The helmet exists only to protect his life. He may be knocked off his bicycle and come close to death, but thankfully his helmet was there to protect his skull.

Except, that’s not how it should work. Black women aren’t the helmets of black men. We are partners. We cycle together. We are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, lovers, neighbors, cousins. We are a family. All of us deserve freedom. I am no one’s struggle surrogate. We disrupt the convenient romantic notion of “fighting for our Brothers” when we say #BlackLivesMatter. We actually mean All Black Lives Matter, All the Time.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.