Mixed Feelings about the Women’s March on Washington: Coming of Age in White Spaces as a Dark-Skinned Black Woman

This week’s post is a reflection on the marches that occurred over the weekend from a Doctoral Candidate in a social scientific PhD program in the United States. 

As I watch fellow women march in their respective cities, I am swept up in a mix of emotions: pride, encouragement, but most surprisingly to me: envy. I covet what these women have: identification as a woman; but mostly confirmation as a woman. As I reflect more, I think the show of solidarity by women across the globe highlights the loneliness I have experienced in my search for womanhood.

My formative experiences were shaped by my white peers. My adolescence was predominantly white, made up of predominantly white schools, and in predominantly white classrooms. My friends were white. My classmates were white. And thus, I came of age in an environment that valued whiteness over everything else. Including my experiences as a black woman.

Due to constant reminders from my family and friends, I knew I was black (And I knew I was a woman due to the way I conceptualized myself). I still know these things.  But, my womanhood has always been secondary to my blackness.  Whenever I was treated unequally, I chalked it up to racism. When there was no one who was interested in dating me, I chalked it up to racism. I’ve always been treated as black. But, I’ve never been treated as a black woman.

How this relates to my feelings about various Women’s Marches is still something I’m trying to work out. But, my initial thoughts are this: In every formative interaction, my blackness has superseded every womanly quality I have.

Now, at 29 – as I am finally coming into what I view as womanhood – I am still trying to reconcile what about womanhood makes me feel so disconnected from my peers. Those who I am supposed to feel a kinship with. I believe that answer can be found in the fact that as a black woman coming of age in white spaces, I experienced constant de-gendering. I must now struggle to find – and interpret – my womanhood, and what it means for myself. Thus – couched in a time when womanhood seems to be fiercely embraced, rallied around, and protested for – I find myself lost.

I often wonder if there are other people like me. People who are still searching for their womanhood amidst their ethnicity. Those who feel disconnected from other women who have found it – or who have never had to search for it in the first place.

I feel it must be difficult. And lonely.

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Systemic Racism & Why I don’t want kids

In this guest post, David Springer reflects on the ways experiencing and studying systemic racism influence preferences for having or not having children.  David Springer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago who studies race, ethnicity & gender and African American experience. 

At this point in my life, I’ve ended many different friendships and relationships because of racism. It’s a normal part of my life. Often, these incidents begin with comments like “You’re really ________ for a black guy” or “I like you, you’re not like other black people!” I turn 30 in about 2 months, and I don’t have the energy to explain to people why that’s offensive. I certainly don’t have time to explain why I or other black people are upset over Trayvon Martin’s death or his murderer’s acquittal, the Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprisings. Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn that a big part of experiencing racism is about experiencing loss. It can involve losing access to resources (if you even had access in the first place), losing your humanity, losing your life (literally), and losing relationships. I thought I knew how to handle the latter until this past week.

I ended a completely functional, stable, 2-year relationship with a woman I loved because of racism. She is Asian-American and I’m black, but it wasn’t because of a microaggression. It wasn’t because she thought #BlackLivesMatter protesters were just rabble rousers or because she thought black people would be fine if we just pulled our pants up and stopped “acting ghetto.” In fact, in 2 years, we argued about something race related exactly one time. We ended our relationship because I came to the realization that I don’t want children, and she does. That, in and of itself, is not explicitly related to race. People end relationships all the time because they disagree on whether or not to have children. However, I’d venture to guess that most people who say they don’t want kids don’t cite racism as the reason. For me, racism has everything to do with why I don’t want to bring children into this world.

With the #BlackLivesMatter Movement in full swing and the seemingly endless stream of stories of violence against black people, racism continues to permeate our daily lives. On a personal level, I’m confronted with racism in my everyday life in ways I’ve written about before. I’m also a race scholar, so systemic racial inequality also shapes my worldview. My own research focuses on the ways race shapes the lives of even the most successful, middle class blacks in this “post-racial” society. Between my own personal experiences, an understanding of institutional inequality, and an awareness of how that inequality literally kills black men, women and children every day, you get what scholars refer to as “racial battle fatigue.”

Racial battle fatigue refers to the stress people of color experience when exposed to discrimination. This stress can be psychological (frustration, defensiveness, apathy, anxiety, hopelessness), physiological (headaches, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances, etc.), or emotional-behavioral (stereotype threat, impatience, increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use, and poor job or school performance). For me, chronic exposure to racism tends to manifest itself though a deep sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Though I know that progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement and that my own success is a symbol of that progress, I’m also aware of how much that progress has stalled or regressed. On one hand, Census data suggests that black folks are generally less poor than they were before that era. That data also suggests that more of us are going to college and getting bachelor’s degrees, and that the black middle class has grown. Black success, at least on an individual level, is highly visible in our society. President Obama, as many have discussed before, is the most obvious example of this progress.

On the other hand, this racial progress coexists with racial disparities in income, wealth, poverty, unemployment, incarceration rates, housing and education. If black America were a country to itself, it would trail behind white America in virtually every measure of social mobility and life chances. It would have a worse infant mortality rate than many “3rd World” countries, a lower life expectancy than Mexico, a higher homicide rate (per-100,000) than the Ivory Coast, Sudan, or Haiti, and the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. While legally sanctioned discrimination has subsided over time, even successful blacks deal with racism in their neighborhoods, public spaces, stores, and the workplaces. Every day there is a new story of a black person being verbally harassed, followed in stores, harassed by security personnel, or killed by police and vigilantes. At this point, these kinds of stories are expected. I go through a range of emotions when I see these stories – anger, disgust, sadness, etc. But I’m never surprised by any of it. And from where I sit, I don’t have much evidence that it will stop. If Dr. King and the Civil Rights Generation could not stop it, what hope do we have?

I understand that this isn’t a 100% rational reaction. There are many people who are fighting for black lives. And that fight is not always for naught, as the students of Mizzou showed us this past week. Things like this provide some hope, but that hope is quickly tempered by how people reacted to those protests – death threats, terrorism, and general hostility. Which brings me back to having children. When I’m aware of the many ways racism hurts and kills black folks in this country, how can I justify bringing a child into this world? How do I handle the inevitable day when my child gets called a nigger or some other epithet? We live in a world where that’s a virtually a guarantee. So how do I explain that to them? And do I try to give them hope that it will get better, even when I know that probably isn’t true? Do I just “keep it real,” and shatter their innocence? These are the kinds of things my ex-girlfriend and I had to think about. How were we supposed to explain to a child that the police, who they will be taught to see as the good guys and heroes, are often hostile and hateful towards black people? I didn’t really interact much with the police outside of a D.A.R.E. talk here and there, but I can remember knowing very early in life that police didn’t like black people. And when kids are taught that people who hurt people go to jail, how do we explain that when white people hurt us, they’re more likely to avoid punishment? How do I help that child avoid the pain I felt the first time a girl’s parents rejected me because I was black?

These questions are what drive my preference to not have children. Since I was in an interracial relationship, I had to think long and hard about how race might affect a child’s life. And since my ex wasn’t black, many of the child’s experiences would be tied directly to me, especially if that child looked more like me than her. Of course being/looking Asian comes with many of the same problems and discrimination, as well as some unique experiences (“Where are you really from?”). But anti-black racism is, as critical race theorists often argue, a cornerstone of American society. And black people are often viewed as inferior to Asians on cultural grounds. And since I’m the darker one in the relationship, I am aware that the more the child looks like me, the more likely they are to experience discrimination in their neighborhoods, in stores, at school, and at the hands of police officers. Again, I know that isn’t a 100% rational thought. And it wouldn’t be my fault if my child experienced racism. But it would feel like it was, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to deal with that as a parent, let alone how to talk to a child about it.

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Why #BlackLivesMatter Matters

In this guest post, Dr. Betsy Lucal reflects on the importance of #blacklivvesmatter.  Dr. Betsy Lucal teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies at Indiana University South Bend. This is her first blog.

 

When I heard this morning that Hillary Clinton went to Iowa and said, “All lives matter,” I knew I could be silent no longer. When I heard Bernie Sanders on NPR insisting that “lives matter,” I knew I had to speak up.

To insist that all lives matter, to refuse to say–unequivocally–that BLACK LIVES MATTER is to deny the specificity of the pain African Americans feel right now. It is to deny the specificity of the pain African Americans have felt for centuries.

To insist that all lives matter is, for me, the most blatant statement of white privilege that someone could utter right here, right now. To refuse to say–explicitly, specifically–that BLACK LIVES MATTER is to deny history, to ignore the present, and to accept a future where black lives continue not to matter.

When I heard about the massacre in Charleston, I was angry, sad, outraged, embarrassed… But I was not surprised. And, that, too, is a reflection of white privilege. That, too, is a reflection of just how much black lives have not mattered, do not matter, and cannot matter in a white-dominated, white-centered, white-identified society like ours.

Writing in The New York Times, philosopher Shannon Sullivan explained: “America is fundamentally shaped by white domination, and as such it does not care about the lives of black people, period. It never has, it doesn’t now and it makes me wonder about whether it ever will.” That statement has been part of the signature on my emails since the moment I read it. Until then, I had not seen this truth rendered so eloquently, so brutally, so honestly.

Thinking about the deaths of Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson and Daniel Simmons, Sr. makes me sick to my stomach. It makes me want to cry. It makes me want to wail and scream and fall into a pit of despair.

But then I heard about how Bible study began again last night at Emanuel AME, just a week after their deaths. I heard a member of the church talk about how the AME church welcomes everyone. I hear black folks saying, yet again, that we must not give up; that we must not give in to hate. And I know that despair is not the answer. Honesty is.

And honesty requires a long, hard look at the past, present and future of race in the United States. Honesty requires us to consider how Charleston is both the home of this church and the home of slave auctions. You see, I visited Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church once. I beheld the beauty of this place where people have worshipped since 1816. As soon as I heard about the murders and where they took place, I thought, “I’ve been there.” As soon as I saw pictures of the outside of the building, my heart sank again. I had been there. And, as I recalled standing there, looking around at the beautiful space, I couldn’t help but think about the location that was next on that tour of Charleston.

From Emanuel AME, we went to the site of Charleston’s pre-Civil War slave auctions. We stood on a street corner and heard about how Africans had once been auctioned at that very spot.

It is because of that history that we must—if we mean it—say BLACK LIVES MATTER. Given that history, given that legacy, given the countless deaths of black people at the hands of white people, we must be willing to say BLACK LIVES MATTER. If anything is ever going to change, we must understand why saying BLACK LIVES MATTER is a necessity right now.

We must say this not because other lives do not matter. We must say this because our actions have shown generations of Black folks that their lives do not matter, that their pain does not count, that the lives taken from them deserved to be lost.

Africans who died on slave ships bound for the United States, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, John Crawford… The list grows ever, sickeningly, longer. These lives were not “lost”; they were taken. All of these lives were taken for no reason other than the belief that white people are better, more deserving, more important, more worthy.

Saying BLACK LIVES MATTER is not enough. Not by a long shot. We must act as if BLACK LIVES MATTER. And unless we do, we must accept that saying all lives matter will never be enough. Because it only reminds us that they don’t.

For more information on #blacklivesmatter see http://blacklivesmatter.com.  

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