People of color who live in the United States have no shortage of worries in 2019. Immigration is a hot topic, police killings of unarmed Black and Native folks are in the news regularly, and the “MAGA” crew has hardly slowed down since our president gave them the fuel to reinvigorate movements based in bigotry.
Across the world, but especially in the USA, nonwhite folks are seeing a rise in hate crimes and looking racism dead in the face.
Now more than ever, it’s vital that we call racism for what it is and do what we can to hold the collaborators of domestic terrorism responsible for their actions.
As a nation, we’re in the midst of a re-education process. Folks from all sorts of backgrounds are doing what they can to unlearn the harmful messages that have been picked up while living in a nation built on racism and bias.
There’s so much potential in front of us. My confidence in our ability to make the changes necessary to create the equitable society of our dreams swings back and forth, like a giant pendulum.
Still, there is one thing that we must do if we hope to make any process in healing the wounds inflicted on marginalized peoples.
It makes a lot of folks uncomfortable to admit it, but it’s important not to suggest all types of oppression manifest evenly.
Ironically, one of the most prominent examples of this issue is the way we talk about race and racism in America. That thing is our unwillingness to address the experiences of Black people for what they are.
While discussing oppression, we tend to take an “I’m not gonna say any names” type of approach. This looks like speaking of marginalized people – a more extensive range of characteristics that space across identity factors like race, gender, orientation, and a host of other things — in a collective blob.
The intentions of this method are noble. They offer the chance to allow everyone a piece of the spotlight. At the same time, this approach prevents us from gaining a dynamic understanding of how our identities impact us differently. It also overlooks the ways that existing at the intersection of two or more of these identities shape our life experiences.
It makes a lot of folks uncomfortable to admit it, but it’s important not to suggest all types of oppression manifest evenly. Racism presents differently from other forms of oppression, and it hits Black people, especially Black women, in a particular type of way.
It drives me bonkers how liberally the term “women of color” is used when we’re specifically talking about things that disproportionately impact Black women, like the maternal mortality crisis. And if we don’t challenge ourselves to be specific on whose life experiences we’re referencing, we’re never going to achieve the wide-scale change necessary to save the lives of Black women.
Black women are dying in childbirth at a rate that is three to four times higher than the national average. The rates are so high that they are often likened to the rates of developing countries. The rates of birth trauma and abuse that Black women face are even higher and more disheartening.
But why do we often see the figures described as “women of color” instead of “Black women”?
I have my theories.
I believe that America is uncomfortable with anything that centers Black people, let alone Black women, because the disparities Black women face are reflective of the dark history of anti-Black racism, slavery, and misogynoir.
It’s challenging for this nation to acknowledge that Black women’s bodies have been controlled for the benefit of everyone else since arriving in this country. It’s even harder to admit that the control hasn’t ended, and it still causes as much harm as it did back then.
“Black” is a bad word to some people. It’s easier to say African American. And “people of color” is even farther removed from the legacy of the specific form of racism that perceives Blackness as the biggest threat to white supremacy.
The term ‘”women of color” was created to show solidarity between nonwhite women in their struggles with racism. But the intention was definitely not for the term to overshadow the needs of Black women.
All people of color have equal access to the American core value of racism. But the damage it’s done to communities hit at varying degrees depending on the community you hail from. All people of color are nonwhite, but some groups will find it easier to blend into the legacy of whiteness. Yes, it comes at a cost, but it’s a protection nonetheless.
Blackness has the potential to swallow up all other identities — as we see with the history of the “one-drop rule.” And in a time when mentioning race can be perceived as “racist,” some believe it’s better left unacknowledged.
The historical discomfort of all things Black seeps into the solutions we create for disparities. And that’s why they continue to fail.
Our lack of comfort with Blackness has significant consequences for Black women as we face an often deadly cocktail of racism and sexism. We can’t save Black women from dying by targeting income, education, and insurance coverage. Those things are great if we want to make general, albeit small, improvements. But we won’t end the maternal mortality crisis until we get comfortable talking about Black women specifically.
That will mean being okay with #Blacklivesmatter and #Blackgirlsrock. It will require loudly proclaiming that #freeblackmotherhood is the first step to saving all mothers in crisis.
We’ve made it much farther than our ancestors could’ve ever expected. But we can’t forget how long we have to go.
Speaking in generalities makes it harder to be creative in developing solutions that meet the needs of Black women. If we hope to make it, we’ve got to get comfortable for acknowledging our differences. Oppression doesn’t hit all of us the same way. The efforts to break down the Black community have been intentional and targeted. Resolving them will require the same intentional and targeted approach.
The term ‘“women of color” was created to show solidarity between nonwhite women in their struggles with racism. But the intention was definitely not for the term to overshadow the needs of Black women.
If something hurts Black women, say so. Otherwise, you’re hurting us too.
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