A recent open letter to President Obama signed by over 200 Black men asking for the inclusion of women and girls in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative has sharpened the lens on how we might collectively build a more gender inclusive racial justice agenda. In the letter, these men expressed their belief “in a vision of accountability and racial justice that is neither male-centered, heteropatriarchal or victim blaming.”
I support a significant investment in the wellbeing of men and boys of color. I am also in full support of a vision of accountability that rejects patriarchy as central to a racial justice agenda. With that in mind, here are five things that must form the foundation for a national, companion effort to support the healthy development of women and girls of color—a My Sister’s Keeper, if you will:
1) A race-conscious gender analysis. This sounds like an academic idea, but really it’s not. This is about understanding that women of color never stop being people of color, nor do they stop being women—so they are affected by the policies and practices that undermine their progress as both. For example, during the institution of slavery, Black women—like their male counterparts—picked cotton, constructed railroads, and were whipped, flogged, and mutilated under oppressive and dehumanizing conditions. These were deplorable conditions that affected men and women alike. However, the gendered way in which racism played out in their lives also meant that they were routinely raped and forced to serve as wet nurses to the newborn children of slaveowners. As Angela Davis wrote in her book Women, Race, and Class, Black women “were victims of sexual abuse and other barbarous mistreatment that could only be inflicted on women.” Simply put, an initiative for women and girls of color must recognize that gender expression and identity—and sexual expression and identity—must figure prominently in strategies to support the wellbeing of women and girls of color. Racialized gender stereotypes about Black women and other women of color shape how they interact with the world, and how the world perceives and interacts with them. A rejection of racial oppression and patriarchy should be at the center of this work.
2) A structural analysis. An initiative for women and girls of color must not be about respectability politics. Etiquette lessons can be a part of other social practices and agendas, but if our “Sister’s Keeper” initiative is to have teeth, it must look beyond whether our young women are wearing tight pants and crop tops. This is an opportunity to focus on the policies, systems, and institutions—in other words, structures—that place women and girls at risk of exploitation in private and public domains. Also, we must develop intervention strategies that are responsive to the unique ways that women and girls of color are affected by these structures. We cannot add ribbons and bows to a program, strategy, or agenda that has been developed in response to the conditions of young men and assume that it will work for young women. Just because young women and girls are affected by the same conditions as their male counterparts doesn’t mean that they experience these conditions in the same way. Our efforts to support the healthy development of women and girls of color must engage in the development of a “new normal” way to examine laws, policies, institutions, and systems—using rigorous race- and gender-conscious interrogations—so that we know how to best understand and respond to their impact on our young women.
3) A centered response to victimization. Black women, and other women of color, bear scars that are both visible and invisible. Research has shown that Black women experience homicide at higher rates than their White counterparts and a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll found that 45% of women who report worrying about being the victim of a violent crime are Black. Black women also experience intimate partner violence at higher rates than other women; for example, they are 4 times more likely than their White counterparts to be murdered by a boyfriend or girlfriend. And yet, despite these and other statistics, we have not centered the voices of women of color in our public discussions on victimization. We allow the myth of the Black Superwoman and other stereotypes about the sexual deviance of Black, Latina, and Asian women to dominate our consciousness and mistake the resiliency of our sisters for the absence of harm. A Sister’s Keeper Initiative must embrace a strong anti-victimization narrative.
4) A prioritization of criminalization over incarceration. This one is tricky. Much of our community has framed incarceration as our generation’s greatest civil and human rights challenge. We argue (and generally agree) that prisons are overused. We see the buildings, wires, and armed guards and understand them as physical monuments to inequality and pain. Our popular culture has such an intimate relationship with prison culture that our blues are even orange. I get it; prisons are tangible. They also hold more males than females, and so framing a racial justice agenda through the lens of incarceration elevates a male endangerment frame that does not consider the ways that females are also subjected to institutions and a prevailing consciousness that favors punishment over rehabilitation. Focusing on criminalization would allow us to shift our way of thinking and our decision-making processes such that we can see women and girls in their shared spaces with men and boys and develop strategies that are responsive to the conditions that threaten the futures of male and female children.
5) A commitment to building community. We are at a moment in history that lends itself to informed community building. An initiative for women and girls of color is not an affront to the efforts for males of color. It does not undermine the narrative on Black male achievement to seek an agenda for Black female achievement. We must be clear that our girls and boys are sharing communities, institutions, homes, and lives with each other. Therefore, an effort to support females of color—whether or not she has given birth to a male or intimately partnered with one—is imperative to the successful navigation of conditions that place whole communities at risk.
Most importantly, we must all recognize that a racial justice practice that is not gender-inclusive thrust is nothing more than a moot exercise. Only when we develop a national, fully-funded investment in all of our young people will we finally breathe life into this simple, beautiful phrase written by Maya Angelou: “Equality, and I will be free.”