Imagine you're a black woman
Photo credit: A Strong Black Woman, Helgi Halldorsson, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
A friend, a black woman, once said to me, “‘We know what white women experience because we’ve experienced what they’ve experienced. But white women will never understand what it’s like to be a black woman.’” Just like so many women, black women have suffered from sexism on the job, watched others receive promotions they deserved, and their diligence and loyalty go ignored and unappreciated. They, too, are victims of domestic abuse. They worry about their children and their futures, their education. They share those same burdens with all women, but they also deal with insidious and ever present racism every day.
All women deal with governments that want to deny them rights, but black women also have to figure out how to circumvent targeted voter suppression. They struggle against discrimination based on the color of their skin in the work place not just from men but women as well, but when they land a job, then the whispers of “affirmative action” circulate among the employees. You see, in our world, their credentials aren’t earned but given.
One friend explained it this way:
Black women are very familiar with the impact of gender inequality. But, historically, white women have failed to recognize the impact of racism, and how it compounds the problem. For example, the Feminist movement either ignored or paid very little attention to intersectionality. As a black woman, you're dealing with overlapping systems of discrimination that cannot be disconnected or ignored. That extra burden has real life consequences, such as the pay gap between white and black women.
The research is also plentiful about the lack of adequate health care for black women in hospitals when compared to white women. The maternal mortality rate among black mothers, which is well above the rates in other industrial nations, is a disgrace. When black women are in severe pain, they cannot expect the same relief white women can. As women why do we tolerate this? Why do we tolerate the high rate of deaths among black mothers? Every day on social media I see tweets and posts about saving dolphins, whales, and stray animals. I never see tweets or Facebook posts about saving black women from dying during child birth. Consider what that says about our humanity or lack of humanity.
Another stark difference between black and white women is the lecture black women deliver to their sons about keeping safe. Whereas we might tell our sons not to drive too fast, be home by curfew, don’t drink and drive, a black mother’s words of warning are so much more severe and grave. The lecture centers around how to behave if a policeman stops their sons, and even then the safety of their sons is a crap shoot on the streets. Too many black women have wailed from the intractable pain of losing a son or even a daughter when their child is executed by a policeman. Too often, compounding the grief, is the lack of justice for her child as another white jury sets another white policeman free.
We enjoy so many privileges simply based our skin color. Remember Sandra Bland? Just minutes before a policeman pulled her over for on a bogus charge, he let a young white woman off on a warning for her traffic violations. The response from white folks was typical and expected—“well, she should’ve gotten out of the car.” “She should’ve put out her cigarette.” “She got an attitude with the cop.” Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. These comments show a callous disregard for the life of a black person. The fact is she should never have been stopped in the first place. White folks also insist on blaming the black victim but too often excuse the white criminal. Surely, you’ve noticed the treatment by the media of white male mass murderers. They have mental health issues or an abusive childhood. Contrast that with the black victims gunned down by police. They have drug problems, they didn’t raise their hands quickly enough, a pencil looked like a gun.
I ask you to consider this. How many times could you tolerate being stopped, accused, and threatened by cops. A dozen times? Two dozen? We white women don’t have to worry about that. Nor do we have to worry about something as simple as walking around our neighborhoods, but I can tell you stories black friends have related to me about cops stopping them for walking through the white neighborhoods where they live. Dealing with racism must be emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausting for black women.
No matter how empathetic we try to be, we white women cannot wrap our brains around this kind of treatment on a daily basis, but we can use our imaginations to try to get a glimpse of what being a black woman means in this country.
I am sharing these three stories told to me by three friends, who are black women. Imagine yourself in their places, in their situations. We must step out of our insulated lives, but to accomplish this we must become aware and educated and sensitive. We must be strong allies for each other, for all women.
Louisa’s story: So imagine you’re a nine-year-old black girl riding in a pickup with your father to a small Mississippi town to get supplies. The day is hot and humid, but you don’t mind because you have this time alone with your father. No siblings are along to compete for his attention. Suddenly, your father tells you to duck down on the floor board. You immediately drop down without question because his tone is firm and commanding. But like many nine-year-olds, curiosity gets the best of you, and you peek above the seat out the window. At first you can’t comprehend what you are seeing. You see the black arms below the short sleeves, and as your eyes gaze up toward the tree branch, you understand. A black man is hanging, lynched, from the branch, his head covered with a “grass sack” closed around his neck. For the next 50 some odd years of your life, you cannot wipe away the horrific vision.
Home for you is a small house on a few acres that your father farms in the evenings when he gets home from the bakery where he is employed. It seems to you he is always working, and you wonder when he ever sleeps. After he comes in from working the fields and eats dinner with the family, he retrieves his rifle propped in the corner by the door and heads to the front porch. He sits down in the old rocking chair and places the rifle across his lap. You watch this ritual every night from the window, knowing you won’t see him again but for a few minutes the next day before he goes to the fields and then at dinner. You aren’t allowed to go on the porch because your parents never know when the Klan will arrive to bring harm to your family and property. You do know that your father has chased them away before; you also know he will be in that chair all night.
You know too well what racism looks like because you experienced it from a young age, the murdered man hanging from the branch, the Klan terrorizing you, the dentist who refused to give you Novocain every time he pulled a tooth, and as a senior sent to integrate an all-white high school. Today you can’t get good service at restaurants, not like the white women sitting around you. Although you always dress nicely and you are a beautiful woman, you are viewed suspiciously when you walk in a store. Sometimes security follows you around at what they think is a discreet distance, but you know they are there. They are always there.
In spite of your experiences you carry hope in your heart for your children. You believe that life will be better for them; they won’t see a lynched man nor suffer pain at the dentist. Yet, as you watch them grow, they, too, suffer from the scourge of racism. Wages not as high as white coworkers, promotions that never come in spite of seniority and exemplary reviews, store security eyeing their every move. But still you have hope—hope for your granddaughter. Until one day you two walk into a shop, and the clerk accuses your granddaughter of shoplifting. You know it’s a set up because she has been by your side the entire time you’ve been in the store. She isn’t carrying a purse or bag, has no coat on, her hands are empty. No place to hide any stolen items. You know she didn’t take anything because you watch your grandchildren like a hawk, always protective, always alert for racist assaults. When you confront the clerk, he threatens to call the police, and you know what will happen. The word of black woman won’t be good enough. And you now longer have any hope that your grandchildren will escape. In fact, you have lost hope. You no longer have hope that your infant great granddaughter will ever live a life free of racism. The security guards will always be watching.
Mariah’s story: Now take yourself back to your high school days. Remember how important your friends were to you. Whether or not you were happy in high school, your friends were always there for you. Imagine you're sixteen, attending an all-black high school in the South, a high school that had received numerous academic accolades. Many of the parents are doctors, lawyers, educators, business owners. Then you’re caught up in a court order requiring you and 16 others to integrate an all-white high school, a school not regarded as highly for its academic accomplishments as your high school. You have no choice but to leave your friends and go. You and your fellow students are not placed in any classes together; in fact, you’re lucky if you can find each other at lunch. When you walk into a class, the students stop chatting and stare at you while you look back at a sea of white faces without a friend among them. They don’t want you there. You go home each night, begging your mom and dad to get you out of this mess not of your making. You are a pawn in the government’s social experiment. You grieve for nine weeks until your mother tells you:
This is beyond you; this is bigger than you. You represent the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. You have been ordained to be a pioneer for equal rights, equal opportunity. You are self-evident. This experience will build character in you and make you a stronger woman.
Black women have a lifetime of experiences that have made them stronger, as have white women, but we have nothing to compare to our very humanity being questioned and defiled. Entire institutions weren’t created around keeping the heel of a boot on our necks.
Kay’s story. One last time I’m asking you to use your imagination. You’re a small black child of 5 who is placed in an orphanage after his 18 year-old mother dies. He grows into a young man and leaves the orphanage without ever knowing his name or his family so he gives himself a name. Eventually he joins the military. When he is stationed in Spain, he meets his future wife and your soon-to-be mother. She takes his name, which really isn’t his name. You know where your whiteness comes from but not your blackness. You may never know.
We white women too often fall back on stereotypes of black women as if one black woman represents all black women. Of course they share many similar experiences with racism, but they also have different experiences, attitudes, backgrounds, but too often white folks judge all by one and hold all responsible for one. Haven’t you ever wondered how black women see us? I have so I asked them.
Carol told me that white women with whom she has worked always seek out black women for comfort but never return the comfort. Every woman I asked about that observation agreed wholeheartedly. Mary observed that white women don’t lock their cars or hold tighter to their purses when she walks by, but they do look away from her, as if afraid to make eye contact. “You know,” she said, “they love our style, our culture, our music. They just don’t love us.” They all have been asked by white women to touch their hair. They all have been in overt and covert racist situations that white women have witnessed and not a single woman defended them or confronted the racist assault.
We white women can do better than this. We can be better than this. We must be.
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