You’ll better understand the complexity of oppression, and what we can do to challenge it.
Sometimes people assume that outspoken Black women — perhaps especially outspoken Black women professors — came out of the womb wearing a “Black Girl Magic” T-shirt and quoting Angela Davis. But the truth is that like most people in this country, I was not socialized to take Black women’s knowledge seriously — which of course means that I was not socialized to take my own knowledge seriously.
Many Black women have had to struggle against the intertwined forces of patriarchy, racism, and class oppression that keep us silenced, ignored, and marginalized. So, yes, even as a Black woman, it took me several decades to begin to understand that Black women and girls have been uniquely and violently oppressed in our White male supremacist society — and that listening to Black women is key to challenging multiple forms of oppression.
There are, of course, lots of really good reasons to listen to Black women. Your food will almost certainly taste better. You could summon otherworldly powers of resilience and begin living your best life. And if millions of U.S. citizens had listened to Black women and girls several centuries ago, we wouldn’t have had to wait until 2017 to begin collectively acknowledging the centrality of sexual harassment and assault in our society.
As far as I’m concerned, one of the best reasons to listen to Black women is because doing so will better equip you to understand the complexity of oppression and what we can do to challenge it. Listening to Black women (and girls) is vitally important, because those of us who pay attention to the condition of our lives are aware that we’re marginalized by multiple forces of discrimination: notably racism, sexism, and classism. The hard-won knowledge we gain from reflecting on our experiences of oppression holds valuable insights for anyone interested in building a more just world.
Obviously, racially ignorant Black women exist — I used to be one of them. In many ways, growing up in the 1980s and ’90s meant, for me, being surrounded by facile notions of (Black) girl power. I heard Whitney sing “I’m Every Woman,” bowed down to Oprah Winfrey every day after school, saw Janet Jackson leading troops to the beat of “Rhythm Nation,” watched Clair Huxtable run a law practice and her household on The Cosby Show.
If Black women and girls were oppressed, it wasn’t especially apparent to me. My mother created an environment that insulated me from the realities of racism and, to some degree, sexism as well. Mom has always been my shero. It didn’t occur to me growing up that she had to battle the systemic and intertwined challenges of racism, sexism, and poverty.
In my mind, there was nothing Mom couldn’t do. And I wanted to be just like her: professional, poised, and powerful. It wasn’t until many years later that Mom began to share with me the contours of her own struggles as a single Black mother in a racist, sexist society. I would come to understand that sheltering me from the harsh realities of her own experience was her way of trying to create some space for me, for us, to exist in this world with less harm, violence, and injury.
Meanwhile, the imagery of Black female empowerment that permeated my childhood — and hers — was devoid of structural analysis.
When I finally had a chance to read about Angela Davis in college — and met the Black Power feminist icon herself — I didn’t really understand the significance of explicitly asserting the value of Black women’s knowledge. It wasn’t clear to me that Black women and girls were still a collectively — and uniquely — marginalized group. The concerns that animated the women’s movements of the 1970s seemed far removed from me. No one was burning bras in the streets when I was coming of age.
And there’s another uncomfortable truth: As I began to interrogate why it took me so long to begin seriously reading Black women’s work, I realized how challenging it is to confront and sit with the unique forms of violence to which Black women are routinely exposed. Even for Black women, it is often easier to “talk about race” without talking about the specific experiences of Black women. I’ve sometimes wondered if Black women center Black men and boys in narratives about racism because it’s too painful and frightening for us to confront just how vulnerable we are.
Focusing on the suffering of Black men and boys reinforces patriarchy, to be sure. But it also keeps us from coming to terms with our own pain — and directly facing the unthinkable violence to which Black women and girls are routinely subjected. Though most people understand racism in terms of Black men’s vulnerability, Black women’s oppression has been hiding in plain sight, from the intimate space of the family to education, health, employment, popular culture, legal institutions, and policing.
I could go on and on, citing statistics and stories about the structures of violence that Black women and girls encounter in our everyday lives. But what I want you to understand is that these patterns and problems are not side issues for those of us interested in challenging and dismantling White supremacy — they’re central. Listening to Black women makes it crystal clear that we all need to get a lot less stupid about a lot of things — racism, class domination, patriarchy, heterosexism, and cissexism, to name just a few — because these deadly forces are intertwined. Our collective survival demands that we get up off our asses and do the work to connect the dots.