What You Need To Do
By Shayla LawsonAugust 26, 2020
THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE MISTAKE ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.27.
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IN ORDER FOR this period of Black awareness to succeed, you need to seriously readjust the ways you think about Black women.
It is a mistake to believe that any anti-Black, anti-racist, activism can exist without the protection of Black femininity as its first concern. When I say “Black women,” I mean the lattice of cis, trans, femme, masc, woman-identifying, nonbinary, gender-queer — queer and heterosexual — individuals whose bodies signal to the world as both Black and feminine in ways that put them at risk. I say “Black women” in concert with a discussion that is inclusive and non-gender specific because it is Western culture’s weaponization of the Black female body that puts all of us in danger.
The myth of the “strong Black woman” extends all the way back to slavery and was one of the fundamental pillars of Western capitalist expansion. Slaveholders perpetuated an idea of Black women as exceptionally strong, physically and psychologically. This was then used as an excuse to abuse them and as a way of grooming them to be more efficient workers, machines on the plantation. Black women were also subjected to sexual violence, forced procreation, and separation from their children and family — all means to keep them from forming protective bonds that may have allowed them to function in the world as wives, sisters, mothers … as women and as people. The goal was both physical and social isolation: A woman whom no one could vouch for, a woman whom no one could protect, and a woman whose life had no social value. This was the kind of woman enslavers could brag about. Documents written on slave husbandry officially acknowledged these women as master’s money-maker, a successful slave. “A woman like that can run your whole plantation.” A woman like that.
Even in this time of anti-racist conversations and wide-scale virtue signaling, people still don’t see these common prejudices against Black women as an active form of support for white supremacy. It is a regular and accepted form of casual racism for people across all intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and education to openly lodge attacks on Black women based on this long-held, insidious slave narrative. Black women are “hard workers.” Black women are independent. Black women tell-it-like-it-is. Black women think they know everything. Black women are stubborn. Black women are physically assertive. Black women are promiscuous. Black women can fight like men. Black women are angry. Black women will cut you if you touch their hair. Black women are difficult. Black women aren’t attractive. Black women aren’t dateable. Black women aren’t approachable. Black women are scary. I have had every one of these statements offered up to me for affirmation. I have also watched people commiserate over these statements as a way to build group support against me. Until we attack these racist ideas of who Black women are for what they are, hateful tools of an enslaving patriarchy, the anti-racist movement won’t succeed because white supremacy thrives on the baseline assertion in all these statements: that Black women aren’t women.
It is no accident that Black women have led the charge for every major reform in this country and that America uses this language to weaponize everyone against Black women. We have been completely essential to the acquisition of the rights and protections now enjoyed by everyone, but our safety will not be ensured in this new era of civil rights without addressing how we are treated because it sure wasn’t addressed by the last. The Montgomery bus boycott was a movement started not by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as famously touted, but by Black women who worked for the white establishment as maids, seamstresses, and in other forms of domestic labor. It was these women who not only walked miles to protest the segregated bus line (early in the morning and late at night, at the risk of their own safety) but who also organized the staged sit-ins that gave us the famed story of Rosa Parks. These women put their bodies directly on the line: they were spat upon, assaulted, and arrested for sitting in whites-only seats. Although the New York monument commemorating the fight for LBGTQ+ liberation consists of all-white — and all-cis — statues, it was Black trans people who led the actual charge against oppression, Black women specifically. Black trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major fought on the front lines during the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Miss Major is still at the vanguard of the Black liberation movement, continuing to work as an abolitionist. This is work that she began in the 1970s, when she was arrested several times for her protests against prison and police force. Though she has been active for over 40 years, there is still no acknowledgment of the extent her activism foregrounds and influences our current conversation about police and prison abolition. There’s been no acknowledgment that one of the most accomplished leaders of this movement is — to this day — a Black transgender woman.
As a cis Black woman, I myself am only recently becoming more aware of how closely anti-trans conversations are necessarily tied to conversations of anti-Blackness. The same, deliberate, slave narrative that is continually sustained by casually racist dialogue about strong, angry, unfeminine, intimidating Black women also makes it culturally acceptable for anti-racist and anti-LBGTQ+ discrimination advocates and allies to discredit the violence, invisibility, and perpetual danger all trans people find themselves in. And whatever violence, invisibility, and perpetual danger trans people encounter as a result of this white supremacist, patriarchal, dialogue, Black trans people suffer all the more because of additional systemic denigration of Black femininity across the spectrum.
It is impossible to be a self-proclaimed anti-trans liberal (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists [TERFs], for example) and not also be anti-Black. Throughout Women’s Suffrage in the mid-19th century and on into Women’s Liberation in the mid- to late 20th centuries, white feminists kept cisgender BIPOC women on the outside of the mainstream feminist movement, claiming specifically that Black women weren’t really “women” or that Black women’s struggle for equality required a different fight. Not only is this language uncomfortably close to the arguments white people used to abuse Black women’s bodies during slavery, this language to far too similar to arguments made by TERFs today to defend their exclusion of trans women in their feminist activism. In light of this, it was Black women who trailblazed the work for a more inclusive feminism — Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Alice Walker, and so on. Their work broadened the feminist struggle to include not only conversations about voting and reproductive rights but also social reform, prison abolition, and a redefinition of womanhood (which might abolish the category all together). Their intersectional feminism gave women rights to whole personhood — making the law recognize cisgender women as more-than, whether or not we produce offspring or have bodies that materialize the feminine form idealized by white patriarchy. Looking back at the history, if we allow TERFs to claim that these rights are privileges reserved only for the “women” they think are acceptable, who will be left?
Being anti-trans is anti-Black. According to the Human Rights Campaign, amid the rash of fatal violence happening to transgender and gender non-conforming people across the United States, the majority of the fatalities are Black transgender women. According to the Human Rights Campaign, Black trans women are particularly at risk because “the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and unchecked access to guns conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities.” Aside from this, America’s warfare against Black femininity, and the continued assertion — both tacit and explicit — that Black women aren’t women, leaves Black trans women particularly vulnerable as intersectional targets. The degree of risk for trans women often increases when they are less able to “pass” as cisgender. Even the term “passing” signals the connections between trans lives and Black lives. The term migrated from Black culture — how generations of Black people with Eurocentric features (Black people whose mixed ancestry often stemmed from the rape of Black women) allowed them to “pass” for white, adopting the safety and privilege of white people. Black trans women who find themselves most affected by the Human Rights Campaign’s “intersections” of under-privilege are often those who look the most Black — dark skinned, Afrocentric. These were features that slaveholders considered indicative of Black women’s closeness to livestock. America hasn’t changed. So, when people — especially cisgender TERF women — argue that women born with a biologically male body endanger cis women, whose racially coded, biologically assigned, male bodies are they most afraid of? We are in the midst of a cultural reckoning in both America and abroad, led by the Black Lives Matter movement precisely because of the ways Black male bodies have been painted as dangerous and have been murdered at the hands of law enforcement. Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism paints trans women as “dangerous” because TERFS claim these women have — due to being misgendered as men because their bodies are considered “biologically male” — experienced the privileges that society affords cigender men. This is not only a gross misrepresentation of the extreme violence trans women bravely confront in a world that is transphobic, homophobic, and anti-feminine, but — even as this rhetoric violently ignores the reality that trans women have never had access to the privileges of cis bodies and obsessively reduces trans women to the biology of their bodies — it also reinforces the racist belief that Black biologically male bodies are the most “dangerous” of all and must be policed.
The casualness of anti-Black and anti-feminine racism reminds me of the caption under my favorite Lorna Simpson photograph, The Water Bearer: “They asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory.” Simpson’s piece is a black-and-white photograph of a dark-skinned, feminine-presenting person in a white shift holding in her hands a silver pitcher and a plastic jug, each pouring water. Although we assume the person in the photograph is biologically female, we can only see her from the back. Although we can tell she has dark skin, we don’t know if her race is Black. We do not need to see her, in order for her memory or her experience to be “discounted.” This is the point — it is not what is observable about Black women that informs why you discredit us; this is not why you will not see us, or listen to us, or keep us safe. The violence against us is a direct response to your inherent prejudices.
I spent a lot of time as a young girl, and up through my 20s, searching for interviews with the Black transgender, gender non-conforming, and female activists involved in the centuries-long fight for American civil rights. I couldn’t easily find them in the accounts and history books, but I knew they — we — have always been there, fighting. Of the many similarities I noticed in their stories was how often they were told to wait for their own unassailable rights to be granted. For decades, we have been told to wait. We have been told to wait so that liberation can privilege the visibility of cis male, non-Black, and heteronormative faces. We have been told our work at the front lines of this fight is essential, but our struggle is insignificant. We have been asked to keep conversations of our safety on the sidelines, to wait until other movements have won. Despite our undeniable role as the forebearers of equality throughout history and in modernity — Black women are the founders of Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and the Gay Liberation Front — the violence against us is a pervasive, long-standing, epidemic.
Oluwatoyin Salau was murdered after leaving a Black Lives Matter protest, at which she passionately advocated for the protection of the Black LBGTQ+ community. Breonna Taylor, an essential Emergency Medical Technician, was murdered by the police while she was sleeping. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton were murdered, in two separate states, during the same week that Trump revoked discrimination protections for trans people. Nina Pop was stabbed to death just a month earlier, on May 3. As of June 25, 2020, the bodies of six additional Black trans women (Bree Black, Tatiana Hall, Brayla Stone, Merci Mack, Shaki Peters, and Draya McCarty) have been found dead, across the country, within one week of each other. Six Black people were hanged across America — in a period of less than a month — during worldwide Black Lives and Black Trans Lives Matter protests, and yet most reports about these lynchings misgender Titi Gulley, listing all the victims as men. And just two days after the murder of George Floyd, Tony McDade (also initially misgendered) was shot dead by the police. There are so many stories like this. There are more stories like this than I can make space in my own grief to mention. It is time for you to amend your beliefs, your system that advantages you over others, your rallying cry. What we need from you is not the simple acknowledgement that we are here, that we, too, have seen “what happened.” We need you to do what we have done to support you. We need you to use your activism to protect us.
Shayla Lawson is the author of three books of poetry—A Speed Education in Human Being, the chapbook Pantone, and I Think I’m Ready to see Frank Ocean—and the essay collection This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope.
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