Screaming Without a Voice: Black Women in the Crosshairs of Repression
Posted by raleighfist on January 5, 2007
by Yolanda Carrington
The invisibility of Black women in American society, coupled with continuing racial and gender oppression, renders African American women as a whole voiceless, with a few minor exceptions such as intellectuals bell hooks and Alice Walker. Because of the intentional denial of our voice by the plutocracy-controlled media, Black women and girls are robbed of fully developed intellectual and analytical tools, and as such have a difficult time expressing how misogynistic and racist domination has impacted our sense of self. Although this state of intellectual repression could well be true of all women of color, I focus on African-descended women for two reasons: (1) because of centuries of slavery and legal apartheid, the history of Africans in the United States is very specific and has a direct consequence on the lives of today’s Black women (2) African American women’s lives are the one human reality that I am most intimately acquainted with. How is it possible to be both omnipresent and invisible? The question of legal discrimination is mute. We don’t have Jim Crow to fear and loathe anymore. The days of roving bands of racist terrorists out to maim and massacre Black folk are gone (we hope). If you’re a Black woman though, these facts are beside the point. Because white supremacy and misogyny never went away with the abolition of de jure apartheid, African American women, with few exceptions, are much in the same position socially and politically as we were thirty years ago. The same politically connected White male-dominated plutocracy that has always operated American society is still firmly in place, and since this elite band controls the means of and access to intellectual (media) discourse, it continues to ensure that only those ideas and ideologies that affirm the legitimacy of White male domination are heard.
This singular vice grip over the American consciousness has inherently destructive and far-reaching consequences. Most notable in this regard is the staggering fact that the concerns and perspectives of women and people of color are either not taken seriously by the mainstream (which, by the way, includes women and people of color themselves) or are not taken into account at all. One can see clearly the negative results of this benign neglect in the form of consistent inequalities that plague our nation. Rape and domestic violence are still with us, and are still grossly underreported to proper authorities, and there is no substantive remedy for their abolition in sight. Verbal abuse and sexual harassment are the risks any woman or girl takes for just venturing outdoors. Turn on the television, open a magazine or surf the Internet, and you will come face-to-face with sexually exploitive and misogynistic images in advertisements and other media. It’s not a simple question of turning off the computer or the TV; if you did that, you would never check email, perform academic research, or watch the news again. Basically, if you aspire to get anything done, you’re stuck with these dehumanizing images, constantly assaulting your sense of self. What can you do?
Theoretically, any person with an opinion and a means to express it can do so in the United States; after all, our Constitution guarantees all Americans the right to freedom of speech through the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights. However, when it comes to a nation that has remained racist and misogynistic from birth, social and psychological conditioning on the part of its citizens will surely dictate what persons will have access to those means of free speech. Historically, European-descended men of wealth have controlled the instruments of communication and technology. These men have used their wealth and political power to spread the privileges of whiteness and masculinity to their fellow sons of Europe, regardless of the latter group’s income or social standing. As such, all White men in the US have comparably easier access to media and other communicative tools than women and people of color. Add to this a built-in social bias against the humanity and intellect of oppressed groups, and we have a system where women of all races can be ignored, mocked, insulted, and exploited by White men at will, with few substantive avenues for redress or challenge.
All women in American society are forced to contend with this reality, but for some strange and insidious reason, society assumes that the only women who are troubled by the climate I described above are White. Whenever a discussion of so-called “women’s issues” arises, the only people I see giving their two cents on TV or in magazines are White. Whatever the issue is—rape, domestic violence, pornography, feminism, child care, abortion, prostitution, birth control, you name it—the only talking heads on the screen are White. This racial slight alone is inexcusable because, by and large, women of color are more adversely affected by all these problems than their European-American counterparts, as countless statistics compiled over the decades have pointed out. Not only that, but on those crucial topics, these self-appointed “authorities” don’t even have a full understanding of what they’re talking about. At the very least, their credibility on the subject is questionable, because they’re not describing my experience, or the experiences of other women I know. I mean, take the false debate on how American women feel about feminism these days, for example. First of all, the average person on the street in the US is deprived of even a half-decent definition of what feminism is, so in essence the average person on the street isn’t even qualified to discuss it (sorry populist folks out there). In any event, when the “authorities” on the subject are called, they are almost always the usual suburban-bourgeois suspects: your Gloria Steinems, your Naomi Wolfs, your mainstream establishment Patricia Irelands, not to mention your power-jockeying apologist Camille Paglias thrown in for good measure. Whatever the topic is, we can count on the same regurgitated opinion from the same media celebrity feminist that she has always spouted, and as always, there is no room allowed in her scripted talk show argument for the specific experience and context of women (or men) of color. From what I can discern from my television and magazines, a whole lot of general managers and editors out there have never heard of bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Sonia Sanchez, or (gasp!) Alice or Rebecca Walker for that matter. I’m not at all implying that these sistas somehow have the lock on public opinion in the people of color community, far from it, but they sure have a hell of a lot better grasp of the national and global impact of women’s oppression than their White professional-pundit counterparts.
There isn’t an ongoing debate about feminism (in its theoretical sense) in the Black community; as far as I know (and I may be wrong, but I don’t think so), it’s not even on our radar. Racism and white supremacy are always the central questions, and gender issues, as far as I’ve seen, have consistently taken a back seat, though that doesn’t mean that they are any less crucial in the lives of Black folk. But even common problems like rape and sexual violence are conceived differently by Black folks, as African American victims of misogynistic violence are taken far less seriously as victims by law enforcement and other public officials than their White counterparts, and thus are less likely to report these crimes or to seek out critical support services. If I went down the list issue-by-issue for you, I could give opposing examples of what Black women and White women experience on a daily basis. In other words, racism has an immeasurable effect on how misogyny operates. But why should I be surprised? Whiteness is the great trump card in American society. If gender issues were to come to the fore, there could be no doubt that the white supremacist media will focus exclusively on those representatives of women that are White, in only the most superficial manner that is required, and damn the rest of the accursed lot. If we know that the Plutocracy is misogynistic and that they ultimately want to take away the power of all women, what better way to crush women’s self-determination than to divide the female masses on race and class? The opportunity is right there at their fingertips. After all, they are the founders of the feast, so to speak.
Ignored and cast out, it’s no wonder that African American women and girls appear at casual glance to have no opinion one way or the other on crucial gender issues. On the very question of misogyny itself, the masses of Black women respond with a deafening silence. Pundits and self-anointed authorities consistently mistake this silence for the outright rejection of equality with men, as if sistas enjoy raising children without the assistance of fathers, catching AIDS/HIV at astronomical rates, being verbally abused and harassed in their homes and public places, and constantly anticipating the ever-present risk of sexual violence. But look closely at the perils I just listed. Now couple that with a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week sexual exploitation culture that relies heavily on the exposed, dissected bodies of women, often in racially charged contexts, to sell everything from clothing to alcohol to cosmetics, music, sports, and Internet service. Remember also that the people in the United States who control the flow of ideas are members of the same white supremacist, misogynistic plutocracy that has always ran this country and its institutions, and I ask you only this: what the hell do you expect?
Let’s also not forget that African-descended women in the United States survived nearly three hundred years of the most brutal, sadistic inhumanity that Planet Earth has ever had the misfortune to witness, and that we live with the memory of this history, passed down to us through generation after generation of parents and grandparents, every day of our lives. We also can’t afford to forget that for one hundred years after the close of this abomination, African Americans of the Southern states were held in the jaws of a relentless, psychologically debasing apartheid, upheld by law on the sole grounds that we were “naturally” inferior. So naturally inferior, in fact, that we could be raped, we could be lynched, we could be cheated out of hard-earned wages, forced into specially designated corners of public places, verbally abused by any White person who just felt like doing it, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it, ever. Thirty-five years of corrective legislation does not wash this pain away. It can’t. How could anyone in her or his right mind expect it to?
No amends on the part of the perpetrators were ever made, nor did the basic structure of the people’s environment change. Poverty remained alive. Rape, domestic violence, and prostitution held their ground. White supremacy was still in charge. And we Black girls grew up in this environment. From 1965 onto our current year 2003, we lived in the midst of this hell. No Black girl in America, no matter what neighborhood she lived in or how wealthy her parents were, was immune to the environment. Within the most hideous recesses of the environment, we had no voice. Throughout the whole of our lives, society had trained us to remain silent, regardless of whatever doublespeak about freedom and justice the institutions preached to us out the side of their forked mouths. What did it matter to us? Our mothers and fathers (well intentioned though they were) second-guessed us in the home. Teachers ignored us at school. Other adults made disgustingly sexist predictions about us whenever we weren’t on our best good-girl behavior. Boys insulted and mocked us, and instigated fights between us for their own amusement. And White kids either politely patronized us or turned their backs on us altogether. Through these obstacles, we learned how to be women. Plowing through the inferno in spite of it all was a sign of strength, and if you could come through that and be successful, you’d made it. If you fell and stumbled along the way, it was no big deal; you were still here, and you could survive. Surviving from day-to-day was, and still is, the all-important goal. A survival mindset such as this doesn’t lend itself too easily to great ideological wrestling about social and political theories, about whether feminism was right for us or not. We didn’t have time for such academic posturing. That’s probably why sistas didn’t take the feminist revival of the late 1960s too seriously, notwithstanding the fact that it was a White, bourgeois middle-class movement. We were already coping with oppression the best way we knew how, with no help from anyone in the mainstream, thank you very much. When you’ve got hard-won experience under your belt, who needs all the ideological rhetoric?
African American women and girls have paid dearly for the inattention paid to our analytical and intellectual abilities. We have been deprived of the necessary skills that are needed to launch effective counterarguments against the destructive lies American society continues to formulate against us. This should come as no surprise, because there is such a dearth of available role models that Black girls have access to. As Patricia Hill Collins points out in Black Feminist Thought, suppressing the knowledge produced by oppressed people makes it easier for dominant groups to control a society, because the absence of any substantive rebuttals suggests that oppressed groups are complicit in their own victimization, and this suppression is critical in maintaining social inequalities (Collins, p. 3). In other words, Black girls can’t talk because White men, dead and alive, have snatched our voices to remain in power. The intentional invisibility and continued racist and misogynistic oppression of modern American society have conspired to rob African American women of the two most important tools they need to combat domination: their voice and sense of self. From our own lives and the knowledge of our history, we know that this is true. Because of this, every person in America faces a challenge. We all have a responsibility to restore the voice of our Black daughters; all of us: male and female, Black and White, gay and straight. African-descended women, as much if not more than European-descended men, hold the keys to our very identity as a nation, the child that we literally and figuratively nursed with our minds, breasts, and hands. It is not by accident that the average person in the United States has a weak command of its history. We’ve cut out the tongue of the only person that can tell the entire tale.
Copyright 2003 by Yolanda Carrington