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Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Absent Racial #MeToo and Rekindling Intersectional Identity

It is times like this, as the United States Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh unfold, that I am reminded that I dwell at the margins of this club called feminism. Moments like this remind me that mainstream feminism frequently requires tamping down my intersectional identity. This is neither surprising nor necessarily a bad thing.  Strategic essentialism is a well-known mechanism for fighting oppression. But when the flames of intersectional identities are tamped down too often or too forcefully, they are in danger of being extinguished all together.  So here I speak, hoping to stir the embers.

Like many people, feminists included, I think that, generally speaking, false sexual assault accusations are relatively rare. But as a black woman whose family has lived in the United States since before the United States Revolutionary War, I am also painfully aware of the fact that false sexual assault and sexual harassment claims lodged by white women against black men are an age-old tool of oppression. For generations men in my family were advised to avoid contact with white women because even a look, never mind touching, unwanted or not, could mean a death sentence. This is not hyperbole; it was reality for all too many of us, my own relatives included. Even now, though interracial black male-white female interactions and relationships are not forbidden by law, they still raise some eyebrows. There are still sufficient amounts of anti-black prejudice for me to bear in mind that my black sons and husband may be falsely accused of some sexualized crime against white women.

But while I recognize that cross-racial false allegations of sexualized crime are potential perils for my sons and husband, a far greater peril for the black men, women and children in my family is that they will be gunned down, beaten, or otherwise abused by police or by white citizens who perceive them as a threat. This is my reality Every. Single. Day. No amount of advanced education, middle-class living, or professional dressing will make these perils go away. We can run, but we cannot hide, not even in our own homes, as the police killing of Botham Jean in his own home shows.

In recent days I have kept quiet as I watched women, mostly white women, talk about how painful and triggering it is to see a person who alleges sexual harassment or assault come forward and be disbelieved or mistreated by authorities or by members of the public. I understand this; I have also experienced the pain of being disbelieved about sexual harassment (see my blog article "Me, One"). But I wonder if many of these women have thought about how endlessly dismaying it is for black people to see black men, women and children killed, assaulted, or otherwise abused because they are perceived as threats, or as undesirable, only to have authorities or the public try to somehow justify our mistreatment. Some days, many days, I am at the edge of tears, at the edge of an abyss, hoping that the abuse will stop, and knowing that without massive public and private acknowledgement and action, it will not.

Just as many women in general have experienced varying degrees of sexual harassment and/or sexualized violence, so, too, have many black people suffered varying degrees of racist abuses. Just as women in general have been coached to attribute it to our own shortcomings, forget about it, keep silent, act as if it didn’t happen, so also have black people been coached to ignore racist treatment. The coaching is sometimes explicit; other times it is implied from the ways in which complaints about racism are treated in our society. To complain too much, or at all, is to invite being labeled as a black person with an Unfounded Grievance. We are supposed to smile, keep moving forward, and act as if nothing at all is wrong.  


There is no racial #MeToo. Or at least, not one that most people care to hear about.