I have never ‘truly’ felt the kind of terror that lived in my belly and would not go away, until I filed a racial discrimination complaint at work against a co-worker who used a ‘monkey see, monkey do,’ reference about Black football players who kneel during the national anthem. When I learned that another co-worker had referred to me as a ‘dumb nigger bitch’ I asked for an investigation into that incident as well – in a dominant, white male workforce, no less. Evidently, no one had let me in on the secret that speaking out against bigotry would have changed my life in ways that I could not have imagined. But even if they had – it would not have made a difference.
People have asked me, what did you expect? Actually, I expected leadership to be as appalled as I was – and take swift and immediate action that sent a clear message that racism was not tolerated. And used the incident(s) as an opportunity to improve issues around racial diversity. What else was I supposed to expect?
It’s become clear to me, in my research and observing the ways in which many racial conflicts escalate and are addressed – that fear by bullying, threats, fabrications and sometimes outright force …is still the weapon of choice that many in White America utilize to get what they want. This tactic has been used for so long, that tragically – for all of us – many believe this is the only way to deal with conflicts. But.. what has history taught us, if not, that not everyone can be bullied or threatened into silence – for some, this has the opposite effect. And clearly, we are not at a point in history where Black people will retreat into silence.
For those in white America who believe that fear-based tactics is the best way to address conflicts, I challenge you to try a less hostile approach. Can we talk?
Malcolm X, in his 1962 speech, Who Taught You to Hate Yourself, spoke about the marginalized state of Black women calling them the most disrespected, un-protected and neglected person in America.
Of the many realizations that became clear during my research – one is how truly vulnerable and confined a space many Black women are forced to live within a systematic construct that treats them with hostility even as it deems them hostile. It appears that Black women who dare to embrace themselves as self-loving, prideful, accepting and unapologetic-ally Black – who challenge dominant ideologies that they are dis-empowered figures – who, in asserting themselves as having the right to speak, ask questions and stand against an unjust system – they understand how potent racism can be. It matters not the level of education and professional success that many Black women attains, society demands that they prove themselves worthy of respect and dignity. To name a few instances where the debase treatment of Black women is evident, Bill O’Reilly thought nothing of ridiculing congresswoman, Maxine Waters by attacking her appearance in his “James Brown wig” remark. Throughout her years in the white house, former first lady, Michelle Obama was routinely referred to as a monkey. Serena and Venus Williams have from the time they emerged on the national scene have been subjected to a ferocious barrage of racist and sexist comments. Omarosa was recently referred to as a ‘dog’ by our president. By a large scale, Black women and girls are victims of violence, murdered and incarcerated and many of these issues remain unaddressed.
Those who do not have access to the necessary resources or the ability to advocate for themselves are particularly at risk of becoming truly invisible – in a sinister way- within this hostile environment. That’s why it is vital that we help each other up. No other group can truly understand the bond we share in the struggles we face as Black women – and carve out a space that we can call our own. And as for Black men, stop disrespecting Black women. It’s shameful. We are stronger together that we are divided.
Omid Safi, in his Radical Justice, Gentle Spirit: Malcolm X’s Message for America 50 Years Later takes a poignant look back on this crucial speech by Malcolm X in which he speaks directly to Black about their marginalized status in America. This speech, still relevant today begs the question, are we making progress towards a more unified society?
What sets Malcolm X apart from other human rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was X’s fundamental belief that only Blacks can truly give themselves the independence and freedom that they sought and which was their right. While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s ideologies centered on integration and nonviolence as the means by which Blacks achieved freedom – Malcolm X focused on Black consciousness – that stems from Black love, pride and acceptance as the road-map to freedom from oppressive racial conditions. He believed that if Blacks wanted freedom they would have to take it.
As we look back on history and where we are now – have we made the kind of progress we need to move us forward?
Safi, Omid (2015)Radical Justice, Gentle Spirit: Malcolm X’s Message for America 50 Years Later
It is important that we acknowledge the issue of Black anger against the systematic structures that keep a large segment of the population marginalized and trapped cyclical in oppressive conditions for what it is – justified. In recent years, extensive studies have shown that pervasive confrontation with racism can create feelings of powerlessness and depression that may lead to emotional and psychological harm. These findings are essential to the discourse on racism – equally important, particularly in this climate where racial tension is high and more Blacks are raising their voices, it is crucial, that a clear distinction is made between justified expressed anger and what determinant factors constitutes as a mental health condition.
Indeed, many are justifiable angry that Blacks have remained among the poorest, most economically disadvantaged, oppressed population from the slave-era into current times. Studies show that the same slave-era, racist ideologies and systematic structures have rendered the group greatest at risk across the spectrum for illnesses, physical, emotional and psychological abuse, poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, unemployment, and underemployment – to name a few. These injustices have not only been passed down to this generation, but many can also envision these same chains around the necks and ankles of future generation. As such, many of us are angry and justifiable so, that…
1. Socio-economically, most of America’s wealth remains predominantly in the hands of the white ruling class. And with the vast disparities in socio-economic solvency, education, and political representation that are in place – there is little to no chance that these inequities will change.
2. The vast disparity between incarcerated Blacks and other groups, whites, in particular, indicates an immediate need for review and reform of the penile system. Instead, more jails are being built to host more Black bodies – leading to an epidemic of fatherless Black children who are left to be raised by over-worked and over-stressed single mothers struggling to survive harsh economic conditions. This domino effect places many Black children at risk for a life of drugs, crime, and systematic exploitation. Within the construct of these conditions, one can argue that long before many Black children becomes an adult, they are perceived as future criminals – that once old enough, even a minor offense can mark them convicts and ‘property’ of the same system that created the problems that led to these horrific outcomes.
3. It is hard-pressed to turn on the news and not see Black people being brutalized and treated like animals, getting arrested for sitting in Starbucks, white people calling the police for things as basic as napping in a common dorm space, getting fired for speaking out against racism, and that massive under funding in predominantly Black schools has led to high drop-out rates and illiteracy among many Black youth.
4. Negative slave era stereotypes still mark Black women as angry, unrefined, overly aggressive, out-of-control and a plethora of other intimations that deflect attention from the real issues that they face. As such, when they voice concerns about social issues that impact their lives, their interests are dismissed and their voices silenced. Despite women contributing to the workforce more than any other group, even those with comparative or more education, on a large scale, work menial jobs, are among the lowest wage earners and face a variety of intersectional challenges that renders them perpetually marginalized and struggling against oppressive conditions.
While it is necessary to address the adverse mental and psychological impact on Black lives resulting from racism, we must be careful not allow white America to label us as emotionally or psychologically disturbed when we express anger at the fact that slavery and its enduring adverse impact on Black people remain unconfronted and unaddressed. The danger here is that if the ideology of expressed anger at racism converges and takes root as a mental or psychological health ‘condition’, adding to the list of negative stereotypes, will be mental instability which will further marginalize and diminish the voices of those who speak out against racial injustice. An effective approach to silence us – is to discredit us- and we must be cognizant of all the ways in which that can happen.