Black Lives Matter or Black Men Matter: Gender and the Movement for Freedom

Aimatu Fatty, Communications Intern

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 in response to the exoneration of Treyvon Martin’s murderer. Exhausted by the cruelty and injustice which black people face from the system, the organization was built on the principles of inclusivity, acceptance, improvement, and humanity in order to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” However, the overt and repeated lack of recognition towards Black female victims – and even for its three queer, black, female founders – begs the question of whether this movement is truly about all black lives, or rather just black male lives. The lack of support which black women face in general needs to change. However, it is up to the black lives matter movement  to take the first step. By continuing to spread the discrimination which black women are already victim to, it not only further perpetuates the harmful stereotypes inflicted on black women during slavery, but it establishes an unproductive divide between the members of the community that it is fighting for.

During the 19th century, black women were demeaned by both slavery and the norms of the Victorian era. These ideals cultivated so that black women could not fit the standards of attraction, purity, subordination, and caretaker which white men sought after; they were instead attacked by a series of stereotypes formulated to further dehumanize them. For instance, the Jezebel, the Mammy, and the Sapphire. The Jezebel represents this promiscuous and immoral black woman. Completely opposing the criterion of a ‘good wife’ through her indiscretions, she was viewed as an object of sexual satisfaction for many men outside their households. White men using this generalization as a way to justify abuse between slave and slave master,  it became the leeway for sexual exploitation of black women despite their age. As a result, currently, while 35% of black women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 will  be sexually abused by the age of 18; reporters of the abuse are continously shunned and overlooked. Next, the Mammy represents the affectionate caretaker. Depicted as an overweight, dark skinned woman who lived to serve her white ‘family’, it not only aimed to justify the slaves’ manner of living, but it also wrongly classified women who fell under this category as asexual because they were deemed unattractive. Consequently, this mindset was formulated that black women were physically and mentally inferior and thus would live under any burden, no matter the effect on themselves. Lastly, the Sapphire represents the classical angry-black-woman stereotype which still pervades today. Aware of injustice and strong minded, the Sapphire is often twisted to be abusive, emasculating, and nagging. While this is an extremely harsh portrayal of black women, it encourages a method of societal control which is “employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.” 

Though the institution of slavery ended, the steryotypes have persisted. Faced with not only racial discrimination but gender discriminaton, black women are consistently forced under the trope of being the ‘superwoman’.  While this may seem like a positive attribution, the perpetuation of this myth contributes to the harmful mindset that black women have a higher pain threshold. Seen only as strong and self-sacrificing, as opposed to vulnerable and emotional, it creates a society where black women are not only victims to police brutality, sexual abuse, systematic racism, and gender discrimination, but even to the healthcare industry. As doctors ultimately take advantage of this tale to refuse them adequate care, the disparities between overall health and pregnancy related deaths between black and white women are extremely yet unnecessarily high.

When black women give birth, they are 3-4 times more likely to die than white women.  When black woman get paid they are given just 63 cents compared to every non-white mans dollar. When black women are victims of sexual assault, only 1 in 15 will report. Yet despite these statistics the troubles of black women still go unrecognized and undiscussed, even within the movement itself. Though black women are strong, for many of them this trait was not chosen willingly. Instead it was forced on them as a mode of protection. If this is truly a movment for black lives, then it is important not to further perpetuate the discrimination black women face by ignoring them. 

Struggles across different identities are not comparable: A black man cannot step into the shoes of a black woman, the same way a heterosexual black person cannot truly understand the tribulations of a black member of the LGBTQ. However, if true inclusivity is to be achieved, it is essential that as a community, black people stop using their differences to justify their silence, and instead take actions to unite. For one, educate yourselves not just on your history, but also on your privilege. Though black people are victim to marginalization as a byproduct of their race, within each person there is an intersectional identity which  encompasses other areas such as social-economic class, gender, sexuality and more. Thus by taking the time to define these aspects for yourself, you can recognize the privilege you might hold and use that to assist those which lack them. Two, use your platform to raise awareness on the injustices perpetrated on ALL black people, not just the ones who look like you. As a society we are overrun by social media. And so even if you have a low following base it is especially important in times like these, that your story/ feed reflects the racial discrimination felt by a plethora of black identies. This way not only are you teaching, you are also denying the ideology which places black men at the center. Third and maybe most importantly, talk to one another. While you might not be able to directly empathize with someone’s story, taking the time to learn about them and sympathize with their pain- is the first step in achieving the unification which the black lives matter movement truly needs.

Ultimately, Black Lives Matter is a community effort. Whether it be black members of the LGBTQ community or heterosexual black men and women, they are all targeted by the systematic racism which defines this country.  So yes, justice for Geord Floyd, for Tamir Rice, for Eric Garner and for all the other black men who have been affected by police brutality. However while you’re screaming their names, do not forget about Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Oluwatoyin Salau and the many other black female victims which society has already actively ignored.