During the week of the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing, I heard a black male comedian joke, “This was one of those few weeks when it was better to be black than a woman.” The crowd laughed, but I didn’t. His comment was more emblematic of a problem than it was a mockery of one. I wondered if he and his crowd were aware of the misogyny and racism hidden in his remark.
The categories of his joke – unstated, but clearly implied – were black men and white women. According to his quip, it was better during that week to be a black man like himself than a white woman like Dr. Ford. Though I am not sure the diminishment of one marginalized group ever makes things better for another, that his joke excluded people who inhabit both of his categories suggests a blind spot on the part of our society. We too often ignore black women.
Don’t think black women aren’t aware of this common slight. I follow enough women of color to know last week was especially difficult for them. The seriousness in which the Democrats responded to Dr. Ford was in striking contrast to how Democrats treated a black woman, Anita Hill. While black women were mostly sympathetic to Dr. Ford, they were also aware of the privilege she brought to her testimony. They had to wonder how much of her credibility was connected to the color of her skin. One woman of color noted that many of the white women who were most enraged often tone police black women when they voice their anger about racism.
Though we are beginning to talk about intersectionality and the need to recognize various types and kinds of discrimination and oppression, we seldom acknowledge that two of the deepest blights on our society – racism and misogyny – intersect in women of color. Heaven forbid a black woman should be a lesbian – the trifecta of intersectionality. This is why I am especially impressed with black women like Dana Black.
My wife and I recently hosted a small gathering in support of the efforts of Dana Black to make her name and way within the Democratic Party. Dana, a black lesbian, most recently ran against a long time and powerful Indiana Republican State Representative in a district where the Democratic Party had allowed his election to go uncontested. Eternally optimistic, Dana ran even though the Party offered little support and people mocked her naivete. Dana says, “Did I lose? Yes. Did I fail? No. I gave 38% of the people in that District another option, a vision of what could be. That so many in that district voted for a black female lesbian is nearly miraculous.”
I am amazed by that kind of thinking, of those who understand racism and misogyny will not be quickly routed, that defeating them is trench warfare where the deeply dug lines are moved slowly and with many losses. This is why my wife and I became monthly donors to The 10/100 Committee, an organization with the goal of seeing 10 US Senators of color and 100 US Representatives of color in the Congress in 2050. Notice the target date. I am supporting an organization with a goal that I will never see, but perhaps my black daughters will. Indeed, my hope is that when we meet that goal that at least 5 of those Senators and 50 of those Representatives will be women of color.
This generational shift is what I hope for in my writing, my giving and my advocacy. I understand many of my white peers will die with their hearts permanently hardened by the racism and misogyny in which we were immersed. A few of us will change, but most will not. The death of systemic racism and misogyny will be a lingering death. Old white men will cling to the reins of power with their dying breath. If the arc of the universe bends toward justice, those climbing that arc know how steep the incline. Like Sisyphus, they push the great rock of white male privilege up that hill, knowing full well that they are always at risk of being crushed by it.
Certainly, white women and black men share this danger, but it is the blood, sweat and tears of black women like Vivian Malone Jones that most oil those efforts, making it possible for us to inch the rock upward. The lead picture of this blog is of a 21 year old Vivian Malone Jones being escorted into registration at the University of Alabama in 1961. Her family was threatened with violence and the governor of Alabama – George Wallace – stood in her way on her first attempt to register. What is often forgotten is that once the federal marshals left, Vivian had to endure blatant and systemic racism every day of her education. Every day she persevered, she inched the rock forward.
She did what black women before and after her have done – women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. If you don’t know of them, you should. They are the ones who have shouldered so much of the burden of changing our society for the better. Black women like these women continue that legacy. I have the honor of knowing and sometimes working with incredible women of color.
Today I celebrate black women like Dana Black. I marvel at Teena and her incredible strength. I appreciate Nichelle and her work to highlight black literature and culture. I’m thankful for LaShawnda, who has worked so tirelessly to remind us of the horror of lynching. I respect Patrice and her perseverance in community development. I remember Val and all her many community organizing workshops. I honor Alyson who spends her “free time” advocating for the ethical treatment of orphans. I treasure the friendship of Cherie and her work on cross racial dialogue. I am in awe of Mashariki and understand why many call her “Queen Mother.” Each of these women has accomplished great things despite the many ways our society diminishes their value and ignores their efforts.
For me, they are the canary in the mine. They are uniquely positioned to experience and know whether we are making any progress in our struggle to end misogyny and racism in America. When they tell us the work is done – then and only then – can we rest.