On Checking Allies Who Do Not Realize That #BlackLivesMatter is a Reproductive Justice IssueCherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Commentary I January 27th, 2015
Not too long ago, I was scrolling through my social media newsfeed and came upon a post by an individual who was a member of a feminist group page, and who was ranting about the many posts that focused on what was occurring in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and Ohio. In short, she felt that the topics of police brutality, police violence, and profiling did not belong on a feminist discussion board, especially since the conversation seemed centered on men with hashtags like #MikeBrown, #EricGarner, and #TamirRice. She wanted to see more posts about "feminist stuff" and stories that were relatable. Now, I am sure that you may ask, relatable to who? That was my initial thought when I read her rant, but the answer to the question is quite simple. See, the person commenting was a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class woman from a predominantly white Midwestern state. Thus, discussions about the value of Black Lives and injustice that Black people face, when it comes to law enforcement and the criminal (IN)justice system, are completely foreign to her. Despite claiming to be a feminist, she was unable to relate to these issues of race-based oppression; in fact, she did not want to be bothered with them.
I was one of the first responders to her post. She was adamant about the fact that she was a feminist, and considered herself an ally; and she simply felt as though the conversation was inappropriate, and by the way, "was clogging up the group's page." I did not waste time in pointing out to her that she could claim to be a feminist, but her action's and comments expressed otherwise. Essentially, she lacked an understanding of feminism, and did not realize that feminism seeks to remove all forms of oppression, not just gender-based. She wanted to thrust her own narrow, archaic, privileged views on all of the feminists interacting in the group. She apparently wanted to only see "feminist" stories and posts that she could relate to. I scrolled through the group, and checked the timelines of other feminists groups, to see what these acceptable posts may look like. I was sure to pay attention to the content shared specifically by women who were white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class women, like The Ranter - in other words, the very women that women of color and those in the LGBTQ community may refer to as allies. And this was the subject matter of many of their posts:
The evils of beauty pageants
Most of these posts were quite relevant to the group in that they do speak back to societal manifestations of patriarchy, just not to issues of racism, homophobia, or issues of class and gender outside of the gender gap between men and women. Basically, these were issues that these women found to be relatable, or capable of actually impacting their lives.
When considering the nature of these posts, the infamous rant, and what seems like a general lack of response from feminists, and particularly those in academia, to actively take part in the current protests against police violence - the state sanctioned execution of Black and Brown people - it is clear that we need to check our allies or be more careful about whom we call allies. We need to inform them when they are speaking from a point of ignorance and privilege. We also need to determine whether they are revealing themselves to be racists or bigots. If a person is going on-and-on about looters and property damage instead of speaking about the underlying factors that cause an uprising, then you can pretty much assume they are not an ally. The Ranter was certainly not an ally, and her many comments led the moderators of the group page to open a separate post, which was to be commented on by women of color only, asking how the situation should be handled. The consensus was to allow the post to stay up, as it served as a tool for education. Apparently, there are many feminist "allies" who are completely unaware of the fact that the 'Black Lives Matter' social movement and the issue of police violence and brutality are feminists issues; specifically, reproductive justice issues.
So, What Is Reproductive Justice?
In the most simplistic explanation, reproductive justice is about the right to be, or not be, a parent. The term was coined in 1994 by African American women after the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. It is a theoretical framework that is an expansion of the theory of intersectionality, which informs a fuller understanding of the sometimes overlapping forces (intersections - of race, class, sex, sexual orientation, disability, etc.) that structure the lives of constituents. Reproductive justice links this understanding and social justice perspective to reproductive rights. However, reproductive justice is about bodily autonomy, and goes beyond the focus of insemination, conception, planned pregnancies, pregnancy prevention, and childbirth to include a focus on whether or not a parent has the necessary social supports and a safe environment to raise their children. This includes having a living wage that will help them to afford safe housing and nutritious food, as well as being able to live without fear of violence from individuals or the government; and so much more.
Given this definition of reproductive justice, a feminist intersectional theory, it should be feasible to understand why the Black Lives Matter movement should be viewed as a reproductive justice movement; and why reproductive justice organizing involves this need to advocate against police violence in order to defend a woman's right to raise her children in safe environments.
#BlackLivesMatter and Reproductive Justice: The Connection
First and foremost, Black women and girls (daughters) are also subjected to police brutality and violence. So, it would be quite a false claim to state that this is not a direct feminist issue. Unfortunately, and despite the fact the BlackLivesMatter campaign and movement was started by three Black queer women and feminists ( Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi) as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder while his killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed, there is inadequate attention given to the murder of Black women and girls by police. So much so that protestors do not bother to speak their names; mostly because they do not even know their names.
So, when speaking about the nature of these protests, The Ranter recognized a trend: our newsfeeds, televisions, airwaves, and protest chants and songs are simply filled with the names and images of Black men. There is a failure to realize that ALL Black Lives Matter. The website, Bougie Black Girl, is among those trying to rectify this situation. Her posts include the call that we must #SpeakTheirNames, and include Black women and girls in this protest movement for Black lives. In August 2014, the website released an article with the names and faces of these women and girls who were murdered by the police, ignored by the Black community, and marginalized in calls of protest. Even Sonali Kolhatkar, host of Pacifica Radio's KPFK 90.7FM progressive show Uprising, which is now part of the Free Speech TV show listings, fell into this trap of excluding Black women and girls from the discussion. She aired a series of discussions with Black men about how they reacted to these recent cases of police violence, how safe they felt around police in general, and asking them to speak on their experiences with profiling. The assumption was made that Black women, somehow, are exempt from these experiences and that we do not share the same fears. Feminist writer, Evette Dionne, shared the following sentiments in an article for the Ms. Magazine blog:
As a black woman, I'm not immune to the fear. My heart pounds rapidly every time I see blue-and-red lights flashing in my rearview mirror. I never know if I will be alive when I leave those brief encounters with police officers. One wrong move could cost me my life, and that is a fear that haunts me as I move through the world every day.
I would add to this and share my own recent experience of discomfort that occurred recently. As I was traveling through Los Angeles's downtown - yes, home of the infamous LAPD who are being confronted by protestors due to the execution of Ezell Ford, whose autopsy showed that he had a close range gunshot wound in the back - I was followed for a few miles, just after crossing the city's 110 - 101 freeway connections. The cop seemed to be cruising behind me for an eternity, and I wondered if he was running my plates and looking for a reason to pull me over or harass me. Clearly, I do not feel protected in the presence of police; instead there is agitation, and I realize that if something was to occur, my name would likely not be spoken, remembered, or called upon as a reason to protest.
The truth of the matter is that racism, like sexism, is one of the many intersections that impact the lives of Black women. If we continue to just speak the names of men and boys, and solely provide them with a platform to share their stories, we will be perpetuating ignorance and fueling this myth that Black women and girls are somehow safe from police violence. And it is this ignorance that has caused much animosity and friction on social media sites and offline, where the simple act of pointing out that these things also happen to Black women and girls, becomes a problem. There are accusations that we are "taking attention away from what is happening to Black men/boys," and statements that suggest "things are not so bad for Black women." Even Black women, who overwhelmingly make up the front line of these marches (marching to defend their offspring) primarily hold up images and names of Black men murdered by police. Only a few seem willing to ask, What About Our Daughters?
The statistic that a Black person is killed every 28 hours by police is automatically coded to mean male, while the next victim can be a Black woman or girl; and there is great certainty that this woman/girl victim-to-be will be marginalized or forgotten not only by mainstream media, but also by protestors and the Black community as a whole. Again, ask people to speak their names - the Black women and girls killed by police - and see how many can actually do so. These victims suffer dehumanizing invisibility, particularly if they cannot be criminalized, in order to create a media sensation; in the way that Trayvon Martin was framed as a menace who attacked and viciously beat George Zimmerman to the point that "he had to murder him out of self-defense"; the same way Mike Brown was framed as a thug stealing cigarillos who was so massive and intimidating that "he had to be killed" because he posed an imminent threat; and to Eric Gardner, who of course "caused his own death" because he was illegally selling loose cigarettes.
The media has always had these historical stereotypes about the danger of big, brooding Black men to toil around with and reintroduce into the public psyche. However, the stereotypes for Black women, which are centered within their sexuality, does not work as well for creating criminal narratives. Thus, Black women and girls who are victims of police violence are simply ignored by the media, as if their lives did not matter and they were nothing more than road kill. The fact that they cannot readily find enough negative things to disclose about them ultimately means that there is no story; because Black women and girls are not deemed as virtuous. Had they been White women, there would be stories about how great of a tragedy it was for them to be killed by the police. Personal stories would be shared about them, exclaiming their innocence, beauty, and potential; in order to uphold their humanity.
Reproductive justice extends well beyond childbirth; it entails parents, especially women of color, having the right to safely raise their child(ren) into adulthood. In terms of the police murders of children and young adults of color - for which the police commonly act as judge, jury, and executioner all within a matter of seconds - reproductive justice upholds the fact that no parent should have their right to be a parent arbitrarily and unexpectedly terminated because of state-sanctioned violence carried out by police officers.
Black mothers are burdened by having to have "the talk" with their child(ren), and I am not alluding to "the birds & the bees." This talk is meant to increase their child's chances of not being brutalized or murdered by the police, simply because they appear as a threat to someone blinded by racism or racial stereotypes. So, they have to instruct their children about what areas to avoid, how they will be viewed in these areas, how to dress, how to move - slowly is the preference - how to speak, and what responses to give; just about every and any minute detail involving potential interactions with police. These talks are imperative because they are literally a matter of life and death.
In The End
There is a clear need for continued intersectional advocacy around protests against police profiling, brutality, and the murder of Black people, using a reproductive justice framework; which, at the root, centers on the right to life, wellbeing, and longevity. For this reason, our allies - men, as well as White women - must be checked when they are speaking and acting in a sexist or racist manner; whether it is proclaiming that the discussion about Black women and girls killed by police is nothing more than a distraction, or questioning the need to speak about this topic in feminist forums and spaces. Black women and other women of color do not have the privilege of Just thinking about gender-based oppression and discrimination. The intersection of racism greatly impacts our lives, and that of our children. So, we cannot ignore the issue of police brutality and violence which has manifested in the killing of Black people with impunity. All Black lives - men, women, children, heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual - Matter.