“Protect Black Women” Is More Than Just a Mantra
I was raised in an abusive environment. So when I see Black women mistreated, silenced, and erased, it hits close to home.
One in three Black women will experience either physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives. That number has always felt much higher in terms of the women I knew, given the cultural, political, and economic violence targeted toward Black women globally.
Many of the women I’m close to have shared countless stories of abuse in their personal and professional lives. In some cases, we’ve been able to work together to take meaningful action. But often, we’ve chosen to keep their experiences in confidence.
In our community, the belief that secrets stay in the family has always been a source of inner conflict for me. As a confidante, it’s often difficult to distinguish between who the silence really protects: the women who confided in me or the reputations of their abusers. This silence was troubling. I can‘t even begin to comprehend the depths women have to navigate when sharing their truths.
What routinely follows this disclosure is no less predictable than it is problematic. The default reflex to question women who come forward before questioning the actions of their abusers? Poison. The knee-jerk reaction to put women on trial before we interrogate their abusers? Poison. The search for flaws in their stories, pondering the motives in their actions or tone policing? All of it is poison.
How many of these ideas have we inherited from the doctrine of imperialist, White supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal thinking? How deeply has this permeated the cultures of our companies, social circles, and the furthest corners of our psyche? Even more, what makes questioning and trivializing Black women’s experiences at the hands of abusive men any different than the demonizing and criminalizing of unarmed Black men who have fallen victim at the hands of abusive police? Both serve as a gross rationalization to justify and legitimize a shirking of responsibility.
Voicing our support for Black women is necessary but not sufficient. Amplifying their voices is necessary but not sufficient. Chanting the mantra “Protect Black women at all costs” is necessary but not sufficient.
Black women are among the highest educated population in the world. And yet they are often passed over, taken for granted, discredited, and even hypersexualized as they try to build meaningful lives and careers.
Voicing our support for Black women is necessary but not sufficient. Amplifying their voices is necessary but not sufficient. Chanting the mantra “Protect Black women at all costs” is necessary but not sufficient — especially when we’re not prepared for all of the costs.
All of it falls short until men’s engagement in feminist resistance goes beyond being passive. We need to identify the misogynoir within, not only when it’s overt but also when it is covert and subtle. We must face ourselves and our circles. We, as men, need to shut the fuck up when women have the floor and loud the fuck up when we see some fuck shit within our own backyards.
Point out a time when Black women haven’t shown up, done the work, and held the line against violence, abuse, and sexism. And these ideas, whether inherent or inherited, don’t exist as simple binaries but function along a gradient. We can no longer render ourselves exempt from taking into account where we fall on the spectrum.
I am not free from this in the least; I’m grateful for the women in my life who’ve been an instrumental part of my development and held a mirror to the shadow sides of myself that I’ve been unable — or at times unwilling — to see. I’ve been able to witness moments when I’ve interrupted them in conversations, when I’ve been possessive in relationships, and when I didn’t take action when a woman felt unsafe.
It’s one thing to identify our toxic behavior when it’s flagrant. But a significant part of the work lies in the subtleties of language and the intricacies of our relationships. In these difficult conversations, I’ve also had to confront generational cycles of behavior within the men in my family. In wanting to rebel against the traits of anger that I witnessed within my father and grandfather, I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to master self-control, discipline, and composure.
As genuine and honorable as this felt, the women in my life challenged me to establish a healthy relationship with my shadow emotions.
I learned that there’s no control over our shadow selves if we don’t engage and find healthy ways to express what lies beneath the surface. This freedom was emotionally liberating for me, and I quickly learned how it also impacted my relationships with women. Prior, I didn’t realize how many times women have hesitated to confide in me because they knew how the anger I have in defense of people I love could impair my judgment. Women had to decide between protecting themselves by risking my involvement or protecting me by remaining silent because I hadn’t done my share of the work.
They inspired my thinking and cautioned me on the self-indulgent follies of progressive masculinity — its preoccupation with being an exception to the rule rather than focusing on communal introspection and engaging other men to do the same. I remember the vulnerability of these moments and the times when my defensiveness followed suit.
Do we as men genuinely believe that the toxicity of misogyny and internalized patriarchy that has permeated our subconscious wouldn’t also come equipped with a built-in defense mechanism? One that, when triggered, eschews responsibility in acknowledging its existence? There’s a lesson only learned when we question the source and the nature of our defenses, reflexes, and reactions.
The year 2020 was unequivocally the Year of Reckoning. No stone was left unturned; no word left unsaid. We must draw lines in the sand. There is neither room for complacency nor neutrality. In the same way that we’ve agreed that we can no longer shelter hegemonic structures of racism, we need to come to terms with no longer granting safe harbor to harassment, coercion, and all forms of abuse against Black women.