In this article I discuss the repetitive trauma Black women experience because society views them as less than human. Trigger warning: this article references suicide ideation, rape, and sexual abuse.
As a child and young adult, I viscerally loathed the state of Texas. I wanted it annexed from the United States. In part this was fueled by the stereotype that Texas is conservative and thus inferior; California is progressive and as such, superior. As my maturity and nuance developed, I now understand Texas is less a conservative state and more a gerrymandering and voter suppressing one; and California is not always the liberal beacon it proclaims to be. However my true reason for hating Texas was that it almost killed my mother.
In the glory that was the 1980s, my parents with my then-infant older brother took a cross-country road trip. As luck would have it, their car broke down on what I presume was the I-35. In the land before cellular phones, they flagged down assistance from gracious passerbyers, the first of which was a police officer. He kindly approached my then-family of three and advised them, “if you n*ggers aren’t gone before I come back I’ll slit y’all throats.” I don’t know if an exact approximation of time was given.
Thankfully, my mother spoke Spanish and met some wonderful Mexican Americans who fixed the vehicle and saved my family’s life. In present day, my mother lives with this trauma. She tearfully shakes every time she tells this story; which for obvious reasons, is infrequent. My mother swore she would never return to Texas, and approximately thirty-six years later, has kept that promise. I shared this story with a friend once, and she looked me straight in the eye with the fullness of her chest and said, “no. I don’t believe you. That didn’t happen.” Very few times in my life have I ever truly been speechless.
This was an exhausting week for so many like my mother and myself, who’ve been victims of one trauma and then were revictimized when discussing our abuse. With all the mental contortions of which the human mind is capable, the narrative of who can and cannot be a victim to some is ostensibly immobile.
When the Duchess of Sussex alleged the racism and suicidal thoughts she experienced as a working royal, many Black women were saddened, appalled, and empathetic — but none of us were surprised. Also unsurprising, yet no less violent, was the agility and dexterity as to how people could rationalize the impossibility of her claims. It clearly couldn’t have been as she described. She obviously could have done something. Her actions and feelings couldn’t be as she stated or the responses she alleges are terribly misconstrued. Even the royal family, with its anemic and circumspect response noted, “recollections may vary.” Take from that what you will.
In 2015 former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison for offenses not limited to: first-degree rape, sexual battery, indecent exposure, stalking, and forcible oral sodomy. Thirteen women bravely testified; it’s indisputed there were others. What was the salient factor of Holtzclaw’s victims? Black women.
In fact, utilizing the full artistry of white supremacy and the dominion his badge afforded him, Holtzclaw would run background checks on women with outstanding warrants to specifically target them. Why? Like so many this week and the above-mentioned friend, Holtzclaw knew that if these women reported the assaults, people who look them in the eye with the fullness of their chest and say, “no. I don’t believe you. That didn’t happen.”
I read the extraordinary but harrowing and best-selling memoir “A Piece of Cake” by Cupcake Brown. Ms. Brown, a Black woman, explicitly describes the repeated rape and abuse she was subject to from age eleven; where she was drugged and beaten by different foster family placements as others stood by and left her exposed and unprotected; and how her life spiraled in a manner that no human being should endure. When she found the courage to confide in a social worker, he looked at her straight in the eye with the fullness of his chest and said, “no. I don’t believe you. That didn’t happen.” Cupcake, now a defense attorney, did not write an entire novel based on events that did not take place.
As a United States Peace Corps volunteer no less — I experienced racism that rivaled Jim Crow segregation, as did many of my fellow Black volunteers. Almost every Black volunteer during my service had at least one story where they shared a racist experience with a non-Black volunteer who replied with the same level of incredulity. “No. I don’t believe you. That didn’t happen.”
The harm perpetrated against Black women has shape shifting techniques that only X-Men’s Mystique can rival. It’s when people touch your hair without your consent, which is the definition of assault and battery, and look you straight in the eye and say, “well I was curious.” Do I not have the right to decide who touches me? It’s when people call you aggressive for asserting your own boundaries — something I experience repeatedly when I tell people not to shorten my name. As I’ve blossomed into adulthood, I directly ask, “what makes you think you have the power or authority to rename me?”
The casual disregard for someone’s identity and humanity are experiences known far too well to Black women. I’m too exhausted to enumerate all of the statistics regarding rape, maternal mortality, and other forms of abuse that Black women experience where they are continuously not be believed and then left unserved by the justice system. Finally, I would be inexcusably remiss if I did not note the harm perpetuated against Black trans women, who are subject to staggering and disproportionate violence in the United States.
When you look at an individual who shares their pain and reply, “nope — not true” I want to tell you in unequivocal terms — you are the reason these things happen. This behavior isn’t singular on the part of the individual, it’s a cumulative reflection of society. People know they can commit these transgressions, however slight or egregious, because they gamble the high probability of success with impunity. Often, they’re right.
Take recently resigned Piers Morgan, who will invariably fail upwards to his next position. This man quite literally used a national platform as a conduit for his vendetta against a mixed-race woman for the better part of four years. And who sought to protect her, other than Black women? By default, it clearly wasn’t her in-laws. Contrast that to the response of Kanye West’s one-time stage-stealing moment from Taylor Swift and the deluge of sympathy and compassion that surrounded her for years. Meghan Markle has been bullied by the press since 2017 and some of you are really surprised that it worked? Do bears defecate in the woods?
Please remember that if someone says they were or are suicidal, and you have the disturbing temerity to challenge them, there’s only one way they can prove you wrong. Please know that before and without cell phones, police officers can and do commit extrajudicial killings of unarmed African Americans. Please know that if someone is accusing someone of sexual assault, the only way to disprove that outside of a court of law is to put someone in a position to be assaulted once more and “capture” the violation. Please know that when someone makes an allegation of racism, the alleged perpetrator almost never admits they did anything racist.
People keep saying on the subject of racism and misogynoir that “we have work to do.” Who is the “we”? In the journey of unlearning bigotry and prejudice, please stop asking the people who are victims of said bigotry and prejudice to guide you out of it. Quite literally no other ethnic group is asked that more than Black people, specifically Black women. It’s exhausting. It’s violent. For the record, it costs zero dollars and zero cents to treat every person with kindness and respect. Start there.
Michelle Obama noted in Becoming, “Women endure entire lifetimes of these indignities — in the form of catcalls, groping, assault, oppression. These things injure us. They sap our strength. Some of the cuts are so small they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal.”
As a child, my favorite program was Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. The ending credits sang, “this is the song that never ends. And it goes on and on my friends...” I look at the conversation that surrounded Meghan Markle this week. I look at the continued debasement of Serena Williams, one of her best friends and greatest athletes of all time. I look at the injustices of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and Latasha Harlin — the last an important catalyst for what became the LA Riots of 1992. I look at the Black women who were repeatedly raped and abused during the domestic and state-sanctioned terrorism that was Jim Crow and how no one acknowledges how pivotal this was to the Civil Rights Movement. I look at my friends and family who share stories that so many are unwilling or don’t care to believe. This abuse of Black women is the international anthem that never ends.
For my sanity, for my survival — I need a new playlist.