Growing up in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood in Seattle I remember my mother warning my older brother not to be caught running after dark, and, if ever stopped by police, to do whatever they asked—no more and no less. Speak as little as possible, she'd say. Every suggestion was a weak attempt to minimize a danger that would exist regardless. My brother would always be a black male.
If you've grown up black and male in America or have been closely connected to a black man in America, you know the constant threat that lies in simply existing, the potential danger that underlies even the most routine interaction with police. Dave Chapelle deftly and comically illustrated the issue in HBO's 2000 special "Killin' Them Softly." In relaying their various adventures, Chapelle introduces the audience to his white friend Chip, who approaches officers brazen and carefree. With no overarching history of unprovoked violence, there is nothing to affect Chip's judgment. To me, the most telling scenario occurs when Chip is pulled over while driving drunk. Chappelle anticipates the ramifications from the passenger's seat, but as the officer approaches, Chip doesn't even bother to turn down his music. "Sorry officer, I didn't know I couldn't do that," he says. There's no deference, no caution.
The death of Michael Brown last summer reminded America—at least the part that seemed to forget or hadn't noticed—that racialized violence and police brutality against black men exists as much today as it did in 1955 or 1991.
Brown's killing reignited national discussions regarding police brutality and excessive force, but in most of these conversations one under-addressed topic remains: the equally unceasing police violence against black women. Black women, like black men, experience racialized violence at the hands of law enforcement, but these encounters largely go unreported. Black women (and other women of color) face the threat of police and—as in the cases of Shereese Francis, Yvette Smith, Raven Dozier, Reika Boyd, and Tarika Wilson—sometimes fatally. For women, this threat further includes sexualized violence.
Black women occupy a unique position in American history. The intersection of race and gender positions us both within and above the realm of racialized violence faced by our fathers, brothers, uncles, and nephews. While my mother advised my brother to comply with police however necessary, to walk and not run, to pull up his pants and take off his hood, and say "Yes, sir," the advice she gave to me as I entered the world was different. I was told to stay away from police, not to follow them or pull over for a cop on a secluded, dark street or else risk being sexually assaulted.
But because of how our bodies are viewed in contrast to each other, black men and women must navigate public spaces differently. Century-old stereotypes of barbarianism and violence still characterize the black male in today's American psyche. This embedded view of the black man as a wild, physical threat is the same that allows one Ferguson officer to refer to a group of black protesters as animals and countless Americans to label a college-educated professional athlete a thug.
I've spoken up many a time when I felt that a police officer was being overzealous or condescending or exerting power out of pure ego and not necessity [. . .] But black men have to be extra cautious about how they respond to adversity—hell, they have to be extra cautious about how they conduct themselves in most situations. I remember how broken I felt when another black male friend of mine—who has a hefty frame—explained to me that he always makes it a habit to cut sidewalk corners wide as not to startle white women. He always tries to crack jokes and appear congenial because he's aware of how his looks might intimidate white people.
The male body—imposed upon as large, dominating, aggressive, and violent—since its introduction to American history is viewed no less negatively today. Seen as something to be retained, put down, and controlled, the black male body is subject to police violence for the so called threat it presents, even when that threat is an unarmed youth. These perceptions of the black male—buck and brute stereotypes—date back to colonial and slavery eras but still persist, both in how black men are represented and how they're treated.
As I raise my own daughter, I realize that I can't make the errors my mother did. I have to teach her, as I would teach my son, that the police and random strangers may mean her more harm than good, that she has to be alert and mindful of the way her black body moves.
Eromosele and Pickens both make accurate points. Black women face police violence, but black men do navigate social nuances not experienced by black women because of entrenched racism inflicted upon the black male body. The black female body has some liberties the black male body doesn't in the way it traverses public space, because while the black male body is viewed and seen as threatening, the black female body is viewed and seen as a target.
This difference between black bodies, male and female, allows the black woman to move through social arenas differently than the black male. While she holds the position of being black and female in a society that dismisses both, that same attitude of dismissiveness gives her a type of freedom not as easily granted to black men.
The black male body is regarded as having both presence and force. The black female body is not seen as a threat that provokes violence by merely existing, but a target that incites violence—and often sexualized violence. The black female body has long been a topic of public conversation when it comes to sexuality. From the the tragic icon Sarah Bartmann to Beyonce, the black female body is most visible for, and targeted, because of its presumed hypersexuality. This image exposes black women to both racialized and gendered violence.
But because she is female, and therefore easily dismissed, the black female body has been allowed to subversively influence certain public spaces. Nineteenth century race women collaborated largely within the confines of churches—and extended their influence to fights for suffrage and equality. The privilege they received in these spaces is the same privilege Eromosele feels today. Because it was just church, because they were only women, because the female black body is not traditionally seen as a threat but something to be conquered, there is some freedom for the black woman. Scholar bell hooks refers to this type of freedom as marginality that allows for "radical possibility." "Margins," hooks goes on to say, "have been both sites of repression and sites of resistance." It is from the margins and outskirts that these overlooked black women can dismantle frameworks, eventually and ideally expanding the center until they, and others, are included. Historically, when black men were denied work, black women were employed as domestics—simultaneously limited to the private sphere while being invited into the public workforce. Because the black female body is targeted in contrast to its male counterpart, it can and does pursue public space differently.
If media coverage is an indicator, then black women do obviously meet police-inflicted violence, but at lesser rates than black men. According to the Bureau of Justice, men are more likely to experience excessive use of force from officers, with black men experiencing the most. The highly publicized killings of Brown and other black men, and the shameful silence surrounding police-related deaths of black women show not only the disparity in violence toward black bodies, but the near-invisibility of the black female body.
She is invisible, not in the exact sense, but invisible still, because she is unseen by the larger world. She is unseen in the way a light switch is unseen when you enter a dark but familiar room, and somehow still your hand instinctively knows where to fall. She is unseen as the sunset is unseen in your bored and aging eyes, even as it daggers the sky with streaks of lavender and persimmon, delicate and fierce.
The 2012 case of Shereese Francis epitomizes the vulnerability of the black woman's intersectional position. Female, black, and schizophrenic, Francis suffocated after being pinned by four officers. Francis's sister originally called 311 to request paramedics to escort Francis to the hospital where they hoped she would resume taking medication. Instead, officers arrived and pinned 30-year-old Francis to the bed while trying to arrest her. Why four, trained police officers were needed to obtain one person, I can't say. I would expect even one officer—or at most two—capable of apprehending an individual. But then, I would also expect Francis's story, which occurred in New York—same as Eric Garner and Sean Bell—to have received wider coverage.
The black woman is unseen, but in this place she is also free to move within the margins, to rearrange things and, as hooks reminds us, turn a place of repression into resistance. Turning this marginal space of repression into one of resistance is exactly what three queer black women did after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer in 2012. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created #BlackLivesMatter in response to the routine killings of black men by police and the continued lack of justice. That Garza, Cullors, and Tometi are all black women behind a movement initially formed in response to state-sanctioned killings of black men reinforces the black female's privilege to infiltrate space and create change, particularly because she is—in a male-focused, predominantly white world—invisible. Garza acknowledges this invisibility in "A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement," writing:
[B]eing Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy. We completely expect those who benefit directly and improperly from White supremacy to try and erase our existence. We fight that every day. But when it happens amongst our allies, we are baffled, we are saddened, and we are enraged. And it's time to have the political conversation about why that's not okay.
The paradox of the black female body is that it is highly scrutinized and objectified while simultaneously being overlooked in realms that matter. The #BlackLivesMatter movement counters not only that erasure of black women but the lives of all black people.
The national conversation about police brutality continues to focus on the lives of black men, with occasional responses highlighting the violence directed at black women. In a culture that overlooks intersectionality and seems to allow only one injustice per person, the issue of police violence can stagnate and bounce back and forth between black men and black women if we're only interested in whose deaths receive the most media coverage. If the invisibility of black women grants even a slight privilege of freedom within the margins, it must be used wisely—as it has been throughout our history to advocate for black people. All of them.
Karla Rose is a writer in Los Angeles.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]