This week, Time Magazine chose the #MeToo movement as Person of the Year. But founder Tarana Burke was left off the cover.
For years, Tarana was in the trenches working directly with young survivors of sexual harassment. She listened to the story of a young woman burdened with the memory of her assault and dedicated her life to making sure that Black and disenfranchised women were a part of the conversation. Me Too started as a response to anti-Black and racial discrimination as well as sexual harassment and violence. The current movement has all but erased the former.
Gabrielle Union spoke out about how Black women’s pain continues to be sidelined and Black women’s bodies continue to be disposable:
“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” the actress told the New York Times in an interview published this week. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”
This week I attended the National Black Canadian Summit in Toronto. Sessions at the Summit addressed areas of key concern for African Canadians, including Black Ownership and Generating Black Wealth; Arts, Media, and Identity; Mental and Physical Health; Accessing Justice and Community Safety; Migration; Education; Democratic Engagement; and Affordable Housing and Shelter.
There were many brilliant Black women speaking throughout the Summit, organized by the Michaelle Jean Foundation, so it is not that Black women were under-represented. But, particularly in the era of Me Too, where Black women are still struggling to have the ways gendered violence disproportionately affects Black women recognized, and yet are continually silenced and marginalized, not prioritizing sexual assault, domestic violence and other forms of gender discrimination as urgent issues is a mistake.
How can the sexual exploitation of Black women and girls not be an urgent concern?
Similarly, not specifically addressing Transphobia and homophobia — including the high rates of violence against Black Trans Women — contributes to the invisibility of LGBTQ Black people. When Black Lives Matter halted the Toronto Pride Parade in 2016, despite the movement being led by Queer Black people, they were constantly spoken about and treated as though they were interlopers who were invading a space they didn’t belong to. The assumption was that all gay people are white, and that therefore the concerns of Black people were not relevant to the Pride parade.
Queer Black feminist Moya Bailey coined the term “misogynoir” to capture how misogyny and race intersect for Black women. As the title of the groundbreaking Black feminist collection “All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men” captured, feminism has typically catered to the concerns of middle-class white women, while Black liberation movements have centred around Black men. Black women, faced with the “double-burden” of both race and gender fall through the cracks of both movements.
As Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall pointed out, “Generally speaking, Black people do not believe that misogyny and sexism and violence against women are urgent issues. We still think that racism, police brutality, Black male incarceration, are the issues that we should be concerned about.”
While there are references throughout the draft to the ways that Black women are particularly affected — for example, it is acknowledged in the section on housing that Black women fleeing domestic violence face difficulties in being accepted to shelters — without an explicit framework that identifies that Black women will always be disproportionately impacted by every issue we discuss, and without prioritizing gendered violence, we will always be left as an afterthought.
Of course, it is largely the labour of Black women organizers that has brought us to this point at all, most notably the relentless pressure by the Queer women-led Black Lives Matter Toronto on the police and on government officials.
Black women consistently do the work, and then are consistently told to take a seat, to not jeopardize the process by asking for things right now, to not undermine Black men in public, to not speak about our assaults in case it makes the community look bad, to not “divide” or “distract” the feminist movement by demanding that race be addressed, and to just be patient and happy with always being the last in line after everyone else has benefited from our labour.
Black women were famously told by Stokely Carmichael that “the only position for women in SNCC is prone.” It was attitudes like this that led to Black women forming their own collectives, including the Combahee River Collective, whose statement, created by Lesbian Black women, remains a standard for liberatory demands and organizing.
It would be unthinkable at this time to imagine a national meeting of Indigenous people where Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were not on the agenda. It took years of organizing to reach this point. Sisters in Spirit, who documented the statistics on missing and murdered Indigenous women, had their funding cut in 2010. Activists suggest that as the numbers became embarrassing to Canada — moving from estimates of 300 women to well over 2000 a decade later — the Harper government attempted to shut down these attempts to even understand the scope of the issue. Demands for an Inquiry were similarly denied for years.
Getting the numbers in Canada on issues affecting Black people is equally difficult. It took until 2014 for a report to be issued by the Office of the Correctional Investigator about the conditions of Black inmates in federal correctional facilities. Black people are now the fastest-growing group of incarcerated people in Canada, and the rates of Black women are increasing steeply. In Nova Scotia, it wasn’t until 2016 that numbers revealing the disproportionate incarceration of African Nova Scotian people in the province — two per cent of the population, but 16 per cent of the youth facility and 14 per cent of adult facilities — were released.
It was only in January of this year that over a decade of police data on street checks were released after a request by CBC, revealing that Black people are three times more likely to be stopped by the police. After consistent pressure by parent and activist Tina Roberts-Jeffers and other activists, the Halifax Regional School Board released some race-based statistics in 2016, showing that Black children were eight per cent of the school population, yet nearly a quarter of suspensions.
The poverty rates of African Nova Scotians show that 32.1 percent experience poverty. We know poverty disproportionately affects women, so we can, again, surmise that Black women are particularly suffering. Yet what politicians in Nova Scotia have ever recognized that we need to identify the crisis in this province affecting Black women?
When it comes to issues that affect Black women, finding numbers is even more difficult. Numbers from the United States consistently show us that Black women experience extremely high rates of domestic violence, and that domestic violence is a leading cause of death for Black women. Statistics on the rates of violence against Black women are not available in Canada. Canada also does not keep statistics on the rates of murder, violence, poverty, or homelessness faced by Trans Canadians. Again, we know from the United States that Black Trans Women are killed at staggering rates — yet as Canadians we seem to simply believe that we don’t have the same problem.
When I have raised the issue of murdered Black women in Canada before, it has been suggested to me that Black women suffer violence at the same rate as the non-Indigenous population: however, the chart I was pointed to documenting the murders of women in Canada features as the 11th entry a woman whose name is clearly Ghanain, listed as race “unknown.” This lack of identification of Black women reflects the silence by government and in the media about the violence that affects us.
In Nova Scotia, two Black women and a Black girl were killed by Lionel Desmond, yet attention has continued to be focused on his PTSD and his tragedy, and not on the women and girl. Those murders followed that of Ottilia Chareka by her husband in 2011. Yet this has not sparked any urgency in the province to address or even gather statistics on the violence faced by Black women.
The Halifax Regional School Board does not disaggregate its race-based statistics for gender, so we have no idea how Black girls are affected by suspension, even though, again, data from the United States show Black girls are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended, and that the “Black girl pushout” from schools for being perceived as “unladylike,” “angry,” and “aggressive” leads to Black girls experiencing higher rates of incarceration and being much more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
In her book Policing Black Lives, Robyn Maynard specifically addresses how our frame for understanding policing and state violence must also take into account the way Black, Trans, and gender non-conforming bodies are policed. The child welfare system, for example, criminalizes Black women and disproportionately seizes our children, yet Black women are consistently seen as not suffering the significant brutality that affects young Black men.
Canadians consistently hold the belief that anti-Black racism is only a problem in the United States. When we cite the only available statistics to us that come from the United States on the rape of Black women, or domestic violence, or deaths in childbirth, it is suggested that that these issues don’t exist in Canada and that these numbers could not possibly be meaningful to us. Yet every time we finally get numbers, it is revealed that Black Canadians experience similar rates of oppression. Anthony Morgan identifies the ways Canada’s mythologies deny anti-Black racism and cast it as a solely American phenomenon:
According to Morgan, the silence around the issue stems from our willful denial of the situation, and our conviction that Black incarceration is a uniquely American problem — not a Canadian one. “It has a lot to do with what I’ve called Canadian racial exceptionalism,” says Morgan. “If America is having a conversation about the hyper incarceration of Black males, in order to maintain our sense of moral superiority, we can’t look into those issues as we experience them here in Canada,” he says. Morgan notes that, in reality, overrepresentation of the Black population in prisons is slightly more pronounced in Canada than in the U.S., where African-Americans account for 37 per cent of the prison population and 13 per cent of the general population.
“We’re not, as a country, ready to contest that,” Morgan continues, “because of the myths we tell ourselves about multiculturalism, and thinking that we have it all figured out. The truth of the matter is, when you look in our prison systems, if you go to our courthouses, if you go at children’s aid offices, to school detention halls, it is overwhelmingly Black kids who are being criminalized and punished. I think the generalized silence has to do with what we want to believe about ourselves as Canadians.”
This willful silencing particularly extends to Black women. As we have seen with the organizing of Indigenous women, it is a fight to even get statistics to validate the truth of our experiences, never mind having those experiences actually addressed. We must demand that Black women’s lives do not continue to be ignored.
We cannot simply hope or imagine that naturally our voices will be at the table, or that even the presence of powerful women will be enough to ensure that Black women’s issues are prioritized.
It is not just that Black women’s issues must be recognized, it is that the philosophies and practices of Black women organizers must also be centred if we are to address inequality. Organizing that is not based in also recognizing how capitalism, patriarchy, and racism are intertwined will never be able to seriously address the oppression Black people suffer.
As the Combahee River Collective Statement articulates:
Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s may because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever consIdered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, Indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere. We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.
“Nothing about us without us” was a principle articulated from the very first day of the Summit. Black women must also echo that call, and recognize that no movement to liberation can ever take place by silencing, ignoring, or treating as marginal the lives and experiences of Black women. If we are to achieve justice, and equality, or safety, or the right to live and be and breathe, we cannot do that off the backs of Black women while simultaneously suggesting that our lives remain secondary and largely unmentioned.