Choosing Sides

I met a good friend and former boss for brunch a few months ago. She asked me which of my identities was primary—if one was primary—meaning she wanted to know if I felt greater allegiance to my race or to my gender. I responded quickly: “I wish I had a white woman’s problems,” I said between sips of coffee. I saw face-value acceptance in my friend’s clear blue eyes. Her question wasn’t loaded. She genuinely wanted to know my perspective.

The choice between race and gender is not a conundrum for me. My racial identity takes precedence over my identity as a woman when I feel that I must choose a side to defend in the larger sphere. Besides, the historical battle lines have been drawn in a way that excludes Black women from the gender equality conversation. I expect it, personally, because blackness is always a liability. When the Suffragettes needed to expedite their cause, they swiftly jettisoned the Abolitionists’ anti-slavery agenda in order to speed up the progress of their exclusively-white own. Sojourner Truth famously asked “Ain’t I a Woman?” because the notion—for Black women to consider themselves through that lens, as “women”—was, itself, radical; it was a profound personal invitation on Truth’s part that likewise spawned an equally seismic-shifting idea for white people to have to consider.

Still, today, Black women are fighting the ever-present entrenched tropes that limit our gender identity: “Mammies,” “Welfare Queens,” “oversexed, militant irritants” who are “constantly angry,” “disposable women. . .”  The masses love these racist “Black women standards.” Sweet Brown’s viral video success is proof positive that a scarf-wearing archetype is the kind of Black woman the world still wants to get down with because in the condensed packaging of a YouTube video she confirms the ironic distance required to debit her personhood.

Society’s subjective view of a Black woman’s worth is even more apparent, and on a much larger scale to boot, with the recent news that there is an epidemic of Black women and girls who have gone missing from the Washington Metropolitan area. The outrage over this news was chiefly relegated to the likes of Twitter… at first. Only after the hashtag #missinggirls went viral did various mainstream media sites comment on this national travesty (lookin’ at you, Huffington Post and Slate, among others). But here’s the real kicker: the outrage, while indeed warranted, was the result of breaking news that hundreds of women and teenagers of color are currently missing from D.C, while thousands of women and teenagers of color are missing nationwide  We can’t even imagine the outrage unleashed by such news pertaining to white women—that thousands had gone missing in recent years, hundreds in the first three months of 2017 alone. Those kinds of mass-impact statistics—reported via numeric qualifiers such as “hundreds of” and “thousands of”—have never applied to late-breaking missing white women cases before. Ever.

And to this point, I say, Malcolm X’s 1962 claim about the treatment of Black women still rings painfully true—that “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

Now, I understand that I, myself, am not an either/or proposition, but the heavy tax levied against my blackness makes me feel that I am. Until “Intersectionality” is more than a term and inclusion is truly the norm, my self-concept remains fragmented.

It’s true that some of my best friends are white women. Some of my staunchest supporters are white women. I have enjoyed the soul-bearing intimacy of real community, candor, guards-down silliness with white women, and I have felt complete belief in their best intentions toward me. All this does leave me hopeful that, one day, “post-racial” could be a thing.

But right now, it’s not.

Because I have also felt racial discrimination most keenly from white women who were in positions of authority over me. And I have been the most keenly racially-polarized by white women. By my first grade teacher, for example, who inexplicably hated me with near ideological purity. By a handful of supervisors who told me how “articulate” I was in performance reviews over the years while likewise giving me marks that fell far below their acknowledgement of my various contributions. My demonstrations of strength are still often misconstrued by white women as registrations of anger; they are not considered proof of my leadership potential. But for the white woman who expresses the exact same sentiments as I, her narrative is totally different…

I’m in a fight to prove something to someone every day on at least two counts—that I’m credible and that I have the right to take up space. So, I have to conserve my energy for the most presently-felt danger and for the identity that has the biggest claim on my hard-won affections. It wasn’t my being a woman, my having a menstrual cycle, for example, that spawned any particular social-construct-related abhorrence toward and from myself. But I have hated being Black because it has been my curse and my cross to bear.

And I feel a certain psychological distance from so much of what gets white women “up in arms”; from their defeats and their victories, in fact. I’m not unsympathetic to their woes. I absolutely believe in equal pay and reproductive agency; I, too, am tweaked by “mansplaining” and by men who sit with their legs wide apart on public transportation. Each time I vote, I do so in support of all women’s rights and agency. But I am also fighting an equality battle on another plane and have not gotten to the point where I can be as upset about birth control coverage (or a lack thereof) as I am about having to explain that my life—at the most basic level—simply matters; that my existence shouldn’t be taken away at whim from a police officer who, more than likely, wouldn’t have to justify taking it away from me whatsoever.

And my “glass ceiling’ was not broken by any particular social advancements for the greater “rights of women” movement as a whole; rather, that particular threshold shattered at Barack Obama’s nomination and subsequent election to the U.S. presidency. I wept in the deepest part of myself when he won. His victory was personal to me, the triumph of it coded in my DNA.

For me, there’s a kinship that is inextricably linked with race that produces a resilient loyalty. It’s not blind or without complication, but it is overarching.

I never hear about sisterhood from white women to Women of Color so much as when something of white womanhood is threatened. Take Jennifer Lawrence’s leaked nudes, for example. There were think-pieces galore about agency and the rights to own one’s sexuality after those were slipped into the public sphere. But those outraged women were silent when Gabrielle Union’s and Jill Scott’s photos were also stolen and shared. So it seems inclusion into to this club (Outraged Woman) is purely contingent on needing to pull numbers. In some corners, there is a deepening commitment to considerations of intersectionality, but there is still so much farther to go.

Let me put it this way: in an “ideal version of gender inequality,” I’d be making 78 cents on the dollar; not 64 or 55 cents as a Woman of Color. And, yes, while I believe women’s rights are human rights, I still would like the qualifier “all” thrown in before “women’s” and have it actually ring true. But I keep hearing in what’s not outright said how omitted from that equation I truly am, that other Women of Color are. As of right now, “woman” still implicitly means “white woman” by default in all the feminist platitudes and chants I come across.

So I’m a house divided because of the daunting fight to be seen as a woman and not simply a disposable Black presence to be filed under “Most Convenient Racial Stereotype” at hand. Zora Neale Hurston famously called Black women “the mules of the world.” And as far as I’m concerned, the backpack of this burden is as heavy now as it’s ever been to bear.

Salimah Perkins is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and The University of Baltimore’s  MA in Writing and MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts programs, respectively. She lives and works and writes in Baltimore City, documenting both the quotidian and extraordinary in her work.

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