By Joseph Young
Although 2015 was full of considerable feats for the likes of African American civilians, artists, actors, and musicians, it was also rife with the ongoing, often unspoken, hardships of Black women. Last year, innumerous occurrences in the media, pop-culture, and the justice system demonstrated the collective struggle unique to African American women of America. However, the collective hardships of Black women are often minimized or neglected by both male counterparts and various social justice movements. While the challenges African American women often face vary from micro-aggressions to major offenses, each one is rooted in the institution of slavery and maintains the historical oppression of Black women in American society. In response to this continued negligence of the Black female experience, author Alice Walker coined her famous term: Womanism. Ultimately, the term transformed into an ideology that was further defined by the works of prominent figures such as: Patricia Hills-Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Ida B. Wells. In fact, the essence of this underrated ideology lies in unearthing the challenges that Black women encounter as a result of the intersection of racism and sexism. Furthermore, the “slut shaming,” criminalization, and victimization of African American women in 2015 reveal the results of this intersection and the dire need for Womanism in the New Year.Perhaps one of the most pivotal micro-aggressions against women of color occurred with the public shaming of Amber Rose on social media by the Kardashians and ex-lover Kanye West. The controversy initially began when Rose told The Breakfast Club “It’s ridiculous. Tyga should be ashamed of himself…He has a beautiful woman and a baby that he left for a 16-year-old who just turned 17.” Following her statement, the Internet, and obviously Khloe and Kanye, lost it when Kardashian insensitively referred to Rose’s teenage stripping career and West claimed that he had to take 30 showers after dating Rose. While Amber Rose’s initial comment makes a seemingly legitimate point, at the root of the West-Kardashian response is racialized shaming. As bell hooks points out in her book, Ain’t I a Woman, there exists in American society a historical shaming of Black women on the basis of their sexuality. This dates back to the days of slavery when white slave owners sexually assaulted enslaved women. Despite their vulnerability and legally sanctioned compliance to acts of rape, enslaved women were often scrutinized and punished by mistresses for “tempting” their husbands. This in turn, aided in the historical shaming of Black women that continues today. Likewise, this atrocious phenomenon is maintained through the 2015 Rose, Kardashian-West twitter beef. Although Amber Rose notoriously went on record of saying, "I do not consider myself a Black woman. Absolutely not….Bi-racial. I embrace everything that I am, I don’t feel like I’m more one thing, than the other," in this particular case her partial African ancestry makes her the victim of sexual shaming. While Rose originally turned to stripping as a means of economic sustainability to support her family, Kardashian neglects to include this information. This was no doubt an attempt to portray Rose as a “slut,” an attempt that was furthered with West’s comments. While West never specifically refers to Amber Rose’s past as a stripper, he validates Khloe’s negative characterization of Rose by using coded language to insinuate “slutty” behavior. While many find it ironic that the duo would dare “slut shame” Rose given Kim’s notorious porn star reputation, both Khloe Kardashian and Kanye West’s attempts at shaming Rose are products of the historical shaming of Black women and women of color. While Kim’s race grants her freedom from her past escapades, Amber’s mixed ancestry not only binds her to past endeavors, but also publicly shames her for them. While this particular instance appears to some as a minor offense, it actually demonstrates the sexual shaming and victimization that women of color often face. Rose, who was merely calling Tyga on statutory rape, easily became the victim when West and Kardashian used her sexuality as a means of public shaming.
While the shaming of Amber Rose depicts the victimization of African American women to some degree, everyday Black women nationwide are subjected to more sever injustices such as criminalization. However, much like numerous other struggles Black women face, it goes unmentioned by male and female counterparts of the respective #BlackLivesMatter and Feminist movements. Despite the silence around the criminalization of black womanhood, it remains a serious threat to the well being of Black women everywhere. As was demonstrated this past summer with the unjust arrest of Sandra Bland. During a traffic stop for an alleged failure to signal, Bland was forcibly removed from her vehicle and wrestled to the ground. Tragically, Bland was found dead in her cell just three days after her initial arrest. While it is debated whether or not Bland’s death was a murder or suicide, the fact remains that her initial arrest was unconstitutional. After refusing to comply with the request to extinguish her cigarette, Bland was unjustly removed from her vehicle by the arresting officer. While numerous legal experts have argued that there is no law requiring civilians to extinguish cigarettes during traffic stops, there still exists a common belief that Bland’s failure to comply was grounds for removal from the car. This assertion is the epitome of the criminalization of black womanhood. As Hershini Young argues, “public discourse only recognizes black women in their criminality, a direct legacy of slavery in which blacks were without agency except when that agency was criminalized” (377). Although Bland was well within her rights, her race and gender trump any type of justification; thereby, condoning the criminalization of her resistance by the police officer. While Sandra Bland was obviously a victim of police brutality, she was also a victim of the intersection of racism and sexism in American society. As is the case with all the social challenges facing Black women, the fate of Sandra Bland is unfortunately rarely discussed in relation to Womanist ideologies or the institution of slavery’s role in the criminalization of black womanhood.Unfortunately, the sexual victimization of black womanhood is as common to the Black female experience as criminalization. In fact, some several weeks ago Daniel Holtzclaw, ex Oklahoma police officer, was convicted of 18 of 36 charges including four counts of forced oral sodomy and four counts of first-degree rape for the serial rape of 13 African American women. While the announcement of the verdict did in fact spark celebratory hashtags on social media, over the course of the trial there existed a deafening silence among both males and members of the feminist movement. This wide-scale disregard for Black women’s lives not only proves the need for Womanism, but sheds light on the historical origins of this phenomenon. Therefore, in order to understand these events and the silence behind them, it is imperative that we analyze them in relation to Womanist ideologies. Author bell hooks does just that with her assertion:
The significance of the rape of enslaved black women was not simply that it ‘deliberately crushed’ their sexual integrity for economic ends but that it lead to a devaluation of black womanhood that permeated the psyches of all Americans and shaped the social status of all black women once slavery ended. (Ain’t I a Woman, 52)
Although the events of the Holtzclaw case did in fact spark conversations, few if any focused on the victims or the origins of the institutional rape of Black women. As a result, the actions of the Daniel Holtzclaw are portrayed as isolated events rather than recurring phenomena that plague the lives of all African American women. Hooks’ assertion on the devaluation of black womanhood historicizes both the treatment and social standing of black women. Chattel slavery legally sanctioned the rape of Black women by white slave owners; thereby, normalizing the sexual assault of Black women. While this does not absolve Holtzclaw of any guilt or excuse American citizens for their silence, it reveals centuries of sexual assault enacted against African American women as well as a deafening silence regarding their trauma. Unfortunately, these events were not discussed in relation to Womanist ideology, and the majority of the American public remains either ignorant and or silent on the importance of the Holtzclaw trial. While the verdict is in fact a step towards securing justice for the victims, a major injustice goes uncorrected as long as the American public continues to hide from the underlying causes of these events. Furthermore, while Womanism can be used to unearth the devaluation of Black womanhood, it can also be used to reveal the equally neglected criminalization of them as well.
If the year 2015 taught us anything: it is that we need Womanism. In order to better understand and combat these offenses that plague the lives of Black women, America must familiarize themselves with the ideologies of Womanism. It is apparent to the continuing fight for social justice that we as people collectively voice and analyze the oppression of African American women and women of color in the New Year, and all years to come.
hooks, bell. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press,1981. Print.
Young, Hershini B. “Inheriting the Criminalized Black Body: Race, Gender, and Slavery in Eva’s Man African American Review 39.3 (2005): 377-393. Print.
Joseph Young is a freelance writer and education enthusiast. He recently received his Bachelor’s of Arts in English from the University of Mary Washington, where he cultivated his interest in the literature of oppressed and marginalized groups. Over the course of his academic career he has researched the intersections of race, gender, and class in both musical and literary genres. Joseph is a native of King & Queen County, VA and hopes to further cultivate his interests and skills to benefit his hometown.