Four years ago, on my 20th birthday, I went out to dinner with a group of friends. It wasn’t long before one of them — a close friend — said that on her way to dinner, she had taken the train, and had made sure to sit next to a white man instead of a Black man.
In that moment, it became painfully clear to me that our friendship depended on context — on the fact that she didn’t see me as being a threat, even though I am Black. Just because my white girlfriend accepted me, it didn’t mean that she accepted other Black people. Though my friend offered an apology that night — after insisting she wasn’t racist, bringing up her years of volunteering in Africa — it became clear that just because my friend was “not racist,” it did not mean that she was anti-racist. As Ibram X. Kendi says, “There is no in-between safe space of 'not racist.'”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about white women who call themselves “not racist.” I imagine Amy Cooper — the white woman who was caught on video threatening Christian Cooper, a Black man, and calling the police on him, simply because he asked her to leash her dog — would say that she is “not racist.” The Amy Cooper video was shocking to many of the white people around me. For me, it was just another reminder of the many Amy Coopers I’ve spent my whole life with, including the women I’ve called my friends, but who are still a part of the long history of the weaponization of white women’s tears.
To be Black and endure the manifestations of white supremacy means carrying an unbearable burden on a regular basis. Black men endure a specific challenge, as they are told that just by living — by walking in the park, by taking the train, by breathing — they are a threat, and that they deserve the violence that comes at them in ceaseless waves. But, for Black women, racism and sexism combine to create unique challenges that are often ignored in favour of spotlighting the experiences of Black men. This can be seen in the way that, months after being shot to death by undercover policemen in her own home, Breonna Taylor’s killers have not been brought to justice. This can be seen in the way that 19-year-old activist Oluwatoyin Salau was found dead, days after tweeting about being sexually assaulted. She had spent her life and final days on the front lines demanding justice for us all, but the systems that make up America failed her. Found on the side of a road, Toyin’s death is another harsh reminder of what it is like being a Black woman in America.
As a Black woman, I can’t ever stop thinking about racism. It is my reality. When I was getting ready to go to college and interviewed for the school I’d applied to for early admission, my interviewer asked if I had a boyfriend and then asked me on a date, rather than showing any interest in whether I was a fit for that prospective school. I was shocked and ashamed. I worked so hard — I worked twice as hard — but my intelligence was ignored. Black women aren’t seen for being themselves; they’re seen as archetypes: the strong Black woman, the angry Black woman, the Jezebel. We are rarely granted our humanity. This is why I will never question why it is that Breonna Taylor’s murderers still have their jobs and have not been punished. This is why I will never question why nobody protected Oluwatoyin Salau before she was killed. I already know the answers. But I still wonder who is protecting Black women, as they are dying and losing their lives fighting for justice in our patriarchal, white supremacist society. I wonder who is advocating for our Black women at all, even as Black women focus on fighting for everyone else.
We are in a time again when Black women are actively fighting to be recognized as having human rights. We are fighting as the backbone of America, despite being treated the worst of anyone. We are doing the work, teaching allies about the Black experience, and making a conscious decision to educate about racism while ears are willing to listen. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
But, I fear the day that this fight stops and other people will start to forget these lessons. What happens when white people lose their will and interest to fight? What happens when Black men put white women back on their pedestals? Who will keep fighting for our young Black girls and women? Who will be fighting for the voices that are dying to be heard?