author – activist – faculty – mom
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be part of the audience for a webinar conducted by the African American Policy Forum on #MyBrothersKeeper:
On June 17 a letter from over 1,400 Women of Color entitled “Why We Can’t Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in ‘My Brother’s Keeper’” was sent to President Obama. The open letter questions how attempts to address the challenges facing males of color – without integrating a comparable focus on the complex lives of girls and women who live and struggle together in the same families, homes, schools, and neighborhoods – advances the interests of the community as a whole. The women who came together to lift up this issue come from all walks of life. They are activists, academics, artists, students, teachers, nurses, day laborers, business owners, community leaders, stakeholders, mothers of sons, and mothers of daughters. These women, identifying as straight, queer and transgender, all share a commitment to the expansion of “My Brothers Keeper” (MBK) and all other national youth interventions to include an explicit focus on the structural conditions that negatively impact all youth of color. Please join some of the activists and thought leaders behind the open letter for a frank discussion on why we can’t wait to include women and girls in the President’s most significant racial justice initiative to date.
The conversation will provide information about the content of ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ and will present a case for the inclusion of girls and women in this exclusively-male initiative. (from the website)
Participants included Kimberle Crenshaw, Brittney Cooper, Salamishah Tillet, Joanne Smith, Christie Dotson, Rosa Linda Fregoso, Nakisha Lewis, and Rachel Gilmer. During the webinar, a clear picture emerged on #WhyWeCantWait to include women and girls in the initiative.
I have previously written in xojane.com that I believe that selectively resourcing boys and young men would be fine if the focus was to help them unlearn misogyny.
What a difference it would make for young women of color if a massive infusion of resources was poured into our communities to help young men stop acting out the learned patterns of male domination toward the women and girls in their lives. The current plan is to invest in boys to become more resilient in the face of racism. What type of impact would it make if the resources were used to eliminate male domination so young women and men could build strong alliances and fight racism together? The vulnerabilities of young men — incarceration, drug abuse, sexual irresponsibility, and all types of violence — often stem from the unhealthy ideas of manhood that are tied up in misogyny. What if we worked on pulling out that thread? Would the whole fabric fall apart? Ending sexism would not only transform the lives of women of color, but it would transform men’s lives, as well.
Having referenced the groundbreaking intersectionality work of Kimberle Crenshaw and the current work of Brittney Cooper in my article, I was eager to see what these smart, fierce compassionate women had to say. I live tweeted the webinar, and have posted some highlights on my own blog. The webinar did not disappoint: from naming sexual violence to statistics about the low net wealth of black women to the call to action: “‘We’re asking our president to be extremely brave right now’ and take lead on including girls & women in #MyBrothersKeeper.” Due to technical difficulties, it ended up being a conference call, and I was unable to effectively track who said what, so much of the written record is from what panelists and audience members shared on twitter.
As a woman with African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latina roots, I also noticed that the conversation bounced back and forth between discussing the plight of African American girls and a broader definition of girls of color. This is in no way the fault of African American Policy Forum, rather, the conversation has inherited the racial vagueness of the original initiative. MBK is ambiguous as to who is defined as a boy/young man of color. In the language of the original call to action, it begins with statistics about black and Latino boys, but then includes Native, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander stats, as well. However, the entire focus of the initiative is geared toward the problems of boys of color who are born in the US and do not live on reservations. Nowhere are the specific problems related to immigrants or children of immigrants or reservation politics addressed.
Further, the image of MBK is of a black president with a group of black young men. So although the statistical language of the initiative does name the problems that non-African American boys share, the overall visual story does not include them.
The #WhyWeCantWait campaign has inherited these contradictions. I appreciated the inclusion of Rosa Linda Fregoso on the panel, and was glad every time the moderator Laura Flanders asked her to weigh in on the experience of Latina girls and Latinas who push for the rights of women and girls. As Britney Cooper tweeted, quoting Fregoso, “One issue 4 Latina families is the ‘parentification of the child, girls esp’ making girls responsible 4 families prematurely.” At the same time, the conversation was primarily about African American women and girls.
It was interesting for me. As a mixed race (black and Latina) woman, I mostly had my “black hat” on for the conversation. I tracked the conversation from inside my African American cultural perspective. Whenever Fregoso spoke, I would catch myself, and realize that I wasn’t thinking in a larger, more inclusive way.
Again, this is not a problem of African American Policy Forum’s making. First of all, African American Policy Forum has a focus on African Americans and has every right to talk about the needs of African American women and girls. But second of all, and perhaps more significantly, the larger public conversation is happening in largely separate pockets. I am part of a set of conversations African American women are having, a set of convos Latinas are having, and a third set of conversations WoC are having, as well as broader conversations that include everyone. Further, the statistical evidence and philanthropic inititatives are often specific to a single “racial” group (Latinos are not actually defined as a race, but an ethnicity) and there are separate tracks to focus on African American and Lat. Natives, Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians are even more invisible in this conversation. Natives for reasons having to do with the particular history of genocide, marginalization and oppression in the US. Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians due to a toxic combination of circumstances. These nations have been brutally targeted with US imperialism, and are more likely to come to the US as refugees. But then they get swallowed up in the Asian “model minority” myth that has been developed to target and dismiss the challenges of East and South Asians. Also, conversations about African Americans generally foucs on the experiences of those of us who came to the Americas via the US South during slavery, as opposed to immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean.
The women on the African American Policy Forum webinar did a spectacular job of documenting the plight of young African American women and why MBK not only prioritizes boys, but actually undermines girls. For example, since the announcement of the MBK funding, some youth organizations who have never had gender-specific initiatives are now developing programs that only serve boys.
Further, the women on the panel have challenged the underlying misogynist fury that targets any woman who asks “what about girls?” The women asking the question are labeled “divisive” when the initiative that only excludes half the community is really the problem. These challenges not only come from male leaders. I got a tweet from a woman who claimed that “Title IX put such emphasis on girls that boys were let behind for a while. Playing catch up.” But as I tweeted previously “Kim Crenshaw’s orig intersectional idea=WoC get lost in convos on race that prioritize men & gender that focus on white women.” This narrative that black girls and women have been so profoundly helped by Title IX and other legislation aimed at girls and women in general is not supported statistically. One statistic in particular about net wealth is that “net worth for black women = $100. for white women = $42,000 for black men = $8000. That’s #WhyWeCantWait” tweeted by Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin. In response to this myth that black girls/women are “ahead,” of their male counterparts, Cooper tweeted “We won’t accept frames that say there is a softer/gentler racism [that targets girls as opposed to boys] or that we are strong enough & can take it.”
Also, statistics about greater number of women of color in higher education are often used to identify that women are “doing better.” But as I said in my xojane article: “Policymakers need to stop reinforcing the myth that a college education is a guarantee of upward mobility. I teach at an elite university, and every day I see millennials of all races who graduate and can’t get jobs.”
Because MBK focuses so strongly on education, one panelist noted that sexual assault is a leading cause of young women not finishing high school. Such has been the challenge of women of color, to explain how racism has historically been defined in terms of how it affects men, and to demand that the fight against racism also take on the ways that it affects women. Another hashtag that emerged was #SomeOfUsAreBrave, from book All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some Of Us Are Brave, the Black Women’s Studies volume edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith.
Black women have played a critical leadership role in the development of feminism for women of color, and still, we can fall into the black/white binary racial thinking. We absolutely get to have the conversation in the black community about the problems with MBK, and to couch it in African American terms, such as referencing Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait for racial justice. Again, this is in no way to blame black women for this challenge, or to say that it is our responsibility to carry everyone as “de mule of de world.” In fact, Dr. Britney Cooper has been viciously attacked for her advocacy on behalf of black women. In reviewing the tweets from the webinar, I will quote just one troll who responded viciously: When Cooper, using her twitter handle “ProfessorCrunk said “We won’t accept frames that say there is a softer/gentler racism or that we are strong enough & can take it.”…#WhyWeCantWait,” he responded “@ProfessorCrunk cut the shit, you fat slug.” This is not even the most brutal type of trolling, which can include threats of sexual violence and murder.
Under these hostile conditions, I look forward to the day that our “wait, what about black girls?” question will be addressed, and we can even get to a more nuanced conversation about young people of color. It would be amazing to have the luxury to explore what our shared and different issues are based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and immigration status, whether we live in cities, suburbs, rural locations or the reservation. Meanwhile, it is a fight just to get the humanity of girls and young women of color acknowledged, and to have our struggles seen and recognized as deserving of resources to help.