When Jasmine Sherman pulls up at her local Charlotte abortion clinic to volunteer, everyone knows that she’s arrived: her windows are down and her music is blasting as she drives full-speed into her preferred parking space at the corner of the clinic’s lot.
Sherman has learned to take up her rightful space in an arena that’s dominated by white voices and white bodies.
As a leading participant of local activist group Pro Choice Charlotte, and the only black member, she helps to oversee the “clinic defenders” ― those who counter-protest the far-right anti-abortion demonstrations that have become a regular presence outside the clinic. Every Saturday, protestors flock to A Preferred Women’s Health Center Charlotte with sound equipment and Bibles in tow to harass patients and Pro Choice Charlotte members.
Sherman told HuffPost last week, after a 600-man protest outside APWHC, that she got involved with Pro Choice Charlotte because the issue of reproductive health care access “isn’t just a white feminist issue.” In a debate that often leaves out women of color, and in a city that enables clinic harassment, she feels it’s her responsibility as a black woman to “help [her] sisters in need.”
“Abortion isn't just a white feminist issue.”
Sherman is often victim to a specific breed of harassment ― the anti-abortion community has attempted to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement, and the “antis” often use the phrase to bolster their argument that abortion (a procedure that women of all colors depend on but black women face more barriers to accessing) is “black genocide.”
While recognizing the role of racism in the abortion rights and contraceptive movements is essential ― Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, was a eugenicist, and the side effects of birth control pills would not be known without the pill having been tested on black and brown women in Puerto Rico ― black women in the present are tokenized by anti-abortion groups, and targeted for contributing to the “genocide” of their own community.
The antis outside APWHC hurl questions at Sherman regularly: “What about all those brown babies?” they ask, or “Do black lives not matter?” Sherman responds with finesse, asking them in turn if they’ll be partaking in demonstrations against issues that actually affect black lives, like police brutality ― a particularly relevant issue in Charlotte after the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a member of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police last fall.
HuffPost talked to Sherman about her devotion to abortion rights activism, and how she feels about the hypocrisy of the anti-abortion community and their co-opting of racial justice movements to push their far-right agenda.
What made you decide to be involved with Pro Choice Charlotte?
[Over a year ago] I saw an advertisement on this Facebook group for escorts to come out and help patients get into the clinic. I did the escorting for a while and while I found that we were helpful, it was really necessary to be a part of something where I could communicate with the protestors, and let them know what they’re doing is not OK. There are a lot of people who want to silently support women, and it made me think of all the times in my life where I had an argument and people came up to me later and said, “I had your back, I didn’t say anything but I had your back.”
In my mind, that doesn’t help me. Every situation where’s there’s vocal support, it makes it easier to hold your head up. So I always value offering vocal support, and that’s why it was important to move from a clinic escort to a clinic defender.
What does your participation entail?
We are actually incorporated in the state of North Carolina now, and technically in writing, I’m the president. It’s something that’s run with two other people. We speak at city council, we volunteer at the clinic, we do donations to patients if they don’t have funds [for an abortion], we provide food for companions as well. We put on educational seminars in the community, and really try to be a well-rounded organization.
Are there specific challenges you feel you’ve faced as a black woman involved in the pro-choice movement?
How honest can I be? A lot of the problems that I’ve found with that group is just different styles. I’m the only African American within our organization. There are so many other movements that African Americans are focused on right now. We have bigger issues … we have police killing us, our kids are not growing up in safe neighborhoods, our kids are not getting fed. There are so many fights that we’re out there fighting. This one isn’t usually worth fighting over because it’s a no-brainer.
Within this movement, because of that, it typically does seem like a white feminist issue. You see a lot of Caucasian women fighting for that right. It does seem like it’s one of the few fronts where white women are persecuted … so within our group, as me being the only black woman, the way I communicate comes across as aggressive. I’m definitely more direct. It’s not just a black thing, I mean, I’m from New York. But a lot of the individuals in my group are more passive.
[Black women] go hard, we’re not beating around the bush, we don’t have time for that. I’m always getting some cultural pushback, and it creates a lot of friction. Sometimes I feel like some of my ideas are rejected [because of that].
As a feminist I don’t identify [with the word]; that’s usually a white woman thing. Often when you bring up the term white feminism, they get offended. I’m trying to tell you how I feel ― I don’t need you to come back and be like, “I’m not doing that.” Just listen. And possibly open your mind. And sometimes white women can be just as bigoted as white men in terms of being open to learning. Not everything is about you. Within the group, a lot of women are trying to make it about them.
“I don't want to hear anybody tell me about black genocide.”
I’ve never had an abortion. But I do feel like I can relate to the women coming to that clinic a little bit more. Someone once made a comment about why people bring their kids with them to their appointments. It’s upsetting, that they’re so obtuse that they don’t understand they bring their kids because they don’t have a choice.
Maybe I should rephrase and say that a lot of the volunteers are people who have time to volunteer ― they’re not really aware of what the struggle is with poverty.
When you’re out at the clinic on Saturday mornings, what’s the most frustrating part of dealing with the anti-abortion protestors?
There are white women that come to that clinic. There are Spanish women, a lot of black women at the clinic. I feel like it’s one more way for some white guy to tell us what to do with our bodies and how we should do it. I am pretty sure, based on conversations I’ve had with them, that they don’t have an interest in those women. What they want to do is push their Jesus agenda.
They’re very nice until you say “No, thanks,” and the conversation quickly switches to how we’re going to burn in hell and how we’re whores.
A lot of what I heard you deal with [outside the clinic] is the concept that abortion is “black genocide.” Celebrities like Nick Cannon have also brought this up. How do you feel about that argument?
That’s B.S. The problem with that is that black women are more than baby-makers. We are so much more than that. To say it’s black genocide is just B.S. Nobody cares about the fact that in our community, we’re struggling to create safe spaces. Segregation is supposedly over, but you try putting a whole bunch of black kids into a “good school” in [a nice neighborhood]. They don’t even want to send their kids to charter schools with ours. So I don’t want to hear anybody tell me about black genocide.
Especially in Charlotte, where it’s hard to rise from poverty, if you have one mistake – Caucasian people, people with means, can bounce back from [a pregnancy]. But there are some women in my community that have a baby on Monday and have to be back at work on Wednesday because they don’t have time off. They don’t have luxuries. There is no support system. The kids they have at their house have to eat now. And they have to pay their rent.
We don’t worry about the kids that are already here. We stick police in their schools. The cops abuse them, they learn to have a problem with police, and no one gives two shits. The concept of black genocide is B.S. You can’t say it’s black genocide. And a lot of the people talking about it sure do support the death penalty and sure have no problem with mass incarceration.
The anti-abortion movement has tried to adopt the same language as Black Lives Matter ― last summer they used the hashtag #UnbornLivesMatter to try to steal the movement’s thunder after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Have the “antis” outside APWHC ever shown interest in supporting Black Lives Matter or other racial justice movements in Charlotte?
No. We can talk about that. I have literally invited them to black lives rallies. They have declined to come to Black Lives Matter rallies, to participate in the march [for Keith Lamont Scott]. They refuse to participate in all of that.
I had a negative reaction once at the clinic, when they brought out signs of black people hanging from nooses. I definitely lost my crap. It was the only time that I got really angry and aggressive. That was when I knew I needed to stop being an escort and be a defender. They had that sign and they were like, “Don’t yell at us, you’re doing the same thing.” And I’m trying to explain to them that it’s not the same thing, at all.
They definitely try to play the race card when it’s convenient but when it comes to actually dealing with black people, they don’t come out.
Like a lot of the mainstream feminist movement, the pro-choice movement has a white feminism problem. How do you think the pro-choice movement can do a better job of serving women of color?
The pro-choice movement would do a better job if more people were open to understanding brown women or women of color. I’m very fortunate to be in a setting where my white friends are very conscious that they’re not woke all the time. They’re not trying to collect a friend or associate. They see that I’m a person and that I happen to be brown. They’ll go to things ― events, parties that you’re having ― where there are other brown people. If I had a cookout, the clinic admin or my co-directors, they would come. They wouldn’t care if there were a whole bunch of brown faces.
“In Charlotte, we had 35,000 women for the Women’s March. Now I can’t get 500 women to sign a petition. Where are all those white women? Where are they?”
There are people, though, who are like, “I’ve got my one brown friend.” The minute you treat us like we’re a color, or a pocketbook accessory, that’s when you have a problem.
A lot of the times I’ve asked people of color to come out to the clinic and they say ‘No.’ The Caucasian people say that they need to be more inclusive. But I have to point out to them that they’re not there when we’re marching for equality. They’re not there when one of our children gets killed. I’m not going to lie, there are a couple. But they don’t come out for those things.
In Charlotte, we had 35,000 women for the Women’s March. Now I can’t get 500 women to sign a petition. Where are all those white women? Where are they?
Until the white feminists or the white community stops treating us like an accessory and takes value in getting to know us and spend time with us on a regular basis, then you’re not going to have anything.
But I have a question for you. Would you be talking to me if I wasn’t black?
You know what? It’s a good question. When I came down for that initial Love Life Charlotte protest on Dec. 3, I remember thinking, “This is a lot of white women.” I’m up here in New York, I’m a clinic escort in Queens, and there are more women of color out there than there are in Charlotte.
To be completely honest, I’ve talked to a lot of the other women [in Pro Choice Charlotte] and, yeah, I did want to hear your opinion as a black woman. And I want our audience to know that they need to be listening to you, I guess, if I can say that.
Yeah, you can say that. I guess I’m just curious, right? It’s a Catch-22. As much as I want to be valued as a person, you still need that brown voice. But it does suck to be that only brown voice. I didn’t mean to give you crap.
This interview has been edited and condensed.