Being a black woman means that you are constantly asked to make impossible choices about which of your identities matters most. The mainstream embrace of intersectionality, a term Kimberlé Crenshaw coined to describe how having multiple marginalized identities makes us uniquely vulnerable to systemic injustice, has not eliminated the expectation that we live in binaries. The demands persist, and even if firmly rooted in the belief that you are your whole self at all times, the push and pull does not get easier.
When screenshots of questionable tweets from Stephon Clark surfaced, I felt that familiar angst again.
Sacramento, California, police killed Clark on March 18 while he was holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard. While I mourn another life lost to state violence, I wrestle with the disdain Clark expressed for black women on Twitter. Some of the tweets date back to 2015, but last year in response to “Black is beautiful,” he wrote, “I don’t want nothin Black but a Xbox, dark bitches bring dark days.”
Clark’s tweets are an example of misogynoir. Gender theorist Moya Bailey created the word to explain “the ways that anti-blackness and misogyny combine to malign black women in our world.”
These sorts of sentiments are not rare, and they are not why Clark was killed. They are, however, painful reminders that the people black women believe to be a part of our community may not want to be in community with us. When faced with this fact so clearly, we’re forced to consider which of our issues we will prioritize: Should we focus on police brutality or misogynoir? There’s room to do both.
“The white supremacy that enables police violence is not separate from the racialized misogyny that dehumanizes black women.”
Not every black woman will care about Clark’s words. While some may see the tweets as wholly irrelevant to the ongoing fight for police accountability, those who take offense and opt to turn their political energies elsewhere should not be demonized. Black women cannot be asked to make allowances for black men’s hatefulness in order to fight for the greater good because creating a world that offers no passes for the degradation of black girls and women is not a negligible goal.
The white supremacy that enables police violence is not separate from the racialized misogyny that dehumanizes black women. Both are tools used to maintain white male power. In a racist society, we are socialized to view blackness as ugly and unfeminine. Perhaps Clark didn’t realize that he was reciting lines from the same script that says his own life is worthless.
Black women have long endured these sorts of attacks while struggling alongside black men against racism. It happens all the time. Not long ago, rapper Trick Daddy told “black hoes” to “tighten up” before we become useless. Another rapper, Kevin McCall, accused black women of loving work more than we love our families, and popular internet personality Tariq Nasheed routinely calls black women he disapproves of “Negro bed wenches” and directs his followers to do the same. These are just a few high-profile offenders. There are many, many more.
These ideas do more than damage the psyches of black girls and women. The culture Stephon Clark participated in has structural consequences. A study from 2014 found that dark-skinned black girls are punished more harshly than black girls with lighter skin in school. And we cannot achieve our way out of that bias. Serena Williams’ nearly fatal childbirth story highlighted how black women of every socioeconomic status are offered substandard health care.
“Stephon Clark was not a perfect victim. He didn’t need to be. The Black Lives Matter movement ushered in a sea change where respectability is no longer necessary for community support.”
Because we often do not know where the attacks against our person will come from, black women must protect our boundaries. If those boundaries require centering black girls and women at all times, that is not a betrayal of the larger community. It is a recognition that we, too, deserve unconditional care and the work we do for each other has the potential to create radical change.
In 1977, a group of black feminists called the Combahee River Collective advocated a political movement that centers the needs of the most marginalized black women when it wrote, “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.”
Stephon Clark was not a perfect victim. He didn’t need to be. The queer black women who sparked the Black Lives Matter movement ushered in a sea change where respectability is no longer necessary for community support. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors continued the legacy of heroic black women’s activism that refused to leave anyone behind. But now there is a new awakening happening among black women who refuse to stuff down the nastiness thrown our way. The paradigm shift is imminent, if not already here.
Public protests can be costly, and if after an assessment of what must be sacrificed, black women deem the costs too great, that decision is valid.
We all deserve the chance to outgrow our youthful mistakes. Clark was only 22 at the time of his death. As a feminist, I believe in the possibility of change, both individually and structurally. Unfortunately, we may never know how Clark may have evolved in his later years. All we’re left to assess is what he made public.
It is not my place or yours to tell any black woman that she must set aside her hurt and return to the old ways of marching through such abuses. Our backs can no longer be the bridge to individual enlightenment or social change.
Kimberly Foster is a cultural critic and editor-in-chief of For Harriet, a digital community for black women.