A few months ago I wrote an article entitled “Who Has Our Backs?” inspired by the controversy surrounding the forced resignation of Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, Shirley Sherrod, due to a conservative blogger taking snippets of a lecture given by Mrs. Sherrod out of context and attempting to portray her as racist. This was followed by immediate controversy in the media and many Black organizations and leaders prematurely distancing themselves from Mrs. Sherrod before the facts were on the table. So it raised a question that Black women have been pondering for quite some time: who is there to defend us when we are treated unjustly, disrespected, abused, etc.?
A recent video of a fight between two young Black women and a White woman on a New York subway train has raised this question once again. While it’s not clear what exactly started the exchange of words, once the White woman referred to the two young women as “pigs” and “idiots” and stated “What kind of animals eat on the train?” a confrontation commenced and lead to a physical altercation. What is interesting about the video is that the one Black man who got involved in breaking the fight up, jumped in front of the White woman as if to shield and protect her. He then proceeded to chide the young girls on how they needed to “chill.” However, the White woman who was an adult and was equally, if not more, responsible for fueling the incident, was not addressed for her role in provoking the situation. She sat back in her seat peacefully as the girls were looked at as troublemakers. Other Black men on the train seemed to want nothing to do with the situation, unless you consider the indifferent camera man we can thank for the video.
What does this say?
The feeling that Black women have to fend for themselves is very real. Just a quick search and hundreds of forums and articles on the very subject come up. Our storied past as a people in this country is often written off, and in general, many people don’t want to discuss the struggles, injustices and social degradation that we have faced. However we cannot overlook the affects of such treatment because the past continues to affect the present. That is why seeing a Black man jump up to defend a White woman so quickly can be upsetting. It brings to mind the hundreds of years Black women were sexually abused, degraded and disrespected, with no one there to protect her; while White women were placed on a pedestal. Or when it was a death-sentence for a Black man to even glance at a White woman, yet fair-game to rape or assault a Black woman. In order to survive, many Black men felt they had to ‘go along to get along,’ or suffer the consequences of stepping out of line. And so now, what some have termed ‘Black Male Passivity’ can be seen as the result of these social constructed systems that have emasculated and weakened many of our men in various ways. In addition, the idea of the strong, aggressive, or highly-sexual Black women has been perpetuated so much, that even some of our own people have feed into this stereotype; which I believe has left Black men in particular, less sensitive to Black women.
Some may ask, why do we even need to be protected and defended as Black women? In my opinion, the respect and protection of women should be a natural practice within society, no matter one’s culture or race. Although we have strength as women, it is honorable for a man to be sensitive to a woman and aid in her defense when need be. To me this is part of manhood. This may be why so many of us judge men based on how they treat their mothers. And while there has been a breakdown overall in the treatment and respect of women in society, Black women have felt the sting of this even harder due to the traumatic, psychological damage slavery and racial oppression has put on our people.
For example, the current hyper-masculine image being promoted as “cool” in popular culture is particularly influential on young Black men. Yet, the same image of “coolness” portrayed by entertainers includes the degradation of Black women through sexual exploitation and disrespectful lyrics. So would you see the value in women if you’re constantly disrespecting them? I cannot see a man that refers to Black women as “B—hes” and “Hoes” on a regular, being a stand-up guy in any case. Yet this is what men today are bombarded with, a socially accepted and encouraged disrespect of Black women. This is not only played out in music and entertainment, but in politics and in the media as well.
As women, each of us may not have had a father, an uncle, older brother or male figure in our lives there to take up for us, protect us or to make us feel secure. But that does not remove the ideal image many of us hold on to of a man being the foremost protector and defender. Yet, unfortunately this image is not always reflected socially. And even if you’re a woman who does not agree with the idea that women need to be defended/protected by men, despite your position on male-female roles, the bottom line is when someone has been wronged, those who stand for justice should be there to defend them. Whether it is a situation involving a Black woman, Asian woman, Latina, etc.
Yet this is not always the case when it comes to Black women, so what should be done? As Black men, I say question whether you hold Black women in the same regard as other women. Do you have the same amount of respect for your sisters as you have for other women? And if not, ask yourself why? Change starts from within. And as Black women we must demand respect and carry ourselves with dignity. As we all reflect individually, we can do our part to change the attitudes and the double-standards that continue to leave sisters out on a limb.