As a political science nerd, I readily jump at the opportunity to watch interesting political biopics. From Milk to Marie Antoinette, I thoroughly enjoy entering into a political climate different from my own through the television screen into stories of significant political events that altered the course of history. I am also simultaneously a devoted citizen of Shondaland. Therefore, when Kerry Washington first announced her role as Anita Hill in Confirmation, I anxiously awaited its release. When I finally saw it, I was glued to the computer screen (college student struggles, indeed) and sighed, yelled, and rolled my eyes at the inspired characterizations of real life individuals and decisions made at a monumental hearing that took place years before I was born. I will acknowledge that this movie is based off of a true story and does not seek to be the accurate and balanced representation of how these events actually unfolded. However, in the areas when it spoke to a greater truth, it revealed a lot about how our personal communities and political systems continue to be exclusionary for a young black woman like me.
I have often explored the complexities and difficulties of being both a woman and person of color in the world we live in today. On one hand, it seems we are better off now than we have ever been before. Filmmaker Janks Morton basically proves this fact by finding that black women exceed all racial and gender groups in overall college enrollment. On the other, age-old problems still persist due to their lack of importance to current political stakeholders. This includes inequities in pay for black women both to their white female counterparts as well as their male counterparts in all fields. It includes harmful stereotypes in the black community that put strength and resilience above the advancement of our mental and personal health issues, forcing us to always become "the strong independent black woman." And it includes the disproportionately higher rate of abuse, rape, and sexual assault against black women that occurs and often goes unreported.
When placed in juxtaposition with one another, neither the advancements nor the shortcomings of our society adequately paint a balanced picture of how black women are actually treated in their homes, workplaces, and educational institutions. I know at least for me that where we stand isn’t quite far enough in the right direction. With a couple of weeks left before my graduation, I am still unsure of how the skills I have developed and relationships I have made will help me to fulfill my aspirations of being successful both in my personal and professional life. What I do have a better picture of, however, is the barriers I face in achieving them.
Malcolm X in a speech titled, “On Protecting Black Women” said: "The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman, the most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman." If you were to take a look at a rap video or a movie with a predominately black cast, you would likely see a specific scenario play out. A black woman subordinating herself to a black man -- from dancing upon him to subserviently serving on his behalf. These cinematic or musical adaptations reflect a reality that reigns true in most of the black community. In an effort to protect our men from the world that demonizes and destructs them, black woman serve as their protectors. To make them feel powerful and autonomous in a world that strips them of their ability to live and capacity to thrive, black women serve as their supporters. Though this cooperation is crucial for our community to survive and allows us to build strong, collaborative relationships, there also comes a consequence to that dynamic. With this selfless and unlimited comfort and encouragement comes the continued inferiority and submission of women. Any possible move for women to advance forward or question the status quo is likely to be critiqued not only by members of the establishment and dominant class but also by members of their own social sphere. What would come to be known as the foundation for sexual harassment policies in the workplace first came about from Anita Hill’s sacrifice.
This reality has unfolded once again with the recent emergence of dozens of rape accusations made by black women against Bill Cosby. Rather than beginning a discussion about rape and sexual assault in the black community, most of the commentary was once again centered around the validity of the women’s claims. Why did it take them so long? What could their motivations be to try and ruin the career of one of our country’s most successful black men? Both black men and women in and out of the spotlight saw their futures and well-being as being tied to one another so any potential damage to those possibilities had to be properly and thoroughly vetted. Especially in our community, the innocent till proven guilty standard ensures that any accusation made against a black man has to be proven above and beyond a reasonable doubt, which most often comes at the expense of their accuser's wellbeing. Victims of an assault that likely had a physical, mental, and spiritual toll not only had to identity themselves to a highly critical world but also had to be constantly on the defense and prove what they were saying was actually true. It should be noted that a part of this reality is in result of the brutal murder and excessive incarceration of black men for having the audacity to look, touch, or have a relationship with the ‘wrong type of woman’ i.e. innocent caucasian women. Clarence Thomas recalled this imagery when referred to the Senate Judiciary hearing as a high tech lynching. Yet this standard now leaves victims in the shadows because of their fear that they would be blamed and excluded simply because they dared to speak out.
I am a survivor of sexual assault by a black man. For years, I told no one because I feared that it would negatively affect both my personal and professional relationships. I feared that any conversation about what happened to me would put my connection with my family and identity into question. I didn’t want to have to defend my actions or the lack thereof. I didn’t want to explain how I couldn’t trust to be alone in a room with any of my male relatives or friends for years. For the most part, I don’t think his ethnicity affected my understanding of my experiences. But I know that the narrative might have been different. If he were white, I could have chalked it up to white male privilege; yet his blackness made it feel more like a betrayal. How could he do something so horrible to me when the world already tells me that I am ugly and unwanted? And how could I potentially ruin a man’s life when our community has a prerogative to ensure that they succeed?
This treacherous rope walk of protecting myself and my community makes it nearly impossible for me live a life without constant fear of selling out and indecision over who I should put first.
Yet, this inevitably is not just between men and women. Interactions between black women similarly limit progress due to the tendency of certain women to be competitive with one another in regards to their beauty and intelligence. I am guilty of this type of behavior. I recollect one memory of when I, as one of the only consistently competitive female and African American debaters in high school, got my imaginary feathers ruffled when I encountered an equally successful and confident black female debater at a national tournament round robin. Though I was definitely tokenized and subjected to relentless stereotyping throughout my four years, I eventually learned how to thrive off of my uniqueness and take joy in being “the only black girl in the room.” It merely took the presence of a single additional person that looked and acted similarly to me for my confidence to be affected and my identity to be threatened. Rather than taking the opportunity to gain an ally or friend in my corner, I ruined that chance because I held a deeply incorrect assumption that the arena of success didn’t have more than a couple of spots for a person like me.
Which brings me to my future career goals: entering into politics. It’s no secret to anyone that most of the seats in political office is held by old white men. Political representation in the Congress, a 435-seat body, is vastly under representative of the populations they are supposed to represent. Though this has been reiterated by a variety of political theorists and commentators, I will say it again:
The misrepresentation of our government means that the policies that are passed and issues that are discussed are not reflective of the opinions and realities of the people that understand and endure the situations the most.
And yes, there can be hearings, testimonials, and articles that bring it different perspectives. However, who government leaders are often beholden to are not the Anita Hill’s but the actors and donors that will allow them to further their own agendas. I want to eventually pursue political office to bring those issues to the forefront by including voices that wouldn’t be heard of otherwise. I want to embody Shirley Chisholm’s unbought and unbossed attitude to actively combat the disillusionment many feel because they don’t believe their government represents them. I want to fight the skeptic within myself. Yet my largest hesitancies in doing so are surrounded around how much of myself I must let go of, change, or manipulate behind closed doors to do so.
Today, much of what citizens are shown of the political process is theater. The movie Confirmation itself and many articles on the 2016 elections agree with this conclusion. We exist in a political climate in which voters are disillusioned because many systems are inaccessible to people who need it the most. Access to comprehensive health care, equal marriage rights, and affordable educational opportunities are entirely dependent on what state in the United States you are in. One’s ability to be heard by the people that matter the most is highly correlated with how many highly educated and funded supporters they have behind them. This frustration has only pushed people more apart and marginalized populations further into the margins. One group that is affected by this the most is black women.
During the coverage of police brutality cases, I remember all of the stories surrounding the impact of the lives lost on their families and communities. The perspectives most salient and impactful to me were the impact of these deaths to the mothers. So many documentaries and interviews revealed that many black mothers say goodbye to their sons and daughters, with little expectations that they will see them again that evening. Like Mary holding Jesus’ dead body when taken off the cross so too many black women must carry the weight of the possible loss of their children as politicians stumble over one another to produce half -baked policies to address larger systemic issues. If I were to succeed in entering into office, would I produce these same watered down policies or be capable of creating meaningful reform?
And even if I or other government leaders were able to implement these policies, how effective should I expect them to be? As aforementioned, the Anita Hill trainings sparked a nationwide conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace. For every single job or internship I have taken, I have had to begrudgingly go through online simulations explaining to me the procedures to be taken when I ever felt emotionally or physically harmed on the job. Thankfully, I have never had to encounter a situation that I needed to recall this knowledge. But, if it were ever the case that I had to, I must admit that I am not sure I would pursue it. As a black woman who has traveled in a predominantly white world, I have become accustomed to consistent microaggressions over my looks, my attitudes, and my backgrounds. Would I even recognize sexual harassment when it slapped me in the face, or would I just chalk it up to another awkward interaction with my co-worker? And if I did recognize it as such, would I want to endure the possible ridicule and intimidations that would come with filing a complaint? As I write this, I still don’t know how I would respond.
Thankfully, the world does have examples of exceptional women who have called people out on their shit and gotten recognized for their work. For example, Melissa Harris-Perry called out a national television network for censoring her voice and tokenizing her commentary. At first, it seemed as though her leaving her show would mean that our community would lose an important platform for discussing our issues in an intellectual fashion. Yet, her stance helped reopen the conversation on what it means to have black individuals merely filling spaces for diversity purposes versus actually making spaces of their own to create something meaningful. But the question then becomes, will the progress that black women so desperately need always have to come in the form of them constantly testifying to the world about the indecencies and inequalities they face, even if it comes at their expense?
My own experiences don't exactly give me a clear answer to that question. As the Student Government Association President, I have had to challenge myself to balance between being unyielding and compromising on issues I thought were important and needed to be addressed. Sometimes I have succeeded, and other times I have failed. As a result, aspects of my gender, race, and sexuality have all come under investigation, as they suddenly became relevant to my ability to care or act on a certain issue. I have been interrupted, yelled over, and silenced by others who believed their voices were more important than my own. And I continue to struggle between knowing when that is necessary to advancing the causes I support and when I’m simply serving as a sacrificial lamb or punching bag for a system that I have little control over.
At these times, I often recall one occasion in which I got the opportunity to serve as a student representative for my state in the grand opening of the Edward M Kennedy Institute in Boston. In front of Vice President Joe Biden, I read one of Ted Kennedy’s most famous quotes about politics being a noble and worthwhile profession. I will always wonder what went through his mind as I was speaking. I wonder if he explored the likelihood of me ever being able to understand such nobility. I wonder if he thought about Anita and how I, like her, must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds by my country, my community, and even myself to have my voice heard in a Senate room again.
Shirley Chisholm once said, “I don't measure America by its achievement but by its potential.” I similarly believe that it is our utmost obligation that we continue to fight, yell, and insist that we get the country that we so rightfully deserve for all marginalized racial and gender identities. However, the task cannot be mine or other black women’s alone. The work for intersectional equity requires that all hands are on deck. We cannot simply leave it to the same group of people who -- for centuries -- have often had to carry the burden.
Additionally, though black women ought continue to be our partner’s supporter, brother’s keeper, and community’s builder, we must also be our own saviors. We must reach out to and down for one another to continue opening up new spaces for black women. We must continue telling our stories, even if they are doubted, because they deserve to be heard. We must embody the timeless spirit of the woman before us, including Anita Hill, Melissa Harris-Perry, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Lee, Maya Angelou, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and many more, to make this world our own.