She waited until after class to ask me a question.
I’d been speaking with about 40 North Kansas City High School freshmen for almost two hours. It was an open conversation about everything from sneakers and music to race and strength. There was a lot of laughter and thoughtful questions. But she never raised her hand.
When the bell rang, she walked up to me with a friend. She wanted to know how I had the confidence to speak out despite what people say about me. All semester long she’s been reluctant to raise her hand in class out of fear of being labeled an angry black girl.
Everything hurt as I looked into her eyes. I told her to never dim her light for anyone. I told her if she had a question, raise her hand. If she had an answer, raise her hand. I told her it was not her job to shrink so that others could feel comfortable and big.
But I wasn’t shocked by her fear. I know this fear. I box with it daily. Girls and women of color, especially black women and girls, are chastised for speaking up, for saying no, for simply existing.
A recent study by Georgetown Law found that adults view black girls as less innocent, less in need of nurturing and more grown than their white peers. Black girls are five times more likely to be suspended as white girls and prosecutors dismiss 30 percent of cases against black girls while giving a pass to 70 percent of cases against white girls. So imagine the perception and prejudice we grapple with when we become women.
All women are underpaid in comparison to men. But black women, despite education, experience and location, continuously make less than white men. The Economic Policy Institute found that a black woman would have to work seven months into this year before she caught up to what her white male counterpart made last year.
Yet we continue to save the day. All this week we heard about how black women kept Republican Roy Moore, a racist pedophile, from winning Alabama’s Senate election. Exit polls showed 98 percent of black women voted for Democrat Doug Jones. And all over Twitter and national headlines, black women were thanked. The DNC even chimed in.
“Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because black women led us to victory,” said Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez. “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
It’s not enough to thank black women. In fact, it’s not a black woman’s job to save a country that works overtime to debase her. We aren’t trying to help your political agenda. We want equity, agency and justice. We are women, not a step on your way to success and supremacy.
On the very week hashtags and headlines amplified black women’s voting power, we hardly heard about 13-year-old California suicide victim Rosalie Avila or Ashawnty Davis — a Colorado fifth-grader who tragically hung herself after a video of her being bullied was shared online. It took three weeks to raise the money for Davis’ funeral. She died Nov. 29.
Compare that to Keaton Jones. The 11-year-old white boy whose heartbreaking story of bullying went viral. His name was everywhere. He garnered celebrity support and a now-defunct GoFundMe page that racked up over $50,000 in a couple of days. He deserves love despite the rumors of his racist parents. But this disparity illustrates whom we lift and help.
Black girls and women go unnoticed. Tarana Burke created the Me Too movement a decade ago for brown and black women. But it was when Alyssa Milano made it a hashtag during the week Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator that the media took notice.
It was also that week that black women were expected to join #WomenBoycottTwitter and go silent with white women who were upset at the suspension of actress Rose McGowan’s account. It was supposed to be a protest of women’s voices being silenced.
I stand with every survivor, because #metoo. But black women can’t afford to mute their own voices. We already have a system working hard to silence us. We spent the day celebrating women of color through #WOCAffirmation only to have Rose McGowan use the N-word to amplify her feminist struggles. An apology came after the backlash.
Black women continue to offer solidarity only to be turned on when they need support. When Aurora Perrineau bravely shared her story of being raped by “Girls” writer and producer Murray Miller in 2012, when she was just 17 years old, she wasn’t met with an outpouring of support. Instead, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner released a statement standing by Miller. They insisted she must be part of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported each year. They recanted. But come on.
It just keeps happening. More than 80 women have come forward about Weinstein. Initially he responded to Ashley Judd. But beyond that, he’s only defended himself against Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek. And neither of these women’s names lasted in headlines beyond the day their New York Times essays were published.
And while I support Hayek, it must be pointed out that she herself sought to silence and dismiss Jessica Williams at a Sundance luncheon this year. Hayek told Williams to “not just spend all the time in the anger” and repeatedly interrupted Williams as she tried to express her experiences as a black woman in Hollywood.
Perhaps this is how R. Kelly has gotten away with his abuse for decades. No one cares about black women.
Nina Simone is finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year. But you know how they described her sound? As “unapologetic rage and accusatory.” I guess not even an iconic voice of the civil rights movement can be fully respected as a black woman without being portrayed as an angry black woman.
So when a high school freshman tells me she’s scared to raise her hand, no, I’m not surprised. On Dec. 11, 11-year-old Honestie Hodges was brutalized by Michigan police. They were looking for her aunt, a 40-year-old white woman. And somehow arrested a little black girl when she was leaving her home. The cops made her walk backward toward them to be handcuffed. She’s crying and screaming. They are telling her to “quit crying.” From the very start, her mama is telling them that is her child who is 11. And they arrest her anyway and put her in the cruiser.
Were they scared of a compliant child? Did they think she was a threat? Because she is a little black girl?
If we are angry, it’s about America’s fear and neglect of us.
Raise your hands and your votes, sisters. Show up and show out. We have a right to be mad.