With the current resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the protests and petitions, people are trying to educate themselves on social justice issues in order to be socially and culturally competent. Although tackling a militarized police state and a corrupt criminal justice system are very important, there are some social matters that are so engrained into our history and everyday life that we don’t even realize it. To further understand some of the underlying social issues relating to race that underly our corrupt systems, this article will delve into the topic of intersectionality and how it affects the lives of Black women.
Intersectionality. The word was originated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper where it was used to describe how people can be judged, discriminated against, or conceptualized based on their intersecting identities. These identities include their age, race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and other factors. For example, a heterosexual white cisgender woman is treated differently in society compared to a lesbian white cis woman, compared to a heterosexual Black cis woman, compared to a Black trans woman. The discrimination that individuals face comes from more than just one of their identities; it’s the intersection of all of their identities forming the self. The general effects of intersectionality go far beyond white cis women and Black cis women. With every additional marginalized identity someone holds, they are more likely to experience discrimination because of their multiple intersecting marginalized identities.
Although this article will show a specific and in-depth look at the intersectional experience of Black women in the United States, intersectionality is not exclusive to the United States and is experienced globally. The United States is a very diverse country with people from different racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. People speak different languages and have different cultural traditions and practices. Because of the United States’ historical background, someone’s race and gender are often the main reasons a person can experience either discrimination or privilege, based on whether or not those key intersecting identities are considered to be marginalized. In other countries where people are mostly the same race, however, intersecting identities like class, gender, or religion are more likely to intersect in ways that cause a person to experience increased discrimination.
A common theme in most parts of the world is that women don’t have much power and are considered to be less than men. Even in the United States today, although many women hold superior positions, they still experience backlash because of their gender. Gender is one of the key identities that determines whether or not a person experiences discrimination. One word used to describe a specific form of gender discrimination is misogyny, or hatred towards women.
Misogyny can be displayed in a number of ways: through sex discrimination, hostility, androcentrism (i.e. putting masculinity in the center of one’s worldview and belittling or marginalizing femininity), belittlement, sexual violence towards women, or the sexual objectification of women. We can consider misogyny as a generic form of hatred towards women, however the term misogynoir, termed by a Black feminist Moya Bailey, points to a specific form of hatred toward Black women. It provides a look into intersectionality and how Black women experience a unique form of misogyny because of their race and gender. In this case, it shows that Black women can experience racism because they are Black, but also experience gender discrimination as a woman. The term is certainly not made to exclude the concerns that non-Black women of color experience; but understanding the U.S.’s (or even the world’s) history of oppression of Black individuals as well as the history of oppressing women, combining the two shows a unique form of discrimination.
Throughout history, several stereotypes have been used to demean Black women in efforts to make them feel undermined. Common stereotypes include “the Jezebel,” the notion that Black women are extremely sexual beings and are deserving of any form of sexual assault, because that’s their nature and they like it. This stereotype was brought upon Black women during slavery, when Black women were used as play-things by their white enslavers and were frequently raped. In fact, third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, had such a “relationship” with Sally Hemings, a mixed race enslaved young woman who birthed about six of Jefferson’s offspring. The raping of Black women during slavery has led to the oversexualization of Black women.
The “sassy Black woman” is a woman who’s not afraid to speak her mind. Most people outside of the Black community would label her as “ratchet” or “ghetto.” She rolls her neck, she’s loud and loves to argue. This caricature was birthed around the 1980s in popular films and television shows. A perfect example of this stereotype that I personally remember is Joi from the popular 1995 film Friday. Joi is famously known for her blonde braids, long acrylics nails, and attitude. This stereotype has negatively impacted Black women because, like any other stereotype, people believe that it’s true. When Black women don’t embody this stereotype, they’re told that they’re very “articulate,” as if Black people are supposed to be uneducated. I personally remember being told that I wasn’t “like the rest of the Black girls.” These are microaggressions, small negative or belittling comments or gestures made at someone because of their identification with a specific group.
The “angry Black woman" is quite a self-explanatory stereotype. She’s a black woman that is constantly perceived to be angry. Whenever she expresses any sort of grievance she’s seen as too aggressive. When men in the workplace express passion in their work, they’re seen as strong willed or determined; she’s seen as angry, too emotional, or crazy. She has to be careful of how she expresses herself around other people, out of fear of being associated with this stereotype.
The final stereotype is the “strong Black woman.” This stereotype can be approached in several different ways. The first way would be the strong Black woman who’s always fighting. She doesn’t get the privilege of having a carefree life because of the issues brought upon her because of her race, so she’s always fighting for her people: an activist. The second version of the stereotype depicts Black women as being “manlike” and not beautiful. This example was evident in the controversial comic of Serena Williams in 2018. Williams was upset at an incident that occurred during a tennis match. The comic depicted her as a crybaby, but the point was that the artist made everything about her look bigger and muscular—more masculine.
The last version of this stereotype is a belief that Black women do not feel pain. This idea was thought up by Dr. J Marion Sims, also known as the “father of gynecology.” Dr. J Marion Sims performed surgical experiments on enslaved Black women during the 1800s without anesthesia. In his journals, he tells the stories of his patients crying and screaming in agony because of his refusal to use anesthesia. He believed that Black people did not experience pain like white people and that they were less intelligent. Whenever his patients died, he would deny that there was anything wrong with his practices and blamed their death on the Black midwives or mothers that were taking care of them.
The early findings of Dr. J Marion Sims continue to be detrimental to the overall health of Black women when undergoing medical procedures. To this day, Black women are over four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. The main reason for this disparity is that conditions brought to the attention of health care professionals by Black women are neglected or ignored. A Black women’s conditions are often undervalued, and they’re not monitored as carefully as those of white women.
Because of the effects of intersectionality, oppressions are compounded for Black women. Being Black and a woman, a person encounters discrimination and bias based on their race, as well as discrimination and bias based on their gender. Being a woman also comes with the increased threat of being a victim of sexual assault. As discussed earlier, since Black women and girls are often oversexualized, their complaints of sexual assault are often not taken as seriously. One story that embodies this issue in particular is the story of Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Saldu. She was a 19-year-old Black female activist. Like any Black activist, Toyin often spoke out against political matters like police brutality and was sometimes personally affected by it. After one protest on June 6, 2020, Toyin was seeking refuge after refusing to go back to her abusive household. She found refuge in the home of a man that she thought was her friend. He then sexually assaulted her. She managed to flee from his house and openly spoke about the incident on Twitter. Toyin then went missing, and her body was found several days later.
Toyin’s story shows how Black women’s issues are rarely taken seriously. People knew that she had an unsafe home, they knew that she had been sexuality assaulted, yet no one helped her. She could have been saved.
Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a Black woman is even more challenging, especially for a Black trans woman. With concerns of homophobia and transphobia in the Black community, Black trans women are often subject to increased oppression. Not only are Black trans women sometimes discriminated against in their own racial community, they also have to deal with issues concerning their race, gender identity, and sexual orientation outside of the Black community. This treatment includes hate crimes. The average life expectancy for Black trans women is 30-35 years old because they are often the victims of these crimes.
Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman and prominent gay rights activist, was one of the main figures who led the Stonewall riots. These riots began after police used excessive force against hundreds of individuals in a gay bar in New York: the Stonewall Inn. Throughout her activism Johnson was constantly terrorized for her progressive advocacy. When her body was found, her death was ruled a suicide. No further investigation was performed. Her death was brushed off by the authorities as if it didn’t matter.
The issue of intersectionality is complicated, but it helps us to understand the ways that discrimination affects people differently on a daily basis. Although this piece specifically addressed Black cis and transgender women, intersectionality is a part of everyone’s lives no matter their race, gender identity, religion, class, and so forth.
As a society it is crucial that we recognize and interrupt harmful stereotypes. We need to give Black women and women of color the same respect and attention that is given to white women (and for that matter, to white men) in society.