Black Women Don’t Need Protection. We Need Abolition.
“Oftentimes when it comes to a black woman speaking up and speaking out, it goes unheard until she dies. Then once she dies, then we go back and say, ‘Well, she was right, and let’s make a movie about it.’ See, I can give you their names, Eartha Kitt. I can give you their names, Hazel Scott. I can give you their names, Fannie Lou Hamer. I can give you their names, Hattie McDaniel. All of those women took a stand, and all those women left here, heartbroken. Unhealthy. Looking at a community saying, ‘Y’all know I’m right. Why won’t anybody say anything?’…My husband always says ‘Mama, we ain’t calling nobody out. We simply calling them up.’ To say, ‘Listen, let’s make our community better by making it right. Not keep running and hiding behind what you consider is your power.’” — Monique
“I can’t even be happy….I can’t hold conversations with people for a long time. I don’t feel like I want to be on this earth. I wish he would have just shot and killed me, if I knew I would have to go through this torture.” — Megan Pete
I was fifteen years old the first time a man followed me to the bathroom.
It happened at church. He was 25. When I told others about it, they laughed at me. Asked me why I invited him. Told me to go easy on him, he had no knowledge of social cues. But he didn’t follow anybody else to the bathroom. After church, he would pester me for my phone number, reminding me that he had a good job and could treat me nice. In an attempt to make him stop, I told his mother. She asked me to give him a chance because he really liked me. God said that I would be his wife.
I remember the look upon my mother’s face when I told her that my classmate attempted to rape me at school. Her eyes went blank at first, then darkened. She was familiar with the feeling of force. She barely lived with the constant feeling of violation. So that night, she gathered other adults in my family. They encircled me, and I stumbled through my truth: I was in gym class and he called me to take a walk with him. He was the cutest guy there, with dark brown skin and a smile that charmed almost anyone. He played football and was very popular. I was excited that he would even want to speak to me. We walked until he led me to an empty room filled with wrestling equipment. He invited me inside for a “talk” that ended with my quick steps away, holding hot tears and the bit of safety and bodily integrity I had left.
My grandmother, shocked but not enraged, told me to enroll in self-defense classes. She too had known the feeling of force growing up in the Jim Crow South. She knew the only protection I would have in this world would be what I gave to myself. My uncle, who was my father in place of my own, told me not to tell. There was no need to ruin this young man’s life over what must’ve been a misunderstanding. I was 16 — surely I could live with what remained of mine. The only way I could cope with the violation was to make it my fault. I told myself that as long as I was responsible, it would never happen to me again.
In college, I reported the assault because I believed I had to. I had no delusions that the university would protect me. I lived enough life to recognize protection was impossible. I left out certain details to protect the man who assaulted me, the man I loved. I only wanted counseling to deal with my insomnia, the constant trembling in my hands and my spirit. I did not want him to be punished. Black men already dealt with too much. He protected himself as well — told them I lied because I did not want the relationship to end. He was the target of an angry, crazy Black woman who had an inability to let go.
My “craziness” became the ground upon which I would shapeshift. Though I never wanted a formal case, they decided to conduct an investigation without me. I was told that during the student conduct proceedings they asked, “Would we let her go if she were a man?” The alchemical process of anti-black symbolic violence transformed me from a 5’2”, 21-year-old young Black woman into a violent man who invited assault, and for that I had to be punished. I could not be a victim, so I had to pay for the harm and distress I caused him by reporting. My sleepless nights and tremors from a “mild” case of PTSD were not punishment enough, so a sanction was handed down. I didn’t even know the case was being adjudicated until I received a letter saying I had a mark on my permanent record. I was ordered never to contact him again. He received no sanctions. In fact, he was told to report if I ever “bothered him” again. Any violation of the no-contact order could get me suspended.
When Megan testified that she wished Daystar had killed her, it stirred up so many feelings and thoughts within me. I know what it’s like to wish to be dead rather than survive violence. Rather than rush to respond, I sat with my own pain. The familiar twinge in my chest and stomach came as I recalled that her immediate, almost instinctual reaction was to shield the man who shot holes in her feet from police violence. Scrolling down my timeline, I read pieces that insinuated “If Megan with her class privilege and beauty privilege can endure this, then what does that mean for the ordinary Black woman?” This is, of course, a rhetorical question. It is because the ordinary Black woman is unprotected and violable that Megan can be violated and blamed.
Many times over the course of my life, I have been positioned to protect Black cisgender heterosexual men and boys even as they violated me–to use the tools of Gender under white supremacist patriarchy to help a Black man achieve his dream. I am not alone. All of the Black women survivors I’ve worked with over the last ten years have said similar things after they told their stories: “I did not want to send another Black man to jail.” “I did not want to ruin his life.” In a way, respectability politics compel us to keep these forms of intraracial violence under wraps. No need to provide more evidence for the age-old stereotypes about the hypersexual and hyper-violent nature of Black cis men. So we lived with what remained of our lives because we internalized the patriarchal lie that our safety, joy, and happiness do not matter as much as their pursuit of power. In fact, we are told that our safety, joy, and happiness can only be secured when Black men take their “rightful” place in our communities as leaders. Telling our stories would unsettle the white supremacist patriarchal myth that Black cis men solely hold the capacity to “uplift” the race and lead us to liberation. We know that everyone else shoulders the responsibility of making racial uplift possible, and yet, we have internalized the patriarchal myth that Black men are supposed to do the work we already do in our communities and households. And that we, like the white man, are simply in the way.
We live in a world where Gender under white supremacist patriarchy harms all of us. Black cis men feel the pain of Manhood denied, sitting in the truth that even though they follow its scripts — the total violation and domination of Black women, queer and trans people, and children to achieve power — they cannot access the protection that Gender promises cis men from racial-sexual violence and capitalism. So even as they lie on us, shoot us, kill us, rape us, abandon us, stand on our backs to climb the ladder of the American dream, they never fully reach it because nothing can remove the yoke of the longue durée of slavery. Their pursuit of Manhood under white supremacist capitalism requires our sacrifice, but even our scorched and burning bodies cannot remove the mark of blackness that tells Black cis men they are always already never enough.
Perhaps Daystar Peterson’s short stature, plain appearance, and balding head signaled to the ordinary Black man that the privileges and power of Gender, specifically of Manhood, could be his. That he doesn’t have to be 6’2”, slim but muscular with good hair to access (and to violate) desirable women. Maybe he could be “successful” without talent and still harm with impunity, the prize of Manhood. That even in and through his ordinariness, the violation of others can be justified and invisibilized. All the men who abused me were ordinary, and they faced no consequences for the harm they caused. The pedestal of celebrity only amplifies what happens everyday in our communities.
The ordinary Black woman is most likely to be killed or abused by the ordinary Black man she loved. No amount of class privilege or pretty privilege will protect us from harm. White supremacist patriarchy may lead us to believe that pretty, wealthy women don’t experience violence, but benefactors of patriarchy must dominate and violate to maintain their power. If pretty, rich women do not experience violence, then desirability and Black capitalism would be a way out of this mess. Megan would not have experienced the plight of the ordinary Black woman. But instead, her violation places her into the category of ordinary Black women who experience near-constant violence and then are made responsible for it. Even with a conviction — the pinnacle of Justice our society can offer — Megan is not a victim of violence. Her height, her desirability, her undeniably Black features and body, and the fact that she survived prevent her from being seen as a victimized, traumatized survivor.
But still, I wonder why we should believe that Megan would be exempt from that violence when the ordinary Black women, children, queer, trans, and disabled people in our own communities have to make our lives in it? Our top-down approach to addressing community violence mirrors the rights model of the white supremacist, anti-black state. This model thrives on the myth that what happens for those at the top trickles down to the bottom. What happens to the rich and powerful surely will happen for us. But most Black women are not harmed by a celebrity, we are harmed by those closest to us. How do we attend to the politics of the local and the ordinary?
In all of the times I’ve been raped and brutalized in my romantic relationships and by men who were more-or-less strangers, I never saw police or the criminal punishment system as an option for accountability because I knew the harm those institutions caused Black people. I recalled the stories of elders who went to the police to report rape and who were misnamed whores and disregarded. I recalled the decades of legal and extralegal Justice that hung Black people in trees. These histories and others inform how we as Black people address intracommunal violence. Justice and Democracy actually require our deaths and our servitude. The Justice systems created in their names cannot require anything less. So when a Black man does not face state-sanctioned punishment for gender violence, it feels like racial justice has been done. (One only needs to think about the cases of R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Kobe Bryant, OJ Simpson to understand what I mean….) But in truth, when we celebrate Black men not being held accountable for violence as an act of racial justice, we attempt to place them in the category of Men who could rape, pillage, and kill to gain power. We say, “You too can take part in the genocidal, anti-black violence that is destroying this earth. That is your rightful place as a Man.” We also signal to those of us who cannot access Manhood that we are disposable. That the violence we endure is necessary for liberation.
This is not to say that Black women and girls are doing nothing in the face of violence. The call to Protect Black women often comes at times when our vulnerability is hypervisible. These days I can’t help but wonder who are we talking to? Who are we hoping will Protect us?
As I’ve said elsewhere, Protection is a set of power and property relations between individuals, the state, and the criminal punishment system. Protection, as we understand and live it, requires one group to exercise power over the other in order to shield them from harm. Protection allows men to exercise power over women; parents over children, etc. through the assumption that that relationship shields women and children from harm. I capitalize Protection to signal that I’m talking about that relationship. Under patriarchy, we are forced to seek Protection from those that have the power to harm us. This is how we relate to the state and to each other. We expect to be harmed by those who provide security.
Protection does not eliminate harm; it shifts the harm to the unprotected. For many of us who are “unprotected,” the harm has been here. Some people’s “rights” and bodily autonomy are secure, while others are violated. Protection disproportionately exposes “unprotected” groups to harm and then invisibilizes that harm by saying it’s a consequence of their existence.
Historically Protected groups, like white cis women, have mistaken their racialized Protection as freedom, as their “right,” and as safety. Victim is a category generally reserved for white cisgender heterosexual women and girls, one they can access easily because of that racialized Protection. They are harmed and protected by the structures that guarantee their domination and our own. Black womanhood has been constructed in ways that make victimhood impossible. So much of the world and its meaning relies on the violent exclusion and exploitation of Black women. Many of our movements fail to address this when we claim that we too are victims of violence deserving of Protection. The entire paradigm of victimhood is dependent upon our near-constant violation and exclusion from Protection. (In other words, we know a woman is Black by what can be done to her.) We must obliterate the category of victim, and the conditions that create victimhood, if we want to address violence. Because in reality, we don’t just want to be seen as victims like white women or rich women (that does not undo the violence and harm), we want the violence and harm that causes victimhood to end. We want to be safe in our communities.
No one is truly “safe” under Protection unless you are already “safe” under white supremacist patriarchy. In order to have a legitimate claim to Protection, you have to prove how & why you belong to the always already Protected class. In some ways, you have to become a white, male, propertied, able-bodied citizen etc. to access Protection. For those who cannot do that, Protection is impossible. There is no Protection for Black people under the law. As a Black queer woman, I recognize that the law can only promise to Protect me at our collective expense.
So if money, desirability, status, and the law cannot Protect Black women from experiencing harm (and actually create the conditions where we experience harm), then what can be done to create safety in our communities? If the master’s tools won’t free us, then what tools will?
I believe we ask for Protection when we are really seeking safety. Safety can only be constructed in community through care and commitment. Creating safety for Black women, especially those who are the most marginalized among us, would require a complete dismantling of the state — and our lives — as we know it. It’s impossible to for us to experience safety in the current matrix of capitalist, racial-sexual, homophobic, and transphobic violence that is the modern state.
No amount of criminal punishment reform will create the conditions of safety that Black people need to address violence in our communities. We will always be working against the state’s death-dealing logic that dictates that we must sacrifice the well-being of our communities for Black men to have power. Only in a world without policing and prisons (and the master’s tools of Gender, race, class, and ability that enable them) will we finally have the space to live. That means that addressing violence against Black women, children, and queer and trans people starts with each of us, right here, right now.
This call to abolition is rooted in a politic of ordinary, a politic of community care that doesn’t elevate individuals on pedestals nor denigrate them. This politic does not aim for the Gendered Protection white women live under or aim for Protection under wealth and fame. This politic does not look for a Black Messiah to lead us to freedom, but instead recognizes the inherent value and worth in every Black person, not just those fleetingly valued under oppressive systems. I recognize that Black people — especially Black girls, Black women, Black queer and trans folks — are not worth saving or Protecting because they are magical. We are worth the time, effort, discomfort, and (at times) violence necessary to ensure our safety because we exist. There is no community without us. My own study and practice of abolition pushes me to think about the ways I can ensure my own safety and the safety of others within my community, for I no longer desire to relinquish my power to a patriarchal system that will always leave me unprotected.
We have a duty to fight for communities where interpersonal violence survivors experience love, joy, and peace abundantly to heal. I can only imagine how different my life, Megan’s life, and the lives of countless Black survivors would be if community support while we are living. As I release the pain from my own violent experiences, I make more room to hold a disciplined hope that Black women won’t have to die to be heard and respected; that anti-black misogynoir won’t be the baseline for community responses to gendered violence; that Black cis women won’t resort to the colonial violence of Gender against trans women in an attempt to Protect themselves from Black men’s violence; that Black children survivors are believed and avenged.
Abolition makes room for the imagination and creation of safe communities. Calling for anything less than the utter destruction of this world created through genocide, enslavement, and the pursuit of profit won’t bring liberation. It’ll only create new oppressors. We have the power to create communities that encourage Black survivors to live. We cannot wait for anybody else to save us. It’s time to make it right.