The Intentional Erasure of Black Women: Awareness, Action, & Healing
This is a repost from The Healing Collective Global - Healing Collectively Blog in August 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused most of us to make significant changes to our routines. For many of us, shelter in place orders have encouraged resuscitation of old projects and have motivated us to commence projects or activities that have lingered on our to-do lists for much longer than we had planned.
I have taken to watching more television than I would care to admit. I justify this newfound pastime by reassuring myself that there are worse things than the Hallmark Channel and Home and Garden Television (HGTV) I could watch. HGTV provides me with a mental vacation by allowing me to live vicariously through house hunters looking to buy property in the Caribbean and Mexico while the Hallmark Channel, with its often predictable yet strangely insightful plots, provides me with hope for finding a compatible partner.
I may be one of few people who watches the commercials during a television show’s intermission instead of taking a bathroom break or refilling on refreshments. In all my television watching I have noticed a disturbing trend. Commercials, especially those selling products that appeal to couples and families, are often missing Black women.
There is no shortage of commercials touting diversity especially in the wake of the recent murders of Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and countless others. As companies and organizations continue to release racial justice statements, there has been a surge in advertisements that feature more Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
What I find disturbing, however, is not the increase in diversity, but what seems to me to be an intentional erasure of Black women from commercials with couples and families. Many of the commercials I have seen while awaiting the return of the current episode of House Hunters International or Love at New Heights (my take on a title of a Hallmark Channel movie) represent Black men in relationship with women from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, except Black women. In fact, I rarely see commercials with Black women involved in a relationship with anyone other than inanimate objects (laundry detergent, mops, food) and domestic animals (cats, dogs).
Now, granted I have not conducted a quantitative research analysis where I have taken a randomized sample of all commercials across a variety of television networks, run descriptive statistics, and analyzed the frequencies, mean, median, and mode of the data collected. And I am aware that our perceptions are greatly influenced by the lens with which we view society. My lens has been greatly influenced by my experiences with white supremacy, oppression, and discrimination as it relates to race, gender, and color. But it is also influenced by public behavior and response to Black women and research related to the experiences of Black women and girls.
In 2019 I presented, with my friend and colleague Dr. Shemya Vaughn, at the National Convention for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). In our presentation entitled, Is Anyone Listening: The Silencing of Black Women and Girls with Mental Health Issues, Dr. Vaughn and I discussed the dehumanization and adultification of Black girls as young as 5 years of age and the spike in suicide rates of Black children in general, but specifically Black girls 10-14 years of age. Let me repeat this for the people in the back. Black girls experience trauma and have suicidal ideations as early as 5 years old.
In a 2018 interview with Vogue Magazine, tennis powerhouse Serena Williams shared that the day after receiving an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter, Olympia, she felt short of breath and was concerned she was having a pulmonary embolism as she has a history of blood clots. Williams explained her symptoms to a nurse and requested a CT scan, which she was denied because the nurse did not believe her symptoms. After insisting on a CT scan, Williams was granted her request. The results of the scan revealed small blood clots in her lungs. Unfortunately, Williams’ story is not the exception, but the norm.
The National Partnership for Women and Families published an issue brief in 2018 titled, Black Women’s Maternal Health: A Multifaceted Approach to Addressing Persistent and Dire Health Disparities that included the following results:
1. Black women in the United States are more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than women in any other race group.
2. Black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women.
3. Black women are more likely to experience preventable maternal death compared with white women.
4. Black women’s heightened risk of pregnancy-related death spans income and education levels.
More recently, the murder of Breonna Taylor by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department brought to light yet another area where Black women are disregarded, the justice system. Prior to the murder of Breonna Taylor, Kimberlé Crenshaw—lawyer, professor, and civil rights advocate—delivered a TED Talk on the Urgency of Intersectionality. Crenshaw, after conducting an audience participation activity to illustrate her main point, discussed the exceedingly low level of awareness of police violence against Black women. This TED Talk was delivered in 2016, fast forward four years and awareness of and justice for Black women who are victims of police violence continues to be low.
Black women are also targeted within in our own community. From the disrespect we witnessed from Snoop Dog and other Black male celebrities against Gayle King, to the Twitter memes from 50 Cent about the shooting of Megan The Stallion and the disrespect aimed at Jill Scott from professional football player Kyle Queiro, Black women are as Malcolm X described: “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.”
Perhaps commercials aired between re-runs of the Golden Girls on the Hallmark Channel and Home Town on HGTV are not part of an implicit plan to silence and erase Black women and girls; however, there are institutional and social and cultural systems in place that seem to be working overtime to dehumanize and eliminate us. If we are to dismantle these systems of oppression, we must get in formation.
First, it is important for us to exercise our democratic right. We must vote. In 2019 we witnessed the setting of a new record when the 116th Congress became the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. Just recently 3 Black women—Cori Bush, Kim Gardener, and Tishaura Jones—won the primaries in St. Louis, MO for the Congressional seat, the Circuit Attorney's office, and the Treasurer's race, respectively. This fall we have an opportunity to not only effect change with our vote in the presidential election, but also to make history with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Second, it is imperative that we amplify the voices of Black women. We must support, with our time, talents, and financial resources, publications and platforms that tell Black women’s stories. Publications and platforms like Midnight & Indigo, CRWN Mag, Gumbo Magazine, The Kitchen Table Literary Arts Center, REWRITE London, and The Healing Collective give space for Black women to be vulnerable and authentic.
Next, we must continue to fight for justice for Black women and girls, this includes our transgender sisters. We must support initiatives like the #SayHerName campaign developed by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) to continue to bring awareness to the names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victims of police violence. Other ways in which we can fight for justice for our sisters include participating in protests, signing petitions, and contacting lawmakers to demand justice.
Some Black women are using their celebrity status to demand justice for police violence against Black women. Oprah Winfrey recently purchased 26 billboards throughout Louisville, KY demanding justice for Breonna Taylor. Jada Pinkett Smith stood in solidarity with Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, during a rally in June in Louisville. I would be remiss if I did not mention the countless number of Black men who are also using their celebrity status to demand justice for Breonna Taylor and other Black women victims of police violence including Common, LeBron James, John Legend, and yes, even Kanye West who offered to pay the legal fees for the family of Breonna Taylor.
Equally as important as dismantling systems of oppression is healing from them. Healing from oppression can take many forms including psychotherapy, mind and body practices, and healing arts. The method or methods you choose for your healing journey should be specific to your needs. Below are some resources that may assist with the journey.
The Black Mental Wellness Corporation, founded by four Black women clinical psychologists, provides information and resources about mental and behavioral health topics from a Black perspective.
Black + Well produces a journal and magazine with a focus on healing from trauma through health and wellness practices.
Ourselves Black produces a magazine that focuses on controlling our narratives about our experiences with mental health and wellness.
Girl Trek is a national health movement that uses civil rights history and principles to motivate Black women and girls to live healthy lives. Through numerous national partnerships, Girl Trek has developed a training program for Black women to serve as health professionals in their communities in the areas of fitness, mental health, and nutrition.
Liberate is a meditation app for Black, Indigenous, and people of color to guide them on their path to healing by identifying and offering resources for common cultural experiences.
The Healer’s for Liberation Network is a D.C. based collective of people of color healers, therapists, shamans, life coaches, creative arts therapists, and more with a mission to center healing-based communities that do not follow white supremacy models of healthcare.
My healing journey has been multifaceted with my priorities being rest and sleep. I allow my body to rest and sleep when it requires it. Rest, for me, includes disconnecting from all electronics including television, cell phones, and computers. I often lay in silence when I am resting my mind and body. I may also engage in stretching exercises. Naps are essential to my healing. My brain requires rest to work optimally so it is not uncommon for me to take a 2-3-hour nap in the middle of the day. I do not support the “push through” culture. I believe it is detrimental to the healing of Black folks, especially Black women.
In addition to rest and sleep, I write. I journal regularly, sometimes with prompts and other times without. I allow my spirit to dictate to me what I need to put on paper when I write. Somedays I write only a sentence, while other days I write pages. Again, this is part of my healing, so I allow my spirit to lead me in the process.
Daily walks and music are also part of my healing journey. There are times when I walk in the park or just around my neighborhood. I also walk around the house. The location of my walk is important, but it is more important to give my body space to move. On days when the weather does not permit or I do not want to go out, I put on my favorite play list and walk around the house. It is a very cathartic experience.
Psychotherapy is an especially important part of my healing. For the first time, I have a Black woman therapist. I have been blessed to have always had amazing therapists. However, there is something special about having a Black woman, with a similar background as mine, with whom to process trauma and grief.
Prayer and meditation are how I anchor my soul and stay centered. Of all my healing practices, prayer and meditation are most important to me. It is through these practices I find my peace. I generally meditate at the end of the day for relaxation before bed. I pray throughout the day, in the morning, while working, before bed; I pray without ceasing.
There is still much work to do. Every day we are faced with overt and covert messages that we do not matter. We matter! We are not going anywhere! Let us take the necessary steps to care for ourselves to continue this fight for justice.