Cities across the world have erupted in protest against police violence and anti-Black racism, but who are they marching for?
In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, global communities have participated in themed protests to honor their lives. From #IRunWithMaud to celebrity-led comedy specials, there’s no shortage of coverage of their deaths.
But since these protests picked up steam, I’ve noticed a quieter trend on my timelines: sprinkles of posts reminding authorities to arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, like accent colors in a monochromatic room.
Celebrities and figures like Minister Bernice King, Sen. Kamala Harris, and even comedian Samantha Bee have posted and rallied around Taylor’s case nearly daily since it started to gain traction in the media, with a different focus: Don’t forget about Breonna.
More than three months have passed since her death, and in spite of the Louisville Metro Council’s passing of Breonna’s Law, no arrests have been made.
On Monday, the news broke of the death of Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist who had recently tweeted about her experience of sexual assault after seeking refuge in a church.
Black women flooded their social media timelines with an outpouring of grief, shock, and a similar call to action: Protect Black women. Although an arrest has been made, siblings and friends voiced how Salau was ignored, abused, and unnecessarily left vulnerable to violence.
On Sunday, a Black Trans Lives Matter protest was held in Brooklyn, days after the violent deaths of Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, two Black trans women killed within 24 hours of each other earlier that week.
Although the march amassed thousands of demonstrators, the headlines still failed to fully capture the weight of their stories, and the same goes for the other 12 known Black trans women who have also been violently killed this year, as tracked on Transgriot by Monica Roberts.
My proximity to these stories is complicated by my identity as a Black healer—a Black, cis-gender woman and a therapist—where I’m uniquely positioned to carry others’ pain and called to “cure” it. For weeks now, I’ve sat across from hurting Black women clients, listened to my Black women friends and family members, and processed the events with my Black women co-workers, all while carrying some of my own traumatic experiences with police and racist individuals.
Sleep has become difficult as I grapple with the pain of these cases, along with the very real truth that I could become a hashtag myself. Would I get justice? Would I be seen, or would my name also be drowned out in the outcry for Black men?
It’s no competition—I’m sure I speak for many when I say I want liberation for all Black lives. Still, how can that happen when the movement, a movement started and sustained by Black women, often de-emphasizes the voices of so many within the Black diaspora?
Unfortunately, this is not a new experience for Black women. Though all media attention surrounding police violence against any Black person is crucial, it’s still a staunch reminder that Black women are often victims of racial violence but are rarely upheld as symbols of the movement for racial justice.
In recent days, activists have been increasingly vocal about the dire need to change that. Even notoriously private Beyoncé penned an open letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron in a public plea to focus on justice for Taylor, to change the typically fruitless trajectory of such cases.
Dr. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, intersectionality scholar, law professor, and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, co-founded the #SayHerName Campaign as a mission to elevate the “invisible” stories of Black women and girl victims of police and institutionalized violence.
Dr. Crenshaw’s work has critically examined many similar cases of police violence against Black women that happen adjacent to, or in tandem with, police violence against Black men but rarely garner proportional attention. In telling these stories, Dr. Crenshaw has also witnessed the reverberating harmful effects of this erasure.
“Black women are positioned downstream as trickle-down recipients of anti-racism, but never its subjects…” Dr. Crenshaw said. “Our experience [is] not being seen as capacious enough to represent the whole.” Even in the recent, moving cover of The New Yorker, Dr. Crenshaw highlights how anti-racist activism often fits under the guise of “male-centric ideas” and ultimately leaves Black women as “footnotes” but never the face.
“Racism is a critical public health issue”
These last few weeks have felt like a parallel process of being faceless in your own fight. We’ve been inundated with countless images and updates sharing Black pain and trauma in the midst of a global pandemic but have had to take extra steps to ensure Black women are included in the rallying cry, which sends a devastating message of its own.
I’ve personally struggled with these messages in my own work as a therapist, leaning into my clients’ pain and vicarious trauma while attempting to hold my own. And this dance is not easy to do.
“I was in grief for days,” Dr. Della V. Mosley, counseling psychologist and scholar-activist, said in response to the news of Taylor’s death. “I struggled to do work.” Dr. Mosley, who specializes in healing racial trauma, has also found herself harboring the weight of grief in unsuspecting ways.
As she gears up to host Academics for Black Lives and urges her students and clients to engage in self-care, Dr. Mosley admits that she, too, has struggled with gut-wrenching narratives in recent days.
“It reminds me that there are very few safe spaces for Black women, even our homes,” Dr. Candice Nicole Hargons, psychologist, professor, and founding director of the Center for Healing Racial Trauma, said in response to the recent police killings of Black women. “That is heartbreaking. This is a hard time to be well.”
How could we be well when we’re bombarded with layers of racism, being harmed both publicly on screens and privately in our own bodies?
As psychiatric nurse practitioner and social and health psychologist Dr. Cheryl Woods Giscombé noted, Black women are, and always have been, facing the silent killer of race-based traumatic stress. It’s yet another harm we are uniquely at-risk of experiencing due to misogynoir, and especially now as we’re confronted with notions of Black female pain on a nearly daily basis.
“We’re walking around often carrying the weight of the world,” Dr. Giscombé said. “Black women have been lauded as the backbone of the community... their persona is that of the caregiver.” This comes at a cost.
Some of her research focuses on the nature of network stress, which involves taking on the stress of others in addition to our own. Network stress is linked to what Dr. Giscombé coined as the Superwoman Schema (SWS), a framework for how Black women show up in the world, with everyone else’s needs at the forefront.
“Racism is a critical public health issue,” Dr. Giscombé said. She urges Black women to be watchful of their stress levels, especially now when stress may go unchecked until it manifests as illness.
Some of her research focused on Black women’s health has linked chronic stress to myriad mental and physical conditions like anxiety, depression, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and more. Much like researcher Arline Geronimus’ metaphor of weathering, the many stressors Black women endure can erode our wellness and wreak havoc on our health.
In a powerful article for Elle, Melissa Harris-Perry wrote about the many stresses that activist Erica Garner bore before her death in December 2017, aged 27.
With chronic stress found to be a primary culprit in the health disparities among Black women, it’s even more pressing to create measures that protect Black women mentally as well as physically. This includes showing up in all the spaces where we’ve been let down.
At the forefront of activism, the silence for Black women has, at times, been loud. Arisha Hatch, Color of Change’s vice president and chief of campaigns, acknowledges this in relation to the fight for racial justice for Breonna Taylor. “It sometimes feels like when Black women are victims, we don’t get the same amount of attention,” Hatch said. “It can signal a hierarchy in terms of who matters.”
Hatch has noticed in her eight years in her role at Color of Change what she deems as an “unpredictable” trend in the headlines that often render invisible countless non-male members of the “Black family,” including Black trans women.
Hatch said that though video footage, national media attention, and the specific legal personnel of each case’s jurisdiction often play a role in the advancement of cases, she feels the weight of asymmetrical coverage of police brutality against Black women.
“There’s not a weightier symbol of the struggle that we face for relevance than the fact our names get erased even in marches that were sparked by our deaths,” Dr. Crenshaw said.
She’s tracked a shivering pattern among Black women who have become overshadowed by Black cisgender male victims of police brutality. In 2015, Phoenix resident Michelle Cusseaux, a Black woman, was killed at least 14 days after Ferguson’s Michael Brown, but “barely made headlines,” Crenshaw said.
Also in 2015, Tanisha Anderson was killed at least 10 days before 12-year-old Tamir Rice by the same police department, but his story “immediately eclipsed hers in the public consciousness,” Michelle Dean wrote for the Guardian.
Contrary to what some argue about the value of video evidence being a key to national attention, Natasha McKenna’s 2015 death, in police custody, was captured in a graphic video, but still did not garner the media attention of other cases involving Black men.
Still, Hatch and the other women I interviewed reflected on the glimmer of hope: the evident push to do more. With national celebrations of what would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday and Color of Change’s own dedicated campaigns to call for her justice, they feel more optimistic that the nuanced conversation around gender in the fight for justice is gaining traction.
Many believe the call for Black women’s centering in the narrative in this journey must go beyond the commonly advocated for, yet necessary, changes like policy adaptations and officer arrests. It must include intentional self-healing of not only Black women, but also the perpetrators who have inflicted harm.
“It can’t just be a frame or a march or a call,” Dr. Crenshaw said, referencing the need to make concerted efforts to create space for the stories of Black female victims of anti-Black racism. “It can no longer just be a rhetorical statement. It has to be a material one and a spiritual one.”
The preservation of well Black women, and consequently, the movement for Black lives, is going to largely depend on the presence of safe spaces for Black women to heal and be heard.
Dr. Mosley is personally committed to creating this space for herself and others. “If you can’t take that pause for you, then you should take it for me,” Dr. Mosley said. “I need you here with me in this fight.”
How, then, do we proceed? In the absence of coping mechanisms traditionally available to us because of COVID-19, Black women are having to become more creative about how they prioritize self-care.
The works of Dr. Hargons, including her Black Lives Matter meditation, specifically centers the harms that racism cultivates in the Black body and promotes loving-kindness.
Dr. Mosley is a pioneer in the modern movement to uncover radical healing and prevention of racial trauma, and has co-developed frameworks for bringing anti-racist healing into academic and therapy spaces.
Dr. Giscombé is a guru for research on mindfulness-based methods to help heal trauma in Black women, and thinks the key to safeguarding against stress is to pause.
“Disconnecting is also a form of community activism,” Dr. Giscombé said. “Self-care is community activism.” She and the other experts say that this is the time to take what you need.
The healing modality itself—rest, therapy, gathering, meditation, faith, fitness—is less important than the fact that some form of self-care is practiced. Dr. Mosley reminds us that we must resist the “grind culture” mentality as a way to resist being complicit in our own ill-health.
It is not only OK to rest, it is necessary. In the famous words of acclaimed Black feminist author Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
As Drs. Hargons and Mosley explain, we can limit social media intake, pick up a new hobby, connect with others or simply set aside time to do nothing, but whatever we choose, we must intentionally engage with activities that send the message that we come first.
Still, self-care alone is merely half the battle. Internalized healing only goes so far if the system remains unchanged and unsafe.
“Everybody needs a safe space, and often Black women are people’s safe space,” said Dr. Giscombé. “Who’s our safe space? We need that more than ever right now.”
She believes that it is imperative to refocus accountability on perpetrators of violence, and to infuse anti-racist psychological principles into everything, from policies to people. It calls for a transformative unlearning of the things that lead us to devalue Black women, and then, calculated and consistent action to dismantle the structures that this thinking has erected.
But first, it begins with Breonna Taylor. With Oluwatoyin Salau. With Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, India Kager, Korrine Gaines, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, Sandra Bland... the list goes on.
It starts with them, it continues in the bodies of Black women who are currently enduring the roller coaster of this movement, and it’s in the hands of those who have power to center us, acknowledge us, and protect us.
In the same way that Black women are called to see self-care as collective care, others must see collective care as self-care. Until that happens, we’re only surviving. We’re not free until we’re all free, and we’re not all free until we do the complex work of intersectional activism.