Self-Care or Speaking Out? A Black Feminist Dilemma

On the personal and political implications of misogynoir.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Write to End Violence Against Women Awards, Best Blog category.


The Personal

I should be writing my dissertation. I should be writing the abstract for that conference paper. I should be preparing the workshop on feminist voice I am to deliver. There are a hundred and one things I should be doing – things essential to my life that I am not doing, because I am curled under my desk having a panic attack.  The abuse I receive online has reached new heights. For the first time (and probably not the last) I feel physically unsafe because of it. Along with the persistent misogyny, the overt racism, the steady drip drip drip of “shut up nigger”, there is something new: the threat of violence.

A white man told me that he wanted to hit me with his car. He wanted to hit me with his car and reverse over my body to make sure that I was dead. The scenario was so specific, the regard for my humanity so little, that it felt more real somehow than any of the other abuse I have received. It shocked me in a way that nothing on Twitter ever had before. I could hear my bones crack. He believed I deserved to die for being Black and having an opinion different to his own, that endorsing Black Lives Matter made me a legitimate target of violence. Seconds later, another white man appeared in my mentions with a chilling casualness to say that my being ran over would be “fair enough.”

It is not ‘just the internet’. This abuse does not fade from the mind when I close my laptop, when I put down my phone. It is a part of my life. It has altered my way of being. It is, at points, debilitating. There is a clear pattern: it is when I am most vocal, most visible as a Black feminist woman, that the abuse occurs most frequently, is the most vitriolic. Not a single one of the accounts I have reported in the week (for calling me nigger, for threatening me, for telling me to go back to Africa, etc.) has been suspended. Twitter Support’s failure to penalise accounts spreading racist threats and harassment creates the impression that people are free to abuse others with impunity – and Black women are so often the targets of that abuse.

In the same week, Black Girl Nerds received vicious harassment on Twitter. Media Diversified, whose editor Samantha Asumadu is a Black woman, were subject to appalling abuse over their endorsement of Black Lives Matter UK. Like Leslie Jones before her, Normani Kordei announced that she was taking a break from Twitter due to the relentless racism directed her way. Misogynoir was everywhere I looked.

The Political

Feminista Jones authored an article explaining that “vocal black women on social media are the least protected users of these platforms”, and she is quite right. Visible Black women voicing our perspectives face a double jeopardy of racism and misogyny, neither of which Twitter makes the slightest effort to address. We are abused, often by white men, in the hope that we will stop speaking and fade into the background. This sustained misogynoir is a powerful silencing tactic designed to undermine any direct challenge to hegemonic structures of power. Any deviation from the white perspective, the male perspective, is treated like a threat and targeted accordingly.

Therefore, Black women are faced with two obvious choices. The first is to capitulate, to accept the reward of silence: to be on the receiving end of substantially less abuse, resulting in far less disruption to our emotional and mental well-being. Although this approach is of personal if not political benefit to the individual, it precludes the possibility of driving any meaningful, sustainable cultural shift. The second choice is to continue speaking out, challenging structural inequalities, and be forced to live with the indirect yet near-inevitable consequence of targeted harassment. This approach prioritises the politics of feminism, of anti-racism, but comes at great personal cost.  It is a significant dilemma, particularly in terms of Black feminist praxis.

As Audre Lorde said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Not simply surviving, but prioritising the self and placing value on the Black, the female, in a society that tells us both are contemptible, is a form of radical political action. It is an inherently bold defiance of the system of values upholding white supremacist patriarchy.  However, adhering to that principle – particularly in a digital context – is not always straightforward.

Audre Lorde was also right in saying that “your silence will not protect you.” In silence, we inevitably remain vulnerable to racism, to misogyny, and various other manifestations of structural oppression. Without directly opposing the status quo, we will continue to be marginalised in ways both pervasive and harmful. Actively challenging oppression at its very root is the only solution, the only means by which liberation will be achieved. The question remains: to what extent should personal well-being be sacrificed so that dominant structures of power can be dismantled?

To advocate an uncompromising prioritisation of the political over the personal in this context requires a degree of purism, an abnegation of the Black and female self, that contradicts the very principles of Black feminism. To focus solely on individual needs, to divorce the personal from the political in the name of comfort, is another such contradiction as it precludes the structural analysis vital to Black feminism.

How, then, to negotiate this dilemma? At the time of writing, I am preparing a workshop to help young women of colour find voice and encourage them to use it. That this workshop coincides with the most severe abuse I have ever received raises something of an ethical quandary. Finding and making use of feminist voice has severe consequences – in the form of harassment, abuse, and even threat. How to guide others on this matter when I myself have difficulty negotiating that balance between political struggle and personal well-being? It is not a question easily resolved.

Self-Care

Self-care is a surprisingly controversial subject in feminism – it is often disparaged as narcissism, an intensive focus on the individual that atomises the movement, by those feminists with the least need to practice it. Those women whose lives are cushioned by whiteness and class privilege do not always see how vital self-care is to their more marginalised sisters, how political struggle pervades almost every aspect of our lives in a way that threatens to become all consuming. There is no stepping back from the very fabric of our existence, no sphere of our lives in which the politics of liberation become any less pressing. Self-care is a survival tool.

“Do you know that the first act of self-care for us as Black people might be recognizing that we deserve to be cared for in the first place? Seen as human? Especially Black women.” – Trudy Hamilton

At times, though counter-intuitive, refusing to engage is a form of self-care. Which conversations to participate in, which subjects to discuss, are entirely at your discretion. I’m still working out where to draw that line. Abject racism and obvious derailments (e.g. on the theme of Black Lives Matter, the inevitable “don’t all lives matter?”) are both tactics employed to distract us from working towards enacting meaningful change – choosing not to engage with either can be a form of self-care although, of course, making that decision does not mitigate the damage of being exposed to graphic racism in the first place.

The intellectual and emotional labour of Black women have long been consumed without due acknowledgement or recompense. Even within institutions such as the academy, where ideas are currency, it is clear that the concept of knowledge is not neutral – that where you are positioned structurally determines the value placed on your perspective. The white, male voice is standard. The Black and the female, Other. This is true is most given contexts. Even when our ideas are not explicitly political, that a Black woman has the audacity to speak – to demand to be seen and heard, visible in the public sphere – is enough to draw abuse.

That the racism and misogyny Black women receive qualifies as abuse is forever being questioned – by Twitter Support, by the mainstream media when they put scare quotes around racism, by the hordes of white men whose greatest pleasure in life comes from playing devil’s advocate with marginalised voices. Racism is reframed as “perceived racism”, a subtle shift which serves to negate our perspective.

“…to frame lived experience as perception is not a neutral act. It is one of the most common way marginalised and/or painful experiences are invalidated or trivialised because they are inconvenient. It is a speech act. It is a silencing act. If you doubt that, simply pay attention to whose experience is usually defined as ‘perception’ and whose become naturalised, objectivised and legitimised.” – Guilaine Kinouani

When it is not your work, not your ideas that are questioned, but the legitimacy of your voice – a racialised voice, a gendered voice – then meaningful engagement is impossible. It is the basest manifestation of identity politics, seeking to invalidate the Black and female voice simply because it is Other. Audre Lorde commented on this phenomenon, the requests to “justify my existence and my work… because of my identity” that followed her throughout her career as poet and educator from the 1960s onwards. Little has changed with regard to the low value conferred upon the knowledge of Black women.

Refusing to engage with those negating your voice on the grounds of identity can be a form of self-care. It is not necessarily a solution, but in saving yourself that energy you are preserving yourself – both for radical political action, and your own life. There is an expectation plaguing Black women: that we remain strong, no matter how great the struggles we face. This fortitude emerged throughout necessity as a result of surviving systematic racism and misogyny. The Strong Black Woman trope is part of the legacy left to us by slavery and colonialism and, while the idea of a deep inner-strength can provide solace, the ways in which it manifests relating to the expectations of others ultimately proves dehumanising (Harris-Perry).

The Strong Black Woman trope plagues us. Even in messages of support and kindness, I am encouraged to be strong in the face of abuse, a word which is loaded with meaning when applied to Black women. It is complicated, this notion of resilience that is attached to us. Without addressing our capacity for vulnerability, the full humanity of Black women goes unrecognised. Therefore, acknowledging the hurt sustained through misogynoir – both to ourselves and others – is a key component of self-care. In doing so, we create a greater possibility for Black women to step back, assess the situation, and address our own needs. As Black womanhood does not typically engender protectiveness in others, I believe that we should prioritise protecting ourselves and, subsequently, each other.


Bibliography

Gradient Lair

Harris-Perry, Melissa. (2011). Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Lorde, Audre. (1982). Learning from the ’60s.

Lorde, Audre. (1988). A Burst of Light: Essays.

Race Reflections

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8 comments

  1. wombanismsite · August 11, 2016

    Fantastic piece. Human’s are obsessed by stratifying others and at the moment, we see that what is accepted as the norm is very much a white, bio-male perspective, everything else is indeed seen as the other, read secondary.
    Yet there is no good, no logical reason why this should be so, it is akin to Nazi propaganda, yet the laziness and the apathy endemic in the status quo, even in some of those who do not benefit from this white, bio-male hegemony means only those with a radical or political bent and strong sense of social conscience are galvanised into action. Sadly, those numbers are woefully few, we need to raise more consciousness yet.

    Like

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