Dead women of color: political symbols or human beings?

TW: gun violence, racism, sexism

The past week has seen pretty extensive coverage of the lives lost and the grief they left behind in Newtown, Connecticut. The attention involved in this has been, in my opinion, so focused on their daily lives, that it’s humanized the victims to a great degree, even as the tragedy they experienced has reignited discussion on numerous political issues. The nagging question I have, however, is what comparisons can be drawn between this mixed-gender group of almost exclusively White and affluent child victims and the variously aged women of color who faced attempted murders in the past couple of weeks.

In Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, a fifteen year old, was shot in the head after publicly advocating for greater access to education for women both in her home country and more broadly. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has visited her, as she is now a symbol of the struggle against sexist policies for many. In Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died unnecessarily as medical professionals refused to terminate her pregnancy until it not only put her at risk of complications but put her life in “immediate” danger. Unfortunately that wasn’t determined until their inaction had killed her. The Irish government is now considering changing the law, which would ideally not force non-Catholics like Halappanavar to live under catechism-inspired laws as well as establish a parity between Irish and EU law on the issue. In the United States, Kasandra Perkins, the girlfriend of the Detroit Lions’ linebacker, was killed shortly before the player, Jovan Belcher, took his own life. One anti-domestic violence activist actually referred to this as an “educational opportunity” where the NFL might make some sort of statement (they didn’t).


(Halappanavar’s death elicited protests, which used an unfortunately quite familiar slogan, from here.)

Last night, Rachel Maddow mentioned that one of the victims from the shooting at Sandy Hook, a White boy just short of seven years old, loved to play something she only described as “the lawnmowing game on the ipad”. It’s an inane but humanizing detail, and if you stop to consider it, the coverage of all those previously mentioned (near) deaths of women of color didn’t even pause to mention their needs, wants, interests, or desires. There’s no quotes from them directly or from their loved ones. They apparently exist as events with political importance, with little sign of the emotionally charged notion that human beings died in the process.

If these aren’t reported like the deaths of other human beings, the inevitable question might be whether those who write these articles consider the victims to have been human. Beyond that, exposed to stories like this for years on end, does much of their audience think of these women of color as living, thinking, feeling human beings? Or are they merely test subjects for policies, that will be changed when their deaths become particularly noticeable?

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2 thoughts on “Dead women of color: political symbols or human beings?

  1. […] written before about the way violent deaths are understood, namely how class, race, gender, and other social categories with serious power discrepancies are […]

  2. […] me for a while now, you probably know that I’m not above reading the riot act to Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, or the two of them simultaneously, but today’s back-to-back broadcast of Haye’s All In […]

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