The criminalization of Black women

TW: racism, racist criminalization, sexual violence, sexism, sexist invalidity

You might remember my previous annoyance over something Melissa Harris-Perry said, which while rooted in a lot of complex and revealing problems (namely an inability to properly contextualize assimilationist strategies among queer people) fundamentally boiled down to it feeling like a superficial way of looking at an issue that (despite her conflation of her interracial parents of yesteryear with queer parents of today) hasn’t personally affected her. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, one of her statements seemed much more baffling to me, in that it was specifically rooted in her and her family’s experiences: “I will never forget the relief I felt – I’m a sexual assault survivor, and yet, the relief I felt at my twenty-week ultrasound when they told me it was a girl. And last night, I thought, I live in a country that makes me wish my sons away, wish that they don’t exist, because it’s not safe.”

There is something important there in what she’s said – Black men are prioritized as targets of policing violence as arguably the cornerstone of racist criminalization. Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, Jordan Davis, and countless more Black men and Black male teens are dead because of those ideas about race and violence. But is it really the best approach to understand racist criminalization in isolation from other, complicated social factors?

From Cece McDonald to Marissa Alexander, there’s clear indications to how self defense by Black women is criminalized as disproportionate, unnecessary, and ill-advised – in short, unjustified, in a way that White women thankfully don’t necessarily have to consider. This seems particularly salient as action has finally been taken (somewhat) in response to the assault of two Black Texan women by police officers, who claimed they were searching for marijuana hidden in their vaginas.


(A promotional poster going around tumblr about their on-going case against the local police, from here.)

There’s a conversation to be had there about how femininity both rendered them acceptable targets for a uniquely intimate type of violation as well as trivial enough that the concern was merely possession and not a violent one. It may be worth asking if their gender made the officers less likely to kill them because they weren’t concerned about repercussions from attacking them. It seems that the sexism and racism clearly involved in the situation intermingled to their detriment in a way that can’t be either of those abusive power structures.

It seems that the Blackness of Harris-Perry’s daughter can be used to justify violence as easily against her as against her hypothetical brother. It’s just that their respective genders would shape the resulting violence. And rethinking my previous critique of Harris-Perry’s unintentional heteronormativity, what could be more cisnormative than the assumption that the declaration of a fetus’ gender will match that person’s gender (both as they feel it and as others interpret them) years later, when they find themselves being criminalized for their Blackness?

Discussing the unique way that racism harms and even kills Black men shouldn’t come at the cost of dismissing how that same phenomenon is expressed differently against Black women, and genderqueer Black people of all genders.

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