We Need Real Talk About Black Girls and Women

By Carla Murphy Mar 30, 2015

All this week, experts are gathering at 3p.m. EST to talk about challenges black women and girls face as single mothers, low-wage workers, professionals and students–and you’re invited to participate. #HerDreamDeferred is the latest offering from renowned "intersectionality" theorist and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is using her perch at the African American Policy Forum to elevate long-ignored issues of concern to black women and girls. "We want to make sure they’re front and center," says Crenshaw, who launched the week-long discussion series as part of the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent. Colorlines caught up with Crenshaw, who lays out exactly why the public conversation about black women and girls matters–and is overdue. (Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

#HerDreamDeferred strikes me as a chance to have a very public discussion about issues like black women’s median wealth or the impact of state violence on girls. Thing is, I’d assumed–wrongly, I think–that we were already talking quite publicly about these things. Do you get that a lot?

All the time. Throughout our history but especially over the last 20 years, we’ve grown accustomed to thinking and talking about the interests of the black community…almost exclusively in terms of the challenges faced by our brothers, our fathers and our sons. We have conversations about African-American men and boys without anyone ever [saying], "OK, I understand this is important, now tell us about the women and girls." 

I think there’s an assumption that the conversation about black women and girls is happening next week, next month, next year. It turns out, that next time just never happens. We get into the habit of deferring conversation about women and girls into perpetuity.

Holding back these public conversations, perhaps, is what you’ve described as an "information desert" when it comes to black women and girls. What do you mean?

Just emptiness. Monotonous emptiness for as far as the eye can see. A tree here, a cactus there, but generally speaking very little concrete information about the social and economic determinants of life for black women and, girls, in particular. The fact of the matter is that our communities are made up of the life chances of men and women. Many of the circumstances that we’ve come to accept as justifying an exclusive focus on men and boys are in fact directly related to the social-economic challenges facing their mothers–and those [in turn] are directly related to some of the challenges facing girls.

What’s an example of how women or girls are disappeared from public discussion?

The school-to-prison pipeline. Black boys go to underfunded schools that rely on punishment as a means of social control. That pushes them out of schools at very high rates, which in turn leads them disproportionately into incarceration. So how do we address that? We could simply say, "We’re gonna provide mentors for the boys." Or, we can focus on increasing the overall resourcing available for schools, which means increasing the resources for girls as well as boys. Or, we can focus on boys’ mothers whose lack of social and economic mobility is precisely what leaves so many families exposed to both police and private violence.

The overall vulnerability of the black community comes back to fully half of the population being stuck in jobs that pay virtually nothing [and] with…no help now that the social safety net has been completely shredded. Single moms are raising families with virtually no support whatsoever.

And one-on-one mentoring, for example, doesn’t get at the root causes?

Well, you’re assuming that the problem with the boys is a lack of mentors–rather than a completely defunded social structure, the presence of police, or a marketplace that discriminates against boys and men of color. Hell, one could’ve said slaves needed mentors. That wouldn’t have fundamentally altered the economic and political structure that was based on racism.

Mentoring is a deflection from what really is happening. And in some ways I’d say it’s a bribe. If we have enough money to give one boy out of 5,000 a mentor, is that supposed to satisfy all the rest? That’s inadequate and we haven’t even gotten to the 5,000 girls in the same underfunded school who aren’t getting any attention.

We shouldn’t back into this idea of racial justice by thinking that programs that go to boys will somehow solve the most critical problems and we can allow girls to receive trickle-down impact. Trickle-down racial justice doesn’t work anymore than trickle-down economics.

By focusing on girls are you asking black communities and racial justice advocates to not focus on black boys? How do you address that assumption if or when you hear it?

Clearly I’ll just go straight to the second question. [Laughs.] You know, I have to say, I had no idea, no understanding of how people can read a call against exclusion as a call for exclusion. I don’t get it. I don’t get it.

So in your work to elevate challenges faced by black women and girls you hear that assumption a lot?

Yes. The thing that’s particularly puzzling is that, when racial justice advocates and people of color demand access and inclusion…and white people say they hear that as a call for their exclusion, we roll our eyes. We think, "How is it that you’re hearing a call for democratizing our institutions as a call to…exclude?" So I know we have the capacity to hear demands that ask us to rethink exclusionary priorities. But you get this zero-sum thinking when women in our own communities say, "Hey, we’ve marched this far together, now is not the time to decide that women must fall back while the brothers march into future."

How do you explain some of the pushback you’ve seen?

I think that this zero-sum thinking has largely been promoted and produced by some of the ignorance we’re trying to address: namely the idea that, "Black women and girls are doing very well, thank you, and they don’t need any of these exceptional interventions." As long as people believe that black women and girls are doing fine–which they will as long as black women and girls are excluded from public dialogue–then the call for inclusion will be heard by some as a call to exclude or marginalize the boys. We just have to fight back and say that’s a silly argument. We’re the last people that should be endorsing a zero-sum mentality for social justice.

What’s wrong with the narrative that black women and girls are doing way better than black men and boys?

The first thing that’s wrong with it is assuming that women and men and boys and girls can be compared–and that whoever loses the comparison warrants the community’s exclusive attention. That’s never been the way that we’ve thought about racial justice! We didn’t make the argument against segregation by saying men or women were more harmed by it. We understood that it impacted us as a whole. … The very argument is troubling, as are the inferences drawn from it, like, whoever wins gets the trophy of being considered the appropriate recipient of all of our aspirations for racial justice. It’s an unfortunate argument that’s taken hold.

You’ve been a nationally prominent feminist and racial justice advocate since at least the mid-’90s. What shift have you seen, if any, in how black women or girls are talked about in the national conversation?

The biggest shift that I’ve seen–and this is controversial territory–is that there’s been a rigidifying of the two existing tropes of how to be a black woman. In the ’80s and ’90s, black women came in a few types: They were either hos, golddiggers, or some other pretty bad things, or, they were doing well, getting theirs and haven’t looked back. That dichotomous view of black girls in particular creates this narrative that either they’re bad and help won’t make a difference because it’s in their character–or, they’re doing well and don’t need anything. So black girls are either Sasha and Malia in The White House or they’re the girls arrested for beating a girl in the McDonald’s in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago. Those are more or less the two trajectories that we’ve had.

Where does that come from?

I would be speculating. But, I do get a sense that when you ask why are girls not at the center of [our community’s] concern you get one of those two answers: They’re beyond repair or they don’t need anything.

Now, much of that is consistent with how people think about in and out groups, which tells us a bit about how some of us are looking at some of our girls. People who’re viewed as outliers are seen as doing things because of who they are. It’s in their nature. Whereas, those we’re more sympathetic with, they’re seen as doing certain things because of circumstance or environment. We’re far more invested in trying to change the equation for the latter. …There’s not enough research and information about black girls and women, yes. And there’re also the images and stereotypes that we ourselves produce in our own communities and buy into.

What do you hope to accomplish this week with #HerDreamDeferred?

We hope to raise awareness about the social and economic status of black women and its relation to the well-being of the black community as a whole. And we’re starting with the assumption that there is a desire to lift up members of our community who need attention, and that the real issue is that people are just not aware of it. So this is a beginning.