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Naming Gendered and Sexual Identities within Blackness

An excerpt from As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation, AK Press, released June 5, 2018. Find out more at the AK Press website page for As Black as Resistance.

By William C. Anderson and Zoe Samudzi

Any truly liberatory politics must speak to the unique needs and vulnerability of Black women and girls, particularly Black queer and transgender women and girls. There are ongoing murders of Black trans women across the country (and trans women around the world) because women’s safety is a non-priority of the state and because patriarchal gender structures are ultimately grounded in transmisogyny. Black women are also being hunted, but this hunting season (unlike the open season on Black men) is grossly under-addressed because of the frequent de-gendering of antiracist politics, the invisibilization of Black women through diversity language like “women and people of color” that overlooks the intersections of race and gender, the erasure of Black women within “women of color,” and understandings of how state violence against Black people focuses on the humiliation and emasculation and almost sole targeting of cisgender black men. A politics of self-defense cannot ignore the intersections of white supremacist state violence and its manifestations of intra-communal violence against Black women (trans and cis), as well as multiply marginalized members of Black communities more widely.

Black feminism says that the forces of sexism and (trans)misogyny, classism, and racism are inextricably linked in a mutually constitutive web of oppressions and domination. Within this tradition, of course, is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality,” building from the intellectual legacy of Black lesbian feminists and even nineteenth-century Black feminist works such as writings by Anna Julia Cooper. Black feminism too grounds political understandings (and anticapitalist critiques) in embodied knowledge and lived experiences, and it also has the potential to present non-essentialized and non-biologized critiques of the position of Black womanhood within history, a kind of useful historical revisionism highlighting racial capitalism’s violence against Black women and Black nationalism’s frequent exclusion of them. Black feminism responds to the racist exclusion of Black women from “women’s issues”—safety, deservedness, agency and autonomy, and classed oppression. Understanding Black women’s subjugation by the state means understanding raced and gendered labor extraction, and Black feminism is a useful for understanding the functioning of capitalism and for undermining the legitimacy of this anti-Black settler state. Understanding Black women’s subjugation means understanding the ways that Black women’s labor was central to the development of the capitalist state and the American slaveocracy. Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here narrates how gendered anti-blackness formed the cornerstone of Jim Crow modernity, which then paved the way for the contemporary system of mass incarceration that we have today. Haley’s book compares the hyper-imprisonability of black women’s gender deviance and the redeemability of white femininity and shows how these constructs were made material through judicial sentencing that enforced Black women’s subjection. Black women were understood to be as strong as men and were used frequently for manual labor in the fields, whereas white women were only employed in fields as punishment for particularly bad behavior. Haley writes that in 1893, “Black men were 1.4 times more likely than white men to be arrested in Atlanta, while Black women were 6.4 times more likely than white women to be arrested.” That year, “Black male youth were three times more likely to be arrested than young white males while young Black girls were nineteen times more likely to be arrested than their white female counter parts.” The normativity and virtuosity of white women is made concrete through the deliberate singling out and punishment of Black women and girls. It is also through the tripled labor (domestic, industrial, and sexual—euphemistically called “social reproduction”—labor as Black women’s bodies become playthings for white prison guards) and the male-approximate punishment of the chain gang that Black women were further and further excluded from womanhood. White women ultimately became exempted from chain gang labor, the only demographic to be protected from carceral punishment in this way, codifying a race-gender structure revolving around the protection of white womanhood and rooted in anti-Black criminalizations. When we look at contemporary antiracist politics, Black humanity and personhood continue to be filtered and evaluated through the white liberal imagination. In Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Safety Jackie Wang asserts a frame for understanding Black personhood and victimization. A notion of innocence is a precondition for launching antiracist support campaigns, she says, and such campaigns arise only when Black people are able to pass tests of moral purity. So we can, for example, largely agree that Tamir Rice was egregiously victimized because he was a child. The outpouring of empathy was due to his youth (as was the corroboration of his claim to innocence via surveillance footage), the same as with Aiyana Stanley-Jones. But Mike Brown failed the test because he may have committed strongarm robbery (despite robbery not being a capital offense), and Darren Wilson’s testimony added to the process of what Frank B. Wilderson III refers to as “niggerization.”

Similarly, we did not see an outpouring of empathy and support for CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter after killing an attacker who violently confronted her with racist and transmisogynistic language and smashed a drink against her face, clearly a case of self-defense. She accepted a plea bargain of forty-one months in prison in June 2012 and served nineteen months in two different men’s facilities before being released in January 2014. Given the epidemic of assault and murder of Black trans women, was her defensive violence not warranted? What makes her less “innocent” than, for example, Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot after her husband attacked and threatened to kill her? There was far more outcry about the gendered implications of women invoking “Stand Your Ground” laws than about the perfectly reasonable use of violence in response to the assault of a Black trans woman, perhaps because in the case of Alexander, white liberals (particularly white feminists) were able to apply the carceral feminist logic of protecting the world from scary racialized men that sits at the root of so many implicitly racialized anti–domestic violence and intimate partner violence interventions. (It is important for us to note our steadfast support of both women, and the contrast of their cases was not intended to indicate our personal perceptions of one woman being “more innocent” or “more deserving” of support than the other, but rather the disparate nature of public solidarity given their specific contexts.)

Where so many antiracist logics—even ones emerging from radical spaces—appeal to innocence, we continue to rely on the logic of the white imagination and draw upon exceptional cases to buttress our arguments. But ultimately, in doing so, we inadvertently affirm illegitimate modes of governance and social regulation in an ultimately illegitimate state. Reliance upon empathy fails to produce politics that unequivocally affirm black humanity. In doling out our own judgments of innocence, we fail to articulate the state’s relationship to (and production of) blackness. “Innocence” defenses can only be flawed because the disciplinary systems erected around us—the ghetto, the plantation, the prison, the colony—define us solely through our criminality, deviance, and an ongoing existence as both capital and a heavily subsidized labor force for the state. The issue is not to improve our ability to convincingly argue the innocence of brutalized and slain Black individuals immortalized through hashtags. We occupy a criminal subject position that cannot be shifted by appeals to white emotion. The state does not simply produce anti-Black systems, it is anti-blackness.

Zoé Samudzi  is a writer and doctoral student in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco.

William C. Anderson is a Contributing Editor at Praxis Center and a freelance writer whose work has been published by the Guardian, MTV, Truthout, and Pitchfork, among others.

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