Note: This op-ed centers black women from the perspective of the author. It is anecdotal and bias, but it is also true. The conversation around privilege is a tricky one. It requires patience, understanding, empathy, and a willingness to learn. But most importantly, it requires an acceptance of facts. Much like in a Lincoln-Douglas style debate or an orgy in Marc Jacobs’ apartment, if we can’t agree on the ground rules, we have no chance of a successful encounter.
So when it comes to privilege, what are the rules?
1. Your privilege is vague.
2. Your privilege can be specific.
3. Your privilege is not “your fault”.
4. You can not give your privilege away.
5. The presence of oppression is not proof of a lack of privilege.
Most people with a basic understanding of the topic can accept points one through four to be true. It's the fifth point that seems to trip up a lot of people, specifically white women and black men. They are the two middle children of a complicated relationship; they demand too much attention, suck up all the air in the room, and are more than likely going to cause mommy and daddy to get a divorce.
What makes them so special? Their dual-demographics. White women are women-- this makes them members of an oppressed gender. However, they are white, which makes them the oppressing race. Black men are men. So they are the dominant gender. But they are also black, so they are an oppressed race. Depending on who you ask, they make relatively similar reduced wages compared to white men and the world seems to allow them to drop their lesser demographic when it suits them, as long as they play along. But that's not all they have in common. The bonding factor between white women and black men is that they both stand on the shoulders of black women. They have historically and directly impaired their societal progress.
It’s simple mathematics, really. In a world where there are two races and multiple genders - each with varying degrees of access and power - the black women got the short end of the stick. White women oppress their black counterparts through exclusion. Voting rights and feminism was born out of a very specific desire and thus had a very specific effect. White women put on their white pantsuits and marched down to Hyde Park, picked up their race-specific voting rights, and then went right back in the house. Leaving black women without access or voting power for another 45 years. White women make claims of victimhood and call for equality while conveniently forgetting that even gender identity can’t be reduced to a monolithic experience. In fact, the only thing white women allowed black women to do first was work outside the home, because they wanted them to work in their homes. They exclude black women from their conversations on beauty. This is absurd, considering that hair color and skin tone change beauty options to similar degrees. Funny how we have so much time to find the perfect shade of emerald for redheaded women to splash across their eyelids, but a foundation shade darker than Kelly Rowland in the sun is too much to ask. And black men are no better.
Unlike white women, black men oppress their Nubian queens the traditional way: misogyny. The blacks man’s fight began at a time when women were less visible and the truth of the matter is, it has never evolved. Unable to see past their own plight, black men consistently overlook the struggles of their mothers, sisters, and daughters, refusing to acknowledge the sheer weight of the burden they place on black women. Black women are tasked with birthing, raising, and loving "public enemy number 1." That was their job during slavery. It was their job during Jim Crow and until modernity switches it up, it will be their job until the end of time. Many blame the 1970’s welfare man-in-the-house rule for the distance between the genders and the creation of the single black matriarch, but I’d venture to say it was a combination of access and lust.
No one is immune to the brainwashing of society. So if the world is saying that white is better, white women and black men will believe the notion just like everyone else. It’s sufficient to say that black women are less likely to believe the hype because they don’t benefit from the narrative and experience enough to be lied to. According to Pew Research, Black men are twice as likely to marry outside their race (25%) as compared to black women (12%). And while no one would disrespect a union by assuming that it is based on a shallow tit-for-tat, these facts don’t exist in a vacuum. Black women consistently receive the most negative marks on dating apps. They receive little-to-no visibility in romantic comedies, and one swipe on Black Twitter will tell you everything you need to know about how vocal black men can be about the disdain they hold for their counterparts.
The uncomfortable truth is that when forced to make life or death decisions so consistently, views can become warped. White women may tend to see the white men in their lives as a rising tide while many black men see white women as proof of their assimilation. The world has not taught any of them how to hold space for black women and many haven’t ventured to learn on their own. Black women have been cast out of conversations of progress far too often simply because it made things more complicated. The further down on the domination matrix you fall, the harder it is to bring you up. Being black or a woman is hard enough; combine the two and it’s truly a miracle they can survive the day. Add in poverty, disability, and even gender dysphoria, and it is a race to the bottom.
Nevertheless, they rise.
Black women are the most educated demographic in the country, as well as the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs. Forced to succeed on their own, their success and resilience have become both their calling card and their burden. People think black women are made of steel. That they hold a superior strength - a myth that dates back to slavery. One that isn’t true, but that is convenient. No one feels bad about making a bodybuilder carry a 10-pound bag. But contrary to popular belief, she isn’t a mule. She should not be subjected to vitriol and baggage based on your assessment of her capacity. Black women are not stronger than everyone else, they are simply out of options. They have no choice but to survive and to do it well. Yet on their path to greatness, they are at times abused. According to the CDC, black women experience the highest rate of intimate-partner related homicides out of any other demographic. Furthermore, the FBI shows that 40% of sex-trafficking victims are black and overwhelmingly female; the number is as high as 92% in places like Los Angeles County. Black Women are so disregarded at “the table” that when they don’t show up, no one even notices that they’re missing.
After hearing these devastating facts and my incredibly biased opinion, some might ask “what can we do?” Rather than lie to you, I’d like to offer a few suggestions. Perhaps the narrative around fashion and beauty should have to pass some sort of racial “Bechdel” test. For instance, if a magazine editor with blonde hair is writing a beauty article with 10 points, she has to be able to replace herself with a redhead and dark-skinned black woman and get the same or equally as beautiful of a result, or the piece can’t be deemed as universal and is sent to the niche section with the sex toys. Or perhaps we require black men to live in a Big-Brother-style alternate reality where they are forced to receive and maneuver the oppression that they have personally and directly inflicted on the black women in their lives but from a white man.
If those ideas feel too big, I’m willing to go smaller. Perhaps we give black women the space to be vulnerable. Rather than demanding that they be every woman, we offer them the space to be any woman. We could also consider listening to them more (I hear that helps). Because it’s not about the depressing facts or the inconvenient coincidences -- it’s about the narrative. Interracial relationships are a beautiful thing until she hears his brother say he doesn’t like black women. Straight hair and highlights can be a bold fashion choice until she’s told that her kinky texture is unprofessional or that her lips are too big to be beautiful.
In order to make the world a better place for everyone in it, we have to be willing to have frank and uncomfortable conversations. Ones that don’t require marches or dissertations, but just a sense of right and wrong. Whatever the solution may be, one thing is abundantly clear: black men and white women owe black women a debt that they can’t repay with an HR manual or a black square on Instagram. And, we make it a hell of a lot worse by avoiding the topic all together.