Her name was Shaka and we were in the fifth grade when I decided to kick her square in the stomach. Even though I had a huge crush on her, Shaka’s pain did not matter to me. It didn’t matter to our laughing peers either. Shaka’s pain was irrelevant as I asserted my prepubescent norms of courting. Television shows like The Wonder Years and The Cosby Show jokingly conveyed to me that it was normal for boys to hit and degrade girls to get their attention.
This act was understood as nothing more than cute, childish flirting. Boys like me were excused because of our warped and accepted customs of violence—and we still are. In fact, that most western cultures accept boys hitting, degrading, or vocally shaming girls at a young age is just “boys being boys.” This is what patriarchy looks like in its most formative years of human development.
Patriarchy surrounds and consumes us. In communities across the nation where black men are viewed as violent and criminal, women are believed to be less impacted by mass criminalization because handcuffs are not placed on them as much, or because they are not slashed by broken window policies as much. But less than does not tell the entire story. Less than obscures the particular ways in which black women experience criminalization through policies such as stop and frisk.
As much acknowledges that something is happening to whom or whatever is in comparison. Black women were not lynched as much as black men. But they were lynched. Black girls are not suspended or expelled from school as much as black men. But they are expelled and suspended. Black girls and women are not murdered in incidents of community gun violence as much as black boys and men. But they are still gunned down.
Why do anti-gun violence activists refuse to say her name?
Black girls and women are not killed by police as much as black boys and men. But, yes, agents of the state kill them. No, black transgender women are not killed as much as black and brown men. But they are murdered.
Why do most anti-police brutality advocates refuse to say her name?
If we are to remain in the realm of comparative suffering, then we must offer that black women are sexually assaulted more than men. Black women are victims of domestic abuse more than men. Consider how accepting we are of using the term “wife beater” to describe a type of undershirt because, according to urban folklore, in old black-and-white movies a man wore this type of undershirt as he beat his wife. In the US military, women like LaVena Johnson who enlist to fight for their country are brutalized, killed, and have their stories quieted by the same military and government they fight for.
Why does the military refuse to say her name?
De-emphasizing the collective harms visited upon a group of black people, and our Latino brothers and sisters, by state agents, institutions, and government systems is antithetical to the best interests of our communities. It reflects a narrow comprehension of racial justice. If more of us saw these issues in gender-inclusive terms, however, it would require us to unlearn everything that makes us secure and safe—religion, century-old traditions, the comfort of capitalism. It would compel us to let go of the belief that places men at the head of the table by default.
This unlearning would destroy our comfort zones; it would shatter our paternalistic misunderstandings that tell women they are here to wholly support men in every endeavor of life, even when these men are not deserving or capable of that responsibility.
The new learning would shift how we mentor young people and how mentoring programs are funded (see: My Brother’s Keeper). Mentoring programs focused on boys would be complemented by programs that target the concerns of women and girls; and not exclusively in the context of intimate relationships, such as a mother or girlfriend. This new learning would enlist women to lead alongside men who facilitate the mentoring process.
The new learning would require those of us who work diligently and passionately against intra-community gun violence to shift our understanding of who is affected by it.
The new learning would require those of us who organize against state violence like police brutality, mass incarceration, mass deportation, and mass suspensions in poor-to-middle class black and brown communities to indict a system that damages all of us and not just some of us. We would have to seek out black and brown women, lesbian, cis, or transgender persons for our panel discussions, community roundtables, Sunday prayers at church, and policy meetings.
This new learning would require us to understand that saying Michael Brown’s name and omitting Rekia Boyd’s is perpetuating a system of white racial superiority that boasts an insidiously shrewd legacy of brutalizing and dehumanizing black and brown people of all gender identities. Complicity in our own oppression is insanity, and this insanity is killing us all. Literally.
If we acknowledge the suffering and oppression of black and brown men, then we are required to acknowledge the suffering and oppression of black and brown women. In fact, there should be a conscientious conscious effort for black and brown men to extoll their role in devaluing and erasing their female and transgender equals.
In New York City, this past Wednesday, hundreds gathered in Union Square for a vigil sponsored by the African American Policy Forum. The vigil was called #SayHerName. We gathered to hear and say the name of the black women and girls who have been lost to state violence. I stood next to Martinez Sutton, the brother of Rekia Boyd, as he relived the pain of living without his little sister. Piper Anderson, the host of the event led chants of “Say Her Name.” We followed in unison. We were not the same size crowd as we were when we marched for Tryavon, Mike, and Freddie. It felt as if the lives of these women did not matter as much. Our conditioning, this patriarchal bullshit, tells us not to acknowledge these women; most of us we are hardwired not to say her name.
Laughing at boyish violence toward girls nurtures a lie: It says this girl, and her pain, are invisible. Lifting only the stories of black men who are brutalized by each other and the state equally makes the pain of black girls and women invisible, just like what I did to Shaka.
Once a person becomes invisible they no longer matter…
…like Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Natasha McKenna, Kyam Livingston, Tarika Wilson, Sheneque Proctor, Kimberlee Raandle-King, Alexia Christian, Tyisha Miller, Shereese Francis, Kayla Moore, Pearlie Golden, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Alberta Spruill, Frankie Perkins, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Shelly Frey, Eleanor Bumpurs, Latanya Haggerty, Kendra James, Shamel Edwards, Shantel Davis, Miriam Casey, Gabriella Nevarez, Mya Hall, Marissa Alexander, LaVena Johnson...
New learning would require us to #SayHerName.
Marlon Peterson is a national social and criminal justice advocate, writer, organizational trainer, community organizer, and educator who spent 10 years in New York State prisons. He’s on Twitter at @marlon_79.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]