The Safety of Black Women

Diverse Women Illustration by Mikenzi Jones

There’s a quote that continuously runs through my mind since the death of Breonna Taylor. The quote is from Malcolm X:

“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

It has been one year since Breonna’s death. One year since we collectively yelled through social media #ArrestTheCopsWhoKilledBreonnaTaylor. One year without justice. One year later without her soul resting in peace, joining the list of countless other Black women in which we say, “say her name”.

Some will look at the quote as an ‘Americanised’ statement — surely Black women in the UK don’t feel that sense of burden, hurt and emotional vulnerability in their lives, right? — as said by ignorant naysayers, pleading like Sharon Osbourne to educate her. Well, considering how much this world has been built off the back of Black women, suffered in silence through the repetition of rape, trauma, exploitation, and had generations ripped apart from them from slavery, when they were denied entry to the Suffragette movement because our presence would “complicate the issue”, the countless micro and macro-aggressions faced in workplace cultures, to even as something as recent as a petulant and pretentious prick who denounces on national TV — on International Women’s Day no less — that the mental health trauma and racism of Meghan Markle suffered at the hands of the Royal Family is something “he doesn’t believe a word she says” — all points to the constant and daily assault faced by Black women. Malcolm had the gift of foresight, and no matter the geography, the statement still rings painfully true in 2021.

As a writer, I’m part of an exclusive club where we are natural observers of the world; we see and hear everything. Sometimes we absorb far too much of the world than our minds can process. Sometimes it’s not pretty; you can feel worthless, go through bouts of imposter syndrome or overwork yourself into a complete state of burnout. One minute, you can be buzzing — words flowing and floating through you like a butterfly, stinging like a bee with every key typed word into existence. Other days, you’re in another world — a world of pure procrastination. And just like the creators of #MeToo (Tarana Burke) and #OscarsSoWhite (April Reign) — out of pain, there can be a purpose, raising awareness to something that has been long tolerated as normal. Sometimes — as we’ve seen recently in something as topical as Marvel’s WandaVision, the only way out is through.

I’m sure many will echo this, regardless of race. But:

  • If you ever had to walk in the middle of the road so you can check your surroundings at night.
  • Cross the road or pretend to answer your phone if you feel like you’re being followed.
  • Get nervous if someone is walking too close behind you.
  • Get your keys out ready and early so you get into your flat quickly.
  • Was ever given a leaflet on your first day of University where you can buy rape whistles and panic alarms for you to carry amongst your belongings.
  • Been harassed by unwanted attention.
  • Cat-called or woof-whistled at.
  • Check in on your besties to see if they got home safely with a text or a phone call.
  • Or phone your mother, father, brother, sister with your precise location and a rough estimate of how long will it take before you get home.

Then congratulations, you’re a woman! These circumstances have become a force of habit and so routinely normalised and accepted yet we still endure and tolerate the same rhetoric that has excused the opposite sex for generations for their behaviour as “Boys will be boys”, “Not all men” or the latest classic “But I have a daughter” (and don’t get me started on that BS). Getting home safe at night might as well be a game at this point.

On Monday 15th March 2021, I was reminded of that vulnerability. Trust me, as a Black woman, none of this is new. My experiences are far and wide. The experiences of my friends are far and wide. But when the toxic mixture of race comes into the play, that vulnerability is heightened to exponential levels.

Travelling home from work, I decided to go to my Tesco Local in my area to pick up some grocery items. I got off the bus that evening, took advantage of the traffic which brought cars to a standstill and crossed the road to reach my destination. But before I could make it into the building, a white guy in his car, sitting in the passenger side called out to me from his rolled down window. I took out my earphones. He laughed while saying:

“My friend and I were just joking that you looked like a baboon!”

A Black woman can’t even walk down the street, minding her business without being called a demeaning racial slur. I gave the appropriate response — a “fuck off”, a middle finger, carried on with my life and walked into the store.

But I won’t lie; it’s not my first rodeo with racism. I’ve experienced it and been in spaces where I’ve been made to feel like “the other”. I’ve also been a witness to it and comforted friends on many occasions who have been victims themselves. I’ve wrote about this at the time when I compared my experiences with Jordan Peele’s Get Out in light of George Floyd’s death. But every now and again, you can still find yourself in a state of shock for its quickness, especially when this verbal assault came out of nowhere and was completely unprovoked.

There’s always that ‘what if’ scenario that plays in the mind. I should have recorded it or at least taken a picture of their licence plate — make them “internet famous”. I should have told the security guard at the Tesco Local of what just happened to me. I should have gone and confronted the racist pieces of shit because trust me, if they felt that embolden to say that to a Black woman from out of a car window, I dare them to say that to a Black man. The reaction will be completely different. Heck, if I had gone home as originally planned, I would have been spared the agony. But no matter how many times I reconcile with the incident, it’s still the same situation — a Black woman, on her own, against 3 (possibly 4) men in a black car with blacked out windows. The odds were never in my favour, and the safety for my own wellbeing took paramount. And luckily, those men, who may not even be local to the area, were long gone after I exited the store.

Bearing in mind this is the victim contemplating this, and not the oppressor. The same person/group probably drove home that night, watched TV, smoked a couple of cigarettes, drank some beers and went to sleep knowing their privilege allowed them to have a “fun” day out. Me, on the other hand, I was left with the emotional aftermath, a hotbed mixture of tears, anger and rage that at various points of that same evening dared to cripple me. And to compare me to a member of the ape family, knowing the historical, colonial, derogatory and dehumanising connotations that are attached to it, is nothing but racist. And when broken down further, applying gender to the mix, that anti-Blackness and misogynoir was loud and clear.

I’m very mindful because I don’t want to conflate the issue with the classic default syndrome of ‘whataboutism’, that false equivalency that conveniently jumps on the same bandwagon and hijacks the narrative for their own means. Let’s take race out of the equation, and pretend every little girl and woman is on the same equal footing. The recent death of Sarah Everard put women’s safety into perspective — PERIOD. What happened to Sarah could have happened to any one of us — PERIOD. My heart and my prayers go out to her family and her friends during this difficult time — PERIOD. But like a great eye-opener, COVID has exposed how utterly rigged and broken this system is.

How many women were trapped at home with their abusers? How many times were those calls made by concerned charities to the Government that the ‘Stay at Home’ advice was essentially a death knell for those who needed to escape the torment of their entrapped lives? How many rape convictions has there been in this country? How does a peaceful remembrance turn into some shit from The Handmaid’s Tale? Truth be told, this country (and countless others like it) has been sick long before COVID struck our borders, and it has repeatedly failed to protect women at their most vulnerable. Margaret Atwood said it best: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

The experiences of Black women and their calls for their safe wellbeing are repeatedly silenced, ignored, devalued or dismissed in the same way Meghan Markle was recognisably, viciously targeted and attacked before and after the Oprah interview. How many Black women and girls have faced assault in any fashion, but do not get the mainstream attention and network coverage that calls into question accountability and justice? People made fun of Megan Thee Stallion when she was shot in the foot by Tory Lanez. The death of Belly Mujinga, a frontline worker during the COVID outbreak, to this day remains unsolved. Diane Abbott may have her detractors, but the seething abuse and threats of violence she receives on daily basis on social media is sickening and worrying. The death of Blessing Olusegun seemingly became public knowledge only after Sarah’s disappearance and subsequent murder — Blessing died last year September. The Wembley Park sisters — Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry — their murders were overshadowed by the police officers who decided to take selfies of their bodies. They are not the first, and sadly, won’t be the last when the issue is systemic. There is a societal value placed upon Black women in how they are treated, and the national consensus says, “we don’t care”. And considering how my incident happened only just days after Sarah’s remains were discovered, days after she was abducted and murdered on her way home, the disgusting and vindictive gall of these men to randomly pick on a Black woman, not only shows how pathetic and cowardly they are, but indicative of the culture that continues to reinforce it. And throughout all this, Black women are left to fend for themselves in world that would rather have us seen, but not heard.

And I know the comments are not a reflection on me, words designed to demean my skin colour, my culture and most importantly, my appearance. But the uneducated ignorance and intended provocation were evident on those realities faced.

Women of colour have never felt safe, and this is before Brexit and Trumpism reared its ugly head in the past few years and embolden the few. But people would be kidding themselves if they didn’t think those ugly manifestations didn’t have an impact. There’s no question that Black people have always had to work miracles and jump through various hoops to get where we need to be. That force is resilient, relentless and never-ending. But society has traded the shackles and chains for online and on-the-street verbal hatred, and no amount of wealth, power or personal accolade will protect you from this. Every abuse might as well be an invisible whipping — the pain will eventually subside, but each lashing will be an emotional scar left etched on the body.

So much has happened in the past few weeks. These events (including my own) ironically fell in-between national days of recognition for International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day. It has been draining and mentally exhausting when the disparity and heartbreak is a gulf in the extremes. The conversations happening right now with regards to Sarah’s murder, are the same conversations Black women have been having for generations, which includes the senselessness of police brutality when safety is not even guaranteed by those enlisted to protect us. We’ve passed down this knowledge from child to child on how to stay safe in this brutalised world that has transformed itself into a jingoistic, white nationalism, clickbait, reverse victimhood cry-babies who want to rage an endless culture war as an attack on their ‘freedom of speech’. Well, freedom of speech does not mean a freedom from consequences.

There’s a part of me, hoping this time around, the dialogue now includes women of colour in the mix. Progress and systematic dismantling of these structures can’t be achieved if those voices are absent and not included. The sad reality is that it has taken the tragic death of Sarah Everard (who simply wanted to go home) for it to be amplified into the national conversation and validate those experiences — and we should all be angry about that.

If the United States faced a reckoning last year with the death of Breonna Taylor, then the UK, which has always lived within its own delusional cloud of immunity, had a taste of their own medicine with Meghan’s interview and the events that took place last Saturday.

If life played out like a lottery, then unfortunately I drew the unlucky numbers for the prize draw for the emotional, racial abuse. But if it didn’t happen to me, it would have happened to another Black woman on the street, walking by innocently on a Monday evening from work, trying to survive in this COVID playground. There will be a period of healing (as always), and by writing this down, it’s my way of reclaiming the power and dignity for the briefest of moments, was robbed from me.

The downfall of my abusers is that they picked on the wrong woman for a fight — and that woman can write.

When John Boyega said last year, we must protect Black women, you best believe it, because we need it now more than ever. The question is, are we prepared as a nation — for once — to sit down, listen and believe them?

Film Critic | Writer | Nerd

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