The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, during which thousands of African-Americans came together to address social inequalities, was a reminder of the beauty and power of a unified community. But this summer of blackness met its discontent when a horrible parody of heroine Harriet Tubman went viral and highlighted an intraracial sexism that’s gone largely unaddressed.
As the black community focused on threats to our civil and economic well-being, such as voting rights and continued high unemployment, the general objectification of black women and their issues — such as single motherhood and access to reproductive health care — were relegated to background noise behind a symphony of race issues.
What makes this most disturbing is that it is black men who are the primary purveyors of sexism against black women, while being our most visible political leaders.
Blacks men: Problems confronting sexism?
There are many reasons why black men, generally speaking, have issues with confronting sexism.
One reason is explained by this common finding of social science research: Societies tend to align in hierarchies wherein one group is privileged over another. The natural inclination is to identify more closely with the group that provides higher status.
Since men enjoy more privilege than women, and blacks less than whites, black men consider themselves men first because it affords privilege.
Just ask a black man. If he had to give up either his race or his gender, which would he choose?
The reality of male privilege
The reality of male privilege extends into the race discussion in subtle ways that can go unnoticed if we aren’t careful. It causes the challenges facing blacks to be synonymous with the challenges facing black males. This results in black women either serving as props in narratives about black men, or being left out altogether.
A quick look at the prominent issues of the day tell quite a story: “stop and frisk” policies profile our black men as criminals; high unemployment rates means black men can’t provide for their families; black men are being incarcerated at an inhumane pace; our black boys are dropping out of school more than anyone else; gun violence makes black men serial killers of other black men.
And the biggest problem facing black women? They can’t find black husbands. Even black women’s perceived issues are centered on black men. Never mind that black women earn less on average than black men, or that single black women during their prime earning years have a median net worth of five dollars.
Black women: Bearing the brunt of history
Another reason is the external perception of animalistic masculinity that is often attached to the notion of black manhood. Also, the brutal conditions of slavery and the subjugating racism that has defined much of the black experience led to outsized, distorted expressions of masculinity among some black men. Because of proximity and male privilege, black women bear the brunt of this behavior when it is exercised within our communities.
Moreover, this masculinity means being seen as weak is an untenable proposition. This is why, for example, studies show black men are less likely than all others to report bouts with depression. This also contributes to a disproportionately restrictive emotional life for many black men, which makes it more difficult to express, and even experience, sympathy.
Research indicates that this makes all men less forgiving and impairs their ability to perceive when they’re exhibiting unacceptable behavior, such as committing sexual harassment.
Opening our eyes to sexism among blacks
The external narrative that focuses on the tragedies of the black male coupled with the mechanisms black men develop to cope with racism and subjugation equate to an inherent difficulty in seeing the world through the eyes of black women. As such, it takes a genuine and concerted effort for us to recognize the ingrained sexism in our communities.
But now the conversation is underway. In response to recent trends such as the Tubman video, active black women on Twitter started a hashtag called #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen, which ignited a powerful discussion about the tensions between black men and women when it comes to understanding whose needs dominate in the struggle.
In addition, Dr. L’Heureux Lewis, assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York, has led discussions affirming the existence of black male privilege and the need for black men including himself to acknowledge it and combat it.
And this is just the beginning.
Though it took an inappropriate video to bring attention to sexism as a 21st century black issue, perhaps some good has come out of it — it has provided a moment we can use to address sexism, a moment that is sorely needed.
If we can muster the same unity that brought hundreds of thousands of people to 1963’s March on Washington, and then to celebrate it again 50 years later, we will be a much stronger people for it.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.