#BlackLivesMatter and the Activism of Black Women

Black women have long played a role in antiracist social movements. This includes #BlackLivesMatter, which began under the leadership of three Black women – Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors.* The role of Black women in #Blacklivesmatter brings to light the ways racialized and gendered violence gets embedded into the prison industrial complex, defined as:

a symbiotic and profitable relationship between politicians, corporations, the media and state correctional institutions that generates the racialized use of incarceration as a response to social problems rooted in the globalization of capital.1

Black women get affected by police violence too and #Blacklivesmatter strives to bring this reality to light. The articles summarized below to give context to Black women and #BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter is built on Black feminism

Black feminism has long shaped the antiracist politics of Black women in America. As a movement begun by Black and queer women, the politics of Black feminism represent the most inclusive means of strategizing and grassroots organizing. Black feminism informs #BlackLivesMatter in three ways2:
1. ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ does not exclude people due to their race, sex, and/or class
2. ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ acknowledges the divergence in experiences of White women and women’s of color
3. ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ acknowledges intersectionality shapes the oppression of Black women
As historian Marcia Chatelain states:

Black Lives Matter is feminist in its interrogation of state power and its critique of structural inequality. It is also forcing a conversation about gender and racial politics that we need to have—women at the forefront of this movement are articulating that “black lives” does not only mean men’s lives or cisgender lives or respectable lives or the lives that are legitimated by state power or privilege.3

Recognizing the Black feminism integral to #Blacklivesmatter reveals what feminist scholar Treva Lindsey refers to as ‘a herstorical approach to Black violability:

A herstorical approach to Black violability does not preclude studying and acknowledging the particular historical and lived experiences of Black men and boys with anti-Black racial violence in United States. Rather it offers an expansive lens that renders visible Black women and girls and trans,genderqueer, gender nonconforming, and queer people as victims and survivors of anti-Black racial terror.4

The prison industrial complex affects Black women too

Scholar-activist Julia Sudbury examines how the globalization of mass incarceration affects Black women worldwide in her 2005 Feminist Review article “Celling Black Bodies.” Sudbury argues that globalization contributes to the rise in the incarceration of Black women in three ways:
1. Globalization reshaped national economies and social welfare programs including the rise of for-profit prisons.
2. Globalization expanded the prison industrial complex
3. Globalization expanded the war on drugs due to the transnational trade of criminalized substances
Sudbury interviewed incarcerated women of color and found that many of them had entered the drug trade due to constraints like economic need, coercion, and deception. Many of the women had complex, intimate relationships with accused criminals that ultimately resulted in their incarceration. Sudbury argues that as long as social welfare gets tied into the private sector, Black women will continue to suffer in an era that increasingly intertwines criminalization and profit.

Black women use online activism along with traditional grassroots strategies

According to a 2010 study published in Feminist Criminology, Black women make use of the Internet to engage in Black feminist activism. The use of online activism gives voice to women whose narratives routinely get minimized by larger, more powerful groups.

For instance, in the study conducted by sociologist Laura Rapp and a team of scholars, Black women used online activism to challenge how members of the NAACP responded to accusations of four teenagers raped and assaulted a Black mother and son in West Palm Beach, Florida. Calling for the NAACP to center on the Black female victim and her child, Black women wrote blogs, orchestrated email campaigns, and also made phone calls to activist organizations and mainstream media to have their perspectives shared.

These actions challenged expectations that Black women remain silent about abuse faced in their community. Furthermore, their activism revealed that Black women have added digital technology to their activism, thus elevating Black women’s views in civil rights struggles.

*These three Black women are just a handful of Black women grassroots organizers responsible for the contemporary movement against police brutality and in no way represent the entirety of the movements for Black lives.

  1. Sudbury, Julia. 2005. “Celling Black Bodies: Black Women in the Global Prison Industrial Complex.Feminist Review
  2. Bridewell, AnaLexicis T. 2016. “Black Lives Matter: Why Black Feminism?” First-Gen Voices: Creative and Critical Narratives on the First-Generation College Experience  
  3. Chatelain, Marcia, and Kaavya Asoka. 2015. “Women and Black lives Matter.” Dissent 
  4. Lindsey, Treva B. 2015. “Post-Ferguson: A “Herstorical” Approach to Black ViolabilityFeminist Studies