Black feminism

#BlackLivesMatter and the Complexity of Blackness


This past weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to Chicago for the first time to visit my best friend. In between attending a Rihanna concert and shopping on the Magnificent Mile, she and I had conversations about social issues. One particular statement she made influenced me to write this blog because I share a similar sentiment. Specifically, she said, “The way we [society at large] construct blackness ignores the differences in experiences of race.

So what does this mean? My mind immediately turns to the current #BlackLivesMatter movement as a way of exploring this question. Many of the victories of the #BlackLivesMatter have occurred on college campuses. For instance, the activism of Jonathan Butler and fellow students at the University of Missouri preceded the resignation of the university president. As a graduate student, I too have participated in opportunities for activism including lectures and teach-ins, conducted research, and debated with fellow academics on the merits and weaknesses of the movement. A point of view that I have heard expressed within these spaces suggests that Black people can and will fall victim to any and all form of prejudice. Some research lends credence to this perspective.

For instance, Devah Pager published an audit study titled “The Mark of a Criminal Record” in the American Journal of Sociology in which she compared callback rates for Black and White men. Using a set of resumes, she varied whether or not they had a criminal record and found that 34% of employers called back the men without a criminal record while only 17% called back those with one. When she analyzed the callback rates by race, she found that Black men with a record were called back the least. Even more telling, however, was that Black men without a record were called back less than White men regardless of whether or not the White men had criminal records.

Pager chose not to include college education on these resumes and thus the caveat of this study points to my uncertainty that all Black people experience the same prejudice. I assume that as a college student, a person potentially has some type of cultural capital[1]that influences their success including the ability to influence institutions to respond to calls for reform from their student body. Now let us reflect on Walmart, for instance, which is the largest employer of African-Americans and Hispanics in the US. Do workers who advocate for higher wages in this space truly have the agency and cultural capital to contest prejudice within such an institution?* I most certainly believe that #BlackLivesMatter values all Black lives, but I wonder the limitations of a movement that on the surface appears most accessible to the most educated.

The organizers of #BlackLivesMatter began from a grassroots tradition that emphasizes community so I have no doubt that there are people doing the work to bridge these gaps. I suppose I simply want to affirm that within the Black community, the privilege does exist. I think that manifests, for instance, in how this movement has become identified with Black men as figureheads as well as Black men as the primary victims of police brutality. If we lose sight of the nuances within the Black experience, we miss the value and purpose of connected movements such as #SayHerName, which focuses on violence against Black women and girls. Furthermore, we are able to bring attention to the ways Black trans people are subject to state-sanctioned violence.

The founders of #BlackLivesMatter point to intersectionality[2] as a key element of their organizing and I would have to agree. However, as large as the movement has grown, I feel that the voices uplifted within it are those who are more easily consumed through the White gaze of mainstream media and politics. Some argue that from their position of privilege, they might give voice to the voiceless. Yet, this ignores that these people are not actually voiceless, but rather not given the opportunity to be heard. The question then becomes, how might those within the movement, particularly college-educated Black people and allies, leverage their social and cultural capital to bring benefits to others? For example, #DismantleDukePlantation called for a wage increase for members of Duke University’s staff. I also think that addressing the digital divide should be a significant aspect of the movement, considering the significant role social media and computer-based technology have played in this movement. Programs such as Black Girls Code provide a great example of ways to address barriers to access and skill development.

[1] “A term introduced by Pierre Bourdieu to refer to the symbols, ideas, tastes, and preferences that can be strategically used as resources in social action.” Excerpt from Scott, John. “A Dictionary of Sociology.” Oxford University Press, 2014–09–01. iBooks. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology.

[2] “Intersectionality theory explores how the differential situatedness of social agents influences the ways they affect and are affected by various social, economic, and political projects. The term emerged from the field of critical legal studies, in the writings of the critical race feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1989). At nearly the same time, the sociologist Patricia Hill *Collins was preparing her landmark work, Black Feminist Thought (1990), which characterized intersections of race, class, and gender as mutually reinforcing sites of power relations.” Excerpt From: Scott, John. “A Dictionary of Sociology.” Oxford University Press, 2014–09–01. iBooks.

*I’m aware this is a generalization. I do so purely for illustrative purposes.