Activism, in its essence, means standing up for what you truly believe in regardless of whether or not it suits you and your interests. Although I am a proud Woman of Color, I am not a Black wonan, and when I attended the Black Girls Matter open discussion panel at the California African American Museum, I was showing up as an ally ready to listen to the grievances of the African American community. I am no stranger to the fact that the forces of oppression working against this community are structurally ingrained and not easily dismantled, and I knew long before I tapped the “I am attending” button on Facebook that this meant I was going to listen and not talk. I needed to understand and ask questions, not to assert my own knowledge of the subject.
The origins of the Black Girls Matter panel could be traced all the way back to March 16, 1991. In the height of the racial tension surrounding the brutal and very public act of police brutality perpetrated by the LAPD against Rodney King, another racially-motivated crime went relatively unnoticed: a 15-year-old teenager was shot and killed in South Central by a convenience store worker who claimed that the youth was stealing from the shop. The story is eerily similar to that of Mike Brown, another Black teenager murdered on the false assumption of theft--but the incident I am referring to occurred 23 years BEFORE the national outcry over Mike Brown’s murder and the socio-political activism it spawned. This 15-year-old Black teen was Latasha Harlins, a high school student and aspiring attorney. Her killer, a 51-year-old Korean woman, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but served no prison time for the killing. Instead, the only punishment for this racially-charged crime amounted to a $500 fine, 400 hours of community service and a mere five years’ probation--a clear miscarriage of justice, not only for the slain teenager and her family but also for the Black community.
At the Black Girls Matter panel--some 26 years after Latasha Harlins’ death--Latasha’s aunt Denise Harlins was the first to have the floor. “The first thing they labeled was that she was in there stealing. We know Latasha wouldn’t do that,” said Harlins, who went on to describe her slain niece as a driven, loving and vivacious young girl before reminding the audience that “she died [holding] $2 in her hand.” Harlins presented an emotionally-charged question to the attentive audience: “How can a woman take a gun and shoot another woman’s child?!”
After Latasha’s death, the Harlins family was left with more questions than answers. In the absence of other racially-motivated crimes in the public consciousness at that time, Latasha’s story went seemingly unnoticed--and without the online resources available today through social media and the internet, it was difficult to know where to turn. How do you garner support from a fractured community? Who do you need to know in order to get people to pay attention to your injustice? At the sentencing hearing, Harlins reported that the judge commiserated with the killer, saying the action was wrong and yet (somehow) understandable. As far as Harlins could tell, this statement was the judge’s way of saying, “You shouldn’t have done it, but if if it had been me in the store with the gun, I would’ve shot that little girl too.”
According to Shamell Bell, a UCLA doctoral candidate and original member of the Black Lives Matter movement, many people are socially conditioned to associate Black skin with criminality and to make inappropriate assumptions based on that prejudice. In many regards, Black people have been viewed as sub-human for so long that, even if the brazenly racist vernacular has left out vocabulary, the sentiment remains both consciously and subconsciously. “Blackness is not seen as something to be protected. It is seen as a threat,” Bell said at the Black Girls Matter panel. What’s more, “Blackness has been constructed as brute, animalistic,” explained UCLA professor and Black Lives Matter founding member Funmilola Fagbamila at the same event. The socially contrived image of femininity is one of white femininity, and Black women in pursuit of that femininity are blocked by considerable racist and sexist obstacles outside of their control. Since Black women can reproduce, they are seen as producers -- but they are not ascribed the same societal importance as white women. As Fagbamila put it, Black women and their experiences are too often disregarded, silenced and largely ignored because Black women are seen as disposable.
According to Tia Oso, an activist and national organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the social expectations of Black women typically render their emotional, physical and emotional labor less valuable than that of white women. This, she explains, is a product of slavery, whereby labor without reward was expected of Black women and men, and to this day Black women are valued only by what they can produce for the benefit of others. It is no secret that Black women earn less, work less appealing jobs, and are still expected to head single-family households, all the while enduring society’s condemnation of their femininity. Why, then, is it also a Black woman’s job to expose the discrimination she faces and oppose it while standing alone?
The recent media attention dedicated to the racially-motivated murders of Black men might suggest that we as a society have begun the process of learning how to talk about the intersection of race and violence. But events and programs like the Black Girls Matter panel aim to call attention to the fact that Black girls are erased from the discussion board as a result of the intersecting oppressive forces of sexism and racism. We need to talk about black girls and women with the same ferocity and regularity that we talk about Trayvon Martin, the Black teen gunned down by a civilian who deemed him suspect based solely on the color of his skin. These cases we hear about--Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Keith Lamont Scott--gain massive coverage and merit national outcry. Where, then, is the objection to the killing of LaVena Johnson, a 19-year-old soldier whose death was ruled a suicide despite evidence of rape, genital mutilation, and a brutal beating? She dedicated her life to serving her country, and her country ultimately betrayed her. Where is her trending hashtag?
There are currently well over 64,000 black women and girls missing in the United States. As the numbers rise, law enforcement agencies justify their inaction by denying the actual magnitude of the problem, and they remain under relatively low social pressure to amend or at the very least approach the situation. According to Fagbamila, Back women are the fastest growing demographic within the incarcerated population--and the school-to-prison pipeline is largely to blame. With Black girls being routinely accused of having a “bad attitude” or being categorized as “insubordinate”, they carry a suspension rate of six times that of their white classmates.Labeling a child as inherently deviant at a young age only perpetuates the stereotype, and these young girls internalize the criticism against them, which lowers their personal perception of themselves and their importance. It’s a vicious cycle: Black girls are openly disrespected, but when they defend themselves, they’re labeled as aggressive, disobedient, and ultimately criminal.
Ultimately, the problem lies in people’s inability or unwillingness to recognize how different forms of discrimination intersect. This intersection of oppressions renders Black women as one of the most underappreciated and marginalized demographics. Both sexism and racism prevented Latasha Harlins’ story from being told and subsequently allowed her killer to walk free without adequate punishment for the crime of murdering a child.
An ideological shift is necessary in order to protect black girls from falling victim and being forgotten. When we discuss crimes against Black girls like Latasha, we must fully encompass all aspects of the problem. When the racial-justice conversation only involves a subsection of the marginalized population (i.e. Black men), it is easy to write off the statistical overrepresentation in crime data as a behavior problem rather than a product of systemic disadvantage. Young people of all races and backgrounds should begin to have an honest conversation about why and how we are losing so many Black women to unspeakably violent crimes. It’s too late for Latasha, but it is not too late for so many others like her.
We owe it to each other and to the human race as one to defend people who are vulnerable, seek accountability for the perpetrators of violence, and eradicate the hateful mindset that has landed us in this state of emergency. Given the rise in political fluency among young people, this is absolutely achievable. It just starts with a conversation and a willingness to listen. But the movement is bigger than that--especially for allies, because our involvement in these efforts is crucial. Many people, liberals and conservatives alike, tend to ignore problems that aren’t expressly affecting them and their lifestyle. The best way to counter this is to shift to an activist culture of proactive resistance as opposed to one of retroactive objection--after all, being upset by something that has already happened won’t save lives any more than applying pressure to a bullet wound will undo the damage.
So how can we be proactive in the struggle for racial justice? The movement toward social equality demands a willingness to speak out against problems that don’t affect us directly--which requires that we show up to events like the Black Girls Matter panel, ready to listen and learn, even when the prospect of being an outsider is intimidating. It’s important to stand up for what is right--regardless of whether doing so would contradict the law, popular opinion, or even our own interests--and in order to do that we need to know what we’re talking about and what’s at stake.
Changing the culture is going to take a lot of work, but retooling our language is a powerful--and manageable--way to start. While explicit racism has left the vernacular, people will still use damaging words like “ghetto” and “ratchet” to describe anything the speaker thinks is “bad” or unsavory. It can be uncomfortable to correct the people around us, but sometimes it’s as simple as asking, “What does that word mean to you?” Often the person you’re talking to will correct themselves or struggle uncomfortably to explain what they meant without employing blatant racism. Remember: bigotry will expose itself, but you can help facilitate the process. Changing the narrative is possible if we commit to standing against the things within our society that we have deemed unacceptable.