These spaces serve as sanctuaries. These spaces tell us that we deserve to be and shall be seen and heard.

-Jacquelyn Iyamah

by Jacquelyn Iyamah  

In October of 1997, an estimated 750,000 Black women congregated on Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia for the Million Woman March. Spearheaded by Phile Chionsesu and Asia Coney, the march provided a forum for the issues that mainstream women’s rights movements often dismiss—the issues affecting Black women. Concerns about the abuses against the Black community, violence against Black women, the AIDS epidemic, and drug addiction were among the issues raised.

Twenty years later, retired attorney Teresa Shook joined forces with fashion designer Bob Bland, to organize a Million Woman March to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration. Tensions rose as it became clear that, although this march was named after the 1997 event, not only was it being organized by predominantly white women, but it’s focus was no longer about the condition of Black women in America.

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One individual commented on Facebook:

“Someone sent me an invite to this. The Million Woman March first occurred in 1997 by
and for Black women, following the Million Man March in 1995 for Black men. I have
already expressed in the group that I take issue with white feminists taking the name of
something that Black people started to address our struggles. That’s appropriation. My
understanding is that others have voiced this concern, but it has yet to be addressed. I
will not even consider supporting this until the organizers are intersectional, original and
come up with a different name.”

As criticism for the march amplified, the initial organizers changed the name to the “Women’s March on Washington” and brought non-white activists into the fold to ensure that intersectionality would be addressed. While these actions were a step in the right direction, this debacle demonstrates that the appropriation of movements created by Black women, for Black women, persists.

Amidst the recent sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ As a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Shortly after, millions began using #MeToo. It has been incredibly moving to witness individuals across the globe gather the courage to speak about a violence society has repeatedly told them to stay silent about.

But why #MeToo?

‘Me too’ was catapulted in 2007 by activist Tarana Burke. She created the movement to give women of color, who often remain silent following sexual assault, the encouragement to speak out. Her encouragement could not be more critical. The Department of Justice estimates that for every white woman that reports her rape, at least 5 white women do not report theirs. However, for every Black woman that reports her rape, at least 15 Black women do not report theirs.

Though survivors of all races tend to remain silent following sexual assault due to fears that they will be treated as suspects, this fear is heightened for Black women due to a combination of racism and misogyny. Misogynoir teaches society that Black women are inherently hypersexual, and thus always consenting to and available for sexual contact.

This ideology is not new. In the 1800’s many rape laws did not provide protection for Black women, or any other women of color for that matter. A rapist was defined as a man who “unlawfully and carnally know [sic] any white woman against her will or consent.”

This school of thought remained during the Jim Crow era. In 1965, a white man by the name of Norman Cannon raped Rosa Lee Coates, a 15 year old Black girl. Despite substantial evidence found, the all-white jury involved in the case refused to accept that rape was applicable to Black women and girls.

Actress Lupita Nyong’o recently emerged as one of the many women alleged to have been sexually harassed by Weinstein. Although Weinstein has been accused by dozens of women, he decided only to dispute Nyong’o’s claims. As the only Black woman among his accusers, his decision to respond only to her and deny the legitimacy of only her claim is inconsistent.

Actress Jane Fonda recently highlighted this inconsistency during a talk show. When discussing the uproar that followed the Weinstein allegations she stated, “It feels like something has shifted…It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”

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Black women are too often shoved away into the crevices, out of sight. In these spaces, we become hidden figures, neither seen, nor heard. This is why it is so important to honor spaces created by Black women, for Black women.

These spaces serve as sanctuaries. These spaces tell us that we deserve to be and shall be seen and heard. As we continue to fight for women’s rights, we must also fight to make sure that movements created by and for Black women are not appropriated by white feminists—a labor made necessary by misogynoir—because these movements were created to highlight the experiences of those that are too often left in the dark.

Jacquelyn Iyamah is a UC Berkeley alumni with a deep background in race, class and gender issues. As an activist and content creator, she founded the Anti Misogynoir Project, a media platform that combats misogynoir and amplifies the voices of Black women. Follow her work on Instagram: @antimisogynoir  or Twitter: @antimisogynoir