To be pro-Black woman is to be pro-Humanity
“When humanity becomes serious about the freedom of Black women, humanity becomes serious about the freedom of humanity.”
Virtually no part of me wants to write this blog today, but because I made this commitment to do the work, here I am. What is the work? It is educating myself on how to be an antiracist (mostly using the namesake book as a resource), reflecting on what I’ve read during my ride, and then talking about it on this blog. In short, it’s spending energy on trying to be a better human and be an antiracist accomplice*. So why would I not want to write this? I did the reading. I finished the riding (final count is 30,019 vertical feet). It’s because, I admit, I’m not sure of how to talk about something that’s going on on Science Twitter. It’s on day 3 of #wormgate. I honestly can’t believe I’m even writing about this right now. It’s absurd, but it’s also not.
As much as I wish I could give you a full picture of what happened, I can’t because that’s an impossible task for Twitter. People delete Tweets. People repost screenshots in other threads. New threads branch off of other threads. For me, a definitely not-popular person on Twitter, I don’t know how to follow it all. But here’s what I do know: (1) the editor in chief of a prestigious journal tweeted that the model organism I work with is the most useless animal in the world; (2) many people who work with this animal voiced their anger as replies to his Tweets; (3) at least one White woman drew parallels between the discrimination they were facing to that of women and people of color (e.g., “jokes…women and POC have heard that before.”); (4) many people of color were rightly concerned about how White women, in positions of power in academia, who do work on diversity and inclusion, could not realize how bad this comparison is; (5) when called out, rather stopping to listen and hear, they doubled down and fought back; (6) in some cases more worm people came to the aid of the White women. Don’t worry, there were mostly excellent clapbacks shutting down the racist idea that discrimination against a worm is anything like the discriminating against someone because of the color of their skin.
Why does any of this matter you ask? It’s an excellent question. I admittedly feel quite foolish spending so much time describing basic Twitter drama, but actually, this is a valuable “teaching moment” for antiracist work. At least, in my totally not-an-expert opinion. While I was watching this drama unfold, it was not lost on me that this discord was occurring between women. Racially divided women. How did the people defending the parallels not see that they needed to stop? I still feel overwhelmed by this question. I don’t get it. This was not the time to double down. Not just because it’s wrong, but because they were digging their own graves. The whole thing became the laughing stock of science twitter.
It couldn’t be more appropriate that today I read Chapter 14 of How to be an Antiracist. A succinct summary is in the final line, as Kendi wraps up his experiences of arriving to his PhD program,
“My journey to being an antiracist first recognized the intersectionality of my ethic racism, and then my bodily racism, and then my cultural racism, and then my color racism, and then my class racism, and when I entered graduate school, my gender racism and queer racism.”
I didn’t actually know about radical versus intersectional feminism until about 2016 when I joined a post-Trump election student-led feminist book club. Organized by the amazing LS, she aims to focus on literature by women of color. I started learning a lot. I’d been a feminist my entire life (as most would expect for a girl who didn’t know her biological father, her mom the survivor of domestic violence, and who grew up around a lot of machismo). The most formal work I’d done as a feminist was serving as the President for the SJSU section of Society of Women Engineers, but that was easy. We had 9% female enrollment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. There wasn’t a lot of nuance to our situation. We needed all the women we could get and the College was actively recruiting female applicants of all races, ethnicities, backgrounds. We made recruitment calls to every female student who was admitted, and held engineering workshops for high school girls in primarily Black and Latinx communities. At Stanford it’s different. There’s almost 50-50 balance even in Mechanical Engineering–a traditionally macho field. In biology there might be more female than male trainees, although there is still some disparities in leadership positions. This is going to sound terrible, but feminist issues for me at Stanford mostly melted away with only a few exceptions that I choose to ignore (this is a whole other blog post).
So there wasn’t some period of my education that I learned about feminism in a formal way. I just knew that I was a feminist because there was no way any man was ever telling me what to do with my body, my mind, my life, my career. I’ll always remember my family laughing at ~8 year old Joy for talking about never wearing a purse or having kids. Anyway. LS’s feminist book club was my first experience with formal theories of feminism and my mind was blown. I didn’t know that Black women were historically excluded from radical feminism. I didn’t even know that transwomen were fighting for the right to be recognized as women**. As a teenager I read Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston–all because of some amazing teachers like AB and SW–so my feminist ideas were certainly informed by Black women. The really sad thing is that I didn’t even know that the contributions of Black feminists to the movement had been co-opted. This is what Kendi talks about in Chapter 14.
To paraphrase Kendi, racism is about the creation of hierarchies with one race at the top, others below, and one at the bottom. Sexism is this same type of hierarchy but with one gender at the top and so on. Kendi describes what Philomena Essed first formalized as gendered racism–the intersection of racism and sexism–where Black women fall to the bottom of both constructed hierarchies. It pains me to write this. It just couldn’t be any less true in my mind. So many of the strong women throughout my life have been Black women. Sitting back and thinking about all of the Black women who I’ve connected with in meaningful ways, thinking that anyone would disrespect them, that’s when I know I’m an accomplice. In particular however, there is one atrocity that reaches the genocide level of human rights violations:
“Gender racism was behind the growning number of involuntary sterilizations of Black women by eugenicist physicians–two hundred thousand cases in 1970, rising to seven hundred thousand in 1980.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
You know how White supremacists like to talk about, “well slavery was so long ago, why should that matter now?” I was born in 1983. There are HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of Black women who were not able to give birth to children at the same time as my mom because their gift was stripped away without their consent, because of the color of their skin. That is genocide. So try and tell me we shouldn’t be talking about reparations.
That’s the context for some highly educated White women in positions of power going on Twitter trying to tell people of color that their experiences are the same. It’s why yesterday’s post was just a link to an article (here) where item number 7 on a list of 10 things White people can do to fight everyday racism (many are applicable in this teaching moment, but number 7 stands out):
“Avoid conflating other oppressions with racism unless it’s directly relevant to the conversation.”
If it’s not clear to you why discriminating against a worm is not the same as discriminating against someone’s skin color, here is some simple truism to try on, “You can switch research fields, you can’t change your skin color.” Sound familiar? It’s a repackaging of when Blue Lives Matter tries to co-opt Black Lives Matter. You can switch jobs. You can’t switch skin colors.
I’m glad I showed up for the work today. I honestly didn’t know how to talk about any of this, but I did end up talking about it. Like Kendi and so many others have said before, we have to start having these conversations.
“The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it–and then dismantle it.”
*The word “accomplice” in this context is new for me, but I saw it and I liked it. It was a call to end performative allyship. The call questioned if we “allies” would be willing to drive the getaway car or potentially put ourselves in harm’s way to stop racism. Like I said, I liked it. There are lots of theories on different levels of support possible from non-Black people in the fight to end anti-Black racism. Ally has received a lot of criticism because the ally’s support is only present if it’s trending or so long as it doesn’t challenge the ally’s privilege. I heard Dr. Kendi use the word “advocate” in an interview, but in a two-option system, where being advocate means advocating for antiracism because the advocate knows they will also benefit from a racism-free world. If there is a three-state system, I wonder what Kendi would think about an accomplice?
**I do like to recognize “womxn” as being trans-inculsionary. I am using “women” to specifically highlight the exclusionary nature of this group.
I wish that I could provide better references for these ideas. When I can remember the source, I do try to include it, but often the ideas are amalgamations of posts from all over the internet. An easy way to find resources is to follow Black leaders on social media. As previously mentioned, Ayesha McGowan is one of my favorites. In the science world, I greatly respect Dr. Kaela S. Singleton. There are a lot to name.
I’m done. 4472 vertical feet up today, 30019 total completed in ten days. It was a very daunting goals. On many nights I lost more sleep being worried about falling over on the way up a climb or being killed on the way down. But this was good. Riding a bike a up a hill, no music, no chatter, is such a good way to clear the mind. To get into a sort of rage-climbing Zen mode where in thinking about the injustice you can take that anger and move up mountains. The time spent thinking is what helps us think through these ideas, understand their depths and implications in our lives. The time gives us time to hypothesize on how to implement the ideology into practical strategy. It’s a lot of work and it takes time, but if you do a little every day, eventually the shift occurs.
Although it’s the end of riding, it’s not the end of writing. I still have a few chapters to go, some donors to update and thank, and figuring out what’s next.