Bill Cosby Reminds Us We Must Still Fight Sexism as Much as We Fight Racism
Bill Cosby is trending. The public is talking. And there seems to be no better time than now to focus on the pervasiveness of sexism and misogyny in the United States. This is also a vital moment to confront various forms of patriarchy that frustrate solidarity work within the current movement for black lives.
Many black women have expressed their disappointment with black freedom fighters who ostensibly supported Cosby because he is a black man. These women have questioned the extent to which women's safety does or does not factor into contemporary notions of black freedom.
The fight for black liberation is complex. Black people must contend with external forms of oppression, like racism, as well as intracommunal issues like sexism and queer and trans antagonism. Nearly 1 in 5 black women in the U.S. have been raped at some time in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within the first two months of 2015 alone, seven trans women were killed, the majority of whom were trans women of color.
Thus, though much attention has been paid to how police abuse, state-sanctioned violence and white racial supremacy hurt black men, a successful movement must also disrupt the effects of similar violence, sexism and homophobia specifically directed toward women and queer people of color.
To that end, Mic invited several young black people over email to talk through the complicated issue of intracommunity violence and what is needed to end sexism and homophobia in our black communities: Hari Ziyad, creator of the blog RaceBaitr; Marlon Peterson, 2015 Soros Justice Fellow and founder of the social justice consulting firm the Precedential Group; Wade Davis II, former NFL player and executive director of the LGBTQ sports advocacy organization, You Can Play Project; Kai M. Green, a gender and African-American studies scholar at Northwestern University; and #BlackLivesMatter organizer Ashley Yates.
Their responses have been condensed and edited.
Hari Ziyad: I've been thinking a lot about the concept of black solidarity because I know solidarity is necessary for black liberation. But I often find it impossible to achieve. Black heterosexual men who inflict violence on black queer men and women, black heterosexual women and black trans and gender-nonconforming people have operated, in many ways, like some of the white men they rail against for being racist. That's not how black solidarity and liberation works. All black people must be liberated — not straight black men alone.
What we are seeing in how some black people, especially men, continue to defend Bill Cosby after he admitted to purchasing drugs to use on women before sex — after many women (some of whom were black) also spoke of how he violated them — is a liberation facade that places the proverbial boots of black men on the necks of black women.
The rush to defend Cosby is self-destructive. Black liberation is impossible without cuing into misogyny and sexual assault, because black women might experience the multiple forces of sexism, misogyny, sexual assault and racism. Black women are black people. And black trans people are black people. And black queer people are black people. Therefore, our black liberation movements have to acknowledge all black people's struggles or they will fail.
Our black liberation movements have to acknowledge all black people's struggles or they will fail.
Ashley Yates: The struggle to see Cosby or other abusive men as complex individuals with conflicting characteristics is parallel to the comfortable denial white America uses to sleep soundly after tucking the next Charleston killer in upstairs.
I want to be clear: I'm not saying that sexism and racism are the same. As a black woman, it makes me angry to even have to clarify that. I am saying it's necessary to admit that, much like the ordinary white American family could be raising the next person responsible for a horrendous atrocity, the black man with his fist up for black liberation might have used that same hand to harm a woman. And until we can hold both of those truths in tandem, we'll only be left with "examples" of justice and no actual practice of it.
Much like the ordinary white American family could be raising the next person responsible for a horrendous atrocity, the black man with his fist up for black liberation might have used that same hand to harm a woman.
Marlon Peterson: Black patriarchy is a destructive power, Ashley. Black patriarchy is killing us loudly. Black patriarchy encouraged Bill Cosby to resist apologizing for the harm and trauma he caused women and their families. Black patriarchy allows us to be okay with the dismissive ways some men view black women who have been sexually assaulted. Black patriarchy, like white racism, harms us all. Six of the nine black people who were killed by that white supremacist terrorist at Mother AME in Charleston were women. Black women are specifically targeted by white racial supremacy,
Black cis and trans women, black cis and trans men — whether we are same-gender-loving or heterosexual — are being killed, raped, locked up, gentrified out of our neighborhoods and even lynched (see what's happening in the Dominican Republic).
White racial supremacy does not discriminate in its treatment of black bodies. White racists see all black people as subhuman and undeserving of human care. That idea is no different than homophobic and sexist views that shape the ways some black men treat brothers and sisters in the queer community. Is that not the same brutality? Is that not another branch on the same tree of hatred that Dylann Roof so proudly clings to?
Black patriarchy, like white racism, harms us all.
Wade Davis: Marlon, as I read your words my mind drifts to how I, as an individual, a black gay man, can work in small ways to bring light to how black liberation must include hard conversations about the homophobia, transphobia and sexism that is often overlooked as we fight to end racism. I have a deep yearning to start a movement that educates and empowers black men to fight against the mundane ways we are oppressive. We cannot dismiss the ways we harm trans and queer black people, especially black women.
That education starts with, as you brilliantly reminded us, the understanding that all struggles are connected. And we must be willing to risk our own comfort to ensure the safety of others. As Maya Angelou once said, "Courage is the most important virtue, and without it, no other virtue can be practiced consistently." We must be courageous enough to speak up in the barbershop, in the church or in the locker room when others are being sexist or homophobic. We can no longer be silent when others are hurt in our presence.
We must start to invest in learning about self-love and seeing each other as one in order to root out hate and fear at its core. And that can only be possible if we all are able to stand in solidarity as equals.
HZ: Wade, as you talk about the courage we must demonstrate, I'm forced to think about how little courage there is in my pointing fingers at cisgender heterosexual black men without stopping to examine the ways I also oppress others. It takes courage to point the finger at oneself and find solidarity with other brothers, even when it feels most impossible. I am a cis queer black man, but I am really no different than cis heterosexual black men. I too am capable of being sexist, trans antagonistic or sexually violent. If we are to chastise them for the erasure of black queer and trans people, we have to also chastise ourselves for how we too might erase and abuse our sisters and trans siblings.
Kai Green: What you all have so profoundly articulated here is our need to contend with our internalized anti-black racism, that is for me, anything that would mislead you (as a black person), or cause you to view your cousin, kin, sibling or any black person as a beast or monstrous demon needing to be exorcised away.
I have been talking with mentors and friends and, behind closed doors, the question that keeps coming up — one that we don't want to respond to because often it is brought up to divert a conversation away from state-sanctioned violence experienced by black people — is: "What about Black on Black crime?"
Black on black crime is what many black women, transgender and cisgender, have to fight against on the regular. These women are at the marches, giving speeches, organizing die-ins, working their asses off (on and off stage), naming white-supremacy, naming the systemic violence that affect us all black people, and are still prone to violence. Our support as black men isn't reciprocated.
It takes courage and fierceness to move from individual to collective solidarity and liberation.
Are black men speaking about sexual violence and rape culture? Or is it easier to wait for a black woman to make it a priority? Why aren't we holding space for black women? Where are the banners and hashtags? Why did we need two men to tell us what so many women have been saying forever? It's because we only value segments of the "we."
Black love is a liberatory politic that demands we take seriously the "we" who are carried with us always. It takes courage and fierceness to move from individual to collective solidarity and liberation. But liberation requires transformation. Can we commit to that? Can we commit to this kind of liberatory love? If we are to be free, we must.
Liberation requires transformation.
AY: As many are unable to extricate the honorable fictional Cliff Huxtable from the despicable actions of real life Bill Cosby, I want to invite us to leave them as one a bit longer. What if we acknowledge that a well-loved man with an honorable career and seemingly loving family is also capable of committing horrible violence against women?
We don't have step in to a fantasy world to ponder this, we just have to admit that Bill Cosby, the revered Hollywood actor who has been married for 50 years, is a black icon and a rapist. Hard, I know.
It's a hard conversation for men because it forces them to see a bit more of themselves in the story. It's terrifying for black women because what it really addresses is the ability to see our abusers in a nuanced fashion, which is often how we experience them. Many of us are fearful of the same men who organize alongside us for black liberation. Men with power in the movement. Men who have done great work towards black liberation. We have been silenced, shamed, assaulted and raped by these very men. We wonder if anyone besides us can hold those competing truths simultaneously. We know it is imperative for our survival. All of our survival.