About a month ago, I was left awe-struck, hopeful, and empowered. Oct. 29 marked the conclusion of the Program in Visual Arts’s three-part webinar series, “Combahee Experimental: Black Women’s Experimental Filmmaking.” Each session brought a beautiful range of Black women in conversation with renowned curators Simone Leigh and Tina Campt. Needless to say, spending Thursday evenings hearing from visionaries like Garrett Bradley to pioneers like Angela Davis all but cured my Zoom fatigue.
Following the screening of these artists’ films, I would hop on yet another Zoom call with my friend (and fellow member of the Class of 2024) Max Jakobsen to unpack the preceding few hours. As our conversations around the LA Rebellion movement, Black surrealism, and female narratives evolved, they always seemed to circle back to our admiration for the persistent strength of Black women throughout American history. Indeed, as two Black men, it is because of this very strength that we exist here today.
As of late, similar sentiments surrounding the work of Black women have been increasingly aired nationwide. This surge in support came especially in the wake of Kamala Harris’s bid to become our first-ever Black female VP. We saw this trend continue as Georgia was flipped blue thanks to the tireless efforts of Black women activists Deborah Scott, Britney Whaley, Helen Butler, LaTosha Brown, Amber Bell, Tamieka Atkins, and Stacey Abrams who registered nearly 800,000 first-time voters. Simply put, Black women stand at the root of American progress.
While this is certainly nothing new — Black women have collectively held our communities together for centuries — it is beautiful to see increased recognition finally follow. I remember feeling this especially around the time of the Democratic National Convention in August; Twitter was flooded with remarks expressing gratitude displaying solidarity, and even claiming “Black women will save the United States.” However, impulsively praising and, therefore, imposing such responsibility onto Black women can be harmful, despite good intent.
It is easy for us men and people who are not Black women to proclaim the ways Black women have “saved” our nation time and time again. Yet, we must refrain from doing so in a way that oversimplifies their lived realities. Instead of solely celebrating the countless obstacles Black women have overcome in the past and continue to tackle in the present, what we also ought to ask is, who’s gonna support Black women into the future? Placing the burden of being our trusted savior onto shoulders already so weighed down by oppressive systems is not the support they deserve.
Just how the Obama administration did not usher in a post-race era as many liked to believe, we cannot expect Kamala Harris to do the same for Black women. Now, more than ever, we must reckon with the ways our country subjugates them. That includes reflecting on the ways we may be blind, and therefore accomplices, to this reality of oppression ourselves. For whether we choose to accept it or not, Black women are far from free under the status quo.
In a capitalist society, money says a lot. While it has been found that white women earn $0.78 for every dollar of a white man, that proportion for Black women is a meager $0.61. This gendered disparity alone is due in large part to societal pressure placed on women to fulfill family obligations. Be it caregiving, childbearing, or working around the house, women disproportionately fill these roles without any compensation. However, for Black women this gap is further exacerbated. Black mothers have historically been excluded from policies that would support them through childbirth. In turn, they have been forced to work for low wages while their more privileged counterparts were afforded leave. Progress has been made to dismantle these racist policies on paper, but semblances of their existence still persist today. Black women are disproportionately pigeonholed into low wage, limited mobility jobs. This proves detrimental as Black women are the breadwinners in over 80 percent of Black families. These circumstances, among others, work in tandem to create a landscape where the labor of Black women is over-expected and underappreciated.
Health outcomes for Black mothers paint a similar, unjust narrative. Pregnancy-related mortality for Black women is nearly 3.2 times that of white women. Racial biases in the medical field shine through when health concerns raised by Black women are perpetually taken less seriously than their non-Black counterparts. Their very humanity is disregarded as doctors fail to take into account the conditions predominantly Black communities often face.
Though beyond numbers, oppression against Black women ingrains itself deep into the fabrics of society at its most basic elements. Age-old stereotypes continue to pervade pop culture and detrimentally inform how Black women navigate through life. It is the toxic trope of “the angry Black woman” perpetuated in the media — I mean, how did Serena Williams’s actions in the 2018 US Open really differ from those of white male athletes? It is the trope of “jezebel” that painfully hyper-sexualizes our sisters, forcing Black girls to become Black women far too soon. It is the colorism that grips our communities to its core and screams that less melanin is somehow more desirable. White America, non-Black minority communities, and all men alike are guilty of projecting these dehumanizing social dynamics onto Black women. And while guilt is not always the easiest pill to swallow, it is pressing that we sober up and do so.
To better understand how we can improve our environment for Black women on campus, I caught up with Maya Houser ’22, the co-founder of Our Health Matters (OHM) alongside Gabriella Carter ’22. OHM is a student organization dedicated to creating an inclusive environment that promotes self-love and self-confidence in Princeton’s Black women. Additionally, it strives to be a catalytic force on campus in the fight for equality. As a follower of its Instagram account, I love staying up to date on all of the various events it holds for our community (and I would advise that you do the same!). In our conversation, Maya’s words were very clear. In order to become a more inclusive campus, things need to change.
“I think some things that Princeton institutionally can do to support Black women is recognize their efforts, especially in regard to activism,“ she said. “I also think listening to Black women, genuinely listening to them and their experiences, is really important. Centering Black women’s voices is imperative to creating an inclusive community. I think something — whether it be a reading or a required training or something — highlighting the intersectionality of the axis of oppression of Black women would be needed at Princeton. Kind of like a reckoning.”
“Other things that are really important are not speaking over and interrupting Black women when they speak,“ she added. “We saw that this fall with VP-elect Kamala Harris and VP Mike Pence. The truth is that this is literally the everyday reality of Black women, in the world and at Princeton.”
“Also, give Black women credit,” she continued. “Black women and their work are consistently colonized, co-opted, and exploited. What does this look like? In a group project, a Black woman says something but is then cut off or doesn’t say it loud enough, and someone else hears, says the idea out loud, and takes credit. Cite your sources! If you use a comment a Black woman made or recreate a post inspired by a Black woman, cite your sources! Never discredit Black women for your own gain.”
It is not difficult to see the important, inspiring work Black women are doing across the country and on our campus. Now is the time for people who are not Black women to not only celebrate these inspiring feats, but also to listen. Listen to ways we can be of support. Offer support when it is asked of us. Simply acknowledge the nuance in their experiences. At the end of the day, no matter how much we express gratitude for Black women, if we fail to acknowledge the ways oppressive forces mold our society against them, we are complicit in their oppression.
Collin Riggins is a first-year student from Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.