This article by Echoing Ida's Amber J. Phillips originally appeared on RH Reality Check.
Recently, Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez, and friends introduced a new campaign, called Ban Bossy, meant to encourage girls to lead by banning the use of the word when talking about girls. The campaign, announced in a Wall Street Journalarticle, is based on research conducted by social scientists on “how language affects society.” The research found “that even subtle messages can have a big impact on girls’ goals and aspirations. Calling a girl ‘bossy’ not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her,” explain Sandberg and Chávez.
Instead of just being swift in criticizing Ban Bossy, which I have been in personal conversations, I believe the introduction of this campaign presents us with the opportunity to find an intersectional approach to developing leadership skills in girls and women that could also address some of the most pressing problems facing Black women and girls, specificallyissues of gender, as well as race, class, power, and privilege. Black women are often known for being or are called bossy. While it may be said in malice, we have to be bossy if it means taking charge of our lives, protecting our families, and holding down our communities.
While campaigns like Ban Bossy focus on whether or not girls and women are called bossy and how that affects their ability to lead, it’s also important to expand societal notions of leadership to include the ways that women lead outside the board room and classroom, and the ways Black women and girls are systematically inhibited or punished for doing so because our motivations are seen as misplaced anger and spitefulness.
Black women and girls are not just faced with the fear of how we might be perceived when we raise our hands in class or ask for a major promotion at work. We fear that being assertive will threaten our quality of life. While it may just sound like strong galvanizing rhetoric, Black women are under attack, so despite our fears we know we have to be assertive and aggressive just to have a chance at fighting back. Because the systems—political, judicial, and social—are constructed in such a way that is oppressive for some groups and not for others, when a particular group, such as Black women and girls, break away from being silent or passive to take the lead through expressing justified rage while aggressively fighting to defend ourselves, we can end up facing unreasonable consequences. We saw this in the recent events surrounding CeCe McDonald and Marissa Alexander.
CeCe McDonald, a transgender Black woman, spent 19 months in a men’s prison after fatally stabbing a man while defending herself during a racist and transphobic attack. For CeCe McDonald, being “bossy” meant implicitly saving her own life by standing up for herself against verbal harassment and a violent attack from her perpetrators. Though this seems like the perfect example of when claiming self-defense under the law should be justified, McDonald was not granted this projection. Her bodily autonomy was further assaulted when she was forced to spend time in a men’s prison despite identifying as a woman. In an interview with Melissa Harris-Perry following her release from prison, McDonald said, “I felt like they [the prison authorities] wanted me to hate myself as a trans woman. They wanted to force me to be someone that I wasn’t. They wanted me to delegitimize myself as a trans woman, and I was not taking that. As a trans woman, as a proud Black trans woman, I was not going to allow the system to delegitimize and hyper-sexualize and take my identity away from me.”
Then there is the case of Marissa Alexander, a Black woman in Florida who now faces 60 years in prison—triple her original, repealed sentence because “the judge in the case gave improper jury instructions”—for firing a warning shot at her abusive, estranged husband. (The shot did not harm or kill anyone.) This case is particularly interesting because Alexander is seeking immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. This is the same law that allowed George Zimmerman to be acquitted for pursuing and then murdering an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. For Marissa Alexander, being “bossy” meant defending herself during an ongoing attack by only firing a warning shot in the direction of a man who has a history domestic violence toward her just to get the violence in that moment to stop. Additionally, Alexander had just given birth to a baby before the tumultuous altercation that may result in her being imprisoned for the rest of her life and the lives of her small children. In both cases, claiming self-defense/the right to stand your ground failed to be recognized as a valid defense, which is often how it is for Black women who must use force to defend their bodies against greater force.
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