During this presidential election cycle, I waited with bated breath to hear the candidates speak to me; to speak to issues of concern to me as a Black woman. I watched each debate waiting in anticipation and after each debate I found myself with a growing sense of frustration. My frustration resulted from my feelings of marginalization which seemingly intensified as the election cycle progressed. My marginalization was not the result of the simplistic notion of winners of the debates. Instead, I felt increasingly marginalized because I (Black women) was not discussed. We were invisible. I was rendered invisible because not once did either of you address, in a substantive and critical manner, any of the issue discussed below. Left out of the conversation were issues of: food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, the raced-gendered impact of the wage gap, or the ever-growing incarceration of Black and Brown women.
On the night before this so-called critical election, as the networks run a steady stream of election polls designed to predict the results, I’m still waiting. I’m waiting for one of you, in your “closing” statements, to address me. I’m waiting for one of you to tell me why I should vote for either one of you. The side-show of the media aside, this is indeed a critical election. I argue that this is a critical election but often not for the same reasons the media tells me it is. It seems that once again politics has rendered me invisible. So I pen this letter to both of you.
As you work to attract the “woman” vote, I remind you that there is no homogeneous woman. Not all women occupy the same social location. The intersection of race, class, sexuality and gender results in different experiences for women. As Black women have long pointed out, we are not simply marginalized as a result of our race or gender. Instead, we are marginalized as a result of the intersection of multiple intersecting socially constructed identities.
Given this, there are a few issues that I would encourage you both to consider. These include:
Poverty: Black women are increasingly poor. When you speak of the middle-class or tax-cuts for the wealthy you are failing to address this growing epidemic among Black women. “The poverty rate for Hispanic and black women rose even more than the poverty rate for women generally – for Hispanic women to 25.0 percent in 2010 from 23.8 percent in 2009 and for black women to 25.6 percent in 2010 from 24.6 percent in2009."
Unemployment: In the most recently released unemployment rates, it was reported that the unemployment rate among Black women “fell from 12.6% to 12.4%.” Unemployment for Black women remains above the national average. As we discuss the economic recovery, we have to ask, what has been the Black woman’s experience?
Food insecurity: “Overall, 15.4 percent of women experienced household food insecurity in 2008; this varies, however, by race and ethnicity. Non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander and non-Hispanic White women were least likely to be food insecure (10.3 and 11.1 percent, respectively), compared to more than one-quarter of Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native women. Non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native and non-Hispanic Black women were also more likely to have very low food security (13.4 and 10.2 percent, respectively).” Simply put, Black women, and by default, their families, are hungry. There is a relationship between their experiences with hunger, unemployment and poverty. Some of these details get lost when we speak of women as a group.
Wage Gap: When you speak of the wage gap and pay equity for women, as a result of treating women as a monolithic group, you lose sight of the fact that not all women share the same experience. One’s experience with employment discrimination, measured via wages, depends on his/her social location. Consider that “Black women, in comparison to White women have median weekly earnings of $595 and $703 respectively. Latina women’s median weekly earnings is $518.” When we speak of the gender wage gap, it is imperative that we discuss how this is raced. Additionally, wage discrimination is not the only form of discrimination women confront in the paid labor force. So please, don’t simplify the issue of employment discrimination by treating women in a monolithic manner or by failing to consider the wide spectrum of discrimination women, based on class, sexuality and race, face.
Incarceration: “In 2010, black women were incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of white women (133 versus 47 per 100,000). Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women (77 versus 47 per 100,000).” A number of factors contribute to the ever expanding rate of incarcerated Black women. For example, the often construction of Black women as “bad Black mothers” and the other negative stereotypes of Black women rooted in images such as Jezebel and Sapphire result in the implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, held belief that Black women are inherently corrupt and immoral. Thus, the protections afforded to other women are often denied to Black women.
In thinking of the Black women and incarceration we also have to ask, what is the impact of Black women’s incarceration on the Black family? While not categorized in terms of the gender of the incarcerated parent, the data shows that “1 in 15 black children, 1 in 42 Latino children, and 1 in 111 white children had a parent in prison in 2007. Black children are 7.5 times more likely and Hispanic children are 2.6 times more likely than are white children to have a parent in prison.” How will either of you address such collateral damage?
As we prepare to elect the president of the United States, I pause and think of the nature of representation. What does political representation, from a Black feminist perspective, mean? Representation is not simply a benefit of those who can contribute, financially, to your campaign. As elections become more and more expensive and as we spend millions of dollars in key states and among key demographics, we need to ponder who is left out.
During the 2008 Presidential election, for the first time in U.S history Black women, among all voters, “had the highest voter turnout rate.” Additionally, Black women’s voter participation “increased 5.1 percentage points, from 63.7% in 2004 to 68.8% in 2008” (Lopez and Taylor 2009). Yet, this history of Black women’s participation in presidential politics remains virtually unseen. Black women have been politically engaged. We are participating. However, this participation has not necessarily resulted in representation.
Black women have been, historically and systematically, politically neglected and misused. Via institutional and social practices and processes, we have been rendered invisible. Black women’s experiences remain unchallenged, in part, because women are constructed as a homogeneous group. Policy discourses, when not treating women in a monolithic manner, are apt to use negative systems of representing Black womanhood and center her often as the source of all that ails the Black community. Consequently, we are seen but never really seen—we are the invisible voting bloc.
As a result of this invisibility, political, social and economic structures and processes lack the willingness to pay attention to the needs of Black women. The passive neglect, omission and misuse of Black women in the political and social spheres have long been challenged by Black women activists. They have waged various campaigns designed to bring recognition to their plight—a plight that is indeed different from that of other women and Black men. This letter is my small contribution to the longstanding Black woman’s fight for recognition.
As a Black woman I am not looking for symbolic representation. Instead, I am concerned with how either one of you will explicitly address the problems faced by Black women, some of which I detail above. Will you represent me?