When Can Black Women Stop Asking, ‘Ain’t I A Woman’?

Charmaine Davis
9to5 Georgia State Director
Originally posted on Huffington Post
November 5, 2015

It is a sad day when the statement “adult men should not beat, hit, pull the hair of, slam or in any way physically assault young girls” is controversial and open for debate.

In response to the video of Columbia, S.C., officer Ben Fields pulling a young girl from her school desk and slamming her to the ground, we have seen media personalities demand to see more information before condemning the officers’ actions and others have blamed the young girl for the violence that was inflicted onto her.

For those who require their own version of proof before condemning the officers’ actions as being excessive or unnecessary, I would like to know under what circumstances is it justifiable for a large adult male to physically assault an unarmed, teenage girl who is posing no physical threat to anyone?

As I watched Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott declare that the teenage girl assaulted in the classroom was “responsible for initiating this action,” my heart was grieved. And I was reminded of Sojourner Truth’s famous speech: “Ain’t I A Woman?”

In the speech, Truth points out that her gender is used to justify the oppressive treatment she receives yet her gender does not keep her from being subjected to the same physical punishment as men. She is required to labor just as hard as the men of her day.

Truth asserts:

That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Over 100 years later, and Black women in this country are still asking this question.

As a society, at least in speech, we condemn violence against women. It is socially unacceptable for men to hit women and unfathomable for a man to assault a pregnant woman. Yet when Black women and girls (both pregnant and not pregnant) are physically assaulted by men, it is met with justifications.

The young female student in South Carolina should have just given up her cell phone or left the classroom. Sandra Bland shouldn’t have talked back to the police officer. The bikini clad teenage girl at the Texas pool party who was thrown to the ground by her hair by a male officer should have just moved more quickly. The justifications go on and on.

It has left me as a Black woman asking the question: “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Is it not wrong for me to be beaten, hit, thrown to the ground or physically assaulted by a man? Am I expected to believe that if I don’t follow a man’s demand quickly enough or if I openly disagree with him it is OK for him to physically assault me? Does asserting my dignity or questioning him make me responsible for initiating any physical attack that may follow? According to the Richland County Sheriff, the young South Carolina student indeed bears responsibility for initiating the violent action taken against her.

When video surfaced of Florida State University quarterback De’Andre Johnson punching a white female in a bar after she struck him, Johnson was immediately thrown off the FSU football team and charged with misdemeanor battery.

When asked why the woman in the video who struck Johnson first wasn’t also charged with battery, the prosecuting attorney said, “A person’s entitled to use self defense if they’re being battered by someone else, and she certainly was entitled to do what she did … She didn’t commit a crime is the reason she’s not charged with a crime.”

Again, footage of the incident clearly shows the woman striking Johnson first.

My point is not to justify Johnson punching the woman in the bar; it is simply to highlight the difference in reaction when the woman being a assaulted is white, not Black.

Now, I am not suggesting that we as a society react adequately to violence against White women. There are countless examples of male-perpetrated violence against women of every race that has been ignored.

Research shows law enforcement is quicker to arrest a female perpetrator of domestic violence, regardless of race, than a male perpetrator.

According to a report done by Bristol University, women are three times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence even though 92 of domestic violence perpetrators are men.

We not only penalize women more swiftly when they inflict violence on men, but we also penalize women who execute survival tactics when being abused by men. A California Department of Corrections study found that an astronomical 93 percent of women convicted of killing an intimate partner had been abused by that partner. Black women are three times more likely to die at the hands of a current or former partner and are also disproportionately criminalized for defending themselves.

So to be clear, we as a nation have failed to react appropriately to violence against all women. But the most recent attempts to justify the horrific violence against black women and girls captured on video has me again returning to Truth’s question: “Ain’t I a woman?” Is not the violence against me to be condemned?

As a society we have to set a standard without caveats or compromises: Adult men should not beat, hit, pull the hair of, slam to the ground or in any way physically assault women and girls.

Charmaine Davis is the Georgia State Director of 9to5 Working Women and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.


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