Black Woman Activism: Intersectionality, Radical Hope, and The Case for Post-Resilience Frameworks in Psychology
Brianna Baker, Columbia University
There is an invisibilization of Black womanhood in society that often disregards how the experiences of gendered racism triangulate women through antiblackness, sexism, and patriarchalism (Keith et al., 2010; Pitre & Kushner, 2015). Psychological science historically invalidates Black women’s truths by re-narrating their experiences through a lens that recognizes separate experiences of discrimination but neglects the interlocking nature of structural oppression (Cox & Nkomo, 1990; Harris, 2015; Thomas, 2004). Despite a longstanding history of activism and resistance, Black women have been virtually erased from narratives of American social progress (Barnett, 1993; Harris, 2015; McDuffie, 2011). Lauded for their resiliency and never their courage, Black women continue to be subject to trivialization and historical ignorance. Still, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the globe, Black women refused to surrender to the glaring racial health, economic, and social disparities that pervade the United States.
Since its inception, the United States has capitalized on the mental and physical enslavement and degradation of Black and Brown people (Adewale et al., 2016). The national pledge of allegiance reads, “One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”—a particularly insolent paradox for Black Americans (Busey & Walker, 2017; Hacker, 2010). Black people have continuously had their civil liberties denied under a nation generally divided by the intersections of race, class, and gender (Grusky, 2019; Verney, 2012). The 1960s were wrought with uprisings and efforts to collectively organize against racism and oppression affecting the African American community on the basis of racial and economic disadvantage. This decade included some of the nation’s most progressive policies, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. America finally seemed to acknowledge anti-Black violence and sympathize with the Black plight as racial segregation and disenfranchisement were deemed unconstitutional (Marwell et al., 1987).
Despite national leadership lauding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful protests for racial equality and civil rights, contemporary instances of racial injustice or mobilization efforts are largely ignored. Content with its adoption of a colorblind mentality, the United States refuses to recognize and address the multiple forms of racism which comprise the nation’s foundation. The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the extent of anti-Black racism as extensive social restrictions allowed the public no choice but to witness the video-recorded murders of countless Black Americans. Previously met with ignorance and disregard, the Black Lives Matter movement was now a topic of national conversation. Cities across the nation gathered in support of Black lives and a radical reimagining of the American police force igniting a cultural shift in lack of tolerance for racism and the importance of critical consciousness.
While Black people were finally receiving national support, the racism pandemic also drew awareness to the nuances of gendered racial violence and trauma as injustices committed against Black women failed to garner attention and sympathy from the media and public alike. The 2020 murders of Southern Black women Breonna Taylor, Alteria Woods, and India Kager received significantly less media coverage than those of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Despite the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement beginning with three Black women, the invisibility of Black women’s identity and experiences persisted throughout the movement.
A similar phenomenon also occurred in the Civil Rights Era. Black women such as Rosa Parks, who refused to give her bus seat to a white man and thus disobeying the law at the time, set the tempo for a movement seemingly conducted solely by men (Kohl & Brown, 1995). It should be noted that while Rosa Parks’ efforts were incredibly valorous and instrumental to the Civil Rights Movement, her demonstration was also calculated and constructed to assuage gender-based oppression. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat to a White man, but ceased to become a hailed activism icon due to her pregnancy; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) believed that “it would be controversial and the people would talk about the pregnancy more than the boycott” (Adler, 2009; Kristo, 2010). Claudette also was told she did not have the right “look” as a darker- skinned, lower-class teenager—in contrast to the lightly tanned Rosa Parks of mixed racial heritage (Adler, 2009). This instance introduces three important perspectives regarding Black women and their role in contemporary activism: 1) Black women’s health was too ‘controversial’ to be of value to the American social and political agenda, 2) The threat of attracting attention to the Black female body outweighed the courageous exposition of a Black teen in the rural South and, 3) The character and bravery of a Black woman resisting oppression were meritless unless accompanied with a conventionally appealing physique and higher socioeconomic status.
These inferences are supported not only by a comparison of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks but also by society’s willingness to forgive and overlook explicit grievances in male activists like Dr. Martin Luther King’s marital infelicities. Even more interestingly, Dr. King chose his impolitic actions while Claudette’s pregnancy was the result of statutory rape. Similarly, Claudette’s social class was the product of structural oppression and anti-Black racism, the very issues the Civil Rights Movement sought to challenge (Gordon, 2015). Faulted for her appearance and trauma, a message was sent to Black women everywhere: the complex intersection of Blackness and womanhood is undeserving of sympathy and support.
One of the most noteworthy facets of Claudette Colvin’s activism story is that it did not end with her single act of resistance on the Montgomery bus. Following the incident, she was found guilty under state law for assault. Although failing to become a national icon, Claudette fought tirelessly for decades in a relentless pursuit of justice. Her testimony in the 1956 Browder v. Gayle case generated a landmark ruling in the fight for civil rights and bus desegregation. However, despite her efforts, Claudette received mockery and disapproval from Black middle- class leadership. Her resistance to Eurocentric beauty standards in the African American community by refusing to straighten her ‘kinky’ hair positioned her as a troublemaker and threat to the larger Civil Rights Movement (Gordon, 2015). As a result, Claudette experienced ostracism from Black and White communities alike, and her legacy has been largely eradicated from Civil Rights Era common history. Given the proven support for social support and belongingness as a moderator for a variety of mental illnesses in young adults, such exclusion (Leary, 1990) and emotional invalidation (Yen et al., 2015) likely yielded psychological pain and trauma (Bronder et al., 2014; Cross, 1998; Prelow et al., 2006; Ve?lez et al., 2016).
This phenomenon is seen again and again by Black woman activists: their efforts are only of value to racial justice movements if balancing resistance to racism while conforming to sexism and gender-based oppression. Yee’s (1992) novel Black women abolitionists: A study in activism suggests that Black women activists bear a unique and difficult decision to forgo inseparable facets of their identity in sacrifice for those with less cultural complexity. As such, Black women remain invisible as their complete identities and complementary experiences go without recognition and validation even while advocating for Black lives.
Fascinatingly, Claudette’s story and the experiences of other Black woman activists reveal a mentality that may explain her continued advocacy and resistance when confronted with social rejection that can be described using the Radical Hope Framework (RHF). Like modern Black female activists, Claudette’s situation highlights the conundrum of reckoning and positioning their intersectionality with superficially unilateral missions such as civil rights or anti-racist advocacy. This framework is rooted in ethnopolitical and liberation psychology efforts to provide a psychological theory that describes the essence of hope in healing from sociopolitical oppression and cultural trauma for communities of color (Mosely et al., 2020). The following paragraphs will outline the interdisciplinary definitions of radical hope and the suggested pathways to cultivating a radically hopeful mindset when confronted with oppression. Subsequent paragraphs will then explore further how the framework can be used to support intersectional approaches to advocacy in Southern Black women activists by delineating a pathway for simultaneously resisting multiple forms of oppression.
While previous conceptualizations of hope have come from individualistic frameworks, RHF positions hope within collective contexts (Bernardo, 2010; Mosley et al., 2020). Stemming from dominant Western cultural characteristics that value rugged individualism, selfdetermination, and individual achievement, historical conceptualizations of hope characterize hope as a sensation within the individual and thus experienced as an individual exercise. According to the RHF, Radical Hope in particular, is defined as “the commitment and courage to achieve a vision involving new forms of collective flourishing.” This definition includes cognitive, behavioral, and emotional responses. Cognitively, radical hope is a belief that one can work in harmony with others to achieve a shared goal. Behaviorally, radical hope functions as a compulsion or an urge; those with radical hope feel compelled to act upon injustice and achieve on behalf of their communities. Lastly, hope is an emotion—a desire or aspiration to experience something different (Mosley et al., 2020). Moreover, historical studies of hope have been linked to positive mental health outcomes and psychological well-being (Heidar & Ghodusi, 2015; Venning et al., 2011).
The Radical Hope Framework also provides support for the concept of radical resistance, which is defined as “a person’s commitment to living a joy-filled life despite a critical awareness of racial trauma and oppression.” Traditional psychological understandings of human behavior have placed Black women’s resistance into demonstrations of resilience (Haris-Lacewell, 2001). While generally regarded as a desirable characteristic, mainstream American culture has used resilience to create dangerously damaging expectations and standards for Black women (Aniefuna et al., 2020; Harris-Lacewell, 2001; Scott, 2017). The myth of resiliency trivializes the plight of Black women by reinforcing the Strong Black Woman trope (Abrams et al., 2019; Donovan & West, 2015) and perpetuating the implicit belief that Black women’s minds and bodies are naturally designed to endure inhumane volumes of pain and trauma (Baker et al., 2008; Ndao-Brumblay & Green, 2005; Williams, 2009).
RHF reframes communities of color’s ability to successfully cope with trauma and race- related stress by asserting that those with sociopolitically marginalized identities develop an intentional resistance to oppression (Mosely et al., 2020). This resistance is especially evident in Black woman activism; Black women actively resist structural oppression and White supremacy through their clothing choices, advocacy, and other demonstrations to authentic living and community empowerment.
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