It’s Time We All Saw Ourselves in Black Women

It is by centering Black women that we get to meet the needs of all.

The Juneteenth Festival Celebration hosted by Black on the Block at Los Angeles Center Studios on June 16, 2024, in Los Angeles. (Kayla Oaddams / Getty Images)

When I speak about the critical need to center Black women’s joy and liberation in our quest to build a truly inclusive economy, I often get the inevitable question from a non-Black person of color: “But what about my people? Aren’t you being exclusionary?”

I’m never surprised by the question. Rather it reminds me time and time again how white supremacy has hardwired us to believe that Black people are different from the rest of us, further driving the false narrative that our struggles are not connected. Instead, we play the oppression Olympics and fail to see how anti-Blackness impacts all people of color. This is the trap that white supremacist thinking lays for us, and it’s imperative for our collective liberation for us to recognize it and do the work to overcome it, especially for younger generations who are facing an unhinged conservative attack on racial and gender justice gains older generations were able to obtain.

Previously, I worked on creating equitable K-12 schools and after-school programs. I had a strong focus on English Language Learners and would speak and write about how they are often misunderstood, ignored and/or overlooked, making it essential that all educators understand how to meet their needs. No one ever questioned my focus or thought it to be exclusionary. I never heard, “But why English Language Learners?” I assume it’s because it sounds absolutely ridiculous and embarrassingly racist.

Now, however, when I speak about combating anti-Blackness and creating an economy that nourishes Black women as a pathway for economic justice for all in my work at the Maven Collaborative, I often get the question: What about Latinos and Latinas? Asian people? The Indigenous?

The very fact that people feel compelled to ask the question is exactly why it’s so important to talk about anti-Blackness specifically.

The answer is varied. First, it is a matter of equity, particularly for young people. Black women in their 20s have nearly three times the debt of their white female counterparts. But it goes far beyond just economics; non-Black people have been taught to never see ourselves through the humanity of Black people. We have been conditioned to distance ourselves from Black people and never make the connection that our liberation is tied to Black people’s liberation. We don’t want to acknowledge how anti-Blackness is a part of all of our communities because it makes us uncomfortable and calls out deep-seated racism within our people. Yet, if we aren’t explicit in our solidarity and calling out anti-Blackness in our communities, we perpetuate the problem.

White supremacy has hardwired us to believe that Black people are different from the rest of us, further driving the false narrative that our struggles are not connected.

Colorism in non-Black communities runs rampant, and studies show that darker-skinned Asians and Latinos fare worse in education, health and the labor market. The skin whitening industry thrives in Asian markets as beauty standards teach us that the darker we are, the uglier we are. In her book Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality, Tanya Katerí Hernández wrote about how Latinos believe that rising up the social hierarchy “is entangled with denigrating Blackness as a device for performing Whiteness.” This is how anti-Blackness lives in our communities and reinforces a disconnect from Black people.

Anti-Black narratives also shape our economy, which is why care work is so undervalued and underpaid.

  • Black women were our original caregivers during enslavement when they were forced to rear and serve white families by helping white women birth, feed and clean up after them.
  • Post-slavery, care and service work were the only jobs Black women were allowed to have.
  • Today, domestic and care workers are overwhelmingly women of color. Latina, Asian and Pacific Islander women who have over-representation in these sectors suffer from the vestiges of anti-Blackness and sexism which keep these jobs woefully underpaid, dangerous and the least protected.

We also see similar disparities in the criminal justice system, with Black millennial women facing incarceration at twice the rate of white women. Even when released, the injustice continues. Black women with an arrest have just a third of the wealth white women with an arrest do.

All of this is why centering Black women in social justice work and broader society is so critical, as it gets both to how sexism and racism impede social progress. The truth is that when we don’t, the needs of Black women almost always get left behind. That’s just how anti-Blackness and sexism work.

Take, for example, the fight for paid leave. Some advocates will say that whatever we can get is a win, so if four weeks is what is politically feasible, we should all celebrate and be happy. Here’s the thing—because of racism built into our healthcare system, Black women have the highest percentage rate of cesarean births in the U.S. It takes longer (six to eight weeks) for women to heal from a cesarean birth. Limiting paid leave to four weeks would have been completely inadequate for close to 40 percent of Black women. This is the harm in taking a blanket approach that fails to recognize the unique needs of Black women as they sit in the intersection of two long-standing oppressive systems in the U.S.

If we had kept that in mind and centered Black women in those discussions, we would have been forced to consider cesarean births, since it’s so prevalent. Four weeks would never have been our bottom line. And guess what? More paid leave is good for all birthing folks—because the U.S. still has a high C-section rate for everyone. White women have a 30 percent rate.

We also would have made sure that part-time and temporary workers get paid leave because Black women are overrepresented in those categories. Again, this is good for society as a whole.

It is by centering Black women that we get to meet the needs of all.

White supremacy has force-fed us the idea that not only are white people superior, but also that Black people are different and inferior from the rest of us. The beauty of centering Black women in all of their complexity allows us to be truly inclusive for the first time. It challenges us to reject that premise by not only seeing Black women’s humanity but also forcing us to connect with it. If you struggle to make that connection, I encourage you to explore why you feel the need to distance yourself. What makes you so uncomfortable? Why does the notion of uplifting the humanity of Black women make you think your humanity will not be uplifted as well?

True liberation for Black people will only be made possible when we interrupt this cycle and do the work to see ourselves in Black women. We have a history in this country of looking to Black women to save our democracy and act as our caregivers and mother figures—yet we balk at the opportunity to center their joy, safety, well-being, hopes and dreams as a cornerstone of building a truly equitable multi-racial democracy and economy.

We must learn to see ourselves in Black women and connect our liberation to theirs. As The Combahee River Collective put it: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.

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Jhumpa Bhattacharya is co-president and co-founder of The Maven Collaborative in Oakland.