In summary

For years, the wisdom and experience of Black women have shed light on racial and economic inequality, and on issues of gender and sexuality.

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By Mia Kirsten Santos, Special to CalMatters

Mia Kirsten Santos is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis. She is the winner of the inaugural UC Davis Center for Poverty and Inequality Research Black History Month Student Essay Contest, from which this commentary was adapted.

“The colored woman of to-day occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country,” Anna Julia Cooper wrote in 1892. A Black feminist and liberation activist, Cooper made a radical proposal: to reduce inequality, we must center Black women’s wisdom and experience. Black women and their allies have been trying to do so ever since.

Cooper’s “A Voice from the South” advances a framework of “radical relationality,” suggesting that the fate of any given group is intrinsically connected to that of all others. Her framework still applies. If we want to dismantle intersecting forms of oppression in California and beyond, we need to work together. 

I am a first-generation Asian American woman of color who didn’t encounter African American studies until I started college at UC Davis. Through my undergraduate work in Black studies, ethnic studies and sociology, I have come to understand, like Cooper before me, that we cannot regard racial and economic inequality as two separate entities. We also cannot separate these forms of inequality from issues of gender and sexuality. 

Inequality must instead be understood as structured by a set of racial and gender hierarchies that shape life experience, social mobility, labor markets and access to resources like housing and education. And it’s from the people most impacted by these hierarchies that we can gain the greatest insight into them. 

Three decades after Cooper published “A Voice from the South,” fellow Black feminist Amy Jacques Garvey shed light on the role of Black women in advancing equity and prosperity for Black people and all people of color. In her essay “Women as Leaders,” Garvey describes Black women as possessing unique insight in light of the burdens of slavery, mistreatment and “lack of appreciation” they have faced. 

Like Garvey, Ida B. Wells, a journalist, NAACP co-founder and anti-lynching activist, understood how inequality was produced and enforced through racial and gender-based violence. Wells indicted the historical erasure of white men’s sexual violence and economic malfeasance while Black people were targeted for criminalization. At that time, the mainstream women’s suffrage movement was predominantly controlled by white, heterosexual women and had largely overlooked the oppression of Black women.

Decades later, during the “second wave” feminist movement of the 1970s, Boston’s Combahee River Collective attempted to center the lived experiences of Black women. It pushed, too, for a “multilayered” movement addressing interrelated forms of oppression: racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. Also active at that time was The Third World Women’s Alliance, which understood inequality to have deep roots in a capitalist system built on slavery and the oppression, exploitation and exclusion of women.

Far too often, that oppression takes the form of physical violence. We can’t talk about inequality without reflecting on the physical risks faced disproportionately by Black women. In her essay “Abolition for the People” (edited by former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick), Kimberlé Crenshaw writes of the “double deaths” faced by Black women and girls. The first is the state and vigilante violence they experience. The second relates to the ways in which their deaths are justified. 

So, what can we do? We must strive to understand not just how Black women in California and beyond have been oppressed, but how they have long been at the forefront of struggles for equity, dignity and prosperity. We must acknowledge our contribution to the problem of inequality and act on our potential to be part of the solution.

The voices of Black people, and especially of Black women, must be heard. Centering Black women and campaigns like #SayHerName is crucial for dismantling systems of oppression and reducing racial and economic inequality in California and across the United States. 

As for me, I hope to share what I’ve learned, and to stand in solidarity with Black women and with all people of color. After all, if we aren’t willing to do that, can we really call ourselves allies?

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