by Jallicia Jolly
“A Black girl who moves through space on her own terms is a significant threat to white supremacy and patriarchy. She is someone refusing the state access to her emotions, her dignity, or her ear. Whether loud or quiet, when Black women refuse to grant fear as a concession to power, they get violently beaten into submission. Ask Sandra Bland.” – Britney Cooper, Salon (2015)
[the image above is from LA Johnson/NPR]
Hartwick College’s Attack on Young Black Women
In February, Hartwick College charged 4 black female undergraduate students with violating the Student Conduct Policy (“harms to persons”) after they protected themselves during a violent attack by white student athletes. The attackers, who the college later reported were drunk, hurled dirt and snow at the faces and bodies of the young female students as one shouted: “Make America white again!” The women, who were waiting for a taxi back to campus, protested this brutal and violent treatment by defending themselves. Administrators of Hartwick College framed the women’s efforts as a violent attack on the white male students and have disavowed the racialized nature of this aggression.
“If I was dead, would the charge be different? Would it still be considered self-defense?” asks one of the young women in a conversation with Hartwick administrator Taralyn Loewenguth – the Dean of Student Life and the leading coordinator of the black female students’ punishment.
Young Black women’s suffering shatters the white silences of racialized gendered violence in American educational institutions. As the questions crush the hollow moral compass of an anti-black(woman) society, they plummet the depths of souls that refuse to be broken.
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The Denigration of Black Womanhood
I am the older sister of two of the young women. I am also an educator, a graduate student, and a Black woman who will someday mother Black children. I have attended, taught, and lived in elite, predominately white colleges that have various forms of hate crimes that range from physical threats and acts of terror to racist graffiti and vandalism. I have also worked with administrators who disavowed the presence of racist, gendered violence within campus and institutional spaces. I know this type of violence and its psychic residual very well.
While I am troubled by this racialized violence, I am not surprised. The inclination to condemn Black girls and women stems from an American cultural grammar that protects white lives, white anxieties, and white expectation as it enshrines militarized white masculinity, devalues black suffering, and demonizes black womanhood. In fact, there is no “law and order” in the U.S. without the ritualistic denigration of the lives and bodies of Black girls and women.
What struck me, and many others with whom I spoke to through e-mail and phone, was how courageous the young women who were attacked were. It was their urge to assert their right to self-defense in the face of unlawful violence that struck me. It is this bravery that baffles the white male attackers who “apologized” directly to the women a day after the attack and insist that the women “not escalate” the events surrounding the crime. It is their boldness that astonishes Hartwick administrators, who have insisted that the girls accept their attackers’ apology and their charge of “harms to persons” on their record.
What remains clear is that white authority figures (mostly white women) at Hartwick College are thoroughly unwilling to focus on the pain of the black female students. As many have noted, society’s deep-seated stereotypes of young Black women— heavily influenced by racism and patriarchy—have led to a ritual whereby these young women are often mischaracterized, and mislabeled because of how they look, dress, speak, and act. Marked by a problematic excess and genetic degeneracy, Black women are framed as illegitimate mothers, irresponsible caretakers, and deviant women. This logic undergirds the larger national and global imagery of black teenage girls, in which they are predominantly represented in negative terms: as being at risk for pregnancy, obesity, and sexually transmitted diseases, or as helpless casualties of violence and poverty.
Devalued based on how they are perceived by others – in this case, white women administrators – young Black girls and women are viewed as unworthy of basic rights including protection, care, and dignity. Their assumed incivility bolsters the idea of white women as the sole victims of aggression and exploitation.
And like a circus act, black female trauma becomes a visual spectacle, a public showing of black inferiority rather than the symbolic and concrete evidence of the historical dynamic dehumanization of an anti-black (woman) patriarchal, carceral state.
Racialized Gendered Violence in U.S. Educational Institutions
As many have noted, a startlingly large number of Black students are attending colleges and universities that disproportionately use punitive measures against Black students in general, and black female students in particular. Legal research on disciplinary policies in public schools report that Black female students are suspended at six times the rate of their white female counterparts. A 2010 study by Texas A&M researchers found that teachers respond more harshly to black girls because they “seem to defy these traditional standards of femininity which suggest that girls should be quiet, reserved and submissive. Instead, Black girls are assertive, independent and emotionally resilient.”
The savage unity among sexist justice systems, racist educational institutions and the militarized carceral state rests firmly on the bodies of young Black women.
The carceral states includes a myriad of laws, practices, and interactions that coalesce to systematically punish those who defy the codes of (white) civility as it rewards the most “law-abiding”. Within an educational context, (mostly white) authority figures use punitive measures against youth of color who defy white codes and norms of proper conduct in ways that undermine their successful academic and personal development within learning spaces. Mired in anti-black patriarchal seasoning, this dehumanizing logic of the carceral educational state frames Black girls and women as naturally lawless, and thus, un-pitiable and deserving of control and punishment.
This logic creates the belief that Black women’s pain is self-inflicted and reflective of their innate deficiency. Consequently, their wounds become unworthy of substantive recognition and a meaningful response. We see this as 15-year-old Dajerria Becton is tossed and pinned to the ground by a Mckinney, Texas, police officer during a pool party; as 16-year-old Shakara is dragged out of her seat and thrown across a South Carolina classroom over a cell phone; and as Hartwick College criminalizes four black female college students for defending themselves against violent attacks by drunk white male students.
Educational scholars frequently note that education is a critical protective factor against involvement with the juvenile and criminal legal systems. As noted by Monique W. Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls, “Our first priority should be keeping them in schools, not finding new ways to render them “delinquent.” As she incisively describes, educational institutions are “structures of dominance” that can either reinforce negative outcomes or actively disrupt conditions that render black girls vulnerable to criminalization.
Beyond Symbolic Diversity & Inclusion
Rather than reversing the trend of the misrecognition and criminalization of Black youth, Hartwick College serves as a reflection of the country’s punitive policies directed at Black youth. The reflexive instinct of Hartwick administrators to control and surveil rather than stop and listen is displayed in their disregard of the young women’s safety and protection. The college’s disavowal of the hate crime in its living and learning space reflects a historical tendency to downplay the realities of racialized gendered violence and the psychological, emotional, and physical trauma that stems from living while black and women.
Hate crimes at college campuses have grown remarkably, particularly in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. These attacks are particular to Muslim, African American, and Jewish students. The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education reports that among the 16,720 complaints filed with the department, 2,439 complaints had to do with the issue of race. Of the 542 filed complaints involving allegations of racial harassment, 198 involved complaints related to racial harassment at colleges and universities. This number has more than doubled during the eight years of the Obama administration.
The recent trends magnify the national racial climate. Increased student resistance to racist violence on college campuses has accompanied institutional efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. Researchers note that diversity has become the largest issue behind unrest on campus, accounting for 39% of student protest, according to a study by Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. Like many other students and educators, I tune into the echo chambers of the administration as we tirelessly repeat statements and questions from previous town-hall meetings and student events about diversity and inclusion.
It is within the echo that we lose our ability to hear the pain these young women carry. On the hollow enclosure of the chamber, we fail to understand how they experienced the trauma of the attack and subsequently process terror and harassment.
The Place of Self-Defense in Unsafe Spaces
Black female resistance is always greeted with punishment as young Black women are forced to accept both the apology and justification for their violation. Viewed as a bearer of an incurable immorality, Black girls and women remain culpable for the suffering caused by their dynamic dehumanization. Ask Marissa Alexander – a Black woman from Florida charged with firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband.
Yet, Black women continue to fight against murderous embodiments of racist patriarchy. It is this context that makes the use of their own bodies as weapons of resistance revolutionary. It is in the battlefield of legal visibility, public recognition, and personal safety that their self-defense asserts their right to life, protection, care, and dignity.
I applaud the women’s ability to put their lives on the line to struggle against indignity, captivity, and violence. Their efforts to channel their energy into navigating an ambiguous investigation process conducted by racist administrators at Hartwick Colleges who have institutionalized unsafe spaces. And their demand for accountability and protection by any means necessary.
I celebrate their lives and their decision to stand up for themselves. To avoid compliance while facing a soul-killing process. To sustain their righteous rage amidst dynamic dehumanization.
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In Sistahood Solidarity,