#WhyWeCantWait: How We Can Create Safe Spaces for Black Women, And Why We Need To

By Yemisi Miller-Tonnet

About a month ago, the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” (MBK) Task Force released a report to President Obama concerning the state of young men of color in the United States. The report discusses the pitfalls that men of color face in education, employment, and criminal justice. The release of this report has caused some controversy. Many activists are now asking President Obama: what about the black girls?

Two weeks after the release of the MBK report, a letter to President Obama written and signed by 200 “concerned black men” asked for the inclusion of women and girls in the MBK initiative. On Wednesday, another letter entitled “Why We Can’t Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in ‘My Brother’s Keeper’” was released and signed by 1,000 women and girls from across the nation. The letter sparked a parallel discussion on Twitter centered around the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait. The letter and discussion gave black feminists and their allies a forum to discuss their experiences and their community, intersectionality, misogyny, and inclusion.

Professor and scholar Brittney Cooper is one of the activists at the forefront of this initiative for inclusion. In her tweets, Dr. Cooper discussed the failing state of black women in American society, and the backlash black women receive for asking that their concerns be addressed:

The whole house is burning. All the kids are yelling, but we think it is only prudent to save our sons. That won’t work. #WhyWeCantWait

— Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk) June 20, 2014

So interesting that Blk wmn SAY, “we want help, too” & ppl HEAR “you’re trying to take something away from the brothers.” #WhyWeCantWait

— Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk) June 20, 2014

Dr. Cooper is right – black women can’t wait. While the Obama administration has developed specified plans of action for black men, women, LGBTQ persons, and immigrants, one group still remains left out. Where is the help for women of color? Black women have historically been subjected to marginalization in movements that should address our needs, leaving us without a movement and a voice. These issues are not small or insignificant. Black women are in need of advancement and support just like black men, white women, LGBTQ persons, and immigrants. Black women and girls are at the bottom of the totem poll economically, socially, and politically.

As a woman of color, I live at the point of intersection between race and class. Each day, I wake up as a black woman; neither my womanhood nor my blackness takes precedent. So why am I constantly being forced to choose between the two, and why are the issues that affect me as a black woman constantly being ignored?

As the #WhyWeCantWait hashtag suggests, black women and girls are stepping up and fighting for their right to be recognized and helped. As we step forward and demand acknowledgement, mainstream feminism needs to become better at giving us a seat at the feminist roundtable. Saying you stand in solidarity with women of color is not enough. Playing an active part in the fight for progress for black women is the only way to make a real difference. Creating a safe and supportive space for a marginalized group is what feminism is all about.

All of that is easier said than done, so here are some steps that activists can take to make the feminist movement more inclusive for everybody, including black women:

1. Check Your Privilege at the Door

As feminists, we spend a lot of time discussing the concept of privilege. Often times, that means only reminding our male peers of their privilege. However, when creating a safe space for black feminists, acknowledging your privilege as a non- woman of color is crucial. Checking your privilege is a very introspective process. Recognizing your privilege means constantly looking at yourself in the context of history and society and understanding existing systems of oppression. We all have points of privilege and points of oppression, and being aware of those points allows for a more productive conversation at the feminist roundtable.

2. Listening is Powerful

Beyoncé spoke for a lot of black women when she so flawlessly sang, “Listen” in Dreamgirls. Black women’s voices are constantly silenced, and being able to have a collective voice is a powerful tool. When creating a space for women of color at the feminist roundtable, learning to be an active listener is probably the most important step one can take. Actively listening means allowing another sister at the roundtable to take up space while being understood, supported, and most importantly, heard. Listening without judging, changing the topic, or interjecting is a powerful tool of activism.

3. Create a Space at the Table—Literally

Diversity is not just an ideology; diversity is also an action. When it comes to feminist events, roundtable discussions, forums, conferences, and organizations, be an active advocate for diversity. Does that panel on sexual assault have a voice representing black women? Can we invite some LGBTQ people to speak at this conference? Are we including as many people as possible in our feminist events? The faces of so many feminist causes are a white, straight, skinny, cis woman. We, as inclusive feminists, have to take steps to encourage the diversification of the feminist movement.

By Yemisi Miller-Tonnet

Yemisi is a rising sophomore at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, where she is a Comparative Women's Studies Major. She is a government relations and campus leadership intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation.

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