Black Men and “Distractions”

Gloria Richardson

“Black women as a group have never been fools. We couldn’t afford to be.”
–Barbara Smith

Black women are facing a drought of allies during a time when black people in the United States are battling a turbulent racist climate. These moments illustrate that things are not so different from the past our parents and grandparents lived through. In more ways than one, white supremacy is unfazed and so are some black men’s efforts at domination within black movements to reject it. This phenomenon continues, in part, because historically and presently, black men have regularly designated ourselves selectors of issues of importance. We get to decide who and what is a distraction for the imaginary monolithic black social agenda. The word “distraction” has become a quick fix for many who want to assert control.

Some would have you believe that black people cannot pay attention to multiple issues at once, or multitask. Even if that were the case, there is also a special mythology in believing that black people have always been focused on one specific issue nationally, in unison.

Throughout the past year and long before that, Black America has been rising up against police brutality, white supremacist terror, and state violence. Black men and boys have regularly been the faces used to rally people against anti-black violence. Though black women have been named, it has usually been the faces of these black men and boy victims who garnered the most response from the media and the public. But the growing movements happening around the country have often been led and shaped by the labor of black women, with little in return from black men regarding gender equality.

Ray Rice and Floyd Mayweather’s domestic abuse scandals highlighted this in the worst way possible. They placed black women at the butt of bad jokes and general unconcern for any problem that needs to be addressed in our community. Black women are much more likely than their white counterparts to be victimized by domestic violence. This violence is predominantly happening at the hands of black men, and when the opportunity came up to have a national discussion about it, it was labeled by our words, our passivity, or our apathy as merely a distraction.

At the same time, discussions have been had about when or if black people should call the police. Consider the dilemma faced by black women who are hesitant to call the police out of fear of police brutality against their partner or themselves. Black women end up forced into silence, not only from the fear of victim blaming, but the fear of more abuse if they call upon the very police state we’re fighting to dismantle. There is no solace in that.

This is echoed by one of the black women who came forward with allegations against Bill Cosby. She stated feeling “a certain instinct to protect Cosby,” and detailed the history of black men being portrayed as sexual predators. That stereotype is very real for black men, but so is the misogynist abuse that black women face on a daily basis, both societally and intimately. Our being labeled as predators, rapists, and sexual deviants should not prevent us from being allies to the women who are survivors. When over 20 women came forward against Cosby and a conspiracy debate mounted, the opportunity to have a conversation about sexual violence was lost, more often than not by the men who yet again insisted that Cosby was a distraction.

Black women end up forced into silence, not only from the fear of victim blaming, but the fear of more abuse if they call upon the very police state we’re fighting to dismantle. There is no solace in that.

When Rachel Dolezal was occupying the news cycle leading up the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, I shrugged it off. I called it a distraction myself and didn’t see the importance of the issue. But after speaking with a black woman on the matter, she informed me that it was not a distraction, and told me her qualms with Dolezal: Dolezal’s impersonation of black womanhood is something that happens around us everyday. Black women are constantly mocked and told that everyone else looks better in their bodies, style, and culture than they do. This is often reaffirmed by black men who dismiss black women as “angry” and “bitter.” I began to understand my own misgivings and reflect more clearly on the gendered nature in which we employ the distraction label. Prior to this interaction, I’d tried to curtail my use of the term “distraction,” because I frequently saw it used by black men to reject the raising of gender issues by black feminists, but I had said it, too, before seeing the folly in doing so.

Most recently, after Bree Newsome climbed down from removing a Confederate flag in Columbia, South Carolina, I saw some men calling her action and the conversation around it “distracting.” It would seem that the way this label is often being used suggests that whatever does not center “masculinity” (or a black man) doesn’t warrant the full attention of black people. This is beyond counterproductive.

After all, black men hold power over black women while we scream about the powers that be not conceding our full participation. Black men cannot rebuff black women who bring up issues that primarily affect women during troublesome times because it’s a “distraction.” We have normalized this language to stifle anything that challenges our possession of power. Black women and men are not enemies, but the violence black women have faced at the hands of white supremacy and black misogyny for centuries is not friendly.

Writer and escaped slave Harriet Jacobs once wrote: “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.” Apply what this black woman told us then more broadly to the afterlife of slavery we all live in. Consider what this means in the context of being a black woman in the United States today. How much worse are we making things for black women by brushing them off?

There has not been a time in the United States where black women have not had to simultaneously fight against white supremacy as well as patriarchal oppression. Black women continually raise the issue of neglect in spaces that are supposed to be furthering black liberation. Black women’s issues were “distracting” during slavery. Black women’s issues were “distracting” in the Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow. Black women’s issues were “distracting” during the Black Power movement. From the time of Sojourner Truth to Gloria Richardson to the present, black women have been designated secondary. This problem is as old as the existence of black people in the Americas, and it’s time for black men to take an active role in dismantling our part in it.

We can start by not centering masculinity or manhood as a means of priority. Black women and girls are just as important when it comes to facing white supremacist violence. This much has been stated repeatedly to the tune of “black women’s lives matter, too,” among other things. Still, the more subtle chauvinist nature of naming distractions has regularly presented itself in our hearts, minds, and mouths.

Black men cannot rebuff black women who bring up issues that primarily affect women during troublesome times because it’s a “distraction.”

Consciously or subconsciously, our incessant motion to designate the “real problem” asserts itself as a way of pseudo-prioritizing the quickest path to helping black people. However, it’s quite easy to see this as typically a ploy for black men to regain or maintain the ability to choose what primary focuses should be. The notion that we are somehow more equipped is coated in the sexist thought that black women are emotional, flighty, and too foolish to know what should be of concern.

Black men are not torchbearers to make every decision and “lead.” We reject the violence of white supremacy with such ease, while not letting up on placing ourselves directly in front of black women. All oppression is wrong, and if we cannot respect that we don’t always understand the priorities of black women, we’re going to fail at any progress we hope to make.

I would encourage all of us to reject the notions of masculinity that have been passed down to us through enslavement. If there is anything that is truly revolutionary in today’s world for a man to do, it’s to stop sidestepping women’s oppression and engage in real work for women’s liberation.

Black women are not all the same and some black women might agree with the black men who use this language. Similarly, there are black men I know who are not engaging in much of the behavior I’ve noted above. However, many of us who see this happening should speak up and refrain from being quick to dismiss or label. If Ray Rice, Bill Cosby, and Floyd Mayweather’s scandals were not the right time to talk about black women’s maltreatment and abuse, then when is the right time? When do we ever talk about it? When was the last time we discussed how black women are disproportionately raped, battered, and abused with other black men?

If anything, we’re taking up space and taking people’s minds off of things of importance by embracing our power over black women. During these times where we either ask or demand our oppressors cease to subjugate us, we shouldn’t ignore our sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, and friends expressing the same to us. At the very least, we need to take the time to listen, step back, and be introspective about more than how it feels to be a black man.

By William Anderson

William C. Anderson is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @williamcson.