The Black Women’s body and sexuality

I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognise that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are in-separable.

– Audre Lorde

Originally written by Arianne McCullogh, illustration by Christina Ivey

The Black woman’s sexuality is the most policed, oppressed and, arguably, feared in the world. Since slavery, the Black woman’s autonomy over her body and sexuality has been controlled to benefit just about everyone except for themselves: it elevates that of White women and of course directly benefits Black and White men. Some say things are improving, but I disagree: oppression is ongoing, it’s just been reconstrued or practiced more covertly.

As sociologist Dr Akeia Bernard notes: “very little has changed regarding the overall dynamics of oppression in society including the colonial structure of race/class/gender/sexual relations.” Relations of domination may change, but systems of domination do not.

The persecution of the Black woman’s sexuality dates back to slavery. Despite their age, the structures and ideologies in place today have never really changed. Both hegemonic colonial social structures and capitalism are systems of white patriarchy, and are violent, exploitative, and rely on the ownership of Black and brown bodies.

The cultural idea of who can bed and who can wed still has impact. It enforces the notion that Black women can only be taken to bed, but white women are marriage material. It promoted the sexual exploitation of Black women through rape and systems of concubinage, and led to the modern hyper-sexualised image of Black women in popular culture and the media. The socially created norm of the marriageable white woman is largely based on the constructed idea that Black women are animalistic, morally lax, dirty, diseased, and poor.

Although both White and Black women’s bodies are colonised in this process, they are done so in very different ways. This is why it is important (talking to the likes of Gina Rodriguez here) to differentiate between the needs of Black women and non-black women, because the juxtaposition of the marriageable white woman and the sexualised Black woman demonstrates the vested interest white women have in the colonisation of Black female bodies.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and these systems and discourses are still in place. Black women are not allowed to dress sexily, for fear of being labelled as ‘ghetto’ or ‘ratchet’. There’s an assumed pre-disposition for being curvy, which, although men love it, they do not make an effort to protect, but rather exploit.

White women are allowed to appropriate braids, afros, and curls, but Black women are judged for wearing weaves or wigs. White women love to tan and darken their skin, but Black women are abused incessantly for the colour of theirs. You can see how the same colonial ideologies mentioned earlier prevail in today’s society, hence why it is important to differentiate between white and Black women’s experiences.

Whilst the sexuality of women is tied to the service of men, applicable to all women, Black women are afforded zero agency over their bodies and sexuality. Such images of sexual autonomy and power in the mainstream culture appear only for white women: Sex and the City, Fifty Shades of Grey etc., only Black owned productions ever show Black female autonomy. The examples of Black women being scrutinised in the media for their appearance seem to never end. And let’s not get started on the ‘angry’/’aggressive’ Black woman in the workplace.

This hyper-sexualisation is also present in the Black community. The aforementioned association with Black women being curvier means they are seen as being ‘grown’ from a young age, and are therefore somehow ‘asking for it’. Take a look at the victims of R. Kelly. Every single one of the girls he abused was a young Black woman – the sense of ownership he has over Black women is horrifying.

Religion is another vehicle through which our own community degrades Black women, as it is the strongest force for patriarchal oppression we have seen. In many Black communities, religion is the be-all and end-all.

If you are a Black woman read-ing this, I don’t want this to be a depressing read! I did consider the draining nature of such a comparative article, but I had to consider the audience that needs to be taught. I want to highlight and bring home the need for Black feminist movements, and for us to hold tight and continue to claim them as Black and not for all women.

The #Me-Too movement started by Kimberley Crenshaw was supposed to be a movement for Black women to speak out about their sexual abuse stories and empower other Black women – because, as we can see, Black women’s experiences differ greatly to those of other women and consist of very different social dynamics. However, upon being highjacked by mainstream celebrities and made ‘popular’ and ‘trendy’ it became a movement for everyone.

Additionally, I appreciate how difficult it seems to begin to navigate ourselves as empowered, independent individuals, in charge of our own bodies, sexuality, and narratives, but unfortunately the responsibility lies with us, the victims. It is a daily struggle, especially in trying to occupy elite, white-dominated institutions, which is why it is more important than ever for us to rally around our sisters in support, and hope that one day, everyone else will catch up.

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