In 2020, we learned that a global health pandemic can drastically change the trajectory of our society — with the murders of countless Black men and women during the same year — we also learned that police violence is endemic. The exploitation and killing of Black and Brown people is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. 2020 was a particularly traumatic year for Black Americans — from the gruesome killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, we were forced to #SayTheirNames so many times that Black death is akin to having your coffee in the morning; it became very routine and habitual.
The constant exposure to technology and social media means that acknowledging and watching Black death is inescapable — as much as you try to tune it out, technology is an undeniable force. The reality of simply existing while Black and every-day ordinary activities like going for a run, walking to a store, and sleeping in your own bed could be met with the penalty of death. There is no more frightening experience than being Black in America. For many Black people in America, justice has always been an illusion. Justice and fairness have never been bestowed to Black Americans — -when white police officers are given the power to be the judge, jury, and executioner on our nation’s streets, and openly kill and murder Black people — all while facing little to no accountability for their actions-we know that justice is and will always be a contradiction for Black Americans.
The guilty verdict that came from the Derek Chauvin trial was a necessary step towards justice and acknowledging the humanity of Black people. Even in spite of the defense’s smear campaign against George Floyd — painting him as a perpetual drug dealer and an unsavory character — we also discovered that America can occasionally show compassion towards Black men. I logged onto Facebook after the verdict was announced, and witnessed many friends expressing sentiments of celebration, relief, and sadness. But as Black people, we’ve also learned that Black joy is short lived — and we can never relish in the victories of a country that has our blood on their hands. Moments after the verdict was announced, a white police officer shot and killed a 16-year-old Black woman, Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus Ohio on April 20th. Officer Nicholas Reardon approached the scene and witnessed Ma’Khia Bryant swing a knife at another woman. Nicholas Reardon did not attempt to intervene or deescalate the situation — instead, he responded instantaneously by shooting Ma’Khia Bryant four times, and killing her.
Ma’Khia Bryant, like most cases involving Black girls and women has received noticeably little attention from the media, and like most cases, we fail to acknowledge their humanity and agency — we engage in victim blaming, and blame them for their involvement in troubling situations, and their subsequent untimely death. Studies show that the actions and behaviors of Black girls are judged more harshly — they are more likely to be punished for being outspoken and expressive — society has learned to criminalize Black girlhood, failing to grant them the same individuality, respect, and freedom to express their authentic self like we do white children.
I have seen people of all races and ethnicities express indifference to the death of Ma’Khia Bryant-acknowledging that she shouldn’t have been attempting to inflict harm on another woman — and thus because she chose to do harm to another person, her death is unquestionably justified. We obviously have reached an impasse in society when we readily accept the death of 16-year-old Black girl, but then see the humanity in white men like Dylann Roof or Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed and harmed Black people and communities. It was the lack of acknowledgment of Ma’Khia’s humanity that led to her unfortunate death — the officer did not see a young girl in need of dire help, a young girl who had been victimized by the cruelty of the foster care system or a young girl who had her whole life ahead of her. We ignore the possibilities and humanity of Black girlhood — when we instantly view them as criminal and unworthy.
America needs to have a conversation with itself about why they hate Black girls and women so much. The world has denied us our agency, our freedom of expression and our liberties. Why can’t America see the humanity in Ma’Khia Bryant, but we see the humanity in white men who commit mass terrorist attacks? In incidents of mass terrorism or gun violence where white men are the primary perpetrators, we’re often met with stories from those who knew the shooter; close family members or friends may say that they could never imagine that a person like this would commit such a heinous crime. We’ve learned to separate the person from the crime in these situations, but that same differentiation and analysis is never granted to Black girls and women.
On April 20th, the officer failed to see the humanity in Ma’Khia, a young girl who had reached out to the police prior to the incident as a cry for help. The Ohio State foster care system in which Ma’Khia found herself faces increased scrutiny. Many Black and Brown children enter foster homes where they remain unsupervised, abused, exposed to daily trauma, and not properly taken care of. We live in a nation that continues to rationalize the reasons why white people, in particular white men commit violence, but Black girls and women are never given that same leniency or rationalization. Acknowledging the humanity of Ma’Khia would mean that we understand how a young girl failed by a foster care system could resort to violence because she felt as if that was her only viable option.
Acknowledging the humanity of Ma’Khia also means that we recognize that Black girls and women never get to publicly deal with and process their pain. During slavery, Black men were hung publicly, and Black girls were raped in secret — Black women were forced to deal with their own sexual exploitation behind closed doors. The Black woman “superhero” means Black women are not able to be vulnerable, cry, express fear, or trauma — they must remain stoic, unmoved, and unaffected. We can’t deny Black women vulnerability and then punish or blame them when they act out? Black women always have to contort themselves to what people believe is socially desirable. We can never be too loud, too bold, or too courageous. We can’t defend ourselves. We must be slow to speak, slow to act and react.
We need to talk about why we don’t understand the emotional pain and trauma of Black girls and Black women, but we accept the tears and pain of white women. We need to ask ourselves why the tears of white women command respect, attention and can dramatically shift any conversation. We need to ask ourselves why the tears and pain of white women can cause others in the room to be at their beck and call and acquiesce to their desires. Most importantly, we need to talk about why we don’t empathize with the pain and victimization of Black girls and women.