Recently I’ve been writing quite a bit about silence. As the debate over the Confederate flag unfolded and as Bree Newsome bravely climbed the flagpole to remove this so-called nuanced symbol of American bravery and hatred, I find myself thinking even more about silence and Black womanhood.
Today the symbol of hatred was removed from its place of public display.
Today, although probably not reported, some Black woman’s voice was muted. She was told, directly or indirectly, that she could not speak on race-gender oppression. Or if she was allowed to speak, her speech had to be tempered so as not to elicit the wrath of those in power. She could not speak of her lived experiences.
Today some lawmaker is exploring the use of drug testing for welfare dependent women.
But the flag came down. Ironically, it will be memorialized in a museum (but that’s another post on how society chooses to memorialize).
The symbolism of the flag, at least for some, violates the accepted norms of racial equality—or at least the desire to believe in the theory of racial equality.
Yet, the removal of this symbol exposes a type of vulnerability experienced by Black women. Particularly this symbol exposes Black women’s exposure to state, and pseudo-state, policies that render her muted and silenced (to some extent). The muting of these women is a political, economic and social act—that has a long history in the U.S.
The “confederate flag” is a symbol meant to silence. As such it embodies various strategies of social power and subjectivity. Embodied in this flag are not simply discourses of race, but also discourses of gender and discourses on race-gender–think of the term “nigg*r bit*h”. These discourses, although some argue are historical, have implications for our understanding of self—nation and individual today. So the question becomes, now that the flag is removed, what does this mean for Black women? How does this influence our understandings of social power and subjectivity?
Does the removal of the flag give the U.S. the opening to talk about:
These issues, and the state’s response embody rhetorical violence. They represent the manifestations of oppression and subjugation.
I have so many questions now that this flag has been removed. One of the key questions centers on injury and it’s interaction with race and gender.
The removal of the flag, especially because it was couched in a language of harm, affords us an opportunity to speak of state sanctioned violence. It provides an opening for discussing the state’s sanctioning of violence, particularly rhetorical violence (of which silence is a part) towards Black women.
First, we have to recognize how the state uses rhetorical violence.
One way in which the state enacts violence against Black women is seen in the rhetoric used to justify drug testing of “welfare” recipients. This rhetoric (mis)directs the failure of the state on to the individual. Thus, resulting policy fails to look at how welfare reform, a state practice, failed to meet it’s goals of lifting women out of poverty vis-à-vis-work, by suggesting that the policy is sound, but the women are flawed and that’s why the policy didn’t work.
Another example of state sanctioned violent rhetoric is seen in the language of “marriage promotion” for the poor. Again, what this language does is (mis)directs state failure on to indigent women by suggesting that reliance on The Man is misplaced and that these women need to learn how to be dependent on a man. What such violent language does is deny the oppressive structures of the state that often result in poor women’s limited access to jobs, health care, education, and safe living environments.
Violent rhetoric suggests that the marginalized and oppressed are “victimizing” themselves. Thus, the role of the state becomes obscured as the source of oppression and marginalization. So state violence becomes hidden in a language of individualism, personal responsibility, and neo-liberalism.
So now that the flag is removed can we have a conversation on how violent rhetoric, which was a part of the institutionalization of racism, continues to impact Black women, or will the rhetorical device of silence persist?
Who will say her name in an attempt to challenge and bring to the forefront the impact of rhetorical violence that influence public policies? Will Black women be folded up, symbolically in the flag; and the silence of the role of the state, in oppressing Black women, continue?