When my son was a teenager, living with his father in another state, he came to visit me in the suburbs of Virginia. He is nearly 6 feet tall, chestnut brown skinned. Like many suburbs there is no concept of the corner store. But about a half mile from our house was a gas station, with the usual quick shop that was pretty much the same thing as the corner store in residential urban centers. To get to this gas station by car was a short run. There was a shortcut through the woods behind my house, so that anyone trying to reach the store by foot could cut off some of the distance required in a car. I suggested this out of the way path to him. He told me in no short order. “Mom, I’m a Black male. I can’t be sneaking out of the woods at almost dark in this part of the world.”
I was embarrassed to think I had not considered how potentially perilous this might be, but starkly reminded what it is like to survive as a young Black male in the US, still today.
I remember reading an article that stated unequivocally that the income of the average college graduate Black male was about equal to the income of the average white high school graduate. I made the point with both my sons: college education was not an option. It was mandatory, to even begin to compete. I guess they got the message because both went straight through college directly after high school (and one of them even returned later for a law degree). My three daughters, on the other hand took a more circular path meanwhile. All of them went to college, but none of them either went directly from high school or route maintained a direct course through to the first degree.
In all other ways I attempted to raise my boys and my girls with the same, love, attention, compassion, responsibility and engagement. Both my boys can cook, clean, do their own laundry and yet, I note with some affection these days, now that they are in the same city together, they hang out pumping up to 300 pounds at the gym. That same son, now a father, will strap his baby girl on his chest and sweep without thinking twice about it. I love my boys I am very proud of them as young men.
However, I never forget the odds that are against them and the data about the fate of young black men and boys in the context of a system and culture riddled with racism, white supremacy and misogyny. So on the one hand, I can well understand the Obama initiative My Brother’s Keeper with its intended goal to “help every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead”.
Still, I am one of the signatories of a counter proposal started by a collective of women of color to make this important initiative inclusive of girls and young women of color, given the “shared fate that has propelled our historic struggle for racial justice.” To be sure, this letter starts with an applause for the effort on the part of the White House, but expresses a cause for concern over the exclusion of young women and girls of color in this initiative. The same conditions exists for males and females of color in this country, so how can such an initiative go forward to the point of making girls and young women invisible?
Both males and females suffer from the systemic racism and lack of social justice. Detailed data is provided in the letter about the effect of injustice on girls of color, but it is also available anywhere one might search: the disparity between the life choices for girls and women of color and our white counterparts is stark. It does not mean to ignore their brothers, but in this MBK initiative this data seems insignificant while elaboration of the ill effects on males of color is made to stand out.
“Girls and young women must be included in all our efforts to lift up the life chances of youth of color. To those who would urge us to settle for some separate initiative, we need only recall that separate but equal has never worked in conditions of inequality, nor will it work for girls and women of color here.”
“To those who would urge us to take up our concern with the White House Council on Women and Girls, we note that the Council, like many gender-focused initiatives on women, lacks an intersectional frame that would address the race-based challenges faced by young women of color in a racially-stratified society.”
Having worked on gender in the context of Islam and Muslims, I note the number of international initiatives earmarked for women and girls. I agree with the United Nation’s assessment regarding the enduring impact of gender inequality embedded in even very subtle socialization of women and girls to conclude that access to justice requires the substantive model of equality. The substantive model seeks to correct the disadvantages that have lingered for generations which make it impossible to perceive of or achieve justice and equality with the ability to start on a level playing field. So I have seen, participated in, and supported programs that have been initiated exclusively for women.
But the idea that somehow My Brother’s Keeper can expect to achieve justice for men and boys of color while blatantly ignoring women and girls of color in this context needs to rethink one thing: How can men and boys get ahead if we leave women and girls behind or ignore them all together?
I invite you to follow up on this effort and the counter discourses: please read the petition and join us in signing it.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.