Last week, Amina Wadud wrote an important post, “Justice for Mike Brown,” discussing Mike Brown’s death in light of Brown vs. The Board of Education, Plessy vs. Ferguson and the injustice faced by African American Communities, particularly in the US legal/ criminal justice system. She highlights the dehumanizing practices that lead us to criminalize black bodies, beginning in childhood.
Considering her post and many, many other articles and news reports over the past several months, and particularly this last week, since the Grand Jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, I felt compelled to speak about a certain quality of kyriarchal oppression: that of rendering the oppressed “unbelievable.” I will not recount the details of the case here (please see the link above for links to court documents through NPR), nor will I try to “speak for” African American communities– nor can I. However, I think it is important that we bloggers and readers at feminismandreligion.com continue to consider the recent verdict and the critical justice issues it raises, as well as remember the tragedy of Mike Brown’s death, and so many men and women like him.
Actor and activist Jessie Williams, who many know from the popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy, gave a passionate and salient interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” back in August after Michael Brown was killed. You can watch most of the interview with Williams, LZ Granderson and Tara Wall here; you can watch here for the clip I mention below. Like Wadud, he too discusses the criminalization of black bodies, drawing from the everyday experience of Black men in the United States to make his case. At the end of the interview, Williams powerfully asserts, “We’re not making this up.”
“We’re not making this up.”
Not too long ago, my husband and I were talking about the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of kyriarchal economic oppression. Every time I come back to the question of ‘why’ I am reminded of exactly the point Williams is making here: some people really believe that ‘other’ (marginalized) people are making ‘it’ (their lived experience) up whether it be for attention, special treatment, sympathy or some other reason. This reality, the privilege, the ignorance and the total unwillingness to believe that a different experience than one’s own could possibly be true, is outrageous, frustrating and understandably enraging.
I am reminded here of the book Cunt by Inga Muscio. Muscio discusses the sexual education she received as a child, watching a video in which a “doctorly sounding male narrator,” “informed” her and a room full of female fourth graders that “any pain or discomfort we [women] might feel resided ‘in our heads,’ and had been collectively imagined by womankind for thousands of years.”
Later in the book Muscio sarcastically feigns vindication when science ‘discovers’ that PMS is actually real—because, ‘you know, women couldn’t possibly be trusted to tell the truth of their own bodies.’ I use this example in many of my classes when discussing institutional sexism in medical science because it is highly relatable and somewhat ludicrous in contemporary US collegiate culture.
The propagation of ridiculous un-truth, however, hits close to home when we talk about rape culture and believability in my classes—particularly when considering studies (and lived experience) that show how women of color (particularly black women) are far less likely to be believed by police and judges when testifying to their rape than white women.
The unwillingness to grant the right of testimony, the right of authority—an ability to authorize one’s own experience—is quintessential oppressive power. Examples of this preclusion and disbelief abound in our legal histories when we consider who (which race, which sex, which sexuality, which body) is admitted as a ‘reliable witnesses,’ who is allowed to testify, what is considered a crime, and against whom or what a particular crime is said to be against.
When particular bodies, like the Black male body, are deliberately criminalized and dehumanized, the issue of disbelief compounds and “others” are made into “monsters” that can be ‘justifiably’ murdered, jailed, disbelieved, distrusted and disenfranchised.
Experiences of oppression are not “made up,” as Williams, Wadud and so many other writers, activists, bloggers, reporters, community leaders, religious authorities and historical figures have told us. Structural violence is well documented, and lived truth. Yet, the invisibility of privilege and the unwillingness to address privilege where it exists continues to ignore and obscure “other” realities through narratives of blame, shame and dehumanization.
What I have been reading lately, what I have been trying to pay close attention to, what I have been trying to think about are humanizing strategies: humanizing strategies that can battle the often unconscious internalization of deliberately dehumanizing narratives and that can create justice-making in places where injustice abounds.
Listening—that is, listening and believing is an important strategy for people of privilege like myself. Thank you to all of the people of color who have informed my knowledge for this post. I also find hope in Restorative Justice programs, like that in Oakland, CA. Restorative justice works to address the needs behind harms for victims and offenders, involving the whole community in a solution.
What are your humanizing strategies? What do you think can create justice-making from this place of injustice?
 Inga Muscio, Cunt, Seal Press, Berkley, CA: 2002,17
 Peitsch, Nicole. “’I’m Not That Kind of Girl:’ White Femininity, the Other, and the Legal/ Social Sanctioning of Sexual Violence Against Racialized Women.” Canadian Woman Studies; Fall 2009/ Winter 2010: 28, 1; Gender Watch pg. 136
 Darren Wilson testified that Brown looked like a “demon” to him, effectively making Brown into a monster.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.