No One Is Coming to Save Black Women, So We Save Ourselves
Two events in the past week have brought to the forefront, once again, just how unprotected black women are. The first is the viral video of 20 year-old McDonald’s employee, Yasmine James, defending herself from assault by 40 year-old McDonald’s customer, Daniel Taylor. The second is the premiere of the six-part documentary produced by Dream Hampton and airing on Lifetime, Surviving R. Kelly.
Taylor, who was angered at being told that due to a city ordinance, he would have to ask for a plastic straw rather than having straws readily available in the restaurant lobby, responded to the news by grabbing James and pulling her across the counter. James, who comes from a family of professional boxers, was able to fend off Taylor’s attack while her mostly male co-workers looked on. The one coworker who eventually intervened initially grabbed James’s arms—hindering her ability to defend herself against Taylor and making her more vulnerable to Taylor’s continued assault—before finally pulling Taylor away. While some heralded James’s fighting skills, many black women who watched that video understood instinctively that James had to fight back because no one was coming to her rescue. James herself expressed a similar sentiment in a later interview.
In the six-hour documentary Surviving R. Kelly, viewers hear from several of the women who have come forward to accuse Kelly of sexual abuse and assault that occurred when many of the women were teenagers. Despite almost two decades of reporting on the singer’s predation, R. Kelly has yet to face any significant consequences for his behavior. In fact other musicians, including Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper, the latter who admitted in the documentary that perhaps he did not take the allegations against Kelly seriously enough because the accusers were black girls and women.
In that moment, Chance the Rapper admitted what many people refuse to acknowledge: that black women’s pain, vulnerability, and abuse are not taken seriously. Black women are often left fending for ourselves while others either look on or ignore us completely. This reality is not lost on black women and has significant consequences on our mental and physical well-being. That we do sometimes successfully fend for ourselves, because we have no choice, is then taken as evidence that we didn’t need help in the first place.
This attitude that black women don’t need help in the same way that others might, spills into our work environments, where black women are more likely to report feeling isolated and not having any mentors to guide career advancement. It spills into the healthcare system, where even high-profile black women like Serena Williams have difficulty getting providers to take out symptoms seriously, which not only contributes to health disparities and excess mortality, but also contributes to discomfort with healthcare providers.
Furthermore, when black women do take matters into our own hands, we are more likely to be penalized for doing so, such as being characterized as “angry,” a stereotypical characterization that negatively impacts black women’s mental health. Additionally, we are more likely to be prosecuted for acting in self-defense. Black women are placed in an impossible situation. No one is coming to help us, but we are punished for helping ourselves. To be sure, Ms. James did not face charges for defending herself against Taylor’s assault, despite the fact that Taylor can be heard in the video demanding that she be fired and arrested. And, yes, Surviving R. Kelly aired for six hours on a major cable channel and is already being re-aired. But that these events are the exception, and in Kelly’s instance, 20 years in the making, is evidence that there is a long way to go in order for black women to receive the same consideration that others take for granted.