The Ghost of Frederick Douglass II by Charles White
It seemed like a typical set of comments in a social media thread. A group catering to African/Black people was discussing topical issues. That day it was about the relationships between heterosexual men and women. One of the women claimed African men were not able to participate in patriarchy as we didn’t have the systemic power to oppress. I knew something was not right with that statement. I don’t often, if ever, challenge women on their take on patriarchy and I didn’t that time.
African women have told too many stories of abuse at the hands of men exerting power over them—all too many of them African men; I was keenly aware that African men were perpetrators of such oppression. We do have patriarchal power, although it is limited.
I call the patriarchal abuse and power that African men wield “provisional” or “conditional oppression,” confined in ways not true for European men. What the woman on the post was saying in her own way was that racism affects African people powerfully and is a foundational dynamic in our experience in the USAmerica. Racism can supersede nearly all semblances of power and agency that African men exercise. The example that immediately comes to mind is of Emmett Till’s murder at the hands of European/white men for the alleged “crime” of having inappropriately interacted with a European/white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Bryant had lied about what happened and the racist judicial system supported her claim. (A half century later, Bryant confessed that she had fabricated key parts of her charges against the 14-year-old.)
Too many similar situations have documented African men being falsely accused by European women and experiencing disproportionately more punitive sentences for similar or lesser crimes than European men. The judicial slap on the wrist given to Europeans Brock Turner and Jacob Anderson (both raped women students at their universities) is affirmation of racism working in concert with patriarchy.
Thanks to the Combahee River Collective, a radical Black feminist organization which centered its work around Black women and Women of Color (1970s and beyond; they coined the term “identity politics”), the concept of instersectionality in liberation struggles took form. It provided a new and growing context for analyzing systemic oppression. This context helps us to see the need to expand our vision across a singular oppression in order to understand the ways in which racism, class, and heterosexism work in concert with patriarchy and other oppressive systems.
History provides us with undeniable examples of the overlap of multiple oppressions in the legacy of criminal Christopher Columbus (who I call Criminal Columbus). During his reign of terror, he and his crew instituted rape as a weapon of war, among other atrocities. Later, during the chattel enslavement of Africans, the systemic rape of African women and relegation to breeding farms became a horrific part of European life in the colonies and the later United States of America. Racism was being given form and function at the hands of European/white and primarily male settler-colonizers. Patriarchy and racism were becoming seamlessly and dangerously fused—along with other oppressions—to secure the power, privilege and status of white Christian men in a growing global system that would engulf Indigenous peoples on nearly every continent. These entangled legacies are still present in USAmerican policies, capitalist economy and social politics.
Understanding the “provisional” oppression that Men of Color and Indigenous men can carry out in the context of how European men oppress African, Indigenous and other men, women and queer and non-binary people, can help us ground our liberation work. By acknowledging the intersections of patriarchy and racism, we can more clearly see the way forward toward a fuller liberation of all racially targeted populations. From there we will be able to provide men with a deeper, broader roadmap on the journey to freeing ourselves from the violent confines of unearned patriarchal and racist privilege and power.
Note to readers: “African” is used by this writer to identify those normally referred to as Black in the interest of a deeper cultural-historical validation that includes African people from the continent and in the diaspora. Similarly, “European” is used to denote white people to support greater historical and cultural consideration.