In recent weeks, the phrase ‘Protect Black Women’ has appeared all over social media.
But like other related platitudes (see: ‘it’s not enough to not be racist, you have to be anti-racist’ and ‘I stand with the Black community’), it’s a statement that needs rigorous unpacking in order to actually have impact.
What does it mean to ‘Protect Black Women’ in real and specific terms? The scope of the answer is so wide that it’s probably easier to just tell you what it doesn’t mean.
Protecting Black women does not mean invalidating their experiences by making memes and jokes out of them, and calling them ‘sensitive’ or ‘difficult’ when they react.
And it certainly does not mean waiting for them to burst into tears and break down before you believe that they are truly hurting.
But that’s exactly what happened to Megan Thee Stallion in front of our eyes this month.
The Texan rapper, who was born Megan Pete, was involved in an incident on July 12 in which she was shot in both feet and had to have surgery to remove the bullets.
For the uninitiated: Megan is 25-year-old rap phenomenon who rose to major fame after coining the body-positive movement-turned-hit-song ‘Hot Girl Summer’ in 2019.
Most recently, she soundtracked our quarantine and spawned a million TikToks with her chart-topping, Beyoncé-featuring single ‘Savage’.
She’s one of the hottest rappers on the scene currently, with an overwhelmingly positive and inclusive personal brand. So why did it take her crying on camera, two weeks after she was initially shot, for the world to start caring about her pain?
After Megan confirmed her injuries via Instagram on July 15, alongside some genuinely sincere messages of shock and dismay mainly from her loyal, Black femme fanbase, came an onslaught of flippant, insensitive memes and ‘jokes’.
These weren’t only coming from general members of the public, but fellow rappers and celebrities with big platforms, like 50 Cent and Chrissy Teigen (who have both now apologised, admitting their jokes were misinformed and dumb respectively), and Cam’ron (whose is still live on his Instagram). These people sidelined their empathy in favour of getting likes and retweets for their comedy.
The discourse on social media became so dehumanising that Megan was forced to address it on July 17, in a tweet that read: ‘Black women are so unprotected & we hold so many things in to protect the feelings of others w/o considering our own. It might be funny to y’all on the internet and just another messy topic for you to talk about but this is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.’
It hit home hard to witness a young Black woman, in the midst of terrible pain, have to explicitly verbalise it as a plea to be taken seriously. This is a burden reserved for those who we perceive to be indestructible.
And while some – belatedly – took note and stopped making light of the situation, many still didn’t. Model and TV personality Draya Michele romanticised the incident in a podcast interview on July 22, saying she wished someone ‘liked [her] so much they’d shoot [her] in the foot’.
The world showers stars like Megan with adoration while she entertains them, but dismisses her humanity when she needs it most
Many others continued to circulate memes and old Vines. A video that surfaced on TMZ of Megan limping from the car with a bloodied foot and her hands up was even reposted on Twitter by thousands. All the while, mainstream media coverage remained piecemeal and altogether superficial.
So finally, on July 27, Megan came on Instagram Live for the first time since the incident to clear up the rumours that were swirling around – including that she herself had been violent in the lead-up to the shooting. This vicious rumour feeds into the Angry Black Girl stereotype, suggesting that in order for her to be a victim, she must also have been a perpetrator.
The Instagram Live may have been cathartic for Megan, as she finally got to speak her truth and dispel conspiracy theories. But it should never have gotten to that point.
Megan became visibly upset as she described having to undergo surgery to remove bullet fragments from both of her feet. She went on to detail how she was still grappling with the death of her mother (who was also her best friend and manager) in March 2019, and explained that, in her attempt to fill the space her parents had left in her life, she surrounded herself with people she thought would make her happy. She cried on multiple occasions throughout the video, which was punctuated with long pauses to compose herself before continuing to speak.
In the wake of this soul-baring broadcast, figures such as 50 Cent surfaced once again to apologise for their previous comments and show support for Megan in the light of her – *checks notes* – fourth effort to explicitly state the distress she is in.
While it was frustrating and exhausting to watch, it wasn’t surprising. Even in the midst of supposed political awakenings across the globe, as Black women continue to form the backbone of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and modern feminism – adopting roles as emotional supports, educators and confidants while often underpaid and undervalued – we are seldom afforded the same level of dignity and empathy that we provide for those around us.
Megan shouldn’t have had to explain herself so many times, and cry on camera, before people offered her their sympathy. Black women should not have to perform their pain and reach a breaking point in public in order for you to view us as fragile or precious enough to care for. By then, it’s just too late.
So often, Black women are commended for our ‘strength’ and power, while we are mined for innovation and creativity. The world showers stars like Megan with adoration while she entertains them, but dismisses her humanity when she needs it most. In our times of need, the trope of the Strong Black Woman harms us gravely.
After the Instagram Live, Megan posted a selfie dolled up in an immaculate face of makeup, adorned with jewels, with a caption that read: ‘Unbreakable’. But the truth is that she is not. None of us are.
Black women are constantly forced to present themselves as strong, because it’s a way to cope with a world that pushes us to our limits.
Only in retrospect, when the myth of the Unbreakable Black Woman is proven false – when we snap or shatter or are taken in the night – do we have the world’s attention.
It’s reminiscent of the way we demand ‘justice’ for murdered activist Toyin Salau, or railway worker Belly Mujinga, or victims of police brutality like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland after they are already gone.
Too often, society only stands up to protect Black women once it’s already too late. We need to ask ourselves why we think that’s enough.
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