Beginning in 1945, as a black male child, I spent my early years in a small southern town where everything was “black” and “white.” As a black child, I stood on the oppressed side of the fence as I experienced the injustices imposed upon black folk by a culture of white supremacy. But, as a male child, I stood on the oppressor’s side of the fence as I witnessed the injustices imposed upon women by a culture of male privilege.
While I chaffed under the oppression to which I was subjected as a black person, I was indifferent to the oppression suffered by women – an oppression that was particularly harsh on black women. I grew up in a world where I felt wronged by a culture that asserted that I had less value and “had a place” on the lower rungs of society as a black person. But I saw no injustice in a culture that asserted that women were on a lower rung than that upon which the men were placed. This was true, even though I knew that the place allocated to women had fewer benefits than those allocated to men.
It was very clear to me that the notion of white supremacy led to white privilege. The white children rode to school in the newer buses; they got the new text books, and it was not until those books were torn and worn and needed to be replaced that they would then be distributed to the black schools. This was also true for most of the athletic equipment.
\What was not so clear to me was that black women were working just as hard, but making less money than black men. And as hard as it was for black men to get credit from the banks, it was even harder for black women; a reality that existed until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974.
The invisibility of the suffering of black women was a cultural characteristic of the community in which I spent my childhood. Black women were subsumed into the broader classification of “black folk” when it came to racial injustice, and subsumed again into the broader classification of “women” generally when it came to the issue of male dominance.
I had a front row seat as a witness. My mother was a strong, well-educated black woman with a career. She often used her energy to battle injustice, both from white supremacy and from the patriarchal oppression we knew as male dominance. But in spite of all this, I did not flinch when I heard black ministers preach the gospel of male dominance from the pulpit. I did not question privileges given to boys that were denied to girls. It did not seem strange to me that younger brothers were allowed to play outside later on summer evenings than their older sisters. And while I knew one of the first women to vote in my county (who was black), it did not seem odd to me that she cast that ballot more than 50 years after black men were “technically” given the vote. Perhaps I was too focused on how difficult it was for most black folk, men and women, to vote. But for whatever reason, as a child, the past denial of the right of women to vote did not seem to be an injustice that should concern me.
Now that I am older, I understand things that eluded me in my childhood. I am able to see, at this point in my life, that within the context of race relations, patriarchy is vital to White supremacy. The apex of privilege in America is that afforded to white males. They benefit from both white privilege as well as male privilege. The white male maintains this position at the top of American society because he has collaborators among men of color who uphold his male privilege, as well as collaborators among white women who uphold his white privilege.
And men of color who collaborate in the maintenance of male privilege only reap half of the privilege afforded to white men, if that, because men of color cannot enjoy white privilege. Likewise, white women who collaborate in the maintenance of white privilege only reap half of the privilege afforded to white men, because White women cannot enjoy male privilege.
And in enjoying their respective “half shares” of privilege, men of color and white women do not bother to look down and see that they each have a foot on the back of the women of color and denying her access to any special privilege at all. In order to maintain their piece of privilege, both the white female and the black male who collaborate in upholding their own unique privilege act as both oppressor and oppressed. This collaboration is not done unwittingly, but neither these black males nor these white females are willing to forego their piece of privilege. And in this dual complicity, those black men and those white women are shouldering the culture of white patriarchal privilege.
Black men, who are complicit in the culture of male dominance, have to come to understand that they have their foot on the backs of the black women. And white women, who are complicit in the culture of white preference, have to come to understand that have their feet on the backs of black women.
The president’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative has a patriarchal component to it that I believe in the long run will work to the disadvantage of women of color. It casts both the problems and solutions in terms that seem more fitting for my small Southern town 60 years ago. It may be difficult for some to see, but the exclusion of women and girls from the president’s initiative is as patriarchal as barring married women from obtaining credit without their husband’s signature.
The problems that I have with My Brother’s Keeper are tied to a complexity of the issues, and there needs to be a dialogue in order to discuss the various options available to the national community for seeking appropriate solutions to the problems faced by both boys and girls of color. I do not believe that it is too much to ask for gender equity in our pursuit of racial justice, because we can’t solve racial inequality by focusing on only half of the community and leaving patriarchal culture intact.
(Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps. Combat pilot and human rights activists who practices law in Virginia.)
(Special to the NNPA from Perspective.)