White Male Patriarchy Says I’m Disposable — Until White People Need Us To Save Them From Themselves
As I sit here, reflecting on the Senate race in Alabama, wondering how a credibly accused child molestor and open homophobe and racist was ever seen as an acceptable candidate — and how he only lost because Black voters and organizers worked tirelessly to ensure he did — I’m reminded of my childhood. Of how I’ve always been taught, and always known, that Black people must do so much and benefit so little.
When I was a kid, my father would say things like, “Your teachers are going to underestimate you. Prove them wrong.” Or “They are going to look for reasons to punish you. Don’t give them any.” Or “They are going to assume the worst about you. Be the best, instead.” And “Sometimes your best will still be seen as less than their worst. Be your best anyway.”
That was a lot of pressure for elementary school. Looking back, I see why he said these things. When I was in first grade, my teacher didn’t realize for half the year that not only could I read, but I was reading at a middle school level. Instead of acknowledging this, my teacher called me a troublemaker. My mom routinely came to school for “discipline” reasons due to my boredom. Once my mom understood what was happening, she had me moved to a teacher who not only understood that I was capable, but used my capability as a resource in her class, assigning me the task of helping other students with their reading. I know I wasn’t the only Black child labeled a troublemaker; I just happened to have a parent with the bandwidth to challenge that presumption.Those other kids were diminished and marginalized by a teacher who couldn’t be bothered to engage with her Black students; their future was defined by a white woman’s assumptions.
By middle school, I was the only Black child in the accelerated program. Twenty-nine white children and me. I’ve always found it peculiar that no other Black students were in that class with me, especially as many of the students in that class should not have been there, and by the next year were gone. Not that it was a great experience. My questions were interpreted as insubordinate. My high-test scores were evidence of cheating. My boredom with school was seen as a sign of disrespect. Over the years, I learned to still my fidgeting, mask my impatience, and stop asking questions, only to then be accused of not caring about my education. And when I behaved like the other kids in my class, I was forcibly reminded of my real status by my father.
“You don’t get to mess up,” he’d say. “You don’t get to do what everybody else does. You have to remember that when something goes missing, they will accuse you. When something is broken, you are their first suspect. Those people out there aren’t interested in your mistakes. When you screw up, you lose your chance.”
And when I forgot his lesson, the world reminded me of it, be it through re-tests when I earned perfect scores, or questions about the sources of my paper topics, or punishments for things outside of my control, like the time I lost my badge as a safety monitor for not preventing a fight from breaking out. Once, I was expected to take a test after returning from an educational trip — the teacher explained that despite spending the week in DC learning about the government, he couldn’t give me a week to learn the new material. That test brought down my grade, but my request for a few extra days was dismissed as asking for “special treatment” — and who was I to expect that?
Discrepancies like this happened throughout elementary school. Middle school. High school. Being in the accelerated program did provide me some protections; my proximity to what was thought to be the smartest examples of whiteness meant that I did receive the benefit of the doubt at times. I spoke like them. I excelled in their studies. I’d shown them that I could do what they do, and do it well. But they always saw my Blackness as something to be watched. Studied. Anticipated. They waited for an opportunity to prove I was irredeemable — just like those other Black people. Blood always shows…or in this case, skin. For years, they waited for the opening to throw me away.
I went to parties where my Blackness was shouted out. “Come meet my BLACK friend,” they’d say. When I balked they said I was too sensitive, and when I pushed they stopped inviting me. Disposable.
I was always on the outside. My absence, unnoticed. It is no surprise that when I stopped associating with them altogether, life moved on, the loss unimportant to all of us. I made new friends, gained new white people from forced proximity, and continued to learn that our friendships would never be deep, never be meaningful, and never last. I knew that if I couldn’t keep them comfortable in their whiteness, I would be disposed of. I learned not to care because by then, they were disposable, too.
But that was 20 years ago, and racism was talked about differently then. I grew up in the generation of kids raised by Black people who lived through the Civil Rights protests. Black people who now had opportunities that had been barred from them. My father taught me to do my best, stay quiet, and excel. Give them no reason to see you as disposable. Make yourself indispensable. Overcompensate. When they steal your work, learn to let it go. When they lie, protect yourself, just not at their expense. When they harm you, learn how to manage it without accusing them of anything. Do not make waves. Do not call them racist. Do not call them sexist. Smile, pretend everything is great, and then come home and let everything out. And always remember, they don’t want you there, so do everything you can to avoid giving them a reason to dispose of you. They will never let you belong.
We see this in all ways, all the time. From seemingly small incidents like being ignored at work to large ones like the lack of reporting on police violence against Black women, we see the humanity of Black women being dismissed and discarded in favor of whiteness. We see it every time a Black girl is viciously attacked by police or school security or the neighborhood watch, and white supremacy races in to “justify” that abuse. White people and people who support white supremacy justified Korryn Gaines’ murder. They justify attacking Black teenage girls. They justify inhumane treatment of Black women because we aren’t supposed to matter, so for them, we don’t.
Which brings me back to Alabama.
Over the last few months, we watched white supremacy work overtime to disenfranchise voters and advocate for a known racist and alleged sexual abuser to take public office. And now that the election is over — and we see from the exit polls that Black women played a pivotal role in electing Doug Jones, the first Democrat Alabama senator in 25 years — we must, in typical fashion, watch as white supremacy skews the narrative to minimize and erase the impact and importance of Black women.
“They saved us,” white people say, erasing our personal motives and structuring the narrative to prioritize whiteness. As usual with white supremacy, our votes aren’t being viewed as designed to save us — they’re being viewed as designed to save white people. To save the country.
And meanwhile, this country we saved? It will inevitably continue to turn its back on us. “This is not just a question about African American voters,” Doug Jones said. “This election is about everybody in the state.” But somehow, that American “everybody” seems to rarely, if ever, include Black women.
We live in America, a country that was built on the exploitation and casual murder of Black people, and which has continuously blamed us for our struggles. For Black women in America, there are no good options. Very rarely are we able to choose someone who understands and represents us, and when we do, we are met with extreme prejudice and dismissal, regardless of qualifications and achievements.
And so, we are forced to support candidates who advocate locking us up, who call Black men “super predators,” who pass legislation to destroy our economic capabilities, and who profit off the suffering of Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). We do not make these decisions because we believe in these candidates. We do it out of pure pragmatism, because the choices are just that dismal.
Black women’s votes save so many people, yet our interests are the first to be discarded and ignored. Consider that, in the case of the Alabama election and so many others, we had to step up in spite of voter suppression, a constant battleground for Black women and a war that is largely ignored by white people. Because, after all, addressing that would mean white people could no longer perpetuate the narrative of their inherent benevolence and goodness.
Black women, we’re told, are here to save others, not ourselves. As we are asked to be strong Black women, capable of saving the world from itself, we are also told we can’t save ourselves from our male rapists and male abusers; we aren’t legally protected, and we aren’t socially protected. We aren’t even protected by our fathers, brothers, sons, or lovers…instead we are expected to save them, too, all while being happy we got a man to protect. We are taught to deny ourselves the love of anyone not Black, while being subjected to the misogynoir rampant in our society.
This is what it means to navigate the world as a Black woman. This is what it means to be disposable while refusing to be disposed of.
But I am not disposable. You can try. You do try. But I have spent my life refusing to be someone’s trash, and instead I am this amazing and accomplished Black woman. I live a life of joy and struggle, but I do what I can, embrace my humanity, and keep moving forward. I do it because that’s what I must do.
And I’m not alone. Studies consistently find that Black women have higher self-esteem and self-worth than non-Black women. We fight for our space to exist because we know we’re worthy of the effort. I don’t want it to be this way. I want Black women to have the freedom to be human in all its complexities and contradictions. I want us to have spaces where we can fail without worrying about it destroying our entire lives and families. I want us to be able to be vulnerable without having it exploited and weaponized against us. I want to see award-winning movies about Black life and have them be boring or mundane or transcendent without them being about slavery, poverty, drugs, or struggle. I want the freedom to be excellent or mediocre and have neither be representative of my Blackness. I want the freedom in this society to be me.
I know I am valuable. I know I am indispensable. I know my life matters. Too bad this country will not see that until it’s strangling itself to death.