Friday, June 12, 2020

Who Will #RunWithBlackGirls? Who Will Say Our Names?

“We also equally need to pay as much attention to what's happening to Black women and Black girls, and how violence happens to us.” - Korey T. Johnson

image credit: Korey T. Johnson, NPR

Trigger warning: racist violence, gender-based violence, hate crimes, police brutality, harassment

She deserves an abundance of media attention, with her petition surpassing 16 million signatures like George Floyd’s; instead, it only has 6 million. She deserves justice, yet her killers are walking freely and still have not been charged. She deserves to be alive and to have celebrated her 27th birthday on June 5, just a week before I turn 21 today. Breonna Taylor and the countless Black women before her who were senselessly killed — Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, Nina Pop, 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, and more — deserve to be here today. 

There are CNN specials dedicated to the Black male experience in America and running campaigns spurred by social media to honor victims of white supremacist violence like Ahmaud Arbery. However, Black female and Black LGBTQ+ victims of police brutality and hate crimes are often overlooked. Iyanna Dior, who was assaulted by 20 to 30 men after a “fender bender," is still with us but could’ve become another name added to the growing list of Black trans women who are killed yearly, like Dominique Fells and Riah Milton. Lest we forget Nia Wilson, a California teen who was stabbed to death by a white man while waiting for a train at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. These are just the stories we know.

On the evening of May 16, 24-year-old Korey T. Johnson was running through her Baltimore neighborhood with her friend Camille when a Black man began verbally harassing the two. The man followed the young women for several laps and to escape him, they ran into a hotel, where he began pounding on the plexiglass sliding door and making lewd comments. According to Johnson, a white female resident referred to the stranger as a “monkey” then asked if he was their boyfriend; Johnson responded, “No, we don't know him at all.” When the police were called, they did not apprehend the man, but rather disregarded the women’s concerns and the two walked home, alone. 

Johnson, a Howard University School of Law alumna, posted this video on Instagram the next day, garnering over 600,000 views, thousands of shares, and eventually landing on my feed. Incidents like this paint a clear picture of the complex duality of the Black woman experience, as we exist at the intersection of race and gender-based violence. We are persecuted not only by agents of white supremacy — racist white female peers, crooked police officers, etc. — but also by male members of our own community. Despite enduring catcalls and being followed, we defend Black men without fail, but who will fight for us? Who will #RunWithBlackGirls? Who will say our names?

Johnson said, “I don't hear beckoning calls from communities of white women when there are issues that happen specifically to Black women. I don't hear the Black community really championing Black women. I don't experience my race detached from my gender, nor have I ever...For me, my job has always been to highlight issues that are affecting Black women because if we don't do it, no one will."

Whether it be abducted Black girls, maternal mortality rates, police brutality, sexual assault, or harassment, our needs are swept under the rug. From an early age, Black women are quickly robbed of our innocence and ability to be perceived as delicate. Stemming from the “strong Black woman” trope, we are depicted as incapable of feeling fear or being in danger. The responsibility is then turned on our heads to protect ourselves even when we call on help from others. We live in a world expectant of harassment from men and subconsciously knowing that no one will protect us. Johnson says that what made her cry hardest was “recognizing your condition” and the space Black women occupy in the world.

“The level of expendability that's ascribed to the flesh of Black women is what was jarring to me in that situation, like everyone's lack of empathy for Camille and I,” Johnson said. “In the video, if you notice, there are two white women that come up behind him. They’re video-recording him and he's not aggressive with them at all — and they're on the other side of the glass. It's sad because it’s like certain people know that it's okay to violate Black women because nobody cares about us.”

Running has been an integral part of Johnson’s fitness journey, which she began in August 2018. Amidst quarantine, running with our family dog became my solace, a means of maintaining my sanity and a semblance of normalcy. As a Black woman raised in Georgia, I felt compelled to walk my 2.23 miles in remembrance of Ahmaud Arbery. However, many people did not interrogate the privilege that lies in being able to safely run through your own neighborhood. There are Black men who are still rightfully terrified about being shot down in broad daylight if they’re not walking with their families. Coupled with that, countless Black women fear for our lives because we know encounters like Johnson’s all too well.

“The outcry of support has been a blessing, but it's also sad because women are actually experiencing this and we're not having conversations about it. I told my mom I'm never going to run again. She said, ‘No, you know you're not going to let anybody stop you from living because regardless, you're not going to be any less afraid of all the things that are out there to hurt Black women. That’s not going to change. You know you can't give people power over your life in that way,’” Johnson said.

Despite having run that route countless times before, Johnson had never experienced harassment of this magnitude. While this transpired, Johnson and her friend passed a few Black men who saw everything happening but did not get involved. Following her post to Instagram, several Black men across the country offered to run with and alongside her. After a few days of exercising with family, Johnson went back out on her own.

Calling on Black men to elevate our voices, Johnson said, “[Put] your lives on the line for Black women, [put] your comfortability on the line for the Black women. Talk to your friends…[who] either say or do rapey, predatorial, aggressive things or have just been downright belligerent to Black women. We have a long way to go, but there are Black men out here who are real allies and who are really trying to champion Black women's issues.”

Before you consider going inside and taking a break from protesting, do not forget that justice has still not been served, especially not to Black women like Breonna Taylor. As we see #SayHerName become co-opted on social media or challenges to not “tear each other down" shared, we need to reposition our gaze and uplift the Black women who fight so ardently for everyone else. We deserve better. When we say Black lives matter, know that we mean all Black lives. 

If you live in the Baltimore area and encounter the man featured in Johnson's video, take caution. For ways to help get justice for Breonna, visit this link share this Instagram campaign, and act.