BY: LAILA JOHNSON-SALAMI
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
That is how long Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. How did it feel to be reminded that the concept of knee-necking is still very much alive? This brutal, centuries-long terrorisation; stifling, asphyxiation, and oppression of black people, lives, and culture should give you goosebumps at the very least. And in every system, oppression is intersectional, therefore the more boxes you tick, the more oppressed you are. So to not only be black but also a woman is a double whammy that continues to cost too many their lives. For some reason, this is not amplified enough.
Should we start with Breonna Taylor? A 26-year-old black woman, who was shot eight times three months ago by Louisville Metro Police officers in Kentucky, executing a no-knock search warrant in her apartment. The officers involved in her murder are still walking scot-free, yet her story – and that of several other black women – get far less attention from society than the stories of black men murdered by the police.
More painfully, the Black Lives Matter movement that seeks justice, healing, and freedom for all black people across the globe, was founded by young black women. So you would expect stories of black women being killed by law enforcement agencies, and being far from safe in society, to build up enough momentum to instigate widespread outrage, but ironically this is never the case. I am not suggesting that no one has protested or continues to protest for justice for Breonna and other black women, that would be untrue, but stories of black women being killed never seem to fuel the fire.
Regardless of this obvious neglect, several young black women have relentlessly demonstrated for black lives over the past few weeks, like 19-year-old Oluwatoyin ‘Toyin’ Salau. She protested so powerfully on the fact that she cannot change her skin, hair, and blackness, which many young black women related to, especially darker-skinned black women who have always faced far higher levels of discrimination in society. As a lighter-skinned black woman myself, I certainly cannot say that the discrimination I have faced is anywhere near that of a darker woman and we must recognise this. Society has created a horrifying hierarchy affiliating the worth of a black woman with her skin tone and only the black community has the power to deconstruct this. Yet far too many people today feed into this narrative, strongly dividing our community and suggesting that there are two types of black women. It must be said that this is not a conversation or divide that you see inflicted on black men, just women and has at some point or another made all black women uncomfortable. I would be lying if I said I have not found myself ever questioning my skin tone, which I have always been reminded is “lighter than light”, or how maybe I would personally feel better and more comfortable with more melanin. A dynamic that we don’t speak about and should communicate within our community as it also exists.
On June 6th, Toyin took to Twitter to speak up on a man who she allegedly sexually assaulted her:
Toyin went missing after this tweet and a week later, she was found dead and buried. Her murder has reaffirmed the vulnerability and fears that far too many black women, the world over, live with today – that coming out about sexual assault can cost you your life and that our problems are systemically sidelined and not taken as seriously as they should be. This is why it is painful to have constant echoes of people asking why women fear to report their experiences. Can you see how this can end for us?
For Toyin to have spent the last few weeks of her life protesting for the lives of black men and women, only for a black man to have taken hers, and for black men to be far less vocal on her sexual assault and murder than they have been over the past few weeks on racial injustice, is heartwrenching to say the absolute least. Many black women have simply been unprotected by black men for far too long and this is no isolated incident. A good majority of black men have shown that their rage does not extend beyond issues affecting them directly and only respond to issues affecting black women through dismissal or defensiveness. How do you think we feel to stand behind every issue that affects black men and not have that reciprocated? Why is it that black women being raped and killed doesn’t anger you just as much?
Here at home in Nigeria, the story is no different, possibly even worse. Over the past few weeks, young women have been demanding justice for women who have experienced sexual violence, following a series of reported rapes, sexual assaults and murders of young women all over the country. Did you know that in the first five months of this year, Nigeria recorded one rape case every five hours? And that’s just what’s reported. Many women prefer not to report their incidents because it is often to our disadvantage. Look at what happened to Seyitan Babatayo, who recently alleged that D’banj raped her in 2018. Instead of contesting what she had to say in a court of law, he used his power and money to have the Nigeria Police Force arrest her, deny her access to her lawyers and family and essentially force a retraction out of her that was shared on her social media. How can you be arrested for alleging that you were raped? And to make it worse, the alleged perpetrator is the one who has you arrested? This constant disregard for what we have to go through flows far too deep systemically, yet no one but those affected seem to want to spotlight this.
The fact that only 65 people have been convicted of rape in Nigeria in nearly fifty years, and perpetrators can get away with rape and sexual violence so easily, makes it impossible to imagine a safe future for women in Nigeria. We have never been safe here and the changes that we need are never followed through by those creating our legislation. How is it that all 36 governors recently declared a state of emergency on rape and sexual violence, but only 14 states have signed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (2015) into law? Does this progressive and robust piece of legislation protecting us from violence come at that much of a threat to you? But in a country where by law, rape within marriage does not exist, nothing is shocking anymore.
Society has to do a lot more for black women all around the world. Not just through protective and inclusive policy, but through education and recognition of our different journeys as we are leaving far too much out of the conversation. We need to speak about human behaviour and the fact that everyone always wants to pit black women against each other and threaten our collectiveness and solidarity.
We need to speak about [how often we] log in on social media to find black men discussing their preferences between lighter and darker-skinned black women. We need to speak about the constant stereotyping, sexualising and caricaturing of black women – matters that weigh in heavily on the problem. And for black women to be expected to carry the burden of those who do nothing to ensure our protection and progress in return, is a reality that simply should no longer exist.
Laila Johnson-Salami is a global journalist and media personality, changing the narrative one conversation at a time. She is a Politics and International Relations graduate, who spent a majority of her teen years working with governments and organisations on matters relative to sustainable development. Currently, Laila is a co-anchor on Arise News’ daily News Day show and a contributor to the Financial Times and The Commonwealth Secretariat. Her consistent passion for human development has birthed both her organisation, the We Rise Initiative and her company, Forth Strategies.