Not ‘My Brother’s Keeper’: Why Conversations on Race NEED Women of Color

Earlier this year, the My Brother’s Keeper program, a national initiative with the goal of improving the lives of boys and young men of color (specifically Black and Latino youth) was established.

The initiative itself is somewhat flawed in that it is perpetuated by a rhetoric that supports white supremacy. While, yes, the fact that the first Black president is coming out with this type of program is eons beyond what we would expect a white president to do for Black and Latino youth, Obama has a peculiar way of going about it. The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith has a nice break down of why he thinks the program is inherently flawed:

President Obama has made it clear that he’s of a class of thinkers who recognizes America’s longstanding history of racism, but ultimately believes that the way forward for black and brown youth is to not let their race or gender be an “excuse.” In his view, no matter your circumstances, you can achieve if you’re willing to work hard. That’s the promise of America.
But that has never been the case for black and brown people. We have worked hard for centuries. That work has been exploited, undervalued and at times criminalized. To dismiss that, as the president does (and most other people do), is to take an uncomplicated view of a complicated history.
When President Obama says, “We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias. But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life,” he’s not pandering. This is what he actually believes.
But that’s ignoring the root problem. We can turn every black and brown boy into a “respectable” citizen. But the moment we do, the rules for what constitutes “respectable” will change. That’s how racism works. That’s how white supremacy sustains itself. It isn’t a rational ideology built on facts, statistics or empirical observations. It’s a system of oppression meant to concentrate power and resources into the hands of white people at the expense of the livelihoods of all nonwhites.

MBK’s heart is in the right place, don’t get me wrong. But there needs to be a change in the rhetoric surrounding the initiative as well as its focus.  

Two weeks ago, 200 concerned Black men wrote an open letter to President Obama on the exclusion of women of color from the MBK initiative. In response, 1,000 women and girls of color signed an open letter on the same issue. The women that signed ranged “from high school teenagers, to professional actors and playwrights, to civil rights activists and organizers, to university professors and philanthropists.”

The letter, appropriately titled ‘Why We Can’t Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in My Brother’s Keeper’, addresses some very real struggles that Black and Latina women and girls must face.  

We simply cannot agree that the effects of these conditions on women and girls should pale to the point of invisibility, and are of such little significance that they warrant zero attention in the messaging, research and resourcing of this unprecedented Initiative. When we acknowledge that both our boys and girls struggle against the odds to succeed, and we dream about how, working together, we can develop transformative measures to help them realize their highest aspirations, we cannot rest easy on the notion that the girls must wait until another train comes for them. Not only is there no exceedingly persuasive reason not to include them, the price of such exclusion is too high and will hurt our communities and country for many generations to come.

Women and girls of color are faced with the same discriminatory issues that their male counterparts are, but, in their case – their struggle is erased and often conflated with a “gender” struggle said to be shared alongside white women. “Women” and “girls” are not static categories that exist sans intersections. If the government can see how race, class, and gender affect young Black and Latino men, then it shouldn’t be hard to see that the same things happens for young Black and Latino women.

While fewer young girls have to suffer state-sanctioned violence like Stop & Frisk, more young girls have to go through other forms of state-sanctioned violence (ie. sexual assault in places funded by the government in which there are little to no consequences for completing this action). And while when talking about oppression, it’s never fair to play the “oppression Olympics.” When talking about oppression, it’s fair to say that both groups face unique struggles that need to be specifically addressed. MBK is doing this for Black and Latino youth, and women shouldn’t be sidelined again.

In a recent press release, organizer (and coiner of the phrase ‘intersectionality’) Kimberlé Crenshaw says the following, “We cannot pass the burden of invisibility to yet another generation of our girls of color… When we see the challenges they face and actually listen to what they say, how can anyone who loves our daughters as much as our sons say, ‘No, you must wait.’”

This mindset that MBK is perpetuating is one that makes women of color choose between their gender and their race. Which comes first? Most often, the choice is made for them. But what we must remember is the harm we do to young girls by putting them into a bind like this. Women on the margins, with a multitude of intersections, deserve the basic conditions of humanity. And they aren’t getting it. For starters, when was the last time that Black and Latino women were the subject of a well-funded and researched report like the one done for MBK?

Now, White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett has issued a response to the letter drafted and signed by so many women (including activists such as Angela Davis and Alice Walker, and actress Rosario Dawson):

Since day one of his Administration, President Obama has focused on increasing opportunity for women and girls, as part of his larger focus on expanding opportunity for each and every American. It’s why—during his first days in office—he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extends critical protections for all workers who may face pay discrimination, and it’s why—during his first three months in office—he created the first-ever White House Council on Women and Girls, which for years has tackled issues that disproportionately affect women and girls of color, including equal pay and violence against women. It’s also why his administration has built a long track record of taking actions that will help both girls and boys succeed, from improving early learning to creating a fair criminal justice system.

Again, ‘women’ is used a generalizing term, not as one that reflects the ever changing nature of what we define as ‘womanhood.’ Decent race reform and gender parity cannot be reached if certain elements of people’s identities are erased and ignored. “Let this much be clear: today, many women and girls of color are under siege in the United States and the myth that they are not must be challenged.”

‘Why We Can’t Wait’ also sites statistical information to warrant their claims. To conclude, it makes a statement that is particularly poignant; “If the air is toxic,” the letter states, “it is toxic for everyone to breathe it.”

The air is very toxic, and if our suffocation continues to be ignored, we won’t be able to breathe for much longer.  


To learn more about My Brother's Keeper; to read the letter to President Obama regarding gender equity in MBK. 

Photos via michigancitizen.com and clutchmagonline.com.

Gwen Berumen is former BUST intern and is currently in limbo. You can find her on Twitter @gwehdolyn and listen to her on the podcast she co-hosts, Sad Girls Club

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