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Essay on Nia Wilson's Murder, Racism, and Sexism

Nia Wilson’s Death Should Spark a Reckoning About Fatal Violence Against Black Women and Girls

Malika Harris places a candle down for her sister Nia Wilson at a makeshift memorial outside the MacArthur Bay Area Rapid Transit station, Monday, July 23, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. A felon on parole fatally stabbed 18-year-old Nia Wilson in the neck and wounded her sister Lahtifa Wilson as they exited a train at a subway station in what police said was an unprovoked attack. BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas said officers are scouring the area for John Cowell, 27, who is suspected in the Sunday night attack at the MacArthur Station in Oakland. (AP Photo/Lorin Eleni Gill)

From a possible serial killer targeting black transgender women in Florida to the murder of 18-year old Nia Wilson in Oakland, CA, fatal violence against black women and girls remains one of the most woefully underreported realities of our increasingly divided nation. With both white supremacist ideology and misogyny finding more public affirmation and viral support, black women, girls, and femmes are particularly vulnerable as potential victims of this increasingly violent uprising.

"White supremacist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviors converge on the bodies and livelihoods of black women, girls, and femmes."
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Although the alleged murderer's motives remain unknown, what is clear is that a 27-year old white man named John Lee Cowell slit an 18 year-old black girl's throat and stabbed her sister Letifah Wilson at an Oakland BART train station on July 22. Hate crimes — of which Cowell has notably not been charged — in California have risen drastically in the past year, with antiblack hate crimes comprising the largest category. The police did not release images of the suspect or video footage of the heinous crime for nearly a day. A local media outlet published a picture of Nia Wilson with a handgun-shaped cellphone case despite her status as the victim of a vicious crime, sparking outrage in the community and a demand for accountability from the National Association of Black Journalists.

Both Wilson's murder and the attempted murder of her sister are widely viewed as race-motivated hate crimes. And while this perception is both reasonable and probable, it is striking that this murder and attempted murder aren't also being identified as heinous acts of violence against women and girls, and more particularly violence against black women and girls. Many people look at recent violence against black women, femmes, and girls through the rise of more explicit white supremacist acts of aggression. It is important to do this because black women experience every facet of antiblack racism. However, it's also important to contextualize violence against black women, girls, and femmes within misogyny and patriarchy. More pointedly, we must push toward examining recent antiblack woman violence and terror as a distinctive consequence of a more overtly racist and sexist political climate.

Consider the election of a president who called Mexicans rapists and joked about sexual assault, or an uptick in white domestic terrorism and the rise of "incels"; the current political, cultural, and social climate offers a more public and unabashed space for bigotry, discrimination, and acts of aggression toward marginalized groups than any other era in our lifetimes. Explicit expressions of white supremacist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviors converge on the bodies and livelihoods of black women, girls, and femmes.

This climate means that even when the physical assault of a black woman by three cops is caught on tape, she can be found guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The assault and subsequent arrest and conviction of Chikesia Clemons perfectly exemplifies what can happen at the intersection of white supremacy and misogyny. The violence inflicted upon her body is not only defended as legal, but normalized by criminalizing her body and speech. The lack of accountability for being dragged across a floor and having her breasts exposed sends a clear and disturbing message: there aren't often consequences for violating black women.

"We will strengthen our ability to #SayHerName, not just as a hashtag, but as a deliberate practice of upending racism and sexism."

This climate also produces a space in which the murders of nine black trans women killed thus far in 2018 receive little to no coverage in mainstream media. Black trans women exist at the intersection of antiblack racism, sexism, and transphobia — and often poverty as well. Their murders are simultaneously antiblack, antiwoman, and antitrans. Compounded forms of oppression render ALL black girls, women, and femmes uniquely vulnerable.

A new report by the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism identifies a distinct and violent relationship between white supremacy and misogyny. Despite the report's important assertion that we must understand the connection between these oppressive ideologies to comprehend the reality of either, it fails to fully recognize and honor decades of existing work by feminists of color linking racism and sexism. It also decenters the unique way white supremacy and misogyny affect black women, girls, and femmes. Although all white supremacists may not be misogynists, and all misogynists aren't white supremacists, willfully or unconsciously ignoring the distinct ways antiblack racism and sexism work together to victimize black women, girls, and femmes is dangerous and potentially fatal.

Concepts such as intersectionality (a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw) and multiple jeopardy (a term coined by Deborah King) demand that we acknowledge racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression as interconnected. At the far too often deadly intersection of toxic masculinity, misogyny, and antiblack racism, black women, girls, and femmes fight to survive. Black feminists scholars, writers, artists, and activists invented and enlivened these concepts to explore, describe, and fight back against marginalization of and violence against black girls, women, and femmes.

Acknowledging the interplay among racism and sexism is important for grasping what happened to Nia Wilson and her sister. Reports and stories on the tragic death of Wilson and other black women killed thus far this year should thoughtfully consider how black women, girls, and femmes experience the conjunction of white supremacy and misogyny. In doing so, we better honor the lives of those killed by these violent forces. We will strengthen our ability to #SayHerName, not just as a hashtag, but as a deliberate practice of upending racism and sexism. To fight for and with black women, girls, and femmes means to rail against the conjoined forces of white supremacy and misogyny. The dismantling of either requires the dismantling of both.

Image Source: AP / Lorin Eleni Gill
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