Respect and Black Men
In a drinking game segment, Drink Champs host Noriega asks guests to pick one: loyalty or respect. Most of the people I’ve heard go with loyalty, explaining that someone can respect you and still do you dirty. In fact, it’s basically the only answer that makes sense because respect has little value if the person in question feels they owe you nothing.
“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman,” Malcolm X famously said. “The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
You’ve probably heard this quote a number of times over the years, likely because it resonates with Black women as much today as it did when it was first uttered in 1962. You’ve likely heard a lot about the “respect” part in particular, as it’s so deeply connected to the experiences of all Black people, regardless of gender. Black men certainly can empathize with feeling a lack of respect because their experiences with white people, with ‘the system,’ are so often defined by exactly that.
It’s the “neglected” part we don’t talk about often enough. It’s a lack of both respect and loyalty that plays such a devastating role in the lives of Black women and girls, yet most of us don’t have the language to explain or understand it.
From girlhood, Black women are raised to love Black men and love them in a deep, all-encompassing way. We are trained to be loyal to you, to want you, to feel deeply connected to, and responsible for, what happens to you. We see partnering with you all as one of our greatest goals, one so significant that when we fail to do so, we may feel that we have failed at life. Most of us are trained to protect you, to keep quiet when you’ve done something wrong that has hurt us – even if it comes at a tremendous cost to us.
When I think about the relationship between Black men and Black women, I think along the lines of Lauryn Hill’s pleading question on “Ex-Factor:” “Just who do Black women have to be to gain some reciprocity?” How hard do we have to love to get both respect and loyalty in return?
I don’t mean “All hail the sistah queen” poetry set-style expressions of respect, I mean feeling as though the things that hurt Black women and girls matter to Black men and boys, that they see our plight as their plight, as we’ve seen their struggles as our own. And loyalty isn’t about exclusively partnering with Black women, it’s about treating us – the collective us – as though we matter to you, regardless of whom you’re romantic with. Respect and loyalty to Black women mean extending yourself to those who are outside of your family and friend circles as well; it means treating your sisters like sisters.
I won’t pretend that each and every Black woman knows how to love Black men or even aspires to do so, but I’d be lying if I said the vast majority of the Black women I’ve come across weren’t gravely serious about how much they do, in fact, feel and express that love. I’d also be lying if I acted as if I haven’t heard from countless Black women over the years who feel that the love they have given as individuals and that the love we offer collectively has not been returned in kind.
Reciprocal love might take us some time to get to, for there’s a lot of unlearning that has to be done; you’ve been socialized to distrust and dislike us, to see us as less than other women. Loyalty may be a long destination, too, as there’s little social capital to be found from sticking by our sides. In the meantime, can those of you who care about Black women – and I know that there are many of you who do – work past the discomfort you feel when we talk about these issues? Can you commit to listening to Black women’s concerns without immediately dismissing us?
Will you respect just how much we are hurting as we wait for you to love us as we’ve loved you? Might you respect the loyalty we’ve given by examining the role that Black women and girls have played throughout your life, how they’ve nurtured, sustained, and supported you, and then looking at how those same women and girls were treated by you, by other men and boys, by the same systems we know harm you but pretend as if they don’t also attack us?
Black women and girls deserve more from Black men and boys than we have gotten. We deserve loyalty, love, and much more. We’ve been by your side in every way imaginable. We’ve sacrificed, we’ve prayed, and we’ve done any and everything to prove our devotion. If you can’t respect us, you must at least respect that.