Trigger warning: violence
Safety and security. These words conjure up different feelings and images for people of different races. For white people to feel safe, they must police Black and Brown people daily with tactics such as the paper bag test and stop-and-frisk. For Black and Brown people, it is vastly different.
Black and Brown people, especially women, have been the target of some heinous crimes perpetrated by white people for centuries. Safety and security exist, but both are few and far between. The CDC reports that Black women die by homicide at nearly three times the rate that white women do. Crimes committed against Black women and Black women that are missing due to the result of crimes/violence are hardly investigated; they are regularly brushed aside to make room for finding the missing white women. (Doreen St. Felix writes about the above issue and more here.) Jay Pitter writes in her article “Black Women need to be Protected in Public Spaces” about who’s most at risk to be murdered in America:
A recent report found that of all women, Black women were the most likely to be murdered in America. Also, a national street harassment report found that along with Latinx women, Black women experienced higher levels of street-based harassment overall and were at the most risk of that harassment escalating into physical aggression. Black women, often sole providers within the home, are over-represented in the homeless population, which is directly spurred by changes in cities.
It often seems that nobody has the back of Black women except other Black women.
The most recent illustration of this that comes to mind—although sadly there are countless instances like this—is the recent murder of Nia Wilson and attack of her sister, Lahtifa, who was injured but thankfully not fatally. It was a totally unprovoked attack by a white man.
Now I, a white-passing Latinx, can’t comment on how hate crimes perpetuated against Black and Brown women and safety within such communities affect the women in those communities; However, I want to ensure the safety and security of Black and Brown people around me and talk about the ways that it can be safer.
I decided I needed to talk with artist Jay Katelansky about this issue. Katelansky is an artist living in California and her work focuses on blackness as well as racial issues and tensions. I asked her because as I was scrolling through Instagram one day, I came across this piece of hers (see image below).
We subsequently had an email conversation about the following work and subsequently about the safety and security of Black women, homelessness and other things:
Veronica Perez (VP): I was struck by this piece of yours while I was scrolling through Instagram. I had just read a New Yorker article about the death of Nia Wilson and, as the news came in, about the three church bombings in Louisiana in the span of ten days, which are now being classified as racially motivated attacks. I am struck by the sincerity of the message and the cadence in which it’s written; I can feel the emotion entangled in it. Where did this piece arise from?
Jay Katelansky (JK): For the last two years I’ve been thinking deeply about the safety and what does that word even mean. So most of the pieces that I make are around me trying to wrap my head around this word/idea. This piece stemmed from a few different things happening in my life. I’m planning to see my mom in late April when I’m on the East Coast for work and it’s been giving me a lot of anxiety. My mother and I have a very complicated relationship but regardless I love her and I constantly worry about her. Ever since I found out as a kid that my mom was homeless, I’ve worried about her safety. I remember one year at day camp, it was storming and I just started to ball hysterically. One of the counselors asked me what was wrong and I told her my mom is somewhere outside in this storm without a place to go. Up to this day, I worry about her because she doesn’t have stable secure housing and she deals with a variety of mental illnesses. Homelessness is everywhere here in Oakland it’s a difficult thing to see. There’s so much money here there should be no reason for a crisis like this. Humans deserve housing everywhere. The piece also stems from my general anxiety with how Black bodies, especially queer Black bodies, navigate space. I worry a lot. I worry about my friends. I worry about my family. I worry about strangers. The world is scary and we are constantly seeing/reading/hearing people do terrible things to Black and Brown people for existing.
VP: What are the ways you’ve felt unsafe?
JK: I’ve felt unsafe in so many ways and in so many places. I feel the most unsafe in predominantly white spaces. I talk about this often but the three years I lived in Wisconsin were the hardest years for me as far as feeling safe. Most days I couldn’t get myself out of my apartment because of how unsafe the environment felt. I feel unsafe in spaces that don’t hold people accountable like I refuse to be in a room with anyone who defends R Kelly. I feel unsafe anytime I pass a police officer. I think it’s important to also mention when I do feel safe. I feel the safest in spaces with Black women. I feel the safest around my friends and loved ones.
VP: How is safety and security dealt with in the Black and Brown communities?
JK: I think it honestly depends on the community. The most successful way it’s dealt with to me is showing up for each other. I know when Nia Wilson was murdered at BART, Black and Brown folks who had access to vehicles offered rides to anyone who felt unsafe riding BART. I also saw people who had the funds offer money towards ride shares or people offered to BART together. When I was in Wisconsin during my first week [Katelansky received her MFA from The University of Wisconsin Madison] a Black woman told me what streets not to walk down at night and offered to walk with me whenever I needed company. I think back to the Black Panther Party and why it was created. One of the reasons was to protect the Black community from police brutality…police the police. All these instances are us showing up for us because
at the end of the day we all we got.
All these instances are us showing up for us because at the end of the day we all we got.
because at the end of the day we all we got.
we all we got.
This specific line resonated within me at the end of Katelansky’s statement. we all we got. Black and Brown folks are showing up for each other and protecting each other because as she says frankly, nobody else is going to.
As a white-passing Latinx though, there are ways white people and others can and need to show up as allies for Black and Brown women. One of the ways is learning the histories of Black people and the oppression they’ve faced throughout history up until now. Realize that is not something new that is taking place, but that this is a systemic issue that has been happening for a very long time now. Begin to reframe your thinking around systematic oppression and how it seeps into your everyday life. How your implicit bias impacts your thinking in the most minute ways. Y’all need to also listen when Black people are talking. Dismissing Black people when they speak is a form of violence. Excluding lived experiences additionally just because you haven’t experienced a racist cop is shitty. Just take a backseat and truly hear what they are saying they need.
The safety and security of Black and Brown women and men in our community matter so much more than we can see. We shouldn’t let them fight this battle alone—as they have for so long.
I just want to thank Jay for opening up and speaking about these difficult issues. You can see more of her work here: https://jaykatelansky.com/ and on her Instagram account: shiftingself
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