The Crisis Killing Black Women

The Crisis Killing Black Women

Misogynoir gained widespread attention in the wake of the violence experienced by Megan Thee Stallion and Meghan Markle, but the problem goes much deeper.


For as long as the CDC and other health organizations have collected data on suicide, they’ve reported that suicide rates among Black people are the lowest among any racial category, and Black women and girls, more specifically, are least likely to end their lives of all demographic groups. It’s a statistical finding so counterintuitive that researchers dubbed it the racial/gender “suicide paradox”—that despite enduring more simultaneous marginalizing oppressions than any other group, Black women, instead of taking their lives at rates that surpass, or even equal, more privileged identities, just keep on keepin’ on. This idea—that suicide is correlated with whiteness, negatively correlated with Blackness, and irrelevant to Black femaleness—crept out of the sociology and mental health realms to establish itself within the broader American cultural psyche. Black women’s purported immunity to suicide has been regarded as such an open-and-shut case that studies on Black female suicidality are extremely scant. Corrections to that dangerous oversight have been slow to take hold, even in recent years, as Black teenage girls and young women have begun killing themselves at unprecedented rates.

The figures are both grim and alarming. In the years between 2001 and 2017, suicide death rates among Black girls age 13 to 19 rose a staggering 182 percent. The two decades between 1999 and 2019 saw suicide rates for Black women between the ages of 25 and 44 increase by 72 percent. Among Black adolescent girls age 15 to 17, the suicide death rate—while still numerically trailing those of their Black male peers—increased by 6.6 percent, or twice the rate of increase among Black boys, every year between 2003 and 2017. (That rise, researchers note, is “the largest annual percentage change” among any group.) Between 2013 and 2019, suicides fell among white teenagers, but increased nearly 60 percent among young Black women and girls age 15 to 24 years. And while suicide rates for white women overall declined 10 percent from 2019 to 2020, among Black girls and young women aged 10 to 24, rates increased 30 percent.

It’s always hard to determine the reasons for a single suicide, much less those that might factor into the suicidality of an entire racial group. But researchers have historically done their damndest to get to the bottom of the issue where white men are concerned, to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else. (This is a fact that the American Psychological Association today acknowledges.) Black women and girls’ depression and suicidality, meanwhile, have been mostly ignored within the social sciences, psychology/psychiatry, and suicidology. Had more researchers been concerned about the issue, we might well have developed strategies that stymied the incremental increases in Black women’s suicides over the last couple decades, instead of now being confronting an exponential rise in deaths. (Similarly, little attention was paid as suicide rates among Black kids under 13 began skyrocketing to where they now stand, at double that of white preteens. A 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association study noted that reports of a “stable overall suicide rate in school-aged children in the United States during 20 years of study obscured a significant increase in suicide incidence in Black children and a significant decrease in suicide incidence among white children.”) “For psychologists,” scholar Pamela Trotman Reid has written, Black women have always been “an understudied, overlooked and distorted topic.”

The consequences of that neglect are dire. There is an urgent lacking of studies interrogating Black women’s unique experience being othered, pathologized, dehumanized, and stigmatized by intertwined anti-Black racism and misogyny—what Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey in 2008 termed misogynoir—and having to navigate a society that is “hostile to them on multiple levels,” to quote Reid. Even those rare studies that focus on Black women too often treat racist and sexist oppression as distinct, despite the fact that Black women’s lived experiences are “clearly intersectional,” as Howard University psychologist Veronica G. Thomas has noted, “and cannot be adequately explained with an isolated emphasis on either race or gender.” Science apparently still lags in recognizing a reality that Black feminists named and explained more than 30 years ago.

Relatedly, there is also a pressing need for greater investigation of how the perfectionist “Strong Black Woman schema,” as psychologists have described it, which Black women may adopt to counter gendered racism, can have detrimental mental health consequences for both Black women and girls. (A 2022 study that tackled the issue noted “clear links between mental health, gendered racism experienced by Black women, and the Strong Black Woman schema which they adopt to navigate society.”) We need this research to understand the psychosocial factors that drive Black women and young girl’s suicidality, and to see how depression might present differently in Black women than in other populations—both of which are needed to create culturally competent prevention strategies.

In recent months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Black women, suicide, and the ubiquity and perniciousness of misogynoir. Those thoughts have been less provoked by studies and statistics—which can sometimes seem to reduce three-dimensional people and lives to faceless one-dimensional computations—than by what I was witnessing in real time.

In July 2020, Megan Pete, better known as rapper Megan Thee Stallion, was shot in both feet. It took more than a month before she would post an Instagram live video in which she confirmed rumors that Canadian rapper Tory Lanez had been the shooter. In the same video, she admitted fabricating a story about stepping on glass to the cops as a way to protect Lanez, in the midst of a summer when it seemed police were “literally killing Black people for no motherfucking reason.” In the weeks between news of the shooting and Pete’s post, the Internet and various tawdry gossip blogs had already been busy making jokes and degrading speculations at Pete’s expense. In her livestream, without naming names, Pete acknowledged gross accusations that she was making it all up or somehow was deserving of being shot.

“Why would I lie?” Pete asked in the video, before lamenting the number of Internet posters—including Lanez and his PR team—who were all too happy to suggest that “Black women [are] the problem.”

“Black women are so unprotected & we hold so many things in to protect the feelings of others w/o considering our own,” Pete had already posted days before on Twitter, in a message she never should have felt the need to write. “It might be funny to y’all on the internet and just another messy topic for you to talk about but this is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.”

Pete would later share now-deleted graphic photos of wounds to her feet via social media; in a televised interview, she would recount how before he began firing Lanez had mockingly yelled “Dance, bitch!” And months before the trial began in late 2022, various news outlets confirmed that the medical report attested to the presence of bullet fragments in Pete’s feet. Yet over the two and half years from the moment the shooting made headlines to the court’s ruling—Lanez was found guilty of three felony charges on December 23; he faces 22 years in jail and deportation—Pete was subjected to an endless amount of ridicule, harassment, mockery, name-calling, and accusations of lying. Mostly from other Black folks, famous and not, and Black media outlets.

“In some kind of way I became the villain,” Pete told Rolling Stone in June 2022, six months before the trial began in June 2022.

“And I don’t know if people don’t take it seriously because I seem strong. I wonder if it’s because of the way I look. Is it because I’m not light enough? Is it that I’m not white enough? Am I not the shape? The height? Because I’m not petite? Do I not seem like I’m worth being treated like a woman?”

Just two days after Pete identified Lanez as the shooter, rapper Cam’ron “joked” that Lanez had discovered Pete was transgender, and implied that meant she deserved to be shot. In October 2020, roughly a week after the Los Angeles district attorney’s office announced charges against Lanez, gossip blogger Jason Lee called Pete “aggressive,” weaponized her size, calling her a “big girl,” and claimed “whatever happened with her and Tory, there’s more to the story.” DJ Akademiks has, unprompted, pumped out so much random vitriol against Pete and nonsense pro-Lanez misinformation that he accidentally helped convince a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to increase Lanez’s bail. Drake stooped so low as to rap, “This bitch lie ’bout getting shot, but she still a stallion,” Akon tweeted that he hoped “all goes in [Lanez’s] favor,” and LeBron James posted video of himself bopping to Lanez’s then-new 2022 album Daystar (which, incidentally, included one track on which Lanez accused Pete of trying to “frame” him, and another that accusingly asks, “How the fuck you get shot in your foot, don’t hit no bones or tendons?”). Rapper 50 Cent—whose early fame was all wrapped up with his reputation for having been shot nine times—not once but twice—posted memes dismissing the violence done to Pete. On top of all that, way too many hip-hop “news” blogs—No Jumper, Say Cheese!, RapTV among them—announced that Lanez had been found not guilty while the jury was still deliberating.

Even the defense counsel used its opening statement to drop rumors about sexual relationships Pete had had, offering a master class in how misogynoir uses hypersexualization of Black women as rationale for violence. (Anyone who points to sexual themes in Pete’s music as a justifying factor should try to imagine the outrage if a Black rapper were accused of shooting Taylor Swift, whose catalogue anthologizes every dude she’s dated.) On the stand, Pete was candid about the suicidal ideation she was experiencing because of the endless abuse.

“I don’t wanna be on this earth,” she reportedly testified. “I wish he would have shot and killed me if I knew I would go through this torture.”

After both her mother and grandmother died during a two-week span in 2019, Pete had been open about the heartbreak she experienced. Instead of being allowed to mourn, she received flack for grieving both too loudly and not loudly enough. Then, as her stardom began ascending even faster and further—with number-one singles, multiple industry awards, and a gig guest hosting and performing on Saturday Night Live—she had to cope with being shot, and the humiliating attacks that compounded her trauma. Misogynoir—in hip-hop and elsewhere—denied Pete the empathy, compassion, and support she deserved. Not only was she blamed for her own shooting, but also for the abuse that was heaped upon her after.

Pete’s case put the circularity of misogynoir on full display. Out of deeply held anti-Black racism and sexism, misogynoir takes stereotypical, one-dimensional images and ideas and attributes them to Black women, using those projections as a way to both justify and rationalize its own anti-Blackness and misogynist contempt. Misogynoir exists, essentially, to justify itself.

“There exist at least two myths of African American women; they are either “good” or “bad,” Reid writes.

The “good” African American woman is strong, maternal, hard-working, devoted to family and quiet. (Note that quietness is traditionally considered a virtue in children, Blacks and women.) The “bad” African American woman is ugly, lascivious, lazy, negligent, emasculating, and loud. Both views are based on stereotypes born of a need to justify public policies or societal treatment of African American women; they do not come from data or any close investigation of reality.

Therapeutic models are too often “couched in terms of these myths as well as other mistaken notions that may abound.”

Held up to the light, the twisted assumptions and accusations of the misogynoirist mindset are often revealed as nonsensical and contradictory. See, for example, how enslaved Black women, possessing no legal reproductive nor bodily autonomy, and often subject to sexual violence, were so often cast as Jezebel seductresses. How the mammy figure—itself a figment of the misogynoirist imagination—was held up as the model of devotional caretaking for white children, but Black mothers are degraded as an unfit and emotionally deficient parent to her own Black children. The way Black queer, trans, and nonbinary identities have been erased while we hear complaints that those identities undermine cisgender Black masculinity. (Those who spout misogynoir also often see Black womanhood as never quite feminine enough.) Misogynoir contorts itself to have it both ways, in order to shame from multiple conflicting angles: Black women are strong and sturdy workhorses, but also indolent welfare queens and gold diggers; sage and sassy magical-negro sidekicks and ignorant know-nothings. And even with all those stereotypes of its own creation, misogynoir still insists Black women are a monolith.

Meghan Markle, duchess of Sussex, had also raised the specter of suicide as a response to misogynoir, stating in a widely viewed 2021 interview that she “just didn’t want to be alive anymore.”

Markle’s treatment has been a textbook example of the racialized, sexualized hate that characterizes misogynoir. Most recently, British columnist Jeremy Clarkson penned an open letter that expressed his sexually violent fantasies about Markle.

I hate her. Not like I hate [First Minister of Scotland] Nicola Sturgeon or [literal serial killer] Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level. At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant “Shame!” and throw lumps of excrement at her…. Everyone who’s my age thinks the same way.

It was par for the course. By now we are all well aware of how British tabloids described Markle as “gangster royalty,” admonished her for the same things it praised in Kate Middleton, wrote endlessly about Markle being “difficult” and demanding beyond reason. One magazine implied that at her 2018 wedding, Markle recklessly endangered the life of 3-year-old Charlotte with a flower crown containing the same blossoms used at Middleton and Lady Diana’s marriage ceremonies; another TV presenter falsely claimed Markle’s Black mother, Doria Ragland, a social worker, previously dealt drugs. Certain white women commentators—not to mention countless non-famous white women on social media—have seemingly constructed their lives around their hatred of Markle, including Megyn Kelly, who complained about Markle repeatedly calling the man she is married to, Prince Harry, “her husband.”

Why are white women going nuts about Megan Markle? Misogynoir has long been used to mark Black women as sexually available but romantically undesirable—their beauty, femininity, and fundamental personhood innately inferior to that of white women. White supremacy confers social capital upon white womanhood, a currency understood to afford them the exclusive right to a certain kind of so-called “marrying up.” This is what Markle’s detractors are most furious about—the breaking of the long-understood rules that are never more explicit than they are where the whiteness of British royalty is concerned. I’m reminded of a 2013 essay by sociologist and scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom about the utility of Eurocentric feminine beauty, though I think that idea can be expanded to comment on the construction of white womanhood far more broadly:

Sex is one thing. Marrying confers status and wealth. Slaveholders knew that. Our law reflects their knowing this. The de rigueur delineation of this difference may have faded but cultural ideology remains.

Britain may have never codified its own one-drop rule, but that’s only because it didn’t need to. The idea is the same—hence the unnamed member of the royal family who, discussing Harry and Meghan’s offspring, expressed worries “about how dark his skin might be when he was born.” Cottom continues:

The family unit is considered the basic unit for society not just because some god decreed it but because the inheritance of accumulated privilege maintains our social order. Thus, who we marry at the individual level may be about love but at the group level it is also about wealth and power and privilege. Black feminists have critiqued the material advantage that accrues to white women as a function of their elevated status as the normative cultural beauty ideal. As far as privileges go it is certainly a complicated one but that does not negate its utility. Being suitably marriageable privileges white women’s relation to white male wealth and power. The cultural dominance of a few acceptable brown female beauty ideals is a threat to that privilege.

Interestingly, Markle herself seems to have believed that her own biracialness and physical proximity to whiteness would prevent her from experiencing misogynoir. In the recent Netflix docuseries Harry & Meghan, Markle states that “people didn’t know what I was mixed with” before she began dating Prince Harry, as if this fact went unmentioned or was studiously avoided before their relationship; she also mentions a childhood memory of hearing her mother be assaulted with the N-word, even as she recalls her childhood as essentially raceless, with no need for a discussion about anti-Black racism. Nylah Burton notes that “despite [her] being raised by a Black mother in a Black neighborhood in Los Angeles,” every friend of Markle’s, from childhood onward, who appears in the doc is white “and people who did not know she was biracial…. Today, passing doesn’t require convoluted lies. It can involve more subtle actions, such as downplaying one’s Blackness, immersing oneself in white worlds, and omitting mentions of one’s race until it’s unavoidable.”

I’ll add here the anti-Blackness and misogynoir are often internalized and held up by the same people they harm, as with all oppressions. We all have different paths to shaking that stuff off.

That said, it seems the haters remain unaware that Markle was never looking to disrupt racial capitalism or even to upend the ongoing transfer of hereditary power; that’s self-evident by the fact of her marriage. Had The Firm, and its legions of admirers, played along and flexed its muscle on her behalf toward the press, it’s a sure bet the defection would never have happened. Instead, the monarchy would have been tepid proponents of a multiracial future, instead of immersed in a very public moral crisis.

But even Markle’s racial ambiguity could not guard against gendered racism, because the mere fact of her Blackness was enough to incite an outpouring of misogynoir. In her book Misogynoir Transformed, Moya Bailey writes about how non-cisgender Black folks are also targeted by gendered racism, in a passage that applies to Markle’s case as well. “Misogynoir is deployed because of social beliefs about Black women,” Bailey observes, “and those of us who are read as Black women—despite our self-identification—get caught in the crosshairs.”

If even Markle can be subject to misogynoir’s disdain and scorn—which was so vicious it made her contemplate taking her life—imagine the harm it inflicts on so many other more vulnerable, less visible, and white-adjacent Black women.

We know that gendered racism presents Black women and girls as “unfeminine and too aggressive.” As a result, “Black women of all ages are subject to fear and aggression in social spaces as responses to their presumed nature,” as the authors of the North Carolina A&T study note. Consequently, more than 40 percent of Black women, more than any other gender-racial group, face physical abuse from intimate partners, according to a 2020 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. A quarter of Black girls are sexually abused before reaching the age of 18, and one of five women are rape survivors—again, those figures are higher than those for any other gender-racial category—according to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community. (Rape is highly underreported among all demographic groups; misogynoir contributes to the adultification of Black girls, denying them and Black women the ability to be victimized, and likely contributes to the reasons Black women are least likely to report. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network also cites a 2017 study finding that “Black women are at highest risk of any group for experiencing sexual violence perpetrated by police officers.”) The New York Times looked into statistics from the Department of Education and reaffirmed that public schools are excessively punitive toward Black girls, writing that they are “over five times more likely than white girls to be suspended at least once from school, seven times more likely to receive multiple out-of-school suspensions than white girls, and three times more likely to receive referrals to law enforcement.” For Black nonbinary, transgender, and queer folks who read as women, the figures are yet worse.

And those stressors, in turn, can impact suicidal ideation and self-injury. Black women have the “highest incidence of medically treated suicide attempts,” meaning more than any other race-gender group, Black women who attempt suicide suffer “consequences severe enough to require medical” treatment—an outcome strongly suggesting Black women “engage in more serious self-harm than women of other races.” (A 2019 CDC assessment found that Black girls in high school attempted suicide and engaged in self-harm at higher rates than white or Hispanic girls of the same age.) Researchers at North Carolina A&T, relying on CDC data, indicated in a study released last year that as of 2019, suicide was “the fourth leading cause of death among Black girls, ages 10–14; the third leading cause of death for Black, female emerging adults, ages 15–24; and the sixth leading cause of death among Black women ages 25–34.”

Those numbers are probably undercounts, considering that evidence that “strongly indicate[s] greater susceptibility of medico-legal authorities to misclassify black suicides than white suicides.”

Despite the indications that we’re in the midst of a worsening crisis, the scholars behind the 2022 North Carolina A&T study could locate only two (two!) studies into how the dual intersecting oppressions of anti-Black racism and gender affected Black women’s mental states, both of which indicated that misogynoir has “negative mental health related consequences, including low self-esteem, increased psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress symptoms.” (Black women are 34 percent more likely to experience PTSD than white women.) They note that “results from both studies demonstrated a significant relationship between gendered racism and suicidal ideation/behaviors for Black women.”

We cannot talk about the explosion in suicides among Black women and girls without addressing misogynoir, and how it singularly and solely interferes with the welfare and well-being of Black women and girls. As Thomas writes, Black women have a “perspective on womanhood, Blackness, and even personhood unknown to any other oppressed groups, including Black men, White women, and other non-Black women.”

There is no Black girl who has witnessed Pete’s or Markle’s treatment who did not learn just how much contempt and disdain the world holds for them. Those lessons likely came in addition to real-life experiences with misogynoir of their own that already are chipping away at them. Of course, there are highly personal reasons for every life that is lost to suicide. But, as long as the psychology and mental health fields continue to ignore the intersecting harms of anti-Black racism and gender, and the damage they cause—including the way they can make life seem unworthy of living for an increasing number of Black women and girls—they will fail to create culturally competent interventions that adequately serve Black women and girls’ mental health.

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