Say Her Name! Confronting Erasure and Rethinking Possibilities for a Democratic Future

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

The auditorium was at capacity in Tampa Bay, Florida for the 2016 North American Society for the Sociology of Sport annual conference in anticipation of Dr. Harry Edwards.  I had made it a must to attend this conference so that I could hear and possibly meet him.  Dr. Kimberly Schimmel provided the first keynote the day before that brought together a brilliant, expansive, critical exploration of sport in addressing issues of space, cities, gentrification, surveillance, and prisons.

Now in a packed house with hundreds of people in the audience, Dr. Edwards provided a keynote lecture. His prior scholarship and activist work, especially with regards to the 1968 Olympics, inspired me.  His activism and scholarship were one of the main reasons I chose to study race and sport in South Asian America.  He was one of my intellectual heroes and elders.

I got to the venue early but it was already quite full.  I made sure that I was close enough to still hear him and so that I could see him clearly.  I ran to a seat with my pen and notebook in hand; I was ready.  As you can maybe guess, I was trembling in my seat and overtaken with enthusiasm.  I sat at the very edge of one row so that no one would block my view of him.  Hell no, I was not going to let anyone block this opportunity to hear one of my intellectual heroes.  In a distance, in a black suit, Dr. Edwards made his way to the podium; he looked even grander and more mystical than I could have ever imagined.  Hero-worship is a thing of pleasure.  Chills running down my body.

Dr. Edwards began by identifying the four major social movements in U.S. history and race relations.  I started scribbling immediately in my notebook.  My friend Sung’s collegiate volleyball number was 4, there seemed to be some good luck flying in the air.  I was jumping in my seat and could hardly contain myself (I am also researching the gendered and sexualized parameters of race that has led to the erasure of Asian-American athletes and African-American women from the stories of sporting racial triumph).  There was so much to be learned and I wanted to build on theoretical and historical material for this article I had in mind.

As Edwards extrapolated the substance and key actors in these social movements in sport and race in the USA, the names he called were figures like Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Colin Kaepernick.  Each name highlighted key figures who played pivotal roles in demanding racial justice in sport and in larger U.S. society.  These (cis-gendered and heterosexual) African-American men struggled for equality and were outspoken in their critique of U.S. racism, state violence, and U.S. empire.  It is difficult to discuss the social movements around sports and not know these names.

With the discussion of each social movement, Dr. Edwards went into depth to highlight the politics of these male actors and the social context they navigated.  When arriving at Colin Kaepernick, the former National Football League’s quarterback who last played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, Dr. Harry Edwards went into depth to discuss the protest initiated by Kaepernick, the larger societal aftermath, and his own mentoring of this young quarterback.  Colin Kaepernick became the emblem for the present-day social movement with ties to BlackLivesMatter.  At this moment, Dr. Edwards addressed how this historically important protest by Kaepernick infiltrated all realms of sport and larger cultural arenas in the United States.  With that he alluded to the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics and the ways in which “the black gymnast” and the “swimmer” offered their own forms of racial politics in connection with Kaepernick’s protest.

However, they were not named.  They became just a black “swimmer” and a “gymnast” or “black girl.”  Something unexpected happened and continued to happen through the course of the lecture.  As the keynote proceeded, Dr. Edwards produced one major blank that never seemed to get filled in.  There was a space in between the theories.  The space and blank continued to expand with Dr. Edwards’s explanation of each social movement.  I could no longer take notes; there just was not enough for me to take notes on.

As his lecture came to an end, the blank, for me, was engulfed in a massive absence.  In his keynote, Dr. Edwards’s mention of race, blackness, and justice did not include several key figures.  A white male sport scholar raised his hand.  He then asked Dr. Edwards about gender and the absence of women in his narrative.  Damn it! Ain’t that some real bullshit! Ain’t it the state of affairs when a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class, white male (what Audre Lorde refers to as the “mythical norm” in Sister Outsider), calls out the African-American man for the lack of women in the analytical narrative.

What the fuck! Now that is some shit! My eyes rolled to the back of my head.  White supremacy narrates its politics of violence, including sexism and patriarchy, so clearly in the present day—Donald Trump is but just one symptom and too convenient of an example, and yet becomes invisible through the marking of the bodies of men of color as the sites of danger.  How easy for this white scholar to call out the black scholar! Yet, this time, the question posed by the white scholar did push for more.

But the question asked in that moment does not account for the expansive work of Dr. Edwards with relations to women of color, black womanhood, Muslims, and other communities of color.  Additionally, Dr. Edwards actively participates in campaigns to stop gendered violence.  His expertise and his politics are far-reaching.  In this moment, however, Dr. Edwards continued to name only African-American men. Even in the response provided to this question, he summoned “black women” but failed to get at the specificity of their labor, their protest songs, nor did he acknowledge the poetry of their resistance.  Rather, their blackness was all that had to be named and not their names nor their own individual stories.

The blank, the absence, and the silence were the names of African-American women, trans women of color, black gay athletes, and trans men of color.  The growing violence towards women of color and trans women of color receives little global or local media attention.  Say her name! What has become common place in the project of ethnic nationalism is the supplementation of heterosexual masculinity, coded in able male bodies, as representative of the community (to learn more, see Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black, University of Minnesota Press and E. Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness, Duke University Press).   When heterosexual male blackness is visible then the assumption is that nothing else must be said.

No one else needs to show up.  No one else has showed up.  In fact, Dr. Edwards mentioned the “black gymnast” and “swimmer” as a passing reference.  The silence and absence fails to name the extensive work of so many people that makes possible any sort of protest.  The silence and absence removes certain bodies as sites of concern—it erases their existence.

Say her name! Simone Biles.  Biles’s excellence in the Olympics set records that might never be matched.  She shared candidly her own experiences as a young African-American woman making it through a racist country and excelling in a sport dominated by white women in the United States.

Say her name! Simone Manuel.  Manuel become the first African-American female swimmer to win Olympic gold in an individual event.  She is in the record books in a sport that has always been racially coded as white, where black bodies were positioned as impossible swimmers.  Swimming pools and beaches and waterfronts were the borders historically protected through murderous violence by white supremacists (see the Daniel Burdsey’s new book Race, Place, and the Seaside (Palgrave Macmillan).  Say his name! Kye Allums.  He was the first African-American trans man to play collegiate ball at George Washington University.  After his playing days, Allums has continued the legacy of social justice through his involvement in advocacy campaigns and securing resources for LGBTQIA communities.

Say her name! Megan Rapinoe. Say their names! The players on the Women’s National Basketball Association’s New York Liberty.

Why did Dr. Edwards not mention and say loudly the names of Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Kye Allums, and other athlete-activists? This is a question that I did not have to ponder on my own.  Always willing to engage with scholars and activists, Dr. Edwards was open to virtually talking with me.  He intimated to me that several people after the lecture asked him about the lack of women in his analysis.  With such generosity of time and energy, he mentioned over e-mail why he did not include the stories of women:

“Every subject deserves its own analytical and theoretical emphasis and “legitimacy.” To try to focus on the realities of sport re: women, women of color, transgender women, and girls within the same subject focus and theoretical context as an explication of the structure and dynamics of Black male sports involvement and how those are framed by ideology and society can only end in broad, sweeping generalizations about all the subjects and in-depth insights into none. THESE DIVERSE TOPICAL AREAS ARE DESERVING OF THEIR OWN SPORT SOCIOLOGICAL IDENTITY, EMPHASIS, AND ANALYSIS. Simply “lumping” mention of women into a presentation does not suffice as due inclusion of the diversity of subjects deserving of study. As I told one attendee at the NASSS CONFERENCE, “Simply because my presentation focused on the history and evolution of Black Athlete activism, neither the intent nor the message is to communicate that developments at the confluence of sport, society, and OTHER THAN BLACK MALE realities don’t matter.”  If we are to truly develop a comprehensive grasp of sport in society, we must pursue understanding of ALL relevant and germane subject areas.”

Dr. Edwards addresses the need to attend to the specificity of the cases and not play into the problematic ways that black communities are lumped together as the same.  One’s gender, sexuality, class, ability, ethnicity, and other identifications all matter in shaping particular experiences of blackness.  These vectors of identification also inform us as to how the violence is felt on many different and differential levels within the black community.

However, state violence, police violence, and other forms of racist violence against black communities in the United States have often been interpreted, comprehended, and challenged through the idea of black male resistance.  Thus, race and blackness are collapsed into the other and coded as black, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied.  The erasure of black women and trans women of color from this narrative of racial triumph and racial activism has consequences to not only how we research but also how we organize to challenge white supremacy.

What such silence does is to remove the incredible, continuous, and difficult work that black women, trans women of color, and trans men of color have done during the long history of racism in the United States.  It erases the violence they have encountered and managed.  Although I concur with Dr. Edwards that these community members need a thorough focus on their own experience, we also must be careful not to parse black masculinity as something taking place in a vacuum and must not diminish the labor of others.  When we refuse to say their names, it is as if black women, trans women, and trans men have said nothing, done nothing, and were not there constructing the stage to challenge white supremacy.  By omitting their names, we unknowingly but problematically highlight black men in the mainstream imagination as the only ones on the stage of protest.

When Dr. Edwards mentioned other key players in early U.S. history, he did not adequately account for numerous women and other communities of color who were active during those moments.  Say her name! Althea Gibson.  Althea Gibson changed the face of tennis, which was a sport that represented itself as white and respectable.  Her dominance in women’s tennis and in golf proved critical in opening new realms of sport and work for women of color.

Other names locally, nationally, and internationally are lost as well when we situate social movements and sports with limiting articulations of race, gender, and sexuality.  Say her name! Billie Jean King.  Dr. Harry Edwards has worked extensively with Billie Jean King and discusses LGBTQIA matters in other forums so this is an issue of importance to him.  We must say these names together as often as possible so that we can build coalitions against white patriarchal, heterosexist, supremacy.

Say her name! Helen Wong. Say his name! Wataru Misaka. Say her name! Caster Semenya. Say their names! Venus and Serena Williams. Say her name! Brehanna Daniels.  She is the first African-American woman to work the pit crew of the NASCAR series (car racing).

Not saying her name, his name, and their names has dire consequences outside of just our history books and our lectures.  The silence is a refusal to imagine their agency, their lives, and their conditions of living which are linked to the lives of black male athletes.  While state violence, especially police violence, has impacted entire African-American communities, the silence regarding the murder of black women and black trans women (as well as other trans women of color) informs us about the politics of living and which bodies/lives are made to count.  It is as if these persons never existed.  It is as if their lives had no value.  It is as if their lives matter less even in death, murder, and violence.

Yet, some persons’ names are read in the larger society and in our own communities.  Black men who have been murdered by the police, killed by white supremacists, or have been incarcerated have their names called—their names become public record.  Movies like The Three Trials of Daryl Hunt illustrate critically the incarceration of black men.  Likewise, there is a wide and far reaching scholarship on black men and the birth-to-prison pipeline.  However, books like Jill McCorkel’s Breaking Women: Gender, Race, and the New Politics of Imprisonment (New York University Press) and Beth Richie’s Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York University Press) are not as common.  Such important scholarship that centers the lives of women of color are far and few between.  Books like the ones mentioned above insert the far-reaching impact of racism and sexism in U.S. society.

A few names of African-American women have popped up recently with regards to police homicidal violence.  While the mention of Sandra Bland’s name and her gruesome death at the hands of the police has garnered some attention, we also must account for how it is also a result of her high ranking, education, and social status.  While we call out her name, we do not call the names of all women of color and trans women of color who have been murdered.  The politics of respectability continue to shape ethnic and minority communities in the U.S., and the African-American community is not exceptional to this trend.  As mentioned earlier, heterosexual, middle-class politics of respectability is often embodied in the figure of the cis-gendered man of color.  These same men then become representations and hopes of our communities.

When I studied the South Asian-American basketball community, in my book Desi Hoop Dreams (New York University Press), the focus on fellow athletic, heterosexual South Asian-American men as basketball heroes and emblems of the community meant it coincided with neglecting the work, play, and athletic possibilities of South Asian-American women. Even though collaborations and coalitions are broad in the call for racial justice, the labor and work of women and trans women are erased from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

The stories we tell do not always allow us to change the nature of society and the hierarchical ordering of citizenship.  For example, when discussing the Civil Rights Movement and black protest, these names often appear: Martin Luther King, Jr., James Lawson, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, Joseph Lowery, Medgar Evers, and Ralph Abernathy.  When we go outside this list, we invoke names like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey.  Such moments show how far the road to racial equality is since we fail not only to “say her name,” we fail to account for the ways in which expansive versions of liberty are tied to her salvation and her freedom as well.  She has been a key agent for social justice.

Say her name! Sojourner Truth established the possibility of gender justice through a simultaneous engagement with racial justice making sure we always “lift as we climb.” Say her name! Ida B. Wells was instrumental in the anti-lynching campaign.  Say her name! Fannie Lou Hamer.  Say her name! Marian Wright Edelman. Say his name! Bayard Rustin.

Say her name! Elaine Brown shaped many aspects of the Black Panther Party and their holistic service to the black community.  Say her name! Angela Davis has been a tireless scholar-activist against white supremacy.  With the instrumental work that Dr. Harry Edwards did with the Black Panther Party and his close alliances with Elaine Brown and Angela Davis, his conversations about the Black Panther party also open up spaces to say the names of Elaine Brown and Angela Davis.  He has acknowledged the work of women of color in other spaces and could have done so in this setting as well.  Say their names! Trans of Color were pivotal during the Stonewall Rebellion and yet absent from Hollywood nostalgic films of that period of gay liberation and social movement building.

The women of color and the trans women of color who continue to advocate for social justice and racial equality get the minimal rewards for their own work.  These black women, women of color, and trans women of color are fighting for our survival and sacrifice everything for, what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the beloved community.”

Yet, their work is rarely acknowledged and sought after in the same way that it is with cis-gendered men.  With Colin Kaepernick’s important stand against the anti-black violence in the United States of America, those who call upon his name are now on various circuits gaining financial rewards.  While is it of utmost importance to invite Dr. Harry Edwards to give the much wider spectrum of his intellectual and activist work, the labor of African-American women and black trans women of color must also be rewarded.  While some men are called on to name African-American men in the world of protest in the United States, the blank and absence continues to exist.  But what happens to the women of color? Where are the talks and circuits where these women of color are paid? How does their absence continue to perpetuate the condition of exploitive and unpaid labor for women and trans women of color? How does this reproduce what we have already seen?

Saying his name, Colin Kaepernick, is important but it cannot be done without also saying the names of all the female and gender-queer high school, collegiate, and professional female athletes who continue to protest.  White supremacy impacts all of us.  The silences are a way we play into white supremacy by justifying the violence by actively limiting the lives and bodies that matter.

Say her name! Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.  They orchestrated and continue to play pivotal roles in the BlackLivesMatter movement.  We cannot say Colin’s name without referencing them.  You can’t talk about the boat without first referencing the ocean.  Trans women of color activists and African-American women often work with little pay, fighting 24 hours a day for their community, and advising and supporting so many other organizations.  Say her name! Pay her and support her.  Say his name! Pay him and support him.  Say their name! Pay them and support them.

Scholars, a few recent examples include Jon Hale’s The Freedom Schools (Columbia University Press), Premilla Nadasen’s Household Workers Unite! (Beacon Press), and Crystal Saunders’s A Chance for Change (University of North Carolina Press), are excavating and highlighting the lives of African-American women and youth who shaped the civil rights movement, who shaped the hold on justice after the movement, and those who continue to inspire the newest generation of activists.  When we move from the important historical texts to fantastic contemporary works, books such as Aimee M. Cox’s Shapeshifters (Duke University Press), Nikki Jones’s Between Good and Ghetto (Rutgers University Press), Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books), and Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color (Beacon Press), as well as Soo Ah Kwon’s Uncivil Youth (Duke University Press) stand out as must-reads that center youth, women, trans and gender-queer people of color, and other communities of color in the challenge to racism and white supremacy.

Yet, the work of women of color and trans women of color, especially African-American women, often goes unrecognized in our larger world.  They are the leaders of our social movements.  Any given opportunity is a chance to say their names so that their struggles and labor are not confined to the academic dustbins of history.  They are in the foreground taking charge and taking the hits.  They are in the background doing the dirty, unrecognized, and undervalued labor.  Their names must be said, shouted out in every public setting while opening up spaces for new names to be recognized.  If not, the very system of inequality will continue to operate and grow by centering patriarchy as the only site of salvation and hope.  If that happens, so many of us who cannot claim whiteness, heterosexuality, Christianity, ability, and male bodies will be left out to figuratively and literally die.  Say her name! Say his name! Say their name!

In New York City, I have been incredibly honored to know gender justice and sexual justice activists like LaLa Zannell.  Trans and gender activists like Zannell have been at so many events that centered social justice, even if it does not foreground the rights of trans women of color.  Zannell’s struggle and expansive social justice mission are ones that underscore the importance of civil rights as human rights and explicitly coded in anti-racist, sexual justice, reproductive justice, gender equality, anti-poverty campaigns.

Zannell and other trans women of color activists with non-gender conforming people of color shout proudly the names so often evacuated from our mainstream media coverage.  Their shouts counter and come up against mainstream media.  The names of so many trans women of color who have been murdered in the last two years are shrouded and couched in the heterosexist media coverage and the politics of respectability in our own communities.  Acknowledging and saying those names missing from the main narratives of social movements is important along with saying those names of murdered trans women of color and people of color.

The acquittal of police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the killing of Philando Castile is a sign of the times we live in and how we must organize for the future.  Being respectable and a key person in the local community did not shield Castile from such murderous violence.  The police killing of pregnant African-American mother Charleena Lyles in front of her children illustrates clearly the sexist, racist nature of “law and order.”  Nabra, a 17-year-old Muslim American young woman, was beaten to death in Virginia at the moment where hatred of Muslims has reached a fever pitch in Trump-era politics.

We cannot list Nabra, Charleena, and Philando alone.  Their deaths are embedded in a white supremacist country that thrives on the erasure of other names.  The racist violence has deep costs on trans women of color and gay black men. Say her name! Say his name! Brandi Chill, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Islan Nettles, Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, JoJo Striker, Keke Collier, Chyna Doll Dupree, Ciara McElveen, Imer Alvarado, Jaquarrius Holland, Alphonza Watson, Chay Reed, Kenneth Bostick, Sherrell Faulkner, and Kenne McFadden.

Racial equality starts with these names as part of a larger community of names.  These names offer us a clear view of racism that prevents loving and living in the United States of America.  Saying her name, his name, and their name is the foundational recognition that our lives are connected in the fight for social justice, equity, and sovereignty over our lives.

Saying their names, just by itself, is not the end point.  It is never enough.  It can be fleeting and can disappear into the air if we do not combine it with direct action.  Once we have paid respect and said the names and acknowledged the work done by so many, we must put on the work gloves, the hard hat, and get into the nitty gritty of grass roots activism.  We must play an active role in sustaining movements for social justice.  Once we say her name, we have to work with justice-oriented organizations to take to the streets and claim spaces throughout this country that have been closed to African-Americans, women of color, trans women, trans men, and gender non-conforming people.  Their liberation is our liberation.

We must construct town halls where police departments must attend and speak to their training, especially regarding their understanding of the diverse social world.  In the process, these town halls must be sites for putting together community councils that hold police accountable.  Additionally, the councils can then become key lobbyist organizations through which the definition of hate crimes can be expanded to include the violence experienced by trans women of color.  Educational facilities must incorporate ethnic studies and gender, sexuality, and trans studies as a key part of the middle school, high school, and college common core.

We must demand that all local politicians meet with activists and scholars to get a full understanding of the larger social terrain before they take office.  If not, we can organize to oust them from office, much as we must work nationally to get Donald Trump out of the White House.

Finally, I want to go back and emphasize how we must work with local activists for trans rights.  Justice for trans women of color clearly highlights how poverty, racism, sexism, and xenophobia intersect in American life.  Trans justice is a foundation for a democratic future as it dismantles the multiple forms of violence and deprivation that structure white supremacy.  Justice for and involving both cis and trans women of color will offer a more expansive living for all.

[This post originally appeared on Tropics of Meta.]

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York. He is the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) and co-editor of Asian American Sporting Cultures (NYU Press, 2016).

Featured image: EUA levam ouro na ginástica artística feminina; Brasil fica em 8º lugar by Agência Brasil Fotografias. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.