Reframing Black Womxn in the Nation's Capital
"DC People and Places - Full Frame Sony A7 II 50989" by Ted Eytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Black womxn deserve honest conversations, housing equity and apologies. I'm writing this letter to speak up for the Black womxn who aren't empowered enough to speak up for themselves. I'm writing this letter to speak my truth so young womxn coming behind me understand that they don't ever have to sit quietly and endure racism, sexism nor inequity. It is a new day. We now have our first female Black & Indian Vice-President. Black womxn are breaking barriers all over the globe, so now is the time to continue to speak up and address the inequities in the Nation's Capital. Far too often other people write the narrative for Black womxn. This has to stop. We can speak. We can write and we have a right to tell our own stories. It is time we begin to tell our vast but connected stories. This is my contribution to a discussion of how Black womxn in Washington D.C. are continually subjected to racism, sexism and housing inequity.
My name is Nisa Harper. I have been a single mom of four kids living in the Nation's Capital for over six years now. We live in the heart of the city in Anacostia. I love what D.C. has to offer in terms of access to the arts, medical care for my children, educational opportunities of choice and the space to fight for progression. Yet, here I am as a proud HBCU fourth-generation college graduate. Like many womxn I have experienced the deeply embedded racist stereotypes of Black women. The biases are still prevalent like when the former President Trump called the now Vice-President Kamala Harris "Angry and Mean." Black womxn have to deal with the trope of The Sapphire, the angry Black womxn that a white supremacist society teaches us to fear. This is especially true when Black womxn speak up or act against misogyny, men's violence against women, racism and systemic oppression. Let's be honest. It wasn't that long ago – in the 1990s, when law professor Anita Hill Esq. was further traumatized when Senators publicly grilled her on Capitol Hill about the sexual harassment she faced from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who accused her of lying.
For the context of this article, I'm going to add that I have been a stay-at-home mom. While doing so, I was trained as a parent-engagement specialist. During this time, I've self-published nine books in the last ten years plus an additional three that three of my kids have. I have always been heavily involved in every aspect of their education. I'm a former public housing tenant association vice-president. When I lived on a Sanford Capital property, I was the vice-president of our tenant association. I am a registered voter and have worked on several political & educational campaigns in D.C. and Alexandria, VA, including as a special needs advocate. I have over twenty years of experience with grassroots organizing in the Social Work/Sociology field in which I hold my B.A. When I had my children, I had to come out of the traditional workforce to be able to organize, schedule appointments, coordinate all types of meetings, attend their scholastic achievements and empower my children because of their different special needs. It was and is a full-time job for one parent to have to stay on track with all of their appointments and school activities. Unlike the widely-held stereotype, I, like many special needs parents, DO NOT receive Social Security Income (SSI). I would like to dispel other common stereotypes by saying all of my children are scholars, none have ever been held back, and they have never had any disciplinary issues at any school they attended.
I found that many agencies in D.C. actually had implicit and stereotypical biases, viewing Black womxn as lazy, angry and difficult. People have a hard time accepting someone if they do not fit the stereotype of a Black mom who lives in the Southeast area of D.C. As I have worked alongside many politicians and grassroots activists on issues such as housing, education, special education, parent-engagement and so on, I have worked with many men of influence. I have been traumatized by the blatant sexism in the political world. It has been during this time that I witnessed and directly experienced uncomfortable situations with Black men of "influence". Some were even sexually suggestive. One time in 2016 I was referred to a business meeting about books at 11 a.m. in the Petworth section of D.C. As I entered the publisher’s basement office for the meeting, there were open champagne bottles around and he kept asking me questions about my relationship with my kid's dad and other people in the political world. I felt very uncomfortable in the environment and eventually after an hour or so I left the "meeting" in an Uber. Once I got home, I immediately called my contact who referred me and I told him what the scene was like and how disappointed I was that he set me up on a meeting with this guy and the guy was acting like he wasn't going to pay me for my time. My contact, who is a non-profit director in D.C., sincerely apologized BUT also informed me that I was the second women he sent for a meeting with this man and that the other woman left in tears. I asked my contact why he would send me to meet with this guy if he knew this. He apologized again. I had worked with this contact for years in the community and since he had always been professional and respectful with and around me, I accepted his apology. Like I told him, he still shouldn't have placed me in a situation with a man like that. Black womxn are not people to casually disregard in any way shape or form. I was told during one of my pregnancies that I could've been killed because I made the decision to keep the child. I had another politician, Director of Constituent Services, personally tell me in 2014 that people like me can get hurt based on who I had kids with and along with the damage that person caused. I have been continually harassed and slandered for over a decade because I published my life story on some of the things that I deal/dealt with as a Black mom.
I refuse to be quiet about this issue because I want other womxn to know that NO ONE deserves abuse or harassment. I want other womxn to be healed from any harm they have ever experienced so they UNDERSTAND that abuse isn't their fault. After watching "Framing Britney Spears" I feel compelled to speak up and bring to light the intersectionality of how "Black Womxn deserve to be ReFramed".
There are many who have been complicit in their silence who not only witnessed things like I did, but also know that I'm not the only Black womxn to face this type of abuse and harassment in the male-dominated political and grassroots field in D.C. Many of the men abuse their power over Black womxn who usually have already faced some type of abuse in their life. One in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
Many like to paint me as an anomaly, but I'm not. I actually speak for many Black moms who are successfully raising children in D.C. not only in the face of racism and sexism, but also housing inequity. Racist tropes, such as those discussed above, play a role in how Washington, D.C., through policies and structural racism, has continually and rapidly displaced Black families. According to a report by the Center for American Progress,"[F]rom 2000 to 2013, the city endured the nation's highest rate of gentrification, resulting in more than 20,000 African-American residents' displacement. Today, almost one in four Washington residents – 23 percent – live in poverty”. After my kids were born, for the first time in my life, I began to experience housing instability. Not one of my accomplishments listed above would stop me from experiencing what many are experiencing: a lack of quality affordable housing. This is where my housing advocacy began. I began to study the many studies that were done, such as the Center for American Progress report, which mapped out and showed how for centuries, "structural racism in the U.S. housing system has contributed to stark and persistent racial disparities in wealth and financial well-being, especially between Black and white households".
The District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) has neglected to repair mold, allowed public housing property to become decrepit and derelict, and have been responsible for other housing violations for DECADES. Then, "[I]n 2019 The Washington, D.C. Housing Authority released a proposal to DEMOLISH over ten more public housing properties." Look at what the City did to Barry Farms neighborhood of D.C., where the City’s redevelopment plan has led to the demolition of public housing property to make way for a "mixed-income" development and the displacement of many DCHA residents. Everyone is aware that the demographics of DCHA are mainly Black families. And that the preponderance of those in need of affordable housing, and thus being displaced from housing, are Black female-headed single-parent or lone persons. This is systemic racism.
How can such a progressive city like Washington, D.C., with a long line of Black mayors and elected officials, blatantly push public policies and housing demolitions that disproportionately affect Black womxn and children? As a Black mom I'm basically being told that my outlook on life, and living in quality affordable housing should be dreary and bleak because I live in the Anacostia section of D.C. and not Georgetown. These are examples of how racism, sexism and housing inequality form a toxic Trinity. I'm not accepting this, nor am I going to allow anyone to steal my right to have joy in America. This is our America too. If this is what inequity looks like, let's change this inequity. It's unjust: now is the time to speak up and reframe the narrative as a start for instituting change.
Nisa Harper is a Social Worker, advocate, and author. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her children and their cat Simba.