From #SayHerName to ‘woke’, is the language of Black liberation being looted?
All of our struggles intersect, but there's power in remembering our differences too.
21 Feb 2023
Content warning: mentions of violence, murder, transphobia, and racism
Earlier this month, news broke that 16-year-old Brianna Ghey, a white transgender girl from Cheshire, England, had been tragically stabbed to death in a park. Predictably, mainstream British media failed to report Ghey’s death with dignity and respect: The Times amended their initial story to include Ghey’s deadname – the birth name a trans person no longer uses after their transition. In an effort to call out this deliberate decision, trans activists and allies took to Twitter and circulated the hashtag #SayHerName, as well as chanted it at vigils, to ensure that Ghey would be memorialised appropriately.
However, this resulted in a mass online debate. After the murder of 28-year-old Sandra Bland who was arrested after a traffic stop and was found hanged in her jail cell, the hashtag was widely used to bring awareness to her suspicious death. Since then, the Black community has used the hashtag to draw attention to the murder of Black women and girls – especially those within the trans community. The online debate ensued after a user tweeted: “I need y’all to understand that that phrase/hashtag was created for Black women who are victims of police violence.” Whilst some people understood the criticism, others met the original user with vitriol steeped in anti-Blackness.
Noticing the polarising effect of the hashtag, activist and journalist Ash Sarkar shared her opinion on Twitter. “There is a certain trend in identity politics that seems more concerned with protecting intellectual property rights than, say, marginalised communities articulating shared interests and organising together in pursuit of justice,” she wrote. “And honestly, it belongs in the bin.” Sarkar’s comments propelled the discourse into further disarray, as she referenced the inclusivism of the Black Panther Party to support her argument, prompting users from different sides of the debate to share their viewpoints. “This desire to co-opt, diminish, and rebrand around movements and slogans specifically built around Black people is so fucking weird,” wrote one user. “Using this message for trans liberation doesn’t deflect, dilute, or distort the message. It’s solidarity,” said another.
“The bottom line is yes, movements can coalesce and contain multiplicities – but that is not what was being argued against”Tionne Parris
This isn’t the first time that a hashtag associated with a Black movement has been described as having been ‘co-opted’ – meaning another societal group has used a hashtag or phrase to draw attention to its own agenda. The term “woke” is a form of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) that can be traced back to the 1940s. The word is used to denote a person’s understanding of systemic racial issues and awareness of the need for justice. In recent times, right-wing groups have appropriated the word to deride the beliefs of the left, trivialising the original meaning to the point of mockery. Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis tried to push through a “Stop W.O.K.E.” bill last year, which would limit what colleges and universities could teach students about sexism and racism.
In a similar vein, #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) became a global hashtag after the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown who was shot to death by a police officer in 2014. As a result, riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, as Black people called for institutional reform. The Black Lives Matter movement gained traction across the U.S. and internationally, and the slogan since has been used to highlight the subsequent incidences of racially motivated violence against Black people at the hands of the police. In response to this, opposing groups have developed their own iterations. Take ‘All Lives Matter’ – a term designed to undermine BLM and ridicule the fact that Black Americans are disproportionately brutalised. Then there’s the pro-police slogan Blue Lives Matter which posits officers as potential hate crime victims. To add further insult to injury, rapper Kanye West wore a ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirt at Paris Fashion Week last season, a term that has been promoted by the white supremacist group Aryan Renaissance Society in direct retaliation to BLM.
Given that so many terms associated with shedding light on the racial injustices the Black community face have been inverted to cause further harm, it’s no wonder that some fear #SayHerName will follow the same trajectory. Ace Sutherland is a Black trans non-binary individual who is the Director for Community Organising at Equality New York – an organisation that aims to facilitate equality and justice for LGBTQI New Yorkers. Sutherland says that it’s important for advocacy to be intersectional where marginalised voices are concerned, but that the Black community asking to keep #SayHerName as its own hashtag is a “small ask.” They see this as Black people asking for equality within a framework that largely forgets their existence. “I am not saying that Brianna Ghey does not deserve a social media outcry; I am not saying that I am not upset about her murder,” they explain. “What I am saying is that Black trans women do not receive anywhere near the amount of attention of white women.”
“This could have been an opportunity to educate people about the overlapping violence against different types of women to build something bigger and stronger”Chardine Taylor-Stone
Tionne Parris is a British PhD student specialising in the activism of Black women radicals from 1930s-1970s. After seeing Sarkar’s mention of the Black Panther Party (BPP), which claimed that the radical group would see the hashtag as an opportunity for “coalition building,” Parris felt compelled to dispel misinformation by sharing knowledge based on her own research – which several Twitter users attacked her for. Sarkar’s reference to the Black Panther Party here felt inappropriate and “exacerbated the debate”, says Parris, especially considering that much of the protest online against the use of #SayHerName in this context was coming from Black American women. “The bottom line is, yes, movements can coalesce and contain multiplicities – but that is not what was being argued against,” she tweeted. “The OG argument was about the erasure of Black women.”
That being said, Black feminist author Chardine Taylor-Stone thinks it’s important to understand the true origin of the phrase. “The first use of [#SayHerName] on Twitter was regarding a white rape victim and [the phrase] has been used within the general feminist movement for decades,” she tells gal-dem. “Understandably, there have been many times when white people have stolen things from Black people and claimed them as their own for profit. However, this was not that time,” she says. Taylor-Stone thinks that the discourse has become too focused on different personalities on Twitter, which has proved more divisive than necessary. “This could have been an opportunity to educate people about the overlapping violence against different types of women to build something bigger and stronger. But in the end, it ended up crushing it instead,” she continues.
“In the case of Brianna Ghey, the Twitter debate over #SayHerName has arguably overshadowed what really matters: the murder of a young trans girl”
Elle* is a Black queer individual whose outlook is not dissimilar to Taylor-Stone’s. Although she doesn’t necessarily think the hashtag should be used to platform all trans voices, she believes that in this instance, the phrase was appropriately used. “‘Say Her Name’ was incredibly relevant considering that Ghey was being deadnamed by the media. Her true identity was being erased and making sure that she was remembered as Brianna Ghey was important,” she tells gal-dem.
In an age where social media reigns supreme, activism has found its feet online. While leftists are routinely criticised for in-fighting over semantics, Sutherland says it’s important to remember the impact of using hashtags as part of digital discourse. “When we think about George Floyd, Tyre Nichols, Breonna Taylor… most of us will remember the social media outcry that happened in response to the murders of these Black men and women,” they explain. “To simplify the argument to semantics and identity politics is to disregard the social movements that begin and are amplified online.”
The old adage goes that the pen is mightier than the sword, so it’s essential that when communicating online, we choose our words – and ultimately, our battles – wisely. In the case of Brianna Ghey, the Twitter debate over #SayHerName has arguably overshadowed what really matters: the murder of a young trans girl. “We could have had the conversation about who can use the hashtag and what it’s for after Ghey was laid to rest,” says Elle. “Instead, her death has become this mess – on top of being a horrific hate crime.”
In the UK, call Galop’s National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans+ Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0800 999 5428, the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247 or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org
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