“Black Women’s Equality Day,” was July 31; Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead wants America to pay up.
Thirty-seven cents, less than the cost of a candy bar. This is what the gender and racial pay gap looks like in America. There is a deep economic divide in America, where Black women are paid only 67 cents for every dollar that White non-Hispanic men do, even after controlling for education and years of experience. According to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute (EPI), with this economic disparity in place, it takes Black women an extra six months per year to make what their White male counterparts made in 12 months. This year, Black Women’s Equality Day fell on July 31st.
Two days before my birthday, and I was reminded all over again that I am a Black girl in America and that means something. I was seven years old the first time I was told this reality. I had spent the afternoon fighting my boy cousins and beating them in foot races through the woods. They were wearing shorts and I was wearing a skirt that I had tied between my legs like makeshift bloomers. My grandmother called me over and told me that I needed to start acting like a lady which meant that I had to stop fighting and racing. I had to clean the dirt off my face and start getting my hair pressed. I had to learn how to set the table and wash the dishes; how to sew, and hem, and iron sheets. While my boy cousins fished and built sand castles, I learned how to wash clothes and make the bed. I used to look at them out of the window, wishing that I could be a boy so that I could be free. This is the first time when I felt like I could not breathe. There was a feeling of anomia where I knew what was happening to me but I could not name it and none of the women in my life seemed to have the capacity (or words) to say it out loud. This feeling of gender inadequacy was reinforced in my church where I learned over and over again that the sin that plagued and infected our world came from a woman who dared to make her own decision. It took me years to become a Black feminist, to be able to recognize my gender and racial oppression and fight against it; to stop thinking that I had to be twice as smart as White people or work twice as hard as a man, to stop measuring myself against them as if they were the standard. This is what true internal oppression looks like when it is formed and shaped over a lifetime by a coagulation of feelings, emotions, subtext, inequality, intentional erasure, and perceptions of inferiority.
Most days I am able to balance my anger at the system with incredible moments of joy but there are some days that are more difficult than others. Black Women’s Equality Day is one of those days. It is the one day where I am brutally reminded that no matter how hard I work or how many degrees I have or how many pay raises I receive, I still have to work an extra six months to catch up to my White male peers. It is a race that I will never win or tie as it is designed for Black women to lose. It is a very blatant reminder that Black women, as Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, have always been and continue to be the mules of this world. We stand tall and yet, this 37 cents difference only shows us that society continues to benefit from riding the backs of Black women and exploiting our labor.
There are approximately three million American families that depend on the income that Black mothers earn and with this pay discrepancy, households are suffering. The tentacles of economic oppression find their way into every aspect of a Black woman’s life, from mortgage payments to childcare; college savings to purchasing healthy food. At this rate, it would take a Black woman about 108 years to catch up and achieve wage equality (this is assuming that the pay rate for White males remains constant) This is unacceptable. We must work together to reclaim this 37 cents and reclaim the time we spend into the system without being adequately compensated. It really does matter, and until it is done and the ledger is clean, both systemic oppression and racial inequality will continue.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America” and “Notes from a Colored Girl.”