Heather Heyer’s death is not an excuse to further perpetuate white supremacy and the erasure of women of color.
By Arielle Gray
I rolled my eyes over the outrage splashed across all social media outlets when white nationalists descended onto the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville. The scene wasn’t anything new or surprising to us — to Black Americans, this insidious imagery is emblematic of our country’s racist history. We’ve all either seen or witnessed torches in the night, white supremacist gatherings or outward displays of hate. Our recent political climate has emboldened white supremacists to finally take off their hoods.
Counter-protesters filled the city the next day to denounce the hundreds of white nationalists expected to gather in Charlottesville for the “Unite The Right” rally — Heather Heyer was among them when James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, drove into a crowd of protesters and killed Heather. Fields, was later arrested and charged with second-degree homicide among a myriad of other counts. It wasn’t long after that Heather Heyer’s name started trending under the #SayHerName hashtag.
Heather Heyer was an activist. A daughter. She was loved. She put her life on the line to uplift the disenfranchised and to denounce white nationalism and used her white privilege to both educate her fellow white people and to condemn anti-blackness. Heather was what a lot of white women should be. Heather Heyer should be honored, as all activists who’ve lost their lives on the line, should be. But we don’t need to use the #SayHerName hashtag to do it.
The #SayHerName hashtag was created in 2015 and was coined that year by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). The organization created a more than comprehensive catalog outlining their mission — to bring awareness to the violence Black women face that it so routinely ignored in society. Sandra Bland’s death in police custody in 2015 catalyzed the hashtag until it grew into a movement in its own right. Like #BlackLivesMatter, it became more than a hashtag — it’s where we go to voice our grief at our society’s silence over the killings of our sisters.
Black women are murdered at over 2x the rate as white women, according to a 2013 study done by the Violence Policy Center. Black women, because we stand at an axis of racism and sexism, encounter unique types of violence. Though white women outnumber Black women 5:1, Black women are still disproportionately affected by police violence. We make up only 13% of the female population yet 33% of women killed by the police are Black.
Black Trans Women are especially vulnerable to violence and are 28% more likely to face hate violence than gender normative women. Violence against transgender women has exponentially increased over the past three years — 17 transgender people have died in 2017, the majority of them were women of color.
Black women who go missing or who are murdered do not get the benefit of the doubt. Society does not look for us. Our stories and deaths are rarely ever centered in the social justice movement or in the media. When we are killed, there is silence or our media attempts to justify our deaths. They would like for everyone to believe that we build our own coffins. We created the #SayHerName hashtag as an outlet for this and as a way to organize with and for other Black women.
We grow up hyper-aware of our dichotomous invisibility and visibility. We grow up being hyper- sexualized and criminalized by society, yet silenced and gaslighted when we seek to exact our autonomy. Simultaneously, we grow up knowing that white women are visible, when they go missing, there is a media outcry. When they are murdered, there is condemnation.
Heather Heyer was white. She was already seen. And she knew it. She used her privilege as a white woman to speak on the injustices she found intolerable. But to have her name trending in the hashtag created by Black women for murdered Black women is merely another micro aggressive form of white supremacy. It becomes problematic and appropriative when you are replacing the faces and stories of murdered Black women with Heather Heyer’s, whose story has been splashed across news outlets since her murder.
Honoring Heather Heyer’s memory does not require her name be a trending topic under #SayHerName. We can honor Heather Heyer in ways that are not culturally problematic. Her death is not an excuse to further perpetuate white supremacy and the erasure of women of color.