Bulletproof Big Mommas: Black Women Cannot Stop Bullets #atl

Yesterday a man entered an Atlanta middle school with a semi-automatic weapon intending to kill some cops with as public a platform as possible.

Antoinette Tuff is a clerk at the school. The gunman instructed her to call a local news station to record his attack. Tuff managed to talk the gunman down after he fired his first shots. No children were hurt and there is no way to imagine how many lives were saved.

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Tuff is an amazing woman who did what we can each only hope to be brave enough to do when so many lives are at stake. Many are attributing her immense bravery to a type of womanhood. I’d rather they attributed it to her humanity. For black women, there’s a difference.

“It takes a woman to stop a man with a gun” has floated down my timeline many times today. It’s a rebuke of the NRA president’s assertion that only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun. Our public psyche has been scarred by far too many brutal, well-publicized public massacres over the past two years. We need a response to the callous disregard among some to the many who are lost when we refuse to talk sensibly about gun control.

However, positioning Tuff in that narrative instantly made me uncomfortable.

There is a long history of black women being constructed as simultaneously weak of flesh and immune to the weaknesses of the flesh.

Black feminists and scholars have detailed the tropes that have been used to marginalize and dehumanize black women, generally to the benefit of protecting the cult of white womanhood. Jezebel, Sapphire, Mammy, Welfare Queen, Ghetto Chick — all of these work through each other and historical conditions to create an ideology that legitimizes scientific inquiries into the genetic masculinity of black women as a reason to explain why we are so ugly, stupid, lazy, unmarriageable.

The Strong Black Woman caricature can seem like a disruptive counternarrative. In this, at least black women are respected for their remarkable ability to not cry at work, let a man get her down, be the mule of the world and still laugh loudly and talk sassily.

The problem with that is one of constrained ideologies. The relative destructiveness of the Strong Black Woman to the Welfare Queen can make the former seem positive. In fact, the myth of the indestructibility of black female bodies and psyches increases our chances of being engaged in the criminal justice system, being victims of domestic violence, being ignored when we report sexual crimes, being ignored by public policy unless we are used as tools to further gender parity for white women or racial parity for black men.

The Strong Black Woman trope, when internalized, can justify not seeking medical help when our bodies require it, mental health help when our minds demand it, or social support when our spirits are crying out for it. All of this could help explain why we are more likely to die from all manner of health ailments than white women, if we are ever diagnosed or treated to begin with.

Black female bodies are not indestructible. Had that deranged gunman taken Tuff’s valiant overtures at sympathy and human connection as a threat her blackness and womanness would not have saved her. Indeed, the ideology that devalues black women’s authority, lives, and humanity made her more vulnerable to the contorted reasoning of a mentally ill man with a desire to commit public murder.

Tuff talked down a madman. That is brave, yes. But, it is also human. It is also incredibly risky and dangerous and should never have to be asked of a civil servant hired to manage the front house of a school. She did not stare down a man like a superhero. She stared him down like a human. Confusing the two may feel like a compliment but that is only because the relative position of how black women are normally caricatured in the media and public imagination makes it seem so. In reality, honoring Tuff’s humanity and how willingly she risked it by extending it to an aspiring mass murderer is not only a greater compliment but closer to the truth.

15 thoughts on “Bulletproof Big Mommas: Black Women Cannot Stop Bullets #atl

  1. Thank you for pointing out that what is being made into the act of a superhero was actually a very human act. Your contextualization of the Strong Black Woman trope is very well done. Society is good for forgetting the humanity and vulnerability of black women (and black men).

  2. I appreciate this post’s highlighting of the problems of “the strong black woman”, but I am in turn bothered by the way this piece conflates violence and mental illness. Mental illness itself is a category that exposes people to social indifference, unreasonable suspicion, and increased risk of abuse including abuse by authority figures. Indeed your own description of the strong black woman trope notes that part of its harm has to do with how mental illness intersects with black women. To consider the mental illness of a gunman as the center of his violence, outside clear evidence from psychological assessment, is to reinscribe the stigma that the mentally ill, including many black women, face.

    1. Thanks got the comment. I can hear it. So as I was writing I intended to be specific in language. I have re-read and I can see an issue with madman. Will try to change once I’m stable again. There is something specific however about him being both (reportedly) mentally ill AND brandishing a semi automatic weapon with over 500 available rounds of ammo that I consider important to Tuff’s risk and the banality of the characterization to which I was responding. Mental illness and aspiring to commit mass murder both seem important and factual in this instance.

    2. Ah your edits clarified. I did indeed take the shooters statement about being off his medication straight. That made the risk of trying to reason with him directly all the more dangerous and brave. It is difficult and often unwise to try to verbally reason with someone in an episode. But if the point is that I should take the shooter’s comment straight, it is well taken.

  3. As a white woman, I was not aware of the dehumanizing aspects of the “Strong Black Woman” trope until I read Melissa Harris Perry’s “Sister Citizen”. This was very eye-opening to me because as a white woman (focused selfishly on my own experience) I thought our fight as women was to stop being perceived as weak. I thought “strong” was a good thing, until I realized how this was being used against black women (“they’re strong, they can handle it, they don’t have needs, they don’t have feelings, they don’t need help,etc”). As destructive a trope as this is (and I hear you that it is EXTREMELY destructive and dehumanizing) I think in the case of Antoinette Tuff she comes across not as “strong” in the masculine sense (can you imagine a man being able to pull off what she did? ) but powerful in a uniquely vulnerable, feminine sense. “I love you baby” “We’ve all had hard times” “I tried to commit suicide last year” . Ms. Tuff used her compassion and vulnerability to de-escalate a deadly and horrifying situation. These are traditionally “feminine” traits, and I completely agree with you that we should not allow her story to be derailed by portraying her as “super-human”. It was in fact her deep tender humanity that saved the lives of all those precious children. Thank You for the reminder that what Antoinette Tuff did was not a “strong black woman” thing, but a deeply human thing. That cannot be repeated enough.

    1. I don’t know that it benefits any of us to code the compassion and vulnerability she showed as “uniquely feminine.” I DO think a man could do that. I hope that a man would do that.
      A related mistake to the one Tressie is talking about is to code these qualities that we admire in Ms. Tuff as “Strong Black Woman” might mean the rest of us who don’t identify with that stereotype might not think ourselves capable of that kind of empathy.

      1. daffodil why not embrace a strength a positive, the sweet, tender, caring, concern but stern voice of a female by nature is uniquely feminine and powerful to a males ear heart and soul “remember the first voice a male hear is his mother a female”. If it was a male speaking to that guy the same way Ms. Tuff did he would have turn his AK47 on him and cut him down, male and female is uniquely different even a animal can since the difference between a human male and a human female so we are what we are and it would be foolish for females or males not to embrace our strengths while at the same time work on strengthen our weakness because neither gender makes sense without the other.

        1. While our culturally coded (and racialized) gender roles certainly affect our development and how others react to us, gender does not break down into neatly ordered essential “male” and “female” experiences. Human personalities are more complex than that. Men can nurture children, women can excel in mathematics, and so on.

          Nor are human lives and bodies so easily reduced to a simple ordered biological gender. There are more than two chromosomal sexes, and more configurations of reproductive anatomy. Nor does a person’s gender necessarily match what we expect for a given configuration of genitals. Some people born with testicles and a penis are women, some people born with ovaries are men, and some people are both or neither of the genders that are on that common mental map.

          1. Patrick I can tell you have been mis educated by radical liberal lunatics as always you are talking about the exception the 1 percentile “the abnormal” I and talking about the normal the 99 percentile in the human family!!!!

        2. trueletterson, I have to agree with daffodil on this point. I too think a man could have done the same thing as Antoinette did. I agree with you that men and women are different, yet the same way as you said in another post that if she “had she came off as this strong manly take charge women he would have turn his AK47 on her!” I believe a man who spoke with the sincerity compassion and love which Antoine spoke with may well have had a similar outcome.

          1. Chris the thing is we men can’t speak like a women maybe 5% our voice and tone of voice is different, had he been a women a man could have easily talked her down where as a women would have had problems, example a son will humble himself before his mother and want to stand up to his father and at the same time a daughter will humble herself before her father but want to stand up before her mother, that’s the nature of things.

  4. Antoinette Tuff’s a women the flower of god creation was operating in the nature in which god created her, she was soft, sweet, kind, caring etc. but stern any male would drop his guard and listen to her because his nature is tune to her sweet, gentle and caring voice, had she came off as this strong manly take charge women he would have turn his AK47 on her!

  5. You always make me weep, Tressie. Wish I had known you two decades ago. I could have been spared so much suffering thinking that I could get people to ‘look past’ my race as a dark-skinned Black woman. The reality of how we are produced in the world as subjects just doesn’t allow for this. And this post is one more reminder of why this is. No matter how hard you try, your corporeal-epidermal-ascribed race reality will determine how your actions are viewed. Socially constructed, yes. The same actions viewed differently when performed by a Black female body instead of a White one.

    Generally I am demoralized by the abject state of racial empathy, but when I read your post I am encouraged to see some one the other side of the ‘color line’ getting it. Glad you’re pulling more people over that line.

  6. I enjoy reading your articles/blogs and you make many valid points but I’m confused by this ideal that there is a “cult of the white women” and that white women think there is a supremacy or that black woman are “ugly or unmarriagable”. Aren’t we all just women, equally and beautiful in our own ways? It saddens me that not only do you view black women in this way but the view that you have of white women as well. We will never rise above this masculine world unless we find a way to first unite ourselves; blacj and white.

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