What Not Having Autonomy Looks Like For Black People

Black people aren’t as free as you think they are. Our bondage just looks different.

What Not Having Autonomy Looks Like For Black People

Black people aren’t as free as you think they are. Our bondage just looks different.

Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash

Autonomy is the right or condition of self government. Autonomy is the freedom to exist in peace, to decide, to move, to breathe, and to live. Black people in America have never had the right to control our bodies or our minds. Because the ancestors of African-American (Black) descendants of slaves (ADOS) came here as enslaved people and were freed on conditions set by White people, Black people have never had the freedom as individuals or collectively as a group to exercise their wills. I’m sure there are going to be some White people reading this who will say we can do whatever we want to.

The truth of the matter is we Black folks can do whatever White people let us to do. Black people can only do what White people will allow them to do.

Black doing comes with White conditions.

After the Civil War, America promised Blacks land as compensation to former slaves for our pain and suffering, but quickly voided the deal. America never kept its promise, even though Black folks have always kept theirs. Black folks remember America didn’t keep its promises to us, and we feel it. We get angry. Black America never forgets, and somehow White America keeps playing dumb.

America’s failure to keep its promises over the centuries created a wealth gap that Black folks collectively could never overcome. White people have always controlled Black bodies by taking away opportunities and refusing to treat us as their equals. Over the years, the inequality only grew. We were free on paper, not in real life. Black folks didn’t have the autonomy to control our circumstances during slavery or after slavery. Black people collectively also don’t have the autonomy to control our current circumstances or our future.

According to Bloomberg City Labs, Black people have had a 100-year penalty placed on their bodies just for being Black. That invisible penalty has aided in keeping us behind. That penalty, handed down from generation to generation, took away our autonomy.

What might Black people have accomplished if they could have had the freedom and the moral and personal independence to move upward or earn what White people earn? What might have been achieved if Black people were allowed to think for themselves and make decisions that were helpful or beneficial to them and them alone? Without bodily autonomy, the capacity of Black people to build their lives on their own terms; create healthy, resilient families; develop neighborhoods; earn enough money to care for themselves and their families; work; learn and teach the next generation; and protect themselves against their enemies was impossible.

Because of White Supremacy, autonomy is still impossible for Black people today.

We are not free to govern ourselves even though we’ve begged and sometimes fought unsuccessfully for the right to do so to no avail. Because we Black people don’t control nothing (including ourselves), our upward mobility has drastically been impacted. The lack of autonomy also affects what we can do about racism.

Between 1880 and 2010, whites showed much higher rates of upward mobility than Blacks — even if both White and Black parents started from the same economic position. Racism at play is undeniable. When practiced systemically by controlling the Black bodies, Black minds, Black finances, and the movements of Black people, present and future autonomy is thwarted.

Let me explain how.

What The Lack of Autonomy For Black People Looks Like

The right to regulate one’s self is something Black people in America don’t know. White people believe they need to control every aspect of our lives as if we’re incapable of doing so. And if we don’t move, think, live, or act the way Whiteness want us to, there is always a price today. Where there is Whiteness, there is bondage. Where there is bondage, there is control. That control looks and feels different for Black people.

White people have always had autonomy over Black hair, so much so, there are cases clogging up our courts regarding hair discrimination. The way our hair comes out of our scalps has always bothered White people, and we’ve always been punished for our lack of desire or inability to conform to White hair and beauty standards. Many Black women relax their hair or wear synthetic and human long hair style wigs in order to conform to those standards.

Black men and boys keep their hair cut or neatly tapered and groomed in order to avoid appearing too scary, and some do it to be rewarded with employment opportunities. Whites control most employment opportunities, therefore, they directly control Black bodies by controlling their ability to secure gainful employment. Little Black girls and boys are being chided by White adults and White children in classrooms all across this nation. Other Black children are shamed, reprimanded and even dismissed for refusing to conform, and even forced to cut their hair in front of a room of White people to show allegiance to Whiteness. Black autonomy over our bodies is a myth.

White people control what we learn. They run public education from the top to the bottom. They control where school funds go; they control what we learn and what we don’t learn. White people control tax assessing which determines the values of our homes in Black, Brown, and White communities dictating how much (or how little) funding is raised for minority schooling. This leads to inequitable education. White people run the majority of school boards across the nation, and most state legislatures are run by mostly White governing bodies which sets educational priorities that drive businesses and industry to and from states. White people control what Black bodies learn, which determines the postsecondary educational opportunities Black children have access to. Let’s not talking about the racism of land-grant colleges and universities. White folks had an almost 20 year head start in educating White folks beginning in 1862 when the opportunities were created, long before Black folks and tribal communities got those opportunities.

Controlling higher education controls our earning potential and generational wealth. There is a reason immigrant groups are more successful than Blacks and Natives. They skipped the line and were given an autonomy Black and Natives Americans were not. Blacks and Native Americans still don’t possess the autonomy of immigrants of color.

White people control our bodies by controlling what we eat, where we eat, and how we consume food. Socioeconomic and political structures exploit and misinform people of color, coupled with widespread misinformation about food itself, ensures White people maintain control over what we consume and our health. There are plenty of things over the year scientists and researchers have discovered were bad for non-White people (i.e. cows milk), yet it didn’t stop White people from crafting legislation, food pyramids, and other schemes that helped White farmers as it made a lot of us sicker. Deficiencies from a lack of vitamins that we didn’t get because of the lack of access to fruit and vegetables can lead to various cancers, high blood pressure, and other health issues.

The price of food and a lack of access to diverse kinds of foods are primary factors that lead to poor health for Black people, and anyone shopping in Black/Brown communities and White communities can see the differences to access first hand. If you have never gone to a Black neighborhood grocery store, you should. Browse the aisles. Look at the prices. Notice the different/limited selection of options. Check out the vegetable section. Look at the choices and prices of meats and vegetables. Look at how cheap the bad foods are. Black people shopping at grocery stores in their communities are punished for being Black and poor. Now, research who owns those grocery stores and the buildings themselves. Bad and overpriced food are penalties Black folks never escape, since Black people no longer control their own food chains to ensure they have what they need. White people control and regulate all the food chains in America. Racism is everywhere, including in how we access, buy, and consume food for our daily sustenance. America also has a history of burning down Black co-op grocery stores and lynching Black consumers found shopping in those stores going back to the 1800s. Not having autonomy over what you and your food sources consume is problematic. Racism and fears of retribution keep Black people from seeking better, which is invisible control.

White people control where we live, what our cities, streets, and towns look like, and what they have and don’t have. They’ve taken away our autonomy by controlling where they live, ensuring it’s not where we are White people over-represent the city/urban planning and architect industries. You can’t have nice things and nice places to live if racist White people who won’t acknowledge they are racist are the people creating cities, towns, muni with implicit and explicit biases. The inability to get into certain industries to control what we build in Black communities takes away our autonomy.

White people control our comfort. I’m sure White people don’t even give this a second thought, but White comfort is a key determinant in whether we stay or go certain places. While many Black people will sacrifice their comfort and the comfort of their children for the White gaze, there are many of us who are way beyond that. White comfort levels determine whether we can stay in spaces or whether the police will be called on us. White comfort determines whether our bodies remain in school, on our jobs, or in public spaces. Implicit biases drive White comfort, which is the reason Blacks are followed suspiciously in department stores, or told they can’t afford to be in certain places. White comfort lets Black folks know if they can stay or if they must go, which basically means we really don’t have autonomy over our bodies or movements. White people act as the comfort police for all White people moving about America covertly working to ensure “Only White Comfort Matters.”

White people control what we watch and how we are entertained, which controls/influences how we behave. Nearly all the major television networks in this country are owned or run by White people. Because of the lack of diversity, White people control what we see and what we don’t. They also plant subliminal messages in commercials and advertisements. This country’s segregated television programming on major networks reinforces racism. Nearly all communications and social media companies are White-owned. The lack of diversity means hiring and programming isn’t created with us in mind. It also means White people create in their minds what they believe Black people are, which is often racist and stereotypical. If we had more autonomy over media, we could control how we are seen, how we are entertained, and drive cultural and social influence decisions which positively affect our communities. There is a reason television is so white, and it’s because White people not only have the autonomy to create our entertainment and how we are communicated with. Another problem with White networks and producers is that when Black programming is shown, it’s usually the kind of programs about the kind of Black people White people feel most comfortable around. White people also have the autonomy to control our creativity.

White people takeaway our autonomy to control what we eat in our communities. Food deserts are nothing new for Black people. Slavery was the original food desert for our ancestors. Frederick Douglass wrote often how White slaveowners weaponized food during slavery, often starving their slaves. Not all slaves suffered the same fates, though. Douglass noted there were certain black servants chosen by their slave masters for their loyalty and good looks, which gave them access to the big house or great house. White people controlled who ate well during based on loyalty to White Supremacy. You can see a continuation of Blacks being extended similar privileges by way of opportunities extended to Black people today who gatekeep for White Supremacy. Black people who conform, assimilate, demonstrate anti-Black characteristics, are educated, and who are willing to take on White characteristics are rewarded by being welcomed into White spaces where the good stuff is reserved for Whiteness.

Today, White people control how and what Black folks eat by designing communities that have grocery stores offering overpriced food, bad/rotten food, lots of bad fast-food restaurants, an excess of liquor stores and convenience stores that sell junk food, alcohol, and other unhealthy processed foods, etc. Due to racism and the expectation of microaggressions, people with limited or no means are often made so uncomfortable when they try to access better food options may decide to stay in their own neighborhoods and consume food of lesser quality. Many Black people feel consuming bad food is better than dealing with White people in White spaces. Low wages also play a huge role in what foods Black people consume and where they can consume from. If we had autonomy over other areas of our lives, food insecurity and accessing bad food would be eliminated.

White people control where we go. Since slavery, White people have controlled where we could go. Now that can move a little more freely, we can shop in certain spaces. They allow us to send our kids to certain schools and participate in certain programs. They enjoy telling us where we don’t belong. I remember moving to Fort Myers, Florida a few years ago and being told Black people don’t go to the beach or congregate because White people felt threatened by them. Native Black South West Floridians shared experiences of basically being harassed out of areas and even having to deal with the police being called and ushered away because they weren’t welcome in certain public spaces. We still have sundown towns, White country clubs keeping Black folks out, and let’s not talk about the militias using terror to control the movement of Black and Brown people. White people even control what and where Black people drive. White people are like the police, and far too many of them believe it is their right to control where Black people go. Black doing comes with White conditions.

White people control who governs Black people. When you don’t have the power to control who leads you and who works for your interests, that’s a problem. If you wonder why Black people can’t do better, it’s because there aren’t enough Black people holding positions of power working with antiracist White people to improve our conditions. Our autonomy is stifled by gerrymandering, voter suppression, redistricting, gentrifying Black communities, and creating racist laws and policies designed to strip or undermine Black wishes. This is not autonomy, it’s oppression. With the current political system, White people control most state, federal, and local positions, which means they get to decide what’s important and what’s not and who is a priority. White folks cheat the system so that they can continue controlling Black bodies. When Black people don’t have the autonomy to control who governs them, we can’t possibly get the policies we need to overcome our circumstances.

White people control our relationships with other Black people. White people have taught us to hate our Blackness. We’ve created an entire social order among Blackness that rewards Black people by excluding and punishing the Black people they who don’t meet the standards of Whiteness. We are rewarded for abandoning our Blackness. Light skinned people are preferred over darker-skinned Blacks. Instead of Black people working to help each other like we did in the old days, now upper-middle-class and wealthy Blacks disparage, poor Blacks. Rich and famous Blacks abuse their connections and ties to the Black community to benefit their Whiteness in order to maintain their borrowed White privileges. Blacks who choose certain paths thumb their noses at others who do not, expressing their anti-Blackness without even realizing it.

Black women justify their anti-Blackness and preferences for White/other non-Black men by villainizing Black men, Black men villainize Black women to justify their preferences for White women. The jilted Blacks are pissed. Black immigrants come to America disliking Black Americans for no reason except White Supremacy. We’re a whole mess! At the root of it all is White Supremacy, yet most Black people never seem able or willing to connect the dots. We just walk around disliking each other, blaming each other and excluding each other from dating, social groups, and opportunities because Whiteness rewards and is much more comfortable than Blackness. Anti-Blackness among Black people is real, and the harder times get, the more apparent it becomes. It’s especially apparent in Black people with only White friends, and the only Black friend Black people. At the end of the day, White people take away our autonomy by making anti-Blackness an attractive option for Black people.

In Conclusion

Black people in America have never had the autonomy to do what they please. It’s all a facade. It’s brainwashing. It’s a form of gaslighting. For Black people, chasing autonomy has been walking in quicksand fast. Black autonomy, the right or condition to self-govern or make decisions for ourselves about our lives collectively, has not been respected by White people in America. Sadly, you can easily connect White people’s need to control non-White people to Donald Trump’s election. A large majority of White people and people of color wanted to control the movement of minorities. Trump’s entire platform was about law and order and punishing Brown migrants.

White people know full well they control our movements and they have the power to stifle, stunt, and stop our upward mobility at anytime. Most White people don’t even consider the ways they have involved themselves individually and collectively in preventing the personal autonomy of Black people. There is no respect for Black bodies and our decisions are questioned as if we don’t know what’s best for us. We’re often chastised for not want to engage in White group think. White people control everything Black, and most don’t give it a second thought.

Catherine Pugh wrote a fantastic series on racism and why Black people are owed reparations in part because of the yoke of bondage (slavery). In one of her pieces, she a noted Reverend Frazier, a Black reverend leading a group of freed Black slaves after the Civil War as they tried to come to an agreement about where freed slaves would live. Apparently freed slaves wanted nothing to do with White people. Newly freed Black people would have to deal with White hostility, White rage, and/or White control.

When Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and Hon. E. M. Stanton met with Reverend Frazier to inquire how the government could help freed slaves restart their lives, the government’s representatives came with their own ideas of what would be good for newly freed Black people. Those plans would most certainly affect the autonomy of newly freed `Black bodies.

Rev. Frazier replied to the General: “we would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.”

Black people even back then knew White people well, and they were fully aware White people wouldn’t leave them alone and would want to control them. Free Black people wanted to be free from White control. It’s been over 250 years and plenty of White people are still upset about Black people being free though they’d never openly admit it. While they may not outright own us, they definitely control us as demonstrated in the examples given above.

We’re still fighting subjugation and domination by White people in this country. Black people would like the same autonomy White people enjoy, and as soon as they give it to us, things will quiet down. Until then, expect all hell to break loose.

Black people are tired of not having the ability to control anything. We can’t control anything about our lives. This is what systemic racism and institutional racism looks like. It’s time White people loosen the reins of control. It’s time they understand how their choices are also our choices and why their choices must always matter to Black people.

It’s time for White people to free us. Black people just want to be free. Free to move, free to breathe, free to live, and free to control our own destinies.

Slavery never ended, it simply evolved. It’s for time White people to not just admit it, but also do something about it. Black people need their autonomy, the same kind White people have. Can you make that happen for us please.

Marley K. in Quarantine 2020

Read Catherine Pugh, Esq.Pugh’s take on Blacks living in White America and their lack of autonomy:

Two Americas in One White Nation — Part I.
A “knock it TF off and pull yourself together” series about America as a family.

Another wonderful, more in-depth written series on the lack of freedoms Blacks in America cannot enjoy written by Johnny Silvercloud can be found here:

“Six Freedoms Black People Do Not Have Under a White Supremacy” by Johnny Silvercloud https://link.medium.com/PLPMs0JNS9