Can Black women run too? Sexual and racial violence intersect on the running trail

By Frenshea Love

In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed.”

– William Ernest Henely

Running is a significant part of life and the journey to fitness for Baltimore, Maryland attorney Korey Johnson, 24. When Johnson was first diagnosed with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy in her first year as an undergraduate at Towson University, she struggled with her weight and gained 80 pounds in just two years.

“August of 2018 was my first time stepping on the scale in about a year and a half, and I saw the number 300,” Johnson recounted. “I said, ‘oh my God!’ I remember coming home and crying to my mom, ‘I don’t know how I let it get this bad.'”

Running evolved as a fitness bond between Johnson and her mother. Losing over 115 pounds, Johnson said that running has not only helped her crush health goals but overcome life’s obstacles, like the death of her nephew last December.

“One of the things that helped me get through it and helped me be a pillar for my sister was the idea that we’re going to get through this, that runner’s mentality of pushing through,” Johnson said. “So, running has been a huge part of my fitness journey.”

Johnson said running also helped her grow, because it is the motivational force that pushes her through tough situations.

That saying, ‘head might be bloody, but unbowed,’ I feel like that is what running is for me,” Johnson stated. “I might be tired as all hell and I might vomit, but it doesn’t matter because I can control it. I can keep pushing. That’s the story of our ancestors. That’s why running means so much.

Can Black women run too?

But after Johnson and her friend Camille were recently sexually and racially assaulted after a run, Johnson was left to ask, ‘can Black women run too?’

This happened just nine days after people across the world ran in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging and shot to death by two racist white men in South Georgia.

On May 17, Johnson and her friend Camille were sexually assaulted by a man as they walked back home after an evening run in downtown Baltimore. Originally, the two friends thought to ignore him. Johnson explicitly and repeatedly stated, “Please, leave us alone.” Yet, the man persisted with lewd and sexual epithets.

The man continued to follow them several blocks as they neared Johnson’s home. In fear for their life, Johnson said they finally decide to run into a local hotel.

They yelled to the hotel receptionist, “please lock the door! This man is following us.” Immediately after, chaos ensued. Johnson said the man yelled, “I don’t even want you, you fat bitch. I want your friend. Black bitch! I’m from Dominican Republic,” as he repeatedly beat on the glass doors of the hotel.

Matters worsened when a white woman hotel resident approached the scene and asked Johnson and Camille, “Is that your baby daddy? Who let this monkey in? Is he a crackhead?” The White woman questioned, “ Is that your boyfriend? Well, why is he trying to show his dick to you if you don’t know him?”

In that moment, Johnson felt her identities as both woman and Black collide, paralyzing her between the intersection. Johnson said it was like “going through a very life-threatening experience with racist background noise.”

If I would’ve said anything to her, she would’ve told the police that I was crazy too, that I knew him,” Johnson recalled. “It would have invalidated everything I said. So, at that moment, even though I wanted to say, ‘can you shut the hell up!’ It was like survival strategy to the tenth degree. I was like, ‘how do we get out of this situation alive without people thinking we’re the ones at fault? It’s already hard to believe that a 190-pound Black woman is a victim, being harassed, or that she’s hurt.”

Johnson not only felt forced to sympathize with the Black man assaulting her, but she was forced to stifle her emotions and control her fear in the face of a white woman minimizing violence against her.

“A lot of people perceived it as her being racist only to the Black man. No, she’s being racist period!” Johnson exclaimed, “and her racism shields her from seeing that we’re in harm. Her thinking that he’s my baby’s daddy minimizes the fact that he’s about to attack me.”

Johnson’s experience highlights the multiple oppression of Black women. Black legal feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw theorized the term intersectionality to talk about how Black women experience oppression simultaneously at the intersections of race, class and gender. In other words, it’s not just a race problem when it comes to Black women. The fact that they are also women in a society that prioritizes men, adds layers and complexity to the ways we understand and see their unjust treatment.

Because many anti-racist policies only address issues of race and anti-sexist policies only address issues of sex, Black women like Johnson are often forced to choose between evils, or their concerns and frustration are often disregarded because they are not easily and recognizably definable.

Crenshaw’s theory is powerful because it allows us to talk about the unique, oppressive experiences of Black women under, what Scholar bell hooks calls, the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

The Condition of the Black Woman: Paralyzing intersections of race and gender

Sadly, Johnson said this is nothing new. Life-threatening situations as such are normative, especially for Black women. “I’ve been cat-called before. Black women get cat-called all the time,” Johnson said. But what really hurt and infuriated Johnson was realizing how the world viewed and treated Black women.  

This is not just a freak incident that happened. This is our condition, our position in the world,” Johnson explained. “When we finally walked home, just two blocks away from the house, we both just broke down in the street, just standing there. It frustrated me to know that there are certain things that we can’t even protect each other from.”

Johnson said Black women live in a constant state of paralyzed fear because the world knows it can be violent and indifferent toward them because of their disposition in the world.

Frank Wilderson and Saidiya Hartman explained the Black woman’s condition as gratuitous. Anything can happen to you and it is okay,” Johnson discussed. “No one cares if your flesh is completely obliterated or destroyed, or if you end up dead on the street. People in the world know that, and so they do anything. This Black man attacking me and my friend knows he can do this to them [Black women], but can’t do this to them [white women].”

Johnson’s experience perfectly illustrated the violent matrix that entraps Black women in society. While one white woman stood inside the hotel with Johnson making racist assumptions about the Black man and Johnson’s relations to him, two other white women stood on the outside of the hotel recording him as he beat on the door and yelled assaulting remarks.

Here’s this white lady on the inside calling him a monkey and then two on the other side video recording him like he’s an animal at a zoo,” Johnson remembered. “They [white women] clearly don’t fear for their life! That whole experience exemplifies the condition of the Black woman.”

In this situation, Johnson’s fear is seen by all those around her- the receptionist, the Black man, the white woman asking racist questions and the two white women standing outside the hotel. Yet, Johnson’s and Camille’s fear and danger is not recognized and acknowledged by either of them. In the center of calamity are two Black women powerless in the face of racial and sexual oppression. Yet, while their identities intersect those surrounding them, the violence they face is invisible, even as they stand in the center. This is the everyday experience of Black women.

White women run up and down the street in Baltimore, fearless!” Johnson exclaimed. “But, he knew, just like they knew [white women], that there are certain people in the world that you can violate and others that you cannot. For Black women, I think that the world knows that, and that is what made me cry.”

Black women and survival

Johnson said that sexual harassment is part of Black women’s experience.

I get nervous when I get out at the gas station,” Johnson said. “When I get out at the gas station, I’m like ‘damn I gotta deal with this again. Maybe I could use this pump or let me wait until that car pulls away’…When I run, I fear a lot of different things. I’m fearful of being cat-called or harassed for saying the wrong thing that might turn people off and make them act violent.”

To avoid these dangers, Johnson said many Black women like her code-switch through situations and often attempt to change their demeanor and minimize their appearance to avoid confrontation. It is a constant, tiring battle.

“You really have to read the situation,” Johnson continued. “If you ignore it, some men get aggressive because you ignored them… I have a very strong voice and personality and will alter my whole mannerism when I see white people in the distance, because I don’t want them to feel threatened.”

Yet, Johnson feels there is no escape for Black women, and defines the condition of Black women as “always being on edge.”

We’re taught to work harder, faster, to work more efficient!” Johnson exclaimed. “At the end of the day, you can get the degrees. You can make sure that you speak your language proper. You can make sure that interact with people in a really positive way and you still get this response.

‘Baltimore is my home.’

Johnson’s reality as a Black woman in America is what drives her to make and be the difference. The 2019 Howard University Law graduate serves as an attorney for the federal government in Baltimore, Maryland. Now a doctoral student at Morgan State University, Johnson’s long-term goal is to serve as a judge, because she believes that more Black women prosecutors are needed to indict crime equally.

A lot of people don’t know this, but the demographic that has the least prosecution for crimes against them are Black women,” Johnson revealed. “There’s a lot of bad things happening to Black women, and people are just not prosecuting. Little Black girls are dying every day, and nobody cares. This is not just important for Black women. This is important for all Black people.”

Even more important to Johnson is demonstrating to Black girls that they too can be an attorney and judge. This is why Johnson returned to Baltimore after law school determined to find a job and make a difference in her community.

Especially in Baltimore, little Black girls are not seeing Black attorneys,” Johnson said. I know I didn’t grow up knowing any Black attorneys. I want to show little Black girls that we can do it too, if not better.”

Johnson said, “it’s sad that people don’t believe Black women.” While she is against video recordings of brutality and deaths of Black people, Johnson knew it was important to capture her assault for evidence. The next day, Johnson decided to share her story via social media to let Black women know that they are not alone, and as a wake-up call for Black men.

Wake-up call for Black men and our communities

The timeliness of Ahmaud Arbery’s case prompted Johnson to think about her place in the world not just as a runner, but as a Black woman runner. Johnson makes it clear that she situates her experience to Arbery’s not to compare, but to illustrate the layered and over-looked oppressive experiences of Black women.

As the world continues to shed light on the violence that happens to Black men, Johnson’s hope is that her experience helps the world look closer at violence toward Black women.

That’s not a slight to Black men. We should highlight the issues that happen to Black men,” Johnson clarified. “I’m the first to do so. When I found out about what happened to Ahmaud, Camille and I ran in the rain because Black men’s issues are important to us. But, I think we often focus on that so much that we forget that there is violence that happens to Black women. Not only is that violence happening to Black women, but it is inter-communal violence.

Johnsons said violence against Black women often goes unseen, because it does not happen to them in the same way that it happens to Black men or other women.

Just because violence looks a little difference to us doesn’t mean that we are immune to it, or that it’s not happening,” Johnson stated. “We deserve to run too, and somebody should be saying something. People should stand in the street for that and holler and bend over backwards, because there are some Black women would have not made it out that situation.”

The number of responses from women runners who watched Johnson’s video broke her heart, because it made her realize that Black women’s issues are overlooked and that it is time to speak up.

“So many women runners hit me up and were like ‘I have dealt with the exact same thing,'” Johnson said. “It’s not to say that my experience exactly replicated Ahmaud’s, because I’m here and he’s not. It’s the fact that we’re not even having these conversations, and so many Black women have the exact same experience is important.”

Johnson said this issue is not just against or about Black men, because most women are sexually assaulted and harassed by the men in their communities. Johnson wish is that she never has to sympathize with another Black man sexually and verbally assaulting her in the face of racial terror. In the constant and long battle against racism, Johnson does not feel that she should have to fight against her brothers while fighting their oppressor. She wants to fight with them and hopes this story challenges Black men to see how they are part of the problem.

Black men are a factor in my sphere of calculated fears,” Johnson continued. “They are a part of the problem, as much as I love them. So, I think that it’s a wake-up call to our brothers. Don’t leave us behind, because we are the people fueling the fight.”

Johnson said Black men should not have to live in constant fear, but that should not negate or silence the fears of Black women.  

“I think that we shouldn’t avoid talking about inter-communal violence because it makes people uncomfortable, or that we [Black women] have to be quiet because it is not our turn to talk,” Johnson insisted. “Often times, it’s like ‘we have to focus on this thing right here and this other thing right here. But we’re going to come back to you,’ and Black women end up waiting on a time that’s never going to come.”

Johnson said the time is now and believes that healing and addressing this issue starts with an open and honest conversation.

I think that we have to unlearn a lot of stuff in our communities, and that’s one of them,” Johnson concluded. “It’s a level of healing that has to happen. This goes as far back to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Because of the continuous battle against racial erasure that Black women and Black men share, some Black women still refuse to recognize that we are also oppressed as women, and that sexual hostility against Black women is practiced not only by the white racist society, but implemented within our Black communities as well. It is a disease striking the heart of Black nationhood, and silence will not make it disappear. Exacerbated by racism and the pressures of powerlessness, violence against Black women and children often becomes a standard within our communities, one by which manliness can be measured. But these woman-hating acts are rarely discussed as crimes against Black women.”

– Audrey Lorde, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, pg. 857

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