As a “Black Lives Matter memoir,” much of When They Call You a Terrorist focuses on race. Still, Patrisse makes it clear throughout her memoir that she is not just Black—she also self-identifies as a queer (non-heterosexual) woman, and she experiences homophobia and sexism both within and outside of her own community. This idea that various aspects of one’s identity—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and so on—are interconnected and affect how one is treated is called “intersectionality.” Patrisse’s brother Monte, for instance, is not just a Black man who’s repeatedly incarcerated, but a Black man with schizoaffective disorder who experiences racism and ableism (prejudice against physically or mentally disabled people). Patrisse was especially conscious of intersectionality when she started the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, as she did her best to make sure that the most marginalized people (like women who are both Black and transgender) were heard. By using an intersectional lens to understand identity, Patrisse subverts the idea that there is only one “Black experience” and raises awareness about other types of oppression that Black people face in conjunction with racism.
Throughout the memoir, Patrisse emphasizes the importance of recognizing that Black women have a unique experience of being marginalized on the basis of both gender and race. For example, Black women’s work is ignored in a way that Black men’s work isn’t. After Patrisse, Alicia, and Opal started the BLM movement, mainstream media outlets often ignored them and interviewed Black men instead. Also, despite the fact that Black women made up 80 percent of the protestors on the ground in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, they did not receive public recognition. Black female murder victims also don’t receive as much media coverage as Black male victims do. While the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown easily made national news, Sandra Bland’s death inside her jail cell after she was arrested for a minor traffic violation did not. Further, Patrisse argues, many Black women were lynched throughout U.S. history, and those stories still go untold. Additionally, Patrisse suggests that Black women who are being abused don’t feel safe calling the police because they fear becoming victims of racially motivated police brutality. The majority of domestic violence victims are women, meaning that it’s a gendered crime. Patrisse thus implies that Black women are uniquely threatened by both domestic violence (on the basis of gender) and police violence (on the basis of race).
Patrisse also describes the particular challenges that Black queer and trans people face. After coming out as queer in high school, Patrisse witnessed homophobia within the Black community and outside of it: her cousin Naomi was also queer, and because of this, Naomi’s mother abused her and took her out of the school where she felt safe. Patrisse also dealt with homophobia while walking around in public with her high school girlfriend, Cheyenne—strangers yelled out homophobic slurs and looked at the girls with disgust. These experiences make it clear that racism isn’t the only type of prejudice Black people experience—they may face discrimination for being non-heterosexual or gender-nonconforming as well. Though Patrisse is not trans, she describes Black trans women as “the most criminalized people on the planet” because they face racism, sexism, and transphobia. She acknowledges the unique risk that Black trans women faced when traveling through the Midwest to come to the BLM protests in Ferguson (the implication being that they were safer from harassment or physical violence in their more progressive coastal cities). So, she promised to do more to acknowledge their presence in the movement. In this way, Patrisse recognizes that there isn’t one generic Black experience, because other identity markers (like sexual orientation or gender identity) intersect with race to affect how people are treated in society.
Through sharing Monte’s story, Patrisse also delves into the particularly challenging experience of being both disabled and Black in the U.S. Both inside and outside of prison, Monte didn’t have access to adequate mental healthcare to manage his schizoaffective disorder. He was twice arrested during manic episodes (once after breaking into someone’s home because voices told him to, and once after getting into a fender bender). The police officers wrongly assumed that he was violent or on drugs, and they shot him with rubber bullets and arrested him. Patrisse suggests that Monte was targeted both for his race (because Black men are stereotyped as criminals) and for his mental illness (because mentally ill people are stereotyped as dangerous). Monte was also unable to find stable work or housing, highlighting the specific struggle that low-income Black people with disabilities face. After Patrisse helped him secure a job as a janitor at a social justice organization she worked with, the executive director—a friend of hers—decided to fire him. When Patrisse explained that he might have needed his medication adjusted and that “this is what working with people who have a mental illness is like,” Patrisse’s friend didn’t change her mind. Even when Monte was not discriminated against for his race or his status as a former prisoner, he still had to confront prejudice against people with disabilities.
By telling the stories of Black people with intersecting marginalized identities, Patrisse challenges the notion that there is a singular “Black experience” (usually assumed to be that of an able-bodied, straight Black man). She also raises awareness about various types of discrimination that need to be addressed by social movements, suggesting that BLM has never been a single-issue campaign.
Intersectionality of Identity ThemeTracker
Intersectionality of Identity Quotes in When They Call You a Terrorist
I know about crack. Everybody uses it, it seems like. At least in my neighborhood where there are no playgrounds, no parks, no afterschool programs, no hangout spots, no movie theaters, no jobs, no treatment centers or health care for the mentally ill, like my brother Monte, who had begun smoking crack and selling my mom’s things and is already showing signs of what we would much later come to know as schizoaffective disorder.
There are drugs to take when a person is having a psychotic break. Those drugs can bring the person back into a good or total semblance of themselves. This was not what they did to my brother. They drugged Monte to incapacitate him, to incapacitate his humanity. To leave him with no dignity.
Naomi is enrolled in another school, in another town. She is separated from her friends, loses her coach, and is exiled from the community that had loved and supported her since she was ten years old. And we who love Naomi, we who love her and are Queer, whether we are out or not, will learn in the harshest of ways that this is what it means to be young and Queer: You can do nothing wrong whatsoever, you can just be alive and yourself, and that is enough to have the whole of your life smashed to the ground and swept away.
She is the first adult who doesn’t think who we are, how we live and love, needs anything but support, some architecture. She understands our, Carla’s and mine, emerging idea of building intentional family, a concept that I suppose will later become the basis of our theory of change.
To outsiders—in many cases outsiders being our families—our relationships may have seemed complex or odd or even dangerous. But to us they made sense. To us they were oxygen and still are.
We learned quickly that intervention was either us alone and without medical professional support, or it was the police. The brutal memory of Monte's first break, during which we learned that there were no social services or safety nets for my brother, hung over all of our heads like a sword.
I will learn later that my brother had been driving and had gotten into a fender bender with another driver, a white woman, who promptly called the police. My brother was in an episode and although he never touched the woman or did anything more than yell, although his mental illness was as clear as the fact that he was Black, he was shot with rubber bullets and tased.
And then he was charged with terrorism.
I am thinking of all the people, like my brother, like my father—who have been the targets of harm, not the harm itself. And yet they are the ones whom society views as disposable […] I am filled with a sense of rage and a call to action at the idea that my brother, my Monte, is considered someone disposable to these people. But to me and my mother and to my sister and my brother, to Chase and to Cynthia, Monte was never disposable.
Is this my mother who is gripped, albeit wrongly, with guilt? Is she in this moment wondering what she did or did not do to ensure her baby, her Monte, be kept safe from the nightmare he's been cast into? Is my mother the fallout, the collateral damage in the battle to elevate personal responsibility over everything, over all those decisions that were made about state budget priorities, about wages, about the presence of police, and even about damn grocery stores and access to quality food?
And then my friend Alicia writes a Facebook post. Alicia, who I’d known for seven years at this point, who I’d met at a political gathering in Rhode Island where at the end of the day our goal was to dance until we couldn’t dance anymore […] she writes these words in the wake of the acquittal:
btw stop saying that we are not surprised. that’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. stop giving up on black life. black people, I will NEVER give up on us. NEVER.
And then I respond. I wrote back with a hashtag:
At some point, sisters begin to talk about how unseen they have felt, how the media has focused on men but it has been them, the sisters, who were there. They were there in overwhelming numbers—just as they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Women, all women, Transwomen, are roughly 80 percent of the people who are standing down the face of terror in Ferguson, saying We are the caretakers of this community.
Since Black Lives Matter was born in 2013 we have done some incredible work. We have built a decentralized movement that encourages and supports local leaders to name and claim the work that is needed in order to make their communities more just […] But we have more than 20 chapters across the United States, in Canada and the UK, all autonomous but all connected and coordinated. We have centered and amplified the voices of those not only made most vulnerable but most unheard, even as they are on the front lines at every hour and in every space: Black women—all Black women.