She’s black, she’s a woman, she isn’t a native of this country. But on July 4, the day for celebrating the ideals of freedom that the United States prides itself on, Therese Patricia Okoumou climbed the Statue of Liberty and refused to come down until the immigrant children caged by that same country were released. It was one of the bravest, most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. Not least of all because, as an immigrant myself, I could only imagine the fear she had to overcome to take such a bold stance and put herself at risk for children who could not speak for themselves.
So, imagine my surprise when I came onto the internet to see that black people were mocking her decision. The Root published a video tackling the so-called ‘Savior Syndrome’, asking if black women were fighting other people’s battles. A black woman on Twitter let it be known that she was ‘embarrassed’ by Therese’s actions. And countless African Americans are side-eyeing Okoumou’s stance—again, a stance she’s taken on behalf of children as young as 14 months old—because of the enmity they hold against the Latino community as a whole for not sufficiently speaking out about issues affecting Black Americans.
My question is this—when did Therese, or any other Black woman, imply she needed the world’s permission to stand up for when she believes in? There’s been Hoteps telling us not to worry our misguided feminine heads about women’s rights, and we’ve seen Democrats scolding Maxine Waters for not being civil enough for their liking. Now it’s Black people, including other Black women, who seem to feel they can dictate what another Black woman cares about.
The burden Black women bear is real, but it is disingenuous to criticize the actions we choose to take on the flimsy basis that you are looking out for our emotional well-being. That shouldn’t be the conversation only when we are speaking up for something you think doesn’t matter. What about our emotional well-being when we’re getting pepper-sprayed and arrested en-masse for protesting the deaths of black men? What about our emotional well-being when we march for those same men, many of whom disdain us because of the darkness of our skin? Let’s stop pretending that what hurts black women solely, or even largely, comes from racial groups outside our own. Much of the pain black women experience comes from people who look like us—our lovers, our families, those within our own communities. As women, it is our right and our due to show up, speak out, and expend our own emotional energy whenever we feel called to do so, as well as to step back whenever we feel it is necessary. No one, not even our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, gets to make those decisions for another person.
The other reasons for critiquing Okoumou’s actions are similarly hypocritical. How is not caring about the well-being of Latino children a valid response to feeling outraged that other races don’t care enough about black people? How can one righteously oppose bigotry by doubling down on that same evil themselves? The truth is, apathy and the uninterrogated guilt that accompanies it is easier to bear when the discomfort is directed at someone else. But Therese didn’t send for you. Own the fact that you don’t care about others without bringing her into it.
Black women are not a monolith, nor are they misguided children. None of us need your permission to do what we feel we must, particularly when we are showing up for ourselves. Therese is an immigrant, she is a woman, she is black, and she is morally opposed to the detainment of immigrant children. She doesn’t need your go-ahead to say so, or to do what she feels is necessary to make her opposition known. You want to support it? By all means. You don’t like it? Then keep it moving.