by Ayoola White
As frenetic, percussive electronic music grows ever more intense, the camera focuses and then slowly zooms out on Jane 57821 as she lies stiffly on a metal platform. A tinny voice over a speaker recites fragments which Jane mechanically completes. Of particular note is the following passage:
Hands go up, men go down; try my luck, stand my ground
Die in church, live in jail; say her name, twice in Hell.
This is a scene in Janelle Monáe’s 2018 visual album and “emotion picture” Dirty Computer. The film takes place in a dystopian future wherein a powerful regime systematically captures rebellious individuals in order to erase their memories. The steady loss of memory leads to robotic compliance as people who once resisted the regime—the so-called “dirty computers”—become absorbed within it.
While this fictional regime erases memories through technology not currently in existence, the act of purposeful or forced forgetting on the part of the state, the media, and the population at large is a tried and true tactic of control. One need look no further than Andrea J. Ritchie’s book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color (Beacon Press, 2017). The Black Lives Matter movement—founded in 2013 by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin—has become a household name. Yet—in spite of the fact that all three founders of the movement are women, the killings and assaults against women by police, as well as the explicit attempt within the language of the movement’s mission to uplift leaders who are women, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming—it is all too common for people to frame Black Lives Matter as an effort to protect Black men and Black men alone. Calls for greater recognition of female victims of police killings are often met with indifference or even hostility. As the poet Porsha Olayiwola stated in reference to the nonexistent turnout in response to the murder of Rekia Boyd, “I guess no one hears the howling of a Black girl ghost.” This discrepancy is a reflection of lapses in our collective memory.
In the first chapter of Invisible No More, “Enduring Legacies,” history is Ritchie’s tool of choice to address the forgetfulness regarding the plight of women of color at the hands of the police. Although she offers the caveat that she is not a trained historian, her historical overview is impressive, being simultaneously succinct and thorough. She borrows a concept from feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins that serves as a key building block for the rest of the book: “controlling narratives.” These narratives, having their origin in the colonization of Native peoples and the enslavement of Africans, go beyond mere stereotypes. They dictate expected behavior on the part of women of color based on where they fit in the hegemonic machine, as well as how the white supremacist state will respond to individuals either adhering to or attempting to reject the controlling narratives. The centrality of controlling narratives in all of the dimensions of policing that Ritchie explores is truly mind-boggling. As Richie repeatedly returned to this, I began to think about how disturbing it is that language studies, philosophy, social sciences, and other disciplines which empower people to interpret social dynamics are roundly disparaged because they are not as financially lucrative as banking, technology, or the natural sciences. It is ultimately convenient to those with structural power when as few people as possible have the means to question the oppressive systems in which they find themselves.
The greatest strength of Ritchie’s approach is that she takes Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality seriously. It is not a term that she peppers throughout her writing simply because it is the buzzword du jour. Instead, it is a paramount framework that aligns with her mission of stopping police violence against all people. Ritchie’s scholarship here is not only racially diverse—incorporating narratives from Black, Latin American, Native, Middle Eastern, and East Asian communities—but it also masterfully ties in perspectives relating to (dis)ability, socioeconomic class, age, immigration status, gender nonconformity, and sexual orientation. Rather than highlighting examples in a tokenizing, surface-level manner, she devotes entire chapters to specific topics such as neurodivergence, physical disabilities, sex worker status, and women-loving-women while at the same time relating all of these topics to one another in multiple places in the text. This approach is refreshing in its uniqueness, when it should, in fact, be the standard.
One a concern that I did have while reading of this book was Richie’s use of the term “Latinx.” As a Spanish-speaker myself, I understand the importance of this term in overriding the masculine bias that is intrinsic in the Spanish language. For those who are unaware, all nouns in Spanish have either a female or male gender, and, when referring to a group of people, Spanish grammar traditionally requires the use of the masculine version of the noun, even if not all members of the group are men or boys. For example, a collective of farmers would be referred to as campesinos, even if there were women present in the ranks. Furthermore, there are no standard pronoun or adjective options for nonbinary folks. Thus, as a workaround, began using the letter “x” in place of the “o” or “a” ending in nouns.
Yet while I do value the use of the term Latinx as a collective term, I question whether we should, as Ritchie does, apply the term to any individual of Latin American descent. Depending on the person, a Latin American woman, whether cisgender or transgender, may prefer the term “Latina,” and may consider a gender-neutral pronoun applied without permission to be invalidating. For example, artist and blogger Kat Blaque has discussed how frustrating she finds it when people who know that she is transgender refer to her using “they/them” pronouns when she is vocal about using “she/her” pronouns. Another issue is that, for people with visual impairments who might be reading the ebook version of Invisible No More, screen readers struggle to pronounce “Latinx” and other Spanish words where “x” replaces “o” or “a.” In this instance, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking accessibility activists have suggested using the term “Latine” instead.– Of course, the endeavor to build language that is truly inclusive is an ongoing challenge for everyone.
One chapter that I found especially damning was “Police Responses to Violence,” which examines how police officers deal with domestic abuse situations. Ritchie’s primary argument here is that when victims of abuse who happen to be women of color attempt to use the proper channels to report the abuse, the state may perceive them to be criminals, as in the case of Marissa Alexander and many more. A point that would have strengthened Richie’s argument in this chapter is the fact that 40 percent of households with members who are police officers experience domestic violence. For comparison’s sake, only ten percent of non-police households have domestic violence issues. Similar to Ritchie’s evidence that police officers rarely face consequences for assaulting or killing civilians in the general public, there are also numerous instances in which they are able to keep their jobs even when proof comes to light that they have been abusing their children or partners. For this reason, it is incredibly difficult to craft legislation that would prohibit known, convicted abusers from owning firearms because a large portion of police officers would also be affected by such legislation. These rates of domestic violence in police households add even more urgency to the question of how we can reasonably trust the police to protect the public from crimes that an alarming number within their own ranks perpetrate.
All in all, Ritchie’s work in Invisible No More is a stellar manifestation of the idea of research justice. As defined by Andrew J. Jovilétte, research justice “seeks to foster critical engagement with communities of color, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups to use research as an empowering intervention and active disruption of colonial policies and … social inequities.” Ritchie urges activists concerned with violence against women, and those organizing against police violence, to fundamentally reshape their understandings of the ways in which violence can manifest. In particular, building off of Ritchie’s work, it will be important for future scholarship to investigate how heightened surveillance impacts the policing of women of color. This question is especially important in light of the recent dismantling of net neutrality. As the process of monitoring of the populace becomes more automated, since an almost unimaginable number of jobs and tasks will be in the near future, how will women of color fare? To begin to answer this question, I would recommend reading Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression as a companion to Invisible No More. I would also recommend another scene from Dirty Computer.
In one of Jane 57821’s memories, we see her cruising down a deserted road in a levitating red convertible, dancing to upbeat music with her friend in the passenger seat. In the distance, there is a police siren. Jane scowls, sighs, and pulls over. A flying robot appears by the driver’s door, scans their identification cards, scans their eyes, and then flies away. No other cars are on the road, and it is unclear why the robot stopped Jane. Here, we see that racist and sexist controlling narratives that put Black women’s lives in danger are encoded into technology. Oppression is on autopilot.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum. (1989): 139-167.
Friedersdorf, Conor. “Police Have a Much Bigger Domestic-Abuse Problem Than the NFL Does.” The Atlantic. 4 October 2014. Accessed 15 September 2018.
Jolivétte, Andrew. Research Justice. Bristol University: Policy Press, 2015.
Mascia, Jennifer. “Domestic Violence Offenders Abusers Frequently Get to Keep Their Guns. Here Are the Big Reasons Why.” The Trace. 4 May 2016. Accessed 16 September 2018.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
Ritchie, Andrea J. Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.
Capacitismo é Crime De ódio. January 6, 2015. Accessed 15 September 2018.
Dasakuryo (blog), 8 February 2018. Accessed 15 September 2018.
Dirty Computer. Directed by Chuck Lightning. Performed by Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson. YouTube. 27 April 2018. Accessed 15 September 2018.
“Herstory.” Black Lives Matter. Accessed 15 September 2018.
Rekia Boyd. Performed by Porsha Olayiwola. Button Poetry. 30 August 2015. Accessed 15 September 2018.