Image courtesy of Carlee Russell via Facebook.
“When Black Women Misbehave” by Dr. K’Arissa Annette
Black women have long been associated with a culture of dehumanization which forces us to constantly prove that we are worthy of empathy, care, protection, and worthy of being believed.
The discourse surrounding this racial empathy gap has quickened in the aftermath of recent events in Alabama. The series of events where an outpouring of love for a reported missing Black woman quickly turned into one of criminalizing, skepticism, cynicism, and ambivalence when it was learned that she had done what hundreds of women of other races have done before her.
Yet, none of those women were called to be burned at the stake.
Black women’s behaviors have always been subjected to intense scrutiny. Whether we wear braids at work, bonnets in public, adorn our bodies in sheer dresses like our peers, or arch our backs and shake a tail feather to the latest jam, someone somewhere is blaming Black women’s behaviors for the existence of anti-Black stereotypes. Many are unwilling to examine the biases that may inform their contempt for how some Black women navigate public spaces or express ourselves in this skin that we’re in.
Rather than exploring the root of this contempt, it’s easier for people to dismiss twerking or booty shaking, for example, as inherently repugnant, distasteful, and ‘ratchet’, instead of exploring why they aren’t equally as repulsed and offended by other sensual forms of dance not associated with Black women–such as belly dancing and the mambo.
The stereotypes and tropes often assigned to Black women are not objective nor reflections of our dynamic personhood. These tropes were constructed to rationalize oppression and validate racist ideologies. I can confidently say that there is not an adequate amount of respectable behavior or tasteful representation that will undo centuries of racism. Our time might be better spent, then, critiquing systems that reinforce misogynoir instead of obsessively policing Black women’s behavior.
Many people were taken aback when Carlethia (Carlee) Russell, the 26-year-old Alabama nursing student went missing on the night July 13, 2023, only to return home two days later with an unsubstantiated story of her abduction. Little is known about Carlee’s disappearance. Carlee claims she acted alone. At the advice of counsel, she is not sharing many details. Carlee is facing criminal charges after lying to police about being kidnapped and seeing a child along the side of I-459 in Hoover, AL. Carlee turned herself into the Hoover City Jail Friday and bonded out shortly after. She was charged with two Class A misdemeanors: false reporting to law enforcement authorities and falsely reporting an incident.
Once it was confirmed that Carlee’s kidnapping was a hoax, the online vitriol and critical commentary permeated throughout social media.
In our relentless scrutiny of Black women who “misbehave” and conduct themselves in ways the community finds displeasing, we unfairly hold the collective of Black women responsible for a systemic problem instead of that one individual or the system of misogynoir that created the problem in the first place.
Critics have voiced a stark racial divide in the news coverage and management of missing persons cases by law enforcement and other publicly funded entities. The Hoover Alabama police and sheriff departments are both funded by taxpayer dollars. Their job is to investigate crimes, accidents, and search for missing persons, inter alia. Carlee is a tax paying citizen. So are her parents. She does not owe law enforcement a dime! This is tantamount to you and I accepting a salary for a job. Then asking for extra compensation when we show up and do the work.
Across the United States, Black girls are suspended, arrested, and detained at disproportionate rates. This has triggered researchers to study and examine what we call the “adultification of Black girls”–or seeing them as older or more mature than they are–and public support for their punishment. It is not that they misbehave more than their peers, but their behaviors may be judged more harshly. Federal civil rights investigations have found generally that Black women and girls are punished more harshly than their white peers for the same behavior. A 21 year old white woman falsely accused a 14 year old Black child of placing his hands on her waist and wolf whistled at her as he exited her store. Four days later, this child was pulled from a relatives home, lynched and beat beyond recognition by this white woman’s husband and brother. Years later she recanted her story causing the Department of Justice to reopen the case. A warrant for her arrest was found, but the state of Mississippi refused to detain her after a grand jury refused to issue an indictment. Carlee lied about seeing a Black child walking down the interstate. No one died, but she is facing a possible prison sentence.
Just as in the case with Carolyn Bryant Donham and the deadly lies she lodged against Emmett Till, it’s only fair that we meet Carlee with the same grace. Because of the behaviors and skullduggery of lies of white women like Carolyn Bryant Donham, the “Karen” syndrome was born. However, despite their bad behaviors, no one has said, “Let’s not believe white women or not take them seriously next time one of them goes missing”. No one said it during the Sheri Papini case. Nor was it uttered during the case with Chloe Stein. In fact, several Alabama legislators want to change the laws surrounding false reports made to law enforcement. Not because of Emmett Till and cases like it, but because one Black girl misbehaved, lied to the police, and went missing for 49 hours.
Everyone who says she needs to suffer any form of consequences for lying to the police or for the misuse of their funds should also agree that there is an unpaid debt by law enforcement for similar, and far more egregious actions. The police have had a longstanding history of wasting our taxpayer resources and Black people’s time within the same instance with Stop-and-Frisk policies, illegal search and seizures, racial profiling, etc. Are victims of those crimes able to seek restitution as well? Will the officers and perpetrators of these crimes be held to the same standard and charged accordingly?
The stand alone actions of one individual should never call into question the integrity of an entire racial gender and consequently jeopardize the validity of future motives of their peers. I am not embarrassed by what Carlee did and will never apologize for believing Black women. It is our job to believe first, exert every effort and put every resource behind it and see what happens.
I shoulder no one’s behavior any more than they shoulder mine. No other race is asked to do so, and it is ridiculous to expect it of Black women. But notice who is noticeably quiet on this issue. Notice who has not come out to defend their honor or counter the “disinformation” – the police! The police should be embarrassed that the community at large lacks faith in its behavior. The police should be embarrassed that, not only the community, but FBI data and statistics back up the disparities in the effort, resources,and language expended locating missing Black women and children compared to other races. The police should be embarrassed at the fact that it was the community at large and our resources that poked holes in this case until they decided to move. The police should be embarrassed that there are thousands of missing Black women across this nation, but they cannot honestly say that they are attacking those cases with the same vigor as the Carlee Russell case.
If an entire police department, accompanied by an emergency response team and a host of community volunteers couldn’t find 1 missing Black girl (in a city of approximately 100K people), how urgently were they looking for her? She literally walked back home. Who can have faith in such a system and where did it come from?
Carlee Russell’s story should not diminish the reality that tens of thousands of Black people go missing each year in cases that rarely make national headlines or receive meaningful investigations from law enforcement. Data from the National Crime Information Center and the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than 546,000 people were reported missing in 2022, including more than 271,000 women. Nearly 98,000 of those cases were Black women and girls. I created The BRONZE Alert System to bring awareness to, address disparities and create solutions to finding missing and exploited Black women and children. Our aim is also to address the systemic, economic, and intersectional issues that have caused these circumstances and how we can bring an end to it. I partner with Greyhound, Uber, and other community organizations that assist with transportation when missing Black children want to return home or to an approved safe location. Follow us and visit us online at www.BRONZEAlert.godaddysites.com.
Although Carlee’s case may not be what people initially thought it was, I am encouraged by the collective care extended to her. This is one of the first times I’ve seen that kind of groundswell around a missing Black girl. It also shows me the power of the village, our ability to organize, and that community policing is possible. The current carceral system of policing must be abolished, then rebuilt. We must do the work to flesh out such an equitable system tailored towards the needs of the people and for the overall safety of the people it intends to serve.
Every missing person deserves that kind of investment.This standard should be normal, not an anomaly.
For more information or assistance with finding missing Black women in the KC area, contact us at 816-552-2499 or 913-254-3543. For national data and statistics concerning missing Black women and children, contact your local FBI or the National Crime Information Center.