Hidden in Plain Sight: A Philosophical Examination of the Invisibility of Black Women in Analyses of State Violence

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Mensah, Shaeeda
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 19, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Sarah Clark Miller, Dissertation Advisor
  • Sarah Clark Miller, Committee Chair
  • Kathryn Sophia Belle, Committee Member
  • Amy Rebekah Allen, Committee Member
  • Melissa Wright, Outside Member
  • State violence
  • philosophy of punishment
  • feminism
  • racism
  • mass incarceration
  • police brutality
  • black women
This project offers an intervention in current debates in philosophies of punishment. I argue that philosophers of punishment, who include Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jeremy Bentham, Cesare Beccaria, and Michel Foucault, have presupposed a white male subject who is punished on the basis of his offense(s). The decentering of the white male subject, I argue reveals, that for many subjects, their punishment is a result of the intersections of their identities and actions, and in the United States, for Black subjects, their punishment has historically and continues to serve as a response to who they are, over and above what they have done. In advancing this claim I engage with scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Tommy Curry who explore both the contemporary and historical basis of the punishment of Blacks subjects in the United States. In engaging with the work of scholars such as Alexander and Curry, I attend to the historical and contemporary tendency to posit Black males as the exclusive victims of state violence-which I take to include both mass incarceration and police brutality. Drawing on the work of Black feminist scholars, such as Patricia Hill-Collins, bell hooks, Michelle Wallace, Kristie Dotson, and Angela Davis, I examine historical efforts to marginalize the experiences of Black women in discussions of race and racism, and I highlight the ways that this narrow approach has persisted in current discussions of state violence. I problematize this limited approach, noting that it obscures the various ways Black women are directly impacted by state violence. This intervention goes against the common assumption that Black women are only indirectly impacted by racism and state violence as a result of their relationship to Black men (e.g. as the mothers, wives, and daughters of Black male victims of racist state violence). Building on the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, and others, I argue that intersectionality requires that we attend to both the similarities (based on race) and the differences (based on gender) between the ways in which Black men and women experience state violence. The similarities and differences between Black men and women’s experiences, I argue, lie in the fact that they are both directly impacted by state violence, but their subjection to the practices of state violence are often motivated by differing factors. For example, in the case of Black men, Black masculinity is often equated to criminality. Whereas, Black women are often subjected to state violence when they are perceived as failing to meet socially prescribed notions of femininity. The project concludes by calling for the need to recognize state violence as a set of tactics that are both sexist and racist, two qualities that are dependent on each other.