‘Say her name’: How Black women coined the phrase before Biden’s State of the Union

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Marjorie Taylor Greene wore a T-shirt to Thursday night’s State of the Union address that carried a seemingly simple message: Say Her Name.

The hard-line Republican congresswoman from Georgia, who was decked out in a red MAGA hat and other regalia, borrowed the phrase from Black racial justice activists who have been calling attention to the extrajudicial deaths of Black women at the hands of police and vigilantes.

However, Greene used the rallying cry to successfully goad President Joe Biden into saying the name Laken Riley, a nursing student from Georgia whose death is now at the center of U.S. immigration debate. An immigrant from Venezuela, who entered the U.S. illegally, has been arrested in Riley’s case and charged with murder.

Riley’s name is a rallying cry for Republicans criticizing the president’s handling of the record surge of immigrants entering the country through the U.S-Mexico border.

The origins of the ‘Say Her Name’ rallying cry date back well before Greene donned the T-shirt.

Who first coined the phrase ‘Say Her Name’ in protest?

The phrase was popularized by civil rights activist, law professor and executive director of the African American Policy Institute Kimberlé Crenshaw in 2015, following the death of Sandra Bland. Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, was found dead in a Texas jail cell a few days after she was arrested during a traffic stop. Her family questioned the circumstances of her death and the validity of the traffic stop and the following year settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the police department.

Black women are statistically more likely than other women to witness and experience police violence, including death, which is also linked to heightened psychological stress and several related negative health outcomes.

“Everywhere, we see the appropriation of progressive and inclusionary concepts in an effort to devalue, distort and suppress the movements they have been created to advance,” Crenshaw said in a statement to The Associated Press. “When most people only hear about these ideas from those that seek to repurpose and debase them, then our ability to speak truth to power is further restricted.”

Greene’s appropriation of the phrase “undermines civil rights movements and pushes our democracy closer to the edge,” Crenshaw wrote in her statement. “The misuse of these concepts by others who seek to silence us must be resisted if we are to remain steadfast in our advocacy for a fully inclusive and shared future.”

Tamika Mallory, a racial justice advocate and author, said Laken Riley deserves justice, but in this case she doesn’t think that conservatives are being genuine when they use #SayHerName. “If they were, they wouldn’t be using language that they claim not to favor,” she said. “They demonize our language, they demonize our organizing style, but they co-opt the language whenever they feel it is a political tool.”

Who are the other Black women included in ‘Say Her Name’?

Crenshaw and others began using the phrase to draw attention to cases in which Black women are subject to police brutality. In 2020, the hashtag #SayHerName helped put more public scrutiny on the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman in Louisville, KY who was shot and killed in her home during a botched police raid.

The campaign was founded to break the silence around Black women, girls, and femmes whose lives have been taken by police, Crenshaw said.

“The list of women killed in fatal encounters with law enforcement and whose families continue to demand justice is long. Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Shirley, Sandra Bland, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, Breonna Taylor, Korryn Gaines, Kayla Moore, Atatiana Jefferson, and India Kager are just some of the many names we uplift — women whose stories have too often otherwise gone untold. We must call out and resist this attempt to commandeer this campaign to serve an extremist right-wing agenda.”


Graham Lee Brewer is an Oklahoma City-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.