A couple of days ago on Twitter, several of the Black women that I follow discussed how their introductions to feminist theory actually came from Black women thinkers, scholars and writers, not White ones. This is salient because a few of them mentioned that if their entry way was through White feminist thought—much of which is not intersectional and masks White supremacist thought on identity for womanhood as feminism— they would have rejected it.
Whenever I speak with a Black woman who adamantly rejects feminism (and certainly, some have no idea what it really is; this word triggers the theme of “man hating” and for them, “Black man hating” is not an option as our racial plight is most certainly shared), she starts naming White feminists and the ones she names often have gaping holes in their theory and praxis where race (and sometimes even class, sexual orientation and gender identity) are concerned. In this case, I cannot blame them. They know nothing of the work of Black feminist thought and feminism then sounds more like a White supremacist ladder, one from White woman to White man, in search of some abstract notion of equality, versus the freedom of choice, the personal empowerment to make those choices, and using said agency (and in many cases, privilege) to empower and ally other oppressed people.
The first time that I started to think about feminism, I wasn’t sure what the word even was. I was 12. I was questioning the gender theatre so prevalent in patriarchal Black churches, and it was the first time I questioned the very concept of theism itself. I suspect that I was leaning towards atheism long before feminism, though embracing the former has scared me more than the latter. While Black feminists certainly aren’t welcomed in the Black community with open arms, Black atheists, and Black female atheists are in the margins of a margin of a margin. While I will tell anyone who will listen that I am a Womanist, I do have some trepidation about identification as an atheist agnostic who is highly skeptical.
Later in early adulthood, my doorway into Black feminist thought was bell hooks. Exploring some of her early work made me thirst for more and recognizing feminist elements in the powerful fiction of some of the most brilliant Black women writers including Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and many more, I realized that they seem to truly speak my life. And, this life wasn’t solely one of gender or solely one of race.
Even as this was occurring, trying to reconcile some of the White supremacist notions that literally choke feminism as theory was occurring. In my very last semester of undergrad, Spring 2001, I enrolled in a course called Introduction to Women’s Studies. I usually stuck to the natural sciences and psychological sciences more than the sociological sciences, but by this point, my interest in Black feminist theory made me think that this course would be a great place to commingle my ideas and thoughts with other women. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
A women’s studies course where we couldn’t discuss intersectionality, where White privilege was a topic that made the discussions explode, where feminism outside of the United States borders became a Western privilege-drenched topic of how “we” can “save” those “other” women, a course where Black women’s literature was minimal, was truly uncomfortable at times and angering at others. I felt like I was an outsider, begging for “admission” to feminism and these white women had to “approve” and no matter what my views were, they would be deemed contrary to their feminist objectives. But as one of my favorite young thinkers and writers Tressie McMillan Cottom posits, "Black women do not have to earn feminism. If anything, feminism should be earning Black women." I felt like an outsider discussing women in this class, in the way that I feel like an outsider discussing race with Black men. It’s always about whomever has the most privilege when two people are juxtaposed; they become “the face” of the issue. Black men are the face of Blackness. White women are the face of womanhood. (Cisgender White men are the face of the LGBTQ community.) The only problem is that one face can never reveal all of the expressions of many faces—of many lives.
The memory of this course still stings. It was one of the most awful experiences of an otherwise fairly interesting (though complicated at times) and pleasant undergraduate experience. The problem for me is 12 years and in between that time a Master’s degree later, I still find myself navigating through feminism that is not inclusive, not intersectional and marred by White supremacist thought—not actively extremist, but extremism is only one tiny part of White supremacy. White women taking the "we know best, we will speak for you, your definition of womanhood should be ours and we will be as ahistorical as possible when confronting employment, sexuality, beauty and empowerment etc. when it comes to you Black women" stance makes feminist progress quite challenging. It doesn’t mean that I abandon feminism as a Womanist (see #6 in a previous post); it means that the theory and praxis AMONG feminists must face as much evaluation, dissection and improvement as the challenges that feminists approach in deconstruction, challenging and changing kyriarchy itself. In fact, feminism becomes a part of kyriarchy IF this feminism is White supremacist.
There are White feminists out there who reject feminist thought if it is shaped by White supremacy. They study intersectionality; they embrace it in theory and praxis. Still though, the fact that the word “feminist” still evokes the concept of a man-hating White supremacist is problematic and it cannot be solely blamed on the impact of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy on the media and education, though their roles are quite large. There are STILL TOO MANY White feminists, especially ones with literary, social, legislative and business power who approach feminism this way and only view Black women (and other women of colour) as “soldiers” for “their cause” and objects to posit as examples of the failures of feminism, not any of the successes of feminism.
Related Posts: “No One Is Above Critique”, Whiteness Is NOT Universal, White Feminists Who Think Of Michelle Obama’s Identity As An Assault On Their Own Identities, White Women and White Privilege: Telling Them NO