Several years ago, I worked at an educational program for adolescents facing a plethora of socioeconomic, legal, and sociopolitical (oppression via racism, sexism, misogynoir, homophobia and classism) challenges. The staff was more diverse there than at any other job I’ve had, while still of course reflecting the usual hierarchies; White women in higher positions than Black women, White men in higher positions than White women etc.
One day after a long day of work, some of the coworkers decided to go out for wings and beer. It happened quite a bit, perhaps bi-weekly. This time, one of the Black male employees (one of the few times I’ve had a Black male coworker in my adult life) decided to come too. We sat down at a table; it was about six of us. The conversation moved from politics to Civil Rights-era specific politics and the Black male coworker asked me if I would have been a Black Panther.
Those “would have been” questions can become problematic. I don’t know what I would have done then (though I do not buy into the myth that racism is gone solely because it CHANGES appearance). I may have been killed long before I had a chance to join. Conversely, I may have been overcome with fear and tried to live my life as best as possible under the radar, knowing the price of resistance was often immediate death or elaborate COINTELPRO and other State-sponsored surveillance and terrorism meant to dis-empower and destroy Black people. Even if I didn’t feel “political” then (or now), being a Black woman means I could’ve faced the same things that those who were considered “political” faced then (or now). Black people were spread over a spectrum of political action and resistance, and not all resistance looks the same. (Check out Patricia Hill Collins’ book Black Feminist Thought for how she articulates how Black women engaged in resistance in a plethora of ways; her writing on Black domestic workers and Black blues singers is great.)
I told him that I am not sure; the sexism of the Black Panther Party was palpable and could also be seen amidst the Civil Rights Movement itself and other movements. (And to be clear, this is not an “in hindsight” response; many Black women DURING the time spoke of the sexism). It doesn’t erase their accomplishments, however. These both can exist at the same time and be embodied in the same people. However, the end of my response was ignored by my coworker. He was angry that I mentioned their sexism (and colorism and misogynoir too, actually) and said that his father was a Black Panther so my nuanced response could not be true. (He himself was quite the sexist and colorist as a Black man, so I found his paternal reference rather comical.)
Then a White female co-worker jumped in; she was about 20 years older than I am. About me she said “no way, she would have been burning bras with us.” Us? Would this be with the White women from Susan B. Anthony to the ones who fill Twitter today obscuring or straight up ignoring Black women’s experiences? Would this be the ones who will gladly acknowledge sexism while pretending that any claim of racism (or the intersectional experience of racism and sexism, with misogynoir) is an “overreaction” by Black women and other women of colour? I just laughed when she said this. I found them both painfully amusing and amusingly painful to be around. And these were theoretically “progressive” people. They couldn’t see me beyond whatever category applied to them, race or gender. Their privilege obscured their views.
I simply told them that I am not interested in any group where I would be marginalized or silenced. In fact, modern Black feminism (I say “modern” in that Black women have embraced womanism and Black feminism LONG before the terms were even common) came about because of the marginalization Black women faced in pro-Black and pro-woman progressive movements, in addition of course to what they faced in the larger society.
(Both of them got upset and then another co-worker changed the topic. Ever since that time of hanging out, it was never the same with me and those two co-workers. I eventually left that job and never saw or spoke to the White woman again; I saw the Black man again a few months later at a store and of course he was rude. I was with a friend who was surprised by his actions.)
Often times, people forget that even in “progressive” spaces, Black women’s voices are drowned out or disregarded. Worse, some Black men and White women engage in the same oppressive acts or ones that reinforce the same imperialist White supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy that Black women expect “outside” of “progressive” conversations and spaces.
I am not interested in the cultural reductionism that dictates that Black women be “team Black men” or “team White women.” As I’ve mentioned before, much of the interpersonal social headache that I deal with outside of feminist spaces involves street harassment by Black men and dealing with microaggressions from White women, even regarding my hair. In progressive spaces, I’ve encountered some feminist Black men that seem to want trophies for not being misogynoirist and White feminists who think I must like what they like (and who they like), and only view me as an “ally” to their feminism, as if that’s all Black women can be—distant allies.
Maya Angelou already told us when people show you who they are, believe them. I am not interested in having “allies” where my experiences talking to them or sharing progressive spaces with them mimic experiences with those who know nothing of justice and are committed to the oppression of others. What’s the difference then?