I saw an anonymous question on Women of Color In Solidarity's blog where someone asked about using the identifier “womanist” though she is a non-Black woman of colour:
I was just wondering if the term “womanist” specifically refers to black feminists (since Alice Walker coined it and used it in reference to black feminists) or if it’s something widely used by WoC. I am a WoC and the word “feminist” makes me uncomfortable, due to its incredibly problematic roots. I wanted to use “womanist” but I wasn’t sure if it applied to WoC or black women in particular.
The moderator Jennifer replied and mentioned understanding the discomfort with the label “feminist” and that some non-Black women of colour do identify as womanist, but that of course inhabiting anti-Blackness while using a term and theory and praxis developed by Black women is unacceptable.
navigatethestream replied to the aforementioned post with a really poignant comment:
As a self identified Black womanist, the only time I have a problem with non-black WoC using the term is when they’re not willing to check their anti-Blackness before adopting the label for themselves. I mean why call yourself a womanist and then shit on actual black women up down and sideways? That’s the thing that gets me every time. Non-black woman, ask yourselves what are your commitment to real solidarity with black women before calling yourselves womanists.
Please preach! Exactly! As Layli Phillips writes:
Womanism is a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces, extended to the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people.
As Alice Walker writes:
When I offered the word ‘Womanism’ many years ago, it was to give us a tool to use, as feminist women of color, in times like these. These are the moments we can see clearly, and must honor devotedly, our singular path as women of color in the United States. We are not white women and this truth has been ground into us for centuries, often in brutal ways.
This womanist scholar and womanist theory originator (label and theory now, not the praxis of womanism; that pre-dates all of these women and the term) make it clear that the term can be encompassing of non-Black women of colour, but at the same time do not get it twisted. Anti-Blackness is beyond unacceptable in womanism. Stick to that “mainstream feminist" "brand" with that.
Womanist theory includes a critical understanding of Eurocentric beauty standards and colourism. White passing privilege or light skinned privilege-having non-Black women of colour, using the term “womanist” but engaging in anti-Blackness = you have got to be kidding me… Solidarity between Black women and non-Black women of colour is possible, important and matters. But if anti-Blackness occupies any of the space then using the word “womanist” while doing so becomes abusive towards Black women and justice/compassion/solidarity cannot occur in the midst of abuse. Intersectional feminism/Black feminism among Black women and women of colour, and womanism (which has similarities to and differences from feminism) among Black women and non-Black women of colour are intersectional in nature.
Layli Phillips notes:
Black women and other women of color have been at the bottom of every social hierarchy created by man, particularly during the four centuries of the modern era, and multiply so, based on the interaction of race, class, and gender hierarchies and systems of identity. Black women and other women of color have come to understand what it means to live in the margins of multiple communities simultaneously and function, even thrive, in the “in-between,” interstitial spaces of other people’s structures.
Womanism centers Black women. Thus, if your approach to gender justice excludes race or incorporates a racist hierarchy where Black women’s needs, desires, issues of concern, politics, relationships, conceptions of beauty, health, intersectional experiences etc., should be placed last, you aren’t engaging in womanist praxis.
As the Combahee River Collective Statement, 1974, states (Black Feminism by label, also applies to Womanism):
If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
This is why Black womanhood/liberation of all Black people (and Alice Walker’s writing on womanism alludes to Black men being womanists as well) is centered in womanism. That White woman oppressed via class? If Black women were liberated from poverty, so would White women be. That passing privilege-having non-Black woman of colour oppressed via class and race? That darker Black woman being liberated from poverty and colourism/racism would liberate that passing privilege-having non-Black woman of colour.
As Layli Phillips writes:
Womanism requires that one’s ethnic and cultural origins be acknowledged from the outset.
"Colourblindness" need not apply. Being a Black woman is relevant and centered. Further, for Black women who are not African-American but of the African diaspora globally, womanism as an identifier can speak to that experience. Womanist theory such as Alice Walker’s womanism, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi’s African Womanism, Clenora Hudson-Weems’ Africana Womanism and Katie Geneva Cannon’s Womanist Theology speaks to this theoretical/ideological variance. (My personal framework is most ideologically congruent to Walker and Ogunyemi.) And some ideological variance is welcome (i.e. secular/radical humanism + womanism; theism + womanism). Womanism, by nature, doesn’t have to resolve all nuance into an umbrella to function because it is neither linear or solely reactionary in the way mainstream feminism often is.
I had a White woman, not even a non-Black woman of colour, ask me can we make womanism “a thing.” Womanism is not “a thing.” Not a product. Not a brand. Not a trend. Not for appropriation. Not for sale. I already have enough difficulty dealing with Whites appropriating every single thing Black people create, even in regard to anti-oppression movements, while using casual racism as they co-opt and take, no less. A framework for working for justice for Black women, women of colour and all oppressed people globally is not a gimmick or a brand solely for consumption, where concepts are separated from the originators, as the consumers ”eat the other.”
White women need to recognize the massive space that White privilege, racism and White supremacy occupies globally. Them needing to co-opt or be appropriative of the word “womanist” despite Black women’s history (and present) of dealing with their exploitive cultural appropriation and dehumanization makes me feel as if they are more concerned with controlling and centering themselves, again (as if they aren’t already centered as women, globally) than dismantling walls and building bridges. Whites have a long exploitive history of cultural appropriation. White women should focus on how to actually be intersectional feminists (versus having a "brand" of mainstream feminism, for which they dominate) instead of trying to dominate the space of Black women and other women of colour. And even the word “intersectionality” was coined by a Black woman, Kimberlé Crenshaw. White women don’t recognize us amidst mainstream feminism but want womanism to be something for them? This reeks of White privilege.
There is space for non-Black women of colour in womanism as globally we tend to share the race/gender/class triad of oppression, in addition to another other oppression that we experience. Non-Black women of colour with passing privilege, light skinned privilege or class privilege (and any Black or non-Black woman of colour with citizenship, Western privilege, Global North privilege) need to understand the space that their privilege takes up among women of colour and that even among all women of colour, intersections mean different experiences. It’s not a coincidence that as Alice Walker articulated womanism, she also wrote about colourism, for example. Recognizing differences is important.
Ultimately the proof is in the dialogue and the praxis. Womanism is focused on justice more than labeling, though the power of labeling and the history associated with it cannot be ignored. Womanists are committed to solidarity, sisterhood and community. And as I mentioned before, solidarity is defined as a noun in the dictionary, but for me it is a verb. It is love in practice. It is feminism actualized. It is the understanding of differences, listening and collective work.
Black women and non-Black women of colour committed to solidarity can be womanists. And if the central focus amidst this solidarity does not include who is placed last amidst the White supremacist hierarchy of women—Black and Indigenous women, dark Black women, fat Black women, poor Black women, disabled Black women, lesbian, bisexual and queer Black women, trans Black women, genderfluid/intersex Black people, sex workers who are Black women, elderly Black women, Black girls etc.—then it isn’t solidarity. And it isn’t womanism.
(Sources: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose - Alice Walker, The Womanist Reader - Layli Philips [ed], “Combahee River Collective Statement,” “Eating The Other” - bell books, “What’s In A Name: Womanism, Black Feminism and Beyond” - Patricia Hill Collins)
Related Essay List: Womanism/Black Feminism and Race In Feminist Discourse
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