If common concerns link women of African descent transnationally, why don’t more U.S. Black women see them? Certainly U.S. school curricula dedicated to glorifying American history and culture as well as a U.S. media that substitute news entertainment for serious coverage of global issues leave all U.S. citizens, including African-American women, ignorant of major world issues.
But another important factor concerns U.S. Black women’s relationships with two groups most closely aligned with African-American women’s interests. Via their control over U.S. feminism and Black intellectual discourse, respectively, White American women and Black American men constitute two groups with which and through which African-American women construct U.S. Black feminism. Both groups may be well meaning, and in fact may express deep-seated concern for Black women’s issues. But both groups find it difficult to get out of the way and encourage a fully articulated, Black feminist agenda where Black women are in charge.
Some strands of White Western feminism have been tireless in raising women’s issues in defense of women who remain suppressed and therefore unable to speak for themselves. This is important work and often leads to valuable coalitions among First and Third World women. Yet the kinds of coalitions among groups such as these can become problematic. Because the groups remain so unequal in power, this inequality can foster a pseudo-maternalism among White women reminiscent of how U.S. middle-class social workers approached working-class, immigrant women in prior eras.
The much-bandied-about accusation of racism in the women’s movement may be much less about the racial attitudes of individual White women than it is about the unwillingness or inability of some Western White feminists to share power. These conflicts remain muted when the power differences among women are vast—the case when the interests of poor, rural, non-American Black women are championed by Western feminists. Yet when the power differentials shrink—the case of Black American and White American women who are seemingly equal under U.S. law—relationships become much more contentious.
U.S. Black men exercise a different kind of control. Here discourses of Black nationalism with their implicit counsel of a racial solidarity built on unquestioned support of African-American men stifles dialogue. Whereas the majority of African-Americans would most likely not identify themselves as ‘Black nationalists,’ most do ascribe to many of the basic tenets of Black nationalist–influenced ideologies that counsel Black self-determination. The historical viciousness and deeply entrenched nature of White supremacy in the United States makes this a rational response.
Blacks may be the ones who are accused of ‘holding’ onto race, but it is White Americans who move out of neighborhoods when Blacks move in. White Americans are the ones who want affirmative action programs in higher education dismantled, even if such efforts effectively bar African-American access to elite colleges. It is White Americans whose failure to vote for Black candidates forces civil rights organizations to remain embroiled in legal battles to find ways of ensuring Black representation under the rubric of American democracy. In this context, Black nationalism is not irrational—it has been essential for Black progress.
However, despite their contributions, not all Black nationalisms are the same. But they do seem to share one common feature, namely, a norm of racial solidarity based on Black women’s unquestioned support of Black men without extracting a similar commitment on the part of Black men to Black women. In contrast to White women’s maternalism, U.S. Black women are encouraged to embrace a Black paternalism, one where Black men reclaim their manhood because Black women ‘let them be men.’ Not only are both of these political responses unacceptable, the energy required to deal with both White women and Black men leaves little left over to engage in dialogue with other groups, both within the United States and transnationally.