Does Feminism Have to Address Race?

by Latoya Peterson

So I have been thinking hard lately as to why I should continue to identify as a feminist. Should I change my designation to womanist? Perhaps to I should have no designation at all.

After all, my views won’t change. I am still dedicated to highlighting issues that impact women of color and I am still going to work in my community with young women of color. I am still going to write things for them to read, to think about. I am still going to write to inform the men in our community what we are going through.

But does that require me to identify as a feminist?

I stumbled across a blog post on Astarte’s Circus with a strong declaration on why Octoglalore is a feminist. Pretty solid post. Feminists believe that women should be equal to men. Period. Full stop. I also read a post by the Apostate explaining why some things are not feminist issues, particularly in reference to Holly’s post on Feministe.

She writes:

Feminism should be about women.

Everything else has its own label.

And it’s important to keep the labels distinct because that’s why feminism was invented. “Man’s” inalienable rights did not include women. “Human” rights has not traditionally included women because women are not necessarily seen as human. Religions giving communities dignity and centering force has not included women. We needed our own club. We still need it. If you bring my race into feminism and start talking about my asshole brother’s right to stay in this country (he’s an immigrant of less certain status than I), guess what? The feminist arena, my safest safe space, my only refuge from the enemies of my very life, has been compromised.

In another post, the Apostate writes:

This is why a race-centric analysis of women’s issues bothers me. Feminism is about women, period. It’s race-neutral. Hopefully, it will remain about women, instead of turning into an ersatz black civil rights movement pre-occupied with issues of police brutality against black men. If I am interested in race issues, I know where to go to read about them. If I am interested in women’s issues, I should be able to go to feminist websites and read about them. I don’t need my feminism to become a catch-all for all social justice issues, because to be honest, the only thing that really fires me up is women’s oppression, sexism and misogyny.

A lot of feminists share the view of the Apostate. One peek into the comments section for many of the feminist blogs (large and small) will reinforce this idea that feminism is about women and that race discussions and the like are distractions from the main event.

But here’s my question: if feminism is about women and is race neutral, why do I still feel like such an outsider? Feminism is supposed to be a refuge for women, but the kind of woman I am is marginalized or not represented at all. So now what?

To illustrate, let’s take a look at this post from Zuzu on Feministe. I selected this post because it is the least controversial example I know.

Zuzu makes an awesome argument for how sexism (in various forms) is hampering Clinton’s candidacy and provides some stellar examples as to how people keep trying to explain away their sexism. She ends:

So to circle back to what I said in November 2006:

    These insults aren’t meant just for the recipients. They’re meant for everyone else in that group, too. So detailed descriptions of your fantasy that “corporate whore” really means real whore doesn’t just hurt Tauscher, the intended target. It hurts Pelosi, too. And it’s meant to — that’s what insults based on a group characteristic or stereotype are for. They’re meant to convey the message to any member of a non-dominant group that they might be accepted for now, but we all know that they’re really just a cunt and a whore, like those women we don’t like.

Please keep this in mind when you read critiques of the gender-based slurs and framing and tactics and dismissals of Clinton. Those hurt all of us, as women, and tolerating or excusing them just makes it harder for women to be taken seriously.

Attack her all you want on her positions, on her record, on her tactics — but don’t stand for gender-based attacks on her. They’re not acceptable, no matter what you think of her and no matter who they’re coming from.

It’s bigger than this one candidate, and it’s bigger than the election.

And that, from me got a resounding hells yes. I think I’ve been clear on why I chose Obama over Clinton way back when and my views haven’t changed. But I have been sickened and disgusted about how Clinton has been portrayed in the media and how people use sexist attacks on her (and Chelsea!) to prove some non-existent point.

But as I was reading the piece, one little thorn stuck in my side.

And while there are hundreds if not thousands of other blogs as well as entire networks and mainstream media outlets rushing to the defense of Obama (thus rendering anything I have to say pretty well redundant), there are few outlets calling out misogynistic attacks on Clinton and/or on her supporters.

Umm, what?

I wrote in the comments:

Good piece.

With that being said, I have to agree with Oh and Felicia. For many of us women of color, we find ourselves equally frustrated – we have to fight the negative perceptions of Hillary as a woman that is not often acknowledged in racial circles and then come to feminist circles and hear Obama is getting a pass – which he is not, because we have seen way too much racist doublespeak being launched from the media and other campaign surrogates.

Again, puts us in an awkward position – I just finished battling a sexist comment about Chelsea Clinton and her participation in her mother’s campaign at lunch time. And while I would love to start handing out links to this piece to explain to some people why these comments like “Chelsea is so ugly” and “Hilary should be ironing a shirt” aren’t funny, I also wouldn’t want them to lose sight of the main piece because they have taken offense to some of the comments dismissing Barack’s treatment.

[Next Comment...]

And again, we could say the same thing from an anti-racist standpoint. Clinton has a legion of smart, influential feminists going to bat for her in the media and in the blogosphere who accuse Obama supporters of race baiting and making things up. Racism and sexism are both pervasive. If you hear more sexism than racism, I would suggest that is because of your lens of perception. I personally perceive more racism toward the Obamas (subtle and overt) than sexism toward Clinton (which is boldly overt), but that is because my lens views race more prominently than it views sexism.

[Third Comment...]

Oh, and let me clarify that lens comment. I am not arguing that what is perceived is wrong, I am arguing that we perceive things differently based on life experiences. I learned about race first, then sexism, so as a result I tend to pick up on racism faster and in more forms than I do with sexism. And even with that, I pick up on racism directed toward African-Americans faster than I do racism with other ethnic groups as that kind of racism is intimately familiar to me. If something is not intimately familiar to you, it can be difficult to discern when it is happening.

This example shows how people start to feel alienated in a space where they should be comfortable. I expected an excellent critique of sexism in the election and I got it – along with a small dig at who gets better treatment in the media. As far as I’m concerned, the only person getting a pass is McCain. But instead of focusing on that, we are more willing to fight each other, with little digs like this one that amount over time. Another great example is the Portfolio article about sexism in the workplace. The article presumes to speak for women and does a great job discussing facts and statistics. But why does it mention diversity as something companies have achieved and fail to mention the abysmal record of minority women being appointed to high ranking decision? Why is diversity a code word for minority men? And why do discussions of sexism always revolve around white women?

There seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding that other things inform the sexism that women experience. Some feminists can discuss women being viewed as weaker and less capable, never realizing that some of us are not ever allowed to hold that label. I’ve never been called “weaker” in my life. The stereotype that comes with black women is that we are supposed to be unbreakingly strong. Unceasingly capable. We are not supposed to be weak.

I have never been asked to fetch coffee. Never. Does that mean sexist shit doesn’t happen to me at work? No. But that sexism is informed by my race, so instead of assuming this cute young woman should sit prettily in the corner and make coffee, they assume that this name “Latoya Peterson” will manifest into some neck-swiveling straight from the ‘hood stereotype. The white girl being relegated to the coffee machine still has a job. My resume is in the recycle bin.

And while I can truly understand if some women feel that their gender problems take more prominence than their race problems, other women need to understand that for some of us, that separation does not happen. And what bothers me most about a lot of feminist discourse is that while it may claim to speak for all women, it leaves out crucial parts of the dialogue because it refuses to engage with these other issues.

Wendi and I were discussing this while we were in Cambridge and she summed up my sentiments in a very concise statement. She said, “I don’t have certain issues because I am a woman; I have certain issues because I am a black woman.”

Our discrimination is not race neutral. So why should our feminism be?