The “Or” versus the “And” – Women of Color and Mainstream Feminism

by Latoya Peterson

Over at Feministing, there was a nice discussion about a click moment – the moment when you realize that you began to identify as a feminist.

It occurs to me that I have only discussed half of my own personal click moment. I mentioned that it was the Spice Girls that made me identify as a feminist, but it wasn’t their personalities or their music that pushed me toward feminism.

The catalyst for my click moment was actually a knock-off tee shirt. Riding the girl power wave of the late-nineties, a lot of the cheap teen clothing stores were filled with branded tee-shirts. I had one that read in big silver lettering “Girl Power.” I remember wearing the shirt out one day, and having a guy friend walk up to me and pause to read the shirt.

“Girl power?” he said with a smirk, “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” He walked away laughing. After that day, I never wore that shirt again, but I stayed thinking about that moment for years afterward.

Why would the concept of girl power be so ridiculous that it was laughable?

That was the moment that started the shift in thinking. Why did so many men mock the idea of women having power, or get upset when women stood up for themselves? A few years later, I found feminism and thought I found my long lost community.

Little did I know that finding feminism was also the beginning of the anti-click moments, dozens of little conversations and actions that served as a constant reminder that I was different. Reading anthology after anthology on contemporary feminist work and only hearing one or two tokenized voices from women of color. Attending feminist gatherings and realizing that a lot of the situations and scenarios discussed were things I had never experienced. Trying to articulate my experiences, and being told that we need to focus on the “real” feminist issues. Things that impact “all” (read: white) women.

I possess both a gender identity and a racial identity and feminists weren’t having that, not one little bit.

At first, I thought if I could just find the right area, things would be different. Maybe it was just the feminist girls at my high school that were fucked up and racist – when I got to college, it would be different. I got to college and the triple-whammy of elitism, racism, and classism kept me out of organized feminism. Then, I decided to do my own thing and just read but a lot of the books on feminism where from one limited perspective. There was no me in this feminism.

However, there was a me in anti-racist work. So I worked on that, discussed gender outside the contexts of feminist theory, found more books on the experiences of women of color, fell in love with Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, challenged my male friends on their ideas about the place of women and did what I did best – live.

For you see, for me, feminism was not about theory and academia – it was about being able to explain the things that wore heavily on my mind. I didn’t have the words to express certain concepts and feminism gave me those words. With those words came the ability to speak truth and seek to banish those things that continue to do untold damage to young black women every day. But those words also came with a price. The gatekeepers of those words asked me to ignore my issues and align with theirs. The gatekeepers of those words have absolutely no concept of the idea that my responsibility to my community and my responsibility to my gender are equal in my mind – I cannot put one away in favor of the other. The men in my community are my allies – our stories are intertwined. Even if some of them are in the wrong, I cannot leave them out of the conversation. The stakes are too high.

And yet, feminism continued to hold some appeal. Donna Darko sums it up best:

Since I was a teenager, I noticed APIA women did not speak out against sexism of APIA men. They were in denial or made excuses. I noticed this in college, too, among women of color.

Women of color are a hundred times more likely to condone or enable the sexism of men of color than they are to condone or enable the racism of whites. In other words, women of color are a hundred times more likely to speak out against racism than they are to speak out against the sexism of men of color even though most rape and domestic violence occurs within the community. You see this pattern in real life and online.

Today is the perfect example. How many women of color do you think turned up for the huge Jena Six/Hate Crimes march on DC today compared to the protest for crimes against women of color? (Details and commentary on both protests below.) You can bet your life there were at least a hundred times more women of color at the first protest than at the second. You can also bet your life there were at least a hundred times more women of color at the Jena Six protest in Jena, Louisiana than at the Megan Williams protest in Charleston, West Virginia.

Women of color are not immune to sexism.

Our brown skin does not act as a protective barrier against sexual assault and physical abuse.

And far too often, the ingrained ideas of allegiance to men of color stop us from speaking up about our experiences and our pain – even when it means we suffer alone.

We deal with this daily too. Feminism should be a haven for us, but it fails to understand that there are multiple issues at work. I can’t step out of my skin in order to deal with feminism. I don’t have that luxury.

So, where in feminism can I fit?

Maybe womanism. Maybe just doing my work and not joining a movement at all.

Perhaps a different form of feminism. Donna thoughtfully provides a link to Women of Color Feminism, in this case, the Combahee River Collective Statement.

An excerpt:

[...] We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.

Although we are feminists and lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with black men against racism, while we also struggle with black men about sexism. [...]

The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess any one of these types of privilege have.

The psychological toll of being a black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon black women’s psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist. As an early group member once said, “We are all dam-aged people merely by virtue of being black women.” We are dispossessed psychologically and on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change our condition and the condition of all black women. In “A Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood,” Michele Wallace arrives at this conclusion:

We exist as women who are black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.’

(I highly encourage everyone to go and read the rest.)

Somedays, it really does feel like war against the world. The blogosphere is just the latest battleground. I have watched every last thread unfold. I have read every trackback link. I have read every referenced post. I have read through scores of comments. I have gone through every emotion from annoyance to anger to defeat to a sadness so profound I found myself crying at my keyboard.

And I am not even the subject of these debates.
Not by a long shot. I am not even involved. I just witness.

But even in my range of emotions, one thing was not there. One thing was not present: surprise.

How horrible is it to not be surprised? To see the conversation gradually rolling downhill, to know that this is the same conversation that has happened dozens of times, to see the same patterns being repeated, to hear non-allies serve up the same arguments over and over as if they were new, as if they were nothing we heard before.

And then to hear some bullshit call to come together, put the past behind us, and move forward.

Right.

Now, I am sure that some non-allies are confused at this one. They are neutral. They can see both sides. They want everyone to just come together already and fight the real problem, not realizing that their silence is part of the real problem.

I expect that there will be differences feminist narratives, goals, and focus. I expect that we are going to come from different walks in life and different places. On another feminist thread (unrelated to the current controversy), a lot of women referenced Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville as the album that either made them a feminist or soundtracked their feminism. I’ve never heard this album. The closest thing I can think of to my own feminist anthem is Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y. – obviously, we are coming from different places.

But I do not expect that I will not be treated as an equal inside a supposedly progressive space. And I do not expect that women of color will have to fight to be shown the same consideration as white bloggers. Where is our benefit of the doubt? Where – as many others have asked – is the consideration for our feelings?

Non-white women are not a monolith.

Women of color feminists are not a monolith.

We do not agree on many topics. We do not all concur on the best course of action. We do not all believe in the same things and we do not all experience intersectionality in the same way.

If I were to say the sky is blue, there are some WoC bloggers who would immediately tell me that I am 110% wrong, the sky is gray and send me a photo via email to prove their position. That’s the way it is.

But, I still find a comfort in knowing they are out there. In knowing where they are. In knowing that we may disagree on everything else, but we both see a sky.

I need to be in the company of women who do not have the luxury of looking past issues that are inconvenient to them.

I need to be in the company of women who understand on a gut level, not an intellectual level, what I am going through. I need people who understand my life, not because they have read and studied and occassionally worked with women like me. I need to know that somewhere, out there, someone just knows.

And I need to be there for them.

I cannot speak for Carmen or Fatemeh or Wendi. I can only speak for myself.

I am not even going to bother addressing the circumstances that lead here. They are widely available in links here and elsewhere.

The issue is much bigger than one incident. It is bigger than three incidents. It is bigger than the blogosphere. It is a pattern of behavior that will be repeated, again and again, probably until I leave this earth.

And I feel it is my responsibility to try to end this, to leave a better world for my children to inherit.

And so it is here, where I will do what ABW has already done - stand in solidarity with my sisters.

Because this cannot continue.

Recommended Reading

Sudy – A Question of Feminism or a “Movement?”
Sylvia/M – Don’t Hate; Reappropriate
Questioning Transphobia – In Light of Appropriation and Race
Grandpa Dinosaur – The Person You Protect
Feministe – (Read this piece for the comments – some real All-Stars were pulling out their best)
A Slant Truth – For My Peeps
PhysioProf – Intellectual Appropriation, Attribution of Credit & Privilege
Aaminah Hernández- Why I Am Not A Feminist or My Anti-Feminist Manifesto