Femme-fights: ‘Feminists, Womanists’ Battle Across Racial Lines

by Guest Contributor Ope Bukola, originally published at Zora & Alice

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that discussed the problem I feel feminism poses for a lot of women, among them black women.

An argument that played out this past weekend  in the “lady blogosphere”  offered a good example of the problem. It started last week when,  in  The Guardian, Womanist Musings‘ Renee Martin wrote a piece titled “I’m not a feminist (and there is no but).” Renee was responding to an article by Chloe Angyal, a writer for Feministing, in which Chloe argued that young women should boldly proclaim themselves as feminist. Renee’s post rejected what she describes as a “white feminist movement”, represented by  college “women’s studies” curricula and by blogs like Feministing, which do a poor job of representing women of color.

So far, so good – a friendly, if somewhat esoteric, disagreement between two women who both clearly care about the status of women. Things got really interesting when the mega-blog Jezebel picked up Renee’s article and criticized her for ignoring the women of color write for the publications she disparages.  The comment threads quickly devolved into an “us vs. them” with readers mostly divided along black and white racial lines. One commenter wrote what I felt before I even clicked the link to the Jezebel post: “My urge to comment swelled when I first read the post, and then I thought to myself, “Self, take cover and just wait for the shitstorm.”

And  a shitstorm it was.  If you have two hours or so, you should read the original articles and the comments.  For those who want the CliffNotes:  many white readers (they self-identified, I’m not assuming) accused Renee of ignorance, ingratitude, even racism and race-baiting.  A sample of comments:

“ Oh jeebus, the ‘womanist’ thing again? Almost as bad as ‘feminininsm’.”

“What I’m saying is that feminism is the belief that all women should have equal rights. And that is not a bad thing. If someone doesn’t want to be a part of it, screw them. If they chose to put a different name to it, I think they’re serving to break up a movement that is powerful in its size and noble in it’s cause.”

“It gets a little tiring to go about your life treating everyone the same (or so you think), and then be told you’re racist anyway, because you’re simply bolstering institutional racism. What’s a well-meaning person to do?”

“I don’t get it. As white women, we’re told we’ll “never understand” and that it’s futile and downright offensive to even try through our privilege colored glasses. Then, people get mad when we can’t consider the WOC’s perspective, when we’ve been directly told that we could never even begin to understand it so don’t even try…..There is no pleasing anyone, except to just sit here with a sign that says “White Person Punching Bag” and taking every hit anyone can throw at us. I know as a white person, I’m not allowed to feel frustrated regarding issues of POC, but I am.”

It wasn’t long before black readers stepped in to, as one commenter put it, “school” the white readers. To them, the vitriol directed at Renee by the (mostly white) readers of Jezebel just proved Renee’s point:

“Instead of forcing the term of feminist on women who feel racially oppressed by the label, mainstream feminism should work to correct the problems that lead many women to feel this way.”

“In the US, the social structure is created by white people and set up to benefit white people. I’m not saying that people are racist; rather that the structure of the country and its institutions and movements, including feminism, are imbued by systemic racism, or the idea that “white” is default and everything else is “other”

“It’s alienating as a feminist woman to have a White person accuse a non-White woman “kind of doing the same thing”, when the same thing is systematic racism. It’s alienating that White feminist women are aware of the double-consciousness of gender but oblivious to the double-consciousness of race. Non-White bloggers are hyper-aware that they are writing for White people, and all non-White people spend their lives working – consciously and unconsciously – to understand White people in order to get by in a culture that defines them as intrinsically an other….The content of these blogs may be diverse, but the discourse certainly isn’t. “

I’m going to have to come out on Renee’s side on this one.  The comments above illustrate why it can be difficult for women of color to feel like they truly belong in certain publications. Pointing out the fact that a few women of color write for mainstream feminist publications and therefore, these publications represent women of color, is like claiming you can’t be racist because you have some non-white friends. Renee’s point is not that voices of minority women never get featured in these publications. Instead, what matters is that the dominant discourse is a white one. For the record, I’d call myself a feminist and a womanist and sometimes neither – I’m not sure the labels are nearly as important as the values here.

The reaction to this post is one of the reasons I hate reading anything on race is mainstream publication.  When black women say that mainstream publications don’t represent us, it goes deeper than there not being enough pictures of or articles by women of color. It’s about the larger “ethos” of the publication – and yes, I know that may read like a vague cop-out. Let me put it this way: I sometimes read Glamour magazine, I even sometimes like it but I don’t feel like I am the “Glamour woman.”

Terrible social construct that it is, race does affect the way men and women of color see the world. It means that a black woman may sometimes wonder if she’s being passed over by a mate because of her race and an Asian woman may wonder if she’s being considered because of her race (see this and this).  When women of color try to explain the experiences that shape our views and get defensiveness back in return, we either retreat or bite back harshly – neither reaction bode well for talking our way to “post-racial” bliss.

In their defense, I understand that some of the white readers are also playing out frustration with the difficulty talking about race.  From the comments of the Jezebel post, it would apear that readers think Renee is accusing them, since they’re feminists, of being racists when she is actually attacking the construct of feminism. It’s the difference between saying white people are racists versus the construct of whiteness is racist.

Lest we think this is a solely American problem, a similar dynamic plays out when it comes to feminism in other countries. An article in the BBC last week discussed pending restrictions in France against wearing the niqab.  The story quotes Elizabeth Badinter who is described as “a leading femnist philosopher,” and who says the veil  “is totally contrary to the three principles of the French Republic” and violates the principles of equality:

“She who hides her face is in a position superior to mine… she sees me but she refuses to reciprocate.” A Muslim woman interviewed for the story has a very different take on the veil and the republic. To her, “liberty means freedom of conscience, of expression.”

Whether it’s restricting how Muslim women can express their faith in France or in insisting that black American women feel adequately represented by mainstream publications, a false choice is presented: accept the majority’s values and your “minority” status or continue living as separatists.  Identity is fluid – I’m always black, a woman, Nigerian, and American.  But at any given moment, I may identify more with one or more of those things.  Ultimately, if black women like Renee Martin chose not to identify with feminism, the truly freedom-enhancing and “feminist” thing to do is to leave them be or, at least, try to win them over.