Black Feminism in Triptych

What you are about to read is the first proper thing I ever wrote about Black feminism. It was originally submitted as coursework for my Gender Studies programme in February 2015. The tutor asked that we write a 1,500 word personal reflective essay on any three feminist texts – not necessarily academic, or even in the medium of print – that had strongly influenced our feminist praxis. It was at this point that I ceased actively distancing myself from Blackness in order to pursue the politics of respectability. It was at this point that I embraced Blackness, including the scholarship and creativity of Black women.

If I had to write it again, there are certain parts that I’d change – tightening up my articulation of geopolitics, for example – and yet I remain genuinely fond of this essay. I have chosen to share it to demonstrate that in feminism, as with all things, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Full disclosure: my feminism was once abysmal. We all start somewhere, and this was it for me.


 

Just as there are many schools of thought within the feminist movement, there are a great many paths to the feminist movement – to becoming a feminist. Furthermore, identifying as a feminist is not the end of a process, but rather the beginning of one:

“Feminists are made, not born. One does not become an advocate of feminist politics simply by having the privilege of having been born female. Like all political positions one becomes a believer in feminist politics through choice and action.” (hooks, 2000)

Although I have considered myself a feminist since early adolescence, my ideas, words, and deeds relating to the movement have – mercifully – evolved in the subsequent decade. This essay aims to explore three texts central to my development as a feminist – specifically, as a Black feminist. The first of my chosen texts is Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks, a book which played a significant role in my understanding of feminist theory. The second text is We Should All Be Feminists, the written adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, which opened my eyes to the relevance of the feminist movement operating beyond a Western context. The third and final text is Nicki Minaj’s music video Anaconda, a record-breaking riposte to the objectification of Black women within the genre of rap music. All three subjects are the respective works of Black women. The texts in question are responsible for the development of my understanding of the connection between gendered and racialised identities.

In spite of its innocuous title, Feminism is for Everybody made for uncomfortable reading the first time around: until that point, I had been one of those feminists – of whom hooks is deeply critical – who denied that identities beyond gender had any bearing upon the oppression of women . This book challenged the notion of sisterhood – of universally shared female experience – the grounds on which my understanding of feminism had been based, and yet feminist theory had never resonated so well with my own lived experience. Feminism challenges a patriarchal model that is “imperialist, racist, sexist, and oppressive” (hooks, 1981), yet more privileged women often oppose nothing beyond the sexism, as they themselves are not oppressed by other symptoms of the existing hierarchy.

It was hooks that forced me to ask why, although I had read an extensive range of feminist literature produced by white women, racial inequalities faced by women of colour were never mentioned. And, to an extent, it was hooks that provided the answer:

“They [white women] entered the movement erasing and denying difference, not playing race alongside gender, but eliminating race from the picture. Foregrounding gender meant that white women could take center stage, could claim the movement as theirs, even as they called on all women to join.”

However, hooks’ solution raised more questions for me than it resolved, particularly surrounding the notion of self-hood. As Patricia Hill Collins observes, “black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of ourselves as African-American women with our objectification as the Other.” The self-perception of Black women is, to an extent, warped by internalised misogynoir. Stereotypes inspired by “historically constructed conditions… shaped by structural inequalities, such as racism and sexism” (West, 2003) continue to be shape how Black women view themselves and are viewed by others. Hooks was the first feminist writer I had encountered whose theory encapsulated that reality:

“By repudiating the popular notion that the focus of feminist movement should be social equality of the sexes and by emphasizing eradication of the cultural basis of group oppression, our own analysis would require an exploration of all aspects of women’s political reality. This would mean that race and class oppression would be recognised as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism.” (hooks, 1984)

The lived experiences of Black women are strongly influenced by racial and gendered oppression. Without the writings of bell hooks, in particular Feminism is for Everybody, I would have remained wilfully blind to that reality. Therefore, this text was essential to me claiming the label of Black feminist.

After having abandoned the belief that feminism was solely concerned with gendered oppression – and that it was the movement ‘led’ by white women – I was no longer able to consider the movement first and foremost in western context without challenging the imperialistic perspective on which that prioritisation was made. My first foray into African feminism was the TED talk delivered by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a speech which showed me that Black feminism was not some abstract concept, irrelevant to feminism as I had previously understood it, but rather the most relatable branch of the movement that I have yet encountered. Adichie faced claims that “feminism was not our [African] culture” , yet – if we are to accept Adichie’s definition of feminist: “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes…” – feminism is fundamentally oppositional to every culture that is built upon a patriarchal structure. Therefore, feminism is no more or less compatible with African culture than European or American.

What surprised me most about Adichie’s words were the similarities between her experiences of feminism and my own. In Nigeria, Adichie experienced the same negative stereotypes surrounding feminism, from man hating to bra burning ; she faced the same erroneous assumptions that gendered inequalities were a thing of the past ; she was irritated by other people’s tacit assumption that the man in her company was in the position of authority, of being rendered “invisible” by it . Adichie is firm in her opposition to traditional roles, exploring the ways in which the potential of girls is limited by the cultural expectations rested upon femininity:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man… But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man?” (Adichie, 2014)

Furthermore, Adichie outlines the ways in which patriarchal roles restrict boys as well as girls. She is not the first feminist to consider the ways in which masculinity is damaging to men – in fact, although Adichie and hooks define feminism by different criteria, they are both critical of the cultural expectations surrounding masculinity – yet Adichie’s comments struck me as particularly insightful. By proposing that society consciously shifts collective behavioural patterns regarding gender, Adichie highlights how simple it would be to dismantle patriarchal values in a matter of generations. Adichie’s input allowed me to understand the power of feminism when applied on a global scale, to see that considering feminism in a purely Western light was deeply restrictive.

Finally, although it has not shaped my understanding of feminist theory, my awareness of feminist practice deepened considerably with Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. To appreciate the cultural significance of Anaconda, the content of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back (sampled heavily by Minaj) must first be considered: the video begins with two white women scrutinising and stereotyping the figure of a Black woman, who remains silent throughout the exchange, until Sir Mix-a-Lot interrupts. Yet the defence is hardly gallant, being based entirely on the sexual worth Sir Mix-a-Lot places upon Black women, culminating with the iconic line: “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon.” Anaconda serves as an obviously phallic metaphor, a powerful and predatory representation of male sexuality. In Sir Mix-a-Lot’s video, Back women dance for his pleasure whilst he passes comment on their physical merits, a common premise within the genre:

“African American men who star in music videos construct a certain version of manhood against the backdrop of objectified nameless, quasi naked Black women who populate their stage. At the same time, African American women in these same videos objectify their own bodies in order to be accepted within this Black male-controlled universe.” (Hill Collins, 2005)

With her own video, Minaj dismantles the tropes exemplified in Baby Got Back. Unlike Sir Mix-a-Lot, Minaj performs alongside the dancers – there is no hierarchy in place. They are free from the critical eyes of white women or the proprietary observation of black masculinity: Minaj and company dance for their own entertainment. That the women, Minaj included, are scantily clad, twerking, and gyrating – doing so without the intent of providing men gratification – is an assertation of independent sexuality. Indeed, Minaj’s inversion of clichés caused me to consider the source of my perceptions of Black womanhood and move beyond them. Though a music video carries less academic weight than a textbook or journal, the feminist message behind Anaconda developed my awareness of the intersection between race and gender.

Contrasting with the images of peaches and pears used by Sir Mix-a-Lot to represent Black women’s buttocks, Minaj snaps a cucumber in half and cuts a banana to slices. What this phallic imagery lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in effectiveness. Minaj clearly rejects a male sexuality in which she is expected to play a passive role, preferring instead to be an active participant. Drake – the only male featured in the video – appears close to the end (demonstrating his irrelevance to the process), and it is notable that Minaj leaves the frame when he attempts to touch her without her consent. Seeing Minaj not only reject a man, but the male sexualisation of the Black female body, was powerful. Until Anaconda, it hadn’t occurred to me that a music video, or any similar medium within popular culture, could spread a feminist message.

Anaconda caused me to re-evaluate the representation of Black women within popular culture, and also the way in which feminism can occur outside of the academic sphere. Like bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nicki Minaj challenged my preconceptions surrounding race and gender, catalysing real development in my perspective as a feminist.

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Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the third in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement, in which I explore the pitfalls of feminist theory treating white womanhood as the normative standard. Part 1 can be accessed here, part 2 here.


 

Throughout the rich and varied body of feminist theory, within every facet of feminist activism, the rights of women are a central concern – and that is all to the good.  Whether the issue relates to women’s bodily autonomy, socio-economic standing, or political representation, challenging the secondary position women occupy in society is fundamental to feminist theory and practice alike. Yet the question of which women are prioritised within feminism and why cannot be easily dismissed – hierarchies are established and maintained, even under the politics of liberation. Given the feminist movement’s flawed relationship with race, it is a question that requires thorough consideration before it can be answered honestly.

In 1851, an emancipated slave by the name of Sojourner Truth addressed the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and posed the following question: ain’t I a woman?  That Truth’s speech was distorted by the white gaze in the process of transcription, her dialect roughened and reshaped to fit the popular image of Negro then held by the public imagination – a Southern slave – does not detract from the power of her words. Truth provided one of the earliest and most meaningful deconstructions of womanhood found within feminist theory, unpicking the racism and misogyny defining the cult of true womanhood. Truth was a staunch advocate for the human rights of all women, irrespective of race, and Black men. Her critique of the normative standard of woman remains relevant to this very day.

Feminism has an ongoing problem with race. The movement did not form inside a social vacuum, separate and distinct from white supremacy – indeed, many among its earliest American campaigners became staunch supporters of white superiority when it appeared that Black men would receive the right to vote before white women.

“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” – Carrie Chapman Catt, 1859-1947 (Founder of the League of Women Voters)

White women made use of racism, exploited racist assumptions, for their own benefit (Davis, 1981). That is an unavoidable truth. White racism is an undeniable part of feminist history, has continually influenced the development of feminist theory, and can be traced directly from early to contemporary feminist discourse.

Mary Wollstonecraft drew numerous unfortunate comparisons between the plight of white women, often with a degree of material and class privilege, and that of their enslaved Black sisters. Wollstonecraft was an abolitionist, a pioneering feminist thinker, yet her otherwise rigorous challenge to the dominant social order was undermined by the polemic slavery analogy (Ferguson, 1992). The argument is of course made that Wollstonecraft was a product of her time, that within her context she was a revolutionary. Except that with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft unwittingly set a pattern of behaviour that continues to manifest in feminist praxis: a failure to acknowledge how women are positioned by race.

The Feminine Mystique, a book frequently credited with catalysing the second wave of feminism, relied on both racist and classist assumptions. In her study of “the problem that has no name”, Betty Friedan completely overlooked that women of colour and working class women worked outside of the home out of sheer necessity, treating the white, middle-class and college educated woman’s experience as standard (hooks, 1982). In Against Our Will, a book that revolutionised the understanding of rape, Susan Brownmiller exploited racist assumptions of a bestial Black masculinity, the flip-side of which is a hypersexual Black femininity (Davis, 1981) – small wonder that women of colour were alienated by popular feminist thought. Although a great deal of radical feminist thought operated on what would now be considered an intersectional basis, writing from the second wave often treated white womanhood as normative, and women of colour were routinely marginalised within feminist activism (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981. Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982).

Little changed with the third wave of feminism – if anything, emphasis on the individual circumvented any meaningful analysis of structural racism. Even as intersectionality has come to shape recent developments in the feminist movement, white women routinely use it as a means of virtue signalling. Intersectionality is often treated as a way of paying lip service to women of colour without meaningfully exploring any factor shaping our realities beyond the hierarchy of gender. Numerous feminist books published within the last five years have a token chapter (if we’re lucky…) devoted to the intersection of race and sex. To give an example, in a chapter of Everyday Sexism (2014) Laura Bates explored “double discrimination”, her phrase for co-existence of multiple forms of oppression. Though she acknowledged the ways in which women of colour are fetishised as a sexual Other, our experiences were framed as niche, irregular.

White feminists also have an unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two entirely separate forms of discrimination, which do not meet in a common site and are therefore not worthy of joint consideration. Emer O’Toole’s otherwise stellar analysis of gender roles in Girls Will Be Girls (2013) is undermined by the casual erasure of women of colour resulting from the following phrase: “people of colour or women.” This is, of course, a false dichotomy that positions white womanhood as standard.

Treating white womanhood as normative not only serves to marginalise women of colour within the feminist movement, but positions our needs as secondary to those of white women, propagating the hierarchy of race within feminism. Considering white womanhood as normative defines who is valued as a source of knowledge relating to women’s experiences, and who is not. It shapes the criteria for who is heard within the feminist movement, and who is overlooked by default. If the concerns of white women become simply the concerns of women, then race – conveniently – ceases to be a feminist issue. Women of colour critiquing racism can therefore be dismissed as threats to feminist unity, accused of “trashing” white women when we critique their racism. The racialised depiction of passion, particularly common in the Angry Black Woman trope (Harris-Perry, 2011), automatically invalidates any attempt women of colour to address racism. This is why women of colour are so frequently subject to tone policing in feminist discourse. Silencing criticisms of their own racism enables white feminists to avoid the challenge of uncomfortable self-reflection – they justify doing so by claiming that they act in the name of sisterhood.

However, as Mohanty says, “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.” White women disregarding and speaking over women of colour are not enacting sisterhood, but rather undermining it through exploiting the hierarchy of race. Contrary to the derailments used to silence women of colour in feminism, it is white racism that stands between the feminist movement and interracial solidarity. In addressing that racism, women of colour seek to overcome the ultimate barrier between women.

I will conclude by encouraging white feminists to apply the same tools of analysis they use in critiquing misogyny to their own racism, to the racism of other white women – to speak out when they see it. When discussing race with women of colour, I advise white women to consider their expectations of men when discussing misogyny – to draw the parallel of oppressor class and oppressed class, and apply those principles to their own conduct. Whether or not white women are aware of it, they are positioned at an advantage over women of colour – the only way they will learn more about it is by listening to our voices, acknowledging our perspectives, and reflecting on what we have to say.

I would also add that there is no shame in making a genuine attempt to improve and getting it wrong. Responding with white defensiveness and attempting to silence a woman of colour is, however, reprehensible. In my relationships with white feminist women, there is a clear distinction: those who are prepared to learn when it comes to race, and those who are not. The former group I trust and value as my sisters. The latter group I’m too wary of for true solidarity to be a possibility. I do not ask for perfection – who does? – but simply that you try.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Ferguson, Moira. (1992). Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery. IN: Feminist Review, No. 42.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. (2011). Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

hooks, bell. (1982). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

eds. Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia Bell, & Smith, Barbara. (1982). But Some of Us are Brave.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

eds. Moraga, Cherríe & Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back.

Smith, Barbara. (1998). The Truth that Never Hurts.