In this current, highly-charged political and socio-cultural climate where it’s difficult for Black women to tell who’s really an ally and who’s merely performing ally-theater; where we are often further marginalized and erased from crucial discussions about sexism and race, sometimes it can be understandable when Black women eschew the feminist label and are leery about forming alliances with white feminists, or have grown weary with speaking up on behalf of Black men who seemingly disparage us publicly at every turn and fail to advocate for us.
If this year’s Women’s March on Washington is any indication, the collective fight for gender equality seems to always come with the requirement of Black women’s emotional and intellectual labor while we’re expected to remain silent and disregard our own lived experiences as women living at the intersections of race, gender, and gender identity.
Black men activists love to emphasize how much Black lives matter while actively engaging in misogynoir and trans-antagonism. Either ALL Black lives matter or your activism and advocacy are a bust.
White feminists and purported allies of Black women like to remind us that ALL women’s have value and that we need to band together as a collective sisterhood “regardless of race”, but continue to drown out the voices and trivialize the experiences of Black cis-women and transwomen; heterosexual and queer.
Scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw taught us about the importance of intersectionality—understanding women’s overlapping identities; that we don’t all share the same experiences; that patriarchy doesn’t affect all women the same way—and white feminists toss the word around like a cool buzzword while using it its wrong context, failing to unpack their privilege, and refusing to do the work required to be genuine in their solidarity with women who are sex workers and/or who aren’t white or cis.
Lack of intersectionality within the feminist and Black Abolitionist/liberation movements have been points of contention since the antebellum period. Noted suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton have historically, not only resorted to racism to denounce the 15th amendment, which was proposed to grant Black men the right to vote after the Civil War, but trivialized the experiences of Black women to further the agenda of white feminists. Frederick Douglass also regarded Sojourner Truth with condescension. While Douglass admired Truth’s wisdom and tenacity, he often disparaged her for not being elegant or cultured enough (by his standards) and reportedly described her as “a genuine specimen of the uncultured negro.”
And often, overlooking what Black women say, because of some perceived flaw, is something Black men continue to do during intra-racial discussions.
This brand of underhanded and disingenuous solidarity is why Sojourner Truth distanced herself from white feminist groups and is why she challenged Frederick Douglass; and it’s what, I imagine, prompted her famous Ain’t I A Woman? speech in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.
Like Sojourner Truth, Black feminist and scholar, Anna Julia Cooper unapologetically centered the concerns of Black women, writing in her seminal book A Voice from the South (1892), “Only the black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”
A Voice from the South, in addition to Cooper’s other work and pro-Black woman activism, helped amplify the experiences and labor of Black women, highlighted what we’ve come to know as misogynoir, and challenged white and Black men speaking as authorities on Black women’s issues.
The social justice sphere can often become a heated and divisive environment where all the women are white and all the Black folks are men, so I (reluctantly) try to understand and commiserate when Black women (Sometimes to their own detriment though, because of internalized misogynoir.) don’t want to identify as feminists and/or solely advocate Womanism.
In bell hooks’ book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, she wrote about the distinction between saying, “I am a feminist” vs “I advocate feminism” to draw a distinction between those doing actual work to advocate for women’s rights and all it entails and those who view feminism as a brand and marketing strategy (pink pussy hats, anyone?) and who merely call themselves feminists because it’s the trendy ‘in’ thing to do at the moment: “To emphasize that engagement with feminist struggle is political commitment, we could avoid using the phrase ‘I am a feminist’ (a linguistic structure designed to refer to some personal aspect of identity and self-definition) and could state, ‘I advocate feminism.’ Because there has been undue emphasis placed on feminism as an identity or lifestyle, people usually resort to stereotyped perspectives on feminism. Deflecting attention away from stereotypes is necessary if we are to revise our strategy and direction. I have found that saying ‘I am a feminist’ usually means I am plugged into preconceived notions of identity, role, or behavior. When I say, ‘I advocate feminism,’ the response is usually, ‘What is feminism?’”
Over the course of the past year I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to be more cognizant of saying “I advocate feminism” to hold myself accountable for my own behavior and to make sure I’m not blowing hot air, am being inclusive and am not being a sanctimonious trash panda who’s simply listing off buzzwords. I’m not perfect and, even as a woman who’s maturing in age, I still have a lot of learning and growing to do when it comes to feminism. But I know that advocating for feminism requires more than wearing a chain attached to a glittery “FEMINIST” charm and disingenuously parroting the latest feminist jargon. And feminism isn’t being a feminist man, speaking over Black women about our experiences.
I think it would behoove more women—particularly white women, and especially men who self-identify as feminists—to do the same sort of introspection. Particularly since so-called feminist men still display sexist and oppressive behavior towards women; and white women, for all their good intentions, still enact racial-microaggressions and epistemic violence onto Black women and other women of color.
Feminism is, indeed, for everybody, but it requires work and self-awareness. A good bulk of that work involves having those uncomfortable conversations and recognizing that the lives of Black women and transwomen are equally as valuable and belong to part of the larger discussions about equality (gender and racial).
If you’re a white woman or man who identifies as a feminist, but the idea of inclusiveness and creating space for the work and voices of others is cause for alarm, distress, and white and/or male tears, then you’re just being performative and jockeying for underserved accolades and attention.
Ally-ship and “sisterhood” should never be contingent on the silence and invisibility of others. Ain’t no future in yo frontin.
Tiffani Jones is the creator and writer of Coffee Rhetoric, a blog about women, pop-culture, film and race. A frequent contributor to both print and digital media platforms, she is also the Digital Content Editor for Northend Agent’s. Tiffani has offered commentary on HuffPost Live, in the NY Times, and on WNPR in another life. More info about her work can be found on www.coffeerhetoric.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Coffey0072