If you ask a room full of Black women, “Are you a feminist?” you’re sure to get some nods, some side-eyes, and some confused looks. Feminism never ceases to be a battleground for political differences and perspectives, regardless of anyone’s color and culture. But for Black women, this is even more true. Why are some Black women still so uncomfortable with the label feminist?
To attempt to answer that question, aside from looking back at the pages of history, I turned to the conversations with women I know. I spoke with Black women from different walks of life. From academics in the fields of women’s studies and Africana studies to an informal web dialogue with writers of color, the result I got was the same.
Black women, in short, deem feminism a cause for “white women.”
Interestingly enough, Gloria Steinem, widely considered one of the most important living icons of feminism, recently stated that Black women “invented the feminist movement.” But, if that is true, why do we not see it as our movement? The answer lies in several different factors.
First and foremost, our struggles and our points of focus are simply different from those of white women.
It’s hardly a secret that modern feminism is a movement that, for the most part, focuses on white women’s concerns. Take for example, last year’s popular hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. The fact that Black women were so deliberately and obviously excluded was not lost on us. In fact, Twitter exploded with reactions from women of color, who shared their experiences about being isolated from the movement.
Consider, also, that white feminists often rally behind secondary and even strange issues affecting them, while remaining silent on the greater, systemic issues that affect Black women. While many have been quiet on issues like police brutality, Black Lives Matter and the deaths of women like Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd, they’ve instead taken up behind causes like period panties, ‘freeing the nipple’ on Instagram, or even the woman who decided to bake bread with yeast from her vagina as some kind of bigger statement. Don’t believe us? See here, where her disgusting act was called “heroic” by Women’s Health.
It may have been a tongue-in-cheek article, but it was a clear and distinct message to women of color: your issues aren’t worth talking about.
Even when it comes to critical issues that affect us, like the wage gap, we are often excluded from the conversation. When traditional white feminists have discussed the wage gap, it has often been dominated by the difference between white women’s paychecks and white men’s paychecks. It has failed to address the fact that Black and Latino women face gaps far more staggering than their white counterparts, both male and female.
Then, of course, there is the fact that “Black issues” often center on Black men. The simple fact is that it is difficult for some of us to worry about our pay gap when we are concerned with keeping our own babies and husbands alive. The statistics are hard to ignore.
And so, given these factors stacked against us, it is no wonder that Black women shy away from feminism as a whole. But make no mistake, the conversations so many of us are having about the issues that we as women face, are inherently feminist ones.
If we need a new word that feels more inclusive, a new term that speaks to our experiences, then let us find it. Whether it’s “intersectional feminism,” a third-wave of the movement that looks to be more inclusive beyond Steinem’s “second wave,” or Womanism, the term created by Alice Walker that focuses on the issues of women of color specifically, ultimately, our end goal is the same. We MUST work toward equality for women and we must include a diversity of experiences.
Even if we don’t like the word “feminism” or what it has stood for, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
While I, myself, have problems with the word “feminist,” I am proudly pro-women. And while I may struggle with the term, my pro-womanhood is grounded in my own personal experiences. My concerns are especially African, third-world, and Black and inclusive of religious perspectives and diversity.
I care about us and our position in this world.
I don’t care what we call it, I care what we do about it.
Finally, I also care about what you think. Should we develop a new term entirely that is made for us and by us? Or should we work towards changing the narrative of intersectional feminism and ensuring that we are at least in part, leading the conversation?