Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D., and Charisse Jones' tome, Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, is the result of the African American Women' Voices Project. The project was the result of research conducted over he course of two years which sought to document the impact of racism and sexism on the lives of Black women. The following quote from Shifting is as troublesome as it is revealing:
"...the reality [is] that no matter how intelligent, competent, and dazzling she may be, a Black woman in our country today still cannot count on being understood and embraced by mainstream white America." (p. 2)
The quote is revealing because, by all accounts, it appears that Black women are everywhere. One would think that Black women are finally being celebrated in numerous ways as opposed to the numerous ways that Black women have been demoralized.
Kerry Washington is receiving critical acclaim and has recently been nominated for an Emmy for her work on the television series, Scandal. Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, is cheered for her fashion and elegance, as well as her Let's Move campaign to combat childhood obesity. Oprah Winfrey has transitioned from talk show host to a mogul who runs a television network. Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph. D., hosts a self-titled weekend morning show on MSNBC. A majority of the degrees awarded by colleges and universities all over the country will go to Black women. these times would strike one as being a renaissance for Black women. Years, even centuries, of hard work and sacrifice are paying off, and Black women are at long last receiving praise equal to that of our White counterparts.
Then I glance at the quote again. The pain comes flooding back, and reality slaps me in the face. I remember that during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Michelle Obama was reduced to nothing more than a "baby mama" and another "angry Black woman". To this day, Obama is derided as nothing more than a leech and another uppity Black woman who doesn't know her place. Kerry Washington is an accomplished actress, but I fear that she may be seen as just another Jezebel for her role as Olivia Pope on Scandal. Both Winfrey and Harris-Perry have been attacked for their opinions. It never fails; as Black women power ahead, achieving and succeeding, there appears to be more and more harsh and mean-spirited criticism hurled in our direction.
No matter what Black women achieve, no matter how well Black women move around the obstacles placed before us, there is always the danger that we will be reduced to tasteless and degrading caricatures; rendered invisible; or, determined to be inferior. Feminism, which was touted as an avenue available to all women, has not been kind to Black women. As a matter of fact, White feminists have appropriated most of the benefits of feminists without acknowledging their own race and class privileges.
Feminism: The Definition vs. The Practice
The American Heritage Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines "feminism" as:
"1. Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes; 2. The movement organized around this belief."
Webster's New World Dictionary is more specific in its definition of "feminism":
"1. the principle that women should have political, economic, and social rights equal to those of men; 2. the movement to win these rights."
Notice that neither definition mentions race, class, or sexual orientation. Both imply that all women are welcome. However, the concept of feminism in practice is completely different.
bell hooks details what happened when the feminist movement first emerged in her book, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics:
"No group of white women understood the difference in their status and that of black women more than the group of politically conscious white females who were active in civil rights struggle. ... Yet many of these individuals moved from civil rights into women's liberation and spearheaded a feminist movement where they suppressed and denied the awareness of difference they had seen and heard articulated firsthand in civil rights struggle. Just because they participated in anti-racist struggle did not mean that they divested of white supremacy, of notions that they were superior to black females, more informed, better educated, more suited to "lead" a movement.
In many ways, they were following in the footsteps of their abolitionist ancestors who had demanded that everyone (white women and black people) be given the right to vote, but, when faced with the possibility that black males might gain the right to vote while they were denied it on the basis of gender, they chose to ally themselves with men, uniting under the rubric of white supremacy." (p. 55-56)
Despite the fact that many White feminists had previously been involved in the fight for civil rights, they still managed to build a movement that revolved around them, their needs, and their qualifications. To put this another way, white feminists saw racism and its effects, but they didn't dismiss the idea or challenge the concept of racism when forming their own movement.
White feminists brought white supremacy into their movement for equal rights. They put themselves at the front of the line at the expense of everyone else. In an attempt to appear more inclusive by ignoring class and race, White feminists, in fact, appeared stubborn when addressing race issues and disinterested in issues of class. Rather than questioning their own race and class advantage, White feminists -- like their abolitionist ancestors -- retreated back into white supremacy. When threated with being embarrassed for their lack of knowledge, the loss of privilege, and the loss of their status as leaders, White feminists ran back to what is familiar. To include all women, White feminists would need to step aside; instead, they chose to only focus on their plight at the expense of other women.
Instead of a diverse feminist movement that serves the needs of all women regardless of race and class, White feminists reconfigured feminism to serve their own needs.
Broken Bonds: A Lost Chance to Work Together
Despite these difficulties, some White women and Black women did manage to work together. However, this bonding did not last, once again due to the reluctance of White feminists to acknowledge race and class differences. Instead of using feminism to change existing power structures, maybe even demolish them and rebuild them to mirror a more egalitarian worldview, White feminists used feminism to get ahead. As feminism was co-opted and pulled away from its original intentions, White feminists used this opportunity to move closer to success and power. bell hooks, in her essay, "Where is The Love: Political Bonding Between Black and White Women", from her collection, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, spells out how the bridges that were being built between Black and White women were destroyed by the quest for power:
"Unfortunately, the vast majority of white and black women in feminist movement did not commit themselves to forging bonds. Even though some white women broke through racist/sexist denial and came to an understanding of their role in perpetuating racism, they were not willing to give up the privileges extended them by white supremacy. The divisions created by a gap in understanding were being sustained by white female investment in gaining power by any means necessary. Individual black women were deeply discouraged when we had to face the reality that opportunism and the lust to wield power over other so easily undermined commitment to feminists solidarity." (p. 222)
Yes, racism was acknowledged -- and, in some cases, understood and possible resisted -- but there remained an aversion to changing any of the circumstances that allow White women to benefit from racial discrimination. Only part of the work was done.
Feminism became just another way to gain power. White feminists abandoned radical work, especially if it did not advance them up the ladder of success. Individual Black women who sought solidarity in order to make progress, found instead that the principles of feminism had been replaced with those of capitalism. The distance between Black women and the feminist movement is growing larger and larger each day. Not only did White feminists ignore class and race, they continued to take advantage of the benefits afforded to them because of white privilege and white supremacy. The whole concept of solidarity between women was tossed aside in favor of the pursuit of power.
Feminism was supposed to be about advancing and helping all women, and who is more disadvantaged than Black women/women of color? On a more personal note, I agree with the major tenets of feminism (equal pay for equal work; access to affordable and comprehensive healthcare for women; access to birth control and safe abortions, to name a few), but the way that White feminists have used the feminist movement to put themselves in the forefront and to push their own agendas makes me question how useful feminism is. White women have gained power using feminism, yet have been more than a bit reluctant to share their power and incredibly critical of Black women. There appears to be no such thing as noblesse oblige when speaking to and about White feminists.
Rather than questioning patriarchy and dismantling white supremacy and white privileges, White feminists appropriated all of the power for themselves, reaping all of the rewards that resulted from feminism, but catching none of the backlash from the resistance to the feminist movement. Black women can no longer count on White feminists to defend them or support them.
--"Feminism". The American Heritage Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus. 2005
--"Feminism". Webster's New World Dictionary with Student Handbook. Concise Edition. 1974.
--hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. New York: South End Press, 2000. p. 55-56.
--hooks, bell. "Where is the Love: Political Bonding Between Black and White Women". Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Hold, 1995. p. 222
--Jones, Charisse and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: Perennial, 2003. p. 2.