Femme-fights: ‘feminists, womanists’ battle across racial lines

Post image for Femme-fights: ‘feminists, womanists’ battle across racial lines

by Ope Bukola on April 15, 2010

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.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Share, save or print this post...

| More
  • Whitney

    Love this post! I also blogged about the reactions to Martin's piece from mainstream blogs (Jezebel and Gender Across Borders), over at Change.org: http://womensrights.change.org/blog/view/women_…

  • http://www.racialicious.com/2010/04/16/femme-fights-%e2%80%98feminists-womanists%e2%80%99-battle-across-racial-lines/ Femme-fights: ‘Feminists, Womanists’ Battle Across Racial Lines | Racialicious – the intersection of race and pop culture

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

  • TiernaFeminista

    This is fantastic.

  • http://twice-immigrant.livejournal.com/ CaitieCat

    Wonderful post. I'm completely in support of Renee – she's a hell of a writer, and her politics are as sound or sounder than many who wear the label “feminist”. If she says there's a problem for WOC with our practice of feminism , and embodies that problem in her self-description as a womanist and in her rejection of the word feminist, then it's my task as a feminist who really does want the movement to be inclusive, to find out how and why it isn't. To listen to the people telling me that it isn't, and to do the damn work to educate myself.

    Trying to tell people who feel excluded that they're wrong and silly to think so only excludes and others them more. The only truly feminist thing to do in the situation, the only progressive approach to take, is to shut one's yap and do some fucking listening, when someone from that group is feeling generous enough to hand out some free education.

    Very well said.

  • ohands

    In their defense, I understand that some of the white readers are also playing out frustration with the difficulty talking about race.

    I agree with most of your post, but I think you are being too kind here. I see white feminist sites talking about the issue of “what about the men?” posts where men profess being uncomfortable and how we should all set aside our differences and sing kumbayah. And yet they try to do the same when racism (aka their privilege) is being argued. Why do women of color always have to trip over themselves to explain how they all calling the institution racist, not necessarily the writers?

    I get you are on Renee's side and you aren't arguing for the white feminists. But why must we always give white feminists a fucking cookie? Renee was very clear in her post (which I loved.)

    The feminist movement has a huge history of regulating black feminists to the margins (and completely disappearing other women of color feminists); white feminists are not allowed to keep doing that and not be called out on that. I call myself a feminist, but it's because I can. And like CatieCat said, I need to listen to women of color feminists when they say my sphere is still being racist. And then I need to change it, or I'm not a feminist, I'm a hypocrite. And, yes, racist.

    (I really did like your post. It was just that line you added always seems to be in posts when we discuss racism. I like to call it the Cookie Addendum. *grins*)

  • http://zora-alice.com/ Opé B.

    I think you put it well that you can't tell someone how they “feel.” It's
    the difference between what's intended and what's perceived. I can give them
    the benefit of the doubt and say that these mainstream feminist blogs/orgs
    don't intend to exclude WOC. But, if large numbers of us perceive that they
    exclude us, there's an important disconnect there. As you point out, can
    only be addresses is people listen first before starting to fight back.

  • http://zora-alice.com/ Opé B.

    Cookie Addendum — I guess I'm guilty.

    I guess I come from a place where I still think individuals have (mostly?)
    good intentions. Plus, I'm not sure that most self-described feminists, at
    least the young ones, really have an understanding of the history of
    marginalization inherent in feminism. Speaking strictly from experience, I
    don't think most white people really understand white privilege and therein
    lies a huge part of the problem. To me, the “cookie addendum” is a way of
    saying “it's not that I think you're racist, it's that you live in a world
    where you continuously accrue the benefits of white privilege.” I
    definitely hear you that it always reads like we're softening the blow but I
    guess part of it is also sensitivity to the “angry black woman” persona
    which doesn't define the way I approach this.

    Plus, from Renee's writing, I'm just not as tough as she is – trying to get
    there but not close yet!

  • ohands

    I think what really bothers me about this circumstance is that they should know better. Not that I expect white feminists to always recognize their own privilege, I miss stuff all the time, but that I feel they should know better than to have that defensive response of “we're not racists, you have absolutely no point.” I myself didn't really think about having to counter the “angry black woman” persona. My response is not “Oh please, you are totally making this up, you're too sensitive, I have black friends who are angry;” rather it's to realize “ah, white privilege means I don't have to worry about that trope.”

    I agree, white people don't always understand, or even just realize how pervasive, white privilege is. And I get that young white feminists may not realize the racism used in the movement. I just feel like they – the white feminists arguing about how racist Renee's post is – should have known better. And I keep thinking, if it annoys me this much, how must people its being aimed at feel?

    And your article was plenty of tough. :)

  • http://darenotspeak.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/must-read/ Must read. « Dare Not Speak?

    [...] Femme-fights: ‘feminists, womanists’ battle across racial lines by Ope Bukola @ Zora&Alice (found here at Racialicious) [...]

  • Obsidian

    Hi Ope,
    I’m a bit late to the party, but I’m hoping that I can still comment.

    I’m a blogger in my own right and have addressed the very same topic: http://theobsidianfiles.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/open-mic-friday-the-black-feminists-burden/

    And have always thought that the divide between Black “womanists” and White “feminists” was something that lurked just below the surface. I’m gonna have to take my Sunday out to read everything, but from the gist of what you wrote it seems clear that all is NOT well among the Sisterhood.

    Holla back

    The Obsidian

blog comments powered by Disqus

Previous post:

Next post: