Originally published: 25.04.16
A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is a work of personal reflection. No individuals, organisations, or events are/will be named or directly identified. My objective is neither to call out nor to heap praise on any woman, but rather to highlight some realities of interracial dynamics between women in feminism. Part one of the series The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement is available here.
The personal is political. So goes the rallying cry of second wave feminism, a perspective which has characterised a significant body of feminist theory. It is for this reason that I have decided to share a reflection upon my experience as a Black woman within the movement. There is a theory within Black feminism that being an outsider on the grounds of both race and sex positions Black women as watchers, gives us particular insight into dominant power structures and the means by which they manifest (Hill Collins, 2000). With this in mind, I aim to live up to the standards set by my foremothers and improve this movement for the women of colour who will follow after me.
Feminism is for everybody – so says bell hooks. (Note: hooks is not arguing that the movement should prioritise men, or any other dominant class, but rather be fully inclusive on grounds of race, class, and sexuality.) This text was critical in my development of a Black radical feminism, the moment when black became Black. Feminism is for Everybody outlined the importance of acknowledging race and class alongside sex if white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to be dismantled, and provided a blueprint for true interracial solidarity between women. Here, hooks posited that sisterhood can exist between women of colour and white women provided that race is acknowledged as a hierarchy, racism as a system of power, from which white women benefit. If white women continue to deny the privilege of whiteness, disregarding countless testimonies delivered by women of colour, we have no reason to trust them as political allies – this is hooks’ perspective, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly.
Interracial solidarity between women is possible. I know. I have experienced it. But I have also learned that it is so rare, the alternative so uncomfortable, that I will never condemn another woman of colour for claiming otherwise. This solidarity is by no means guaranteed – in my opinion, it is safer never to expect it – but it is powerful when it goes right.
The first place I experienced true interracial solidarity within the movement is the women’s organisation where I volunteer. The values and praxis of this organisation are intersectional in the purest sense – it is a place for women of colour, working class women, lesbian and bi women, women with disabilities. Women negotiating marginalised identities are not treated like tokens, or a box to be ticked off for funding purposes: we are at the heart of the organisation. The longer I am there, the more I appreciate this. The longer I am there, the more uncommon I realise this situation actually is. It is a place where I can sit around a table working with white women and know that they do not view my Blackness as an easy method of virtue-signalling, something to be displayed when convenient and disregarded when it is not. Difference isn’t fetishised or ignored, but acknowledged and treated accordingly – exactly the criteria outlined by hooks. These are women who live their feminist principles, and I am proud to work alongside them.
It is worth observing that the majority of white women with whom I share solidarity are significantly older than me, and/or lesbian, and/or working class. As to why these women tend to be older, feminism was significantly more radical when they started down the path of activism, which undoubtedly shaped their perspective on structural oppression. Radically feminist politics added depth to their structural analysis, to the extent that bypassing race became both extremely difficult to justify and intellectually dishonest.
It is easy to answer the lesbian part of this dynamic – in her novel The Night Watch, Sarah Waters postulated that lesbians tend to show one another “gallantry” on the grounds that nobody else will and, broadly speaking, I think that she is right. In some cases these are women who fought Section 28 – it’s reasonable to imagine they now watch the babydykes flourish and consider it an achievement. Having experienced considerable marginalisation themselves, these women are more likely to be conscious of the marginalisation experienced by others – how intersectionality is supposed to, but does not always, work.
Why I find easier kinship with white working class women is also clear. They are consciously unlearning racism as I (a Black middle class woman) am consciously unlearning classism. As multiple works of feminist scholarship have argued, race and class are inextricably linked by dominant structures of power. Neither Black nor working class features in the rosy picture of life in the UK as painted by the Little Britain mentality. We both belong to the parts of society rendered other, over there, not quite People Like the hegemonic ‘Us’. White working class women have engaged with my activism and shown me extraordinary kindness in a way that, to my thinking, exemplifies sisterhood.
These women have shown me every personal and professional consideration. They have encouraged my work, amplified my voice, and listened closely to what I have to say. They are my sisters. They have my trust. And they are the exception to the rule of white racism.
Participating in feminist movement as a Black woman is, frankly, difficult. That’s not because of the MRAs and right-wing racists who are routinely overwhelmed by the urge to call me nigger, suggest that I “go back to Africa” (FYI: impossible – to my regret, I’ve never actually visited that continent, and they are never willing to follow through by funding my plane tickets…), make some allusion to slavery or the Ku Klux Klan in the hope of causing me discomfort, etc. These people are irrelevant. Over time, I have grown desensitised to such attacks. No, what makes my participation in feminism difficult is witnessing and experiencing the racism of white women I had previously considered allies – women who understand misogyny on a structural level, yet turn a blind eye to racism. They have been responsible for every one of the numerous points at which I have wanted to leave the movement, to distance myself from what I know to be a vital cause.
Whenever I discuss race, the result is the same. White, self-proclaimed feminist women have sworn at me, spoken over me, questioned my feminist credentials, mocked me, made thinly-veiled racist jokes, and – most bizarrely – policed my race. So quickly, white defensiveness evolves into white cruelty. I will not give examples. I will not include screencaps, or name and shame the culprits. What I will say is that it happens regularly enough that I am automatically on guard with white feminist women, just waiting for the microaggressions to begin. And they do.
Some white feminists even feel compelled to set little tests, which I can pass only by demonising Black men and prioritising sex over race in my analysis. I can’t even indulge in that petty internet pastime of commenting on Kanye West’s antics without some white woman showing up in my mentions, expecting me to a) monster Black masculinity b) stop listening to his music c) distance myself from Black culture in the name of sisterhood. If I critique the misogynoir directed towards Black women in the music industry, such as Nicki Minaj, the response is similarly predictable. White women gloss over the way Nicki repeatedly encourages her female fans to focus on their education and never depend upon a man, they ignore the message behind her music and the way it uplifts Black womanhood – they only want to critique the sexuality of her image. Bonus points if Taylor Swift is held up in contrast as a good role model for girls.
And then there are the white women who view associating with me as a fast-track to cookies. “I can’t be racist: I have a Black friend!” On multiple occasions, white feminists have tagged me in their Twitter arguments with racists, often exposing me to graphic images and racist language in the process. They do this with less thought towards me than Ash Ketchum ever showed a Pokémon he sent into battle. They do it in the belief that I will fight on their behalf, use my voice to provide them with the moral high ground. I will not. Images of white violence against Black people are deeply unsettling. That entitlement towards my intellectual labour is an act of contempt. It is dehumanising, accompanied by a real disregard for my wellbeing.
It is impossible to feel solidarity with women who expect me to downplay and ignore my Blackness and its political implications for their comfort.I cannot feel sisterhood with women who expect me to stay silent because it’s “just race”, dismissing a system of oppression that continues to shape my life as “a distraction”. There is no room for trust on my side when I am constantly deflecting racism. When I talk about race and feminism with other women of colour, they know. They instinctively get it. There is no need to explain, and that is a wonderful thing in a world where garden variety bigots and white feminists alike are directing racism our way.
Yet, I cannot bring myself to give up on the vision of a united feminist movement. The white women with whom I share solidarity have all worked to achieve that level of consciousness. They show that racism does not have to be a barrier between women if we are all committed to challenging white supremacy. In Angela Davis’ autobiography, there is a particularly touching passage in which she reveals her mother’s commitment to interracial solidarity in the struggle against all forms of oppression. Sallye Davis’ generosity of spirit, the strength she showed in having kept such hope alive, are inspirational.
If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. It’s not here today, but it can be. When white women are ready to put in the work, I will be prepared to call them sister.
Davis, Angela. (1974). An Autobiography.
hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.
hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.
Hill Collins, (2000). Black Feminist Thought.
Smith, Barbara. (1998). The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom.
Waters, Sarah. (2006). The Night Watch.
Sister Outrider offers a Black Radical Feminist perspective on feminism, gender, politics, popular culture, and media representation.