Being an Ally with Black Feminism

Recently, white feminists have targeted Michelle Obama as a "feminist cop out" or a "feminist nightmare." These critics champion a standard of feminism that is inherently based upon white experience.  In their view, the First Lady does not meet pass muster.  So not surprisingly, black feminists ripped into these criticisms.  Just look over here, and here, and here.  If you haven't read these critiques, you really should.  But how should white AND feminist allies respond?

I am a white male, but from a professional standpoint, I'm a historian first, and writer second.  This means, when the culture wars erupt, I look to history for understanding.  

Seriously people, *history is awesome.*

Anyhow, black women don't need a history book to tell them their lived experiences.  They have their own families and extended families as proof.  They can point to black feminists within their communities.  I suspect most women in the African American community have personal or family stories they could share.  Black feminists come from a position of understanding.  But for the outsiders looking in, we need a few eye-openers.  For me, that came from studying 20th-century history.  This post is intended to inform potential allies, rather than to lecture those who experience this daily.  

So, with the above disclaimer out of the way, onward to history...!

Second-wave (white) feminism is a recent affair.  In truth, modern black feminism predates it.  The fact that most people think of feminism as a single movement is evidence of the whitewashing of history.  Taking inspiration from the Black Power movement, white feminists formed independent radical organizations "dedicated to eliminating the sex-class system."  These radical white feminists championed a universal sisterhood that valorized feminine qualities, but considered issues of race "both obligatory and peripheral" (1).  Alienated by white feminist universalism, black feminism has continued along a separate path ever since.  

Let's start with an example from history: an incredible woman named Ella Baker.  During the civil rights movement, Baker became a strong community organizer and questioned the worship of charismatic leaders.  She advocated a radical vision of “individual politicization” at the local level.  According to historian Barbara Ransby, “Baker believed that all their lives poor black people had been spoon fed the notion that the key to their emancipation was something external to themselves” (2).  Her  politics emphasized personal connections over hierarchies.  This reflects the sexism she faced throughout her distinguished career.  She vehemently opposed the male-centric, celebrity-focused leadership model.  
Ella Baker's vision meant more than simple integration.  It meant extending civil rights to African Americans outside the re­spectable middle class, and also encouraging them to fight in the struggle.  She encouraged activists to “look first to the bottom of the class hierar­chy…for their inspiration, insights, and constituency” (3).  Baker fought for radical change without seeking the spotlight--to organize from below, not lead from above.

Does this sound familiar?

Similar to Michelle Obama, Baker demonstrated a strong commitment to local leadership.  She worked to empower regional partners, rather than a central administration.  Her uncom­promised faith in the individual extended to everyone, including the poor and illiterate, not just the respectable bourgeoisie.  This brand of feminism recognizes that discrimination against women could not be separated from discrimination against people of color.  Within the predominantly white feminist movement, things took a "personal turn" around 1971, and a white female counterculture arose based upon personal concerns, rather than seeking to eradicate structures of oppression (4).  This marked a further departure with the black feminist movement.

But what made black feminism different?  

Take, for example, the African American community's reaction to the 1965 Moynihan Report, "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action." Widely condemned as biased at best, racist at worst, the report roundly criticized the African American family and black manhood in particular.  Male African American leaders within the Civil Rights movement responded to the report by seeking to force women into more traditional gender roles.  This led to a rift within the movement.  Black feminists realized they stood at a crossroads of oppression.  This is the basis of the theory of intersectionality, which stresses race, gender, class, and (eventually) sexual orientation as factors of institutional oppression.  While white feminists only opposed a single form of patriarchy, black feminists targeted a more widespread vector of opposition.  consequently, they argued  the black feminism was the true "vanguard" of the second-wave feminist movement (5).

The Moynihan report perfectly encapsulates why African American women have to defend their families.  White patriarchal society denies the very integrity of the black family.  Policy-makers and public alike look at black families in a very stereotypical light, denying the parenting abilities of single mothers or the manhood of fathers.  When Michelle Obama stresses the important of family, and takes on the role of "Mom-in-Chief," she is not merely accepting a traditional gendered role.  She is proclaiming that black families are not socially deviant, that crime and pathology are not endemic to the African American community, and that feminism is not just about personal politics--it also starts with the family and community.

Take the example of the reproductive rights movement: for bourgeois white feminists, eugenics was not a historical issue.  According to historian Jennifer Nelson, women of color and poor women focused their activism on anti-sterilization issues and control of their reproductive rights, whereas predominately middleclass white feminists initially focused on abortion to the exclusion of other issues. The New York radical feminist group, the Redstockings, argued that women have the fundamental right to control individual pregnancies or even terminate a pregnancy regardless of consequences—a novel concept of abortion rights in the late 1960s.  But, black women and Latinas disapproved of white feminists’ singular focus on abortion, and their apparent blindness to issues of poverty or eugenics programs, including forced sterilization.  White feminists viewed voluntary sterilization as one more option in voluntary fertility control, rather than a potential abuse within the medical establishment.  Middle-class white feminist groups failed to represent the most universalist or inclusive agenda.  

Nelson emphasizes that "women of color were [essential] to the transformation of the abortion rights movement in the early 1970s into a more inclusive movement for reproductive freedom by the early 1980s" (6).  Initially, the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam rejected birth control measures, advocating increased births to populate their revolution.  Yet, Black female activists were the first to articulate an inclusive reproductive rights agenda that supported voluntary contraception or abortion--a platform adopted by the Black Panthers under Elaine Brown’s leadership from 1974-76.  Black feminists also favored public welfare support to prevent poverty from becoming a barrier to reproduction or the freedom to have as many children as one desired.  Following the lead of minority groups, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) coined the phrase “reproductive rights” to describe goals of a new reformed movement, national in scope and inclusive of both white and minority views.  CARASA’s eventual dissolution mirrors the break-up of other radical feminist organizations.  These were not internal divisions between educated middleclass white women.  Rather, interracial divisions led to the eventual decline of radical feminism.  Those divisions matter today.

So what can *allies* to black feminists do?  

  • First, learn about the historical divisions between white, Chicana, Puerto Rican, and black feminist movements (more to follow in my next post). The books below in my footnotes are a good place to start.  
  • Second, when you hear (white) feminist critiques in conversations around you, point out that the white feminist agenda does not serve the needs for all, and that any discussion of feminism should consider intersectionality.  And historical differences!
  • Third, consider your privilege.  As a white male, this at least should be obvious (to those inclined to listen).  But for white women who experience gendered oppression everyday, it's harder to see that women of color are doubly discriminated against.  
  • Last and most important, LISTEN.  A little research may inform, but it cannot make us appreciate or fully understand what it's like to be at the intersection of oppression.  As allies, it's our job to listen to women of color's lived experiences, rather than tell them out to act.

(1) Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis, 1989).

(2) Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 188.

(3) Ibid, 274.

(4) Evans, Sara. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (1979).  Evans's thesis was one of the most instrumental in shaping how we look at second-wave feminism today.  Unfortunately, it whitewashes the contributions of Black, Chicana, and Puerto Rican feminists, and their divergent struggles particular to their families and communities.

(5) Roth, Benita. Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

(6) Nelson, Jennifer. Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement (New York University Press, 2003).

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