I came across a piece in The Voice Online entitled, Why Black men should become feminists. It began with story of Benjamin Zephaniah, who went from tying to defend his mother from his violent father, to perpetrating violence against women himself. When he realized that he was mimicking his father, he changed his behaviour and went on to say,”No nation is free of chauvinistic, violent men, and no one should need to run from them. The ‘system’ should deal with them, and if the system can’t, change it.” I found this to be a powerful statement, but when the author went on to suggest that Black men become feminists I had to pause.
The F-word is a scary one to many black men and some black women too. Feminism, fairly or unfairly, is seen as white, middle-class and a set of beliefs that pits men and women against each other. However, feminism is a broad church of ideologies and views.But the basis of both radical and moderate views is a recognition that relationships between men and women need to change. Relationships between today’s young men and young women certainly need to.
There are certainly many Black female feminists who are actively advocating feminism, in an effort to achieve gender parity between men and women. This is absolutely their choice; however, I think it is ridiculous to suggest for even a moment that those who see feminism as White and middle-class are being unfair. From the very beginning of women’s activism, White women have made it clear that race is only an issue when it can be used to oppress POC. WOC are expected to advocate at the demands of White women, under the guise that we are all women, without any acknowledgement that our experience of womanhood is greatly impacted by race.
When Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique, to discuss the problem which has no name, she certainly did not have WOC in mind, and yet this woman went on to be the first president of The National Organization of Women. While White women were attending conferences, and having their consciousness raised, WOC were at home raising their babies — just as we have done for centuries.
While White women were busy celebrating Gyn/Ecology, it was left to Audre Lorde to point out racial issues present in the text. In Sister Outsider (pg 67 – 68) she wrote:
Then I came to the first three chapters of your Second Passage, and it was obvious that you were dealing with noneuropean women, but only as victims and preyers-upon each other. I began to feel my history and my mythic background distorted in the absence of any images of my foremothers in power. Your inclusion of African genital mutilation was an important and necessary piece in any consideration of female ecology, and too little has been written about it. To imply, however, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used against women without awareness against each other.
To dismiss our Black foremothers may well be to dismiss where european women learned to love. An an African-american woman in white patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized, but it is terribly painful to feel it being done by a woman whose knowledge so much touches my own.
Third wave feminism was supposed to finally address all of the previous failings that have manifested in feminism, and instead we have gotten more of the same. Blogging moved feminism from an academic pursuit, into a much more public sphere, where self identified feminists could advocate feminism openly and exchange ideas with other women. There has been a persistent absence of conversations around race, unless they are initiated by WOC, and this is further compounded by the fact that these conversations often end in privilege denial, and White women’s tears. Unlike White feminists bloggers, WOC have had a very difficult time getting their work published or even recognized as legitimate discourse, and yet we have supposedly reached a stage where intersectionality is the goal of all. What I have seen is denial and outright erasure in many mainstream feminist sites, thus making them hostile spaces for WOC to engage.
Even the question of whether or not Black men advocate feminism, is in and of itself fraught with erasure. It presumes that to identify as a feminist, is the only way to fight for gender equality, and completely ignores that womanism, which is practiced by WOC, might be a better fit, because they would be able to see the experience of their mothers more easily represented. Womanism provides a space to openly discuss race in a way that feminism does not, and ignoring this, is yet another example of racial privilege.
This approach also fails to take into account the ongoing tension between Black men and White feminists. It all began when Black men were given the right to vote in name only before White women, and it has not gotten any better. Who could forget the White woman ranting during the election, calling then Senator Obama, “an inadequate Black male”. If only it were limited to women without national star power. Geraldine Ferraro famously said during the election, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
Just as Black men have used sexism to attack and oppress White women, White women have used racism to attack and oppress Black men. How many Black men have rotted in prisons or swung from ropes behind the false claims of rape, or inappropriate commentary or glances by White women? To this day the Black community is still haunted by the murder of Emmett Till. There is a distinct lack of trust between the two parties, despite the rise in interracial relationships. To ignore this history, is to once again privilege gender over race, thus alienating men of colour.
It is not White women who had to cut down their sons who had been lynched and White women are certainly not up late at night worrying that simply being pulled over by a cop could lead to death. This is something that Black mothers, or even more specifically, Black women have worried about, and organized around. When I attempted to talk about why the murder of Sean Bell by the police was an issue that women should rally around, I was soundly rejected by White women who could not make the connection regarding racial violence against men and how it impacts the women that love them.
I agree that it would be great to see more Black men openly advocating for gender equality, than making snide remarks about women needing to use baby wipes, but I certainly do not see feminism as the appropriate vehicle to reach out to them. What should matter, is that they advocate equality, and not what label they choose to identify as.