The Top 5 Things Not to Say to a Black Feminist
“Uh oh, she quoted bell hooks. That’s how you know it’s serious,” said one of my guy friends while reading an article I’d written on Katy Perry’s cultural appropriation for the Ms. magazine blog.
He and another friend were impressed with my stance on appropriation’s way of reinforcing harmful stereotypes, but their response wasn’t the general response.
Of course, that wasn’t the only article I’ve written that’s gotten negative feedback, and I’m not the first writer to ever be told that my work is “a load of bs.” However, as I review the comments on my writing and on the writing of other black feminists on the web, I’ve noticed a pattern of backlash. The disapproving comments usually fall into 5 main responses. And since I’m sick of reading the same old comments on every black feminist/womanist blog or website, I think it’s time to address the backlash.
1. “You're being a separatist!”
Again and again, I’ve had to respond to this question: If feminism is about solidarity and equality for all people, why are you dividing us by criticizing other feminists?
I’m sorry (not sorry) your brand of feminism doesn’t always work for me.
When people don’t point out the divisions, we’re all stuck with a cheap, exclusionary feminism. So yes, I’m pointing out the problem areas in other feminist’s arguments. If we’re going to rid feminism of its former stench of exclusivity --you know, the feminism of the past that favored middle–class white women -- then we have to make it more inclusive. We’re going to have to highlight the exclusivity in people’s feminist politics, so we can amend it.
Therefore, I shouldn’t have to remind my boyfriend, other black men, and white feminists that I haven’t give up the battles for racial and gender equality by simply calling them all out on their privileged ways. Those battles shouldn’t require me to check my ethnicity or my gender at the door. I am black and a woman; both of those parts of my identity are important to me.
2. *Insert black pop star's name here* can't be a feminist! She’s too sexy.
I’m not here to reignite the debate on Beyoncé’s feminist credentials. On that discussion, some people label a pop star feminist based on their views of sexiness. They judge whether or not the artist is in control of her body, or is just another sexy prop for male pleasure. I have no bone to pick with those folks.
However, when people exclude Rihanna and Beyoncé from the feminist club for being sexy, but turn right around and declare Miley Cyrus queen of sex-positive feminism and hand Lily Allen the Innovative Feminist of the Year award, I hold my head.
When compiling our list of feminist pop stars, we need to consider how lacking in color those lists are. Many times, black artists are excluded because black bodies are viewed as hypersexual. Black pop stars are systematically pigeon-holed into being sex objects without consideration that they too are independently embracing their sexuality. I mean, honestly, how exactly does Miley claim her sexual agency any more than Rihanna does?
Also, need I resurrect the dozens of articles on Cyrus’s and Allen’s treatment of black female bodies as props? I’m hoping we’ve all read several of those by now.
3. This isn’t a race issue/ You’re being too sensitive
When someone who hasn’t been on the receiving end of racism say that something isn’t a race issue, I mentally pull out an imaginary theater and tell them to have all the seats.
If a person suggests that something is offensive to their culture, gender identity, or sexual orientation, we should give their opinions some attention, that is -- if we’re really supposed to be allies. Saying things like “You’re just being over sensitive,” silences conversations that require people to correct their mistakes.
Even if someone had the best intentions or didn’t mean to be offensive, the oppressive repercussions of their words and actions have more power than the intentions. Sometimes your good intentions just don’t matter. Lily Allen didn’t mean for her “Hard Out Here” video to be racist; however, we intersectional feminists sat with our mouths agape, watching a music video for what was supposed to be a feminist anthem.
4. “Why are ‘privileged’ people always a target?”
I’m sorry (once again, not sorry) that discussions about privilege make you uncomfortable.
When someone is in a position of privilege, they are in a position to exploit, ignore, or overlook the experiences and opinions of less-privileged groups. They are also in a position to be an ally -- however, being an ally means recognizing your privilege, stepping aside to let others speak for themselves, and actually listening to people from different walks of life.
No need to be offended when someone calls you on your privilege. We’re not damning you to hell or saying you’re a bad person -- we’re simply suggesting that you be cautious of how your privileged views may be excluding or belittling someone else’s experience.
5. “Go bitch about something more important.”
Who decides whose issues are important and whose aren’t? Are these the same people who decide who is a feminist and who isn’t? Is there a counsel that votes on which issues make it onto the feminist agenda?
If so, please point me in their direction so I can write a strongly worded letter on the need for feminism to intensely highlight the issues of women of color, as those issues are vital to our collective identities.
Feminism has been a means of self-discovery for me. Through feminism, I came to understand how certain stereotypes about black women informed my opinions about myself and my relationships with others. Reading black feminist texts freed me from internalized societal expectations for me to speak, act and look a certain way. Each article I publish on my blog or write for various publications comes from feminist research that led me to a new conclusion about my identity.
Saying that the issues I bring up (which usually involve race and gender in pop culture) are unimportant means denying the relevance of feminism to a young black woman’s everyday experiences. I think feminism works best when it involves deep reflection that allows us to view ourselves and others as full human beings -- not as stereotypes or outsiders -- but as people, entitled to the same amount of respect and equality.