I remember sitting across from my college advisor, eager to tell him the new major I’d chosen to specialize in. “Women’s studies,” I said with the enthusiasm of a child in a toy store. I was so excited to finally learn about my womanly identity after being a Criminal Justice major, bored with the overly violent, white-washed misogyny of the prison industrial complex and western terrorism painted as civil rights activism. I imagined conversations about the hyper-sexualization of the black body and discussions on bell hooks and Angela Davis essays. I dreamt about sitting in the front of all my classes and actually doing the work required because it was about ME, for once. In retrospect, it’s clear that I idealized what my gender studies experience would be like partly out of naivety but mostly because I was tired of not being able to relate to scholastic rhetoric, I couldn’t stand to read anymore perspectives from the white man’s gaze. Enough was enough! However, looking back, I ended up learning a lot about feminism and women’s empowerment from the white woman’s gaze instead, which was easier to relate to but still not my own, still in no way inclusive enough.
Despite the seemingly progressive nature of feminist studies, aimed at representing the experiences of all women, it is often centered on white women’s lives, ostracizing women of color in the process. In the same respect even cultural studies aimed at voicing the experiences of all people of color, is typically centered on a masculinized perspective, mainly detailing the narratives and recollections of men of color. Somewhere between cultural studies and women’s studies, the voices of black women have been deeply silenced. It seems as though the only way to hear the black woman’s narrative is to take a course specifically on the topic, when both gender studies and cultural studies should encompass all perspectives equally. Or so I thought because college got me all the way fucked up! And while I appreciated everything I learned in my women’s, gender and sexuality studies program, it taught me how much feminism and feminist studies lacks diversity. It taught me how much of black women’s stories within feminist discourse was based on the white woman’s perspective, completely nullifying the credibility of the discipline. I was awakened by the sheer inaccuracy of the gentrified tales of the oppressed told by the oppressor. I was fed the fuck up.
According to dictionary.com, feminism is defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” It would then be logical that if feminism truly aims to advocate for women’s equality, it would be a movement grounded on equality, but this is false. Most, if not all, early feminist civil action during the first wave of feminism was based upon and geared towards the values, morals and struggles of white, middle class women in the Western world. Even after the next two waves of feminism, which were supposed to cater to the concerns of “othered” women, most popularized feminist rhetoric is written BY white women FOR white women. The representative disparity alone is indicative of a greater problem within the movement which prides itself on being a voice for all women when historically it hasn’t been, and that is why feminism has failed me. In modern day feminist education, there’s constant debacle on whether or not forming a universal feminist identity will alleviate the racial, cultural, economic, and social tensions amongst women from varying groups, but this is sure to fail. The goal to work within a flawed system to derail a flawed system has been proven to be a useless tactic, as Audre Lorde would put it “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” If white feminism is the master’s house, why would using the master’s tools (white feminist rhetoric and advocacy tactics) work to dismantle and recreate a unilateral feminist identity? It wouldn’t. It’s a waste of time. What can and has worked, though? Womanism.
Many black scholars, activists, writers, teachers and women in general have chosen to identify as womanists, defined by Alice Walker as a black feminist or feminist of color. I, too, feel more comfortable calling myself a womanist because the term itself gives rise to questioning the need for division, which is important to recognize. See, it’s nice and sweet to think that white women and women of color can unionize to fight for our rights in community, but the fact remains that our plight as black women is in no way comparable to that of white women’s. We need more womanist dialogue and education because we need to learn to address our racial and ethnic-specific concerns in spaces that were created FOR US, BY US. I’m not saying white women can’t be allies, I’m simply saying that we need to stop expecting their movement to represent our voices because it never had and never will. Their sympathy isn’t as useful as our self-advocacy. To expect white feminists to ever understand the concerns of black women is unrealistic and its been made clear by how our schools teach women’s studies from a weak, one-sided viewpoint. There aren’t enough genuine accounts of black and brown women’s lives globally published within academia (unless, of course, they’ve been written by white women). That same marginalization has invariably led to further oppression, exploitation, cultural imperialism and violence, realities that have been reinforced by most cultural and societal institutions, including our universities and colleges.
I’ve realized that even when we do talk about women of color, all we hear is of their disenfranchisement. Less is known of the black woman’s resilience, strength, power, and courage. And while it’s important to acknowledge our struggle, if that is all history tells of us, it delegitimizes our many historical efforts at fighting for equity. The black woman’s story is important to tell because it is a pivotal part of our collective identity. We need to transform the single story being told about black women and it starts with having the courage to critically analyze the storytellers who’ve written these frail accounts of us. It also starts with telling your own story as a black woman. Wether you start a blog (like me), write poetry, paint/draw, sing, dance, submit your work to be published, create music or speak against misinformation in academic settings, LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD SIS.
Remember that everyday is a chance to re-write herstory.