When I was in college, a friend and myself were educators of relationship and sexual violence prevention (RSVP) for our university. As you can imagine, a group of educators for RSVP issues are full of activist and young people motivated by what I call ist-isms (think all things political and justice related). My friend and I often discussed feminism and what it meant to be a feminist. While we were both women of color, my friend identified as a feminist and was motivated mostly by women’s issues and rights. On the other hand, I had always identified more with being black than I did with being female. At the time I was heavily involved in activism for black civil rights and equality. I never felt that my gender held me back significantly or that I was being stereotyped or mistreated because of it. I have, however, felt the differences in how people treat me and others based on their skin color.
Our differences in what we identified with more always stimulated great conversations on feminism and its history and relevancy to the black woman. In some ways, it felt like the issues plaguing race trumped the issues plaguing gender.
Black women are in a unique category of oppression. (Get a brief explanation on intersectionality here –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality). Our gender has been and can be used in a manner to oppress us and hold biases towards us. Our blackness does the same. It may just be me but when fighting for justice and equality, it sometimes felt like I had to pick one. Historically, feminism was about the liberation of white middle class women. Feminism was about giving them choices and options about how they lived their lives, the type of education they had and the decisions being made in the home. Feminism in its early stages left out women of color and women in poverty. Traditionally, women of color and women in lower economic classes never had the choice to stay home. Black women have always had to play multiple roles; provider and nurturer. The differences in lifestyle often led to and still does lead to a disconnect.
White women will never completely be able to understand the additional plights women of color have. They will never get the stereotype of being an angry black woman. They don’t have to deal with the media stereotyping and advertising products to single mothers. They have not had centuries of being hypersexualized. They won’t know the stress and fear that black mothers have had since the beginning of America’s history regarding the safety of their children.
Black women deal with a lot. We are one of the most degraded and disrespected groups. We are often overly sexualized by the media while simultaneously considered the most unattractive group by some mainstream media groups. Black women are more likely to become single parents and to never be married. Many of the stereotypes that we deal with are so deeply engrained in society that even we, ourselves, sometimes carry it with us. We can at times view other black women as unapproachable, angry, or bitter. For many of us, our idols growing up looked nothing like us. We have become a bit of a media joke with all the reality shows centered around ridiculous and immature black women. In today’s trash television mecca, black women are portrayed as unable to evolve into “civil” behavior. When these images show successful business women and decorated musicians getting into all out brawls, what is the message they expect the world to take? Black women not only have to prove to outsiders that this is not an accurate portrayal of us, but we have to prove to ourselves too.
While there are things white women will never have to worry about, we do share commonalities. Women across the board are subject to lower pay wages than their male counterparts. Women have a higher risk of being sexually assaulted in their lifetime than men. Women also have a higher chance of being blamed for being attacked. In other countries, women’s education, safety and development are blatantly ignored and in some cases purposely derailed. As women, we have many bumps in the road. The older I get, the less I see the struggles as different entities and the more I realize the importance of changing them all. As an adult, I definitely see the areas traditional feminism misses but I also recognize the importance it has played in the lives of women everywhere.
What it means to be a black woman changes from woman to woman. We all identify differently and we all will represent ourselves in the way that makes us feel most comfortable.