Black women have been at the forefront of advocating for progressive platforms this election season. Let’s honor their work and commitment to equality by becoming aware of the racism that exists in feminist spaces
I had the fortune to attend the March for Black Women on September 29th. I went with a crowd of Black women, men, and allies from my college campus, holding up cheeky handmade signs and trying desperately not to get lost. This journey was a few miles walking and being greeted by a small sea of Black women felt refreshing as if we stumbled upon a long-awaited oasis. We seamlessly joined the crowd with smiles, feeling reinvigorated and ready to march. The gathering was microscopic compared to the Women’s March of 2017 but there was a shared energy that buzzed between us. The raw emotion in hearing Black women reveal their most painful stories to a crowd of strangers turned sisters-in-arms was palpable. Their voices offered solace for the burdens my classmates and I carry as Black women in this country. It was beautiful despite running on CP time.
In my group of fellow student activists, there was a noticeable shift in mood as Eleanor Smeal, a representative from the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), came on stage. There were looks of confusion then immediate disinterest as this white woman took the microphone. Who was this woman? Why should we care about what she has to say? I was the only one familiar with the name as I went to an FMF conference a few years ago. It was unsurprising to see FMF, a feminist organization supposedly at the forefront of women’s issues, be met with such apathy from a group of Black feminists. This disconnection between Black women and predominantly white feminist organizations(PWFO) is not just present in my classmates but something that is seen across the country.
A few days prior to the march I was selected to speak on a panel with other Black women engaged in community service and social justice. We all complained about White feminism and its inability to consider women like us. White feminism does not mean any and all white women engaging in feminism but rather refers to a prevailing understanding of feminism that centers whiteness and works to reinforce racial hierarchies. White feminism is an offshoot of white supremacy that needs to be challenged and dismantled if we want to achieve women’s liberation for all instead of for some.
Black women face similar issues in Black liberation circles as Black men look to reinforce patriarchal structures that would continue to oppress Black women. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw’s framework of intersectionality gives voice to this issue: Black women cannot separate their womanhood from their Blackness or vice versa. Because of this, they face a doubled oppression that is created at the nexus of these identities. Black feminists from Alice Walker to Sojourner Truth have been acutely aware of these issues that have persisted for centuries. The March for Black women is important to me because each year I am reminded, very starkly, how Black women are excluded from movements, whether the feminist movement or anti-racist struggles. Our seat at the table is precarious, marginalized, and conditional.
As a proud NOW intern, I walk a line between PWFOs and Black women’s justice organizing. As I move through predominately white spaces on campus, in feminist organizing, and in social justice in general, I am confronted with a reality that looks different from some of my white friends and colleagues. As white feminists paint the old white men in Congress as their biggest enemy, my own experiences interacting with liberal white women have proven to the contrary. It was the white feminists who called me aggressive, rude, and ignorant. It was the white feminists who donned blackface masks at J20 to protest Trump with racist mammy figures. It was the progressive white women who constantly demanded I choose between my race and my gender, demanded a silent obedient ally to their agenda. The old white man in Congress works hard to silence me politically, the faux-ally white feminist works harder to silence me socially.
I was also told I bring up race too frequently or spoke up against their ignorance too often. These experiences of disrespect are mirrored in my classmates who are also familiar with racism from women who call themselves allies. Their instant distrust of the Smeal and of PWFO has nothing to do with Smeal personally or specifically the FMF, but rather their experiences of being sidelined within feminism movements. Smeal speaking at the March wasn’t the issue, FMF participating in the march isn’t a problem. The issue was that even in spaces for us, white women have a voice.
Black women are perfectly comfortable creating spaces that are for, about, and center us, but suffer from a lack of resources and funding. Despite these challenges organizations like the National Council of Negro Women founded by suffragist Mary Mcleod Bethune have been supporting Black communities for decades. I believe that if PWFOs want to engage girls like my classmates, who have a clear passion for feminism and equal rights, they need to reckon with their personal role in painful histories and the real, active racism within this country and in their organizations today. Reconciling and facing these truths is the first step to building better bridges that engage Black women.
Rebecca A. is a Government Relations Intern at the National Organization for Women (NOW) Action Center in Washington, DC. She is a student at the George Washington University.