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ibarw: Feminism and Womanism. 
10th-Aug-2007 11:09 am
I learned a new word recently: womanism. I'm aware it's an old and accepted term, but it's new to me, and my exposure to it has, basically been through links provided by bibliotech in her quick overview of womanism earlier this week. It can simply be described as 'black feminism', but that term is a little limiting, I think it's a little easier to understand as a movement that separates black women not just from white women, or just from black men, but both of them simultaneously. It works on the principle that a black woman is neither a woman who happens to be black, nor a black person who happens to be a woman, but someone whose experience is unique only to other black women, based on both of these parts of her simultaneously, who has to face racism and sexism, but also a form of discrimination that's a unique blend of both.

Just as a man can't fully understand what it is to be a woman, I can't fully understand what it is to be anything but white. But I can damn well read what I find that attempts to explain it, and I can listen to the voice of chromatic women and attempt to understand what they're saying. So this isn't so much a blog against racism, as it is IB's attempt to understand racism through blogging.

The term 'womanism' was popularised, if not directly coined, by Alice Walker in her book In Search of Our Mothers' Garden, and it's development as a movement has been tied to black nationalism and black theology. Though I imagine it's not as limited these days, it seems that at its conception, it was strongly linked to Christianity, and focused on African American women, as opposed to chromatic[1] women as a whole.

The problem found with feminism as a whole, is that as a movement founded to combat sexism and popularised by white middle class women, it ignores racism and classism. Because the suffragette movement, in which modern feminism found its roots, was about gaining the vote for women, not for other races (incidentally in both the UK and the USA, all non-white men had a legal vote before any white woman). And the proponents of any cause most likely to gain attention are not those who complain the loudest, but those who have the most powerful voice, and when the people in power are middle class white men, they're more likely to listen to middle class white women, not working class chromatic women. I lump classism and racism together in this discussion because in the time period I'm talking about, and today, more so in the USA than in the UK, class and race are intricately linked.

Even today feminism is seen as a white middle class movement. A movement of educated, advantaged women complaining loudly about issues (and non-issues) affecting educated, white middle class women. And whether of not the impression is accurate (and I hope its not), it's driving people who believe in equality, away from feminism. And this angers me. It angers me a lot when someone says "I believe in equality between the sexes, but I'm not a feminist", because somewhere along the line feminism acquired a negative association, and intelligent, concerned people of all racial and social backgrounds (and both genders) are enforcing that negative association by suggesting "feminist" is an undesirable label to apply to oneself. And from there, true anti-feminists feel justified in their sexism, because feminism is a bad thing. And there's no alternative equivalent movement.

The womanist movement is one of the symptoms of this splintering of feminism, and not a problem in and of itself: as I understand it, chromatic women are feeling that feminism just isn't satisfying their needs or addressing their concerns, and those that do, call themselves womanists because feminism just isn't doing it for them. But then womanism has a much narrower accepted definition than feminism. Here's a definition as provided by Alice Walker herself:
feminist of color... Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women's culture, women's emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women's strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or non-sexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist... Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
 - Alice Walker

It's clearly a definition designed to appeal to a wide audience, but it's still narrower than someone who objects to sexual inequality, which is feminism, at its heart. I would argue that you can't be a womanist without being a feminist, and yet the feminist movement is currently failing chromatic women to the point at which they feel uncatered for.

The problem is, that feminism as a whole seems to be failing to recognise that racism and sexism are inexorably linked, especially to those who suffer it. A racist and sexist white man who looks at a black woman does not see a black person, and he doesn't see a woman, he sees a black woman. A racist and sexist black man who looks at me doesn't sees a white woman. Or if you prefer, a homophobic and sexist man who sees me and Bing holding hands or kissing doesn't see gays, and doesn't see women, he sees lesbians. If you're a person (and most people are) who builds up an identity around what privilege you lack, then you may consider yourself 'black woman', 'lesbian', 'gay jew' or any compounding of your various minority status.

rushin_doll provides an excellent explanation of what privilege is, which contains a table comparing the job opportunities for people of various privileges:
Now, let's imagine that, for whatever reason, one job is non-discriminatory, one is racist (preferring not to hire blacks if there are other options), one is sexist (preferring not to hire women if there are other options), and one is both racist and sexist. What happens? I, as a white male, get to knock off a bunch of the competition right off the bat. Let's make a table!

Open job Yes Yes Yes Yes
Racist job Yes No Yes No
Sexist job Yes Yes No No
Racist+Sexist job Yes No No No
The black woman is half as likely as the white woman or the black man to be hired, and four times less likely than the white male. The discrimination she faces aren't cumulative, they're compound. And feminism so far has ignored that. The apparent overwhelming opinion is 'sexism is bad, and racism and classism is too, but we'll deal with sexism.' It's not enough, we're driving people away.

I can't decide whether it's refreshing or a symptom of an underlying problem that gay rights movements aren't separate from feminism. I'll assume it's because most people don't bother separating sex from gender (I do, for the most part, with regards to my own identity), and at their heart a lot of the homophobic laws are essentially sexist laws (only men can marry women. Only men can take paternal leave. Only men can claim next-of-kin status to a women, and vice versa all the way).

But we need as a whole to recognise that all equality issues affect us. That women can't be equal to men until all women are equal to all men. That the bigotry a chromatic woman faces can't be divided cleanly into racism and sexism, and shouldn't be dismissed as racism by someone concerned with feminism.

It's time the feminist movement started catering to the rights of all women. And its time people who want equal rights for all women started calling themselves feminists.

[1]I saw this term being used by yhlee in her own post for BAR week: Virtual integration; race and TV. It's free of negative connotations, non-clunky, all inclusive and manages not to be insulting to the people it includes and excludes. And I like it.

What is womanism and why can't you just be feminists?
Wikipedia article on womanism
Alice Walker's biography
What's in a name? Womanism, black feminism, and beyond
Alice Walker: In Search of Our Mothers' Garden
Alice Walker: In Search of Our Mother's Garden
Linda Thomas: Womanist Theology, Epistemology and a New Anthropological Paradigm
10th-Aug-2007 12:04 pm (UTC)
I hadn't come across the term 'Womanism', that's an interesting one. In a way I agree that others face a different situation to rich white girls, but part of me just doesn't get racism OR sexism and I know I'm blind to how prevalent it is in the real world.

It's not enough, we're driving people away
How? Why? Are you saying that the typical feminist solutions don't help black women or lesbians? Does the feminist movement not "cater to the rights of all women"? Most of the solutions I can think of enforce equality, and if bias comes in as a result of race or sexuality it's combatted by the measures anyway. Will have to read those links.

And its time people who want equal rights for all women started calling themselves feminists.
I'm interested as to why. I know it's a different issue, but:

I'm strongly in favour of equality (mainly because I'm lucky enough to be white, male and middle-class with a liberal upbringing, and I just don't understand people who DON'T want to treat others equally.) But I'm often opposed to people who call themselves feminists, because the ones I meet consistently don't want equality.

"Taditionally Universalist... Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit."
Now okay, I'm in a strongly female-led religion that celebrates men, women, and their differences. I'm used to having to deal with ignorant bigots who think they know something about you from labels. I'm pretty sensitive about discrimination on sexist, racist, or religious grounds... but the worst people I've ever met for "giving feminism a bad name" have been those who proudly call themselves feminists as an equivalent to chauvanists. The crowd in my religion fit Alice Walker's paragraph above completely, and often find little in common with louder feminists.

I've got a lot of time for Alice Walker, will read up on those later.
10th-Aug-2007 12:56 pm (UTC)
part of me just doesn't get racism OR sexism and I know I'm blind to how prevalent it is in the real world.
It's something I'm learning, right now, gradually. I used to say 'racism isn't a problem in my area' which many people would say would be abusing privilege and benefitting from Racism (go check rushin_doll's post linked above)

How? Why?
Because women - lots of women - feel that feminism doesn't cater for them or gives a false representation. This is why we have women who detest sexism, want equal rights, and yet refuse to call themselves feminist. In a lot of cases, I don't understand except to assume it's to distance themselves from the bat shit crazies, the ones who want 'special rights'.
In the case of chromatic women, I think it's because the more obvious feminists are white women talking about white women's issues and not addressing racism at all.

Does the feminist movement not "cater to the rights of all women"?
It doesn't appear to - by which I mean many feminists do, but the impression is still being given that it's a white middle class movement. Or that it's a strictly lesbian movement (some women I know have said 'I can't be a feminist, I like men!') It looks insular and people are reluctant to claim alegiance to it. This is a problem.

But I'm often opposed to people who call themselves feminists, because the ones I meet consistently don't want equality.
Which drives me mad. It really does. That the 'special rights' crew should be the public face of feminism and everyone is driven away from it. To me, it's like saying "well, I'm attracted to people of my own gender, but I'm not gay". And when reasonable say 'I'm not one of them', the movement is further marginalised.

What I'd rather see is people saying "I'm a feminist, but I want equal rights, not special rights. We're not all batshit crazies."
10th-Aug-2007 12:57 pm (UTC)
Actually, now I think about it, when I’m being “feminist” it’s because I’m addressing an inequality – and that kicks in when I see bias from race or sexuality too. They’re not different issues in my mind, my motivation in all of them is the same. “Universalist” is a very good term.

I’m probably being too hard on those who call themselves feminists. I think too much of my exposure has come through the religion side, and that has been from wildly unbalanced spiritualities.

Mine focuses hard on male/female: the ceremonies are led by a woman AND a man (in that order) and feature a Goddess and God. Despite this, plenty of people in it are gay. So there’s this big liberal, anti-patriarchal ethic, and an emphasis on balance, but personal freedoms are paramount.

Enter the women-only version, full of wombyn and herstory. Dianics, Reclaiming (as in Starhawk, Z Budapest), whatever. Many of these groups (NOT all, but many in my experience) are rabidly anti-men. Some won’t allow the women’s male toddlers in circle. They don’t focus on both sexes, only women, and only have a Goddess with no God.

Now that’s still a valid spirituality and there’s plenty of need for it in today’s world (let alone the 70’s when it first got big). I’m just thinking that it’s not the best representative sample for me to go to for “feminists”. So – sorry if I seemed a bit “anti” the term :)

All that aside, I think most of my friends would like and prefer “Universalist”.
10th-Aug-2007 01:09 pm (UTC)
I'm a fan of "Universalist". I just don't want to lose the word "feminism" to the batshit crazies. I'd rather just see feminism expand to become merely a section within univeralism.

And you've got a viewpoint I can't share there: the thing about moving in academic circles is a lot of my acquaintances are strict materialists and so I don't get much exposure to the people who call themselves wombyn, except for mocking those who sleep in tents made out of canvas painted with their own period blood.
10th-Aug-2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
It’s not that my crowd seems particularly aware of it – instead of aiming to be feminist or against homophobia or racism, I just use “Not being an asshole”.
10th-Aug-2007 12:42 pm (UTC)
Womanism sounds rather daft as a word, but I can know how important it is to have a term to decribe your situation and your outlook on this even if it does sound daft. e.g. when I found out about the term Poly everything else seemed to fit into place and made me feel less alone.

Whilst I have not read a great deal of feminist literature my personal understanding of this is that we should be working towards bettering the lives of everyone, whichever class or race. However I can see where it does fail in those respects, certainly with race. Though not every POC has the same experience, they will often suffer from racism and sexism, and TBH they are going to know best about where this comes from and what effect it has. I've never experienced racism so I really wouldn't know what it would feel like.

My problem comes when someone stands up and says "I speak for all POC/all women/all black people." Firstly not all 'Black people' come from the same cultral background/country, and racism shows itself in different ways in different countries. As as far as I can tell 'Womanism' started within the African-American culture and whilst it did not actively exclude other people of colour, (just like feminism does not actively exclude POC) it could be argued that, that was also projected as a "black thing". I imagine the experence of being a latino or asian person in america is very different to being a african american person.

I think people are always going to feel left out and like their voice is not being heard whilst people forget about them. What I'd love to see is less division and more working together, not oh look at those white women they were only interested in making their own lives better (which TBH I don't think was entirely true, but could certainly have given off an exclusivity air) but you MUST listen to every person that feminism affects and look at ways of producing equality for everyone not just within your own community/class/race.
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10th-Aug-2007 01:47 pm (UTC)
Do most people really do this? It almost sounds like you don't think that people can overcome being without something (in this case, masculinity and white skin)
People do seem to do this, but I don't think they have to - I don't think of myself as a lesbian except when I'm reminded that I'm a woman and I like girls. Most of my life I'm fine without identifying that way. But then sometimes it does come up. I know people who don't, but it seems most people do construct their identity around what makes them 'special', which minority status does by definition.

As for being put off by the batshit crazies, it saddens me, and I desperately want this not to be the case, so I stand up and say "yes, I'm a feminist. I'm also not batshit crazy, look at me" and hope people get the hint.
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11th-Aug-2007 11:51 am (UTC)
yes, I'm a feminist. I'm also not batshit crazy, look at me

You're not? Could've fooled me...

(sorry, couldn't resist, reading, need to turn brain back on properly, but is a very interesting post even if I'm not taking it in properly)
10th-Aug-2007 02:33 pm (UTC)
I think feminism has become a "dirty word" for many people simply because of the extreme groups who think doing away with men is going to solve all their problems. (No it won't you'll just start oppressing each other.)

The issues that POC face are going to be different to those that white people face, add gender, and sexuality into the mix and you'll compound the problems people face. So I think the term Womanism is good in that it points out that while feminism shares many of the same goals, there are additional challenges that these women face that feminism isn't either willing or able to address.

As for why feminism doesn't appear to address this- Maybe its becasue it doesn't view these issues as within its remit? After all many of the problems faced by black women apply equally to black men. Alternatively perhaps feminism is ignoring race and class because it tries to speak for all women, and glosses over the fact that "women" is not (and never was) a homogenous group.
10th-Aug-2007 02:47 pm (UTC)
Intro to feminist theory, we talked a lot about this sort of thing.

Of course, it was a philosophy class, so we didn't come up with a lot of solutions aside from "be aware that this sort of problem exists and help make others aware of it", but that's at least a starting point, considering that it took 'til college for me to be particularly aware of it or for anyone to teach me anything about it.
10th-Aug-2007 02:49 pm (UTC)
Also! Can I quote/link back to this in my own post about it, should I make one?
10th-Aug-2007 02:54 pm (UTC)
Of course you may!
10th-Aug-2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
It angers me a lot when someone says "I believe in equality between the sexes, but I'm not a feminist", because somewhere along the line feminism acquired a negative association, and intelligent, concerned people of all racial and social backgrounds (and both genders) are enforcing that negative association by suggesting "feminist" is an undesirable label to apply to oneself. And from there, true anti-feminists feel justified in their sexism, because feminism is a bad thing. And there's no alternative equivalent movement.

Word. Very much word. I've been trying to say why I call myself a feminist, and why I feel a little bit betrayed when people tell me it's a term they don't want applied to them when I know they feel the same way about gender issues that I do. And you did it a lot better than I could.
10th-Aug-2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
Before I go back to reading this post, I want to thank you for exposing me to the term "chromatic." It is awesome and I vow to make it a part of my vocabulary now.
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