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
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!
|W/M ||B/M ||W/F ||B/F |
|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.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.Links:What is womanism and why can't you just be feminists?Wikipedia article on womanismAlice Walker's biographyWhat's in a name? Womanism, black feminism, and beyondAlice Walker: In Search of Our Mothers' GardenAlice Walker: In Search of Our Mother's GardenLinda Thomas: Womanist Theology, Epistemology and a New Anthropological Paradigm