An Open Letter to Black Women Who Don’t Think Feminism Is For Them

Black women can’t stand white women. That’s really the crux of the matter and that is the primary reason why more black women don’t call themselves feminists—because black women and white women have an extremely difficult time working with each other. Anything that has even a whiff of white women on it will receive an almost visceral rejection by black women, because black women feel that if white women are involved, then it—whatever “it” happens to be—must surely be hostile to black women.

And, let’s be honest: Historically, white feminist women are returning the favor. White feminists have not been anywhere near as inclusive towards black women, or as understanding of the viewpoints of black women, as they could have been.

This state of affairs didn’t just commence yesterday. Black women and white women have a long history of viewing each other with hostility.

When black women were slaves, the white women of the house would mistreat the black women because the white women were upset that their husbands, sons, and fathers couldn’t seem to stop slipping out of the house in the dead of the night—and in the bright light of day—to have sex with slaves. Black women who were slaves resented white women because of the white mistresses’ privileged position as a white women—a privilege not afforded to black women, despite their womanhood.

When white feminists wanted access to the voting booth, those same white women showed that their feminism didn’t stop them from being racists—one prominent white feminist openly wrote about how she loathed the very idea that dark-skinned, uneducated men could get the vote before white women.

When affirmative action programs were created, white women allowed themselves to be categorized as a “minority” just the same as all non-white minorities; black women then had to watch as most of the plum AA positions went to white women, and poor men of color ended up being even further marginalized in the work force.

Even today, it is not at all uncommon for black women–feminists or not–to feel as if their concerns are not taken seriously or, at the very least, are being misunderstood by white feminists.

In 1979 Black feminist (and lesbian, and mother, and at the time the letter was written, partner to white woman) Audre Lorde wrote a personal letter to white feminist Mary Daly after reading Daly’s latest book, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. When Lorde did not receive a prompt reply, she published the letter as an open letter to the entire feminist community. Lorde wrote:

“The history of white women who are unable to hear black women’s words, or to maintain dialogue with us, is long and discouraging. But for me to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but an old pattern of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional , which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.”

Considering the sordid history of black women/white women relations and the differing goals of black and white women, it is easy to understand why black women reject feminism—because the movement has been associated with white women and their issues, and because white women have often made it seem as if the feminist movement was “their” movement.

White women got Ms Magazine, Black Women got ESSENCE

But black women reject feminism to their own detriment. In fact, black women probably have far more to gain from feminism than even white women, since black women often bear the brunt of misogyny not only on account of their femaleness, but on account of their blackness, which compounds the negative reception that black women all too often receive.

Writing in her book Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, black feminist Patricia Hill Collins said:

“The growth of prison culture in the 1980’s greatly influenced African American social organization, especially for young African American men. In particular, the arrest and imprisonment of Black street gangs in the 1970’s and 1980’s fostered more pronounced and organized gang structures within prisons that became conduits for hierarchies of masculinity. Prison gangs inevitably became connected to their street gang counterparts (in fact, many join gangs while in prison, primarily for protection.)…this growing interconnectedness of prison, street, and youth culture, with the importance given to hierarchies of masculinity, affects African American neighborhoods and families.”

The same passage continues to note that the growing misogyny within heterosexual love relationships is also a direct result of the growing incarceration of African American men and the “ceaseless need to prove one’s manhood.” This growing misogyny is mainly being directed at black women.

Marrying a non-black man doesn’t do anything to reduce the amount of violence suffered by black women. Yeah, it might improve the life of the individual woman that marries out, but it does nothing to destroy the infrastructure—of thought, word, and deed—that supports and approves of the racist, gendered violence that gets directed at black women all over the world every day.

“The valorization of strength coupled with the economic exploitation of Black women’s paid labor and unpaid labor for their families sets up a curious set of relationships. Black men may desire those black women who make them feel more “manly,” that is, whose appearance and demeanor more closely approximate that of pretty white women. Yet these same men were often raised by strong black mothers and also may depend on their girlfriends and mothers of their children for financial support. They need [emphasis in original] these strong black women to ensure their physical survival, yet neither value them nor see them as feminine. This establishes a dangerous situation that encourages Black men to become abusive toward the women who many see as controlling their lives. As hustlers who live off women’s money, these irresponsible boys develop hyper-masculine identities and use a Black male promiscuity to economically exploit Black and White women.”

For a perfect example of this hyper-masculinity in action, recall the recent tragedy of black football payer Jovan Belcher shooting the mother of his child, Kasanda Perkins, before eventually turning the gun on himself. Jovan Belcher had a history of violence—he punched through a pane of glass, almost severing his thumb, when he was angry with a former girlfriend. Belcher was a heavy drinker who kept numerous weapons in his home. The night before Belcher killed Kasandra he had been out with a “female friend” and had fallen asleep at the wheel of his vehicle with the car running on a public street. When police roused him from his slumber, he told one of the officers that he needed to get home to “deal with his other girl”. That other girl was Kasandra Perkins, whom he eventually went home to shoot nine times during an argument in which he was heard yelling at her “you can’t talk to me like that.”