I wasn’t always a feminist, let alone one with intersectional awareness and a politicised pride in my Blackness. When I first dove hungrily into feminism, starved as I was of any meaningful understanding of my life, it was the work of radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer that I devoured. I feasted on their anger for it spoke to me deeply but their messages didn’t nourish me. I choked on the poison of their narrow reflections. Where was the representation of my life as a Black, mixed-race lesbian? Where was I to find solace and solidarity and an understanding of my existence and the oppressions unique to my position at the intersection of woman, lesbian and Black?
The feminist community at large currently has a basic understanding of what intersectionality means, in no small part due to the internet and the rise of online feminist activism. However, only those of us who have known the fear of slipping through the cracks can properly articulate the relief that this theory holds. When I was younger and coming to terms with my sexuality I was convinced that I couldn’t be gay. I thought that lesbianism was a white woman’s game. I didn’t know of any Black lesbians; Audre had not yet become my Lorde. Intersectionality gives us the framework to understand the multiplicity of lived experience. It gave me insight into why my womanhood felt so different from that of my white friends and allowed me to understand the implications of being the Other on a structural level. I was able to understand that maybe some of my experiences hadn’t been shaped wholly by my actions but by forces of hierarchy way outside of my control.
What does it mean to me, a permanently angry brown dyke, when mainstream feminism fights for the right to be ‘sexy’ and unthreatening to men and urges us to quell our fury? It persuades us to be passive, pale dolls and to dress our struggle for liberation in quiet positivity, suspenders and sex tips. Black women, such as myself, don’t have the luxury of the pacifism and politeness found in today’s white feminism. We must use violence, both physically and in the vehemence of our words, because we are more desperate.
This study, referenced in a previous Autostraddle article about compulsory heterosexuality and street harassment, shows that people of colour are over 10% more likely to face physical harassment in public than white citizens. This is true of my experiences. As I waited in line at a shop the other day, the man in front of me turned around and started talking to me. When I didn’t respond in a suitably enthusiastic manner, he reached out and grabbed my breast without shame. I hit his hand away, seething with rage at his audacity. Other examples include the numerous times men at my local LGBT club have grabbed my ass, my afro, my waist, which forced me to get into physical altercations to get them off me, to defend myself from the fear that creeps in when a stranger violates the bounds of my personal space.
White feminist acquaintances have been quick to admonish me for resorting to violence, even after seeing the marks left on my body by men and hearing about the way I have been repeatedly targeted. A white friend told me she noticed that when she comes out with me and my other women of colour friends, we face more aggressive and sexual harassment than that of her white friends. Pacifism comes from a place of privilege, as Veena Cabreros-Sud says in my all-time favourite feminist quote:
“Most white feminists look at me disdainfully when I recount some of my choice violent moments. They are appalled, morally repelled by this unbecoming behavior. One even giggled, holding her breastbone ever so lightly and saying she’s not the violent type, blah blah blah. The messages are, 1.) I’m educated and you’re not, 2.) I’m upper class and you’re not, 3.) I’m a feminist and you’re not (since her brand of feminism is equated with nonviolent moon-to-uterus symbiosis). My “men” can do the fighting, but I, gentle maiden, shan’t; the new feminism remaking a generation in the image of the suburban, wealthy, sophisticated, genetically genteel. No one protected me when a loved one cracked my head on a public street one night, not even the college educated Upper West Side white women strolling by pretending not to notice. I don’t like getting hit either, but what are you gonna do when someone grabs your tits? Meekly whisper you won’t stoop to your attacker’s level? And what level is that exactly? If that’s the way “women” react, how do we classify the elderly Filipinas on a subway train who, when Joe Dickwad grabbed my ass, congratulated me for whacking him as hard as I could, screaming obscenities, and chasing him — to his utter shock and dismay — through the station? They were the few who seemed to acknowledge, respect, and allow for “aggressive” forms of resistance instead of strapping on moral straightjackets for the nineties which we “women” must squeeze into. If that’s a woman, I’m not one. I am an animal who eats, sleeps, fucks, and fights voraciously – I assume a “good” woman does it gently and in the missionary position only.”
bell hooks recently called Beyoncé a ‘terrorist’, which highlights the power that Black women must put behind their words in order for people to listen. If bell had given her critique of Queen Bey in less explosive terms, would anyone have cared? Whilst I don’t agree with hooks’ assertion about Mrs. Carter-Knowles, and I balk at Black women turning their violent words against fellow Black women, I accept the urgency behind what she is saying. She fears for the Black girls of the world, precarious as their situations are, and she was doing her best to make her concerns known in a world that routinely ignores Black women.
We have less to lose and more to gain than white women. We are more likely to be unemployed, are more likely to go to prison, and struggle to see truthful reflections of ourselves on screen and in print. If we soothe men with one hand and fix our hair with the other, like popular exclusionary feminism tells us to, then which fist is left to smash the system that chokes us? There is no room in the language of liberal feminism and its conservatism for the blood and bile that is spilt from those of us who stray from the normative. In fact we, as brown women, as angry women, as women loving women are admonished by our smoother, safer, softer sisters for holding the fight back with the suffocating scent of our lavender menace and the stings of our fists.
White, rich, straight, cisgender women such as the writers at The Vagenda and Jezebel as well as celebrities such as Lena Dunham and Lily Allen control the mainstream feminist discourse (even whilst shirking the feminist label in the case of the latter) and form the wider public opinion on our movement, as they are afforded the coverage to bring their ideas to the masses. Rhiannon Lucy Coslett and Holly Baxter of The Vagenda have half the talent and insight of Trudy of Gradient Lair, yet it is they who have recently had a major book published and regular columns in The Guardian and the New Statesman. The aforementioned white women don’t use their privileged platform to uplift the sisters below them. Instead they dig their heels into our shoulders, stride across the bridges we call our backs, without so much as a glance down. They ignore women of colours’ righteous fury at the double bind we face under white supremacist patriarchy like discussing acts of sexism against Iggy Azalea without acknowledging her known racism and homophobia. This says to minoritised women that they and their feelings don’t matter. Why should such heinous things be brought up when Iggy’s white womanhood has been victim to the kind of sexism that brown women face every single day, without the luxury of a sparkling pop career?
Time and time again we see white feminists such as Caitlin Moran and Julie Burchill enact their brand of selfish individualistic feminism upon us. We see them proclaim that they ‘literally couldn’t give a shit’ about their sisters of colours’ right to media representation, in the case of Moran, whose best-selling book How To Be A Woman repeatedly uses the t slur as well as being cissexist and biologically essentialist throughout. Or see them write odes to racist thought. Burchill’s Damaged Gods talks about the barbarity and backwardness of men of colour, yet she is still hailed as a progressive feminist voice, her views are legitimised by the prominent platform she is given as the go to outspoken feminist in the English media. A position she has held for decades despite publishing multiple transphobic tirades, most notably a horrifically transmisogynistic piece in the Observer in 2013 which denigrated trans women in ways too vile to repeat.Flavia Dzodan, Latina feminist and originator of the oft-quoted line, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!”, wrote an entire article about the numerous high profile white feminists (such as Sarah Ditum, noted Guardian journalist) who have rubbished intersectionality. It describes how they are swathing their discomfort with something not wholly made for them in accusations of complexity and alienation — all in one simple concept about the actuality of our multi-faceted lives?! We can’t stand for this.
To be feminist is to be aware of our interconnected struggle as women, but to also see that not every struggle is our own. Use your voice as a privileged white woman to shout down racism wherever you see it. Be thankful that you will never know the sickening lurch that sways through your blood when your humanity is denounced and denied because of your race by women who profess to care about all women’s liberation. The title feminist is to be taken up by women who have moved beyond a selfish view of one’s relationship to society, an outlook that is nurtured and encouraged by the neo-liberal matrix we find ourselves struggling to survive in. It is difficult to throw off no doubt, but we can and we must. In her speech “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde spoke of how she was doing her work to dismantle the binds of this sick sad world and questioned her sisters, ‘…are you doing yours?’
I recently wrote a Facebook status explaining how sick and tired I am of asking white people to stop wearing bindis and fashioning their hair into the mess that they have the audacity to call dreadlocks. Predictably, it didn’t end well. I explained that I can’t abide the blatant and flagrant cultural appropriation of symbols that are dear to people of colour. It’s simply not fair that people of colour’s own cultural markers mark them out as ‘backwards’, ‘unclean’ or ‘unprofessional.’ Meanwhile white people don the same things and are lauded for their (stolen) creativity and uniqueness. White women who have sat by my side in feminist meetings, who I was once proud to call my sisters, rushed to shout me down and accuse me of stirring hatred and racism and it then dissolved into personal attacks on my character. The thing that really struck me was their repeated affirmations that they cared deeply about tackling racism and wanted to work together to end it. Well to them I say: listen the hell up when a woman of colour calls you out! I was literally giving them an easy way to chip a little bit of racism away from the world but their cognitive dissonance is so strong that they can say we will fight racism with one side of their mind whilst perpetuating it with the other. This is how whiteness operates; it is insidious and sly. It lets white women feel that they have the coolness and collectedness of reasoned, dispassionate logic on their side and thus they reign righteous over women of colour’s understandable anger and frustrations. I once made the mistake of falling for a ‘feminist’ white girl who would get angry at me for daring to call out the racism and misogynoir of a mutual male friend, though of course she would never admit that she might hold racist thoughts herself via her tone-policing and what I came to see as her fetishistic view of me and other Black people. This is the reality of our white supremacist society, and by extension the feminism of white women who allow it to permeate them without critical reflection.
Then there are those white women who steal the language Black women have created to articulate our situations. They will declare themselves ‘intersectional feminists,’ and as they take this word as their own, they soften its edges and declare themselves absolved of their whiteness. Stop paying superficial lip service to intersectionality, white feminists. It is insulting and strips the power from one of the most important concepts in the politics of gender liberation. If you can’t take a stand against racism you have no business calling yourself intersectional for feminist brownie points. I can’t listen to a white feminist who coos about her love of bell hooks but dismisses the words of a woman of colour she knows on the subject of race.
When will white feminists take collective responsibility for educating themselves? When will they understand the power at play that sings in their skins? We don’t exist in a vacuum and women of colour don’t exist to hold their hands and explain in painful detail why their behaviour continues to hurt us. Intersectional feminist politics are not for white women to co-opt as their own. It is explicitly a theory that was formed from the mind of a Black woman, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to explain Black women’s situations, as they were ignored by the white-centric feminist movement and simultaneously by the male-centric civil rights movement. I cannot speak for every Black woman, and I would never profess to. We are not a monolith. But I think we ought to stand wary of a white woman who calls herself intersectional. You won’t listen to us and you will exclude us from your movement but you will take the ideas you like?
It is far more impressive and sisterly to me to see white women acting in an intersectional way. I want to see them reach a point where they are critical of the feminist action they take and weed out the racism that seeps through their organising and the feminist media they consume. I want to see white feminists understand why they can’t use racist narratives, such as those that surround the Western view of Muslim women who choose to wear hijab, to fight sexism. They must understand that they are not the default. That white is not synonymous with womanhood. We, as women of colour, are women too. We are their sisters. I long for the day that they call out and collect their fellow white people instead of letting women of colour do it time and time again at the expense of our mental and physical health. That is sisterhood. That is selflessness; and it is precious.
For women of colour intersectional thinking is a reflex to us once we become aware. We can’t stop scouring the crowd for brown faces and we can’t stop thinking about the implications of the word “slut” on our already tainted brown bodies and we can’t stop thinking about how we didn’t know we could be beautiful until we found messages away from the mainstream. White women must stand beside, not in front of us and force themselves to think about who exactly their feminism is fighting for.