The history of the feminist struggle for gender equality is a painful one. It is also whitewashed. Where the white woman might feel abandoned by her male counterparts, the black woman has always been doubly forsaken. Two chains of oppression tied her down, and it is about time that we as white women start identifying and owning where that second chain came from.
In the early stages of the feminist movement, there is an illusory and misguided narrative that says women were united in the fight for freedom. But as Anna Cooper said so clearly in her address to the World Congress of Representative Women in 1893, ‘The white woman could at least plead for her own emancipation; the black women doubly enslaved, could but suffer and struggle and be silent.’ White women, for the most part, have continued to undeniably and unashamedly abandon black women. Instead of taking on racism as a yet another structure that needed to be dismantled in order to ensure the freedom and liberty of all women, white women settled for securing their own rights; we denied the intersectionality of feminism and instead proclaimed once again the white centricity even of women’s emancipation.
In a conversely disturbing occurrence, similar to how white women abandoned women of colour to further their own emancipation from the confines of sexism, white men conveniently ignored their racism to a certain extent when they endorsed the enfranchisement of black men while denying black women those same rights. It seems that in every scenario, whether perpetuated by white women, white men, or black men, black women have been consistently and deliberately oppressed.
This faux solidarity of white men with their black male counterparts only further segregated not only these two races, but women as an oppressed group. While white women now felt threatened by the empowerment of black men, they succumbed to this fear by exploiting the privilege their race afforded them in order to further their own freedom; in essence, they declared that being white was more valuable to them than being a woman, they exposed their willingness to abandon those women who were doubly oppressed by systems that they themselves benefitted from in order to elevate their own socio-political status.
This divide among women not only weakened the feminist movement as a whole, but furthered the issue between the races too. Where two disenfranchised, disempowered groups should have stuck together, black men chose their sex over their race and abandoned women, and white women chose their race over their sex, abandoning black people in general but black women in particular. Once again the black woman was left behind; marginalised by both members of her own race and members of her own sex in the struggle for emancipation.
In Ain’t I a Woman (1981), Bell Hooks writes: ‘Ironically, while the recent women’s movement called attention to the fact that black women were dually victimised by racist and sexist oppression, white feminists tended to romanticise the black female experience rather than discuss the negative impact of that oppression. When feminists acknowledge in one breath that black women are victimised and in the same breath emphasise their strength, they imply that though black women are oppressed they manage to circumvent the damaging impact of oppression by being strong – and that is simply not the case.’
I wonder how many other ways white women romanticise the black female experience? It seems yet another way to selfishly centre the white narrative to say that black women’s pain and suffering is somehow ‘less’ than white women’s; that the damaging stereotypical notions of black strength and black resilience – qualities which, if and when they exist, are the direct result of white oppression – once again diminish the black female experience as something less traumatic or worthy than their white counterparts. Why do we insist on calling black women strong? We rob them of the chance to be fully human even in this ‘compliment’ – which is really just disguised, micro-aggressive racism. The expectation that black women should be strong is not only a further oppression of their humanity and a repression of their authenticity, but is a mechanism through which white women can alleviate themselves of responsibility; it allows white women to ignore the black female experience, dismiss it one brushstroke, and instead bring the conversation back to the struggle of white women.
The exclusion of black females from the feminist movement on the basis of race, and from the black empowerment movement on the basis of sex, surely begs the question of how these women were supposed to achieve freedom. Have they truly been emancipated? Much of this work, much of this burden should be shared by white women; for if white women truly value the freedom of our sex then our work will not be done until the patriarchy (both white and black) is dismantled so that black women are no longer oppressed on the basis of sex. Our work must include the need to destroy and revolt against the white power structures that keep black people disempowered. How can white women call themselves feminists if they do not continue fighting with blood and sweat until each and every member of our gender is free?
The idea as expressed by Bell Hooks that ‘identifying oneself as oppressed freed one from being an oppressor’ is one which white women should investigate very seriously. That we are oppressed by men does not mean we are incapable of being oppressors ourselves. Unless we actively challenge and disrupt the unequal racial structures that we benefit from – indirectly through our inaction and directly through our feigned ignorance and subsequent failure to acknowledge this privilege – we are no better than those who oppress us. In fact, we should ask ourselves if we are not worse, for those who have been oppressed should surely have deep empathy for all others who have been oppressed; those who have suffered at the hands of a system which values one group of people over another should surely be more passionately determined to ensure that no such system continues to exist anywhere, especially when they are the benefactors of one.
White women have much to do to dismantle the oppressive structure of feminism as it currently exists and operates in the world.