Women are oppressed due to the idea of this binary of male versus female and that males are dominant group within this correlation. The American system has proven that the systematic intersectionalities of race, gender and even class do play a part in the functioning of society. Black women are at the intersections of all these isms. Women are already oppressed due to this- social construct of gender; therefore women of color, specifically black women are at the full effect of discrimination because of such. Yet, women who do not identify with the norms of society are discriminated and oppressed even after because of one’s sexual orientation and sexual expression on top of racism, sexism and classism. The reason for this is through the lens of control and power from the structural perspective through racialized gender stereotypes of the black community.
Betty Friedan’s famous phrase “the problem that has no name” was stated in her book The Feminine Mystique which was in reference to this sexism that women faced. However in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks refers to this as “the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women – housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life” (1). The problems Friedan spoke about were only inclusive to “leisure-class white housewives” which hooks describes as “not the pressing political concerns of masses of women”; thus only women who had downtime and wealth could even grasp the ideas of Friedan’s work. This itself did not include women of color.
White feminist writers continued to overlook, either subconsciously or purposefully, that there were other women worldwide who are being affected by their class and especially race (3). This continued to suppress the importance of these differences and collectively suggest all women were suppressed equally. As hooks goes on to breakdown the meaning of true feminism, she supports the analyzation by Benjamin Barber’s on the women’s movement from his novel Liberating Feminism. Suffering is not rooted in one homogenous state or angle but is directly and indirectly related to the experiences of the individual even though “women’s suffering under sexist tyranny is a common bond among all women” (Hooks 4).
By removing the important reason which makes black women’s oppression different (and their ultimate survival) is that suppressing the comprehension of one’s on production makes it easier for the dominant group to have control and power over the “natural subordinate” group (Black Feminist Thought 5). This leads to the acknowledgement of black feminist thought, that black women lives are shaped differently from the lives and oppression of race and class. Black feminist thought creates that black lives are in fact different from white lives and individuality is holds true. Hooks paraphrases Zillah Eisenstein’s introduction from The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism:
Today’s feminist either do not discuss a theory of individuality or they unself-consciously adopt the competitive atomistic ideology of liberal individualism. There is much confusion on this issue in the feminist theory we discuss here. Until a conscious differentiation is made between a theory of individuality that recognizes the importance of the individual within the social collectivity and ideology of individualism that assumes a competitive view of the individual, there will not be a full accounting of what a feminist theory of liberation must look like in our Western society (hooks 9).
Therefore, black feminist thought is from the common struggles of the black woman in her everyday struggle of intersectionality to achieve what Collins’ refers to as justice for U.S. women of color, specifically black women (Black Feminist Thought 12). Social theory by white women create “normal circumstances” but being that black feminist thought is deems a social theory from a diverse marginalized group, it reflects the knowledge, along with the institutional reasonsings that shape black women experiences as a whole. Black feminist thought is not a result of mainstream feminism but generation of complex structure lost during the slave trade, Reconstruction and the systematic oppression of black women.
Dr. Zakiya Adair said in her lecture on September 12, 2017 is that black women’s experiences are unique and provide an intersectional non-binary analysis of women’s movement and black civil rights movement. Since “whiteness [is] for feminist thought, maleness [is] for Black social and political thought, and the combination for mainstream scholarship” they are refused to accept Black women’s realities; womanism is for the masses and inclusion of the all greater women which is highly accepted by women of color who do not feel comfortable of represented in mainstream feminism and understand the equitable reasoning of all.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker, she defines that a womanist-
(1) From womanish, opposite of “girlish”; being grown up; a black feminist or feminist of color (2) A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually; appreciated women’s emotional flexibility and strength; sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually; committed to survial and wholeness of entire people, male and female (xi).
This definition of womanist goes along with Collin’s which says feminism is associated with “women’s emancipation and empowerment, Marxist social thought aims for a more equitable society, while queer theory opposes heterosexism (Black Feminist Thought 11). Thus, womanism is associated with the black feminist thought.
The importance of Walker’s definition of a womanist coincides strongly with the second definition with the idea of sexually loving and relationships. Roxane Gay states in her anthology Bad Feminist: Essays that deviance is being abnormal:
When a black person behaves in a way that doesn’t fit the dominant cultural ideal of how a black person should be, there is all kinds of trouble. The authenticity of his or her blackness is immediately called into question. We should be black but not too black, neither too ratchet nor too bougie. There are all manner of unspoken rules of how a black person should think and act and behave, and the rules are ever changing (257).
In this essay entitled “The Politics of Respectability”, Gay speaks of these policing tactics called respectability politics in which black regulate other blacks on the correct representation of black culture. These norms of society that blacks are comparing other blacks to are based on the creation and perpetuation of racialized gender tropes.
Some racialized gender tropes prove essentialism such as black men are perceived as violent, predators of white women while black women are either broadcasted either a promiscuous danger to white maleness (Jezebel) or comforting whiteness asexual being (Mamie).
It is important to address that black women face issues which society believes it is okay in dehumanizing blackness, womanness and queerness. These racialized gender tropes are based on a heteronormative cognition that one understands the binary and that heterosexuality is natural and only. Thus, when blacks, especially women who fall in the realm of the LGBTQ+ community are outcasted from society because of heterosexism.
Collins states in Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism that the word “freak” in connected through the sciences and entertainment of colonialism . She continues by saying that the close interaction between people and wild animals in West Africa, created the vision of “‘wild’ sexual practices in an uncivilized, inherently violent wilderness”. She goes on to say:
Through colonial eyes, the stigma of biological Blackness and the seeming primitiveness of African cultures marked the borders of extreme abnormality. For Western sciences that were mesmerized with body politics, White Western normality became constructed on the backs of Black deviance, with an imagined Black hyper-hetereosexual deviance at the heart of the enterprise (120).
An example is Sarah Barmann which supports the Western world of human oddities that support this trope of the Hottentot Venus. Her body being is seen a deviant because of her curvy body figure which was put on display for thousands during and after her life. This supports the admiration of abnormality by Westerners, but since her body part was so taboo, the sexual violence of her involuntary examinations and “showcases” proved that blackness, especially everything outside the normal stereotypes were different and used for capital for the wealth of whites.
Violence towards black transwomen is reinforced by the racialized gendered stereotypes of sexual violence, that coincides with black women specifically with the Jezebel. Black transwomen are associated on the same caliber of promiscuity as the sexual Jezebel and is as dangerous to manhood. However, the difference is instead of white maleness, black transwomen are dangerous to black maleness. Hence, the violence against them which Gay outlines in that same essay. Thus, it is important to remember the names of black women, transwomen included, in deaths because “‘namelessness’ resembles ‘nakedness’” which connects black women across all boards back to a uncivilized and primitive representation of blackness.
Being different to the norms set by whites standards is the privilege of being white and proves the system on inequality that the world, especially the Western world has on the system of power relations.
There is no representation of black queer women because of racialized gender tropes that are part of essentialism that continue to be reinforced in our society that suppress one’s ability of sexual orientation and sexual expression. The system that black women live in are created on the foundations of heteronormativity and heterosexism. Through these ideas, the social institutions that perpetuate the structural racism, sexism and classism that are reinforced daily happen to be the same institutions we receive our information from consciously or subconsciously— education, family, religion, media and government.
Black women already are on this urge for an equitable society because like Collins stated, feminism is about empowerment, social thought is for equal and queer theor opposes hetersexism. Black queer women are the true womanists of creation due to the intersectionalities, the love (sexually or nonsexually) amongst other woman and even men. Black queer women are at centers of hope for mankind to be inclusive of all and the survival of all people, especially those of same communities, because they understand the crossroads of race, sex, and class. Black queer women are the discriminate against, change the negative into a positive to see a greater outcome.
- Adair, Zakiya. Black Feminist Thought/Womanist Thought, 12 Sept. 2017. Class Lecture
- Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 1991.
- Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Routledge, 2006.
- Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist: Essays. Olive Editions, 2017.
- Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center. South End Press, 2010.Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Betascript Publishing, 2011.
[Written for Dr. Zakiya Adair’s Black Womanist Thought: December 20, 2017]