“We struggle with black men against racism while also struggling with black men about sexism.” This line from the Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement has stayed with me since the first time I read it. To me, it both simplifies and solidifies my understanding of the place of women of color in social justice movements: at the bottom.
Women of color are used, abused, sexualized, invisibilized, marginalized and discarded. They are supposed to be the mothers, teachers, and liberators all while staying silent, and used only as an appendage to some other group issues. As said in the poem a bridge called my back, women of color are supposed to translate between group struggles, never stopping to focus on our own.
Racial justice movements are almost always focused on the needs and demands of the straight cis able bodied men, and women’s movements are always focused on straight, cis, able bodied white people’s experiences. This upholds the systems of dominance of patriarchy and racism that these groups strive to end and leaves out major groups of people: trans women, differently abled women, queer people and women of color.
Acknowledging the misuse of women of color in social justice would mean already marginalized people would have to acknowledge the privilege that they have and acknowledge the intersection of oppressions that affect those who are not white, straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, or male.
The violence of white feminism is the ways in which it erases racism and singles out sexism as the only form of oppression women face. My own experiences of the racism of white feminism have been many, but one that I want to lift up is my involvement in the NYC student walkout to protest the Trump election last November 2016.
Overall, I found this walkout to be an empowering experience. However, it seemed that the concerns of white feminism were at the forefront of this student walkout. For example, I noticed that people were more eager to chant “pussy grabs back” than they were to chant “Black Lives Matter,” which would have shown solidarity with not only the black young women in the march but also the black women in the movement doing the work from not only today but also during the Civil Rights Movement. As I continued to be involved in marches post the election, I noticed that the whole “women protest Trump” movement also reflected this same silence around Black Lives Matter, including the D.C. Women’s March.
During my involvement in these marches, I noticed that certain activists were using, to quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools” of marginalization to silence the people in the movement who don’t have the same identifiers of privilege that they do. Within these systems they work to achieve “equality” which would get rid of one system of oppression without the understanding that to achieve what we want we must eradicate all systems of oppression. The idea of “lean-in politics” coined by Sheryl Sandberg, only works for those who have some level of privilege and can use that leverage to get ahead of others in their oppressed group.
This idea that Sheryl Sandberg proposes does something that has happened through history, which is the idea of trivializing the sexist racism and racist sexism that women of color face.
This can be seen from the exclusion of Black women in the Black Panther Party to the exclusion of women of color in today’s post-Trump protests. As Barbara Smith illuminated for us during her Skype call to our high school feminism class, there was often a culture of Black men silencing women members, including Black queer and lesbian women during the Civil Rights Movement. They were seen as an appendage to the men of the movement. They were expected to “lie prone” for the men, as Smith shared with us when she spoke to our class.
Those who refused to be prone such as Smith and Angela Davis, were often criticized for not complying with the dominance of Black male sexism that existed within these organizations. This racist sexism and sexist racism exists today even in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as white women’s feminist movements.
This disregard for women of color issues has more fatal consequences than just silencing their issues. The disregard for their ideas and struggles leads to a disregard of their bodies and minds. In the play “In the Blood,” playwright Suzan-Lori Parks explores the ways in which women of color and specifically Black women are used and abused by larger systems and how over-sexualization and violence form a vicious cycle that only ends in the death of women of color. This violence against the protagonist, who is a modern day Hester Prynne, came through systems that function under the guise of “protection” and “social service.”
The portrayal of how these systems work against women of color make me think back to the Anita Hill case and how the head of the EEOC who was supposed to protect against the very thing she was experiencing failed her and her forced silence and the forced normalization of violence against Black women caused Hill to suffer.
From the time I was ten I have been hearing about Anita Hill from my mother, who a college student at the time of the case. She has always been someone who educated me about the ways in which my identity has has been at risk throughout time and history. She told me how her circle of friends was split down the middle: Black men, Black women. My mom has talked to me about the experience of knowing that she shares a race with Black men, but that they will always have the privilege of being men.
This really hits home for me and makes me think about the Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement, where they state that “the synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” As a women of color this is not only something that bothers me morally it’s something that affects my day to day life, as I experience racist sexism and sexist racism daily. Doing the work of intersectional feminism is not something that I can choose to take a part of when it’s convenient for me, it’s something necessary for my existence.
At the Invisible No More talk given at Barnard in early November, black feminist activist, Mariame Kaba made a call to action to not see people as collateral damage for a larger cause. Ultimately, we must do as the Lorde says, which is not to lose the erotic in ourselves, or we will lose our humanity. When Lorde says “erotic” she is talking about the notion of humanity and feeling deeply and truly. This idea of humanizing people and valuing their lives stuck with me as a way to not use the Lorde’s idea of master’s tools to do this work. We can do this by saying her name and making sure these stories don’t go untold and do not get forgotten. We must give credit where credit is due when it comes to the labor of women of color.
We must recognize in doing this work, those who came before us because without them we would not be here so we must say their names as well. In teaching this history we must not forget those who need to hear it most: young girls of color. We must teach them their own history, their own genealogy and show them what has made them who they are, teach them that they are not collateral damage and that their lives and ideas matter.