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I HAVE BLACK FRIENDS: Racial Tension Among Feminist

April 22, 2010

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to attend a conference entitled, Young Women, Feminism and The Future: Third Wavers Then and Now. The Riot Grrl’s original founder, Allison Wolfe, Editor-In-Chief of Bust Magazine, Debbie Stoller, as well as the co-authors ofManifesta, Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, came together to discuss shifting generational concerns within the feminist movement.

After a tremendously long rant about what kind of mothers each woman was raised by, the time to ask questions arrived.

I fought against my distaste of being “the” voice of women of color yet again, and I asked the panelist to discuss the relationship between race and feminism.

They responded with a smile and distant eyes.

I stared back.

“Um… so… can you talk about the relationship between Race and Feminism today?” I repeated.

After a few more seconds of hesitation, Richards took the first stab. What I received in response might as well have been, “I have Black friends,” as she spoke about the organization she had that catered to “non-white women.” She even went as far as to say, “those non-white women still read my emails! They love the group.”

“Uh… wonderful for you! Wow, you have black followers!,” I thought.

Baumgardner eventually spit out something or another about how race and women’s issues still need to be dealt with. She explained that’s why she believes its okay that not all women wantto use the term feminism when defining themselves, though she still considers herself to be one.

She proved my point that women of color aren’t included in feminism today… lets just take away the category/label for some people who can’t fit within its racial/economic boundaries… but I’ll still call myself a feminist because I’m a white woman who comes from a privileged family.

Everyone else on the panel stayed silent.

Come on! Really… the editor of Bust Magazine? As one of the few powerful feminists in media I wrongfully expected her to know about what is going on in today’s world of feminism and race.

When I left, I immediately went on Twitter and noticed that even the young feminists, who attended the panel were more offended by the realization that Richards, Stoller, Baumgardner and Wolfe didn’t understand the importance of social media then by the racial comments that were made (or not made). For the majority of women in that room, race was not in their consciousness.

When it comes to race, is the feminist movement walking in the vacant path of our predecessors?  It seems as though not much has changed.

Why are women of color still not included in the immediate conversation?

30 Responses to I HAVE BLACK FRIENDS: Racial Tension Among Feminist

  1. Ilona on September 16, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Isn’t it the goal that ‘race is not in their consciousness’. If everyone just treated everyone else equally, why would they think about race? It would be as much a non-issue as being freckled. Sometimes it just seems that all the labeling we do here in the States is counter-productive.

    • Lauren on September 16, 2010 at 11:07 am

      The goal may be for equality, but we haven’t reached that point yet. The fact is, we don’t live in a post-race society, yet we want to act as though we do. As a white person, I have the privilege of being able to go about my daily life and not think about race, because it doesn’t directly affect the way I live. However, the label “black” (or whatever other minority label you want to throw in there) is not just a label… it is still a lived reality that plays an important role in any topic that can be related to race. I think that’s why it’s so upsetting that race was addressed in this way at the conference. It just goes to show the disconnect in our mindsets when out of a panel full of women, not a single one could articulate the relevance of race in feminism today.

      • Mytee on September 16, 2010 at 11:08 am

        But Race does continue to be an issue. White privilege exists and that needs to be addressed. The plight of Women of Color is different than that of White Middle Class Women, until they realize that, the Women’s Movement will be continued to be fragmented.

  2. Roman Gray on September 16, 2010 at 11:08 am

    That would be great, but that’s not the world we live in yet. Until then, it’s important to recognize the different issues faced by women of color, issues different from those faced by White women and women in general. Unfortunately the world is not color blind yet, there are obstacles that women of color deal with separate from what White women deal with and as feminist it’s important that a voice is given to those issues. I am not a wordsmith, so I don’t know how else to express this difficulty that exist within the movement.

    Consider the Gay rights movement for instant. Gay men and women face many difficulties that they’ve been trying to overcome, but Gay people of Color face difficulties that White Gay people do not. It would be unfortunate not to acknowledge and work towards resolving those difficulties along with resolving the difficulties in general in being Gay.

    • Brandy on September 16, 2010 at 11:09 am

      No, not great. When feminists don’t have race in their consciousness, you get women like Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro claiming the only reason Barack Obama was likely to win the DNC nomination was because he’s black.

      When feminists don’t have race in their consciousness, you get a white woman on a blog telling you to get over centuries of systematic oppression because she didn’t have a Barbie doll with red hair and freckles (cought, I guess Midge doesn’t count), so why should there be a black doll. Repeat the same with any issue dealing with women of color and media representation.

      When feminists don’t have race in their consciousness, you get people defending John Mayer because comparing his penis to a former Gran Wizard of the KKK isn’t racist… he just has preferences. Hell, one might even tell you that burning a cross on an interracial family’s lawn isn’t racist.. it was merely stupid.

      People who don’t have race in their consciousness tend to turn a blind eye to racism, that is, if they aren’t the ones directly engaging in it.

  3. exhaustedlove on September 16, 2010 at 11:09 am

    That’s a really narrow way to look at it. That’s like saying that everyone should be ‘color-blind’ and that we are all just humans and blah blah blah. Ignoring the issue of race is ignoring the fact that people of color are systematically discriminated against. People (especially white people) should think about race because it does have an impact on the way each of us experience our lives. White people have the privilege of never really having to take into account our race, but people of color do not. Ignoring something like race only further divides any chance at true solidarity. There is absolutely no way that having freckles can compared to going through life as a person of color. Seriously. Back up, think about what you’re saying and realize how not thinking about race as a way to ‘treat everyone equally’ is what is counter-productive. People pay lip service to addressing issues of women of color, but never actually go through with any action. Just as was beautifully demonstrated in this post.

    • O'Phylia on September 16, 2010 at 11:20 am

      But not talking about the issues makes the problem worse. That’s more counter-productive than labels.
      I see where you’re coming from, but not recognizing class and/or racial privilege is something that MAINSTREAM feminism has known for. Not all feminists do this of course, and I do use the word “womanism” and “feminism” interchangeably… but that’s mostly because people don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “womanist.”

      • caveat on September 16, 2010 at 11:20 am

        Yeah, at its existential core or what have you, its arbitrary or at least it should be.
        But in reality there is a HUGE history (speaking of America in particular) racism and to say that race and gender don’t over lap sometimes is just naive and ignorant.

        Do you really think Black , Hispanic, Asian, and White women experience discrimination and privilege the exact same way? Of course not.
        I’m not saying feminism wrong or anything like ( I’d like to think of my self as one.) but if you look at the demographics in the country white people are the majority so it makes sense that everything from media to academics would be white centered. And because feminism is one of those things that are born out of the collective anecdotal experience of a large group of people its easy to see how some thing would be left not.

        Its not anyone’s fault. No ones to blame. No one is perfect. But we do need to keep mindful of what were doing and who were catering to/marginalizing even if we believe what we are doing is righteous.

        • seriously? on September 16, 2010 at 11:20 am

          no that is not the goal – why? because “race” has some very real, even life/death consequences. it is not the same as being freckled, ’cause last i checked folks weren’t being imprisoned, receiving subpar education, fewer resources, fewer opportunities, and so on and so forth for having freckles.

          • wealhtheow on September 16, 2010 at 11:21 am

            I have to disagree, Ilona (unless you’re being sarcastic). Sure, race is a social construct, but that doesn’t negate the significant impact it has on people’s lives. “Color-blindness” is not a helpful ideology. It is the pretence that race has no power, even though it is well-documented that racial prejudice is a huge part of societies to this day.

            To use your comparison–if people with freckles and people without freckles were treated exactly the same, there is no use to distinguishing between them. But what if people have huge disparities in income, wealth, property, education, and health care, based on whether or not they had freckles? To examine why, and combat the prejudices that created those inequalities, it would be important to distinguish, wouldn’t it?

          • RMJ12345 on September 16, 2010 at 11:21 am

            Sorry, mod, didn’t finish my comment, this is a continuation…

            White feminists (like me) benefit from this system of inequality. Since feminism is about eradicating inequality, feminists should be acutely conscious of their privilege and make eradicating this major system of supremacy a major concern in their feminism.

  4. RMJ12345 on September 16, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Because race exists as a social construct that benefits some people directly, and hurts others directly?

    Feminists who

  5. Snarky's Machine on September 16, 2010 at 11:22 am

    I am my own black friend. True Story.

  6. bryan on September 16, 2010 at 11:22 am

    The issue is that everyone is in it for themselves.

    LGBT movements don’t include people of color. Many of color movements are homophobic . So the of color people who are LGBT get lost in the crowd.

    The you have feminism, which this blog hits the issue right on the head. They barely mention race, or consider it. I see it everyday.

    But then, the issue runs deeper. Of color has now been made to only be associated with “black.” As illustrated by Richard’s comment, “I have black friends.”

    Native Americans?

    In many movements, even the non-white ones, they are exclusive. Coalitions have died. People are not working together.

    I think the larger question is ” Why is the feminist movement not speaking about race? … or barely?” And, ” Why does of color only mean black?” “Should it be synonymous?”

    I don’t feel anyone has got it quite right yet. I look forward to Refuse the Silence talking about women of all racial backgrounds who associate as “of color.” Because while there are similarities with how a black female and an Arab female are treated. There are also major differences.

    • Tim on September 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

      interesting because when reading the article (as a gay white male) I was reminded by some of the issues within LGBT and wondering that the ‘race’ could be as easily as ‘queer’ as I’ve heard that there was (is?) homophobia amongst feminist groups early on, as there is real race issues amongst gay groupings I’m involved with…although not spoken about unless challenged (or sadly someone drops the fascist/racist bomb and you edge away quickly for the door…it has happened, sigh).

      You then factor in, say Trans or Bi issues and you have, as one of the video contributors here talked about an intersect and it quickly gets complicated. I can see how people ‘focus’ on certain issues – it’s easy to lump in a whole set of other people and of course these people should have awareness (although I echo someone else who said the poster could raise awareness, yes it’s a drag and like I’m constantly outing myself to straight people who go ‘OMG you’re not a camp flamboyant queen! Are you really gay?’ it’s just one of those shitty things that being a minority even of a minority you have to do the work. Sucks I know…after a while though they will see you coming and might do some hurried homework and after earbashing them X times and informing them a little light might go over their head…or maybe not) – I know there is stuff in the non-white, bi or trans worlds which doesn’t intersect with gay or lesbian rights – it gets complicated how many people you can involve – preferably everyone; but as in politics you can’t make everyone happy. Still doesn’t mean you can’t have awareness and dialog with those groups though, I have to say…

      One reason I don’t get involved in gay political action at that level I guess, it can be a no-win situation…so help this people by raising their conciousness or offering to organise/educate. I doubt they are actually a bunch of racists, more just unknowing…

      Oh and great blog btw – makes me wish there was a queer version of this as I studied my Fine Art degree – surprisingly closeted environment and not supportive. The web wasn’t there then though; if it was I could see what help that could’ve been for me (I might not have waited 3 more years to come out!).

  7. Elise on September 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

    It’s interesting that there seems to be a line between feminist discussion and race discussion because I personally see feminism as a way to promote equality of all groups that are not the reference point (white able-bodied middle class heterosexual males). Although my definition of the reference point might be problematic to some, I don’t see how race issues cannot come up during feminist discussion.

  8. Mavis on September 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

    I’m a non-white woman. I have no idea what the relationship is between feminism and race. I don’t even know how to begin answering that question. Do any of you? It’s easy to say “she’s white and from a privileged family”. But from this piece it seems it was equally easy for the writer to stand up as “The Voice” and pose that question. From the way this was written, it doesn’t seem to me she was asking a question. Rather, she was already making her accusation: You are racist, whether you know it or not, white woman-feminist. Don’t be angry that people who have made a name for themselves are not in tune with your life. It’s unfortunate for them and for society, but they are only human, they are also STILL LEARNING. Why not add to their – all of our – education by giving your opinion and relating your experience?? Maybe they came from privilege and education, allowed their life to inform their work, and gained a reputation for it. There’s no point in being bitter about it, especially if they did not come from a place of hate, but unfortunate ignorance. No need to put them on the spot. No need to pretend we (who think our behavior toward others transcends race) transcend our history and current reality.

  9. Shermel on September 16, 2010 at 11:24 am

    You’re right. Nothing has changed. It’s unfortunate but its true. I don’t really care for feminist movements because I have had to live my life for myself only and not for women in general. There is no solidarity in the female community and as a result a lot of these feminist panels are irrelevant to me.

  10. kimbandeira on September 16, 2010 at 11:25 am

    When I get followed around in stores, I am pretty sure it isn’t because I label myself as Black or because I talk about race — I think it is because white people are racist. When people condescendingly tell me that they are impressed at how well I speak English, it isn’t because I talk about my Latina identity — it is because white people are racist.

    Look, I live in Brazil and I know Puerto Rico intimately and I am quite familiar with the nonsensical notion that if we are * all * Puerto Ricans or we are * all * Brazilians, that somehow the racism will magically go away. I promise you, it doesn’t. Refusing to talk about race is merely a strategy for erasing the realities of those upon whose backs the system rests. Who benefits from not talking about race? Only the very same people who benefit from the system as it stands. Think about it? Why would you deny the terms through which we can talk about our realities?

    A lot of white folks get tripped up on this. They will say that race is socially and culturally and historically constructed. That is true. So, yes, race is an invention. But racism is real, it is the system within which we function, and for those of us whom it bleeds, telling us that we create the problem through labels is offensive, to say the least.

  11. pennibrown on September 16, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Wow – being freckled is the same as being a person of color? Both non-issues? Just wow!

  12. saraspeaking on September 16, 2010 at 11:33 am

    @Ilona: I have a link for you: helpful hint for the colorblind: BE LESS BLIND. You may find it instructive, and it is otherwise pertinent to your comment and to the colorblind mindset in general.

    @OP: This. I haven’t entirely given up on feminism, but I do find that my focus has shifted away from it and more toward anti-racism. At least there I get heard as both a woman and a person of colour, and nobody is telling me that my status as of colour is “counterproductive”.

  13. bettieshambles on September 16, 2010 at 11:34 am

    I suppose the exclusion is not wanting to own up to privilege. If you (general you) have made up your mind about feminism (i.e. being a feminist is worth your time) as a woman, you know where you stand in the grande scheme of things. Including women of color changes where you stand, you aren’t at the bottom anymore. But that means you have to figure out why you aren’t on the bottom anymore and how you actually contribute to the oppression of the people lower on the totem pole. Owning up to oppressive attitudes and tendencies probably isn’t something people jump and volunteer to do.

    If everyone just treated everyone else equally…. how is that relevant? People aren’t treated equally, so colorblindness isn’t helpful. Race should be in their consciousness because of the way race and gender constantly intersect. As a feminist you’d be pro women… all of them.

  14. brownstocking on September 16, 2010 at 11:34 am

    No, the goal is not to dismiss race. The goal is to interrogate the social constructs of race and class other ism in the context of struggling for equality and inclusion. Well, that should be the goal. Racism in the movement needs to be addressed if feminism is to actually want to be inclusive.

  15. km on September 16, 2010 at 11:34 am

    While I think there is some value to Ilona’s comment about over-labeling, there is too much attachment to the idea of a “post-racial” US. We can’t stop calling a spade a spade until we actually start calling it one. It would be fine for these women to have tiptoed all the way around the issue IF, and only if, they had been willing to discuss it at some previous moment.
    Instead, they need to be able to say that race has always been a difficult issue to tackle in the feminist movement, from Stanton’s refusal to accept the 15th amendment to the lack of non-white women involved in the marches for the 19th amendment, to the Abzug/Friedan/Steinem leadership structure that leaves out so many black women who fought for equality during that time. They should mention that the media’s “feminist movement” often comes from a place of privilege, but it’s hard to see when you’re in that spot, I guess.
    It all seems so simple when you’re not white…

  16. whit85 on September 16, 2010 at 11:36 am

    I totally agree with this. I think that feminists have almost created a culture where they feel personally offended when race is even mentioned, because they don’t see themselves as perpetuators of discrimination in any form. I write for the Women’s Rights cause on Change.org and lot of the white, liberal feminists really “show their teeth” when race is brought up. It’s telling about liberals in general, but also about mainstream feminism that isn’t adept at discussing race.

    To llona, race will always be part of the discussion, just like gender. If we can agree that we haven’t achieved a non-sexist world, then why is it so difficult for us to collectively agree that we haven’t achieved a non-racist world as well? Just because we wish racism away or live in a white bubble non penetrated by race doesn’t mean that the issues don’t exist, it simply means they don’t exist for you or you choose to ignore them.

    I’d love for you to read my post that just sort of touched on this, http://womensrights.change.org/blog/view/women_of_color_no_place_in_mainstream_feminism.

  17. adrift on September 16, 2010 at 11:36 am

    the operative word in that sentence is “if.” they don’t. therefore we need to talk about it. unfortunately, ignoring race issues doesn’t make them go away.

  18. mike_le on September 16, 2010 at 11:36 am

    We should learn to celebrate and appreciate difference, not pretend we don’t see it. 9 times out of 10, I see colorblindness trotted out as a reason to maintain the status quo.

    When I say “Black students are vastly underrepresented in the university system” I’m shouted down by folks who say “Race doesn’t matter! YOU’RE the racist. It’s all about MERIT.” Which implicitly states: the lack of blacks in higher education is the fault of blacks.

    Colorblindness isn’t the solution. You don’t fix something by pretending it doesn’t exist. This applies to everything else: if there’s a high rate of robbery in a city, people don’t just sit around and pretend ownership or theft doesn’t exist. They discuss it and offer solutions and work through problems.

    Racism isn’t the same; people think that if they don’t conjure it up by talking about racial issues, they won’t exist. Like the boogeyman or Bloody Mary.

  19. RMJ12345 on September 16, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Here via Racialicious. This is an excellent reminder of the constant need for feminism to centralize the bodies it has historically marginalized.

  20. sylvanstargazer on September 16, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Ilona, I disagree. Especially given the study that just came out about how people who consider themselves “color-blind” interpreted super-racist facebook pages as hilarious, not offensive. “Post-racial” is a myth designed to get people of color to assimilate while leaving white privilege in place.

    No one even took the obvious approach of saying “misogyny intersects with race to further marginalize women of color, and keeping that in mind can prevent over-generalization from the experiences of white women”? Or, “as a white woman, I don’t feel entitled to speak to that since I’m still examining my privilege, but I suggest reading the work of “? I mean, I’d love an examination of how centering the white female experience has limited feminism, and how the anonymity of the internet can erase women of color who participate in online feminist forums because people are free to assume that everyone is white unless they say otherwise, but anything besides “well, people of color exist, and some of them seem to not be just like us…” would have been nice.

    Then again, maybe modern feminism is about becoming more insular and preferring not to talk about awkward intersections that you haven’t ever had to notice. No one posts angry comments on the blog posts that is never written. Internet feminism in particular seems to focus on individual experience and personal narrative, which amplifies the effects of not reading diverse authors. These women’s conscious experience with race and feminism probably has been “I have Black friends”. At best.

  21. Hussain Turk on November 27, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    I think a common misconception of the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s is that it excluded women of color. This is because it is difficult to capture the entirety of any movement in one statement. Depending on what part of the feminist movement you look at, women of color were not excluded. In many of the more radical organizations, women of color worked side by side with white women. The liberal movement that captured the attention of the media was of course problematically exclusive in both class and race – but isn’t any liberal institution/movement?! For me, the underlying issue this speaks to is how we fight for change, where change comes from, and what changes we are fighting for. Exclusion/inclusion will fall into place based on the answers to these questions.

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