Why Racism is a Feminist Issue

Many black women say that feminism does an insufficient job of representing them, or of standing up for their needs and rights. This is a very real problem, and as a white woman feminist, I care deeply that the women’s rights movement has essentially thrown black women under the bus.

Racism and Feminism

Feminism is about the liberation of all women – all people – from oppression, and too many white feminists routinely ignore the fact that black women suffer not only from the oppression of patriarchy, but also from the oppression of racism.

Too many white feminists routinely ignore the fact that black women suffer not only from the oppression of patriarchy, but also from the oppression of racism.

Taking aim at Queen Bey (whose Formation video has forever changed my life, though I understand that the Queen was not speaking to me when she made it) for calling herself a feminist, one author powerfully writes:

“Working outside of the home is a cornerstone of the feminist movement. From the ’60s to the ’80s, feminists fought for their right to enter the workplace. They no longer wanted to be confined to the role of stay-at-home mother and pushed to be considered equal to men in the workforce. But here’s the thing, Black women never had the luxury of staying at home and mothering their children from 9 to 5. Black women have always been a part of the workforce because we had no choice but to be. In most Black families across America, both parents have always worked. Think about your grandmother or even your great-grandmother … did she nurse, clean someone’s house, keep kids, work as a secretary? Most of our grandmothers did, because our households couldn’t be sustained on a single salary. The feminist fight to step out of the home and into the workforce is not the Black woman’s fight. We’ve been working since we stepped foot off the cotton fields.”

Feminism must be intersectional if it is to succeed. That means that feminism must center anti-racism work in its objectives and address the issues facing all women. It means that white feminists must work actively and consistently to dismantle racism. Feminism that leaves out black women is not legitimate. Feminist work is anti-racism work. Anything else is a failure.

Feminism must be intersectional if it is to succeed. Feminist work is anti-racism work. Anything else is a failure.

Yesterday, Gina Best posted a video of herself on Facebook, talking about the grief and pain she is feeling due to the brutal and unnecessary police killing of her daughter.

Gina’s daughter's name is India Kager. India was killed by Virginia Beach police officers because the man she was with was a "person of interest" in a homicide case and because he allegedly started shooting when officers approached their car. Her four-month old son was also in the car (he was unharmed).

Even if the officers were justified in shooting the man (which has yet to be determined), what on earth could possibly justify using lethal force against an unarmed woman who was not suspected of any wrongdoing whatsoever? But also, even if, for some reason, they were justified in using lethal force against her, we have to ask ourselves: why would they choose to do so? It is difficult to come up with any reason other than that to them, her life did not matter. These officers killed India Kager for no reason - that’s pretty much the definition of a life not mattering. Would they have done so if she and the man she was with had been white?

Killings like this one (which happen much more frequently than many of us would care to admit) are examples of the systemic racism that continues to pervade our criminal justice system and our entire society. White folks, including white feminists, must wake up to the crushing horror and pain systemic racism causes in the lives of our black sisters. A black woman was killed, and her mother mourns, all because of the systemic racism that is rampant in our criminal justice system and throughout all of society. White feminists owe Gina and India our support, and our activism.

White folks, including white feminists, must wake up to the crushing horror and pain systemic racism causes in the lives of our black sisters.

While I am firmly committed to the overarching goal of intersectional feminism, the devil is always in the details.

According to the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, Black women comprise 8% of the U.S. population, but in 2005 accounted for 22% of intimate partner homicide victims and 29% of all female victims of intimate partner homicide. Violence against black women by males is a serious problem (violence against black women by police officers is a serious problem too, but that’s a blog topic for another day; for now, #SayHerName).

A black man killed Janese Talton-Jackson, a black woman, after he tried to pick her up at a bar and she refused his advances.

A black man killed Mary Spears, a black woman, after he tried to pick her up at an event and she refused his advances.

The phenomenon of men inflicting violence on women who refuse them is evidently so common that it has its own Tumblr page.

Of course, it’s not only black women who are killed by men who refuse them. A white teenage boy stabbed Maren Sanchez to death because she didn’t want to go to the prom with him.

Talking about the murders of black women by black men presents a challenge – how do we talk about black male violence against black women without contributing to the narrative that black men are inherently criminal?

The idea that black men are inherently criminal runs deep in American society. A brief review of Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, states:

“’Whites commit crimes, but black males are criminals’”—in exposing the roots of this persistent refrain, one that has justified not only racial violence but the kind of benign neglect that has relegated blacks to the margins of an American social sphere that has historically expanded to incorporate new and different groups, Muhammad shows how this particular mismeasure of man has become foundational to our thinking about modern urban America, and how its insidious logic remains with us to this day.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the notion of “black man = criminal” has permeated our society. In discussing what it feels like to “be a problem,” one author, himself a black man, states:

“The notion that black men are dangerous is one of our country's foundational, organizing principles. The omnipresence of those notions makes them invisible, sanctioned and cosigned by people who don't know better and a whole lot of people who should. The pseudoscience that props it up gets its regular updates, as might the particulars around what constitutes a sign of menace. Whatever the moment, it remains one of our society's great givens.”

Many activists work hard to help us get past this stereotype, yet it remains (if you’re curious about your own biases, you can take a test to find out).

True feminism means fighting for the liberation of all women, which includes naming the violence that black women experience.

True feminism means fighting for the liberation of all women, which includes naming the violence that black women experience. In other words, domestic violence is not only a problem for white ladies. Black women experience intimate partner violence; white feminists have a responsibility to name this, and fight against it, while not perpetuating racist stereotypes of black men.

But this is where the problem arises. We can name violence against white women without fear that the perpetrators, most of whom are white men, will be condemned on the basis of their race. We cannot do so in the case of domestic violence among black people.

Most domestic (as opposed to state) violence against black women is committed by black men; but when we name that, when we stand up for black female victims of domestic violence, we contribute to the narrative of black men as criminals. That narrative is so deep it’s nearly impossible to avoid.

The only way forward is to take on, directly and relentlessly, systemic racism and structural inequalities. Making sure feminism is truly intersectional is one way to do that. Oppression is intersectional, and so is resistance to it - that is why racism is, and will remain, a feminist issue.