Feminism's ugly internal clash: Why its future is not up to white women

From Beyoncé to the Internet to different policy priorities, white and black feminisms are not the same. Here's why

Published September 24, 2014 5:45PM (EDT)

Beyonce       (AP/Jordan Strauss)
Beyonce (AP/Jordan Strauss)

Earlier this week, I received an email from a reader who wondered what my work might look like if I “included the feminist perspective.” Since black feminism infuses and shapes all of my politics, I laughed. Then I read the excellent debate between Rebecca Traister and Judith Shulevitz about the future of feminism in the pages of the New Republic. I always find Traister’s work to be insightful, compelling and committed to challenging the continued whiteness of feminism.

But here’s the thing: The future of feminism is not up to white women. Not by themselves anyway.

Traister acknowledged this forthrightly, writing: “the two people embarking on this exchange are white, educated, middle-class women who live in New York City.”

Three weekends ago I sat in a church basement in Ferguson, Missouri, dialoguing with local young people about how to build a gender-inclusive racial justice movement to combat police brutality. My refrain to them was that “our generation must learn the lessons of the '60s.” And even though this political moment – the war on black communities, the police repression of black men, the war on women’s reproductive rights  -- feels like the '60s, this is the remix. And we have the advantage and hindsight of history to guide us to the world we are fighting for. As I listened to young women tell me how they had been sexually harassed and treated with derision by young men in Ferguson, I kindly offered insights that I gleaned from reading black women like Barbara Smith, Toni Cade Bambara, and Pauli Murray – black feminist pioneers -- talking about organizing in the '60s. Several of the young women came to me and said, “these things were happening to us, and we didn’t have the language for it.”

Feminism gives us language to name experience.  Having language that helped me to understand that sexism matters as much as racism was critically important. In a political moment in which we are expending our political energy fighting for justice for Michael Brown and John Crawford, while black men fail to muster sustained cultural outrage against Ray Rice for brutalizing his wife, that language feels incredibly important. When Daniele Watts is harassed by the LAPD, and the local leader of the NAACP calls on her to apologize, or two black teen girls are slain in Florida and almost no one is talking about it, having a politic that melds the two feels like an unequivocal necessity.

Rebecca Traister lays out a range of political imperatives that I agree with 100 percent: federally mandated paid sick leave, federally subsidized childcare, federal equal pay protection, repealing the Hyde Amendment, passing the ERA, and electing a feminist woman president. I know that each and every one of those policy mandates would at some level improve the lives of women of color, and in particular black and Latina women who are disproportionately poor and disproportionately recipients of public aid.

But it is the disbelief and anxiety (and myopia) that frames the first several responses from Shulevitz that gives me great pause. Her first response declares that “feminist internet discourse doesn’t do much for me.” And she also cites Michelle Goldberg’s infamous “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” (in which I’m quoted) as an example of why Internet feminism has nothing to say that she finds compelling.

It never occurs to Shulevitz that Internet feminism is not ultimately for and about her or her needs in any specific sense. Moreover, her stale and unoriginal attempt to cast Beyoncé as feminist straw-woman is seriously bad argumentation. Though I am absolutely here for Beyoncé’s feminism as I have said in multiple places, what I am interested in is the way that women of color, and in particular black women, float in the background of Shulevitz’s responses informing her anxiety about a feminism driven by Beyoncé and the Internet.

As Michelle Goldberg’s piece made clear, Internet feminism is a place where young women of color, black women in particular, hold an inordinate amount of power and influence. This makes many, many white women deeply uncomfortable. Shulevitz, it seems, is one of them. Thus Shulevitz makes clearly problematic claims that seem self-aware, but are ultimately not. She writes:

Would the exclusion of mostly minority home health care workers and others at the low end of the pay scale from paid-sick-leave legislation be grotesque, unjust? Absolutely. Should we take the legislation if we can get it? Absolutely. We build from there.

Those are the kinds of pronouncements that middle-class white women can make definitively without ever thinking twice. But I come from a community where many black women, including some of my female family members, eventually end up as home healthcare aides precisely because job opportunities are limited. They are workers who are most vulnerable to the system and most often in need of sick leave because of the kind of strenuous labor involved in lifting, washing, moving and caring for another person.

When I read what comes off as a kind of self-assured smugness, I think to myself, “The future of feminism can not be left to the hands of white women.” And while I hope that more white feminists have the kinds of expansive knowledge of black women both historically and in the present that Rebecca Traister takes great care to present in her responses, white privilege allows most white women not to have to do this kind of work, not to have to cultivate this kind of empathy for women who are not white.

But there is also the question of how different a broad black feminist political agenda would be. Having endured several days of watching the Ferguson police department use military weapons on largely peaceful protesters, many young black women, particularly those drivers of online feminism, are not great believers in the ability of the federal government to ameliorate challenges facing black communities.

Our feminism looks like an end to police repression of minority communities, access to quality public schools that do not expel our children for minor infractions, and an end to the prison industrial complex, which locks up far too many of our men and women, fracturing families and creating further economic burdens when our loved ones are released. We need comprehensive healthcare and access to abortion clinics, but we also need a robust mental healthcare system, that can address long centuries of racist, sexist, sexual and emotional trauma. We need equal pay, yes. But we also need good jobs, rather than being relegated to an endless cycle of low-wage work.

White women’s feminisms still center around equality, a point on which Traister and Shulevitz converge. Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference.  One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation.

I recognize, too, that Beyoncé’s brand of feminism is also about equality, rather than justice. That is why even though I am a huge fan, she is not my feminist icon or role model. In fact, she could stand to sit in on a few of my women’s studies intro courses. But Beyoncé’s feminism, like all of ours, is evolving, offering her a language to understand what it means to be a black woman in this moment in history with the level of power, capital and sex appeal that she possesses. That she both embraces and grapples with the language of feminism so forthrightly is something worth applauding.  And what I learn from her and appreciate her for is that she provides a grammar for unapologetic black female pleasure in a world that only loves black women’s affect, verve and corporeality, when white women like Iggy Azalea, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus adopt and perform it.

For feminists or “caregiverists” as Shulevitz calls herself, that kind of talk is scary and beside the point. It’s also “inappropriate” for her young daughter, as she noted on Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry. Constructing public displays of black female sexuality as a danger to white children cannot possibly lead us to a just and racially inclusive feminist politic.

So what we need feminism to give a care about is not simply or primarily the plight of white middle-class, putatively straight, American moms and their children, but rather the plight of non-white, non-middle-class, non-straight, non-cisgender, non-American women and children.  Black feminism taught me that.

For me, that means practically, that I do care what happens in American politics, because cuts to food stamps, the defunding of public schools, and the inaccessibility of the full benefits of Obamacare in certain states, affect black women I love. It means I care that the justice department investigates Darren Wilson. It means I care that the president not use his one racial justice program to talk only about the social issues of boys of color. But it also means that when I look to a vision of the world I want to see, I look to young women of color, who meld race, gender and queer politics into an expansive, inclusive,and just vision of the world. This is a world where everyone’s lives are made better, white women included.

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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