If you were on Twitter this week, you doubtlessly saw the realness that was unfolding in the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen tag originally started by Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia). The tag trended worldwide, and showed women of all colors, from all over, voicing their frustrations with the condescension, erasure and racism they’ve experienced at the hands of feminism.
Understanding where this anger is coming from can be hard for people who haven’t lived it personally, so I’d like to share my experiences in hope of bridging that gap.
When I was a girl, I desperately hated the fact that I was black.
One of my first memories as a child was when I was around four, maybe five. I was looking into my reflection and wanting to cry, because I wanted to be pretty. Why couldn’t I be pretty, like the girls I saw on TV? Why couldn’t my hair flow in the breeze behind me when I played with my friends, or swirl around me in a pool like the mermaid from my favorite princess movie? What did I do wrong to be born so dark and ugly?
I was a really cute kid, and it’s a shame I couldn’t see it.
I hated what I saw of black people whenever I would watch the news with my mother. I thought that we were all doomed to criminality or teenage pregnancy; naturally less bright than all those surrounding us and a burden to the society in which we lived.
My mother took me to a church that was populated entirely with upper-middle class black Americans, both to form a community for both of us as well as show me that black people were so much more than what we saw on the news. Most of the other children my age there relentlessly bullied me to the point of suicidal ideation. I took blackness to mean delinquency at its most typical, and cruelty at its best.
In what I’m now realizing was a deflection from confronting the issues I had with myself, I chose to strongly embrace another aspect of myself instead: my femininity. If it was impossible to be anything as a black person, I thought, I could at least be something as a girl.
Feminism became my lifeblood from those extremely early years onward. I voraciously read every young adult novel with female protagonists – all of which were white – and would critique my favorite television shows for their treatment of their female characters.
Even though it hurt to not see girls like me in my favorite shows or books, I would brush it off; why would they have girls that looked like me in them? Black people were unworthy of inclusion, because otherwise we would have already been included, right?
My extremely intuitive mother must have noticed how intensely I idolized Gloria Steinem, and how I acted as though the civil rights movement had no value because of its misogyny, where feminism was for all women. She took me to womanist conventions to show me what else feminism could be, which I scoffed at.
If white women weren’t involved, I thought, it had no worth. To my mind, white women created feminism. If women of color were involved, they’d have work to talk about, and since we never talked about the works of women of color, they were clearly nonexistent.
When I wouldn’t stop talking about how badly I wanted to go to Lillith Fair so that I could commune with other empowered women, my uncle took me to a Janet Jackson concert. It didn’t even occur to me to think that Janet Jackson could be an icon of female liberation – which she absolutely was – because my idea of female liberation looked like Madonna and Alanis Morissette. Black women, I’d come to believe, couldn’t be liberated without help or inspiration from white women.
My mother tried, my family tried, and God bless them for trying. They tried with the hope that they would be able to get through to the part of me that ached for an inclusion that they knew I wouldn’t find in the venues I dedicated my heart and mind to.
I remained a staunch feminist throughout elementary, middle and high school; through realizations of my beauty and how malformed my ideas of my racial identity were. I owe so much of what I learned then – and who I am now – to the writing of Alice Walker, and her work that showed how race and gender identities were blended, inseparable things that affect women of color in specific, unique ways.
It was around this time that huge issues with feminism began to reveal themselves to me where I’d been too self-loathing to recognize them.
I loved Alice Walker, and I loved how thoroughly her work spoke to my experiences. I loved that I didn’t have to put any part of me on the back burner when reading her work, and I loved how completely, thoroughlyfeminist it was while doing so.
Why, then, was her work never lauded as feminist? Why was she not a household name for women’s liberation in the same way that Gloria Steinem was? Why did only black women talk about her work and influence, when we were women that she liberated with prose and poetry?
…We were still women, right?
This niggling doubt in what had been the foundation of my morality as a child was like a chip in the wall of a dam: I kept noticing more and more examples of pointed erasure of women who looked like me from feminism, and my dissatisfaction became greater and greater. I had never heard of the work of black and brown feminists as a child not because we were unworthy, nonexistent, or only there to be saved; it was because they was being consciously disregarded.
I was being consciously disregarded.
It was during 2008 that the dam completely shattered. I saw the solidarity that I had hinged my self-esteem on during my youngest years laid bare for what it really was, and the sense of belated betrayal it instilled in me was beyond description.
I watched as Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed that pitted race against gender, as though the two could never coexist, and I experienced people denigrating the civil rights movement’s misogyny without paying any mention to feminism’s racism. I heard the exact words that I had lived by as a child repeated back to me, and realized:
They were vile. They were racist.
Oppression in the guise of liberation for another group is still oppression. I had spent so much of my young life hating a part of me on a level that a Klan member would be impressed with, and I was seeing that same hatred coming from the mouths of women who I thought were my sisters in struggle.
It was that year, with the work of women of color being stolen by white feminists, with our experiences being both erased and appropriated at Slutwalks across the country, and with women who looked like me being called “nappy headed hoes” with nary a peep from feminism at large, that I decided that I was done.
Feminism had proven to me that it was for women, but their idea of womanhood didn’t include those who weren’t white. There was solidarity, but it was only for white women and those that refused to criticize them. The illusion had been shattered, and the reality was too alienating for me to continue supporting.
Solidarity was, and is, for white women.
Solidarity is for white women when the contributions of women of color to feminism’s founding are completely ignored.
Solidarity is for white women who call for inclusion of women into popular media, but say that it’s asking far too much that any of those included women be of color.
Solidarity is for white women when your very existence is considered a dividing force.
Solidarity is for white women when this discussion is still happening, centuries later.