Black Woman, White Movement: Why Black Women are Leaving the Feminist Movement

Black feminists seek emancipation from the norms and expectations of typical white women. In a society where the Black female body is appropriated, Black feminists are clamoring to be seen as an everyday type of beauty rather than exotic.
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In this space, I continue to publish blogs from University of Delaware students as part of my Blog Blog Project. What follows is a blog from UD Senior, Georgina Class-Peters, who is majoring in Political Science and International Relations. Here, she examines the conflict between Black and White women in the women's movement.

The Women's Liberation movement fought to bring hardships of womanhood to light; from suffrage rights to income inequalities, the movement has, and is, continually addressing issues that inhibit women to live a fully free life. However, fragmentation within the women's movement, specifically between Black and White women, has contributed to the rapid decline of the movement and hindered the effectiveness of a shared collective identity. According to Black Feminist scholar Barbara Smith, the Black Feminist movement focused on reproductive issues, equality in healthcare prevention of sexual harassment, and other pertinent issues. Unlike the White feminists, Black feminists are actively fighting against structural and institutional racism.

African-American women who initially joined the movement soon left because the master frames used highlighted the white experience. Though the Feminist movement is making a considerable effort in advocating for women, movement participants seem to use a colorblind approach when dealing with the issues of Black women. As we've discussed in class this fall, racial color-blindness is a sociological term for the disregard of racial characteristics when selecting which individuals will participate in some activity or receive some service. However, colorblindness ignores and in some way invalidates the experience of people. As a result of colorblindness, Black women felt excluded for the Women's Liberation Movement and quickly sought out other movements to join. Women who joined the Black Liberation Movement maintained active roles in the movement. Most women who participated in the movement were volunteers who stayed in the background cooking meals, raising funds and handling logistics to show their commitment to the cause. Their participation in these endeavors legitimized their investment in the movement and solidified their participation.

Racial tensions in the Women's Liberation Movement left a small window of opportunity for African-American women to advocate for their liberation and, although the Women's movement focused on issues affecting all women, it noticeably left out issues unique to Black women. On one hand, black feminists argue that the intersectionality of sexism, class oppression, and racism make the experience of Black Women inherently different. Yet the traditional feminist movement strives to eradicate sexism and class oppression, often at the cost of ignoring race as an inhibitor.

Once established in the early 1960s, the Black feminist movement expanded to incorporate the issues of other minority women and even men. In 2015, the movement has capitalized on social media to proliferate the sentiments of movement participants as well as to gain and maintain allies. As defined by Malcolm Gladwell in Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Televised, social movements are responses to tension in a social, political, economic, or cultural climate. Social movements are non-institutional and challenge elites to create a shift in the dominant culture. All movements have an identity, which can be displayed as political strategy. The goal of a social movement nonetheless, is social activism.

In conceptualizing the modern feminist movement there seems to be a widening rift between African-American and Caucasian women. African-American feminists have used social media to revolutionize how the population and media at large view feminism. The use of Facebook and Twitter hashtags has changed the common misconceptions about who they are or what they believe. For example, Tumblr websites--like Who Needs Feminism--prime feminism through the experiences of ordinary people. The page asks everyday people of all ages, gender, and ethnicities to write down why feminism is important to them. Personal reflections and stories of feminism through social media has great potential to expose new audiences to various facets of feminist theory.

As Black Feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins has pointed out, "Afrocentric feminist thought offers two significant contributions toward furthering our understanding of the important connections between knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift in how we think about oppression. By embracing a paradigm of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression, Black feminist thought reconceptualizes the social relations of domination and resistance. Second, Black feminist thought addresses ongoing debates in feminist theory and in the sociology of knowledge concerning ways of assessing truth." Collins also suggests that by offering subordinate groups new knowledge about their experiences, one can seek to be a source of empowerment, "but revealing new ways of knowing that allow subordinate groups to define their own reality has far greater implications."

Black feminists seek emancipation from the norms and expectations of typical white women. In a society where the Black female body is appropriated, Black feminists are clamoring to be seen as an everyday type of beauty rather than exotic. The movement is pushing for the return of African-American women to African standards of beauty, as seen in the natural hair movement. In a society where only one type of beauty is celebrated, the Black feminist is working so that we not only call silky hair and light skin pretty but also coarse, kinky hair and dark skin. They are fighting to share the experiences of other colored women, as seen in the television program Black Girls Rock. Through the contributions of many prominent African American women, colleges and universities are now starting to offer courses dealing with Black feminist theory, black female thought, and black female studies. Although improvements are being made, media outlets and legislation against rape is the next major battle for feminists in general.

Despite the divide, both feminist groups still struggle to advocate for female liberation in general. Independently, both groups are fighting to change negative thoughts and narratives surrounding their respective constituencies. In their struggle for inclusion, Black feminists have successfully established the womanist movement. This collective is exclusively concerned with eradicating the racial and gender oppression that Black women face. In years to come, I hope to live in an America where women in general are celebrated and sexism is not tolerated.

-- Georgina Class-Peters, University of Delaware Class of 2016