White Feminists Cannot Ignore Black Women's Fight for Reproductive Justice

by Kesiena Boom

There is an understandable distrust of the feminist movement amongst many Black women. Historically, the push for women’s emancipation has been a facade for the perpetuation of a specific form of ‘empowerment’ only relevant to privileged white women. This shallow conception of feminism relies on a glorification of “equality”—that is, equal access to patriarchal, neoliberal systems created by white men to exploit the physical and intellectual labours of women and people of colour. In contrast, Black feminism revels in the idea of “liberation”: we have no interest in standing on the backs of our sisters and brothers in order to grow bloated on a slice of the ruling classes’ pie. Instead we seek a future free from the structures which are inherently exploitative. We seek a future in which success does not have to come from the blood, sweat, tears, and suffering of others.

The feminism of the white mainstream is the status quo masquerading as progression. The giddy glorification of corporate power as exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg or Hillary Clinton has no bearing on transforming the lives of those who are not interested in showering the women below them in shards as they shatter the glass ceiling. As such, the wider feminist movement must come to a more nuanced understanding of itself and who it is fighting for. “Woman” must no longer be seen as synonymous with “white” in the imagination of activists and a real transformation of feminism must occur based on the radical idea that Black women are women too.

This is especially pertinent in the supposed ‘age of intersectionality’, where the meaning behind the term has been co-opted, obscured and misconstrued and it has become what Jennifer Nash, in her 2008 article titled “Re-Thinking Intersectionality”, terms an “institutionalized intellectual project,” through which misguided theorising is becoming detrimental to the radical power of understanding the oppression of Black women in its multiplicity. We must reclaim intersectionality as an active tool and discard the empty buzzword that white feminists use to garland themselves and assuage their guilt.

The area of reproductive justice is a perfect case study to exemplify how the feminist movement can use intersectional analysis to better conditions not only for Black women but for all. A trickle down approach that focuses on continually bettering the conditions for white women in the higher echelons of society is essentially useless. Instead, we improve things from the bottom up to ensure we’re not forgetting those women in our most vulnerable populations.

The maternal mortality rate for Black women is at least 3 times as high as for white women. In New York, there are 79 deaths in childbirth per 100,000 births for Black women—a rate that is nearly 8 times as high as the death rate for white women. Motherhood is an area that feminism has dedicated reams of literature to, so why no strident moves to tackle the causes of Black women dying whilst giving life? Is it because this cannot be stopped with a handy slogan, a glittery sew-on patch, or a nifty hashtag? Is it because the reality of death and flesh and Black women is too much to face up to? An issue of this magnitude will never be tackled by the one-dimensional feminist campaigning so beloved of the mainstream feminist movement.

Feminism needs to be tackling race, class, and gender at the root—and the vile ways they interact—in order to get close to solving this problem. We will never enact change without a full-scale conversion of our ways of living. The feminism of white women needs to move past its fledgling formative stage in which Band-Aids are applied to gaping wounds. In particular it needs to do this without continual mental and physical effort from Black women who are already exhausted by existing in white supremacist patriarchy. That is, white feminists need to be responsible for their own education and enlightenment without relying on the intellectual endeavours of Black women. Black women already produce so much literature and art and poetry and essays and novels detailing our oppression, and we do this on our own terms. White feminists would do well to flock to these instead of clamouring at Black women to talk them step-by-painful-step through how to use their whiteness in less destructive ways.

The state of California was responsible for forcibly sterilizing around one hundred and fifty female inmates over a ten year period, and these are just the ones that came to light. We know the prison system is notoriously racist, so I wonder how many of these women forced into sterilization were Black. How many Black women have been wrongfully sent to prison and then denied proper pre- and post-natal care? This is a feminist issue with the ugly taint of racism. This disgraceful violation of human rights went un-protested and unheard for years. And it’s not as though no one knew; it’s just that no one cared. And all too often that’s the story behind the abuse of women and especially Black women.

Futhermore, Ferguson has highlighted what Black women in America have always known to be true: Police brutality creates a climate of fear in which the reproductive freedom of Black women is impeded. The World Health Organisation defines reproductive rights as follows:
Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the racial climate of the USA can argue that the current situation in which Black people are murdered with impunity DAILY is conducive to feeling like any decisions surrounding childbearing are free from “discrimination, coercion, and violence.” A feminist movement that wasn’t so obsessed with appearing to be intersectional, and was actually concerned about the women who lie at the junction of Blackness and womanhood would be up in arms about this systematic extermination. Police brutality would be at the top of the list of feminist issues.

Dark times call for drastic measures. White feminists should refuse to marry, sleep with, care for, or in any way support white men in the police force. At this point joining the police is an act of racist violence and ought to be viewed as such. White feminists would do well to be at the front line, protecting Black people from the triggers of white police officers drunk on power and ensconced in deep-seated racial hatred. White feminists must come to Black organisers and say, “We are here for you, we will do what needs to be done,” if we ever truly want this senseless violence to end. White feminists need to be outraged; they need to seep their fury into their families, and to their friends. We need white feminists to be unrelenting in their support, not just when it suits them or when they feel comfortable.

The collective power of feminism is strong, look at the advances that have been made for women in the last one hundred years or so. Once upon a time it was unthinkable that we would ever be able to vote. So I can’t accept that the reason white feminists have done so little to help Black women is because they lack the ability. Sadly I think it is that they lack either the empathy and/or have the privilege of not knowing how deep the abuse of Black women in society runs. This is the kind of thing that truly compassionate feminist politics should be working to eviscerate. Yet empty campaigns lead by white figureheads such as the recent #HeForShe fiasco gloss over the truth of the problems our world is facing and, instead, couch their messages in soft, meaningless rhetoric without facing up to the hard facts. Emma Watson’s much lauded ‘feminist’ speech at the UN did not even mention the words “racism” or “patriarchy.” What progress can be made when white feminists cannot even confront the raw truth of reality? How will we ever get the systemic change that will help those stepped on in the depths of society?

White feminists would do well to remember that assimilation does not and will not ever lead to liberation. The only way forward is for white feminists to stop pandering to the wilful ignorance of oppressors and begin to start the fight for liberation from the bottom up. Black women are not an afterthought, a token, or a decoration for diversity.

We need change and we need it now.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Kesiena Boom is a Black lesbian feminist and writer who adores Audre Lorde, sisterhood and the sociology of sexuality. She is twenty years old and also writes for Autostraddle.com.

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