Womanism: Where All the Women are Black and All the Blacks are Women

by Suzanne Forbes-Vierling, PhD

I’ll never forget the day that one of my friends babysat my 9 year old daughter, Jasmine, for a few hours. I returned home to a hilarious sight: There was my German friend Jeannine looking up at me with a resigned look on her face and her waist-length hair slicked back with Ultra Sheen. My daughter had a big 'ole brush in her hand vigorously brushing the oil into my friends hair. My daughter looking up at my awe-struck face and said “Hi Momma!” as she continued brushing, braiding and oiling away.

It hit me then. My daughter’s response was the result of doing many things to raise my daughter in such a way where she does not internalize white supremacy as superior and black culture as inferior. For example, my daughter attended a K-8 Asian private school in the absence of an African American private school. I blocked BET so she would never know that the station existed. She never watched the horrific music videos from the 90s where portrayals of Black people were at the height of degradation, with sexualized Black girls and gangster Black boys the daily norm. Her psyche during her formative years was free from pollution.

Most importantly, she grew up with strong, self-reliant “aunties”— an exclusive group of Black women from the U.S., Switzerland and the UK, who gathered monthly at my house for sistah circles. She was tiny but she listened to deep, intelligent thoughts and insights from Black women. Everything from relationships to investments to business practices to just being a woman. My daughter saw herself as central. So central – as opposed to marginal – that she thought everyone put lotion on their legs and oil in their hair. She moved forward with full confidence as if this was the way it was for everyone. Normal.

I was overjoyed. As a womanist, I raised my daughter to see herself as germane to her existence.

Womanism is a term coined by author Alice Walker and defined by Sojourner Truth, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde and bell hooks.

These are our intellectual matriarchs.

A Womanist is a Black woman, inclusive of all social class levels and LGBTQ, living in White male and female supremacy and oppressed Black male oppression.

Our first Womanist, Sojourner Truth, learned the hard way what it meant to think that one belongs in White women spaces simply because you share the same reproductive parts. In 1858 during a wealthy White women’s rights gathering, she thought Black women were included because words of justice and equality were thrown about. The audience was so disgusted at the sight of a Black woman in their space. Sojourner Truth had to take off her blouse and expose her breasts declaring “Aint I a Woman?”

This has not changed to this day. Most of us have to say “Black Feminist” as a way to introduce themselves into White female spaces formed to battle White patriarchal oppression.

I am always perplexed as to why we dismiss the contributions of Hill-Collins, hooks and others by not carrying the torch that they lit. These are our sisters who gave us a paradigm in which to grow and thrive.

As an academician, researcher and dissertation chairwoman, it is a rule to acknowledge those who made significant contributions in a particular area of study.

What is the goal of struggling to penetrate feminism when Black women created a paradigm for us? Struggling to explain to White women what it means to live in their world is a complete waste of time. Are we asking White women to acknowledge their privilege? Okay, so let’s say they do acknowledge their privilege. And then what? Are we then asking them to abandon their privilege? Another thing that aint gonna happen. What is the point?

As if one day – White women are going to wake up and refuse their men of sex and blond children until he grants justice to all. Aint gonna happen. We waste time begging white women for inclusion into their movement when the truth is that we have so much work to do in ours.

Our issues are major and include economic security and legacy issues for ourselves and families; victimization by sociopaths including those who participate in human trafficking of children and adults, child sex predators, some pastors, and serial killers; the billion dollar business of warehousing our children in foster care, special education and juvenile detention; LGBTQ justice; internalized self-hate; and transgenerational trauma. And there is much more.

Think we have time to be squeezing ourselves into White spaces?

Womanism gives us our own space as Black women – no explanation necessary. It is so freeing that you don’t even need to say “Black” because we are in our essence of being. Womanism means “Black Woman.” Feminism always requires a descriptor, or a preface. In White feminist spaces, we are considered an aside and we must always qualify who we are with some type of title. For example, I’ve seen “Urban Feminist,” “Black Feminist,” Conservative Black Feminist,” and “Center Right Black Feminist.”

Womanism allows us to dive deep into what we want to talk about – whether it be gossiping about a crazy outfit on a singer, a parenting debate or a serious social justice issue. We can work on solutions without having to explain why we are discussing an issue in a certain way. We exist in intersectionality and we are allowed to go there. Feminism leaves us stuck at “hello” constantly explaining why race and social class matters. At most, we get a break out session at some high brow conference just to shut us up. This classic move eases White female leaders’ discomfort by making it a choice for conference participants whether they want to hear what we have to say.

Emotionally, because Womanism allows us to treat our issues as germane, we experience relief, exaltation and almost healing with having the opportunity to talk with one another in detail and for hours, days, months, years. Emotionally, Feminism leaves us in a state of triggered transgenerational trauma after responding to stupid questions about race and class only for White women to deny their supremacy with a “well this issue is really universal – it’s not just about race or Black women only!” That feeling, as many of you know – is not fun.

Womanism honors our scholars who illuminated in print, our experiences and feelings. Classic analysis that has stood the test of time. Feminism simply does not acknowledge our intellectual contributions. We are really viewed by feminists like a social worker views a family on her caseload.

Over the past 25 years I’ve worked in child welfare, foster care, children’s mental health, higher education. I'm privileged to be in many diverse spaces. I’ve attended many conferences and think tanks funded by wealthy foundations. I’ve never seen Black women get to do a dive into real solutions for Black women’s issues without having to make White women comfortable and safe in the process, lest the solution considered too radical or goddess forbid, labeled as “separatist.”

We need to stop wasting time struggling for inclusion in White women spaces. We deserve the opportunity to address our issues fully and proactively. Today, more than ever, Black women need to come together in unity. Let’s live out loud and free!

Photo: Shutterstock

Suzanne Forbes-Vierling, PhD is the Department Chair for the College of Behavioral Sciences at Argosy University, San Diego. She is a licensed clinical counselor and teaches West African Dance! You can follow her on Twitter @suzannevierling and like her Facebook pages Beautiful, Feminine Black Women & Tribal Energy Cardio.

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