Opting for Womanism When Mainstream Feminism Fails Black Lives Matter

By Shannon M. Houston for Salon

I’ve never liked the word “revolution.” It brings to mind the act of going around in a circle. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, it’s exactly the thing to do if one wants to end up right back where you started. For that reason, I hope what’s happening in America right now is not, exactly, revolutionary.

 The weight that a single word can carry is thrilling, and sometimes terrifying. Literature lovers—even non-believers—can’t help but get a tingle of delight at the start of the Book of John: “In the beginning was the Word…” Forget Adam and Eve, the Heavens and the Earth—for some of us, language is the genesis and the revelation, and the words we use are, for that reason, never arbitrary. This is especially true for the words we use to describe a movement, or words used to self-identify. “Feminist” is one of those words that carries a lot of weight, but it’s almost laughable how so many people—especially women—are repelled by it. In a recent interview with Vulture, the great Emma Thompson broke it down like this:

“Most women who I would want to listen to wouldn’t have any problem at all with the word feminist… It’s bizarre. Any woman who says they’re not a feminist is basically saying that they don’t believe in equal rights for women.”

It’s clear that her intention was to address those mind-boggling women who refuse to support feminism because they’ve been convinced that feminism is about man-hating, or forcing abortions on women everywhere, or anything other than simply advocating for equal rights for women. But in her critique, Emma Thompson may have left out a different group of women who don’t identify as feminists because they see so little of themselves in public feminist discourse.

 These are the women who cannot ignore the fact that the founder of Planned Parenthood was a proud racist who subscribed to eugenics. They are the women who furrowed their brow at Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech; the women who can’t get past a certain aspect of Amy Schumer’s comedy (some have called it ignorance, others believe it’s just plain old racism, or lazy, race-based humor). For the record, I adore Schumer, but it’s important to consider the fact that a brilliant sketch like “Last Fuckable Day” simply wouldn’t work with a group of black actresses, who already aren’t seen as “fuckable” in the same way as their white counterparts. They’re the women who, whether they watched the recent MTV VMAs or not, paid close attention to the headlines reporting on Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus, and right now they can’t even begin to watch Taylor Swift’s all-white music video set in Africa. Black women concerned with black lives have always had a complicated relationship with feminism, which often is assumed to come with “[white]” in front of it.

The good news is that [white] feminism has never been free of critique, and the same is true today. More and more women—including young celebrities like Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard —are calling for an intersectional feminism. And that’s great. Feminism, like all concepts and movements, would do well to consider the variety of people affected by the issues it seeks to address. But—and I say this with no intention of aligning myself with the ignorant people behind those “I Don’t Need Feminism” signs—there’s a reason the women participating in the Black Lives Matter movement do not need [white] feminism, and the reason is womanism.
1. From womanish… a black feminist or feminist of color… A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or non-sexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or non-sexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Read the full definition here.
What ever happened to womanism? Many of us know the term, and are fond of quoting Alice Walker’s lovely descriptor: “womanist is to feminist what purple is to lavender.” So why are we fighting for and demanding an intersectional feminism when one already exists? Is it possible that the energy we spend explaining (again, and again) that you cannot talk about gender without talking about race, class and sexual identity might be better spent pushing for more usage of the word “womanism” (which is sometimes aligned with black feminism, though there are important distinctions between the two), and embracing and re-imagining its ideas?

The differences between womanism and feminism are obviously much more complicated than the simplified image of purple vs. lavender. Womanism appeals to many black women because it places not just women but community at the center of its focus. Feminism attempts to do this too, but the black community remains burdened with a very unique set of issues in America, hence the need for a specific kind of feminist communal thinking. For many of us who want to fight for reproductive rights, wage equality and for more diversity in Hollywood (all incredibly important and relevant issues, which are not divorced from race), we can’t help but find the issue of the actual right to be black in America somewhat more pressing.

Black women fighting for gender equality and black lives don’t necessarily need to continue to look to feminism to embrace our concerns. In other words, in the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t need white empathy or black respectability to function—two things we are often told we do need, to some degree—black women working against multiple forms of oppression do not need [white] feminism, when we already have access to womanism and/or black feminism.

Photo: Patrick Record

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor and a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter @shannonmhouston.

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