Black Women, White Women and the Solidarity Question

800px-Audre_Lorde,_Meridel_Lesueur,_Adrienne_Rich_1980

L to R: Audre Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur, Adrienne Rich

If [Lily Allen] cannot employ women of color in her obvious attempt to call attention to the system by amplifying its absurdity, and she can’t ever critique women of color in any way via satire with legitimacy or without horizontal hostility presented as feminist criticism, we as feminists have a problem.

So wrote a former student of mine, Joey Lusk, in response to a Facebook conversation that I initiated in which I asked why black women were often invoked in popular culture as the ultimate in “excess”—from the sexual excess of twerking bodies to the violent excess of Rihanna’s bruised face plastered all over TMZ.

I also remember Joey quite well. (She engaged in a provocative, multiracial, spoken-word performance that invoked the powerful words of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich and Ntozake Shange, among other feminist poets.) As a white woman, Joey interacted in a powerful performance of interracial solidarity and sister-bonding when she and another black female performer created a dual “talk back” to popular music when they recited Sarah Jones’ satirical “Your Revolution.”

It is because I remember Joey’s commitment to multiracial feminist solidarity that I decided to reflect more deeply on Lily Allen’s music video “Hard Out Here.”

Like several other black women, I took umbrage at Allen’s re-appropriation of the highly sexualized twerking/booty-shaking black female body in her video—meant, no doubt, to mock Miley Cyrus’s own appropriating behavior. Nonetheless, the visuals had the effect of canceling out the intended mockery by reinforcing the white supremacist gaze that went unchallenged by Allen’s own “this is not about race” perspective that reproduced her racial privilege and power.

So, in answer to Joey’s remarks: Yes, we as feminists do have a problem. Because a white female artist who is clearly disturbed by the overly sexualized depictions of women in popular culture should be able to parody the issue (as women artists from Pink to the aforementioned Sarah Jones to so many others have done). But first she would have to recognize black women’s full humanity, their racially coded differences and their own particular struggles with what Moya Bailey calls “misogynoir”—which functions somewhat differently from the general misogyny that non-black women face. Our racially coded bodies matter, and no amount of “this is not about race” disavowals will change that.

How do the twerking bodies of women of color contribute to the fat-shaming pressures Lily Allen faces compared to super-thin white runway models, for instance? And considering that neither “video vixens” nor Allen would ever be chosen for the runaway (in addition to thinness, women of color are still vastly under-represented in the beauty industry—just ask Iman and Naomi Campbell), aren’t these highly sexualized women differently positioned and thereby disruptive of the critique Lily Allen offers about liposuction and fat-shaming? Black women tend to feel pressure to be curvier. To appear lighter. To wear our hair straighter. But these different gendered pressures are not addressed in Allen’s video because, in the end, she is not interested in finding common ground. Black women’s bodies are employed here, not to create solidarity in the struggle against sexism but to heighten racial difference.

And these issues are so much bigger than Allen.This controversy emerged around the same time that I returned from the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) conference in early November, where I had witnessed a white feminist scholar appropriate my work—along with the work of other black feminists—without any citation while proceeding to misidentify black historical figures, misinterpret our intersectional experiences with sexuality and misrepresent our sexual images to reinforce the centrality of white female sexuality.  That I and other black feminist scholars present there caused a stir is not indicative of “horizontal hostility;” it’s indicative of feminists who wish to hold each other accountable and to push past imperialist and white supremacist impulses that constantly undermine our liberation from patriarchy.

We as feminists have a problem. Because the subject of solidarity—joining in each other’s struggles, having each other’s backs and building coalition—should not be reduced to a Twitter hashtag.  That Mikki Kendall’s Twitter-trending #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen resonated for so many highlights a continuing frustration that Audre Lorde addressed in 1979 when she told an audience at NWSA: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Nearly 35 years later and women of color have questioned the silence of some white feminists when Quvenzhané Wallis was insulted by The Onion, or the ability of a white mother and juror to identify with a batterer like George Zimmerman more than with the mother of Trayvon Martin, or why some white feminists would bristle and “slut-shame” Beyoncé when she graced the cover of Ms. but have no qualms about identifying Miley Cyrus as a “feminist” in spite of her problematic use of the bodies of women of color.

I raise these issues because, whatever the intentions of Kendall, I no longer wish to utter “solidarity is for white women” with sarcasm. We need to seriously reclaim solidarity and redefine the mission of a multiracial feminist movement in which racism is dismantled and our rage is put to better use. When a Renisha McBride can’t seek help after a car accident without getting gunned down because a white man perceives her as a “threat” and not as a vulnerable subject, we need to have meaningful conversations on what solidarity looks like, how it will operate and how it must not serve one sect of privileged women. We are not props or theoretical talking points for white feminism. We have lives that need protecting and valuing. Now, more than ever, solidarity is about saving lives and affirming them.

Of course, I could conclude—like some feminists of color have done—that this is an exercise in futility and a pointless conversation. Some have already disavowed feminism and reclaimed other labels. I could find solace in simply being a “womanist.” But Alice Walker already defined the womanist as “not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”

Once I rest up and find healing in my “sistah circle,” I still have to navigate my way back to the wider circle—where there are no safe spaces and no bright lanterns clearly indicating which front porches and which houses are “safe houses” on the Underground Railroad.  We enter with the hope of solidarity, bracing for betrayal, grateful for genuine alliances and connections when we find them.

Bernice Johnson Reagon once argued that coalition-building is not about “looking for a home.” It’s about struggle. In the quest for solidarity, the struggle continues.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

hobson_170Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (SUNY Press, 2012) and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005), and a frequent contributor to Ms.

Comments

  1. Great article. Sadly, the many elements of the women’s movement have become so racially factionalized & issue myopic that we cannot function effectively as a whole. To have any real concrete effects on social policy & the many dire issues confronting us that demand our attention we have to work as one. The art of coalition building needs to return. The current state of the women’s movt of total paralysis with one faction over another jockeying for more power just isn’t working. This in no way means racial issues within the movt don’t get addressed, but they cannot overshadow & even sometimes sabotage the UNIVERSAL MULTIRACIAL SISTERHOOD that has to love & support each other to GETS SHIT DONE! That must change because we are in a really ugly wave of social rollbacks & the demolition of many of the rights our mothers fought for. The rights of women are being legislatively systematically destroyed state by state. It’s amazing how powerful the right wing has become, and curbing women’s rights is their biggest issue. We’re kind of losing the war so we need to maybe check our own agenda’s at the door for right now (not to forget them, or our individual issues & causes) & look at what we’re facing because it’s really dire.

    • Witchsistah says:

      Your analysis is part of the problem. All your rhetoric amounts to is for women of color to shut up about our issues and simply Mammy our seeing service of the betterment of White women. At least that’s how the “let’s just submerge our differences and work for the greater good” has always panned out.

      I am not “checking my agenda at the door.” I am not going to put my needs and issues second so that Miss Anne can ride high. It’s about time White women just accept that Mammy is dead and gone and try to actually practice real solidarity and not this “me, me, me” crapshoot.

  2. Angela Montgomery says:

    Thank you for this well written article. As a white female who, although raised in the “deep South” was fortunate enough to have a mother who was/is color blind, I realize that no woman will achieve true equality until ALL women, regardless of color, age, sexual orientation, religion, non-religion, upper, middle or poverty class etc. come together and band together as ONE.
    Thank you again and keep fighting the good fight.

    • I think you’re missing how colorblindness is actually really problematic, because it leads to white women denying how we contribute to systemic racism and the oppression/ignoring of Women of Color. If we truly want to support all women, let’s start by listening to and educating ourselves about the issues of women with less privilege, and then start practicing relinquishing power and taking a supporting, instead of a leading, role.

  3. Peggy Smith says:

    Excellent article! We need to have more like this so we can continue to build a sisterhood that is truly powerful!

  4. Thank you for your comments, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Witchsistah says:

    I need for the White women here to quit deliberately missing the point by cloaking this article in some fake solidarity message of “forget about your issues and just work on mine.” I think a great place for White feminists to start is in the service of women of color if they really mean this “solidarity” yarn they are spinning.

  6. Janell Hobson says:

    Is it really so hard to recognize and organize around difference instead of constantly insisting on “sameness”? That’s not what I’m asking for in this article when I talk about solidarity.

  7. Thank you, Janell. I think this is a crucial discussion as clearly the social issues obstructing solidarity are mounting. This brings up many questions regarding identity politics. Allen’s video is a perfect illustration of the issues with which so many of us are struggling. As a white woman (and source of the opening quote) I fully acknowledge that I have the privilege of choosing to struggle with them, as opposed to the existential necessity on the part of women of color. But underlying that privilege is the realization that my social lot as a woman of any color is inextricably tied with the social lots of women who are not white.

    While I would never appropriate the term “womanist”, I too have recurring issues with certain strains of mainstream and characteristically “white” feminism based on more of a Queer Theory critique of humanism and identity politics. The question for me, to which I have no pat answer, is what does solidarity mean for us? Solidarity on issues of race and solidarity as feminists in the face of horizontal hostility seem to be in conflict in this specific larger debate surrounding Allen’s satirical references of black women in the music industry.

    I am increasingly concerned with certain narratives that pit “us v. them”. I’m not dismissing the frustration of women of color, and I own the disheartening contributions of white women to the problem, but I do wonder how I am supposed to ally with women, like commenter Witchsistah, if they increasingly reject me as an individual and lump me in with a larger social phenomenon that encompasses white women who are not feminists and white feminists who are not “doing the work”. As a feminist, I was disturbed to read the following critique by Ayesha A. Siddiqi in Noisey: “Similarly, Lily Allen’s response to sexist industry demands for thinness becomes entirely ineffectual when it lashes out against women who succeed despite those demands. Allen is not savily [sic] critiquing the world of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus, she’s resentfully bemoaning not getting to enjoy the same success.” It was in response to Siddiqi’s piece that I decided to join the discussion which was one of the many impetuses for this article.

    However one might want to parse it, she’s not lashing out at women of color. A lack of sensitivity, a failure to fully explicate a point, and a certain obliviousness, all fair criticisms. Lashing out? Bemoaning her lack of success? Allen’s pretty successful. The idea that she is selfishly whining about a purported lack of success as compared to the success of the nameless black dancers in her video (and many others by other artists black and white) seems to be in direct conflict with charges that she’s obscuring black women’s individuality by appropriating their bodies for her videos. When did we become so complacent in the face of blatant horizontal hostility? I implore anyone to take Allen’s work apart at the seams, but I ask that we do it in a fashion consistent with feminist principles (as you have taken the time to do with your own critique), or own the charge of hypocrisy. Many members of both groups seem to be heir to the folly of “forget about your issues and just work on mine” and that is the crux of my concern with solidarity. If it is OK for women of color to take issue with Allen’s work, it must also be fair for women of any color to take issue with horizontal hostility in any form, particularly when it comes from other feminists as part of an overtly feminist critique.

    Because this is the whole point of examining horizontal hostility – how many women of all colors are complicit in the social narratives that contribute to divisiveness and oppression.

  8. Janell Hobson says:

    Thank you, Joey, both for inspiring this article and for your response to this and other comments. I too am very interested in resisting the “us. vs. them” narrative, which is really a barrier to solidarity, although I wish you could say more about what you mean when you use the term “horizontal hostility.” The term “horizontal” implies that the hostility is being exchanged between equal groups, and is that really what’s going on?

    I think it still goes back to the whole notion of organizing around difference, whatever those differences may be (in this case race). How do we create solidarity and, as Bernice Johnson Reagon says, “coalitional politics,” without letting our differences derail us?

  9. Joey Lusk says:

    Janell, I use “horizontal hostility” to indicate aggressive and fallacious rhetoric used by one woman against another, in a manner which reinforces patriarchal narratives and divisions. I’m all for getting into the differences in social locations and privileges and coalition-building, but from one perspective, while white women and women of color have differences, they’re not nearly as great as the differences between women as a gender and the primary beneficiaries of patriarchy, the minuscule number of wealthy, entrenched white men who maintain the vast majority of power positions in commerce and government.

    Do white women and black women hold social locations which are not equal? Yes. But that in no way should excuse feminists of any kind from using that lack of social equality as shield for perpetuating patriarchal divisions within our own ranks. A rich white woman and poor white woman are not equal either, and yet it is still horizontal hostility for a rich white woman to cast aspersions on a poor white woman for being poor white trash with too many kids. No two groups anywhere in this society are equal: there is the rather specific group in charge, and there is every other group. The most significant accretion of patriarchy that keeps everything in place is horizontal hostility – even when it’s the have-a-littles v. the have-little-a-mores.

    If we as feminists ever hope to promote more change, we must accept that women are horizontally hostile, both through intent and habit, across social locations, and we must stand together against it. In my opinion, there is no respecting of difference that will ever accomplish that united position can do. If we cannot respect each other, we’re never going to get any other other group to respect us. Our internal divisions have always worked against us and they always will, as women and feminists. Respect doesn’t mean we always have to agree, one of feminism’s strengths is its hydra-like existence. When we respectfully challenge one another – when we as women decide to set the example by treating each other as equals in our commitment to feminism – that is when we are truly doing our work. Because that is it – respect, dialogue, exchanges of ideas, experiences, and needs, and ultimately, growth.

    We need a strong difference “head” of our hydra to be in constant dialogue with a strong commonality “head” and both of them need to be in constant dialogue with all the other heads it takes to fully encompass the awe-inspiring and interdisciplinary behemoth that is feminism. It’s never one or the other – that binary must die. It is both and all. None of us can ever get it right on our own because it’s not about a single perspective. It’s about the strength we draw from our connections with one another, the support we desire to receive and share.

  10. Black women should have never joined the white feminist movement.

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