Ms. Magazine
The F Word
The word "feminist" still raises hackles. Is claiming this word all about age, race, and class?

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-First Person: By Any Other Name
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There we were at the Ms. Millennium Conference in October, and damned if it wasn't like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra put it so well, or as someone else said even more succinctly, the same old same old. Here we women were in the year 2000, the much-vaunted new millennium, still split along racial lines about what to call ourselves. White women were telling us that we should proudly and loudly call ourselves feminists, that names and what we name ourselves are crucial in the struggle for social change and equity, that she who controls the language controls the dialogue. Women of color respond that what we call ourselves is less important than the work we do, that names and what we do or do not name ourselves is crucial in the struggle for social transformation and equity, that she who controls the language controls the dialogue. Arriving at different ends, we essentially use the same argument, at least initially.

Unfortunately, what usually happens is that whatever hope there is of real conversation is dashed on the rock of white privilege, something that white women, even feminists, are sometimes loath to admit exists and not something that is solely reserved for white men. There is a refusal to hear women of color when we say that, for many of us, there is no need to call ourselves feminists. That in fact there is a danger in doing so if we want to live and work for a broad social change agenda in our communities.

It seems to me that white women often have a difficult time understanding that for African American women in particular, not naming ourselves sometimes works best. I think this is because, privileged by whiteness, they have no history of and do not comprehend the efficacy of stealth, of communicating indirectly and at the same time clearly. From the singing of spirituals that relayed the escape plans of slaves to what is today known as slang, we are experts at dissembling, the amazing art of passing on information via metaphor.

If in slavery we communicated in these ways to avoid discovery and punishment by plantation authorities, today women of color hesitate to call themselves feminists to avoid discovery and marginalization by men and women in our own communities. It's not cool to be a feminist. It is O.K. to be the stereotypical strong black or Latina woman, since that woman's strength is most often limited to supporting her men and family.

I've been in conversations about this for nearly 30 years, ever since I started thinking, reading about, and intersecting with the feminist movement. What's amazing is how little variation there is in the roles that white women and women of color play in the dialogue, a conversation in which both groups seem locked in their own defensive positions.

Even though I didn't call myself a feminist when I first started becoming one, I call myself a feminist now. Not infrequently in my communities of color, defining oneself as a feminist is greeted with contempt and cries of "dyke!" or "she needs dick." When I was younger, I thought if I didn't call myself a feminist out loud I could navigate more effectively in my community on issues of gender, race, and class, avoid being marginalized. I started calling myself a feminist when I decided that by not doing so, I marginalized myself. A personal and political choice. I understand the white women whose litmus test is the use of the word feminist and the women of color for whom it is not. Still, I'm tired of the discussion about what we call ourselves; it's about as boring as black women still talking about hair. The truth is, I've met more than a few white women who say they're feminists and aren't, and more than a few sisters who would never call themselves feminists but damn sure are. Ultimately, it's about the work of political, social, and economic equality, whatever we call ourselves. I know naming is important and all that, but so is anonymity and adroit guerrilla warfare. On some level, I don't give a damn what you call yourself. In the end, as always, actions speak louder than words.

Jill Nelson is a New York-based writer.

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photograph by henry leutwyler