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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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Nelson is a New York-based writer.
by henry leutwyler