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

 

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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of the forthcoming When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.