January 15th, 2014

planet

Ain't I A Woman by Bell Hooks

I felt like I was missing some feminist education, and that education had to do with how racism issues intersect with sexism. So I read "Ain't I a Woman" by Bell Hooks. I'll be honest, looking back maybe I read this out of selfish motivation: I wanted to avoid saying stupid white person shit in online forums. I've done it before, friends. You all think I'm smart but trust me, I've made some mistakes... the worst was years ago, when I posted some oppression olympics whining about why my feminism forum gets trolled surely more than any forum for any other cause. I got jumped on. I sat back and considered what everyone was saying. I realized the people who called me out had good points.

A few chapters in I worried that the book was not going to make me smarter on the internet... I KNOW, most important concern right? There's a lot of history in it, and I did not want to have to start with slavery and wanted to get past the parts where suffragettes wouldn't let black women speak at their conferences, I was like okay I got it. But it all started tieing into this idea that black women have a unique set of questions and stereotypes that deserve examination. There's a lot of analysis about sexual assault of black female slaves and how they had absolutely no power to do anything about it, white owners would give them small tokens to act like it was prostitution, no one wanted to talk about it, white women wanted to do away with slavery because they were tired of their husbands being lead astray by these "temptresses". The powerlessness went on and on, even after slavery ended.

Then black feminists were trying to tell white women their stories, and here's where my mind started laying awake at night thinking about it... they knew that white women would not strike down the patriarchy just by getting the vote in the 20s, nor would second wave white feminists solve all their problems if the employment want ads weren't segregated male vs. female... black women had a unique view of what oppression looked like. And white women, in an effort to focus on the priorities they found easiest to talk about, disregarded the black experiences as unrelated. But they weren't, they were a reflection of issues with power structures that covered every aspect of American society. The sexual assault battles we're fighting today? Someone knew that's what oppression looked like. We would have been so far ahead if we'd have worked together 100 years ago.

I always think about airplanes because I never took women's studies, so allow me to drift off... before the first flight of a brand new model, we call together an assortment of experienced people from all disciplines to look it over for an day or so. Everyone gets a flashlight and a clipboard. Everyone looks for issues, and it doesn't matter who brings up a problem, we take it incredibly seriously, ask ourselves if it's going to make this airplane any less safe to fly.

While I was reading the book, these news stories were circulating around about Caitlin Moran saying she didn't give a shit if a show excluded women of color if it was well written, then there was the one about Ani Difranco holding an event at a former slave plantation and spouting off a "well you can't please everybody" sort of non-apology (she course corrected later). A black father posted a cute picture to twitter of himself fixing his little girl's hair and got a whole slew of awful comments that show how racist and sexist stereotypes come together. I asked Marc if it was just a coincidence that I was reading about racism in the feminist movement while all this crazy racist shit happened to be going on. So weird, right? But who was I kidding. Odds are this stuff happens all the time. Even after all the years acting like we're trying to purge racism from the feminist movement, a lot of us still have knee-jerk reactions to being called out for privilege and are still getting it wrong, at a time when we can do so much good.

I've read posts by people who say feminism is so racist they just don't want to be a part of it, we need a whole new movement or should stop focusing on sexist oppression before we solve race issues in our society... those posts upset me, and Bell Hooks cautions against those ideas too, she says black women definitely need feminism. One quote I highlighted was this:

Oftentimes I am asked by black women to explain why I would call myself a feminist and by using that term ally myself with a movement that is racist. I say, "The question we must ask again and again is how can racist women call themselves feminists."
I have often been at a loss for what to do when people call feminism a racist movement. This week a voice in my head is telling me something... "you're a smart girl. you've got a masters degree. figure it the fuck out."

It cannot be that hard to listen, to mend the fences, to get everyone back into the movement.

I do want to find another book on this topic that was written more recently - this one was first published in the early 80s. But at least this got me thinking about some loftier goals for myself as a feminist... rather than the "don't offend your internet friends". It's not about good manners, it's about finding ways to stop marginalizing people, for the good of an important movement. We're all trying to find ways to make the world better, right? Start by bringing everyone together. I just wrote an entry about defining feminism and how we needed to stop oversimplifying it - it's a complicated field of study. If it was simple, it wouldn't interest me so much. Focusing on anti-racism adds another layer of complication that makes feminism even more "worth" thinking about.

This book blew my mind, and I really hope that this livejournal entry isn't just one more embarrassing case of a white woman telling everyone about black women. If I get feedback along those lines my plan is to revise the entry. I just wanted something out here with my thoughts because that's what I do when I read books, if anything I hope the entry gets someone else to pick this one up and read it.