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Women of Color and Feminism: A History Lesson and Way Forward

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Written by Anthea Butler for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

I was not surprised when I viewed Amanda Marcotte's presentation on online feminism at this year's Netroots Nation conference, in which she pointed mostly to young, hip, white female bloggers writing today. While there are many women of color blogging at sites like the Crunk Feminist Collective, women of color were represented in Marcotte's PowerPoint presentation by one stock photo of a Black woman holding car keys, with a statement about how online feminists are "driving the movement forward." The PowerPoint slide is indicative of a larger problem in feminism: the inability to see or identify with women of color who are feminists. It's not a good look, but then again, this slight is not unexpected given the history between white women and feminists of color.

My purpose in this piece is not to bash Amanda Marcotte—a contributor here at RH Reality Check—but to illuminate some of the long history of tension between the feminist movement and women of color. Writing this piece in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial has not been easy. Is it always going to be this way? Will it always be this difficult to come together with white feminists, as women of color, to work on the many pressing issues in this country, including the rollback of women's rights, specifically reproductive rights?

The tension between white feminists and feminists of color has existed for a long time, in part because of race, class, and positionality. It is fair to ask, "Why is it so hard for white feminists to embrace, celebrate, and partner with their sisters of color?" Is intersectionality just a dream, or can we work past this conundrum?

It is time for white feminists to become more aware of their internalized compliance to the "isms" that threaten to divide us all, from historical and contemporary perspectives. How can we come together without being torn apart by the other "ism" that threatens feminism: racism? A brief look at the history of the feminist movement and women of color, and a prescription for our future together, is long overdue.

A History of Privileged Positions

Women of color have never had the luxury of simply focusing on women's issues. Considerations of race, racism, and economic and social injustices have always intertwined with issues of patriarchy and sexism. Women of color who also hold feminist beliefs are also acutely aware of how their communities, broadly defined, are affected by outside forces. One classic standoff in the history of the women's movement and feminism was between journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells and women's suffragist Frances Willard. Wells wanted Willard to recognize the problem of lynching in the South, but Willard believed that Black men were drinkers and responsible for the rape of white women. It's reprehensible, yes, but Willard's privileged position kept her from seeing the issues that were important for the Black community and Ida B. Wells. It also showed how she bought into the narrative of stereotypes about African-American men, accepting the trumped-up notion that African-American men, presumed to be more alcoholic than white men, were a sexual menace to white women and were being properly targeted. Wells fought against this strenuously, and their battle strained relationships between African-American and white women in the suffrage and temperance movements.

Even with the advent of the fully-formed feminist movement in the post-civil-rights-movement 1970s, Black women and other women of color were regulated to the sidelines, while white women became the face of feminism. As Gloria Steinem's good looks were heralded as the face of feminism, other women of color were partnering together to work for a common cause. The Combahee River Collective Statement from 1977 chronicled the genesis, interests, and issues Black feminists faced, and their statements still resonant today. The statement importantly noted that Black feminists were interested in combating a "range of oppressions." It said, "We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have."