black women and feminism

In a recent essay on The Root, Virginia Tech assistant professor Joycelyn A. Wilson, argues that traditional feminism has failed black women. Wilson, whom some may label a feminist in that she advocates for black women’s full inclusion into all parts of society, writes that she rejects the term because it does not adequately represent the needs and concerns of all black women, regardless of class, education level or access.

Wilson writes:

I am not a feminist, nor do I allow others to identify me as one. (Whew! I finally got that out.) I am not a black feminist, hip-hop feminist or third-wave feminist, and I have chosen not to align my scholarship with the hybrid frameworks born out of the traditional feminisms of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Nor am I an African-American, (neo)conservative woman who defines the empowerment of women according to the patriarchal notions of what women should or should not be doing. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I believe that women are the centers of their families and communities, and the decisions we make — whether it’s whom we marry or whom we befriend — should always honor this queen position.

I began to question the limits of traditional feminism after taking women’s studies courses in college. My discomfort with black feminism, and subsequently womanism, started to take shape in 2007 when I published “Tip Drills, Strip Clubs and Representations in the Media” in Gwendolyn Pough’s edited volume, Home Girls Make Some Noise. Using as my backdrop Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video and the controversy it caused among African-American women and the community at large, I argued for equality for all black women regardless of power, educational status or geographic location, because this glitch in the matrix revealed gaps between poor black women and not-so-poor black women. What created further division is the fact that the video presented complex versions of black female prototypes: dark-skinned and light-skinned; educated and uneducated; and those with degrees and those without, illuminating gaps that indicate, once again, how the risks of filtering our subjectivities through the language of feminism far outweighed the rewards.

Instead of feminism, Wilson offers a “paradigm shift” and a new theory she calls Critical Black Feminine Theory (CBFT), which “prioritizes from the outset the needs, desires, challenges and experiences of the African-American woman” (but not all black women?).

According to Wilson, Critical Black Feminine Theory has six characteristics:

  1. CBFT rejects the term “feminist” or “feminism” because they are “historically colonizing” and “carry too much baggage.”
  2. CBFT moves black women’s stories and experiences to the center, instead of the margins.
  3. CBFT “rejects the use of stereotypical ideologies associated with feminism such as disdain for motherhood, rejections of all things feminine, the idea that ratchet is wrong and pleasure has a “place” or the notion that women who want to empower other women and resist patriarchal structures are undercover lesbians or male-bashers, who would rather ‘procreate’ with other women.”
  4. CBFT “recalls the rituals and traditions of building community that black women have been doing before feminism was even a word.” (My interpretation: Basically, doing what we do but not calling it feminism, even if it could be considered so.)
  5. CBFT “reunites men, women and children in the cypher of discourse regardless of power and status, gender, sexual preference, skin tone, marital status or age. It includes the voices of those characterized as ‘ratchet,’ ‘ghetto’ and unable to speak for themselves under the weight of what Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson calls ‘concentrated poverty.’ (pdf)
  6. CBFT “requires an unapologetic stance that is focused on truth-telling. We ain’t asking for nothing. We are declaring our independence and disassociation from feminism because it has divided our communities for way too long. It has separated black women from one another and black men and women by creating top-down hierarchies and elevated egos that diminish our potential to heal ourselves.”

While I applaud Wilson for attempting to create of new ways to empower African-American women, I can’t help but notice how similar Critical Black Feminine Theory sounds to black feminism, womanism, and all of the other theories black women have offered over the years, and how it seems to leave out our sisters from the diaspora.

Reading Wilson’s essay, I wondered is it all just in the name?

What do you think of Wilson’s Critical Black Feminine Theory? Is it better than feminism for black women?

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