The Black Female
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
If we care about racism, we should care about all types of oppression and inequality. Discrimination is discrimination. In the same way that People of Colour are marginalised and disadvantaged because of the structures created by white people, women are also marginalised and disadvantaged because of the structures created by men. Black women, therefore, have two glass ceilings to break. They have to overcome racism and sexism. This is an example of intersectionality; a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and now defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: "The interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage". To be black, and to be a woman, is to fall under two such overlapping systems of disadvantage. As Malcom X put it:
"The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America in the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman."
If one needs any evidence that black women, in particular, are a considerably disadvantaged section of society, one only needs to read the fact that black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth to crash back to reality. For our book club read this month, we're reading through Slay in Your Lane, which is turning out to a fantastic compendium of statistics and advice for black women. It is rife with these sorts of recognitions, across many institutions, and it is clear that black women lose out in education, in work and in health. On a related note, this video asks "Why are Black women dying faster and at higher rates than any other group of people in America from preventable, obesity-related diseases?"
Ultimately, it is imperative that antiracism includes feminism. Ibram X. Kendi gives an honest account in his book How to be an Antiracist of how he was brought up as sexist (albeit passively) and takes us through his journey to incorporating his feminism in his antiracism. He recognises the huge, unfair weight of responsibility on the shoulders of black people and women:
“Black people are apparently responsible for calming the fears of violent cops in the way women are supposedly responsible for calming the sexual desires of male rapists. If we don’t, then we are blamed for our own assault, our own deaths.”
To simplify it, I think that if we sympathise with one marginalised group, we should sympathise with all marginalised groups. If we recognise the injustices faced by one marginalised group, we should recognise the injustices amongst all marginalised groups. We should treat people equally, regardless of their race, sex, gender, sexuality, disabilities, religion or wealth.
Reni Eddo Lodge is well known for her best-selling book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race, and there is a great section in there on black feminism, although she also hosts an excellent, probing podcast On Race. One of the episodes is on intersectional feminism. In episode 7 "White Women Crying is Racist" she talks to two women who formed a direct action feminist group called Sisters Uncut who aim to give voices to all women but were "particularly trying to elevate the voices of disabled sisters, sisters of colour etc." Setting up a feminist group, or an antiracist group, is valuable. But we should try to incorporate feminism in our antiracism and antiracism in our feminism (as well as other forms of discrimination).
Laura Bates's book Everyday Sexism is, quite obviously, centred around sexism, but there is a chapter on the sexism experienced by minorities. She reports that almost 1 in 5 black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in the uk is unemployed, compared to 1 in 14 white women (APPG on race and community 2012). Also, when discussing the stereotypes attributed to black women in particular she writes that:
"The idea of black women as 'exotic', hyper-sexualised creatures can be seen again and again in cultural stereotypes. Try typing 'pretty' into Google image search and you are greeted with pages and pages and pages of white women's faces (the fashion industry is notoriously white; of the seventy-five British Vogue covers since the beginning of 2008 black women have featured in just three while Kate Moss alone has graced nine); but type in 'sexy' and far more women of colour appear though they do remain far less represented than white women."
This stereotype is well critiqued in many books and must be challenged. Me and White Supremacy also about this hyper-sexualised association with black women, as well as their apparent 'anger'. It must be said that if I was constantly pushed to the bottom of the pile because of wide-ranging, deeply-engrained structural racism, I'd be fucking angry. The truth is, these stereotypes are lazy, untrue and deeply damaging. Slay in your Lane articulates these associations made by black men as well. Again, the duality of being black and a woman results in double the prejudice.
Again, let me make clear, it is not enough to be antiracist. We have to be feminist. And it is not enough to be a feminist, we have to be antiracist. If we acknowledge and raise awareness of one oppressed group (women, black people, LGBTQ+ etc) it would be hypocritical to ignore another. If equality is the aim, it should be equality for all. Not for some.
There are some astounding, crucial black women who have paved the way with their activism. At the end of this article, I have including some brilliant books that are written by black women about issues experienced by black women. I'm currently reading a collection of essays by Audre Lorde and it is clear that her influence will be long-lasting. Listening to and absorbing the works of black women encourages empathy and understanding, and it should be commonplace.
I can't do the deeply vital issue of recognising black women and addressing the inequalities experienced by them in one article but I hope I have at least shared a couple of worthwhile points. Few people can better sum up the black, female experience that Maya Angelou. I love this quote from her, taken from her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969):
The black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and black lack of power...
The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste or even beligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.
Here are the a few books that I would recommend. As mentioned above, reading books by black authors should be part and parcel of one's antiracism and feminist education.