Not My Feminism

Yesterday, a blogger known as “Quiet Riot Girl” contributed this piece to the ongoing conversation about rape at The Good Men Project. I read this piece with a lump in my throat. It was not so much a lump of anger, but instead a feeling of sadness for the fundamental misunderstandings of feminism the piece reinforces.

As a feminist and a scholar I believe it misunderstands the movement in a multitude of ways. My biggest problem with this piece is the fact that it lumps “feminists” into a like-minded, lock-step group incapable of evolution or dissent. That is fundamentally inaccurate. Like any movement, feminism is constantly changing in the face of shifting cultural and political norms and the increasingly democratic inclusion of traditionally-excluded voices. (Clearly the author is not familiar with “third world feminism,” Islamic feminism, or Chicana feminism, among others.) I won’t spend a lot of time here discussing the distinctions between the various waves of feminism or the diversity that exists therein. Nor will I address extensively what I believe to be a fundamental misunderstanding by the author of what contemporary feminists generally mean by “rape culture” (a culture in which dominant hierarchies of gender and sexuality justify sexualized violence. Feminists use “rape culture” to talk about sexual violence against all people as an act of terrorism, and recognize that “rape culture” contributes to all gendered violence, even that not included in legal definitions of rape).

Rather, as a black feminist I strongly resent the suggestion that “feminists” (as defined by the author) do not talk or care about issues of racial violence. From my experience this is completely untrue. I’m basing this not on personal impressions, but rather on reading feminist texts as they have evolved. It doesn’t appear to me that Quiet Riot Girl has had any exposure to feminist scholarship that holds race as a central concern. This scholarship developed alongside more “traditional” (white, heterosexual, middle-class) forms of feminism and has been increasingly embraced by all feminists. In fact, this scholarship is increasingly included in the feminist canon. Barbara Smith, an African American lesbian feminist, was one of many who insisted feminism include critiques of racism, as well as homophobia and classism.

Further, in this version of feminism, many feminists (male and female) have explicitly linked the practice of lynching to rape culture and have detailed in some depth the way the same ideologies inherent in this lynching culture have historically enabled racialized violence (including racialized rape). This brand of feminism locates the roots of state-sanctioned and individual acts of violence against African American MEN (and women) in what bell hooks has called “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Accordingly, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has placed white women on a pedestal, constructing them as always-helpless soon-to-be victims who cannot live safely without the protection of white men. This “protection” exists in the form of the white patriarchy that supposedly shelters white femininity by reinforcing a culture of fear, in which white women are penalized (sometimes by rape) for stepping outside dominant norms of “womanhood,” and violence against black men is justified as a necessary measure to protect “helpless” white women from the “uncivilized” sexual urges of the darker races.

So while Quiet Riot Girl suggests that feminists don’t talk about a “murder of young black men culture” in the same way they talk about “rape culture,” she ignores the fact that some feminists have always linked these phenomena and that for these feminists “rape culture” includes histories of race and class violence. In this view, 14-year-old Emmett Till, one of the most well-known victims of racialized violence from the civil rights era, was, in part, a victim of rape culture. He was brutally murdered, not simply because of his race, but because of what it supposedly meant for someone of his race to make perceived sexual advances toward a white woman. Similarly, feminists who ascribe to this view would link rape culture to the fact that gay and transgender people of color are more likely to be victims of homophobic violence. This is because of the ways in which sexuality and victimhood have been culturally defined as exclusive to straight white people.

In this version of feminism, rape culture also includes recognition of the constructed “non-rapability” of black women. It recognizes that because of the gendered and racialized ideas that have required white women be idealized and paternalized as ever-likely victims and black men stereotyped as ever-ready rapists, and because of the history of sexual violence particular to the slave trade in the United States, women of color are generally not afforded the same victim status as white women. Instead popular stereotypes and ideologies have suggested that women of color are always-willing sexual partners, their assaults often dismissed as a reflection of sexual deviance or other forms of immorality.  

While initially the feminism developed by Black, Latin and third-world women was marginalized within the feminist movement, today most feminist scholars recognize intersectionality (or the way race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, etc. contribute to specific experiences around physical and ideological oppression) as a primary concern. Thus, to suggest that “feminists” do not care about other types of identity-based oppression and violence, or that the concept of “rape culture” exists in some kind of vacuum in which it only ever incorporates white, male-on-female sexual assault, is to ignore a huge part of contemporary feminism. I strongly recommend Quiet Riot Girl and anyone else hoping to comment on what feminists do or don’t say read some of the feminist texts that incorporate these arguments before suggesting that feminists don’t care about racial violence.

Ironically, by ignoring feminist work that places race as a central concern, and the work of Black feminists in particular, Quiet Riot Girl is doing exactly what she suggests the feminists she critiques do: placing her own definitions of feminism and rape culture above the experiences and contributions of those who have experienced racialized violence.

While I generally discourage Wikipedia citations this entry gives a pretty comprehensive summary of Black feminism for beginners. I also suggest:
Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins
The Color of Rape, Sujata Moorti
White Victims, Black Villains, Carole Stabile
Ain’t I a Woman, Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Robert
Rape and Criminal Justice, Gary Lafree

Sarah Jackson is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Her research and teaching focus on how media discourses of race, class, and gender reinforce and/or challenge concepts of national belonging. Outside her academic life, Sarah volunteers with youth in educational equity programs, does a lot of yoga, and fantasizes about being an artist. Read more of her writing on Wandering In Love and follow her on Twitter @sjjphd.

Photo credit ludwig van standard lamp/Flickr

Related Links: