By Guest Contributor Deesha Philyaw
Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was raised to see the world in Black and White.
This manifests itself as an ingrained wariness of White folks, built in for the purposes of self-protection when I was bused from my working-class-on-the-decline neighborhood to the suburbs, beginning in first grade. My handful of White school friends notwithstanding, this was an us-versus-them kind of black and white. No one else–religious minorities, other racial and ethnic minorities, and people in other marginalized groups–was really on my radar in any meaningful way until high school. Even then, I heard friends and relatives use slurs against Asians (the least offensive reference was “Orientals”), “foreigners” (everyone who wasn’t identifiable as Black, White, or Asian), “sissies,” and “bulldaggers.” But I never used those words myself. Even as ignorant as I was, maybe I had a gut feeling about the ugliness and the harm in those words. I don’t know.
In 1989, I took an Amtrak train from Florida to Yale with my neighborhood friends’ warnings ringing in my ears: “Don’t turn White!” In a panic, I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X from cover to cover during the train ride. In New Haven, I bought a fiery poem by a poet with an Egyptian name from a street vendor. I posted it on my dorm room wall right next to my bed, before classes even started. I had to protect my Blackness. Don’t turn White!
By contrast, I’d grown up hearing a different warning given to girls who attended the HBCU that I’d considered attending: “Don’t get pregnant.” This school had a notorious reputation for “turning out good girls.” The lesson: At a Black college, I’d have to worry about sexual matters, but at a predominantly White institution (PWI) I only had to worry about race.
And worry I did, from the moment I stepped onto campus, overdressed for the occasion and the August heat, in a long-sleeved cobalt blue knit sweater set, matching shoes, and white tights. Immediately, I was aware of the differences between myself and the other Black women students. They wore cute cut-off denim shorts, flip-flops, and funky t-shirts. By the end of the next day, I would note the class, regional, religious, speech, and cultural differences as well. Just like that, everything I thought I knew about Blackness went right out the window. If I wasn’t “them,” and if I didn’t exactly fit in with “us” in this new place…who was I? Turning “White” was the least of my concerns.
During my freshman year, I was having lunch at the “Black table” relaying a story involving one of my four roommates, an Irish-Italian woman, Anne (not her real name), whose father had gone to Yale. In the course of the story, I made an offhand reference to her as my friend, and one of the Black students at the table interrupted me to say, “There’s no such thing as a White friend.” I didn’t finish my story. Anne had been more of a friend to me than anyone sitting at that table. We had gone on birth control pills together. I was the first person she told the morning after having sex for the first time. She proudly did the walk of shame across Old Campus in her new boyfriend’s cleats and oversized jersey, her little black dress and heels in hand. We made up an awkward dance to INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” during study breaks. We took Calc III together and were thoroughly confused together. We had Kiswahili pet names for each other. But that day at lunch, I sat in silence. I said nothing in defense of our friendship.
I didn’t learn the term “intersectionality” until over 20 years later, but it was ever present during my undergrad years. Two major events during that time brought intersectionality into unsettling perspective. The first was the Central Park jogger case. My mother had been raped when I was a young child, so my initial concern was with the woman who had been assaulted. But I soon learned that it mattered that she was a White Yale alum and a Wall Street investment banker, and that the suspects were young Black and Brown men. For many months during my freshman year, I heard the word “wilding” more than I ever wanted to. I learned that Black women students were expected to choose a side, because of course all Black men supported the accused, and of course all White women supported the victim. I learned to hold all of my concerns–about justice, about racism, about sexual violence–in an uncomfortable tension. It never occurred to me that any of this had anything to do with feminism. At this point, I had yet to take a women’s studies course, and I can’t say that I had misconceptions about feminism as much as I simply hadn’t given it any thought.
By my junior year, however, I’d had a few women’s studies courses under my belt, and along came the second event, Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearings and Anita Hill’s testimony. I felt no tug of war between gender and race this time. Clarence Thomas made it so easy to dismiss him as an Uncle Tom, and how dare he invoke the history of lynching to cover his sexual improprieties, especially given the racial and political ideologies he professed? I absolutely believed Anita Hill.
At Yale in 1989 and the early ‘90s, “political correctness” hadn’t yet become a dirty phrase. The smarmy rejection of this idea–that language could and should be used respectfully to articulate ideas about ourselves and others and our experiences–was still a few years away. Through my African American studies, women’s studies, and history classes, and through my social experiences with people from all backgrounds from all over the world, I became more conscious, more aware of others’ experiences and my own ignorance and prejudices. It hit me one day, not long after sophomore year, that I might have inadvertently offended my Chinese American roommate, Lisa (not her real name). Lisa and I had been together since freshman year and got along very well. We didn’t hang in the same social circles, but we frequently ate meals together, rolled our eyes at the antics of our fourth roommate, and Lisa always brought food back for me from her parents’ restaurant when she went home to NYC on the weekends. And during one Spring Break, I spent the day with her family, going to the movies and wandering around Chinatown. But given my upbringing, had I said or done anything over the years that was hurtful or sensitive? Lisa waved away my question, but I suspect that she was just being polite.
I can remember even these small details of my racial “awakening” at Yale, but can’t remember my feminist “awakening,” or even why I took that first women’s studies course. Instead, I recall my experiences in some of my women’s studies courses and how little I felt feminism had to do with my life at that time.
For example, I couldn’t get past the introduction to The Feminist Mystique in which Betty Friedan writes about “the problem that has no name”—the widespread unhappiness of “women” in the 1950s and early 1960s. A handful of pages from this book birthed my first intersectional thought: “Hold up. She’s not writing about women. She’s writing about White women. The Black women I know would kill to be bored housewives.”
I considered writing Betty Friedan an apology when at 27 I became a bored housewife. My ennui was complicated by guilt over the fact that I was living a life far more comfortable than anything my foremothers had experienced or could even imagine in some cases, and yet I wasn’t loving every minute of it. In fact, I was miserable and depressed much of the time. I was reminded of this passage from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God:
[The main character Janie is responding to her friend Pheoby's question about why she's selling her store, in addition to running off with Tea Cake, a younger man. The store is a source of income and respect from the community.]
“Dis ain’t no business game. Ah done lived Nanny’s [her grandmother’s] way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”
“What you mean by dat, Janie?”
“She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s what she wanted for me–don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere. Ah felt like de world wuz cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read de common news yet.”
“Maybe so, Janie. Still and all Ah’d love tuh experience it for just one year. It look lak heben tuh me from where Ah’m at.”
“Ah reckon so.”
What separated me from the women Friedan wrote about wasn’t just decades and race–it was also freedom and choice. No one was telling me that I shouldn’t or couldn’t work outside the home. I wasn’t trapped by my choice; I felt trapped by history, by a legacy of foremothers who didn’t have a choice, who Hurston described as “the mules of the world,” women who worked from “can see to can’t see”–and some of whom tended to other people’s children more than to their own–in order to survive. Didn’t I owe it to them and to the Pheobys of the world to enjoy this privileged life on the high chair?
Privilege. It was the class privilege, not just the race privilege, of the women that Betty Friedan wrote about that kept me from relating, until I, too, became privileged in similar ways. “Privilege,” like “intersectionality,” and “ally,” is part of a vocabulary of experiences that I had but did not fully understand or appreciate until many life changes later.
The idea that feminism is about White women’s discontent was, unfortunately, further reinforced by a seminal First-Wave feminist text, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the story, the main character is given a “rest cure” (bed rest) after childbirth, and this slowly drives her mad. The story is recognized as a critique of how “women” were infantilized by the medical establishment. After learning about Gilman’s racism and anti-Semitism, I most definitely did not easily identify with anything of hers, but I now know that intersectionality demands that this issue of how “women” are treated by the medical establishment be qualified. Because…Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks wasn’t infantilized by the medical establishment under the guise of paternalistic “protection”; she and her cancer cells were exploited because of her gender and her race and socioeconomic class. However problematic the infantilization of White women by the medical establishment was, it should still be noted that, by contrast, poor white women and women of color in general have historically been treated worse by the medical establishment, not worthy of protection or respect. This isn’t a game of Oppression Olympics, but rather an example of why white women’s experiences should not be synonymous with women’s experiences.
The “rest cure” was the medical cousin of the cult of domesticity (cult of true womanhood). The cult of domesticity offered White women a social and familial pedestal that some understandably rejected as limiting and discriminatory. But the Black Codes enacted after emancipation included the blocking of Black women’s access to this pedestal, forcing them into the fields even when they wanted to tend to children and home instead. The gilded cage White women rejected was the respite from centuries of backbreaking labor that Black women were denied. It was the high chair/stool Janie’s Nanny coveted for her. Though I hadn’t heard of Henrietta Lacks when I first read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it was one of my earliest experiences with a feminist narrative that left me with the impression that feminism was for privileged White women because feminism promoted and rejected ideas and practices based on their desires, concerns, and aspirations, presuming them to be universal, as if other women didn’t even exist, much less matter.
In addition to The Feminist Mystique, what I learned about Second-Wave feminism during undergrad seemed to be about sexual liberation and the ERA…which felt to me like a foregone conclusion and a relic from a bygone era that had little to do with me, respectively. It’s an admittedly reductionist view, but I didn’t see feminism as a mantle that I could pick up, but rather something passé or a given. Wasn’t I having sex with abandon, taking birth control pills and making my very first purchases from Victoria Secret with my very first credit card? As the folks back home would say, I thought I was grown. I didn’t know then that I had feminism to thank for the access to birth control and the credit card in my own name.
If mainstream feminism failed to ignite a fire under me, certain brands of radical feminism had no chance. In disbelief, my then-boyfriend/future ex-husband read aloud passages from my copy of Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, for entertainment. Dworkin denied that the core stance of the book is that all sex is rape, but that’s exactly how we read it. We found the idea to be so preposterous as to be laughable, and this did nothing to encourage my self-identification as feminist.
I loved Alice Walker’s books, but wasn’t familiar with her activism when I was in undergrad, and I didn’t think of her as a “feminist” writer. Audre Lorde’s name was familiar as was bell hooks’ (because of the lower-case thing), and I knew of Angela Davis’s association with the Black Panther Party, but not her feminism. I had no concept then of just how revolutionary these women were. My lack of awareness, while attending an Ivy League university, astounds me. But I believe that seeds were planted then, in those women’s studies courses that I took but didn’t fully “get.”
And a seed was planted in a guest lecture by Catherine Mackinnon in my “Blacks and the Law” class. Mackinnon spoke against pornography, but interestingly, I don’t recall her speaking about race. I think she must have been friends with the Connecticut Supreme Court Justice who taught the course. Much of what she said went over my head (I had just seen “Caligula” and felt slightly guilty), but I remember being surprised that the Justice, a Black man, would care about this issue. Looking back, I realize how telling this was about my views on gender, race, and feminism: I didn’t expect a man to care about feminist issues, and I didn’t expect a Black person to care about feminist issues.
For the purposes of this essay, I tried to remember the names of any of my instructors in the women’s studies courses, and the only one who came to mind was a white cultural anthropologist. I immediately recalled that she was married to another professor, a black man. Her interracial marriage, and even her husband’s first and last name, I remember over 2 decades later. The specific content or even the title of her course…not so much. Race and gender, gender and race. For me, always, everywhere.
Naomi Wolf was my introduction to Third-Wave feminism. Her book The Beauty Myth was published during my undergrad years, and based on what I’d heard about the premise, I concluded that the book had nothing to do with me. More White-girl problems. This review, a decade later, now confirms my suspicions about Wolf’s book, it also fairly sums up my problem with feminism as a whole during my college years:
“Reading The Beauty Myth confirmed what I’ve come to think of [Wolf]: an embodiment of everything that annoys me about white, affluent, “empowered” American feminists…. Admittedly, The Beauty Myth was first published in 1991, but I have a hard time believing that this issue hadn’t been addressed in previous feminist works by other authors. Perhaps in a less comprehensive form? I don’t know. Either way, it’s relative strengths as a cohesive narrative of the way that beauty culture screws women over is totally undermined by the fact that it’s really quite racist. In all of her talk of makeup and cosmetic surgeries and eating disorders, Wolf discusses racial issues once. In a single paragraph. No analysis of whiteness as the overarching standard of beauty, no discussion of the psychological damage that ideal inflicts on women of color, and no referencing the further extremes that they must go to in order to appear white-beautiful….The fact that the issues of race and class are totally off Wolf’s radar is something I take a pretty strong issue with. Not only is it really myopic, it undermines the credibility of The Beauty Myth as a feminist work.”
In fairness, however, my feminist education via women’s studies courses was not a complete whitewash. The anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Coloredited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa helped to keep me from completely dismissing feminism as the exclusive domain of privileged White women. Also, I learned about the scholarship and activism of women like Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells.
It wasn’t until I became a stay-at-home mom at 27 that my slight embrace of feminism blossomed from the seeds planted in undergrad. I revisited books like This Bridge Called My Back, and read others by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, and Nikki Giovanni, for the first time. For over five years, I grappled with depression and questions of womanhood, motherhood, and marriage, and these writers had ideas and stories that helped me make sense of my life…and realize that it was anything but free and authentic. These narratives–as well as good therapy and friendships with women who had made seemingly impossible choices and survived–all showed me that my world was far too small. I needed my life to be about more than a series oversimplified binary choices related to parenting: epidural or drug-free; birth center or hospital; breast or bottle; stay at home or work; cloth diapers or Pampers; attachment parenting or “cry it out”; co-sleeping or crib; vaccinate or don’t vaccinate; Gymboree or don’t Gymboree; TV or no TV; preschool or homeschool; spank or don’t spank.
I loved becoming and being somebody’s mother. I had always wanted to be somebody’s mother. But that’s not all I wanted to be, and that’s not all I cared about. And yet my life didn’t reflect this. I was too afraid of appearing ungrateful for having choices and material comforts that my foremothers didn’t have, too afraid to say I wanted more and different. I was too afraid to take chances and assert my whole self, for fear of making mistakes, for fear of my loved ones’ disapproval, for fear of going off the life-script that I had written in childhood, of a good man and big house and some kids.
Ultimately, I decided that half-living afraid was no life at all. And the last excuse I could use for living afraid was my children. I wanted my girls to be fearless, so I had to be. So I fumbled my way through the deaths of my parents and my grandmother in a single year, through separation that same year, and later divorce, through the transition from a cushy suburban life to that of a freelance writer making ends meet.
The fog of grief and figuring shit out was so thick during those post-divorce years, I don’t recall giving a lot of conscious thought to feminism. But by the time of the 2008 Democratic primary, the fog had begun to lift and feminism was once again on my radar. Hillary Rodham Clinton made the unforgivable decision to employ a Southern strategy to curry favor with White, working-class voters. And some high-profile, White feminists published insulting admonishments that presumed that Black women would vote based either on our skin or our vulvas (with the latter being the obligatory choice, natch)…and not with our brains. My oldest daughter Taylor, who was then in third grade, said she would vote for Clinton over Obama because “We’ve never had a woman president before.”
“True. But we’ve never had a Black president before either.”
“Yeah, I know. But I’d like to have a woman president first. And I’m going to be the first Black woman president.”
This was the same child who, as a preschooler, cried when her father voted for Bush over Kerry. (“But Bush loves war, Mom!”)
Post-script: Taylor eventually cast her hypothetical vote for Obama based on “the issues.” It seems a rumor spread through third grade that, if elected, Clinton would abolish video games. (Actually, as a senator, she supported a bill that would prohibit the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games to children). By the 2012 election, Taylor supported Obama if for no other reason than how badly Mitt Romney embarrassed himself in the televised debates. (“Did he really just say ‘binders full of women’?”)
These days, Taylor has joined her high school’s newly formed Black Student Union, and her awareness of drones and other issues helps her to understand that support for any candidate is rarely so black and white. No pun. But I cringed when she recently remarked about a friend, “She’s such a feminist”–and it didn’t sound like a compliment.
“What does that mean–that she’s a feminist?”
“Well, it’s not a bad thing. She’s just very passionate about feminist things.”
And you’re not? (I think, but don’t ask).
Upon further discussion, I learn that what makes this girl a feminist in Taylor’s eyes is not that her ideas about gender and equality are so different from Taylor’s; it’s that she’s more likely to confront their peers and teachers on their sexist bullshit, more vigilant about calling out the patriarchy. I want Taylor to be more confrontational, more vigilant, too…but then I remember that this is her journey, not mine.
But what if later she doesn’t identify as a feminist? I’ll live. There are plenty of good reasons why she wouldn’t want to, and yet still be as empowered and social justice-minded as I hope she will be.
I want my mature-beyond-her-years Taylor to want to read The Color Purple and watch the movie with me, not do it just because I insist that it’s important. I’m so relieved that the book is part of her high-school curriculum, but I want her to gravitate independently toward what I consider to be seminal books about feminism and race. I now want to conveniently forget that I didn’t gravitate toward such books, because I want her to know more, sooner. I want her to be aware sooner. In the absence of a forced reading list, I want her to take note of my example. But then I wonder what she sees of feminism when she looks at me. Probably, for now, she just sees what any 14-year-old girl sees: her mother.
But later, I hope she will look back and remember than I was more than that. She has seen me married to and divorced from her father. She has seen me single and co-parenting. She has seen me remarried. She has seen me writing and publishing, speaking to crowds, comforting friends, telling our stories. She has seen me financially secure and broke, empowered and grieving, laughing, dancing, questioning, protesting, arguing and making amends, talking openly about sex, politics, religion, and family, figuring shit out, collaborating, negotiating and sacrificing, living on my own terms.
I hope that through my example and my parenting choices, I am planting seeds. And I hope that they will blossom in Taylor, and in all my daughters and bonus daughters, so that power and confidence and a strong sense of self will always be theirs, whether they identify as feminist or not.
Unlike my daughters, I grew up always hyper-aware of my Blackness and of racism, and far less thoughtful about sexism and about myself as a gendered person and the social and political ramifications therein. When I was in 8th grade, Mitt Romney’s genderfails during the campaign would have been lost on me. If I armchair psychoanalyze the possible reasons for this, I go back to my mother and my grandmother, my childhood in Florida. My mother had grown up with colored water fountains, my grandmother in the era of lynching. They spoke frequently about the ways of White folks, their racism and hubris, and the need to guard against their schemes. By contrast, I don’t recall a single conversation about sexism, double standards, or gender discrimination. Talk of sexual harassment was limited to the time the neighborhood drunk made a lewd gesture at me when I was 10, and my mom called the cops; they said he was harmless, and that was that. When a long-held family secret was revealed concerning my great-great-grandmother and her employer, the possibility of their involvement being non-consensual isn’t mentioned. My mother and grandmother both experienced sexual violence as children and as adults, on multiple occasions. But I was not given warnings about men. I was told to keep my legs closed. I was taught to be respectable.
It occurs to me: I don’t give my daughters warnings about men, either. But I have taught them since they were verbal that no one is entitled to their bodies. And we have ongoing, age-appropriate conversations about racism, sexism, relationships, justice, and violence. I’m striving to teach them to be aware, and to be nobody’s fool, without identifying a singular enemy, because I know the enemy is anyone who seeks to do them physical, spiritual, or emotional harm. But this awareness doesn’t ignore history, and it doesn’t ignore George Zimmerman or Too $hort schooling middle-school boys on how to rape.
I want my girls to be aware, and I want them to feel that they are…enough. I grew up surrounded by women who felt inadequate. I grew up with women who gave away their power and essential parts of themselves to men, women who settled for unworthy men rather than sleeping alone. In the world of my childhood, good men seemed to be in short supply. So a woman’s social and financial independence and self-determination wasn’t something to fight or protest for; it was a given, a cross to bear. And it was lamentable and lonely. I learned this lesson early. So I dated a very good man throughout my four years of college, and I married him a year after graduation.
In college, I did not cultivate deep, lasting friendships with other women students; my social life centered mostly around my boyfriend. I have found in the 20 years since college that as my relationships with women, online and offline, have deepened, so has my embrace and understanding of feminist principles and practices.
But I wouldn’t make an unqualified statement that I subscribe to feminism, because it depends on whose feminism we’re talking about. Instead, I do what my friend and writer Lonnae O’Neal Parker calls (in reference to other women’s work-life balance experiences) “skimming off some of the best parts.” I’m not one of those people who eschews labels because it’s trendy to eschew labels. I do it whenever the labels don’t fit, which is often because the labels themselves seem to be ever-evolving and expanding and intersecting…and so am I. But if someone refers to me as a feminist, I don’t reject it. For me, feminism is a useful shorthand for my conscious work as a citizen, a writer, and a mother. Feminism is the assertion of my freedom to be who I choose to be and how I choose to be in the world, rejecting constructed, gender-based prohibitions and prescriptions. As a political stance, feminism is action that seeks to make this freedom available to everyone, regardless of gender or sexual identity.
I’m embarrassed to look back and realize what a limited and ill-informed view of feminism I had, for so many years. So when women say, “I’m not a feminist, but [insert something totally feminist]…” or “I could never be a feminist because I don’t hate men,” or “Feminism is for White women,” I chafe, but not too hard. First, I can’t condemn someone for not wanting to identify as feminist because I’ve been there. Maybe not for all the same reasons, but I understand rejection of or wariness toward something that at best doesn’t appear to have any relevance to your life and experiences, and at worst, erases your lived experiences and acts counter to your best interests–all the while demanding allegiance. But also, I blame feminism, to some extent, for its own PR problem, for the continued elevation of privileged voices above others while claiming to be representative and universal–like, for instance, relegating already marginalized people to the margins of the public discourse that’s purported to advocate for and promote “women,” that claim to represent the interests and experiences of “women” when what’s really meant is privileged White women. Still. In 2013. Despite social media where countless women tweet, blog, and post their existences daily in the face of this attempted erasure.
So, I get the preference for Walker’s “womanist” over “feminist,” or the choice of no label at all, to describe the efforts and the attitudes that presume Black women’s full humanity and entitlement. I fully support the creation of our own names and spaces, and the guardedness toward traditional feminist entities. I welcome the work of true allies, but at the same time fully support the rejection of White women’s tears when issues of race and gender collide, because those tears aren’t shed for us. I fully support us doing whatever the hell we want to save ourselves and our children. That’s my feminism.
*Many thanks to my friend Carolyn Edgar for suggesting the title for this post.
Deesha Philyaw is the co-author, along with her ex-husband, of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. She is the remarried mother and stepmother of four daughters.
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