Black feminism

9 Common Misconceptions About Black Feminism

I dedicate this blog to Black feminism because it is the lens through which I do my work. Frequently, the work includes facing criticism or curiosity from those who do not understand Black feminism and its origins. Below is a commentary on a few common misconceptions about Black feminism.

1. Black feminism is anti-Black men

This particular criticism comes from those most often deemed ‘hotep,’ which refers succinctly to Black cultural nationalism. 1

Image Credit: Instagram

Image Credit: Instagram

This view, like many misconceptions about Black feminism, fails to incorporate intersectionality, which examines a whole range of oppressions and how they interlock rather than racism alone. This approach recognizes that Black women are also victims of sexism and misogyny. Approximately 1 in 5 Black women will be raped in their lifetime. Furthermore, sexual violence is most often an intraracial crime. Assertions that Black men cannot oppress women ignore the reality of male privilege and how it works for Black men as sociologist L’Heureux Lewis highlights in a 2010 NPR interview:

My working definition is really a system of built-in and often overlooked systematic advantages that center the experience and the concerns of black males while minimizing the power that black males hold, which is a fancy way of saying, we are absolutely used to talking about African-American men in crisis. And we can talk about this crisis so much that we miss the ways in which black men are oppressed and can also serve as oppressors.

Black feminists desire not only to combat racism but also to eliminate patriarchy due to its relationship and nationalism. Taken together, nationalism and patriarchy represent the colonial logics that constitute the matrix of domination, which “refers to how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized.” 2Thus, Black feminism offers an antiracism that critically examines the complexity of oppression, offering a vision of liberation independent of a White supremacist worldview.

2. Black feminism is no different from White feminism so there is no need for Black feminism

This particular belief may stem from a lack of knowledge about the history and purpose of Black feminism. Furthermore, it suggests the feminism associated with the U.S. suffrage and women’s rights movement speaks adequately to the experiences of all women. On the contrary, mainstream U.S. feminism speaks most coherently to the lives of White middle class women. As a result, mainstream feminism continues to perpetuate White supremacy and racism in many ways. Thus, this form of feminism continues to fail women of color.

Black feminism as we know it today has operated in parallel and often at odds with mainstream feminism due to its silence on race. For instance, when comedian Leslie Jones faced recent attacks ,some Black women critiqued the silence from White feminists and her White co-stars in pointing out the misogynoir behind the cyberbullying. As long as mainstream feminism fails to critique the racism people of color face, then Black feminism will remain a necessary alternative voice for feminist women of color.

3. Only Black women benefit from Black feminism

This misconception reflects an assumption that Black feminism has no use to non-Black people due to its origin as centered on Black women. On the contrary, intersectionality theory emerged from the work of Black feminists and informs a number of fields including sociology, law, and education.

A study by critical race scholar David Gillborn provides an example of intersectionality of race and class in education. Black middle class parents in the United Kingdom seeking accommodations for their children in school faced several limitations to access. Whereas most research suggests that middle-class status helps parents secure accommodations for their childrens’ learning disabilities, Gillborn found evidence schools neglect Black children and thwart parents’ efforts to intervene.

Rather than see Black children’s learning impairments as legitimate disabilities requiring the school to enact provisions to ensure academic success, schools either ignored the proof of disability parents provided or reasserted that the child’s academic ability was due to their inability to perform. Intersectionality thus reveals how society responds to disability Black students differently from their White peers.

4. Intersectionality and Black feminism are one in the same

Confusion about Black feminism and intersectionality reflects their intertwined relationship. Black feminism refers to the activism and intellectual labor by Black women opposed to racism and sexism as well as the systems that empower them

Black feminism aims to empower Black women with new and critical ways of thinking that centered how racism and sexism worked together to create Black women’s social issues and inequalities that arise from mutually constructed systems of oppression.

Black feminists laid much of the groundwork for the concept of intersectionality. Still, their work extends beyond the theory of intersectionality alone. Black feminists work in a wide range of fields including anthropology, archeaology, and religion. Intersectionality refers instead to how Black women do their work, as I mention in my blog A Brief History of Black Feminism.

5. Intersectionality is divisive

I encountered the belief intersectionality is divisive through a comment on the Blackfeminisms Instagram page. I found this particular accusation confusing, considering that intersectionality started as a critique of essentialism3. In other words, intersectionality critiques divisiveness because it obscures the reality of how systems of oppression intersect. To assert that intersectionality is divisive can only mean one has never read any of the original work on intersectionality written by Black feminist scholars like Patricia Hill Collins.

6. All Black women are Black feminists

Like any movement or ideology, Black feminism has its critics and opponents, even among the people Black feminism attempts to uplift. Some Black women assert that they do not embrace feminism, including Black feminism because they believe Black feminism began as part of the movement led by White women.

Scholars like historian E. Frances White point to the Black Liberation movement as the birth of Black feminism when some Black women responded to the patriarchal ideals of some of the movement’s most prominent male leaders.

The history of Black feminism is documented in videos, blogs, books, and most recently the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Recognizing Black feminism as a movement born of Blackness in response to sexism explains the antiracist legacy of Black feminism.

7. Black feminism requires reading specific books and identifying with certain prominent Black women activists.

Black feminism does not require reading any literature or adopting it as a marker of identity. Rather, it involves an antiracist and sexist praxis informed by theory, developed either by reading or lived experience. The important task of Black feminism is represent Black women in a way that challenges the way society identifies all groups of people.

8. Black people should be womanist instead of feminist

This misconception presumes that Alice Walker’s definition of womanism represented a departure from rather than an intersection of feminism. In a 2006 interview with, Alice Walker clarified her position:

AW: Well, first of all it’s feminist, but it’s feminist from a culture of color. So there’s no attempt to evade the name “feminism,” which is honorable. It actually means womanism – I mean, it’s French in its essence – la femme, so feminism would be womanism, actually. Womanism comes though from Southern African American culture because when you did something really bold and outrageous and audacious as a little girl, our parents would say, “You’re acting ‘womanish’.” It wasn’t like in white culture where that was weak – it was just the opposite. And so, womanism affirms that whole spectrum of being which includes being outrageous and angry and standing up for yourself, and speaking your word and all of that.

As the saying goes, ‘Womanist is to feminist as Purple is to Lavender.

9. Black feminism is monolithic and does not vary across the globe

Black feminism has a long history of Black women’s activism in the United States. It also includes Black women’s resistance toward colonialism across the globe. For instance, during the early twentieth century, women in the African nation of Nairobi used their sexual and religious identity to resist colonial governments. They did this through prostitution to maintain agency and arranged marriage between women to maintain property.

Black feminists in the Caribbean like Michelle Cliff write about how women of color experience colonialism and racism as women of the Third World. Black feminism in Europe has sparked conferences like Black feminism, Womanism and the Politics of Women of Color in Europe.Black feminism is nuanced and brings informs the lives of women of color globally.

  1. Some people argue that hotep should not be used in this manner due to its original meaning in a language of an ancient North African society. I disagree with this logic on the grounds that embracing ancient Egyptian culture uncritically, represents a cultural nationalism that relies on a mystic, symbolic Africa that ignores the reality that the ancestors of Black people in the Americas were by and large of West African descent. Furthermore, it fails to critique the imperialism of the ancient Egyptian kingdoms that also relied on pervasive enslavement. Lastly, this argument relies on a view of time as linear that fails to account for the spatial aspects of time. Thousands of years and events transpired between the the enslavement of West Africans and the imperial era of ancient Egypt, including the increasing desertification of Central Africa into what is known as the Sahara desert. For more on this view, please see Michelle Wright’s Physics of Blackness 
  2. pg. 18, Collins (2000): Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment
  3. The belief that different aspects of one’s social identity should be analyzed in their separate parts