Black feminism

7 Black Feminist Concepts You Need to Know

For those now disenamored with mainstream feminism, a number of alternative exists. Feminism that centers women of color includes a number of concepts important for recognizing how racism and sexism function together to create oppression.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a number of writers have pointed to White feminism as an answer to the question: How did Trump become president? For those now disenamored with mainstream feminism, a number of alternatives exist. Feminism that centers on women of color includes a number of concepts important for recognizing how racism and sexism function together to create oppression.

As a Black feminist, I am most familiar with concepts by Black women scholars like bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins. To familiarize yourself with some of their work, check out the list of seven concepts below by Black women intellectuals

Politics of Respectability

The Black Women’s Club Movement was led by middle-class Black women in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, simultaneously, an overlapping movement had taken root among women in the Black church. Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the phrase politics of respectability to describe these women’s strategies in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church: 1880-1920. Politics of respectability allowed back women to join their religiosity with their social-political attitudes, thus giving them the opportunity to use the church as a home base for education, organizing, and community outreach.

Controlling Images

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins defines controlling images as the ideological dimension in the oppression of Black womanhood. These images vary depending on historical and social context and generally characterize Black women in stereotypically negative ways. Collins describes the emergence of the controlling images in her book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. In the quote below she describes the development of the image of the ‘welfare Queen’ that occurred during the Reagan era:

With the election of the Reagan administration in 1980, the stigmatized welfare mother evolved into the more pernicious image of the welfare queen (Lubiano 1992). To mask the effects of cuts in government spending on social welfare programs that fed children, housed working families, assisted cities in maintaining roads, bridges, and basic infrastructure, and supported other basic public services, media images increasingly identified and blamed Black women for the deterioration of U.S. interests. Thus, poor Black women simultaneously become symbols of what was deemed wrong with America and targets of social policies designed to shrink the government sector. 1

To this day, controlling images of Black mothers and families influences policy as this is a negative stereotype is a way to restrict all women’s rights.

Intersectionality

Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum and Professor of Law at Columbia University brought intersectionality into academia. Intersectionality refers to how the interaction between different social categories (i.e. race or gender) shapes people’s lived experiences. Intersectionality also refers to the complex way inequality is arranged at the societal level so that some groups have power relative to others, even if they are disadvantaged or privileged in other ways.

Crenshaw gives several examples of intersectionality in her landmark piece “Mapping The Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” For instance, laws meant to protect all women are most often created with White women in mind. Additionally, laws meant to protect Blacks are most often created with men in mind. However, when Black women attempt to seek legal protection in sex or race discrimination cases, they fail to meet the burden of proof because laws were not constructed with them in mind. Intersectionality in the legal system would recognize that race and gender discrimination work together to shape the experiences of Black women.

Misogynoir

Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir to describe the specific form of gendered racism experienced by Black women. For example, misogynoir is when White women are praised for wearing styles Black women and originated while Black women are considered “ghetto” or “ratchet” for the same fashions. Misogynoir is an intersectional form of oppression in that the members of this group are subject to it because of their Blackness and womanhood as inseparable facets of their social identity.

Multiple jeopardy

Often when people speak on intersectionality, they are actually referring to multiple jeopardy coined by sociologist Deborah K. King. Multiple jeopardy refers to the inability to pinpoint any one factor as the most significant in explaining oppression. King writes in a 1988 article on the topic:

The modifier “multiple” refers not only to several, simultaneous oppressions but to the multiplicative relationships among them as well. In other words, the equivalent formulation is racism multiplied by sexism multiplied by classism…. The importance of any one factor in explaining black women’s circumstances thus varies depending on the particular aspect of our lives under consideration and the reference groups to whom we are compared.

Womanism

Womanism, coined by poet and novelist Alice Walker demonstrates that there are multiple forms of Black women’s feminism. In a recent blog post, Alice Walker defined womanism as “the spiritual, political, social and other empowerment based on female centrality and solidarity that is supportive of the health and well being of  everyone.”

Her initial definition appeared in her 1983 collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens in which she defines a womanist as “a Black feminist or feminist of color,” “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually” through the celebration and affirmation of women’s culture, emotional flexibility, and strength.

Homeplace

Acclaimed feminist scholar bell hooks defines homeplace as “the one site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist.” According to hooks, Black women across play a significant role in creating these spaces in their communities:

Despite the brutal reality of racial apartheid, of domination, one’s homeplace was the one site where one could freely confront the issue of humanization, where one could resist. Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world.

This particular concept demonstrates that women’s roles in the domestic sphere can be transformative and revolutionary.

What These Concepts Teach Us About Inequality

The concepts above describe the way that racism and sexism work together to disadvantage women of color. Beyond that, these concepts also illustrate how Black women cope with and challenge the oppression they face. For women of color, isn’t about just race or just gender. Race and gender work together to affect the lived experiences of Black women. These concepts teach us to be vigilant about whether or feminist and antiracist efforts and policies reflect all women, people of color, and everyone in between.


  1. Collins 

1 Comment

  • I am a 77 year old white woman who has fought racism around me all my life. I was particularly struck by the concept of “controlling images”. I think the white nationalists, who include many mainstream Republicans, have been particularly successful at putting forward this warped view of black people in their public relations and in the media, and it has infected many white people who are not even conscious that it is part of their mind-set and viciously refuse to acknowledge it. We must constantly speak up against the barrage of these images whenever they are placed before us as “reality”, as satire or as comedy. This is a day-to-day job whenever it comes up.

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