Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was the first feminist I came across. The first books I read on feminism were almost exclusively by black women. I connected with the words of bell hooks and I would go on to read Simone De Beauvoir and connect with her words too. I came across the concept of intersectionality, a term coined by the academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, which asks that we recognise the way in which different oppressions intersect and affect our lives.
I would argue that intersectionality theory is not radical or new; it is common sense. Of course we do not all navigate the world in the same way. I am a woman but I am also black. I have congenital nystagmus, a disorder that means I am visually impaired. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Nigeria. All of these life experiences have made me who I am. Interest in intersectionality may have resurged recently, but people have always lived the concept of intersectionality. Black women have always experienced racism and sexism. As a black woman, I am forced to pick between my blackness and my womanhood.
When I wrote about Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money video, the response I got from friends and strangers alike was that I had “traded in my blackness” and I had been “white-washed” because I pointed out that I didn’t like the misogyny and violence shown towards a white woman. There was the inevitable “STFU” from men, but I was more hurt by the comments from the black women in my life that were disappointed. I felt that as a black woman, I had failed, yet again. I wondered: am I doing my feminism wrong? Do I need to identify as a black feminist? I took the word “feminist” out of my Twitter bio because everywhere I turned I was asked, why don’t you identify as a womanist? Women who didn’t know me said they didn’t mean to be “patronising” but went on to lecture me about intersectionality, to tell me they were worried about me or crying for me. One gave me 10 reasons why I had to hate a particular white woman. I was exhausted. I felt not only like I had failed as a woman but also as a feminist.
Women’s voices, especially those of colour, have been marginalised in mainstream discussions on everything. Many women of colour, myself included, are angry that our voices have historically been ignored. We have a right to be angry. Frances Beal wrote of the “double jeopardy” of being both black and female. I have seen in this country how girls of colour have been “othered” and ignored. I have lost count of the number of times I have been dismissed as angry. Sometimes, I feel like people struggle to read black women. We are always angry and aggressive. I feel more uncomfortable and vulnerable not just because I am female, but because I am a black girl. We only have to look at the case of Sandra Bland to see not only the vulnerability of black bodies, but of black women’s bodies.
I try to make my feminism intersectional because it is powerful to listen to the experiences of women different to me. There is not one lived experience of what it means to be a woman. I want feminism to be a movement where all women feel able to take part if they choose to, not one where some women, their voices and their needs are isolated. Ntozake Shange, the writer of For Colored Girls once said, “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive.”
But, dare I say it, I think the way intersectionality is sometimes practiced online is wrong. I have observed a toxic mix of intersectionality and identity politics that we must break away from. Take this, for example. You do not need to have been raped to know that rape is wrong and to speak out about it. Lived experiences of rape and are insightful but we cannot elevate these experiences on a pedestal and do nothing with them. Feminism is, after all, a movement that works to liberate women and sometimes there must be practical solutions to problems. Not all women will be able to speak for themselves. Not all women will want to speak about their experiences, and they shouldn’t have to. However, online, a self-righteous group propose that you must have a lived experience before you can speak. You haven’t been raped? What can you possibly know? Shut up and stay in your lane! It is laughable to think that only those who have disclosed a lived experience of any issue should be the only ones speaking. Imagine how the world would be if we all ‘stayed in our lane’ when we saw things that were wrong? The implication here is that it is better to ‘stay in your lane’ and be voiceless than to share your opinions and speak out when you deem things to be wrong.
In her book Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay says:
Too many people have become self-appointed privilege police, patrolling the halls of discourse, ready to remind people of their privilege whether those people have denied that privilege or not. In online discourse, in particular, the specter of privilege is always looming darkly. When someone writes from experience, there is often someone else, at the ready, pointing the trembling finger, accusing that writer of having various kinds of privilege. How dare someone speak to a personal experience without accounting for every possible configuration or privilege of the lack thereof?
This tiresome rhetoric that only X can speak about Y has allowed intersectionality and “checking your privilege” to be used in some cases to allow and excuse abuse, especially against white women. We are all privileged in one way or another and those with more privilege should work to level the playing field. That said, although an intersectional approach to feminism and “checking your privilege” is good, we are human. Nobody is perfect. We will forget our privilege sometimes. These things are inevitable because as human beings we are inherently flawed. And because feminism is a movement led by people, it will also be inherently flawed.
We need to do away with a hierarchy of voices within feminism. I know black women that don’t speak because they are scared nobody will listen. I know white women that don’t speak because they are scared that nobody will listen and they will get attacked. I say “attacked” and not “called out” because there is a difference challenging and critiquing a woman’s thinking and telling her she should die.
Women of colour have to work on one thing, and that one thing is separating action from character. Everybody knows what they can handle, don’t get me wrong. But when somebody does something you don’t like, you don’t attach it to who that person is, you let the action be the action. You say, “ You said this or you did this, and that made me feel like this. Or, “That’s racist.” Or, “That’s sexist.” But you don’t say you’re racist. You don’t have to attach one action to someone’s character.
Ford goes on to conclude that white women must learn how to tell the difference between a call out on their action or their character. I would go on further to argue that just because I, as a black woman, has called you out on a “racist action”, that doesn’t necessarily mean than it is racist because I could be wrong.
With online feminism, we are too quick to brand some women as “evil white feminists”. We forget how they might have supported projects for marginalised women. And most of all, we forget the invisible problems that some of the white women that we consistently tear down may face. The feminism we practice is one where we are quick to dismiss. The feminism we practice judges far too much. The feminism we practice doesn’t allow room for mistakes. When we don’t allow room for mistakes, we don’t allow room for learning. The feminism we practice perpetuates the idea that empathy is an impossible concept. Empathy allows us to try and understand what it can be like to inhabit a different body to ours, to live a different life to ours.
When I came to feminism, the last thing I expected was to find women bitching, hating and tearing each other down. I don’t think we can ever go forward if we are always at each other’s throats. “Woman-hating” is not cool. It is misogyny and it leads to unnecessary divides within the feminist movement. I also have to think what it means to claim to fight for the rights of women, but to simultaneously tear other women down and to enjoy doing so. By all means, give criticism where it’s due. But there is a fine line between abuse and criticism, and we seem to be doing more of the former.
Sisterhood: women helping, fighting for and supporting other women is what has got this far. On many occasions, I have asked myself, what has happened to sisterhood?
While we sit there behind our screens deciding who is a TERF or a SWERF, there are women with caring responsibilities who don’t have the time to engage. Due to the way our society is structured, having a baby can lead to innumerable structural inequalities for women. What about what feminism can do for them? Older women are invisible in feminism and we’re not listening to their needs, are we? There are girls being married aged 8 and 62 million girls denied an education globally. What about their voices?
I’m not saying that online feminism isn’t important. I’m not taking the “why are feminists talking about Page 3 when there is FGM?” approach. There will always be bigger battles to fight, and the small battles are important too. What I am saying is that sometimes our time could be better spent. We need to fight the battles worth fighting for. Instead of trolling a woman because you disagree with her, how about you call out her action and move on? The time you save could be spent doing something else, such as volunterring at your local Rape Crisis centre.
I’m not saying that we should all agree because we’re not a homogenous group. There’s bound to be disagreement. And a little infighting and challenging each other is healthy. But if we care so much about liberating women then sisterhood – not this constant infighting – is what we desperately need right now. We must somehow find a way to bring our fractured and divided movement together. We must put our heads together to make the world better for women – and men. Because stereotypes affect men too. The first step we can take is to become better at listening because that is what we are all failing to do. We are not listening to other women. Constant infighting will only keep our movement fractured and divided, making it harder for us to work towards a united sisterhood that focus on the struggle for the liberation of all women.
And sadly, our inability to listen, our inability to work together, to make mistakes, to learn from and support each other is dangerous, because it is costing women’s lives.