Black Feminism Today

Today, the ultimate goal of black feminists is still the same.  By advocating the liberation of black women, historically some of the most marginalized and oppressed people in our country, the aim is to ensure freedom for ALL people, of all genders, races, and socioeconomic classes.  It is not uncommon for others to identify as “black feminists” who also believe in the same goals.

I encourage my readers to check out the blogroll on the right side of the page to see the perspectives of some contemporary black feminist bloggers.

 

“Latina/Chicana Women’s Activism in the US”

This is an informative article about Latina and Chicana feminists and activists in the U.S. throughout the 20th century and the unique challenges they’ve also had to face.

Since the emergence of black feminism as a reaction against the originally white and middle class-dominated feminist movement, other racial and cultural groups have created their unique brands of feminism, focusing on similar issues like the intersectionality of oppressions.  Alternative feminisms have developed in the United States as well as developing countries, where issues of class disparity are perhaps more prominent.

 

Pop Culture and Masculinity

Early 90s gangsta rap group NWA

In the past decade, the concerns of black feminists has expanded to include concerns over issues not solely related to black women, but also to how American ideals of masculinity and femininity repress all people, gay and straight, male and female.

bell hooks examines how racist and sexist attitudes marginalize black males. She is critical of certain movies, for example, as reflecting white imperialist capitalist patriarchy. Films like Eddie Murphy’s Raw and Harlem Nights [trailer] embody a notion of phallocentric violence and portray women in stereotypical roles as either a sex object or a mother figure.1

Patricia Hill Collins is critical of hip hop in her book From Black Power to Hip-Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism, and she and others have cited the misogyny which is prevalent in hip hop culture.

In Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity, Jackson Katz addresses the limited way that men of color are portrayed in the media which perpetuates stereotypes. Men in general are usually portrayed in the media as violent and aggressive, but there is even less diversity in the way men of color are presented in popular culture. Men who are marginalized because of minority status or socioeconomic class are more likely to feel like they have to put on a hypermasculine front to get respect or validation. This hyper violent image is then idealized in the popular culture as mediums like hip hop music reach the mainstream. [Full video here]

“Sexism fosters, condones, and supports male violence against women, as well as encouraging violence between males.”2  The misogyny and violence that is celebrated in popular culture therefore is a huge obstacle.

References

1. bell hooks, “Reconstructing Black Masculinity” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 102-106.

2. bell hooks.  Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981), 105.

Sociology in Black Feminism

Patricia Hill Collins

Black feminists have come from a variety of different fields and backgrounds. Besides writers like Alice Walker, they have been philosophers, political activists, psychologists, and sociologists, just to name a few. An important contributor to black feminist thought in the 1990s and 2000s is Patricia Hill Collins, a sociologist. In her first book, published in 1990, she uses the term “intersectionality” to refer to the multiple sources of oppression that minority women simultaneously face, and explores the concept of “interlocking” oppressions.1

Hill Collins is perhaps best known for her theory of the Matrix of Domination. She argues that labels used for social classification (race, gender, etc.) imply that these must be ranked in a certain hierarchy. This type of thinking creates a dichotomy between the privileged and the subordinated, excluding certain groups from rising up the social ranks. These social classifications are not interchangeable, but rather, they overlap. People may experience different dimensions of oppression, whether because of their sexual orientation, religion, or race, for example, but the idea is that there is always a dominant group.

Hill Collins also argues that the best way to resist the Matrix of Domination is through knowledge and awareness of interlocking oppressions. To gain this awareness, women must reject previous knowledge that perpetuates the patriarchal system, or any other dominating force. Identity and self-definition are important in understanding the way history is still affecting the course of the present and how it can hinder progress, or even empower the individual.2

References

1. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Cambridge, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 44.

2. Ibid., 225-230.

Devaluation of the Black Female Body

Henrietta Lacks

The rape of enslaved women in the era before emancipation had a profound effect on perceptions of black women in America. The exploitation of black women during slavery is the root of a continued devaluation of black women and their bodies in society. Stereotypical images of women were based on the idea that black women were immoral, regardless of the fact that they were powerless against sexual exploitation.1

The devaluation of the black female body is not limited to sexual exploitation, however.  As a historically marginalized group, black women have also been subject to exploitation in scientific and medical fields too.  Women of color, viewed as the inferior “other”, a group placed outside of the accepted norm, have had their bodies or body parts used for the advancement of science.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is a famous example. In 1951, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During her treatment, slivers of tissue were removed from her cervix and given to Dr. George Gey, a researcher interested in tissue culture.  Eventually, those cells became the famous HeLa line, acontinuously growing and widely used cell line that has been instrumental in cancer research, the development of vaccines such as the polio vaccine, and cell research in general.  Although those cells have been so useful to scientists, helped save many lives, and launched a multibillion dollar industry in cell culturing, Henrietta had no idea before her death in 1951, and neither did her family until two decades later.  At the time, Johns Hopkins’ public wards served predominantly poor African Americans, and it was the common belief of the doctors that “since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment”.2  There were no consent forms required by law for Henrietta to sign to allow the scientists to take pieces of her tissues, and no one in her family was told that her cells were to be kept alive for decades after.

Henrietta’s position as a poor, black female with little education gave the doctors and scientists little reason to think twice about using and exploiting her remains for their research. As her cells were used in labs throughout the world, it is likely that not many people thought about the individual from which they came. Henrietta’s family was deeply affected by her loss, not only because she was greatly loved, but because the loss of their mother would alter her children’s lives for the worse. Her family would continue to live in difficult conditions, not being able to afford health insurance even though strangers far away were profiting from a piece of their relative that was still “alive”.

Henrietta’s story illustrates institutional racism occurring during treatment and afterwards in her family’s lives.  Her story shows how scientists might see themselves as privileged to examine the bodies of people considered as inferior, all done in the name of research.
In recent years, scientists have found that fetal tissue has value in therapeutic treatments and could be of value to researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Khiara Bridges examines the consequences that making the sale of fetal tissue by the woman who aborts legal may have, and points out that allowing fetal tissue sale to be an option would have negative ramifications particularly on Black women.  The reason for this is that Black women are especially marginalized in the United States, have high poverty rates, and have disproportionally high abortion rates.  Historically, Black women have been devalued by society and tend to undervalue themselves as a consequence.  This “’internalized oppression’, makes the Black woman more likely than other women to participate in a market in fetal tissue because a woman’s willingness to engage in such a market will be in part related to her vision of herself and her agency”.3 The commodification of fetal tissue further subjugates women because the “commodification of the body forces women to conceptualize themselves as a means to an end –rather than an end in and of itself”.4

From a black feminist perspective, once black women realize the power that they have been denied over their own bodies, they will be better equipped to fight against sexist-racist oppression.5  Regaining control over their bodies has been a concern for the women’s movement in general, and is definitely a primary concern for black feminists.

References

1.  bell hooks. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA:  South End Press, 1981), 52-54.

2.  Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2009), 30.

3.  Khiara M. Bridges. “On the Commodification of the Black Female Body: The Critical Implications of the Alienability of Fetal Tissue”, Columbia Law Review 102(2002):6.

4.  Ibid., 12.

5.  hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 74-81.