Intersectionality and womanism: A brand of feminism relevant for a young, black woman

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

The reason it had been so easy for me to carve out a clear hierarchy where my blackness came first and my womanhood came second was because I had only really been exposed to mainstream feminism that seemed to be primarily concerned with issues facing middle class white women and had only really seen some of its most visible manifestations in ‘pop feminism’ through the likes of Beyonce, Madonna and the Spice Girls.

Photo credit: The Guardian

“I’m a black woman – Hillary or Obama, I’m torn,” Wanda Sykes says of her dilemma in choosing who to vote for in the 2008 US Presidential elections in her stand up show ‘Ima Be Me’ . “I really just tried to narrow it down to which is giving me more problems in my life, being black or being a woman. As a woman, unequal pay. A black person, no pay.”

This Wanda Sykes skit pretty much articulated my own stance on the hierarchy between my blackness and my womanhood. I had always been certain in the idea that I am black, or atleast African, before I am woman. Liberation for black people first, liberation for women second. Being aware of this, I had been a little wary about using the term ‘feminist’.

This is a personal stance that is also reflected in the governance of our country.

Beyond the numerical representation of women in Parliament, the cause of women has not been advanced politically. As Shireen Hassim’s “ANC Women’s League: Sex, Politics and Gender” puts it, over the history of the organisation it “was neither the only women’s organisation in the political field nor was it an easy ally for South African feminism.” As the most visible women’s political organisation, they have arguably gone beyond being irrelevant to the advancement of women’s issues in South Africa, they appear to even be harmful. The President of the ANCWL Angie Motshekga has said that South Africa is “not ready for a female President”. The league did not show any support for ‘Khwezi, Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser, and went on to endorse him for Presidency. The ANC Women’s League has been weak and failed to articulate any real policy stance that advance the cause of women.

This vacuum of leadership has thus left the space for the gender equality fight to be filled by non-governmental organisations such as the One in Nine Campaign, the Sonke Gender Justice Network, People Opposing Woman Abuse (POWA) and the Forum for the Empowerment of Women.

The reason it had been so easy for me to carve out a clear hierarchy where my blackness came first and my womanhood came second was because I had only really been exposed to mainstream feminism that seemed to be primarily concerned with issues facing middle class white women and had only really seen some of its most visible manifestations in ‘pop feminism’ through the likes of Beyonce, Madonna and the Spice Girls.

I had not really been exposed to a brand of feminism that had been relevant enough for my life nor the idea of intersectionality. I suspect that this is the reason many women have been reluctant to call themselves feminists.

That changed through an education I received courtesy of social media. If there is ‘black twitter’, then there is also ‘black feminist twitter’. Women such as Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) and Trudy [sic](@thetrudz) began my education of intersectionality through hashtags such as #solidarityisforwhitewomen, #blackpowerisforblackmen and #YesAllWomen.

In her article titled “#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: women of color’s issue with digital feminism” Kendall wrote ,”Admittedly, this isn’t a new problem: white feminism has argued that gender should trump race since its inception…That rhetoric not only erases the experiences of women of color, but also alienates many from a movement that claims to want equality for all.”

Intersectionality addresses these concerns and is a term that was coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. This speaks to the view that people experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. This reflects the ‘intersection’ of multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of identities such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, and ethnicity.

‘Check your privilege’ is a phrase that often comes up in discussions about intersectionality. It recognizes that a lot of black women can and do have privileges, which makes them just as able to be oppressive. Black women can be privileged because of aspects such as their sexuality, class, education, religion, and cis-gender status.

Before this I had never really explored what it meant, not only to be a woman, but to a black woman, and of course, I had never really arrived at the idea of intersectionality between race, class, gender, sexuality and able-bodied – which for me, is to be a middle class, black, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman.

Womanism is an intersectional feminist theory introduced by Alice Walker her 1983 book ‘‘In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens’.

“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Walker says of this feminism that is “stronger in color”, nearly identical to “Black Feminism”.

Womanism is a reaction to the lack of intersectionality in mainstream feminism. It argues specifically that the experience of being a black female cannot be understood or considered independently – only in terms of being black, and of being female, as I had previously done.

In addition to this, part of Walker’s definition of the term ‘womanist’ includes “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”

It is in essence an anti-oppression struggle. It addresses the racist and classist aspects of mainstream feminism. Very importantly, it recognizes that black men are an important and integral part of black women’s lives as their lovers, children and family members.

Despite this ‘agenda’, across the world, mainstream feminism has had various responses to intersectionality and womanism. While some feminists have been receptive, others have argued that it is meaningless, too radical, and/or potentially divisive.

Similarly, anti-racist movements have had similar responses to this demand for the recognition of the black female experience. As Hassim notes, South Africa’s liberation movements also sought to quiet feminist murmurings because of the apparent ‘threat to unity’.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Being black and a feminist need not be mutually exclusive. My blackness and womanhood frequently reinforce each other. Beyond my own personal realisation of this, this realisation is important at a national level.

Seeing that there is a viable alternative to mainstream feminism I have come to be more embracing of women in the public who have been hesitant of speaking of feminism in the public sphere.

First lady Tobeka Madiba-Zuma recently weighed in whilst at the Durban Film Festival, “I’m not necessarily a feminist. I think for us to succeed in our struggles we cannot leave men out of the equation,” she said.

“We need to have men because they play an important role in our lives, and I think if we are to win the struggle we have to have them on board.

“Rope them in and educate them.”

It might be ‘reaching’ a little to call the First Lady a womanist as I do not know what views inform her statement. Nonetheless if I am to give her the benefit of the doubt, the ideas that she expresses are ones that I can appreciate as a womanist who is interested in women flourishing as part of wider society.

An understanding of intersectionality is vital to gaining political and social equality and improving our democratic system. Recognising intersectionality and womanism means an overhaul of a system that is oppressive to both to the oppressed and oppressor.

FURTHER READING:

READ: Everyday Feminism : 30+ Examples of Cisgender Privilege

READ: What does ‘cis’ mean?

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