Feminism is a unique experience for everyone, and it’s a unique movement on every campus. In this roundtable, three feminists who attended or attend HBCUs weigh in on what feminism looks like on those campuses and how they came to embrace the term.
Nathalia B., Former Miss Florida Memorial University
Who am I and what is the purpose of my being?
That was the first question I asked myself when I first stepped foot on Florida Memorial University’s campus in August of 2008. I remember the fear that ran through my heart when I decided to start chasing my dreams. I deserved the right to belong, I deserved the right to fair competition, but most importantly, I deserved the right to access my talents and to be able to share that with the world. The expectations were high, but I was ready to meet them.
I ran for the title of Miss Florida Memorial University my senior year and won. Not only did I receive a crown and a title, but I am also the first queen to be accompanied by a king. Throughout my journey, I struggled with identifying who I was as an HBCU campus queen. I couldn’t see myself as just another pretty face without a voice, but that is what was expected with a male counterpart. The experience of holding such a high position shaped and molded me into the woman that I am today: a woman who’s survived tough judgment and criticism, a woman who’s been conflicted between meeting the norms of her immediate society to feel accepted while trying to uphold her own standards and belief systems.
Although I was accompanied by a king, I needed to feel that, as a queen, I could stand alone. Through courage and strength, I fought through the stereotypes of what a campus queen should be and developed a meaning of my own – strong, independent, and powerful – by exposing students to the eloquence of an educated woman.
Why is feminism important to me? Because we should all have the right to expose the world to our greatest potentials regardless of our gender and a feminist majority is important and critical to the larger HBCU community in order to help promote that idea. HBCUs are known for their commitment to providing opportunities to students of color by exposing them to the power of knowledge and it is now time for HBCUs to continue that legacy by raising awareness to the fact that we are all feminists in regards to how we dedicate ourselves to our individual successes.
Latashia Harris, Program Coordinator at George Mason University, Attended Norfolk State University
Feminism is not a new concept to the black community, but I think people tend to forget that because the intelligible terms academics and activists are familiar with aren’t translated or perceived the same way within those communities. When I was at an HBCU, and in my house growing up, we never used the term “feminism.” In contrast, “strong black women” was a continuous theme, a way of existence, rather – a statement that demanded respect and pride. However, I never understood feminism as a movement for equality for every human being; I just thought, overall, that feminism was just a “white people word” that ignored my color but pretended to accept it, that accepted my queerness but only within specific generations, and that acknowledged my assigned sex, but didn’t accept my masculine-of-center gender expression.
I thought feminism was just another form of the white savior complex, a term parallel to the control of and shaming of black beings and culture. I thought it was a word that allowed privileged people to, once again, tell black women what they needed instead of asking how they could help. (It’s not like my apprehension wasn’t warranted; these dynamics have never been new to a person visibly living at the intersections of oppression.) So when people came onto campus, that we weren’t familiar with, to discuss feminism, I was apprehensive.
When I started getting into feminism in a more visible and vocal way after my HBCU experiences, some of my suspicions about it were invalidated – but some suspicions were validated. Though the feminist movement strives to foster an anti-racist and inclusive community, I had to do a lot of speaking out when I felt that there was a discourse that didn’t include people of color’s experiences. That’s what you have to do for inclusivity to work: you have to open your mouth in black spaces, in queer spaces, in predominantly white spaces, in heterosexually assumed spaces. It will always be a work in progress and a continuous conversation, but that’s OK. I can’t just sit and be angry about things I never try to change or shed new information on issues to those who don’t know anything about the communities to which I belong.
When I was writing my thesis at an HBCU, I received a lot of support from one particular professor, though she didn’t know all of the terminology for things I wanted to talk about relevant to the intersections of queerness and race, and so it was a learning experience for both of us. However, while the HBCU community accepted my blackness and the queer population on campus accepted my prescribed lesbian identity, it didn’t give me much choice for exploration or help in finding words about my gender identity or orientation that felt right for me. It took me forever to discover terms such as pansexual, genderqueer, or trans*. HBCUs are not purposefully making these things unavailable – at least not the ones I went to – but I do think that there you are so focused on preparing yourself to be black and enter the world with resilience while you’re enrolled that being a black woman or a gender non-conforming person and being a queer person is something you just have to figure out on your own.
One thing that I did do was be myself, not adjust myself at my internships or as a graduate assistant, or as a day care worker in the black community and at HBCU campuses unapologetically. I think that made a huge difference in obliterating colonial thought processed stereotypes of queerness that others tend to hold. I was there, I looked how I looked, I dressed how I dressed, I was who I was, my music was my music, my culture was and is my culture. I learned how to resist assimilation, even when it left me in the minority.
Audre Lorde said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Hell, existing is political activism and social resistance. I knew after reading that quote that I was on the right track with how I was creating my own feminism. A lot of my anxiety about being a multiple minority in the black community, among other feminists, among predominantly white populations, decreased significantly all because of my unwillingness to need to fit in in order to help myself or my community.
I think the ability to have honest conversations about feminism in mixed company turned out to be a hell of a lot easier after I graduated from an HBCU. You’re encouraged to have a strong sense of pride, social justice, and self-care when you’re at an HBCU – not because they cram it into your mind, because you spend less time feeling alone in being black and get to start discussing how you feel about being “black…and.” You can’t be one marginalized identity in our community, so we started our conversations from a place of communal understanding that allowed us to articulate when other institutions have to deconstruct assumed whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality.
At HBCUs, self- and community care extended and evolved from my home base, to campus, to my community – and gave me the strength to piece together some things for myself when resources weren’t readily available. When I did immerse myself in more diverse communities of feminism, I knew I wasn’t being someone I wasn’t. I knew that I belonged there, I knew that I deserved to be there, and I knew that I didn’t have to be hyper-defensive just to say how I felt. I wasn’t looking for validation, I was looking for inclusion – and I expected groups to live their missions. If they weren’t, I was demanding they live up to it.
Cherelle Hicks, Bennett College FMLA
Feminism is important to me now more than ever.
Since I’ve become a part of the Women Studies Department at Bennett College, I’ve become more of aware of my rights as a women in this world. I’ve discovered that women all over the world are fighting for equal political, economic, and social rights. Who are the laws are really meant to protect? Somewhere in the making of those laws certain groups of women weren’t represented at all; I’m one of those women.
I’m not happy at all about systems of inequality here or abroad, so I have to do something about it and make sure other women are aware. A feminist advocates for and believes in the equality of women, so that’s what I am. I am a feminist. As a student at one of the all black women’s colleges in the country, I understand that it is very important that women of color know about the causes to gain equal rights for all women, allow women to have control over their lives and bodies, and empower women and young girls in the face of constant sexualization and victimization.
Feminism plays such a big role in letting our voices be heard; to be heard we need feminism.
As Tupac said:
And since we all came from a woman,
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman,
I wonder why we take from our women,
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women,
Time to heal our women, be real to our women,
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies,
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies,
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one,
So will the real men get up,
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep your head up.”
In many parts of the world, women are subjected to honor killings, domestic abuse, mental abuse and female infanticide – and governments do little to help these women. The worst part about this is that a lot of these issues are not reported – and on the other hand, if it’s reported it’s misreported. But we are not alone. We have men to stand alongside us, women to stand with us, and folks who have yet to be inspired to do so waiting in the wings.