For Black History Month, we honor and celebrate the fabulous black feminists and wonderful womanists who continue to build the feminist movement and bend the arc of history toward justice. Today’s Fantastic Black Feminist is Renee Bracey Sherman-Renee is a reproductive justice organizer, activist, trainer and advocate working to end abortion stigma and create abortion access for all. She currently works with the National Network of Abortion Funds, writes for Echoing Ida, a program of Forward Together that amplifies the voices of Black women thought leaders, and sits on the national board of NARAL Pro Choice America. Our Spring 2017 intern, Henrieta Muradzikwa, conducted the interview.
Your twitter bio sent me through a range of varying emotions, it screams “audacious”, “brave” and down right “IDGAF” attitude; I aspire to have those qualities. What did you go through that made you wear your stripes the way you do?
Ha! First, thank you, that means a lot. I think a lot of my attitude and perspective is a result of how my parents raised me. They raised me that I deserve everything this nation has to offer and I should not be denied it by anyone because of my current station in life, my gender, or my race. You know those bags that say, “Carry Yourself With The Confidence Of A Mediocre White Man”? I feel like my father, a white man, raised me that way, and in the body of a biracial Black woman, it shows up as an IDGAF and tell it like it is attitude, but if I were a white man, it would just be directness and self-assurance. I have to remind myself everyday that I am an expert, I am smart, and I deserve to take up space in the world.
What does it mean to be a “black woman in America” to you?
To be a Black woman in America is to slay new challenges everyday, whether through racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia, and to thrive, no matter what. I’d also say it means to always be right and see the future when society refuses listen and acknowledge your power.
Unfortunately we live in a time where women are so afraid to speak or exercise their right to have an abortion, we see it as something to be ashamed of but you own it. This is your platform, what message would you like put out into the world for all the girls and women who have had an abortion or are looking into it, but are too afraid?
I think it’s important for people to own their experiences however they feel comfortable. For me, it’s about speaking out and calling out the shame and stigma that I felt forced upon me for so long. I want every single person who has had an abortion to know that they aren’t alone, they’re loved, and to see themselves reflected. That’s why I am committed to ensuring people of color, queer and trans people, people in rural communities, and of differing abilities, citizenship statuses, and incomes see themselves represented in the conversation around abortion access. To those who are considering sharing their story, I would say to start writing your story down for yourself first, then maybe find a friend or loved one who will truly listen to you. And if you’re thinking about sharing it publicly, you should think about what you actually want to share, what you might want to share at a later date, and what you would like to keep only for yourself. It’s your story, so you can share as much or as little as you’d like – the only person who knows is you. You can also read my guide on storysharing based on advice from almost 40 public abortion storytellers. Note: I use gender inclusive language because transgender and gender nonconforming people have abortions as well.
I have made it a habit to comment on each interviewee’s skin or hair, and so I shall not stop my trend here. You have absolutely gorgeous caramel skin and dazzling curly hair, did you ever face any prejudice because of it within the black community?
I appreciate your flattery, but I have to admit, I disagree with the premise of the question. Because of my skin color and hair, which is because of my proximity to whiteness, I have been afforded a lot of privileges in life, and felt uncomfortable in others. It took me a long time to identify as a Black woman, mostly because society shows us so few representations of the spectrum of Black women and I didn’t fit that. That’s not the Black community’s fault, that’s the media and segregation’s fault. Growing up, I was told that I wasn’t ‘Black enough’ nor ‘white enough’, and that hurt, but looking back I hold no ill feelings towards them because I recognize how comments like that are a function of white supremacy to separate folks based on skin color and hair type. I’ve definitely experienced misplaced assumptions by people about my Blackness, but what’s more important to focus on is not any prejudice from the Black community that I may have experienced, but the prejudice I’ve experienced by white folks. Their assumption that I must be smarter or more eloquent than my darker, kinky haired friends, or that I’m somehow an exception to their narrow assumption of who Black women are. Those assumptions unfortunately give me access to places and spaces based on racist assumptions, of ‘well intentioned’ white folks, who are surprised when I challenge their racism just as hard. I won’t be anyone’s token, no matter how caramel my skin, big my curls, or cute you think my dimples are. That’s the function of racism and prejudice that hurts me to my core.
After having stalked your twitter feed, I noticed you recently addressing the issue of transgender students being discriminated against in school. To quote one of your tweets, you said “transgender students also shouldn’t have to hold their pee all day because they can’t use the bathroom of their gender identity. That’s cruel”. As a feminist, how would you call on feminists world wide to put an end to this? We fight for equal rights, not just for women but for everyone.
I started out working professionally in social justice in the LGBT movement, working to ensure students had equal access to education and support in schools. I heard so many stories of students being bullied in schools and dying by suicide, and it broke my heart daily. I’m feeling in that place again as I hear about the number of Black trans women who are being murdered weekly due to toxic masculinity, white supremacy, and transphobia. This is vastly underreported, and their lives deserve our attention. I think the first thing people need to do is get educated. You can’t know about a problem if you don’t learn more – follow trans and non-binary folks of color on social media, fight to make sure they’re at the same tables you are, challenge yourself to unlearn transphobic behaviors and beliefs you’ve been taught. Remember, this is not a fight about bathrooms, this is a fight about whether or not trans people are able to exist in public spaces. If you believe cisgender women should be able to exist in the world and make decisions about their bodies, then you should believe trans people do too.
In your opinion, which artist/singer today best embodies what a feminist really walks, talks and acts like?
I really love the work of Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay. They are both creating media that represents a fuller picture of our identities and stories in the world. They are creating complex characters on screen, hiring actors honed in their craft in front of the camera, and creating opportunities for people of color and women behind the camera, where they’re often shutout in Hollywood. I really think they are embodying feminism in their art, work, and business acumen.
Have you ever made a post on social media about feminism and had an individual comment on how feminists are either stupid, bitter, unhappy and ugly lesbians – when in actual fact our champs are divas. Since you are all too familiar with various social media platforms, how would you advise an emerging feminist to respond to such comments?
To be honest, when people make ridiculous generalizations like that, I pay them no attention. I shouldn’t have to prove that I’m happy or pretty for you to believe that I am a person worthy of respect. Their comments actually say more about themselves than they do me, and I don’t bother to waste my precious time and brilliance on trolls. If it is someone who lightly seems misguided, I might ask why they believe that or where they got that message from. When you ask someone to explain where they learned a racist or sexist assumption, or explain an inappropriate joke, that puts the onus on them to explain why they think oppression is acceptable and justified. And sometimes people learn just by hearing their own explanations aloud.
As vocal feminists, we often end up getting harassment through many means, be it via the internet, over the phone or in public-what strategies have you used and cultivated to keep going despite the haters?
I definitely receive a lot of harassment for being a feminist, person of color, and open about my abortion. It definitely hurts some days more than others. But I remember that the fact that someone is spending part of their day trying to tear me down says a couple things: they’re frustrated with their station in life and instead of dealing with that internally or with a therapist, it feels better for them to try to harm me by calling me names, and that they’d rather shout at strangers instead of trying to make the world a better place. The thing that does scare me is that they are real people who are spreading those awful messages both online and off, so stay vigilant. But also remember there are more people who want to see the world shift more positively, so it’s important that we keep going. To keep going, I have to ground myself and remember that these people really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I make sure to spend time with loved ones and friends, in real life, go on vacation, and use third party apps like Block Together to filter out the white supremacist accounts that just attack me.
We here at Feminist Campus extend many thanks to Renee for sharing her story and her work with us for Black Herstory Month! Keep checking back for more in the series this month!