In light of this weekend’s disheartening Travyon Martin ruling, it’s become clear that the challenge to end racism is far from over. It’s also clear that we all need to play a part in making sure it becomes ancient history. Race is a feminist issue, simply because women are diverse. We cannot talk about only part of a people; to be feminists, we must honor women as themselves – their whole selves. Race and all. To advocate for women without acknowledging their intersecting lines of oppression – social factors like race and class included – we do the movement a disservice. We do ourselves a disservice. And ultimately, the feminist movement will fail if it can’t take into account that all marginalization is connected.
For that reason, we wanted to start the conversation. We wanted to create a space for talking about race and putting other activists on track in their own work to further diversity in their actions, be part of broader social change, and be more inclusive in their own lives. We do not speak for everyone, solve problems for everyone, or know how to solve the problem of inclusivity for everyone, but we think having a discussion about these issues is absolutely necessary. We’re going to be covering a lot in this post – but surely we will leave something out. This is only the starting point, and we structured the post as an open thread to leave room for further suggestions and commentary. So please, share your stories with us! We’ll get you started with some of our own.
Why Talking About Race is Hard
Talking about race is such a challenge, even in a feminist space. Then again, I think race is a concept that people in general do not feel comfortable to discuss; it even seemed difficult for the interns to address race when we were writing this post together: the variety of our backgrounds made people apprehensive to organize, some people didn’t want to speak for everyone in their community and some were worried about offending groups that they don’t identify with. And honestly, most of the interns were white and didn’t feel that they had much right, if any, to talk about the issue of race. I also felt that everyone was scared of making a decision once we had started talking – no one wanted to end up hurting someone’s feelings and everyone seemed too scared to take any productive first steps. Our different experiences prevented us from being able to address the topic of race directly.
As someone born outside the US, who admittedly hasn’t interacted much with American matrices of privilege, I’ve reached the conclusion that although race is an obvious social issue, it’s complex because everyone experiences it differently. It’s difficult for some people to acknowledge and accept that we’re all coming from different places and we’ll all need different things to feel welcome and included, and sometimes people refuse to accept that or get defensive or upset about it. The problem is that we, as feminists and as people, cannot work for inclusion if we refuse to get out of our comfort zones and commit to understanding and respecting experiences that we have not had.
Because race is complex and deeply personal, it’s hard to organize around: you don’t want to step on toes. But remaining silent instead doesn’t seem like a productive, or helpful, solution to that initial discomfort. We have to speak up and out, because otherwise we’ll remain down and out.
Why Antiracism and Feminism Are – and Must Remain – Connected
I learned very early on that talking about race, especially as a black person, is “just as bad” as actually being a racist. Black children understand the value of safe spaces at a young age; we’re first taught that they’re created and defended, not given and respected, and secondly that safe spaces don’t exist in mainstream (read: white-dominated) spaces. Furthermore, the black community has a long and layered history of internalizing white supremacist attitudes and beliefs, as well as patriarchal and classist ones, so that even within the black community there can exist the line of thought that “there is a difference between black people and n******,” so that members of the black community victim-blame each other and enable the white supremacist culture to systematically oppress the community as a whole.
It’s simply easier and safer to let things be, and with good reason. Trayvon Martin died for taking a shortcut home in the rain, and he’s lucky enough that his case made it into the national consciousness at all. Too many other people – black women and black transpersons, especially – never do. The most unfortunate results of the lack of safe spaces and honest conversations about race are erasure and visibility. Race, sex, and gender intersect in powerful ways; as a black woman, it is impossible to separate my experiences as a woman from my experiences as a black person. My blackness affects how I’m perceived as a woman in the general community. In turn, my femaleness and sexuality cannot be separated from how people perceive me as a black person, and how I’m expected to behave sexually as a black woman. Black women are often forced to “choose” – a black woman is often told that she can be a feminist or a racial justice activist, but not both. She can either submit to the white supremacy of mainstream feminism or the patriarchy of the black civil rights movement.
Still, when either of these aspects of myself are ignored, the entire conversation is rendered moot. I simply cannot compartmentalize myself in such a way, because I will never experience feminism the way my white and other non-black counterparts do. I won’t ever experience blackness the way black men do. That doesn’t mean that I’m not a feminist or that my black card deserves to be revoked; it means that feminism and the black civil rights are places where many different conversations and experiences exist. That diversity must be acknowledged for either to be truly effective movements.
So when we’re talking about race, and when I talk about race, the very conversation is a total subversion of the status quo. Race is something that Westerners prefer to believe is something in the past, that we live in a post-racial society. Unfortunately, racism has a way of evolving with the times, so that even when it’s as prevalent and sinister as ever it’s also harder to discuss because the way racism manifests today isn’t immediately obvious. It takes courage and an extreme amount of patience: few people, even social justice activists and their allies, are willing to confront their privilege, or even recognize that they have it in the first place. We’re more concerned with hurt feelings than dead children; self-preservation – so that we can keep our jobs, our friends, our options open in the way of social mobility and political opportunity – is a powerful incentive to shut up and sit down. We convince ourselves that “we’re seeing things” after all, that it’s “not a big deal.” Or worst or all, that the status quo is to difficult to change, that it won’t ever change, so we decide that our efforts are futile and give up before we even start.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is to “prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Feminists ought to take that advice and apply it to the next level: not only expect the worst from people and leave it at that, because “hoping” is kind of passive, but also dedicate ourselves to making sure that that hope manifests into concrete reality. Intersectional feminism requires that we all ally ourselves with different social justice causes across the spectrum – environmental justice, food security, immigration reform, healthcare access, and so on – because all of those issues involve women and their self-agency. It is especially important for privileged feminists – e.g. white, male, heterosexual and/or cis – not to hijack the efforts of feminists who are not privileged in those ways.
When it comes to racial justice, feminists have a responsibility to educate ourselves about race-related issues and freely give our support to those who work to correct them. The hardest part is confronting the way we’ve all, regardless of our racial and ethnic background, internalized and perpetuated racism in general society and as a feminist. Welcoming feminists of color into mainstream feminist spaces and respecting their own safe spaces is paramount for underscoring healthy conversation, as well as recognizing that anger on the part of people of color is valid. The silver lining is that status quos are stubborn, but not immalleable. They do move. Intersectional feminism has the potential to be that which makes it.
Making Women of Color Comfortable In The Feminist Movement
When I ask people how to put anti-racist feminist theory into practice, I usually hear that the answer to eliminating discrimination lies in including everyone. But that’s too vague for me: how can I help to incorporate every single drop of a person’s unique goodness into a campus event or organization without getting paralyzed by the weight of our differences? How can I prevent myself from getting discouraged when my efforts to be inclusive fail miserably? And how can I help others feel less like guests and more like members of a movement? I obviously do not have answers to all of these questions, but I do know that as a black woman, I’ve noticed what makes me feel comfortable being in feminist spaces.
There’s really one major thing that people have done that has made me feel “safer” in feminist spaces: actively listening. It’s something that I am always working on, too. I have a terrible tendency to formulate replies and follow-up questions in my head while another person is speaking to me about their experiences. My feminism is all about validating people and supporting them in creating solutions for their unique place at the intersection of oppressions. I can’t do any of that when I’m making assumptions and jumping to conclusions while a person is still speaking.
Active listening is a part of creating safer spaces. One way I try to contribute to safer spaces is preventing myself from getting defensive or non-apologizing when I am called out for making others feel unwelcome. Without acknowledging that I do not know every person’s experience, that my words and ignorance actually does hurt people, it isn’t very likely that I would see that a problem exists, much less know how to support someone in their struggles against said problem.
Ultimately, I don’t really think there’s a universal formula for inclusivity, and even the things that have helped me will not help make spaces better or safer for other people. The honest solution to creating welcome spaces for women of color is that “it depends.” Rather than assuming that following one “how to be inclusive” guide can cure all diversity issues, we must to reach out to other excluded individuals to help develop safer spaces for them, and we have to be willing to change our own behaviors to make that possible.
Further Suggestions for Inclusion: A Handy-Dandy Starting Point
We’ve outlined some suggestions in this post for increasing your inclusivity as a feminist leader, as well as why it’s important that you actively attempt to diversify your campus’ feminist movement. Here’s a couple more to get you started as you begin planning for next Fall.
+ Coalition Building: Work, and meet, regularly with other campus leaders who work on issues connected or derived from your own mission – feminist leaders should be connected with activists working on race, class, LGBTQ, health, and other issues, and each group should feel integral to your own work. Allow people to help you and allow yourself to be of service to them – even if you’re not receiving explicit credit for doing so. Be the connecting force, or, if coalitions already exist, add your name to the list. Team work makes the dream work, after all.
+ Active Support: It’s easy in student life to get used to a model of “support” that’s really passive – including events in your newsletters put on by other groups, co-sponsoring events by simply giving money, etc. But the best way to signal a real commitment to a group’s work is active support: bringing them onto steering committees for events, sending members of your own student group to their events as volunteers, and sharing resources without asking for anything in return.
+ Stepping Back: When you’re working with other groups or student leaders on events or actions focused on issues of race and ethnicity, know when you need to step back. Hand-in-hand with active listening is knowing when your input is overshadowing someone else’s lived experiences.
+ Discussion Groups: Creating safe spaces for people to explore issues of race and identity makes everyone more sensitive and aware of how these issues affect their lives and their peers. It strengthens community.
+ Making WOC Issues Your Issues: Rather than giving lip service to issues in passing, go out of your way to make those issues central to your mission. If you represent feminists on your campus, you should be paying close attention to the issues facing women of color in your community – and you should be taking full or partial responsibility for making sure they get the care and attention they deserve. Reach out to groups working on issues that overlap with your mission and get your hands dirty. You’ll learn something, and you’ll make it clear that you’re focused on and passionate about these issues, too.
+ Honoring Diversity: Make diversity deliberate. Don’t allow people to host events that don’t speak to broad ranges of identities – you wouldn’t have an LGBT issues panel that doesn’t include a panelist well-versed on trans* issues, so don’t have a panel on the future of feminism that doesn’t include the perspectives of women of color. When building your team, recognize how important it is to allow women of color to have direct roles in shaping the direction and actions of your group. And when planning major events, plan to include speakers that can speak from a diversity of experiences, instead of having speakers who come from the same relative cultural standpoint.
As we said before, this is not an end-all list by any means. These are suggestions that come from our own experiences and our own communities – please feel free to share your own in the comments below!