Before I came to college, I was rather confused about my racial identity. I always knew that I was African American, but I did not know what that meant; my parents only raised me to be a good person rather than to be a Black woman. Throughout my adolescence, I experienced mild forms of discrimination, but I thought it was because I was a girl. I did not know it was because I was a Black girl. It is safe to say that I was a feminist before I knew I was a Black feminist.
During my freshman year of college at Indiana State University, I was exposed to a vibrant, red-headed professor whose thoughts and ideologies directly aligned with mine. But she knew how to articulate those thoughts much better than I could even think them. She is the one who first introduced me to feminism. When she explained the basic premise of what it meant, something clicked in my head; I am a feminist. I guess you could call it an epiphany.
This realization made me think that I was finally coming into my own and finding myself. Accordingly, I started voicing my beliefs and claiming my feminist status. I noticed that my White female peers received me as thoughtful and identified with my concerns. Conversely, my Black counterparts slightly cringed when I declared that I was a feminist. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it; I figured it was due to the common misunderstanding of feminism. However, when I secured an on-campus job at the African American Cultural Center, I realized that there was a much deeper issue behind my peers’ reactions.
I was finally approached with curiosity about my beliefs by a Black male student. At first, I thought that he was asking me what feminism meant to me. I began telling him how feminism is the belief in women’s equality on an economic, political and social scale.
He stopped me mid-sentence and said, “I meant how can you be a feminist and Black? Feminism is for White women.”
I was completely taken aback. Until then, I had never thought about how race played a big part in how people viewed me as a woman. I can recall many times where I have been over-sexualized and stereotyped as the “angry Black woman” in the perceptions of others. Although I disagreed with him about how feminism was an ideology solely for the thoughts of White women, I do understand why he would think that.
The problem with mainstream feminism is that it claims to address all women’s issues, but more often than not, it addresses issues that pertain to White women only. The truth is that women have different experiences with oppression and discrimination based not only on gender but also on race, sexuality, class, physical ability and age. To be truly comprehensive and inclusive, feminism must be intersectional. You cannot talk about sexism without talking about multiple factors besides gender that play a significant part in systemic discrimination.
The longer I was enrolled at a Predominantly White Institution (P.W.I.) and the more I immersed myself into Black culture, I began to voice the concerns of African American women’s issues. Black American women suffer an oppression that greatly differs from other American women, as the implications of slavery still have an effect on how we are perceived. While all women face common inequities, such as unequal pay and attacks on reproductive freedom, Black women endure prejudice that is twofold. Black women suffer incommensurately from poverty, economic inequality and criminal injustices.
The day I was confronted by that Black male student was the day that I decided that I was a Black feminist. I did not decide I was a Black feminist because regular old feminism does not apply to me, but because my racial identity became clearer to me. My journey as a scholar has been one of self-realization, as I finally understand that I cannot fight this fight for all women until the war against Black American women ceases.