I’m not a feminist.
*crowd gasps and waves copies of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists in my face*
Settle down, folks.
Here’s the rub: modern-day feminism as it is conveniently packaged for the Taylor Swift generation and ‘free the nipple’ crowd does not represent me. It couldn’t be further away from me if it tried. Modern-day feminism, or what we call ‘Third-Wave Feminism’ is about sexual liberty, bodily autonomy, pro-choice, breastfeeding in public and setting fire to the white, male patriarchal systems which impede white women from sleeping with whomever they want and not being cat called as they walk down the street. Peachy.
Removing the stigma from unshaven armpits is not the greatest threat to my life and liberty.
But what does that mean for the modern black woman? For the modern African woman?
As a black woman, I think that’s all fair and fine… but that has very little to do with my issues, OUR issues, nowadays. Removing the stigma from unshaven armpits is not the greatest threat to my life and liberty.
Feminists argue that breastfeeding in public should be a stigma-free experience; it should be accommodated for in all spaces, places and by all people. What they fail to understand is that the majority of black women are unable to breastfeed because they do not have the time off work to do it. Many black and African women aren’t working the kind of jobs that have maternity-leave clauses in the contract. And if we did, we’d probably be told off by black men (and women) for being shameless in exposing our bodies in public. Because, unlike those of Lena Dunham, my nipples are involved in a socio-cultural debate of a different nature. My nipples don’t just belong to me and aren’t just tools to feed my child. My nipples come with centuries of, yes let’s admit it, shame.
The war on the body of black women is long ranging, long standing and far reaching.
In the 19th century, a Zulu woman called Saarje Baartman, or the ‘Hottentot Venus’, was exhibited in a museum in Holland and Belgium for the better part of her adult life, because she had what rappers would now call a ‘big booty’, larger than normal breasts and was rumoured to have ‘engorged’ genitalia too. That’s what black women have to contend with.
So, from Saarje Baartman to Grace Jones, the war on the body of black women is long ranging, long standing and far reaching. And it still warps the minds of black and African women in the world. The hair business for black women is worth an estimated US$1.2 billion in hair extensions, skin-bleaching products and relaxer crème alone. And yet we’re not represented in the vast majority of beauty advertisements, because as much as we contribute, we’re still the low man on the totem pole.
That’s why when women like Nicki Minaj say it how it is… we hear it.
And now back to this b***h that had a lot to say about me a lot in the press. Miley, what’s good?
It was the clap back that’s still resounding around the world. When Nicki Minaj, stomped up onto the MTV stage in her six-inch gold Giuseppe Zanotti snake-patterned heels in August and verbally smacked down Miley Cyrus, there was a standing ovation from her millions of fans present and, of course, her social media followers from California to Cape Town. Most people didn’t understand what the big deal was outside of the meme-tastic sound bites, and still don’t. When the mainstream media finally caught up, a curious new word began to float around the internet… ‘Misogynoir’.
Misogynoir is a term referring to misogyny directed towards black women, where race and gender both play roles in the bias. It was coined by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey to address misogyny directed toward black women in American visual and popular culture (which is also applicable worldwide).
The very act of speaking up for ourselves is cause for a panic attack. It is not merely be seen as assertion or self-defence but as an act of aggression.
Miss Minaj was incensed that black female artists and performers, were largely ignored and pigeonholed by mainstream media and awards categories. Justifiably. In a detailed interview in the New York Times she argued that black performers were invariably limited to the ‘urban’ music category (ohhh, the myriad ways American media has to say ‘black’ without having to say it) whereas a white artist doing the same kind of music would be up for universal acclaim.
Her issue was of course, the cultural appropriation of black and African music and artistry that has been going on for decades. Miss Cyrus, a generations long beneficiary of this exact same cultural appropriation (her father is a country and bluegrass singer and she is prone to ‘rapping’, if I can call it that with a straight face), went to bat, pointing out that Minaj was ‘not very polite’ when she complained.
Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Perhaps. All I know is that Taylor Swift and her management team probably got down on bended knee and thanked the Lord for giving her the good sense to kiss and make up with Miss Minaj, because it could have been her chalk outline on the stage that night.
The condescension, like our struggle, is real.
The very act of speaking up for ourselves is cause for a panic attack. It is not merely be seen as assertion or self-defence but as an act of aggression. For a black woman, in any corner of the diaspora, raising her voice risks an instant and permanent labelling of ‘ANGRY BLACK WOMAN’ in pink neon across her forehead. For some unfathomable reason, whenever a black woman speaks she must be polite, moderate, eloquent and most of all, grateful, for having been allowed to open her mouth in a public forum.
And then of course, there’s the how you do it. Those of us who speak in more jargonised ways, or use AAVE (African American Vernacular English, or slang as the kids around the world know it) risk being labelled ignorant, uneducated, impolite and therefore not worthy of being listened to, much less held in any esteem whatsoever. Those of us who use our language and syntax correctly, get patted on the head like circus animals, and told how ‘well spoken’ we are. The ‘for a black/African/African-American girl’ part is usually left unsaid. Either way, the condescension, like our struggle, is real.
In the past 70 or so years, the black diaspora has taken great steps towards freeing itself from the mostly tyrannical reign of colonialism and Jim Crow. We can vote, travel, sit on buses, attend public and private educational institutions of our choosing, go to Fetty Wap concerts, buy our Jordan’s at Foot Locker and all that good jazz. Wonderful. Great. Yay us.
Special hashtags have been born out of #BlackLivesMatter because the male leaders of the movement didn’t think it was as important to march for female victims.
We black women are still being marginalised in the fight for pay equality. When Patricia Arquette picked her Oscar and million-dollar pay check she made a speech about gender equality. What she forgot to mention is that for every dollar the average American man earns, and the white woman earns 78 cents, the black woman 64.5 cents and the Latina woman even further behind at 54 cents. And this is in modern day America. In Africa, the average monthly stipend for a woman working in a non-professional capacity range anywhere from $1 to $15.
Special hashtags have been born out of #BlackLivesMatter because the male leaders of the movement didn’t think it was as important to march for women, also victims of needless police violence. For example, the ongoing trial against former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, accused of multiple felony sexual battery and rape, has only had brief media attention. The thirteen women are all black.
As with the suffragette movement, civil rights and the education bills that black women worked just as hard to get, we were once again pushed back to the back of the bus and told to be grateful we’d even been allowed on in the first place – forgetting that without a 16-year-old high school drop out named Claudette Colvin, those same black men would have been sitting right alongside us.
And so I choose to define myself as a black woman’s advocate, in the vein of the Nigerian literary critic Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, a ‘womanist’. It defines black feminism as mostly similar to standardised feminism with the fundamental difference that mixed into our cultures, heritages and struggles, there’s a very important key factor: racism.
This includes the disabled, single mothers, LGBTQIA, transsexual, transgender, sex workers, professional, non-professional and everything and everyone in between because at the end of the day, if we don’t stand up for ourselves, as we have seen time and again…no one will. In the end it’s not that I don’t stand for feminism in its fourth wave definition as ‘equity and equality between the sexes’, it’s that feminism doesn’t really stand up for me.
So in a very round about way, when Miss Minaj got up on that stage and started this conversation in mainstream media and amongst those who consider themselves socially conscious, it was one tiny step in Giuseppe Zanotti’s and one giant leap for black-kind.
So no offense Miley Cyrus, but go wave your nipples in someone else’s direction, ’cause I don’t have time.