Eight Books and Articles White Feminists Should Read for Black History Month
White feminists have a bad history of ignoring Black women at best and actively harming and discriminating against them at worst. When we do learn about Black history, it is often through a patriarchal lens and through the work of male writers (we learn about Martin but not Ida). Similarly, just like white women dominate mainstream media (movies, TV, magazine and book covers) we also dominate mainstream feminism. Behind every propped up Sheryl Sandberg are countless overlooked and devalued brilliant Black women. If we do not want to repeat the mistakes of white feminists of the past, we must work at learning how to decenter ourselves and unlearn the harmful stereotypes we are socialized from a young ago to believe.
The below list is in no way complete or exhaustive. These are simply some of my favorite reads by some of my favorite writers. They all touch on or center around critical historical context.
Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex by Kimberlé Crenshaw
Intersectionality is a trendy word in feminism these days, yet far too many white women use it incorrectly, and fail to acknowledge the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe the discrimination Black women face, both on the basis of their gender and their race.
She described the inception of this term after a controversial discrimination case in a recent piece for the Washington Post:
Because they could not prove that what happened to them was just like what happened to white women or black men, the discrimination that happened to these black women fell through the cracks.
Mainstream feminism might just be catching up with intersectionality, but it is anything but new for Black women (Crenshaw starts her piece in the Post piece with: Intersectionality was a lived reality before it became a term). That lived reality’s had a name for damn near thirty years. In her 1989 piece linked above, Crenshaw states: “I will center Black women in this analysis in order to contrast the multidimensionality of Black women’s experiences with the single-axis analysis that distorts these experiences.” While intersectionality has been a true gift to analyzing multiple axes of indetity and oppression – class, sexual orientation, gender identify, differently abeled bodies – we can’t co-opt such an important theory and erase Black women from the very framework developed by a Black woman to describe the ways Black women are erased and oppressed.
I’m Not Grateful for Viola Davis’ Win – It was Long Overdue by Ashley Ford
In Ashley Ford’s above essay, she examines the problem with celebrating firsts when they are long overdue, such as Viola Davis becoming the first first Black woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama in 2016. 20. 16.
Ford’s critique has the same deeply personal take that made me a fan of her writing to begin with. Her story of her grandmother, a huge Viola Davis fan, tells a story that is both huge and intimate at once. It’s a must read.
Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts
Historically the political issue most connected to the feminist movement is the issue of reproductive rights. In Dorothy Roberts seminal work she highlights the mainstream (white) feminist movement’s focus on abortion access as the main tenant of reproductive freedom at the expense of Black women who are the victims or practices such as eugenics. Roberts examines the policing of Black women’s bodies, the atrocious legal policies used to regulate Black women, and the use of Black women as pawns in political platforms at the expense of their autonomy and humanity.
Read especially for Chapter 2 and Roberts’s honest assessment of the deeply problematic (white) feminist icon, Margaret Sanger.
#FlintWaterCrisis Is a Reproductive Justice Issue by Josie Pickens
The Flint water crisis is happening now. In her article, Josie Pickens builds on the questions Dorothy Roberts asks in her work (above), imploring us (white feminists):
And I’m wondering where the mainstream (and especially White) feminist leaders and organizations are when we talk about Flint. Who is standing up for Nakeyja (and women like her) who are losing their right to birth and mother healthy children?
As stridently as we must protect Roe v. Wade in this wave of judicial attacks, so must we fight to protect the reproductive rights of all women.
Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris Perry
While all women are subjected to sexist stereotypes, Black women are uniquely impacted by stereotypes specifically about their race and gender. That means they experience harm not just from men, but from white women. This book does an excellent job of breaking down the historical roots and contemporary realities of the jezebel and mammy myths.
Harris Perry’s analysis of the sapphire (the angry Black woman) myth is also critical to understanding the modern ways Black women are stereotyped. She points out how there is not near as much writing on the sapphire myth as the mammy and jezebel myths, and ponders if that is because we accept the sapphire myth as true.
Read in conjunction with Killing the Black Body and you see how deeply ingrained misogynoiric (term coined by Moya Bailey) myths about Black women are in United States history and the white psyche.
Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Conner – we know the name of white female justices and black male justices, but just like a seat on the highest court in the land still, in 2016, has never been filled by a black woman, so to Black women remain overlooked in our legal history.
Pauli Murray is one of the most pivotal figures in 20th century African-American civil rights history, but beyond academic circles, she is not very well known … It was the piece she co-authored in 1965 called “Jane Crow and the Law” that Ginsburg cites as so influential in her thinking about legal remedies for sex discrimination. Nearly 10 years later, in 1953, Spottswood Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and others pulled out a copy of her senior paper and used it as a guide to strategize how they would argue the Brown v. Board case. They didn’t bother to mention this until about 10 years later, when she ran into Robinson at Howard Law School.
At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire
Did you know that Rosa Parks was a prominent anti-rape activist before she famously chose not to vacate her seat, inciting the Montgomery bus boycott? Did you know that during Jim Crow rape was used just as systematically as lynching to terrorize Black communities?
I didn’t either until I read the above book by McGuire.
From the website:
[The Civil Rights movement] was in part started in protest against the ritualistic rape of black women by white men who used economic intimidation, sexual violence, and terror to derail the freedom movement; and how those forces persisted unpunished throughout the Jim Crow era when white men assaulted black women to enforce rules of racial and economic hierarchy. Black women’s protests against sexual assault and interracial rape fueled civil rights campaigns throughout the South that began during World War II and went through to the Black Power movement. The Montgomery bus boycott was the baptism, not the birth, of that struggle.
(This is the only thing on this list by a white woman).
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Some white feminists are surprised to find there is vehement opposition to Hilary Clinton from progressive women. Some of it is rooted in her prior embracing of the war on drugs. To understand the devastation the war on drugs has wrought, you must read Michelle Alexander’s critically acclaimed work.
Prior to the war on drugs, we incarcerated women at incredibly low rates. We now incarcerate women at eight times the rate we did before. Post-war on drugs America now houses over one-third of the world’s incarcerated women. Most of these women are Black or other women of color. The disparities between the rates at which Black women are incarcerated and white women are incarcerated are staggering (while 1 in 56 women is incarcerated during their lifetime, if you break it down by race it is 1 in 19 Black women and 1 in **118** white women). And it’s not because Black women use drugs at higher rates..
Ending the war on drugs is a feminist issue.