Black and Female: Where Racism Meets Sexism

There is a place – not too far from here. A place where colour reigns but gender rules. A place where male is good but white is better. A place called ‘Black and Female’ – where racism meets sexism.

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ince the first recorded contact between Africans and Europeans, conscious, and largely successful efforts have been made on the part of the latter, to portray the former as abnormal, uncivilised, and vile – the quintessence of sub-humanity. These largely successful campaigns helped justify the inhumane treatment of Africans during slavery. They also helped justify the ensuing conquests, or what became widely known as the ‘White Man’s Burden’ – to bring the light of civilisation to the dark continent and its peoples – a quest that culminated in ‘the Scramble for Africa’, and ultimately colonialism.

Meanwhile, even before all of this was happening, women all over the world were experiencing a similar form of oppression. Though they were not categorically seen as subhuman, women were largely marginalised in society and restricted to the confines of the home, under the lordship of their fathers and subsequently, their husbands. They were considered unfit to perform certain tasks or hold certain positions, and were only important in the execution of wifely duties and household chores – which of course, included the raising of children. Outside the home, most positions of repute were reserved almost exclusively for men. Even female aristocrats, who were either born or married into upper class families, were almost always relegated to playing supporting roles.

In the decades and centuries that followed the transatlantic slave trade, there was an increase in the number of white settlers in the colonies of Africa and the Americas. At the same time, there was a similar increase in the number of black, African natives in Europe and other parts of the ‘new world’. With the increasing heterogeneity of these continents, came heightened racial tensions, and since at this point, a large population of the Blacks in the world were in servitude to one or another European empire, the power structure was largely representative of the now widespread perception of white superiority and black inferiority. Needless to say, all of this was happening in a patriarchal world. So while black people were living at the mercy of their white overlords, women were living at the mercy of their male counterparts, and somewhere at the bottom of the pile lay the black woman – damned for being black, damned for being female.

[…] while black people were living at the mercy of their white overlords, women were living at the mercy of their male counterparts, and somewhere at the bottom of the pile lay the black woman – damned for being black, damned for being female.

In 19th century America – following the abolition of slavery, the 15th amendment was passed and African American males were now legally allowed to vote. This decision did not sit too well with a lot of women who felt overlooked, and for members of the early feminist movement, this was the perfect chance to unite in the fight against systemic marginalisation. Although black female activists were initially used to further the feminist cause, the idea of white women marching arm-in-arm or even sharing the stage with black women was seen by many as offensive and unacceptable.

In the early 1850s, when Sojourner Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, her mere presence on stage sparked vocal protests from sections of the crowd who deemed it unfitting that a black woman should speak on a public platform in the presence of white women. Over half a century later, in 1913, at least 5000 women, organised by activist Alice Paul, marched on Washington to demand the right to vote. Even though, at this point, a number of states had been desegregated, black women were still instructed to march at the back in order to appease the suffragettes from the southern states.

Such was the case that Alice Paul, convinced that other white women would not march alongside black women, was quoted to have said “As far as I can see, we must have a white procession, or a Negro procession, or no procession at all”. So in spite of the fact that the right to vote was just as important to black women as it was to white women, the former were explicitly instructed to march behind the latter – a subtle display of the racial division that was now as deeply entrenched in the movement as it was in the society at large.

Although black female activists were initially used to further the feminist cause, the idea of white women marching arm-in-arm or even sharing the stage with black women was seen by many as offensive and unacceptable.

The role of the black woman in the fight for black liberation is often underplayed and sometimes overlooked. Suffice to say, his-story or history as most of us would rather call it, has been written without giving adequate credence to the women from whose wombs came the revolutionary activists that we so religiously idolise. Whenever the Civil Rights Movement is mentioned, names like Dr. Martin Luther King spring to mind. What we seldom talk about are the unsung heroes – or dare i say, sheroes, who fought just as hard (if not harder) as their male counterparts in the face of prevalent racism, sexism and misogyny.

Although the Civil Rights Movement eventually served as a model for subsequent equality movements, it was initially not intended to fight every form of oppression in 20th century America. For most of the movement’s leaders, racism was the primary problem that needed tackling. But sexism too was an evident problem and the perpetrators were not exclusively white. Bernard Lee, a Civil Rights activist and close associate of Dr King was quoted as saying that “Martin […] was absolutely a male chauvinist. He believed that the wife should stay home and take care of the babies while he’d be out there in the streets”. A deeper look into history shows that Dr. King was not the only black activist that subscribed to this school of thought.

In 1943, when Rosa Parks joined the NAACP and became the secretary of the Montgomery branch, there were only two female members. In fact, according to Parks, Mr. E. D. Nixon, the then president of the branch was vocal about his belief that women did not need to be anywhere but in the kitchen. In those days, female involvement was kept at a bearable minimum, and even the women that were involved played peripheral roles. As such, Rosa Parks’ involvement was an exception, because, as Mr Nixon suggested, every organisation needed a secretary and who better to be one than a woman?

The role of the black woman in the fight for black liberation is often underplayed and sometimes overlooked. Suffice to say, his-story […] has been written without giving adequate credence to the women from whose wombs came the revolutionary activists that we so religiously idolise.

Today, over half a century later, not a lot has changed for the black woman. With the exception of a relatively few cases, the odds are still stacked against her. Many still struggle to fathom the duality of her oppression. They are often seen as too gender-oriented for black men, and too race-oriented for white women. What many black men don’t seem to realise is the fact that unlike them, black women simply do not have the luxury of focusing all their energy on racial issues. In like manner, white women seem to be oblivious to the complexities of black female oppression. If that wasn’t the case, they too would understand why black women cannot afford to focus solely on women’s issues.

In 2015, having made history as the first black woman to win the Best Actress in a Drama award, Viola Davis used her Emmy acceptance speech to appeal for more acting roles to be made available for black women, as one “cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there”. Approximately 7 months earlier, Patricia Arquette, winner of the best supporting actress award, did something similar – using her Oscar acceptance speech to appeal for equal pay for women in the film industry.

Now, while both of the aforementioned cases may come across as strikingly similar at a macro level, they were sometimes met with contrasting receptions – one of which came from a fellow actress Nancy Lee Grahn. Referring to Viola Davis’ speech, Grahn tweeted “…None of us get [the] respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not [the] venue for racial opportunity. ALL women belittled.” Funnily enough, the same Grahn appeared to have taken a completely different stance 7 months earlier. Referring to Patricia Arquette’s speech, she tweeted “…use [yo]ur win to champion women. Make [yo]ur moment matter. I like that”.

Today, […] not a lot has changed for the black woman. With the exception of a relatively few cases, the odds are still stacked against her. Many still struggle to fathom the duality of her oppression. They are often seen as too gender-oriented for black men, and too race-oriented for white women.

The world, as it is, is not good enough. We must make it better. Not just for black women, but for all of humanity, for in the words of Fannie Lou Hammer, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free”. Black women have been trying to tell us something for a long time now. It’s about time we listened. In 1962, Malcolm X said that the most disrespected, unprotected, and neglected person in America is the black woman. Decades later, I would dare to say that the most disrespected, unprotected, and neglected person in the world is the black woman. Because their oppression is now less overt than it was in the 19th century, their complaints also tend to be taken less seriously.

Whenever they get vocally emotional, they are labelled “The Angry Black Woman”. Whenever they call out oppression, they are reminded that other people have it bad too. In the days of the suffragette movement, they were asked to rally behind a cause whose leaders were eager to maintain the existing racial hierarchies amongst women. During the Civil Rights Movement, they were also asked to support a cause that had no intention to eradicate the gender-based oppression that existed in the wider society. They’re expected to care for everyone or no one – just not themselves. In simple terms, there’s no “getting it right” for them. They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

They’ve been marginalised for as long as history has been recorded, and in spite of the slight advancements that they experience today, they are still the only group of people that know what it feels like to belong to the most oppressed race and the most oppressed gender, all at the same time. They come from a place – not too far from here. A place where colour reigns but gender rules. A place where male is good but white is better. A place called ‘Black and Female’ – where racism meets sexism.

They come from a place – not too far from here. A place where colour reigns but gender rules. A place where male is good but white is better. A place called ‘Black and Female’ – where racism meets sexism.