Recently I stumbled across a photo of Ryan Gosling. You know the one.

“Hey girl. My perfect Saturday is a hot cup of tea, a trip to the Farmer’s market and curling up on the couch to figure out bell hooks’ theory that feminism is a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture with you.” Soon after, I read “Sisters Under the Skin?” by Ellen Willis. In this 1982 essay, Willis analyzes two then-recent books by feminist authors that address the question of why the contemporary feminist movement is so white. One of those authors is bell hooks. Feminist Ryan and I had our Saturday cut out for us.

Willis takes hooks to task for asserting that racial imperialism supersedes sexual imperialism in America, for operating under the assumption that male supremacy is a product of white culture and suggesting that sexism isn’t a primary concern in the black community. Willis thinks hooks needs to get her priorities in order: “You can’t simultaneously agree that black women need feminism and deny the basic premise of feminism—that men have power over women,” she writes.

She’s right, of course, but I think she was missing the point. It’s not that sexism isn’t a concern for black women or that being black is more important than being a woman. Women of color, stationed at the intersection of race, class and sexual politics, are charged with the particularly hairy task of having to remind the world that our sex and our race are experientially inseparable. In no other arena is this task more important and personal than feminist discourse.  Black women’s historical involvement in the movement is at risk of being forgotten if we don’t continue to stress that race remains a fundamental issue in all dialogue concerning women’s liberation.

The intersection of racism and sexism is so fraught that I even hesitate to bring it up with my white female friends because it always seems to boil down to an accusation, an indictment along the lines of: White feminists are guilty of trying to create a rubberstamp for the female experience that ignores issues of race and class.  That’s not cool, Willis agrees, but she asks what the alternative is if you’re not black and are never going to know what it’s like to be black. In “Sisters?” she posits that it’s more important to for black and white women to unite to fight their common opponents than divide to conquer the issues that separate them.

The problem with this approach, as hooks points out, is that it means denying the historical antagonism between black and white women in America. White slave owners instigated this antagonism by foisting very narrow sexual identities on slave and wife both. We ended up with two antithetical archetypes: Black women are evil, impure, forbidden and wretched. White women are angelic, pristine, wholesome and beautiful. These archetypes persist in both high and low culture.

Willis also criticizes hooks for implying that male sexual oppression was foreign to black women before white men introduced it to them. Of course it was not, but that’s not the point either. The point is the tension created by this dynamic is partly responsible for the racial divide in the feminist movement itself and therefore shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. The fact that it has been minimized is why we continue to read headlines like “Dear White Privileged People: This Post Is Not About Your Needs” on black feminist blogs. Black women are reacting to white women who are unaware that there’s an automatic advantage inherent in how they’re often perceived by the world at large —clean, nice and pure by nature, regardless of what they’re actually like—and who treat it as an entirely unremarkable thing; they might not even be aware that it’s a privilege. These are the women who think they can “liberate” themselves by dressing up like a “slut” and then call it “feminism”; women who haven’t had to cope with the idea of being told you’re a slut by nature, no matter what you’re wearing.

Elsewhere in this essay, Willis accuses hooks of mistaking white feminists’ unconscious ignorance of the possibility of inherent racism within the movement for deliberate disregard. Willis argues that her white contemporaries were focused on reproductive rights and fighting male oppression, making important strides for women. These are important, concrete changes that benefit women, sure, but they don’t benefit all women equally. With organizations like Planned Parenthood under fierce attack, we are reminded of the fact that many minority women are without health care and can’t afford to take advantage of their rights. Perhaps even more tragic is the fact that black women, almost three times as likely to be living below the poverty line than white women, have an infant mortality rate that is double the national average. They struggle to both keep their babies alive and figure out how to exercise their right to choose. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of any of feminism’s “universal” successes. I am pointing out that Willis’ own line of thinking, as intelligent as it is, favors a certain brand of feminism that falls short when it comes to achieving goals that serve all women. For Willis to chastise hooks et al for championing a feminist agenda that she doesn’t agree with when she herself does the exact same thing is hypocritical. It also undermines the influence race movements have had on the feminist movement. Let’s not forget that abolitionism and black power were hugely influential as models for suffrage and second wave radicalism.

So what now? Do we deep six the possibility of universal feminism? Should feminism be redefined as the struggle to liberate women from male oppression and racial
oppression and class oppression and and and and … ad infinitum? Willis warns that this sort of pluralism, rather than bringing us closer together and ensuring change, leads to a balkanized mess where internal factions are more concerned with besting each other than fighting the real battle. There’s a risk, Willis seems to be saying, that the story of the feminist movement might get revised so many times, by so many different editors, that the entire movement could be forced to dismantle completely.

Willis also dismisses Angela Davis’ theory that feminism is a pure class struggle, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working toward a feminism that consciously, deliberately and actively addresses race and class. This doesn’t mean abandoning the fundamental issues that concern feminism. It means doing better job of discussing those issues in a way that takes race and class into account, in a way that doesn’t isolate huge swaths of the female population, in a way that doesn’t try to fit the female experience in a box simply because it makes our goals clearer.

Of course, expanding the parameters of what constitutes feminism won’t make
things any easier, but then, nothing worth fighting for is ever easy. “Hey girl. My perfect Saturday is talking about a feminism that truly represents women from all races, creeds, classes and backgrounds.” Yeah, mine too, Ryan. More tea?