It’s a curious thing and a hard thing, experiencing intersecting marginalization. Society demands that your identity be as simplified as possible, and the tradition of summarizing our lives and selves into bullet points made of brief words in a limited language is unfair. It steals our glory from us before we even realize we have it. Then it asks that we arrange these depreciating words in order of importance. Hierarchy and prioritization of personality traits may destroy us. The idea that one characteristic or identity takes precedence over the other divides our self from our self and dissolves our wholeness. A self divided will implode. And it is catastrophic what is happening to us.
I predict the majority of black women will identify as ‘black women’. “Black” will precede “woman”. “Woman” will often be a habit and an afterthought, as it was for me, and I’ve learned this is dangerous. Black women occupy a unique space because, well, we’re female and black. We experience, and maneuver, racism and sexism. But society doesn’t make much room for women of color. I suppose things get too complicated and nuanced for the white male power to deal with. So, in turn, we’re systematically neglected, slandered, abused and commodified without much interest or concern.
The predicament of the black woman is similar to predicament of the imprisoned. The abuse of ‘criminals’ appears justified because the general public has been convinced criminals aren’t worth caring about. Well the general public has been convinced that black women aren’t worth caring about either and without the attention or interest of the public, these groups are left completely vulnerable. But this is where our situation gets unique. The ‘general public’ includes black women. So when you have a community of black women that have been convinced explicitly and subliminally that they aren’t valued members of society by even the groups that they identify with, strange things start to happen to her.
She may choose one of her identities (she may have several but for the sake of time and in the name of editorial integrity I will write what I know and mean to focus only on ‘woman’ and ‘black’) to take precedence over the other. And this is dangerous because she won’t be a whole person once the division takes place. And with half of her missing she can only see through one eye, hear through one ear, taste with only half her tongue, think with a quarter of her brain, and know half of an orgasm. I know several women of color, including my old self, that do not necessarily identify as women. Their sex is simply logistic information and the mat for them to pile all of their significant identities on top of, and it is completely understandable.
Feminism originally rejected women of color, and American racially progressive movements generally neglected gender. So black women chose a side, the male-dominated black side, and in turn have learned to objectify other women of color and shame other women of color, to not think the female experience is unique or important, to subdue their womanness and to be ashamed of their womanness, and to control it. We refer to each other as bitches and ho’s and we blame each other for our abuse in order to be considered one of the guys. I know I did. I thought that if I thought like a guy I was smart. But now I wonder why being a woman and woman-like is undesirable and being the “cool girl” means being “just one of the guys” and I recognize the disgusting misogyny that ‘thinking like a man’ implies.
I don’t want to be one of the guys. I want to be a woman and I want to be whole.
I don’t know how, but ‘bitch’ has become a simile for black woman. I argue, religiously, with black men about the permanent offense and disrespect that “bitch” and “ho” imply, that there is no way to use those words in reference to a woman/women regardless of malicious intent or not. They usually aren’t moved until I compare the language to the N-word. The n-word is (generally) accepted between people that share the same identity, i.e. black people. But if the word is used by a white person, i.e. a person that identifies with the oppressive power, it immediately becomes offensive. Therefore, “bitch” or “ho”, used by the oppressive power in reference to the oppressed population, i.e. men in reference to women, is inevitably offensive.
Language is dangerous because it is powerful. Power always has the potential to transform into dangerous energy. The power in language is unique because it is fast and it is smooth and it is cunning and it is a chameleon. Language has no body of its own and can touch us in ways and in places no other thing can. It can sound like something it is not, and also sound like the thing that it is. Most importantly it can affect us without us knowing or noticing, and things that behave like that, like cancers, are the most dangerous. Because what is happening is that women are assuming these identities and accepting these identities as themselves, when we are in fact so much more and so much different.
The issue is that so many of us have been convinced that we are in fact bitches and ho’s and that a woman is a bitch and a bitch is a woman and being a woman is bitch-like and bitch-made and that womanhood is a curse and misfortunate, and so many of us accept it or choose to be indifferent toward it because in the grand scheme of the fight for justice we’ve been convinced that our race takes precedence. So even if we were interested in womansim, we’d have to get to it after the fight for racial equality is finished. Because women have not been murdered and lynched and beaten and discriminated against and abused and exploited.
That is the argument a black female friend gave me after she insisted I get over the fact that my peers refer to women like us (but never us because that would be disrespectful) as bitches and ho’s and move on to more important things. So I asked her how would she feel about another black person that accepted a white person referring to black people generally as niggers, and her reaction was livid. But she never made the connection…
I wish we weren’t forced to choose, and I will never blame my friend for the way she’s chosen, or not chosen, to view her womanhood. I understand that it makes the world easier for her to navigate and life gets easier to deal with if she doesn’t fully recognize her womanness. I understand choosing to think like a man in a world run by men is a survival tactic that she and so many other black women, have adopted. They’ve learned to play the hand they’ve been dealt. I do not blame them for not leaving the game or even recognizing that changing the game is option, because really, those aren’t options. There is civil war among black women and inside black women because, for reasons that I still don’t understand, ‘black’ isn’t inclusive of ‘female’.
So in what world and community, other than our own, do we belong? How can we be convinced that all of us is equally important? How can they be convinced that all of us is equally important?