I don’t remember when I first became conscious of my skin color—not just
aware, but conscious. I was always aware; aware that for some reason America
hated me. That I would have to work twice as hard as the 25 White kids in my
gifted class of 30 to only get half as far. That the surname that makes up my
legal identity belongs to that of one of many people who once owned my family.
I don’t remember when I first realized that my brown skin and female body meant
I was sexploited, like every other Black woman—both today and before me—in
a way White women are not. Black women’s hair has always been politicized. An
afro or sisterlocks worn to an interview most likely would cost me the job. Black
parents shouldn’t have to constantly remind their kids to act a certain way or look
a certain way to survive.
In sixth grade, I straightened my big, beautiful hair for the first time.
James Baldwin, author and social critic (among many other things)
said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be conscious is to be in a rage almost
all of the time”. I have been in a rage all my life. Knowing that the world I live
in is wrong, that everything my teachers are telling me about American history
is a perfectly constructed lie. I didn’t know why things were this way. I didn’t
understand why nobody cared. I knew all of these things were real, but I didn’t
know how to put my feelings into words—let alone calm ones.
My mother has always told me: Make sure your hair is straight for the
interview. You can wear it natural once you get the job.
I learned of womanism and black feminism (which are not subsets of
feminism) during my first year of college from my mother. She knew I identified
as a feminist and that the feminist movements have never fought for people like
us – Black people. Black women. Many feminists past and present are racist.
Throughout history, Black women have been told, “We’re fighting for equality for
women first, we’ll get to race later”. They’ve never gotten back to us. Mainstream
feminists believe in “trickle down feminism” – gender equality will benefit all
women the same. This ignores class and race oppression, and how those two
are inextricably tied to gender. Women of color experience oppressions tied
to race and class that compound on our gender and cannot be separated.
Feminism isn’t fighting for the rights of all women, because it upholds gender as
the main source of oppression for us, and this simply isn’t true. If feminism were
fighting for all women, we wouldn’t need the term “intersectional feminism”. The
oppression I experience as a Black woman isn’t and has never been the same as
that of a White woman.
Last summer I wore my hair non-straightened for the first time in seven
years, and in an afro for the first time ever.
Singular definitions of womanism and black feminism haven’t been
decided, which only speaks volumes to the diversity of Black women and the
changes over the years to our ongoing struggle. In 1976, womanism was
coined by Alice Walker, activist and author of the famous The Color Purple, in In
Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. In this piece she offers multiple definitions of
On February 22, 2014, I cut off all my hair.
I am still in a rage, but now I have words to put to my feelings. I know now
that I don’t have to ignore my race oppression to fight against gender equality
within a movement that erases that critical part of my identity. Womanism has
taught me that instead of wedging myself into a place that did not originally
include me, I can make my own space and feel validated there. Womanism has
taught me that I don’t need to straighten my hair anymore, and I don’t have to
keep it long, either. Womanism has taught me fuck respectability politics and
to embrace who I am, fully and unapologetically. Womanism has taught me
that there are other Black women who understand me and are fighting for the
same things I’m fighting for. I am in no ways alone. Despite what society says,
Black women and Black people are not monolithic groups, and nothing I do will
ever be “doing Black wrong”. Most importantly, womanism has taught me how to
begin to love myself—a journey I thought I’d never even begin.