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The Symbols of Femininity

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In her essay, Audre Lorde discusses and explores how women respond to racism, and by default how women respond to anger. Lorde believes that anger is an appropriate reaction to injustice and distinguishes the differences between anger, guilt, defensiveness, and hatred. Three of these four emotions, she says, are of no use to anyone. Instead, she challenges her readers to reframe their anger as a source of power, energy, and knowledge. The anger of women of color should be viewed as a means of survival – not a way to make white women feel bad. The arguments that Lorde presents are critical to help us examine our own views of anger and to see it as a strength that has powerful and transformative uses. “Anger is the grief of distortions between peers” she argues, and it leads to change. The anger of the oppressed leads to growth, while the hatred of the oppressors leads to death and destruction. Trusting the emotions of the subjugated is important in order to radically change the systems of power, privilege, and oppression. Lorde argues that to use our anger successfully, we must recognize our own faults; more specifically, where we have oppressed our sisters indirectly – although guilt of our own complicity is not useful. Anger is a source of empowerment that can bring about the change that we all seek, although it must be used with precision in order to be transformative. Throughout our lives we were taught to avoid anger at all costs because there was nothing to be gained from it. However according to Lorde, if anger can be reconstructed, “women can transform differences through insight into power.”

According to Sara Ahmed, the feminist killjoy is seen as someone who wants to cause trouble and get in the way of other’s happiness because of her own unhappiness. The feminist killjoy first appears when one recognizes what someone else has said is problematic. You begin speaking quietly, but begin to feel wound up in frustration. A killjoy stops the smooth flow of communication and making things tense by continuing to be a “container of incivility and discord.” Ahmed draws on Audre Lorde’s work by saying it helped her turn toward what was difficult even if at times we feel like we are making our lives more difficult for ourselves. Giving a problem a name can help us realize how violence is directed towards some groups of people more than others. Ahmed explains that this can change how we register an event, and that perhaps not naming things is a way of turning away from difficulty. She uses the work of Audre Lorde and Marilyn Frye to reinforce her point of being willful to stop the flow of conversation. To speak out about racism and sexism is to stand in the way of communication, but we must continue to be willful to continue to bring them up in order to propagate change.

According to Brittany Cooper, white girl tears are especially potent because they are attached to the symbol of femininity. She argues that there is an entire political infrastructure dedicated to protect white women and references the story of Ida B. Wells to point out how far white men are willing to go to protect the narrative of white femininity. Their tears are dangerous because they claim victimhood and shift the blame to avoid recognizing their role in causing an issue, and remaining complicit in the ways that the system was built around them. White women fear is a lethal weapon as well because the world rises in their defense when they signal that they feel attacked or misunderstood. Cooper brings up several cases where white women tears were used to their advantage in order to shift the power dynamic in the way that the world was constructed, however “they never make the leap towards solidarity.” The most dangerous aspect of white girl tears is not their nature of femininity, but lies in the face that every other girl’s tears cease to matter even though white girl tears have diminishing returns.

The Combahee River Collective was a collective of black feminists, including many lesbians, who felt that the Women’s Liberation Movement was not inclusive and only paid exclusive attention to white, middle class women. The group wanted clarify their place in the movement and create a space for themselves, apart from white women and black men. The Collective held meetings where they attempted to clarify their own politics in coalition with exploring the shortcomings of feminism. They felt that the “mainstream” feminism focused too much on gender oppression above all other types of discrimination, and decided that their politics would focus on struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression to be more inclusive. In their statement, they initially talk about how black women are inherently valuable, and that their liberation is a necessity. This basis for their statement begins to grow and expand to recognize the fact that all major systems of oppression are intertwined. The simultaneity of oppression means that freedom of one group of people means freedom of all, nobody is free from oppression unless we all are. If black women were free, it would mean that every other group of oppressed people would have to be free since “our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” This simultaneity is revealed in the lives of the black women in the collective because they do not possess racial, sexual, hetero, or class privilege to rely on. They do not have access to resources that other privileged groups have, even though they are trying to fight oppression on all fronts. Sexual politics in the lives of black women is as pervasive as the politics of class and race and oftentimes black women cannot separate sexual oppression from racial oppression. Their cause is not to solely fight racial or sexual oppression because they are one in the same and are experienced simultaneously.

The name of the Collective was inspired by a resistance event carried out by Harriet Tubman – “The Combahee River Raid”, in which Harriet freed more than 750 slaves. The Collective decided to commemorate this significant event and the black feminist leader, Harriet Tubman, who was the only woman who ever directed a military campaign in U.S. History. In their view, the connections between racism and sexism is different specifically for black women because they feel solidarity with progressive black men. They struggle with black men against racism as well as sexism, whereas white women do not have the same connection with white men. The only thing that separatist white women have in common with white men is the goal of fighting in favor of the oppression of certain races. Black feminists are aware of how little work white women have put into combatting their own racism. The Collective recognizes this fact, but decide that they have too much work to do on their own to address a whole range of oppressions. The Combahee River Collective exemplifies a successful progressive coalition. We can use this group as a basis for intersectional groups in the future. Black feminism seeks to address the simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face and points out that all “major systems of oppression are interlocking.” Black women and all women of color have had to lay the path to lead to where we are now – still fighting for completely intersectional feminism. As we watch the political climate become more dangerous, it is more important than ever that the voices of women of color are not muffled under the louder voices of white feminists. The statement from the Collective has allowed women to voice their experiences that have divided the feminist movement so that one day we can come together. Feminism is a way to connect us all, not just based on color, so that we can change the systems of power and allow equality for everyone.

The quote from Brittany Cooper reminds me that one must practice what you preach. It isn’t enough to just believe in intersectionality because if your actions don’t match your beliefs – it doesn’t mean anything. Understanding and practicing intersectionality is necessary for dismantling oppression. Although it primarily began with race and gender it is expanding beyond those two categories into issues such as class, age, and sexual orientation. Black feminism was the beginning of incorporating intersectionality and is so important because it was the first political movement to deal with oppression on multiple levels. Intersectionality is a movement based toward creating common ground to discuss our multifaceted identities and human experiences. Brittany Cooper points out that the feminist movement is still lacking in intersectional practices, and that it treats white women as the only gender that matters instead of an opportunity to make political progress for all women. Acknowledging women of color in the feminist movement brings validation and awareness to bring about the social and political change that we all strive for. As the #MeToo movement continues to propel forward, this quote from Brittany Cooper reminds me to believe, support, and love all women. It appears everyone is caught up in having the right language to describe the different frameworks of social movements such as the #MeToo movement. However, even if you get all the language right but you still don’t practice what you have learned from the research – it’s still a failure.

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