White Feminists, we need to have a chat about this unruly beast we call feminism, and the intersection of race and sexuality. I like to assume that you mean well, but you've been fucking up quite a bit in the last few months, and I think it's my duty as your presumptive sister-in-arms to do some minor course correcting for all our sakes. Beyoncé has been Beyoncé-ing for over a year now and you're still questioning her feminist credentials because her praxis doesn't match yours. Nicki Minaj has been vocal about her feminism for years but you revoked her credentials because she made a video about her exquisitely crafted rear end and rapped about the men who want to fuck her. To me, all that debate sounded a lot like judgement of other women for the way they chose to express their sexuality. This really confuses me because I thought that sexual agency was a cornerstone of contemporary feminist thought. After all, a woman's body is her own, and what she chooses to do with it or how she chooses to exercise and experience her sexuality is up to her alone.
Except, apparently, if you're black.
I've spent the last few months reading piece after piece and comment after comment decrying Beyoncé and Nicki for catering to the male gaze with no acknowledgement that agency plays a significant role in how perforative sexuality becomes. I've read thinkpiece after thinkpiece about why these two women are detrimental to the feminist movement because they take pleasure in exploring and embracing their sexuality publicly. The main issue that keeps cropping is the male gaze. Supposedly, because Beyoncé and Nicki perform in ways that are traditionally sexy, they must be performing for the male gaze, and doing so is decidedly unfeminist.
Well here's where your lesson starts white ladies, because I'm about to drop a truth bomb: the fact that something appeals to the male gaze, does not mean that it exists for the male gaze.
It's really as simple as that.
I know. Totally revolutionary right?
As I've said before, framing every instance of females sexuality from the perspective of the male gaze is not only extremely heteronormative, but it strips women of their sexual agency and ignores intersectional approaches to feminism. It completely negates the possibility that a woman can be sexual for her own enjoyment or pleasure. And while feminism is explicitly about dismantling the patriarchy and allowing women to be free of sexist expectations, making choices based on what does or doesn't appeal to patriarchal presumptions makes one literally beholden to that very system. If all your choices are direct responses to the patriarchy, you are still reactive to its whims, rather than proactive to your own desires.
If you don't do femme because men like it you are still influenced by male gaze. That's the point, reclaim the gaze & center YOUR feelings— Nereyda (@TwittaHoney) October 8, 2014
Until we are truly post-racial, (so never...) the racial divide will always matter in feminism. This means that our feminisms will differ depending on our intersections, and that's okay. It is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that different women have different needs. But the constant gatekeeping of mainstream feminism reveals the deeply entrenched racism within the movement. The face of my feminism isn't going to be the face of yours because we don't have the same concerns and therefore we're looking for different things in the women we look up to. Sexual liberation isn't going to look the same for you as it does for me because we're moving forward from different historical contexts. Embracing and acknowledging this fact rather than rejecting it is key to moving forward in solidarity.
And this is where my issue lies. Being able to safely express sexuality is important for black girls because it's something that was previously out of our control. Sexual agency was legally denied. That context does not exist for white women, and that can make it harder for you to understand how sexuality can be empowering. But just because something doesn't apply to you personally doesn't mean that it is worthless or deserving of derision or ridicule. Because of differences in race, class and sexuality, not everyone's feminist praxis looks the same.
White feminists ask "How do we know she's being sexual because she wants to?" I ask"Why would you assume that isn't the case?" Nicki Minaj's participation in the music industry doesn't lobotomize her or render her incapable of making her own decisions. She has shown time and time again that she is fully capable of directing and controlling her image, so why would you negate her agency now by insisting that she no longer has that power simply because her expressions of sexuality have become more explicit?
Nicki Minaj should be able to express herself sexually without it having to be a comment on her race. Racialized sexual stereotypes exist, but Nicki Minaj can and does defy them by subverting them; something she does fairly regularly. The sexual stereotypes of black women should be considered when we talk about performative sexuality, but you deny black women their sexual agency when you immediately apply one or the other to any expression of sexuality. There are stereotypes that cover the entire range of black female sexual expression. That's not an accident or a coincidence. Even if you sew your legs shut, there's a stereotype that can be applied to you. Our agency and self determination is purposely stripped. You cannot retro-actively constrict our sexuality by forcing stereotypical labels upon them, because that is part of what oppresses us.
you continue to put men or the male gaze at the center of a woman's motivation when she is trying to accept herself for herself.— Nichole ✨✨✨ (@tnwhiskeywoman) October 10, 2014
And the disparity between which public figures get hounded for their praxis doesn't go unnoticed. Somehow questioning a woman's feminism is totally verboten if it's Lena Dunham being pressured into paying performers on her book tour of Sheryl Sandberg not paying interns, but nitpicking is actively encouraged if it's Nicki Minaj or Beyoncé, despite the latter employing an all female band, and the former routinely subverting the misogynistic tropes of rap and hip-hop.
There's also a strain of elitism at play. Emma Watson, she of the "be nice to men" UN speech, is more academic. She has a degree, and her feminism is intellectual. She is the "right" kind of feminist. Beyoncé on the other hand didn't finish high school. Her feminism is lived and she performs in flashy leotards. There's a perpetuation of the perception that Beyoncé doesn't really know anything about feminism because she hasn't studied it. But the thing is, the reason that resonates with so many black women is because she came into her praxis the same way most of us did: through life experiences, trial and error and yes, the internet. But to the mainstream feminist movement, this truth delegitimizes her feminist work, when the simple fact is that Beyoncé's feminism is not FOR white girls. It's not going to work for you because it's not supposed to. That you might benefit from it is incidental and completely tangential to the point.
And that doesn't mean that black feminist public figures are immune to criticism. That's far from true. As Britney Cooper puts it:
"White women’s feminisms still center around equality, a point on which Traister and Shulevitz converge. Black women’s feminisms demand justice. There is a difference. One kind of feminism focuses on the policies that will help women integrate fully into the existing American system. The other recognizes the fundamental flaws in the system and seeks its complete and total transformation."
"I recognize, too, that Beyoncé’s brand of feminism is also about equality, rather than justice. That is why even though I am a huge fan, she is not my feminist icon or role model. In fact, she could stand to sit in on a few of my women’s studies intro courses. But Beyoncé’s feminism, like all of ours, is evolving, offering her a language to understand what it means to be a black woman in this moment in history with the level of power, capital and sex appeal that she possesses. That she both embraces and grapples with the language of feminism so forthrightly is something worth applauding. And what I learn from her and appreciate her for is that she provides a grammar for unapologetic black female pleasure in a world that only loves black women’s affect, verve and corporeality, when white women like Iggy Azalea, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus adopt and perform it."
All it means is that we have to allow figures like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj to stumble and course-correct in the same way we do for white public figures. When you're white, the feminist label is almost literally shoved down your throat, and you're criticized for not identifying with the movement. When you're black, your right to do the same is questioned at every turn and actively denied at an institutional level. This division is so clearly racist in nature, and yet mainstream feminism has the audacity to turn around and chastise women of colour who do not wish to identify with your movement.
WE ARE EMPOWERED BY DIFFERENT THINGS BECAUSE OUR LIVES AND EXPERIENCES ARE DIFFERENT.
And if what's empowering for someone else isn't empowering for us? That's okay too. Our feminisms don't have to match.— Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) October 21, 2014
This is not a bad thing. If the mainstream white feminist movement wants to anoint Lena Dunham as the second coming of Gloria Steinem that's okay. But leave us and our feminist idols alone. You don't have to identify with Nicki or Rihanna or Beyoncé or Janelle. But what you aren't going to do is commit yourself to tearing down their praxis just because it doesn't benefit or apply to you and your white girl shit.
You've got to do better. Here's hoping you will.