Women in this country have many issues in common, but there are several important ones that are unique to different races. This is where problems arise because in the intersection of race, sex, and socioeconomic status, some voices and concerns are heard more than others. And when some voices are heard instead of others, you’re left with people that are ignored and at worst, silenced. The division between women is not unique to our present, in fact, it has been going on for so many decades. Even when women of all races were meant to work together as one for equality, race and socioeconomic status divided Black women from White women.
For instance, when women began fighting for their right to vote, it was mostly the voice of the White woman that was heard. It didn’t matter that the issue was one that encompassed the entire community of women in the country. Essentially, Black Women had to fight two battles at the same time in two spaces, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The effect this tension had on the narrative of inclusion was the eventual exclusion of Black women in their struggle to vote. When Black women needed help from their White sisters, the top figures in the Suffrage Movement dismissed them, saying that Black women not being able to vote was a race issue - not a gender issue. Consequently, in the eyes of the Suffragist leadership, the Women’s movement for equal (voting) rights could not advocate for Black Women’s equal rights because Black women were Black, first and foremost, and then women, second.
That sounds very crazy but that’s how it was back then – and we shouldn’t make the mistake of forgetting it. Unfortunately, this Black and White division is institutional and systemic and is therefore still present today. In the past, for the most part, White women seeking the right to vote had the advantage of being White and middle-class. Today, you can still see Black women dealing with those barriers, often becoming invisible to issues of professional advancement and equal pay. Even beauty issues have been institutionalized, where the Black female body is not welcomed… unless it enters the space exotically. In turn, the Black female body is excluded from beauty standards. The Natural Hair Movement helps us understand the exclusivity of the world of Beauty and Fashion, where Black women have to use weaves, extensions, and even wigs to hide their kinky hair.
Just like the light skin and silky hair women that are celebrated in the fashion world, the black female body and her natural hair are also beautiful – and also standard. The black female body’s thoughts and concerns are also just as valid as the white female body’s concerns. If Black Feminism is to grow stronger, we must remember the lessons that the past taught us so that we don’t submit to the same obstacles present today. As we continue to fight in the mainstream, we must cultivate our own spaces so that standards that have systemically excluded us don’t trespass into our communal psyche.