3 Ways Mainstream Feminism Is Still Failing Black Women

by Niki McGloster
Getty Images

Growing up, my mother made it a point to shower my sister and I with bell hooks literature and pro-black woman rhetoric about embracing our natural selves. At the time, I didn't fully understand black feminism or why it was necessary as a standalone concept.

As I got older, I realized addressing black women's issues is imperative in a time when mainstream feminism still largely ignores them.

Frankly, feminism today is still primarily for cisgendered white women. The white feminist agenda purports to help all women achieve political, social and economic equality with men, but it fails to fight for or even recognize many of the race-related oppressions I face every day.

I'm black and a woman, two identities that can never be uncoupled. My life experiences are not only affected by my gender, but also by my race. This is the definition of intersectionality. In order to truly advocate for my rights, feminism must also address the societal issues black women deal with as a result of that duality.

At times, I feel isolated from the larger conversation. I'm directly affected by police brutality, yet the issue is often sidelined in white feminist conversation. Cultural appropriation, like Allure's afro tutorial this past summer, drives outrage primarily from black feminists (and Black Twitter).

How can feminism seek to empower women, yet avoid prioritizing Black Lives Matter, an activist organization that campaigns against the dehumanization of black people with "All Lives Matter" sentiments?

While I am a feminist, I'm specifically a black feminist. I'm a woman who cannot neglect the fact that race, class and gender identity are inextricably bound together.

In recent years, trailblazers like Franchesa Ramsey and Laci Green have made strides for intersectionality. However, the feminism movement as it currently stands is still failing black women. Let me explain.

Feminism ignores injustices black women can't.

Most mainstream feminist leaders are white. With this comes white privilege, which allows white feminists to react slowly to things like the death of Sandra Bland.

Because there is a real threat of mistreatment and murder in police custody for black women, we can't easily skim past that kind of news on our Twitter feeds.

#SayHerName, an initiative that amplifies these killings, calls out white feminists who do not speak out about these issues.

Additionally, black women are often shut out of political conversations. Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette fight against gender pay wages without shedding light on how these issues affect black women in their industry. Following her inspiring Oscars speech, Arquette mentioned "women" and "people of color" as if women aren't included in the latter. White feminists still often ignore the fact that race and gender overlap. Most of us are both women and people of color.

Furthermore, the health care gap disproportionately affects low-income black people, including black women. African Americans suffer from a poverty rate of 27.2 percent compared to 9.7 percent for whites. Because of this, black women have less access to healthcare and face health discrimination at higher rates than white women.

They are less likely to be insured and can expect to live three years fewer than white women, according to a 2010 CDC report. Yet, this isn't a priority for feminists.

Though the Affordable Healthcare Act has made it easier for black women to get insured, the infant mortality rate for black mothers is significantly higher than white women, as black women are less likely to receive prenatal care or have access to decent healthcare at all.

The scale doesn't lean in black women's favor and feminism doesn't fight hard enough to find the balance.

Feminism appropriates black culture, instead of celebrating it.

No black woman expects white feminists to know how to loc hair or understand why Beyoncé's "Formation" made our world stop (again). We created Black Girl Magic to celebrate our own achievements and recognize our own humanity, considering white feminism often dismisses it.

Still, white feminists should cheer us on, taking notes from Kate Forristall's "Formation Doesn't Include Me –– And That's Just Fine."

"We gave [black women] the role of witness to our stories without so much as a thought that they might have their own," Forristall wrote.

What white feminists should not do is appropriate black culture. It's been inspiration for many mainstream trends, including dabbing and viral phrases like "on fleek" and "bae." However, there's an insensitivity to "borrowing" black beauty for mainstream profitability and consumption.

White women's publications in particular consistently display a lack respect for black culture. In recent months, a UK magazine called cornrows "boxer braids" and Refinery29 likened the big chop, a natural hair transition method, to a pixie cut. White feminists routinely slam publications for photoshopping white models' thigh gaps, but where are they when black culture is co-opted for clicks?

Feminism holds black women to unfair standards.

Black women who aren't shackled by respectability politics -- the self-policing of behavior in order to be accepted by mainstream culture -- are still unfairly judged by mainstream feminist standards.

When Beyoncé released "Formation," white women threatened to boycott her music, saying the pop phenom stirred up anti-police rhetoric and wasn't being inclusive. Shouldn't she be allowed to celebrate her race and artfully vocalize her stance on issues within the black community without backlash? Better yet, shouldn't she be supported by all pro-women institutions for artfully addressing issues that mostly affect black women?

Before Beyoncé, Taylor Swift accused Nicki Minaj of pitting "women against each other" when she shed light on black women's plight within the music business. Instead of trying to understand Minaj's position on the power structure in music, Swift became defensive. The press demonized Minaj, portraying her as an angry black woman while praising Taylor Swift.

Newsone's Christina Coleman wrote how media perpetuates this dangerous narrative.

"Too often, women of color are painted as aggressive, an action that leads to the disenfranchisement and abuse of Black women, sanctioned by the false idea that they are angry, strong-willed, and never in need of support or protection," Coleman said.

To be clear, racial differences don't weaken the agenda of feminism. Rather, feminism as a whole has a better chance of achieving its goals when we start having honest discourse about what serves all women, not just white women.

We all need to identify our own privileges and see feminism through a broader lens. Until all kinds of women can truly unite under a shared agenda, the concept of black feminism will continue to be necessary for the unity and survival of black women.