I’ve never called myself a feminist. At protests I strategically evade the chant “This is what a feminist looks like” and when others place the label on me, I never affirm or deny what they’ve said. I’ve been the “token” black girl in classrooms, at rallies, and at work since I was 14. Now at 26, I’ve become pretty good at avoiding the labels other people place on me out of habit. But the word feminist is a label that I grapple with on a daily basis because I unquestionably live my life in accordance with what feminism is supposed to be, but I have never found comfort, solace, or empowerment in calling myself a feminist.
The first time that I can remember this conflict within myself was in college. I was an editor for a feminist magazine and regularly attended meetings for the organization that published it. I don’t remember how this came up, but in a room of white women, myself, and one Indian woman, I was the only person who didn’t raise their hand when asked if we identify as feminists. At the age of 20, I didn’t know why I wasn’t raising my hand, nor did I understand why that didn’t spark a conversation in that meeting. They didn’t say anything; I looked confused as if I had just misheard the question, so we all just moved on with the meeting. Then on, I began withdrawing and ended up leaving the group because I didn’t feel as if I belonged.
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads her definition of a feminist in her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” it feels amazing to hear. I agree with everything that she’s said and I’d like to think that I incorporate those ideals in my life on a daily basis, but even seeing this Nigerian woman declare herself as a feminist didn’t convince me to start using that word. It took me some time to realize that she and I have had very different experiences of feminism and how it plays out in the environment that we each grew up in. I can’t speak on behalf of her life, but I wonder if the fact that she grew up in Nigeria as a part of the majority, and my growing up in America as a minority, has anything to do with it.
Yesterday, I read this quote that beautifully sums up my animosity for the word “feminist.” It read, “It’s Black and Brown women who sweep the floors after White women break glass ceilings.” Now, I don’t by any means want to invalidate the struggle that women, regardless of race, have to face simply because of gender. The discrepancies between men and women are very clear. But when I feel most empowered as a badass woman, I feel like I’m coming home to myself. And “feminist” doesn’t feel like home to me, nor does it for many other women of color who have traditionally been left out of feminist spaces.
My great-aunt Georgia passed away two weeks ago. At the age of 94, she was probably one of the most feminist women I have ever known. At her funeral, my cousin said that to be in the McKinnie family, you have no choice but to be okay with strong, vocal women. Which is exactly what my aunt was because she could sass you for days! Reading her obituary, I learned so much more about her life as an athlete, an activist, and a loving family member. But there was no way that my aunt, born in Tennessee in 1922, was calling herself a feminist. She was, as Beyonce’s Lemonade states, “spinning gold out of this hard life. Conjuring beauty from the things left behind. Finding healing where it did not live.” That was my aunt’s feminism. Coming from a poor southern family and making ends meet. Being the eldest of ten and helping her parents care for her siblings. The first in the history of our family to go to college. Working hard and making sacrifices so that her daughters could be the first people in our family to make it to graduate school. The Women’s Suffrage Movement was not for her, and second wave feminism in the 60’s was not for her. And she being the woman I look up to, embodying the strength and perseverance I aspire to have, it does not feel like those movements or that word are for me either.
I can’t speak for all women of color, obviously, but when some of us feel animosity towards the word feminist, let us feel that animosity unchallenged. One of the greatest moments I’ve experienced came yesterday when I shared my feelings with two friends of mine who are white women, and they received my message as it was. The label “feminist” functions so differently for so many people, and if we are going to create a feminist movement that truly embodies the goals and ideals of what feminism claims, then we are going to have to fully embrace the entire history of what it means to be a feminist. Scars and all. It is a disservice to the feminist movement to invalidate the animosity some women of color may feel about being called a feminist because we are going to have to elevate the experiences of those women who have so often gone unheard in order to create a stronger and more encompassing feminist movement.