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Sometimes I’m not a feminist

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September 11, 2014

When Beyoncé ended her performance at last month’s Video Music Awards last month with her song “***Flawless” and the giant screen flashing the key phrase from Chimamanda Adiche’s TED Talk, book-ended with the word “feminist” in giant capitalized letters, I teared up a little. There was a moment of surrealism when I felt validated and affirmed in some of the most fundamental of ways. There’s power in a black woman, one who has found power and fulfillment in her life’s work as much as she has in her family, claiming feminism. There’s power when a black woman, who is vulnerable and complicated and has forced the world to acknowledge those things about herself, claims the title of “feminist” for herself and dares the world to disagree, to take it away from her. I never needed Beyoncé, the person or the persona, to make “***Flawless” and fearlessly stand by the song as a kind of declaration of (black) womanhood, but there is – there can be – safety in numbers and strength in solidarity. This felt like one of those moments.

But sometimes I’m not a feminist. Sometimes I cannot stomach the term and sometimes I can’t stand the movement. There are times when I feel utter disgust when the term is used in the mainstream news outlets, by CEOs, in women’s magazines. Every so often, I want someone to never speak again of Sheryl Sandberg or Lena Dunham, because there is so much we miss when we discuss how feminism is represented both within social justice circles and outside of them, where we find everybody else, all of the people who don’t necessarily have access to the language, trends, and dialogues in the feminist movement.

We cannot in good conscience call Sheryl Sandberg a feminist or accept her brand of female empowerment when it is based in capitalism and capitalism, by its very nature, is exploitative. Capitalism was built off of the forced labor and forced reproduction of black women; it continues to thrive off of the labor of underpaid, overworked people, particularly women. It’s not possible to call Sandberg a feminist when she is an unwavering supporter of a system that deems the only bodies worthy of shelter and food those bodies that can produce money and goods and sacrifices its human element for profit margins. Not everyone is able to lean in, after all, for reasons that might be their lack of a “suitable” education, the threat of being laid off if their gender identity is revealed and/or expressed, or their supervisor sexually harassing them, and the lack of real acknowledgement of these issues from Sandberg or the general movement is discouraging.

There’s more, though. Lena Dunham has made cracks on the bodies and expressions of women of color. Dunham tweeted a picture in which she wore a mock-veil because she  “had a real… fundamentalist attitude,” for instance, and however much has already been said about her show Girls, there will always remain the fact that her brand of feminist expression is fundamentally white and middle-class. Time magazine had the nerve to label Joan Rivers a feminist, and (white) women followed suit to sing her praises, even when (a) she rejected the entire movement herself and (b) made a career off of transphobic slurs, using the n-word and racist “jokes,” loud calls for the murder of Palestinians, and fat-shaming. Why did (white) feminists rush to defend Miley Cyrus’ sexual expression, but kept quiet when Nicki Minaj got hounded for her “Anaconda” single cover?  Race and class aren’t the end-all, though. I also take note of feminism’s continued shaky relationship with queer women and non-binary persons and the snail-crawl pace it’s taking to adopt gender-inclusive language when discussing reproductive justice, as well as other more subtle abuses that fall along the lines of sexuality and gender. Feminism that excludes isn’t feminism at all.

Listen. When International Women’s Day rolls around and, yet again, very few feminists take note of how the 77% wage gap statistic only applies to white women to their white male counterparts, and fail to talk about how people of color (especially women of color) and those who are not cis-gender or heterosexual face income inequalities on a larger scale, then I understand that I don’t quite have a place in my own movement. Sometimes, there are simply some things I’d rather not be a part of. The feminist movement is one of them. Sometimes I don’t want to stay where I’m not wanted.

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