The Sisterhood of the Future Feminist
I distinctly remember thinking, as a young elementary schooler, that I was related to every black person in America. I’m not quite sure my worldview had expanded to the entire African diaspora, but I remember feeling related to black people I didn’t even know. Now, it’s entirely possible that this connectedness was birthed from a desire to be related to Queen Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, but the feeling was there nonetheless. The connection I felt to all black people, specifically black women, was not the racist connection that assumes all black people know each other. No, I do not know that one black kid you met at camp one summer that suspiciously “looks” like me. Yes, I do know what that one black kid felt when she went to summer camp and realized all the other campers were white. It’s that empathy, that perfectly characterizes what Melissa Harris-Perry calls fictive kinship in her book Sister Citizen (102). She defines fictive kinship as “connections between members of a group who are unrelated by blood or marriage but who nonetheless share reciprocal social or economic relationships” (Harris-Perry 102). This kinship is the foundation for what ultimately creates the “black community.” It is an intimate empathy that black people, or black women, feel towards other black people. All of the pride, all of the shame, and everything in between.
As Melissa Harris-Perry points out, this kinship is not always positive. At times it leads to a mass mischaracterization of an entire group. When one black woman does something scandalous or promiscuous, the entire black femme community must bear that burden or separate themselves from those individuals. Take, for example, the women represented on shows like Love and Hip-Hop, Basketball Wives, or The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Black women on these shows are presented as loud, overtly-sexual, materialistic, and aggressive women. As a result, many black women are very critical of these shows for the way they portray “us.” What is interesting about this “us” is that it isn’t real. Cardi B, for example, does not represent black women, she represents Cardi B. Yet, her actions, primarily due to her celebrity, affects the rest of the black female community. Black women might feel some shame due to her sexual actions, or some pride in her ability to own her sexuality. Regardless of the perception, there is a unique understanding that her actions, or all of their actions, are representative of the entire community.
Despite the potential for collective shame, or perhaps because of it, fictive kinship is key to the future of feminism. It is common knowledge that, at this point, feminism needs to be intersectional. Most are aware that “women’s issues” are not fixed or one-size fits all for the entire group. There are issues specific to Transgender women, black women, non-neuro typical or non-physiological typical women, and many other groups. Though these issues may not affect “all woman,” the sheer fact that they affect a single woman should make it an issue for all. Yet, just recognizing this fact is not enough to further feminism. It is easy to claim these issues are important, but it is another to feel their weight and their impact. To feel that the struggles of women that you don’t know, have never known, and will never meet are somehow related to you is the essence of fictive kinship. This is the future of feminism. A feminism that feels a true kinship with all women. A feminism that shares in the pride and shame of all women.
When reflecting on feminisms history, the barriers to kinship are painfully apparent. The liberal feminist movement, which was a predominately white female movement, is the perfect example of a barrier to kinship. In her book Feminist Thought: Third Edition, Rosemarie Tong starts with Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor (Mill) when describing first wave liberal feminism. She notes, that it starts with a basic understanding of female subordination being “rooted in a set of customary and legal constraints that blocks women’s entrance to and success in the so-called public world” (2). Their understanding of the “public world” mostly extends to academic and economic spheres. Much like Taylor, many early liberal feminists assumed that if women were more rational and engaged in the public sphere in a material and meaningful way, then women’s equality to men would prove itself (Tong 18). However, the feasibility of this public engagement remained an obstacle. How were women to engage materially in the public sphere while also taking care of their private sphere wifely duties? Of course the answer is not to share duties with your husband, rather, Taylor suggests a “panoply of domestic servants” (Tong 18). Given that domestic work is traditionally considered feminine work, it is safe to assume that these domestic servants were other women. Meaning, that one woman’s liberation was another woman’s subjugation. Essentially, this solidifies that female liberation was only accessible to those that could afford it, i.e. upper-middle class women.
Furthermore, this breed of feminism stressed a preference for ration, or reason, over emotion. Enlightenment era thinking perpetuated the idea that reason was the defining characteristic of man and made him hierarchically higher than animals (Tong 15). Women, were not included in this hierarchy. Although not necessarily animals, women were not considered rational. To combat this, women like Mary Wollstonecraft insisted that women were just as rational as men and, consequentially, pushed for women to fall in line with traditional reason over emotion (Tong 18). Yet, considering that black women were afforded neither reason nor emotion, it is clear that, again, this part of liberal feminism was exclusive.
Although it was a necessary first step and addressed many of the issues of our sexist society, liberal feminism did not, and does not, go far enough. It addressed the burden of Victorian era fragility without stopping to consider the diverse groups of women that were always in contrast to Victorian fragility. For example, many black slave women were not granted the smallest shred of fragility or sensitivity. At no point did anyone think that black slave women should be prohibited from working the fields to protect their fragile feminine sensibilities. They were workhorses, mammies, or whores. The dichotomy between the history of white womanhood and black womanhood, as it relates to liberal feminism, constructs a sizable barrier to fictive kinship. For instance, upper middle class white women didn’t empathize with the plight of their black female slaves. In fact, the entire Jezebel myth was created to benefit both white slave-owning men and women. For white men, black women’s perceived promiscuity served as justification for their sexual brutality (Harris-Perry. 55). For white women, the promiscuous black woman served as the perfect contrast to white womanhood and proved their virtuosity (Harris-Perry 55). Essentially, white womanhood gets constructed in opposition to black womanhood. This opposition is the antithesis of fictive kinship and complicates the shift towards intersectional feminism. As long as black women are relegated to a status of less than woman, there can be no empathetic kinship.
Yet another factor that complicates feminist fictive kinship is the way that race and gender are constructed as opposing forces. Often, black women are put in a position where they are made to choose between their race and their gender. This race-gender double bind is premised on the idea that if black women choose their gender and coalesce with white women, then they are somehow disloyal to their race (Harris-Perry 80). However, if they neglect their gender and focus solely on their race, then they are anti-women or anti-feminist. The decision is virtually impossible. Not only does this force identity compartmentalization, but it also supercharges black female erasure. The basic premise is that being black and being a woman are opposing forces that either cancel each other out or can only exist outside public spaces. Furthermore, it’s impossible to feel a kinship with someone when you have constructed one part of their identity as non-relatable.
The double bind is not just a construct of white feminism, it also comes from within the black community. Consider scandals like the OJ Simpson trial or Bill Cosby. Both men were like heroes within the black community. Cosby’s entire career was built on his family-man persona and his show revolutionized perceptions of black people to mainstream audiences. Before the scandal, Bill Cosby was Dr. Huxtable, the funny dad from a sitcom that promoted healthy and loving black families. This reputation is one of the reasons people were speechless when women started coming forward to tell their stories of being sexually assaulted by him. For the country, it was shocking. For the black community, it came as yet another blow. The fact that many of the women were white added to the disbelief of many black people.
To understand this disbelief, it’s important to understand the history of black men and white women. In the past, black men were prohibited from fraternizing with white women and failure to comply with this policy was punishable by lynching. As black men were characterized as hyper-sexual monsters out to rape and murder every white woman, almost every interaction between black men and white women was deemed a reason for murder. Furthermore, cases like Emmett Till are examples of black men being viciously murdered as a result of one white woman’s false accusation. So, circling back to Bill Coby, when there’s news of a black man sexually assaulting a white women, the black community can be quite skeptical. I remember the skepticism of the black people around me. The comments that it was yet another attempt of keeping “the black man down.” Even the newest Netflix show, Dear White People, comments on the scandal. In the first episode the main character, Sam, makes the comment that it is interesting that this news broke around the time “white people realized he was rich enough to buy NBC.” There were many people that thought this way. It forced a question for black women: do you side with the myriad of women that have accused Cosby or, do you give him the benefit of the doubt in light of historical precedence? It is a classic example of the tension between race and gender and makes fictive kinship across racial lines incredibly difficult to navigate.
An additional complexity to future feminist fictive kinship is the potential for tokenization. In an attempt to spread kinship and feel empathy with those outside of your social group, it might be easier to bond with those that have already been deemed respectable. The politics of respectability is the way that black people, or people of color in general, attempt to counter negative stereotypes of their group by practicing modesty in public spaces (Harris-Perry 61). For example, many black women attempt to tame their hair and make it more respectable for public spheres. Through a system of pressing, perming, weaving, or braiding, black women can alter their hair in an effort to appear “less black” in public spaces. This is especially prevalent in the work force. Cases like EEOC v. CMS and Rogers v. American Airlines, prove just how much society insists that black women do this. Both cases focus on black women that were discriminated against by their employers for having hairstyles that were prohibited by company policies. In EEOC v. CMS the company policy actually stated that, “All personnel [were] expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines… [H]airstyles should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable [.]” Although this seems neutral on the surface, the fact that this policy justified the company denying a black woman a job due to her refusal to cut her dreadlocks pushes it a little further away from neutrality. The subtext of such a policy is that natural black hair, like dreadlocks, are not businesslike, professional, or respectable.
“Befriending someone because they seem non-threatening and up your “cool diversity quota,” is the exact opposite of kinship.”
Due to this harmful tradition of respectability, people of color that adhere to these rules are often hailed as perfect examples of their race. Such a process is often referred to as tokenization. Befriending someone because they seem non-threatening and up your “cool diversity quota,” is the exact opposite of kinship. Unfortunately, this is happens to women of color within movements on a regular basis. Instead of being treated like valuable voices that deserve their platform, women of color get treated like props for diversity. The kinship is purely superficial and does not generate genuine bonds.
Assuming that feminist fictive kinship is possible, and I do think that it is, there is a danger that it results in homogenization, or even more homogenization. People already have generalized beliefs about all women and make sweeping claims about the group. Women, as a whole, are typically considered moody, nurturing, obsessive, sensitive, weak, childish, catty, self-obsessed, materialistic, and incredibly well-organized. Although all of these characteristics are not necessarily negative, they can be harmful, especially when it comes to policy. It is disturbingly easy to right off women’s concerns when they are all perceived as over emotional delusions of a PMS-riddled mind. Furthermore, this type of homogenization creates one-size fits all policy that ultimately results in a form of masking. It ignores the nuances and needs of each woman. For example, companies and governments can pat themselves on the back for hiring more women and producing incredibly diverse advertisements and brochures without ever really addressing substantial issues like the wage gap or the striking lack of women in higher positions. Creating fictive kinship bonds could potentially exacerbate this type of homogenization and supercharge the idea that all women are basically the same.
Despite these potential harms, future feminist fictive kinship is still the best chance feminism has at positive progression. Fictive kinship endorses an ethic of collaboration and positive allyship. In essence, it is. rooted in a form of empathy that does not devolve into pity, but rather attempts to understand, engage with, and respect women of different races, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, religions, and life experiences. Such a bond is already being exhibited in global movements like the Women’s March on Washington, the #SayHerName movement, and more. Feminism is becoming more of a global sisterhood than a weird system of one type of woman dictating the way all women should behave. Partly, the expansion of social media is what is helping this future materialize. People can now connect with people of varying backgrounds in ways that they couldn’t in the past. It is easier to see and learn about the lived experiences of other women and feel a bond with them. This bond is not the superficial cooptation of the past, but a genuine familial bond.
I managed to experience this bond two times in my young-adult life. The first time was at a Donald Trump protest in Washington D.C. There were tons of people there and I felt connected to my fellow angry youths, but something interesting happened when the bullhorn was opened up to everyone that wanted to speak their truths. Many women volunteered to speak about their lives and the grief that they felt when they found out Trump was elected to be the next president. During their speeches, I empathized and felt the raw emotion they were radiating. Yet, not everyone felt this empathy. There were men that insisted these speeches did nothing and kept trying to drown out the voices of the women talking. In that moment, the amount of women that materialized to get rid of these men and to protect the voices of the other women was astounding. Women that did not even know each other, but knew what it was like to be talked over and weren’t willing to let it continue.
The second time I experienced such a bond was at a different rally in Atlanta protesting the Muslim ban. At the Hartsfield-Jackson International airport thousands of people gathered to protest the awful and incredibly racist ban on immigrants coming to the United States. Many of the speakers there were not only women, but women of color. Women of different ages and backgrounds were there to tell their stories about the way this ban affected them and their families. In this scenario, no one tried to drown these women out. We were all listening attentively and taking in the words of each speaker. In that moment, again, I felt a deep connection to the women speaking. It wasn’t that type of connection that seeks to devour the experiences of the “exotic other,” but a connection built on respect and care for women with different experiences.
It is possible for this connection to grow and strengthen the feminist movement. People already have the foundation of intersectionality. They already understand that women are nuanced and each facet of their identity impacts their relationship to their own femininity and womanhood. It just takes expanding that understanding across social groups and creating bonds with different women. It takes women choosing to feel that the plight of other women affects them and impacts their lives. It takes women acknowledging their own positions in relation to other women and navigating the impact of their own social currency. It might be hard to navigate, but it isn’t impossible. For feminism to progress, become more inclusive, and be effective it needs to exist in a space of fictive kinship where women are engaged in the practice of experiencing the pride and the shame of their fellow woman.