A (Very Long) Letter to My Sisters: A Contextualized Response to The Appropriation of Black Womanhood in Trans Activism

I will not delve into the causes of the current gender Twittersphere debate, but I am writing out of concern for a line of reasoning often repeated by trans activist (TRAs) and their allies. It is not uncommon to hear TRAs reason that sex and gender binaries are false, citing the physicality (and physiology) of black women as proof of the nonbinary nature of sex.

I’ve read claims that Black women have higher bone mineral density (BMD) than White men as reason for transwomen in women’s sports. This is categorically false. While Black people in general have higher BMD than White people, this is only in comparison to their sex-peers. Black women have higher BMD than White women, and Black men have higher BMD than White men. Since Black people are the most genetically diverse “racial” group on earth, bone density studies are some of the few areas of research that sometimes take into consideration the ethnicity of Black participants in their research.

I’ve read ridiculous assertions that Black women have more testosterone than other women, which causes our supposed masculinity. Uninformed yet overconfident trans allies fail to realize that testosterone is necessary for female development, and that Black women begin puberty earlier and develop female secondary sexual characteristics faster than other racial groups. Black women also have higher levels of estrogen than women of other racial groups. Should we conclude that Black women are naturally “more” woman than most women? A curious omission from this line of reasoning.

Those are the most common pseudo-scientific arguments in favor of grouping Black women with transwomen. But the sociological arguments are equally ridiculous. I’ve read claims that femininity and womanhood are “white supremacist” constructs imposed on Black women, as though White people introduced the world to sex-based gender norms that have appeared in societies across the globe for centuries. This line of reasoning is a dog whistle meant to illicit a Pavlovian response from sensitive, socially progressive Black women. It is meant to silence progressive Black women who are gender critical. It is also meant to “neg” woke Black women who probably know better than to seek validation from “cis” men, but struggle to recognize and repel the “kiss the ring” tone some transwomen carry towards Black women. The tweets below are notable not just for the assertions they make, but for the tone and entitlement the tweets carry towards Black women:

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I am not surprised that “others” would readily embrace this position. However, I am concerned by the number of young Black women repeating these statements uncritically; a form of rhetorical labor we are conditioned to accept uncritically. Some refer to this as “muling,” a reference to Zora Neal Hurston’s observation of the multifaceted exploitation of black women nearly a century ago:

Many Black women were exposed to years of misogynoir-based ridicule and bullying online in their adolescent years, most notably from their male counterparts. It is possible that the public displays of intra-group racism and colorism experienced by black women emboldened other groups to rely on racist tropes to assert their own gender claims. The most readily available framework on sites like Tumblr and Instagram are not grounded in Black feminist discourse, so it’s no wonder that young black girls concluded our struggle with misogynoir was indeed caused by their inability to meet a non-existent gender standard. Unlike our foremothers, they did not understand that the hypocrisy, abuse, and gas-lighting they experienced are historical features of the black female social experience. Our ability to resist this oppression while protecting and relishing in our own ways of being-the ways in which black women express love for ourselves and each other-means that a self-actualized Black woman never looks outward for what is within. The phrases “Black girl magic” or “professional Black girl” might be new, but the principles are not.

This knowledge deficit indicates an alarming disconnect from our sexed and gendered history. I shudder to think of how this will impact black women’s self-advocacy and self-preservation efforts in the future.

So please, allow me to offer you a criminally condensed, crash course in America’s historical obsession with controlling and exploiting Black Womanhood. I assert here that White womanhood is not a club Black woman have ever desired entry to, and that any semblance of desire is for racial equality, not the experience of White womanhood or White femininity. Black and White womanhood in America developed in tandem, and to suggest otherwise is to deny that womanhood is the social experience of adult human females. One cannot impart or withhold womanhood or femininity from people who were born female. The assertion that Black women were “denied” our lived social reality means you simply don’t recognize Black womanhood for what it is, which is ironically where the latent White supremacy in the opposing argument is emerges.

In 1851 Sojourner Truth delivered what was to become one of the most famous addresses of the Abolitionist and Women’s Suffrage Movement. “Ain’t I A Woman?” is a particularly poignant speech for Black women, as it is one of the first in American history to recognize the unique positioning of the Black woman.

The problem with this speech is: Sojourner Truth never delivered it.

At least not the version Frances Gage published in the New York Independent, ten years after Truth’s speech was delivered. Gage’s version of the speech includes phrases never spoken by Truth, and is written in Gage’s distorted rendition of a southern enslaved person’s dialect.

Sojourner Truth was from New York/New Amsterdam. She spoke a (now extinct) dialect of Dutch. She did not learn English until the age of 9. She was a skilled orator, and proud of her English fluency. It is unlikely that Truth ever uttered phrases like, “Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have de best place eberywhar,” one of the first lines of Gage’s version of the speech.

We can’t know for sure why Gage chose to misrepresent Truth’s speech. We know Gage and Truth knew each other: Gage introduced Truth as the keynote speaker at the 1851 event where Truth delivered her speech. Many White abolitionists, though anti-slavery, harbored deeply racist views about the natural abilities of Black people. Gage may have believed people would not believe a once-enslaved person could be a gifted orator. Perhaps Gage just assumed artistic license.

The refrain “Ain’t I A Woman?” appears multiple times throughout Gage’s version of the speech, but in the earliest version of the speech Truth never begs that question.

In fact, immediately after requesting the audience’s attention, Sojourner Truth starts her speech by declaring:

“I am woman’s rights.”

Gage’s version attempts to challenge gender norms of feminine delicacy by juxtaposing Truth’s life of hard labor with the standards of femininity asserted by White men in the audience. The problem is, Truth never spoke of any of those White feminine standards. They were not an expressed concern of hers. But they were an expressed concern of Gage’s.

Why is this important to know?

Both women were advocates for the same causes, but with slightly different motivations. Gage made sure to use Truth’s voice to prioritize her own motivations: the desire to be freed from the rigid confines of White womanhood. She did not hesitate to rely on racist tropes to promote this goal. For any number of reasons, Gage’s version of the speech rose to prominence and became the version most people know and love today. Now it’s incredibly difficult to untangle Gage’s version from reality in the public imagination. Although a work of fiction, I’m sure some would argue Gage’s version has its own merits. Nevertheless, this brand of ally-ship rhetorically stifled Truth for decades to come, and de-centered her from her own story. Ain’t I A Woman? is a declaration of Black womanhood from the imagination of a White Lady.

Does this sound similar to a recent phenomenon?

When I speak of the inextricable nature of Black and White American womanhood, a topic I hope to explore more in my upcoming podcast (The Doll Parts), I am speaking of two identities, rooted in the same material reality, forged in tandem to shape a race-based capitalist society. White womanhood is not a club any other group of women can theoretically fight to “join.” It’s simply the social condition of female people classified as White, in all its privileges and pain. A non-woman will see it as some sort of exclusive country club, but most women-Black or White- will also see it as a cage of sorts. It’s not hard to see why some White women resist the reduction of this identity to a notion, feeling, impulse or performance. These White femininity/ladyhood tropes are popular among Black and White transwomen, drag queens, and cross dressers. Oddly enough, the mannerisms, speech patterns, and “sassiness” tropes associated with Black women are behaviors often emulated as well. So much for masculinity there.

But beyond the contemporary conversation around gender, I want to ground our Black feminine identity in our collective past.

Few people realize that slavery in the U.S did not begin as a permanent, race-based system. Yes, African slaves and indentured servants were brought to the colonies, but they could earn their freedom and establish themselves and planters. White and Black men often worked alongside each other to earn their freedom. As the fruits of capitalism took hold in the colonies, the desire for an easily identifiable, permanent labor force grew.

In 1662 Virginia was one of the first colonies to legally identify a permanent underclass: It did so through the womb’s Black women. Slave status was determined through the identity of the mother, not the father. Any child born to an enslaved woman was also subject to enslavement in perpetuity.

A year later, White women were put on notice: After 1663, any marriage between a White woman and an enslaved man would result in the enslavement of said White woman and her offspring. Thus, different forms of control were used in tandem to shape a new social order. If the female nature of Black women was such a conundrum, how did plantation owners across the colonies know they could build an entire economic system on the wombs of a group of women?

Enslaved women were acutely aware of how their fertility would be violently exploited to sustain the slave economy, and they resisted. Like women in the centuries before them, enslaved women practiced a variety of birth control and pregnancy termination methods, and shared them with women throughout the community. A frustrated southern doctor once complained about the enslaved woman’s “unnatural tendency” to “destroy her offspring,” lamenting that whole families of women failed to bear children. They resisted. They helped each other resist. They often chose to end their line rather than to enrich White planters. Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who killed her children to spare them from the brutality of the life she escaped. Her trial shocked the nation when she admitted to such acts without remorse.

Ingenuity, sisterhood, and resistance are features of Black womanhood.

We are women’s rights.

Sisters, let us not forget about the Tignon Laws of 18th and 19th century Louisiana. Concerned that women of color (usually the daughters of white men and enslaved or free women of color) relished in their own feminine beauty, the mayor prohibited women of color from leaving their homes without their hair wrapped and hidden from public view. This was done in order to reinforce the social order, and mitigating the “distracting” spectacle of fashionable Creole women. In response, Creole women wore colorful fabrics decorated with beads and jewels. The Tignon became a fashion fixture that is still embraced by many women of African descent to this day. For better or worse, the surveillance of Black woman’s unique adornment practices is still a cultural sport in America. From corn rows to lip fillers, our aesthetic is criticized then copied. We see this, even when others choose not to.

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Ingenuity, sisterhood, resistance, and looking fly as hell under any circumstance are features of Black womanhood.

We are women’s rights.

During the antebellum period and beyond, Black women served as primary child-minders and wet nurses to White women. Make no mistake, this is categorically exploitative work for an enslaved woman. But the practice was a paradoxical site of social distance and intimacy between Black and White women:

Conversely, slaveholding women’s relative power granted them choices about whether to use a wet nurse, and occasionally (and for a variety of reasons) white women wet-nursed enslaved infants. Enslaved women, too, sometimes shared their breast milk with each other in an example of more communal mothering processes… Always the outsider, Fanny Anne Kemble noted, perhaps a little haughtily, how southern racial hierarchies failed to prevent white women “from hanging their infants at the breasts of negresses.”

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What an odd practice for a group of women supposedly “shut out” of womanhood. Every White child nourished by a Black woman is proof of the hypocrisy embedded in White supremacy. We’ve known this. We’ve had no reason to aspire to it.

Ingenuity, sisterhood, and resistance are features of Black womanhood.

We are women’s rights.

The zeal of the late 19th century suffragette movement carried over into the 20th century, with suffragette organizations developing in cities across the nation. The Women’s Social Club Movement reflected the growing desire to influence public policy, giving a sense of urgency to the fight for voting rights. Although some of these social clubs were integrated, most were not. This did not impede the political activity of Black women, who’ve been organizing among themselves since the late 1700’s. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist best known for documenting the horrors of lynching in the American South, is probably the most notable Black suffragette. She is also the founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club, one of the first exclusively Black suffragette clubs. Although she participated in integrated suffragette activities, she declined to take a backseat to accommodate the racism of moderate White feminists. For example, during the suffragette march of 1913, Wells-Barnett refused to march in the back of the procession as Black suffragettes were asked to do. Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn of Morgan State University identified many Black women like Wells-Barnett; women who responded to sexism and racism by creating political and social havens for their sisters. It’s likely that you or someone you know is associated with a Black woman’s organization founded during the social club era. The most popular Black sororities emerged during this period, and both of missions and values explicitly tied to the foundation laid by Black suffragettes.

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Ingenuity, sisterhood, and resistance are features of Black womanhood.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was women’s rights.

While we all know Rosa Parks at the demure lady who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, some of us know her as the fierce sexual assault investigator who risked her well-being to tell the stories of Black women who were victimized by rapists. Parks herself was nearly the victim of rape by her neighbor in 1931. Keep in mind that no White man had ever been convicted of the sexual assault of a Black woman until the case of Betty Jean Owens in 1959. Parks labored as much for her gender as she did for her race. Her efforts are directly responsible for the recognition of Black female sexual vulnerability under the law. Black women of the past were not worried about replacing White women in the eyes of White men. They were focused on protecting Black women from the eyes of White men and the depravity of a rape culture that violated Black women for generations with impunity. White femininity would not shield Black women from this because White women were also subject to sex-based, gendered violence.

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Ingenuity, sisterhood, and resistance are features of Black womanhood.

Rosa Parks was women’s rights.

The problem with many younger trans activist of all genders who rely on misogynoir is the erroneous presupposition that Black women aspire to White womanhood. This is the logical underpinning of the “you’re an outsider too” defense. Indeed, black women have desired the spoils of capitalism. Black women have desired the provisions and protections of a patriarchy helmed by their own men. But black women have never desired to be white women, and have never needed to. Why? Because until fairly recently, Black women have been more intimately engaged in the lives of White families as domestics than any other American group. One could argue that the relationship between White women and their Black domestics was more intimate than that of husband and wife. Women were not allowed the full range of self-expression in the public sphere, and many were denied this in their own homes too. The White woman’s range of emotions were laid bare when she was “alone”; often “alone” meant in the presence of a Black woman.

Toni Morrison explained the ambivalence black women felt towards the condition of white women in her 1971 submission to the New York Times: “Black women ‘have been able to envy white women (their looks, their easy life, the attention they seem to get from their men); they could fear them (for the economic control they have had over black women’s lives) and even love them (as mammies and domestic workers can); but black women have found it impossible to respect white women. I mean they never had what black men have had for white men — a feeling of awe at their accomplishments. Black women have no abiding admiration of white women as competent, complete people. Whether vying with them for the few professional slots available to women in general, or moving their dirt from one place to another, they regarded them as willful children, pretty children, mean children, ugly children, but never as real adults capable of handling the real problems of the world.”

Morrison’s words are difficult to stomach, especially if decontextualized from the era in which it they were written. At this time in history, most Black women in America were not far removed from someone who worked in the home of a White woman (if not themselves). The relationship between domestic workers and their employers have nuances that most of us would struggle to understand. Couple this with a culture that normalized anti-blackness in ways that are less common today, and you have a relationship characterized by mutual need, but unspoken contempt.

So it was not womanhood or femininity that black woman were “shut out of.” It was Ladyhood. A term that describes the privileges and penances imposed on women from a higher caste. In fact, it was womanhood that White feminist fought to elevate, and ladyhood they were eager to escape. Toni Morrison writes, “Even the word “lady” is anathema to feminists. They insist upon the “woman” label as a declaration of their rejection of all that softness, helplessness and modesty, for they see them as characteristics which served only to secure their bondage.”

The modern belief that Black women have lived lives only minimally connected to the social experience of womanhood and femininity is a falsehood that has no bases in history. Politician and presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm famously said, “As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black.” She subsequently discussed the urgency in women’s need for equal pay and equal access to opportunity. She railed against the idea that women who desired financial independence and sociopolitical autonomy were “unfeminine” or “odd.”

What a strange position for someone supposedly “shut out” of femininity.

Ingenuity, sisterhood, and resistance are features of Black womanhood.

Shirley Chisolm was women’s rights.

In addition to being ahistorical, exploitative, and racist, the claim that Black women are masculine simply for not embodying some abstract idea of White femininity is deeply sexist.

See, Black men have had a contentious relationship with White manhood in America. Fear of Black male sexual prowess led to the rioting and destruction of Black communities by White mobs on more than one occasion. Some black male service-members survived war, only to die by the nooses of fragile White male egos. Historically, Black adult males, even our elders, were sometimes referred to as “boy” rather than their given names. More respectful individuals may have called these men by their first names, but rarely were they referred to as “mister” or “sir” by their White peers. Imagine that?

A long history of unyielding oppression shaped the past and present gender identity of Black men. Despite this, I have never heard anyone reason that black men have been denied masculinity due to oppression. To the contrary, Black masculinity is exaggerated, adored, revered, and sympathized with; the most egregious elements (like rampant misogynoir) overlooked as understandable for a group of men psychologically wounded by anti-blackness.

Most would agree with the notion that white supremacy has made it challenging for Black men to thrive in America: to provide for their families, protect their women and children from harm, fully participate in the democratic process, develop a network of influential cronies, exploit women to the degree that white men could, or acquire and bequeath multi-generational wealth: all features of American masculinity made less accessible by systemic racism.

And yet, I cannot imagine a circumstance in which a transman of any race would lecture, gaslight, or challenge a Black man on his masculinity as analogical justification for his desire for acceptance and recognition. We know that Black and White manhood differ in some ways, but White masculinity is not the framework we use to understand Black masculinity.

Why is Black femininity denied this reverence?

When I hear individuals reason that black women are masculinized as proof of the social construction of gender, I hear a continuation of a long tradition of “others” using and abusing Black womanhood for personal gain. It is the argument of someone not rooted in a Black feminist historical memory.

Black women, you cannot advocate for yourself if you do not ground your reality in your own history. Equally important, you must guard this identity from the exploitation and interest of any group seeking to “Ain’t I A Woman” you. Because when their goals are achieved and their movement is done using us to advance their cause, what will become of us?

We know the rules weren’t made for us. We never relied on them to validate our femininity or our womanhood. Our exclusion from those rules does not mean we owe ally-ship to anyone fighting for a seat at the very table we’ve been happy to walk away from when the working day is done. Let all who please kneel and pray at the altar of idealized White femininity. Do not allow anyone to assume that Black women are collectively kneeling besides them.

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