Since Beyonce released her fifth album last month, debates have intensified about whether arguably the most significant cultural figure in the world is a feminist. Despite Beyonce performing with an all-woman band, including a speech from Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on ‘Flawless’, and writing this essay on gender equality, her basic proclamations are ignored. When ‘Jezebel feminists’ proclaim Miley Cyrus as feminist while patronising Beyonce as adorable, but misguided for genuinely trying to engage with feminism (despite the problems around the lyrics concerning Tina Turner on ‘Drunk In Love’), it looks like it’s about something else i.e. asking Beyonce to be “twice as good”. What does this reveal about the rise of ‘fourth-wave feminism’? Put another way, what does it say about a generation of feminists who have grown up with ‘intersectional’ feminist terminology on social media and hip-hop as their soundtrack?
Significant to Beyonce’s album is the space given for sexual expression (namely ‘Blow’), a space not normally afforded to black women. The invisibility of black women is seen as evidence that sexual expression is submission to men, rather than an assertion of power. Madonna and Miley Cyrus are seen as boundary-pushers, but Janet Jackson produces material about lesbian S&M and is relegated to being the sister of the Jackson brothers. When white feminism has discussed black women’s bodies it has traditionally ignored that neo-liberalism affects notion of ‘choice’ differently. Many women of colour don’t identify with a ‘choice’ narrative of abortion for example not because they’re against reproductive freedom, but historically the ‘choice’ that comes with economic justice hasn’t been awarded to them. Many white feminists seem obsessed with sex-positivism over issues of women’s access to resources. As bell hooks argues, it is abstracted from patriarchal norms more concerned with denying love than sex. As the charges R. Kelly abused dozens of underage black girls resurface, it remains important black women have a cultural space to express sexuality. If the R. Kelly charges reveal “nobody matters less to our society than young black women”, then their room for sexual autonomy will be dismissed even by white feminists. Black women don’t get to collapse their race or gender to ‘blend in’.
White feminists have particularly criticised Beyonce for celebration of her marriage. But the politics of marriage for black women are different amidst Mammy and welfare queen tropes. Having a family and marriage in a world that tries to strip you of power, historically reducing your maternal abilities to wet nursing white children, is a more assertive act than submissive. Michelle Obama has been criticised for saying her main job is “mom-in-chief” to her daughters. Melissa Harris-Perry has spoken about Michelle Obama’s very existence as radical because an Ivy League black woman lawyer from the South Side of Chicago getting children to hula-hoop and dance on the White House lawn sounds like a bizarre KKK fantasy. Black feminism has to be concerned about what happens to the black male body (i.e. when it is removed en masse and placed in the prison industrial complex). It means the idea of ‘independence’ is quite different. In terms of Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Carter, it is radical when they subvert the Mammy stereotype and are allowed to just ‘be’. As Melissa Harris-Perry said, “That can be your feminist nightmare, but it is my black motherhood dream.”
The first wavers in the colonial settler societies of the US/Australia/New Zealand, and the imperial societies of the UK/France etc., were concerned with relative privileges to men of colour. Women of colour weren’t considered. When upper-middle class white women found independence, it was black or indigenous women taking care of their children. Black women haven’t had to worry about barriers to the workplace because white women’s freedom is built on black women’s labour. A recent dialogue between Harris-Perry and bell hooks considered the differences between ‘choice’ for black and white women, when white single parenthood is empowering, but is supposed to produce shame and paralysis in black mothers who requiring welfare. Racism is reduced to ‘choices’, blaming black women for perpetuating racism for not dating white men without considering the power held by white men.
Misogyny is only considered towards black women as perpetuated by black men. The treatment of black women in hip-hop is understood as misogyny, but not the sexual assault of slavery or the exploitation of unpaid domestic care and work. Black feminists have been particularly prominent in campaigns to pay wages for housework, or as Beyonce might put it “My mamma taught me good home training.” Feminism can appear more concerned with ‘boardroom equality’ than school closures where women of colour perform the teaching. It is no coincidence that it is one of the few areas where the US left and right agrees. Feminism can appear unconcerned when white male ‘allies’, with more cultural worth, build their careers on attacking women of colour; it can reduce Trayvon Martin’s death to white women’s fears; hip-hop and black communities can be understood as uniquely homophobic, but not mostly white churches leading campaigns against gay marriage.
Black feminism does not have the privilege of saying “but what about teh menz” in a sarcastic tone. Black mothers do not have the privilege of assuming their sons will be safer at night than their daughters, hence why Beyonce attended the protests over George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon. Nor do they have the privilege of knowing their daughters will be safe if they ‘Stand Their Ground’ against white men as CeCe McDonald did. They don’t know whether white feminists will speak up if one of their daughters who can speak three languages is mocked as inarticulate about the death of her friend.
The problem for the hip-hop feminist generation is their broader understanding of liberation requires a more nuanced understanding of power. So when a British Chinese feminist says that the welfare state cannot collapse racism, unreconstructed leftists tell her she has a “chip on her shoulder about slave labour.” When women of colour say they’re feminists or express critiques of feminism, they should be listened to. When they seek to defend women abused by their partners or by transphobic Neo-Nazi gangs, it is a feminist issue. When black and Asian feminists demand immigrant women are no longer assaulted in detention centres, subject to police harassment, or trapped in abusive relationships because of legal aid cuts, these are feminist issues.
Hip-hop has given a space for black women to express cultural ‘blackness’ and their own attempts to deal with misogyny. It is incredibly significant that Beyonce plays the speech of a feminist woman of colour – it is perhaps her way of saying “I’ve found a feminism that speaks to me.” Feminists would do a better service by listening to how self-identified women are engaging and organising around their own realities.