In recent years, feminism and intersectionality have become punchy buzzwords in pop culture. The issue, though, is that they aren’t any more than that. The individuals who have most popularly been hailed as feminist icons in recent history all share one thing: they are upper middle class white women with more privilege than they are willing to acknowledge. With sexually abusive Lena Dunhams and situationally manipulative Taylor Swifts, it is easy to tell that these feminist “icons” do not care about issues pertaining to women/female-presenting individuals who do not pass the brown paper bag test. It has become the norm to use exclusionary language without repercussions when talking about feminism.
However, in the past year strides have been made to popularize and embrace the presence of black femme culture in media. The turning point that fueled this revolution was Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade. By featuring the powerful Malcolm X quote, “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman,” near the beginning of the body of work creates powerful imagery detailing the black female experience. The power of this quote paired with the strong and multifaceted black women featured throughout the entirety of the visual album strongly suggests the need for a new wave of black female liberation. Lemonade sparked a much-needed conversation about the immense disrespect black women have to deal with on both an institutional and interpersonal level and served as the jolt white people needed to finally realize,“oh shit… racism still exists?”
Needless to say, the message got across. After the general (white) public consumed this album, there was a dramatic shift in the way black women were portrayed in media. A new platform emerged for black women to be able to safely embrace their sexuality, bodies, and stories. This year marks the inaugural era of the strong black woman, with films like 2017’s Girls Trip, and the booming success of musicians like Nicki Minaj, SZA, and Solange. We began to see a genuine effort to promote the sheer power of women of color, without trimming them down to reductive stereotypes. In film and media, black women are being showcased and praised as the complex, interesting, beautiful women they are. They are no longer solely the token black friend, the quiet and docile black friend, the easily palpable black friend. No longer confined to the role of the sidekick, black women are taking their place as the main character in their own stories.
Despite these advancements, black women have been and still are subjected to not only hypersexualization and fetishization, but also the exact opposite. Black women have been compared to apes, and have been told their distinctly black features are animalistic or masculine simply because they do not adhere to Eurocentric standards of beauty. This is overt in cases where black female athletes like Serena Williams and Simone Biles were criticized for being too muscular. To reiterate the absurdity: athletes were criticized for having muscles. Black hair also becomes a topic of discussion among white folk. Institutionally, attacks on blackness are coming into fruition by deeming explicitly black hairstyles distracting or unprofessional. A black female Banana Republic employee is suing the company for $1 million because in November of this year, she was told that she would not be scheduled for shifts unless she wore a hairstyle other than her braids. Recent covers of The London Evening Standard and Grazia, featuring Solange and Lupita Nyong’o, respectively, made serious edits to the appearance of both women’s hair, to better fit the idea of what black women’s hair should look like.
In an effort to reclaim bodily autonomy and presentation, Nicki Minaj recently “broke the internet” with her Winter 2017 cover of Paper magazine, featuring three iterations of herself engaged in a “Minaj à trois.” This was a clever middle finger to white ideas about black sexuality, and those who feel entitled to the bodies of black women.
Black creative women have had to face the unique challenge of being forced to reclaim their sexuality, bodies, and space for representation. These spaces for representation are incredibly important, especially in institutions of learning and education. Our cover model, senior class president Laini Boyd, is the perfect example of a powerful black woman carving out her place in an environment that has not been historically inclusive to people of color, let alone women of color. Despite the institution’s 325-year history, 2017 marks only the 50th anniversary of black women in residence at the College. When asked about what changes she thinks still need to be made to better accommodate black female students, Laini replied that she thinks the greatest necessity is a platform for women of color. “When I meet with administration and other students on campus, it is very rare to see another black female at the table. If we aren’t given a seat at the table, we [don’t] have an opportunity to voice our concerns to leading actors who have so much power in improving our experience.”
One of the biggest issues she addressed was the College’s short attention span when it comes to issues of race relations. “The only time we talk about race relations and discrimination is in the case of events happening on campus or anniversaries.” Celebrating 50 years of women of color at the College seems almost painfully ironic given the atmosphere encouraged by the current federal administration. Events on campus would lead one to believe the only advocates we have are one another, and that little is done institutionally. “The administration [actually] does a lot of work in addressing these issues behind closed doors, but does little to communicate with students about their work,” Laini specified.
It is notable that next year marks the 105th anniversary of the revolutionary Women’s Suffrage March in Washington, D.C., which catalyzed the push for the 19th Amendment. The March’s organizer, Alice Paul, was the epitome of white feminism. She did something truly incredible by working toward the right to vote for women, but she was blatantly racist. Paul felt as though allowing black women to march alongside white women was wrong. On the issue, she wrote, “As far as I can see, we must have a white procession, or a negro procession, or no procession at all.”
In contrast, the first National Women’s March held in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, was spearheaded by the co-presidents of the Women’s March executive board, Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland, two women who have spent their entire working careers focusing on gender equality and professional intersectionality. The sentiments the March promoted came in direct reaction to the 2016 presidential election and the precedent it set for normalizing intolerance. In theory, the 2017 Women’s March was supposed to be a moment of unification transcending race, class, and sexual orientation. In practice, the March centered around the privileged white women who could afford to be there, and the celebrities with nothing to lose.
With issues such as sex trafficking and violence against women of color running rampant, black women as a result have become more bold and forceful in taking a stand for their autonomy. This is why black female artists like Cardi B, Rihanna, and Beyoncé are so important, using their fame to speak about their personal experiences while being explicit and honest in their expression. Their willingness to leap is so important, especially as their white counterparts refuse to use their “feminist” platforms to advocate for women of color and their narratives.
Equally important is their impact as personal role models. For Laini, inspiration came in the form of women such as Gabrielle Union, as well as peers and educational mentors like Kim Green, who worked for William and Mary’s Office of Community Engagement, and Eboni Brown, the 2016-2017 Student Body President. These women had a significant impact on Laini’s understanding of herself as a black woman in an elected position of power. “It is very difficult to grow in an environment like William & Mary without a support system, especially as an African American female with very few mentors who look like you on campus. I didn’t realize how much I needed other black females and others who are aware of my struggles as a black woman.”
Everything is cyclical. Alice Paul was not held accountable for her racism - she is still to this day hailed as a feminist icon but only explicitly had the interests of white women in mind. While not as outwardly racist, “feminists” such as Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham are still perpetuating themes that exclude women of color and are similarly not being held accountable. It is irresponsible to have such a powerful platform and remain silent on issues simply because they do not pertain to you.
However, there are ways for white women to advocate for women of color by making space for their narratives where there hasn’t been space before. As Laini explains, “If you want to talk about the problem, be open to learning about the experience of black females on campus first-hand, and [share your] platform to voice our concerns. Don’t speak for us.”
Written by Alijah Webb
Photography by Will Kelly
Edited by Emmel El-Fiky and Peter Makey
Originally Published in Rocket Magazine (FW 2017) -- read @ pg. 40