From the moment First Lady Michelle Obama stepped into the national spotlight, there have been articles decrying her “un-feminist” choices. One of the most recent, “Leaning Out,” has already been excoriated by Melissa Harris-Perry. Yet, another piece much like it is already running in TIME. In these articles—which are commonly about women who are Black, affluent, and happy—there’s an assumption that being a good feminist involves making a specific set of pre-approved choices that may or may not be relevant to the individual making them. The response to Michelle Obama’s decision to be “mom-in-chief” seems to imply that she should be willing to sacrifice her role as an actively involved parent of two young daughters in favor of following an agenda that appeals to other people. Yet issues that affect children, like food and education, are important to many feminists. What these criticisms fail to acknowledge is that for women who are not single and childless/childfree, feminist choices often include a focus on their families and communities. This is particularly true of Black feminists.
Black women in America have to contend with a unique set of stereotypes, particularly around motherhood. Whether it is “Mammy” or the “welfare queen” being projected onto us, Black women are fighting for the right to parent their own children. Neither trope is accurate, but they are popular, and they do inform the way Black motherhood is perceived. Yes, the “welfare queen” trope tends to be the province of conservatives. It’s a popular narrative that depicts poor Black women as greedy mothers with lots of children who are not loved or truly wanted. But it’s only one side of a coin that dehumanizes Black mothers. The other side can be found in progressive rhetoric that demands Black women do what other people think is best.
One of the reasons pieces like “Leaning Out” are so offensive is that they tend to reflect the idea that Black women owe their care and concern to everyone but their family. Is this intentional? Probably not. But the intent has no bearing on the impact. Our bodies were property, our labor was not our own, and to have so-called allies demand we serve them and not ourselves will always be abhorrent. Mammy tropes center the idea of Black women working for others while their children are either nonexistent or completely absent. Malia and Sasha Obama are living life in a fishbowl, and what could be more feminist than making sure that they can grow up to be strong, successful Black women?
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Feminism is supposed to be about equality and women being able to make their own choices. Yet, when famous Black women make choices that are best for their lives, there’s never any shortage of concern-trolling from people who don’t have to live with those choices. We talk a lot about patriarchy and paternalism, but we rarely speak of the way many feminists feel entitled to tell Black women what they should be doing. The maternalistic tone taken by many white feminists and even other feminists of color toward Black women is rarely seen as problematic. When we talk about solidarity inside the feminist movement, we have to talk about differences not just in oppression, but also in goals.
For Black women, our struggle is not necessarily about access to the workplace; Black women have always had to work in America. Our struggle is to be recognized as human beings. To have our choices be treated with the same respect offered to anyone else. Whether we’re talking about Michelle Obama, Beyonce, or just the average woman on the street, the reality is that some feminists have children, and their decisions aren’t any less feminist because they are done in the best interests of those children. In fact, as feminism has never mastered being all things to all people, the reality is that no one is in a position to decide for another woman what kind of work she should do, how she should engage with her family, or even which of her choices represent the “right” kind of feminism.
As terms like womanism, intersectionality, and women of color enter the mainstream, it is important to remember that they do not exist in a vacuum. They were created by Black women to address the ways in which we feel excluded from mainstream feminism. Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Loretta Ross, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks are more than names to pluck convenient quotes from when it suits you. They are Black feminists, and they are part of a long tradition that can be traced back to Ida B. Wells-Barnett and beyond. So when your idea of feminism in 2013 harkens back to the racist, sexist rhetoric thrown at Wells-Barnett by Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard, then what kind of movement are you trying to build? If your definition of feminism is rooted in Mammy myths, what can be built with you? Are you fighting for equality for all, or your right to be equal in oppressing Black women?
These aren’t questions with simple answers. It’s easy to get so invested in this idea of sisterhood and solidarity that you ignore the harm done by unexamined anti-Black biases. Black feminism has always gone beyond the boundaries of narratives that center on the self and into discussions of what should be done so that not only are Black women safe from harm, so are our children and spouses—even the underpinnings of what allows us to survive in a hostile environment. Michelle Obama is indeed the First Lady, but she is also a Black woman born and raised on the south side of Chicago. The Obama girls aren’t likely to wind up exposed to gang violence, but as someone who was not as fortunate as her own daughters, Michelle is well aware that they need special protections, that with a father who is both revered and loathed they have to pull together as a family simply to survive the history they have made.
As we speak of what harms feminism, of what nightmares invade the feminist subconscious, we must remember that we are not all fighting the same forms of sexism. We are not all reaching for a place where we can escape a gender-based pedestal. We are not all seen to have virtue, much less be in need of protection. For some of us, the goals we set center on survival; they include community problems that affect us because of race, not just gender. Living at the intersection of racism and misogyny means more than dueling with identity politics—it also means setting examples for our children and our communities that may mean nothing to outsiders, but everything to those of us who are also living at that intersection.