Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Short Response to the Combahee River Collective's "A Black Feminist Statement"

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455 (Dr. West)
Response 3 “A Black Feminist Statement”
October 4th 2005

If things happen for a reason, then it was no coincidence that I moved to Illinois and became a student in Feminist Theory 455. If I am in this class to learn something I need to know, then I was "meant" to begin considering the experiences of non-white feminists in a new way. In the past, I thought that I was sensitive to racist intolerance, but I know better now that I have a lifetime of learning, empathizing and growing ahead of me. I identify as a lesbian feminist, but I need to be aware of identities and feminist experiences that are unlike my own. I hope to be committed to thinking outside of the box; it is important that I look beyond my own immediate oppressions. In Feminist Theory 455, we are working towards a broader understanding, not only of our own experiences, but of the unique experiences of people who are different from each of us. Even though the class is small, we have so much to learn from each other.

Just as it is important for us, as learners, to listen to each other’s stories, it is important that we approach feminist theory with open minds and hearts. As I read “A Black Feminist Statement,” I struggled to read and listen without feeling intimidated by my inability to relate to racist issues. As a white woman, I have not experienced racism directed against me, but it was still important for me to read the statement. Members of the Combahee River Collective, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, wrote “A Black Feminist Statement” in the 1970’s. The paper itself is short, but the ideas expressed in it are bold and clear. Four categories—the beginnings of Black feminism, the Black feminist’s political beliefs, the problems of organizing Black feminists, and the issues and practices of Black Feminists—were created to organize the paper and achieve the CRC’s desire to be sensitive to academic and nonacademic readers (312). As I read through each section, theories on interlocking oppressions resonated with me because they emphasized black women’s importance in the struggle against all oppressions. I admire the respect that the authors have for themselves and for their views of the world. They believe that they are “inherently valuable” and deserving of freedom (313), and that all humans deserve to be free.

Smith et al. wrote, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression” (315). Black women’s struggles and ideas are fundamental to the concept of freedom. The authors allow readers to question their understandings of freedom and their own desires for freedom. For me, reading this article has been a gift, helping me to reevaluate my own desire for peace in the world and the meaning of freedom. I cannot be truly free when there are others who suffer in the world. If a person is experiencing privileges at someone else’s expense, that person is not free. I have spoken of freedom before as if I knew what it was, but I didn’t know freedom. In high school, I thought freedom was graduating. I thought graduating and turning eighteen meant that I would be able to move away from my parents and be free to love who I wanted to love. It did mean that I was able to move away from my parents and love women, but those were steps toward freedom—not freedom itself. I know moments of pleasure, but those moments are only possible because I push away the troubles of the world. Denial and ignorance may feel like freedom, but humans haven’t experienced freedom. What is freedom if not universal and complete? No person has experienced the kind of freedom that Smith et al. refer to in their statement. As long as black women aren’t free, freedom is only a word and not a reality.

Black women’s definitions of and struggles for freedom are important for the well-being of all people in the world. I have never experienced racism, so I am not capable of the same achievements black women are capable of in this world. My personal struggles are still important, but I need to understand the relationship (commonalities and differences) that my struggles have with Black women’s struggles. For example, I know what isolation feels like as a white lesbian, but I don’t know what isolation would feel like as a black woman or a black lesbian. I know what it feels like for my psyche to be devalued because I am a woman who loves another woman, but my psyche is not devalued because I am a white woman who loves a woman. I don’t know what it feels like to have my psyche devalued because I am a white woman. I have been devalued under biological arguments against the weaker sex, but I have not faced racism or classism.

Even though I share in many of the beliefs black feminists have about the oppressive structures in capitalist economies, I do not understand how deeply they feel these effects because I am an outsider to racism and classism. I will always be an outsider to black women’s struggles, no matter how much I care about their issues or empathize with their struggles. I realize that my relationship with interlocking oppressions will always be different from how Black women experience interlocking oppressions, but I am committed to acknowledging my privileged position.

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