Reviewed by Candice Louisa Daquin
I would not want to debate Mikki Kendall. Because unlike other authors who write from their perspective, Kendall is aware of all the perspectives and can reduce them down and go back to her point effortlessly. This isn’t easy to do given the complexities of feminism as a canon. Typically, feminism is one of the most impenetrable subjects at higher levels because it seems the canon has been deliberately complicated to justify itself. Kendall doesn’t do that; she talks plainly and eloquently without having to hide behind metaphor or create new words to codify feminism. For that I appreciate her.
It was with trepidation I reviewed this book. The subject dear to my heart, but I knew I would struggle with anger and recriminations Kendall was bringing up. That of intersectionality and the duality of the feminist experience depending upon race. For me, this is of course, a personal stance not a universal one, growing up mixed-race I didn’t have Kendall’s experience because I have ‘white’ skin. I saw what she described, my friends felt it, but I myself was not subject to her lived-experience. Because of this I tend to feel we cannot talk about ‘women of color’ in one breath, and contrast them to ‘white women’ without considering those shades outside of that description, such as myself and others who fit outside the obvious.
If I put my own lived-experience aside and stand in the shoes of one of my cousins who ‘looks’ more like a person of color, I would have a different perspective again. I would appreciate in a differing way; the divide Kendall refers to with greater depth because I myself had been a focus of it. In contrast, I have seen racism/prejudice from both sides, and as my other friends of varied colors will attest, it may not be politically correct to say a person of color can be racist, but most people of color know it exists. This however is less important than the reality that racism impacts people of color the most and always has.
Just because someone of color can be racist or sexist doesn’t nullify much of what Kendall is saying. It simply points to the argument being wider than skin color. Or even, gender. It’s an argument that cannot be encapsulated and for that reason I think anyone who endeavors to do so, is either fool hardy or brave. Kendall writes a necessary experience and it can add to the wider picture but cannot, I believe, stand alone as ‘indisputable fact’ because so much of our experiences are mutable and shifting, so a dialogue must be ongoing and ‘facts’ are less important than direct experience which is hard to codify.
What is a fact is books about feminism need to continue to be written and as the canon has been primarily led by educated white women, to hear from other people with other experiences is not only necessary but essential. The other day I read a post from a young cis-gender Indian woman who decried the need for feminism at all. She said – feminism is dead, classism is the real struggle. To some degree she echoed my own perspective, which is, the class of a person has as much impact on how they are treated racially as the color of their skin.
That’s why Mikki Kendall’s book is different. She addresses this issue head on and talks not just of race or skin color or gender but of ‘hood’ experience versus non-hood experience, which directly brings the subject of income disparity/neighborhood inequality to the front. This matters as much as the color of skin or the gender you are born in, because it directly impacts your vantage point, your opportunities and how others perceive you. And whilst a black man walking down the street with a hoodie on, will continue to be a target, there are other more insidious forms of discrimination in the very set-up economically, socially and governmentally that impact and relate to inequality at large.
Hood Feminism – Notes From The Women That A Movement Forgot. Is it true that white women left black women (and women of color en mass) behind? If you watch Mrs America (the story of Phyllis Shaffley, Gloria Steiner and the early women’s movement of the sixties) you’d believe this to be true. Early on in this movement, black women were essentially more ‘filler’ than leader and their position in the deconstruction of patriarchy was passive because white women took the lead. Was this the ‘fault’ of any one, or simply the way things were then, when white women had more power economically/socially and so took it, and black women felt they did not have as much, and so left it to white women? Or was it more sinister? We may never fully know, but what we do know is black women felt underrepresented, that their causes diverged from white women’s and that is one of the key reasons the movement floundered.
What causes were divergent? Black women on the whole at the time (less so now) were less likely to support lesbianism and abortion as two examples. They wanted more healthcare and workers’ rights, and felt spending a lot of time on lesbian-rights or abortion was counter-productive and brought the intention of the movement down. White women had the advantage of a higher social income (via their family income) on the whole, and could devote more time to the ‘cause’ whilst black women were more oppressed and underpaid if they had jobs, and if they did not, more financially disadvantaged and unable to devote ‘free time’ that they did not possess.
Being firmly on the side of the right to choose, in terms of contraception and abortion, I can appreciate that the Baptist faith (which American black women historically have tended to belong to), would be a major reason abortion rights were an issue, as with homosexuality. But obviously in 2020 this is something we have reconsidered and I see many women of color able to permit the freedom to be homosexual or have an abortion without necessarily believing in that personally. That becomes the compromise. This is what was not able to be compromised in the sixties and became a sticking point. But it may not have been the fracture total, given that black women realized their voices were being drowned out in favor of white values that did not always consider how different their experiences were, far beyond those of abortion and lesbianism.
Has anything changed? I remember as a kid having a best friend whom I thought nothing different of aside wishing my hair were like hers. When we were adults, she confided in me that she was the only black girl in my class (pre-school) I hadn’t even been aware because I didn’t consider color, I was ‘color blind’ and whilst this is an ideal, it can also be an impediment. I myself was of color but take a photo and it doesn’t seem so. For my friend, she was acutely aware of being the only black girl in the class and felt also that her poverty also set her apart, so she was shy and introverted. I had been oblivious of this. You can argue that at five years old what would be expected of me? And yet, it begs a bigger question. Are we ever fully aware of the experience of another unless we share their ‘otherness?’ And to share it, we need to visually represent it, because that is how others determine it, right or wrong. I may have more African blood than my friend, but if I do not appear to have that, I will be deemed something else, and treated differently. It is the treatment disparity that is at the core of racism.
I recalled another friend telling me when he got on public transport at night, women (of all colors) would give him ‘dirty looks’ because they assumed he was going to mug them. I asked him if he thought this was due to his skin color. He said definitely, because his friends who were not black did not experience this. I wondered afterward, if he was hyper sensitive, or whether wearing the ‘gang’ style clothes he wore also played a part, and how it could be racism if both black and white women were scared of him, but I ultimately believed him because like a rape survivor, we need to believe the experiences people have, unless proven otherwise, to ensure we do not dismiss them or neglect their worth. Furthermore, his feeling this way could perpetuate the belief nothing changes, and black women could be adopting a white-centric perspective of the black man as predator, which is an ironic form of self-based-prejudice.
Just because I would not consider a black man boarding a bus at night to be more of a threat than a white man boarding a bus at night isn’t the point. My lack of white-guilt or prejudice isn’t the point here, it’s what the majority think and how that majority comes to speak for everyone. It’s about the bigger picture, the generalized picture. I suppose I have an issue with generalizing but one has to. Mikki Kendall does a lot of generalizing and subjective considering but she also goes in a full circle with her arguments, considering all perspectives and for that, I value her method of approaching this challenging and possibly, impossible subject.
So, what is the truth? Women who are economically disadvantaged suffer on several fronts. White women are more economically advantaged overall than women of color. They are more likely to attain a higher educational level and they are more likely to have help by way of family. It goes back to the argument of slavery. You may argue that slavery was so long ago, what is the purpose of considering inequality as a result of it after so long? But slavery caused a system to be in place of subjugation and inequality and that took literally decades to rectify, if ever it has been, and as such, when you see a disproportionate number of black families in poverty this is not because they didn’t finish school and were lazy, this is because of a history of oppression and disadvantage which means whilst white people inherit and copy their ancestors by going to university, black people have been less likely to succeed based on the history of their oppression.
Of course, we can equally argue that there are choices made and some are bad. That if you choose to be a gang-banger you only have yourself to blame, and it doesn’t justify the number of black fathers who leave the mothers of their children and create another issue, that of single parenting women who have even less money. But we can look further and see that even if there are choices, if one feels powerless, the choice one makes is damaged and this could explain why the lure of being ‘tough’ instead of going to school or being responsible, may seem a viable option to young black men who are aware of how they are perceived as a minority.
As a feminist I do not justify those young black men who abandon their pregnant girlfriends or sexually assault women or act violently, I think they are culpable as hell for this. But I also know we have to see this in a wider landscape of history and to not do so, is to assume we all start off with a level playing field. To typify any one group as solely responsible is never the answer, but so often, demonization occurs and destroys the belief those individuals have, that things can change.
That said, it is worthwhile mentioning many white families are economically disadvantaged and experience the same inequity so it is as much about economics as it is race or gender. We should also consider that Hispanics are not talked of with equal consideration of their situations and that it is not simply a ‘black issue’ but again, a wider issue of many people’s and exceptions, such as Asians who despite racism, seem to succeed in higher numbers than anyone.
Likewise, if a black woman can bring up her children unaided, go to college, get a good job and not take drugs, it proves there are other avenues and black men need to consider this in light of the excuses they may make in those situations. If a recent immigrant from China can get a good job and excel, why can’t a black man born in America? Is some of this a culturally adopted sense of hopelessness? A victimization going back to when there were no choices? We can’t say a culture is responsible for not pushing their kids to succeed, but we can beg the question, why do some cultures seem to do better than others? Do we inherit negative cultural totems and perpetuate them? Is this part of racism en mass?
I’m ‘allowed’ to say all this because I am mixed-race and even if I do not visually look it, I am, and so much like a black man can say to another black man the N word, I am able to express these myriad views without being automatically branded a racist. However, when you are not of a group, for example, a man talking about feminism, there ARE things you cannot assume or say, because you don’t own the right. Mikki Kendall makes this point valuably and probes into the multiple discrepancies of experience as a ‘hood woman’ which include; inequity when it comes to how you are perceived as a victim, a rape survivor, a single mom, a worker, a wife, a sexual object.
For example, when we discuss rape, the usual examples include a plethora of white women, and little is talked about in relation to the higher rates of rape in indigenous cultures such as the Native Americans. There is a ‘poster girl’ complex attached to this, where the media wants to find the little blonde-haired girl who is missing far more than the economically disadvantaged little black girl. This goes as far as the inequality between black prostitutes and white prostitutes and Kendall makes the point that if one is preferred over the other as the poster-girl then we all lose, but the black women loses the most.
So, when we talk about feminism as being inclusive, Kendall is saying, no it’s not, and no, black women are not adequately represented in feminism, and even more so, those black women from humble backgrounds. It’s all very well to point to those black women in the media who succeed and are rich and bleached out by the lights, but what of the dark skinned, afro haired black women who isn’t represented? Kendall points to this and says, how can we all be feminists together, if only one agenda is really pursued? And if the canon of feminism is so convoluted, how can an uneducated poor black woman be represented at all? I would take this further and say, what of any poor woman of any culture and any race?
Shouldn’t we be talking about education disparity, income gaps, opportunity disadvantages, healthcare differences and child mortality as much as say, lesbianism, or the #metoo movement? Absolutely. But as with anything ‘media generated’, the ‘trending’ things come to the forefront and the bricks and mortar that really matter are often neglected. I would argue this happens in all groups, not just feminism. We don’t need to read Mikki Kendall’s book to know there are such discrepancies between black and white women as far as healthcare and schooling go, but do we understand what lies behind that and how impenetrable it can become when there are so many other things going on at the same time? Who will fight for that? Who will even understand it?
Furthermore, when a woman is trying to survive, she doesn’t have the ‘grace’ period to go to health stores she cannot afford to buy from and are too far from where she lives, to feed her family healthy food, so she may go through the drive thru and then she’ll be told she’s one of the minorities who isn’t healthy and she’ll feel powerless and frustrated but what can she really do if Wholefoods is too expensive, and too far and thus, unattainable to her? Isn’t it the privilege of wealth and the expectations that go along with that really driving her experience and perpetuating that inequality that begins as early as the first bite of food she eats, and thus, whether she becomes obese or sick or healthy? How can you really fight something that is THAT systemic?
That is the crux of why Hood Feminism is a necessary read, because Kendall says, one perpetuates the next and so it goes on until we don’t even know why inequality is so deep, we just know we’re waist high in it. And white women cannot possibly understand on that complicated level unless they actually live it, which statistically they are not doing in the same numbers as black women, so invariably their agenda as feminists will be different. Kendall says we cannot ‘afford’ to believe helping white women achieve parity with white men, will somehow trickle down and help black women. We are too much in survival mode for that long-view and it feels too distant for us to really grasp it.
Are we talking then, of an institutionalized tokenism in the feminism movement, that turns black women off? Or is there hope? I myself feel there is hope. I speak to family and friends who see it is not as ‘black and white’ as it may seem, and that whilst things need to change, feminism is a movement for every woman (and man) and we should find ways to integrate rather than alienate. I believe this does happen and it does work but as long as cultural norms ignore the experiences of many of these women, we will lose numbers and the way race and gender impact black women IS different to the way they do white women and if we ignore that we do so at the peril of being the very thing we’re trying not to be as a movement and 1977 will repeat itself all over again.
Hood Feminism is a necessary book. It’s not the bible on inequality or feminism, it’s more of a take on current thoughts, to provoke thought and consider what we take for granted and what we are unaware of. The ‘myth of exceptionalism’ that Kendall refers to, in relation to poor people succeeding, needs to be reworded so it’s not as patronizing or ultimately colonialist in how it feels to those on the receiving end. White people cannot triumph black women but then get afraid when they are angry, or only permit well behaved black women to speak. All aspects of the black experience must be equally voiced and we must learn to alter our stereotypes of what constitutes a woman to include everyone. That means, stop lightening the skin of black women, straightening their hair and getting angry when they talk slang. Let them be who they are, embrace them, be truly cohesive instead of paying lip service and then doing what you intended to do all along.
When I worked at a rape crisis center, I admit I was the sole person who saw black women. I didn’t notice at first but later on it became apparent that since a black counselor left, I was being allotted the black women survivors. I was glad for it but there was something decidedly sinister and wrong about that unconscious choice made by our Hispanic receptionist. She felt I as a foreigner, whom she knew to be part African, would ‘handle’ those black women better than the other counselors who were Hispanic and White. As long as we do that, black women know it’s being done and it perpetuates the feeling that their experience is somehow less valid. Which it is not.
Likewise, instead of rolling our eyes when people talk about inequality of prison populations, why don’t we consider why the majority of prisoners (if you consider racial numbers), are of color and what can be done about that? How are we treating women of color differently and why isn’t feminism talking about that? With the coming election we should also consider how voting discrimination influences the power people of color en-mass feel they have, negatively and limits their voice to the point of their feeling there is no point in having a voice because it is not being heard. Reduce that argument down to black women in the feminism movement today and that is exactly what they have felt for a very long time.
You don’t have to agree with everything Mikki Kendall says, I didn’t, but you can appreciate that she’s trying to highlight something we spend a lot of time overlooking. An entire group of people who should be among the forerunners in the feminist movement, who feel disenfranchised, invisible and neglected. As long as that happens, none of us are going to be free and women will never be equal. As a feminist who doesn’t believe feminism should ever be passé, and is always relevant, I want to do what I can and help others do what they can, to include all my sisters. I think it takes effort from both sides though, to overcome all of our biases and errors in thinking and if we can channel our outrage into change, rather than recrimination and further division, I think we can achieve so much.
Hood Feminism is a valuable book, written extremely well by a passionate woman who speaks for marginalized societies. She may appear to be attacking the white savior in the feminism movement but really, she’s just saying, move over, we’re here too. I would add, let’s do this until there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ and we really are together, because then? We’ll be unstoppable.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall published by Penguin.