Black female intellectuals have laid out a vital analytical foundation for a distinctive standpoint on self, community, and society and, in doing so, created a Black women’s intellectual tradition (Collins, 1991, p. 5) These ideas are not widespread because mainstream feminist thought has suppressed black feminist thought (Collins, 1991).
In mainstream feminism, black female voices have been silenced to privilege white voices. This began in the suffrage movement where white leaders ignored racial oppression and black women. Black women were more vocal during the second wave of feminism but still, little progress was made towards more diverse theories or representation within feminism (Harris, 1990). Due to a mainstream feminist attempt to silence black feminism, issues affecting black women continued to flourish and worsen. Images depicting ideological justifications for oppression, and black people’s relation to gender/sex hierarchies will be examined in the subsequent paragraphs.
Race, class and gender oppression could not continue without powerful ideological justifications for their existence (Collins, 1991, p. 67). For Collins, these ideological justifications manifest themselves in the form of controlling images designed to make racism, sexism, and poverty appear to be natural/inevitable parts of everyday life (Collins, 1991, p. 68). These images stem from slavery and the notion of true womanhood. ‘True’ women possessed four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Elite white women and those of the emerging middle class were encouraged to aspire to these virtues (Carby, 1987, p. 25). In direct opposition to ‘true womanhood’, four archetypes of black womanhood emerged. The Mammy, an asexual domestic maid, the Matriarch, the dominating bad mother, the Welfare Mum, a lazy bad mother reluctant to find work, and the Jezebel, a sexually aggressive woman (Collins, 1991).
These controlling images are still prevalent today, a daytime television show called Maury frequently airs shows carrying out paternity tests for black women acting as a daily proliferator of the Jezebel image. In music, Rihanna and Beyoncé reassert the Jezebel image by actively portraying themselves as sexual black women to further their careers. Yet, Collins’ controlling image theory does not account for the rise in positive black female representation such as Oprah, the first black billionaire, Serena Williams, the highest paid female athlete of all time, and Michelle Obama, the first black wife of the president of the United States.
African women inhabit a sex/gender hierarchy in which inequalities of race and social class have been sexualised, and this is increasingly ignored by white feminists (Collins, 1991, p. 165). The paradigm experience of rape for black women has historically involved the white employer in the kitchen or bedroom as much as the strange black man in the bushes. During slavery, the sexual abuse of black women by white men was commonplace. Ever after the civil war, rape laws were seldom used to protect black women against either white or black men (Harris, 1990, p. 598-599).
Two controlling images which emerged during slavery are 1) the prostitute, fuelled by the Jezebel image and 2) the rapist, a controlling image created to oppress black men. Two forms of gendered sexual oppression emerged to reinforce white domination. The rape of black slaves, justified by the fallacy that black women are sexually promiscuous and, the lynching of black men, justified by the belief that they had raped, or been inappropriate with a white woman (Collins, 1991).
Rape and Racial violence is still an issue in the UK. According to the 2011 census, 14% of the UK population identify themselves as an ethnic minority (Office for National Statistics, 2015). Rape Crisis, an organisation operating in England and Wales to eliminate sexual violence found. In 2014-15, where ethnicity was known, 27% of Rape Crisis service users were Black or Minority Ethnic, an increase of 23% from 2015 (Rape Crisis, 2016). It can be assumed most of these women experienced sexual violence, and that sexual violence towards minority women within England and Wales is disproportionately high.
The Institute of Race Relations (2016) found that racial violence is largely underreported. In 2013/14, there were 47,571 ‘racists incidents’ recorded by the police in England and Wales. In the last twenty-four years, at least 509 people from British Minority Ethnic groups, refugee, and migrant communities have died in suspicious circumstances in which the police, prison authorities or immigration detention officers have been impacted (Institute of Race Relations, 2015, p. 2). Prisons and detention centers are supposed to be some of the safest places in the UK, with ongoing surveillance at all times. But the UK’s race issue has permeated the walls. To say there isn’t an issue would be to ignore the figures. In the final part of this series. Uma Narayan’s contribution to global feminism will be examined.
By Shaneka Knight
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Carby, V. H. (1987). Reconstructing Womanhood: The emergence of the Afro-American woman novelist. New York: Oxford.
Collins, P. C. (1991). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. London: Routledge.
Harris, P. A. (1990). Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory, Stanford Legal Review, 42,(3). 581-616. Retrieved from https://goo.gl/LMLkY2
Institute of Race Relations. (2016). Racial Violence Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.irr.org.uk/research/statistics/racial-violence/
Office for National Statistic. (2015). 2011 Census General Report for England and Wales. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/Shaneka/Downloads/2011censusgeneralreportforenglandandwalesfullreport_tcm77-384987.pdf
Rape Crisis.(2016). Statistics. Retrieved from http://rapecrisis.org.uk/statistics.php