How Hazel Carby Called Out White Feminists’ Racist Sisterhood in the ’80s

A scathing indictment of white feminists’ perpetuation of racism proves that contributions to Black feminism are still relevant 40 years later

A group of women, under a ‘Women’s Liberation’ banner, march in support of the Black Panther Party, New Haven, Conn., November 1969. David Fenton — Getty Images

In the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Black lives didn’t exist. When they did, they were only used as props and disposable objects to further the ideologies of “universal” (read: white) feminism. Hazel V. Carby, scholar and pioneer of Black feminism, reflects this idea in an article appropriately entitled “White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood”, in which she calls for white feminists to consider race in their theorizing of women’s oppression in a patriarchal society. As Carby draws attention to the lack of inclusion of Black and Asian women in contemporary feminist theory, she questions the sisterhood white feminists claim to promote.

Carby reviews history through a Black feminist lens and exposes a crucial fact: White feminists benefit from racism and the oppression of Black women. Of course, white feminist theory ignored that part, so Carby and other Black feminists put pen to paper to address the dismissal of Black women’s narratives. This work was important because this oversight normalized racism even among feminists.

By pointing to the triple oppression of gender, class, and race, Carby invokes an anti-colonialist approach to feminism. This leads her to criticize the contemporary use of the term patriarchy, a word used as a blanket statement for a society that favors men over women. This oversimplification forgets that Black men don’t benefit from the patriarchal system the way white men do because of colonialism. A more complex definition of patriarchy that accounts for Black narratives allows Black feminists to burst open the gates that kept them out of the feminist movement. For example, straight Black women were often heads of households because they couldn’t financially rely solely on their Black husbands because of how the economic system structured Black male unemployment.

Carby doesn’t outright deny that our patriarchal society and its ideals of family and female sexuality aren’t a source of oppression for Black women, but she asks for a bit of nuance. As Judith Van Allen lays out in her study of Igbo society, Black families and Black women networks have always been a hub for resistance against oppression. But these community-oriented ideas of living have often been thwarted by patriarchal, Euro-American-centric ideas of how the world should be. The “First World”, defined by their abundance of social, economic, and technological capital, often framed the “Third World” as barbaric and inferior because those countries didn’t live under capitalism. Through this lens, the “First World” generalized Asian, African, and Latin-American territories as backward and underdeveloped, and through colonialism, they enforced their “progressive” ideals of family and sexuality — including racism and sexism — onto them. Eventually, revisionist historians have found that they erased entire cultures that were more progressive and inclusive than their colonizers’.

Carby then calls for the women of the Women’s Liberation Movement to actively listen to Black feminists and organizations like the Organization of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) to transform feminism into a movement that addresses not only white women but also Black and Asian women whose struggles have several layers. Instead of making sweeping generalizations such as First World/Third World or developed/underdeveloped, she stresses the importance of specificity. By deconstructing the layers that participate in the discrimination of women of color, she encourages white feminists to realize that they’re part of the problem, too.

Carby’s article still feels relevant to this day. The term intersectionality didn’t exist back in 1982, but Black feminists of Carby’s time clearly knew that marginalization didn’t only stop at gender and class. Now, many feminist groups like Marxist feminists still fail to account for race and gender in their study of oppression in society, which sometimes turns them into racist TERFs. But back in 1851, Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and women’s rights activist, became famous thanks to her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in which she addresses the fact that race played a significant role in the marginalization of Black women. Over a century later, recognizing that race is prevalent in the determination of both privilege and marginalization is still an outlandish idea for people who believe that we line in a post-racial society, and that’s why Carby’s article is grimly relevant today.

Colonialism is also at the forefront of Carby’s article, which adds to its relevancy now. She writes that Asian women also face discrimination exclusively because of their race, which manifests from racist kids picking on them at school to the fetishization of their bodies. In colonial situations, Asian women would be forced to sexually service white male invaders, which jump-started the rise of prostitution and sex trafficking in Southeast Asian countries. Today, there is a lot of money that goes into sex tourism — an industry that is tied to sex trafficking of underage girls — and this plague means that girls who hit puberty simply expect to be victims of sexual harassment at one point or another. Though Carby didn’t spend as much time writing about the struggles of Asian women as she did the struggles of Black women — most probably because Asian women were already writing about them — we can tell that white feminism doesn’t only leave Black women out of their theory, it dismisses all women of color.

Carby also points to the lack of control Black women can have over their own bodies, and she gives the painful example of forced sterilizations. This practice was borne out of a social movement called eugenics, a movement and pseudoscience that aims to improve the genetic composition of the human race through selective breeding. In the 20th century, white elites in the U.S. would use itas an excuse to pass harsh immigration laws and forced sterilization so that the “unfit” such as Black, Asian, Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, and mentally ill people wouldn’t procreate on American land. Forced sterilization allegedly stopped in all 50 states in 1981 (!), but even in the past decade, there have been several cases of forced sterilization on women inmates who are disproportionately Black. Such cases speak to the timelessness of Carby’s article and show that the legacy of colonialism always manages to morph into the most inhumane forms of oppression.

In the tradition of making the personal political, I would like to finish this review with this: As a Black person, whenever I’ve written or talked about race or intersectional feminism, people have called me biased, subjective, or too emotional. What they imply is that the so-called objective point of view of an outsider is always the best one. It always comes from a white person, and after reading Carby’s article, especially the part that depicts how the “First World” framed the “Third World”, I can safely come to this conclusion: Objectivity is a myth that erases the fraught history of colonialism from whiteness, which allows some white people to think they are better equipped to talk about other people’s cultures.

When Carby added her contribution to the already growing body of Black feminist criticism of white feminist theory and decided to elevate Black herstory, she transgressively put pen to paper and became part of a social justice project that aims to elevate Black women from the status of invisibility to the status of Black, proud, and important. 40 years later, this work is still needed.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

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