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Notes from the Portland Feminist Meetup: February Edition

March 27, 2013

The first Sunday of every month, a group of feminists meets in the In Other Words space to discuss current issues through a feminist lens. The topic for Sunday, February 3rd was Black History. IOW volunteer Susan was kind enough to take notes at the meeting.

Please note that this discussion is the result of an independent group, and the opinions expressed do not reflect those of In Other Words. If you’re interested in joining in on these talks, the Feminist Discussion Group meets the first Sunday of each month at In Other Words; the next meeting will be Sunday, April 7th. You can join the Facebook group for more information.

Black History

Perhaps the topic is clichéd for February, not to mention it would be appropriate for any time of year, but this month we’ll discuss black history.

Have centuries of slavery impacted the African-American psyche? What changes can we make so that this is no longer the case? The topic doesn’t have to be specifically this, but we’ll talk about black history.

Blogs and media about race in pop culture:

Maya AngelouSome Black Feminists in history:

There are a variety of ways that racism still manifests in everyday society. One of these is discrimination based on physical features like skin tone or hair type. Black women with lighter skin or shiny, straight hair are still viewed as being classier, more friendly, or more “socially acceptable” (meaning more palatable to white culture).

Ed. note: Apologies for the Chris Rock plug, I know he’s problematic. Regardless, Good Hair is an excellent documentary.

Sometimes racism isn’t about color but really about culture. A lot of people in this country are hostile toward black folks who live in a slum, who live in poverty, but are less hostile toward those who are middle class or wealthy and wear business suits. Granted, a lot of voters and politicians are hostile toward Barack Obama because he’s black, even though he didn’t grow up in a ghetto.

I remember my high school math teacher saying it was odd that tanning is so popular, when white people are so racist.

History of Black Oppression

Slavery didn’t really end discrimination and oppression. It did mean that white folks had to pay their former slaves, though at first they were paid very little and nobody did much about it.

Ed. note: In addition to poor wages and working conditions, white America tweaked the prison-industrial complex to compensate for the lack of free slave labor, a phenomenon that more or less persists to this day.

While black male suffrage was theoretically obtained in 1870 by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, (and, subsequently, black women with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920) there were many, many obstacles to actually getting black people in to voting booths. A great deal of overt racism and discriminatory practices were continued up through the modern civil rights movement.

vportmapPortland was overtly racist through the 1960s. It only integrated after WWII, after the town of Vanport City flooded. During relocation, the largely black population was moved to North Portland. If it weren’t for the flood, the city of Portland wouldn’t have been forced to let black people move in. They were barricaded in North Portland. Redlining was rampant; certain banks didn’t cater to blacks. The highways were deliberately built to fence in blacks. This remained true clear into the 1970s. Even today Portland still has difficulties with race, intersectionality, inclusion, and politics.

In Other Words is located on NE Killingsworth, the neighborhood that became black after Vanport flooded and its citizens evacuated. Gentrification is something the organization has tried to be aware of and fight head on; we try to be an inclusive space and foster community for all of Portland’s feminists. It’s great that the North Portland Library invited us to a Black History Month event on Sunday February 11th (and a couple of our volunteers attended). The library asked that one of our volunteers read something by a black author for five minutes during the open mic event.

Black Women and Feminism

Books Available at the In Other Words Library:

Also recommended: anything by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, or Alice Walker.

What are the differences between black and white feminism? It’d be great to have events at In Other Words about this.

  • Ed note: If you have an event about black feminism that you’d like to host at In Other Words, contact events@inotherwords.org.

Historically, feminism has seemed to have a white middle class perspective, particularly in the twentieth century; second wave feminism is notorious for its racism. Maybe that was because white middle class women were the ones who had the luxury and the time to address these issues—to do activism and to write things.

Still, there were black voices present in second wave feminism. Audre Lorde was a major second wave black feminist poet and essayist. This Bridge Called My Back, and other anthologies, all writings by women of color—came out in the 1980s—so it wasn’t completely white, though frequently voices of black women took a back seat.

Women's Lib

Black women do embrace feminism, but there has been some racism in the women’s movement. Employment, abortion, academia: these issues are quite different when you’re a poor black woman than when you’re a middle class white woman. Being a working-class woman can leave you too exhausted to act; you come home from working at a job all day to the “second shift”, caring for children and family at home.

In addition to time constraints and different priorities, reproductive rights are quite a different issue for poor black women. The United States has history of forced sterilization of women of color. The state hospitals were doing this, including in Salem, Oregon. Because of this, there were black male pastors organizing against having Planned Parenthood in this neighborhood, on MLK Blvd here in Portland. So abortion isn’t necessarily a unifying issue for all women.

According to Audre Lorde and bell hooks, there are a lot of differences in black women’s history and white women’s history; there’s a division between black and white in the feminist movement.

Identity politics play a large role in which aspects of oppression one chooses to take on. In In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker points out that for black women generally race comes first and feminism comes second, which is why black women are less likely to get involved in feminist activism.

There are a lot of divides in our society. Black and white is one of many. Black women who become successful can be so totally disconnected from where they grew up, such as Condoleezza Rice. Ignorant and insensitive people might look at her or at Oprah and say, “Since they made it big, then there’s nothing holding black women down now.” Similarly, someone might look at a white American woman and tell her, “Look at Hillary. You don’t have any excuse to claim that you’re still oppressed.”

The Toxic and Abusive Status Quo

As white Americans, we assume that if a country is full of brown people, then it must be backward. But it’s not so simple. We might be further along than Congolese women, but Rwanda now has a constitution that states about half the government has to be female, so it is. Think of that in terms of our “privileged” American vantage point—the world is literally passing us by, we’re distracted by our material things and entertainment and think we’re better than “them” because we have more stuff than they. Meanwhile, other countries have much better health care, free college education, and more female politicians, not to mention a government that doesn’t throw away 60% of the national budget on the military, or fill its prisons with black men.

Source: dollarvigilante.com

Image source: dollarvigilante.com

The disparity of incarceration rates is telling; it is much more common for black men to be jailed for nonviolent crimes, while white CEOs are able to get away with multi-million dollar scams and no punishment. Politicians and so many Americans are so disconnected from what happens to others; the lack of compassion and empathy is mind-blowing.

Politicians and upper and middle class fools accuse poor people of being lazy, never mind that the working poor work harder than your typical CEO. I remember working long hours juggling part time jobs and getting paid between $4.25 and $8 dollars an hour; I worked very hard at these jobs (distractions from writing and activism) and yet was awarded with bullying and low wages, unlike a CEO who likely doesn’t work as hard. We live in a toxic society that shames people for being poor; just because you’re poor—in some cases, just because you’re poor and black or just because you’re poor and ill—you are treated with scathing contempt by the system, whether it’s the government or the inefficient healthcare system or corporate culture.

Current Political Climate

Third Wave Feminism has made efforts to address issues facing all women, particularly the balance of work and childcare. There is increased attention paid to identity politics and inclusiveness.

There was a Jump in test scores for black kids when Obama became president. It gave these children so much more confidence to see a black president.

Conversely, we’re now seeing a resurgence of racism, the rise of Neo-nazism and right-wing Tea Party movement. There’s a message that classes of people who were disadvantaged in the past are becoming less disadvantaged, and some white middle class men feel disadvantaged. We need to change the mindset of the people who have the privileges.

We need to drastically change our society’s values.

I like the potential of education as revolution. No matter what your ethnic background or gender, generally children in this toxic patriarchal society are taught by age one that they don’t matter—that they have no right to have emotions or the needs that are behind those emotions. I attended a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) class, and the emphasis was on becoming aware of what your emotions are and what the needs are behind them. For instance, you might feel indignant because you are deprived of respect and acceptance. If this were taught in all schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade, we’d see a major change in our society.

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