I am not always interested in “empowerment.” Womanism is not solely about that. In fact, survival and wholeness of entire people at times is diametrically opposed to “empowerment” when “empowerment” doesn’t allow nuance in the margins as the political space that Black women occupy. What is “empowerment” to a Black woman characterized as so “strong" that I am deemed impenetrable by pain/non-human, deemed only capable of “anger" as not just my only emotion but as my “personality” and “identity?” What is “empowerment” in the context of capitalism when “powerful womanhood” is continually shaped as mimicking cishet White men with capitalistic power who can engage in violence with impunity, and then a cishet White woman gets to play out this fantasy? White womanhood does not make me feel empowered. White women, including many mainstream feminists do not even affirm my humanity as real beyond what pleasure it can provide them to attack it, what consumption Black women’s bodies, epistemology, intellectual and cultural production can offer, and how their right to harm (and then of course retreat to White Tears™, as if not accepting their violence means that I “harmed” them) outweighs my right to self-defense, where I am deemed “toxic" for not accepting White violence.
"Empowerment" at worst is becoming invested in notions of structural power via imperialist White supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy; at best it implies ascending to a more self-possessed interpretation of humanity where there is choice and agency. But what is "empowerment" to someone not considered human, when there is no self-possessed interpretation of humanity to ascend to when humanity itself is denied and Whiteness has been constructed upon that denial? When my very identity (and not as I define it in terms of social location but as oppression defines it) is perceived as the opposite of humanity, as the void of the existence of humanity, where others’ humanity rests on the notion that mine—as a Black person and as a Black woman specifically, at times—must be non-existent for theirs to exist?
Maybe instead of “empowerment,” at times I am interested in vulnerability without domination. (I don’t mean that I embrace violent conceptions of vulnerability in the cishet male gaze where “submitting” to patriarchal domination and abuse is “proof” of “femininity.”) Maybe I am interested in recognition (as a whole nuanced being, not stereotypes, archetypes and controlling images) and representation (i.e. media of Black women that are dynamic) without the illusion that I seek “White approval.” Maybe I am interested in the experience of joy and humor that doesn’t exist at the expense of the humanity that I am structurally and violently denied. Maybe I embrace contradiction where I know that my life is valuable (and this knowledge is diametrically opposed to the devaluing and dehumanization that Black women experience via oppression) even when I don’t want to live anymore at times and where my self-esteem about my intelligence, appearance and personality are high but I regularly think of suicide because of oppression and private, public and online sphere abuse. Maybe I express my personal agency by knowing when I don’t have any—knowing at any moment anyone from a street harassing man to a extrajudicial executor to the State can end my life—but choose to continue to live, where at times my every breath feels like fighting back.
I’ve been approached by all types of confused and condescending people who angrily question why Gradient Lair contains my personal (despite this being a personal, one-person blog) likes and dislikes (and this has included them being bigoted about my sexuality, telling me who I can/can’t find attractive, in addition to the usual oppression of racism, sexism, misogyny, misogynoir, classism, attacks because I am not a theist etc.) if they don’t immediately reference “empowerment” (as if this is not my space and my life), why are my selfies here, and why are there images/media of Black women who are happy, peaceful, beautiful, dark, thick, smart and creative here. Why not just oppression? Don’t I care about “empowerment?” Well, assuming I don’t immediately block these people who think they have a right to a say over any of my space and life, my response is, why is proof of “empowerment” shaped by how much of Black women’s pain that they can consume? Why does “empowerment” exist juxtaposed to pleasure or joy in so many people’s minds, especially when they consider “empowerment” for Black women? Why are they unable to see how they’re using the master’s tools (the racist, misogynoiristic, ableist Strong Black Woman archetype; mammy/Sapphire controlling images) to try to dismantle the master’s house (shape what they think empowered Black women should look like)?
And what do I care about “empowerment” if expressions of my own humanity and other Black women’s humanity—living, laughing and loving despite oppression—cannot be included? I’ve done a little test the entire time I’ve blogged here, a little over 2 years now, where if I concurrently share 3 or more positive posts about Black women, I experience White subscriber decrease (nevermind that the space is for Black women, so I have zero interest in “maintaining” White subscribers though ones who aren’t abusers or plagiarists I don’t actively oppose them reading here). Conversely, the reaction to the critical discourse on oppression is that I “never" share positive posts, though to me, rejecting bigotry and deconstructing oppression while affirming Black women’s humanity is positive. Many people, especially people who aren’t Black women (but occasionally some who are) come here to consume pain and oppression only. Not to deconstruct it. Not to understand it. Not empathize with me or Black women in general. Not to stand against it. Not noticing anything else about my life or other Black women’s lives.
While womanism (the term, scholarship and praxes originate with Alice Walker, though what it describes speaks to a long legacy of Black women’s organic and formal praxes for freedom from intersecting oppressions, embracing justice and wholeness) does include the acknowledgement of interlocking oppressions (H/T Combahee River Collective), the need for individual empowerment and complex praxes towards the liberation of all (and not solely from sexism/misogynoir/transmisogynoir and gender-related oppressions but intersecting ones [H/T Kimberlé Crenshaw]), this is not the whole picture of womanism. There’s room for healing through art, music and dance; self-care and community care. Through support. Through laughter. Through joy. Through reclamations and new definitions. Through theist, spiritual or secular approaches to wholeness. Through the many facets of cultural production attributable to Black women.
And not everything I like (though I still engage with a critical eye) or say is about clarifying it with a "is this womanist?" question that doesn’t always need to be asked. Ridiculous framing such as "can I watch The Avengers and like Tom Hiddleston and be womanist?," "are my media consumption habits alone proof of womanist praxis?" (hint: NOPE), "does a show have to be feminist before I can watch it?" (another hint: NOPE AGAIN), "are Black women who watch reality TV no longer womanist?" Bullshit questions framed like these are the type of facile interrogatories that are viewed as feminist scholarship in mainstream feminism (as they regularly frame feminism as a checklist of the “right” personal consumptive choices in a capitalistic system) where they regularly put not just the feminism but the very humanity of Black women on trial, by default. A common hobby in mainstream feminism is to review Beyoncé’s weekly actions and determine if each one is “feminist” or not (with an as ahistorical and non-intersectional if not explicitly anti-Black and misogynoiristic lens as possible) and if deemed not, subversively question or downright deny her actual humanity. These facile interrogatories eclipse the nuanced experiences of Black women and honestly insult my intelligence. They’re beneath the breadth of knowledge that Black women from different walks of life and perspectives contribute to womanist tradition. And this isn’t to engage in “no true Scotsman,” but to suggest that the hobby of people questioning my womanism through a White supremacist lens is not activism. People immediately demand critical analysis and defense every time a Black woman singer releases a song. Maybe…I wanna listen to a song on the release day in peace. Maybe that. And though I do produce womanist scholarship on music, sometimes I fucking might want to just listen to music.
An incorrect perception of womanism is perceiving it as solely about empowerment and not about the fight for and the recognition of complex Black womanhood and humanity in the face of anti-Blackness, misogynoir and other oppressions that Black women face. This perception doesn’t really describe the lives and praxes of so many Black women. I feel the most powerful when I feel the most self-acceptably complex and this means the space to thrive and be without misogynoiristic demands for performance of or desire for some rigid myth of what Black women’s “empowerment” looks like (which honestly seems to be about performing a denial of any pleasure for an audience who wants to consume Black women’s pain, and then mimicking cisheteropatriarchal norms of dominance), especially when that myth is framed the way White supremacy frames mainstream feminism. My empowerment looks like my humanity, and my humanity is my focus, with all of its history, nuance, complexity. I am empowered by the fact that in the face of everything that seeks to deny my humanity, I affirm it.
Related Posts: The Impact Of White Privilege On Womanism, The Idea of Feminism Isn’t The Problem; The Current Manifestation Of “Mainstream Feminism” Is