If you're someone who claims the mantel of feminism, who believes in the innate equality of all genders, who thinks that solidarity among communities of women is a core component of the world you want to live in, I strongly encourage you to read Mikki Kendall's debut essay collection, “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot.” (Also, if you're not one of those someones, I really think you should read “Hood Feminism.”)
As the subtitle makes clear, Kendall's central thesis is that mainstream feminism in the United States has been anything but inclusive, despite being "a movement that draws much of its strength from the claim that it represents over half of the world's population." In prose that is clean, crisp, and cutting, Kendall reveals how feminism has both failed to take into account populations too often excluded from the banner of feminism and failed to consider the breadth of issues affecting the daily lives of millions of women.
Many of the book's essays focus on these overlooked issues, with chapters examining how gun violence, hunger, poverty, education, housing, reproductive justice, and more are all feminist issues. Others, such as "Black Girls Don't Have Eating Disorders" and "The Hood Doesn't Hate Smart People," challenge harmful myths that, in the case of the former, can lead to young women not getting the help and support they need and, in the latter, perpetuate race- and class-based stereotypes. Regardless of the topic, each chapter is designed to "focus largely on the experiences of the marginalized, and address the issues faced by most women, instead of the issues that only concern a few — as has been the common practice of feminists to date — because tackling those larger issues is key to equality for all women."
Securing that equality, Kendall argues, requires that women accept some inconvenient truths, specifically "the distinct likelihood that some women are oppressing others.... [W]hite women can oppress women of color, straight women can oppress lesbian women, cis women can oppress trans women, and so on." If feminism is to truly represent all women, it must resist the "tendency to assume that all women are experiencing the same struggles [which] has led us to a place where reproductive health imagery centers on cisgender able-bodied women to the exclusion of those who are trans, intersex, or otherwise inhabiting bodies that don't fit the narrow idea that genitalia dictates gender."
Those already familiar with Kendall as a leader in Black feminist thought won't be surprised that “Hood Feminism” is grounded in intersectionality, a term coined by Prof. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to reflect how race and gender combine to impact Black women in the criminal justice system. The term continues to be used to express how our various multiple identities necessarily result in different experiences and priorities. Kendall posits that "an intersectional approach to feminism is key to improving relationships between communities of women, so that some measure of true solidarity can happen."
“Hood Feminism” is replete with examples of when such solidarity has been lacking. Kendall recalls that when "videos from multiple cities emerged of young Black girls being brutally body slammed by a school officer, mainstream feminist groups barely reacted. Instead, the work of advocating for her rights and the rights of others like her fell solely to racial justice organizations." She lifts up the hypocrisy of a feminism that claims to be opposed to violence against women and yet accepts "the hypersexualization of women of color under the guise of empowerment" that makes it possible for white women to "think 'sexy Pocahontas' is an empowering look instead of a lingering fetishization of the rape of a child."
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Throughout, Kendall thoughtfully and deliberately takes mainstream feminism to task for failing to take on the fight of Black maternal mortality, for an overdependence on carceral solutions, for not "considering who is being put at risk by the ways that racist tropes are bolstered in feminist circles," especially when considering that "white men are the most likely of all groups of men to commit sexual assault."
If “Hood Feminism” is a searing indictment of mainstream feminism, it is also an invitation. For every case in which Kendall highlights problematic practices, she offers guidance for how we can all do better. In recognizing hunger as a feminist issue, she encourages us to "stop acting like food insecurity is a sin or a shame for an individual and treat it rightfully as an indictment of our society." She urges people to reexamine the language they use in the political sphere, noting that "when we frame the working class as only being white people in rural areas, when we talk about the economic anxieties of that group as justification for their votes in 2016 and 2017, we ignore the very real harm done not only to inner-city communities of color, but to all communities of color here and abroad."
She focuses again and again on the need to expand the range of what is considered a feminist issue. For example, women are disproportionately affected by housing instability, so "feminism can't afford to leave any woman behind — not cis, trans, disabled, sex workers, you name it — and their housing has to be treated as a priority by every organization that advocates for the rights of women."
Even as she acknowledges that the path will be difficult, Kendall lays out in “Hood Feminism” a way to reach a more encompassing, intersectional feminism. Kendall reminds us that "true feminist solidarity across racial lines means being willing to protect each other, speaking up when the missing women are not from your community, and calling out ways that predatory violence can span multiple communities."
That will require serious work, but it is the work that any of us who call ourselves feminists must commit to. We must recognize, as Kendall does when she quotes the poet Gwendolyn Brooks: "We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond."
Ericka Taylor is the organizing director for DC Working Families and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.
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