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Septembre Anderson is a freelance writer in Toronto.
Septembre Anderson is a freelance writer in Toronto.

work in progress

Today’s feminist problem? Black women are still invisible Add to ...

This commentary is part of The Globe’s series, Work In Progress: The global struggle for gender parity. We asked Canadian writers to answer the question: Where does feminism go from here?

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Septembre Anderson is a freelance writer and cultural critic in Toronto.

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A few weeks ago, I got a press release about the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in Canada. The e-mail goes on about women’s suffrage and the commemoration of that fight for a few hundred words and then begins to catalogue when women got the right to vote throughout the country – women in Manitoba in 1916, those in Newfoundland in 1925 and so on and so on – and then, in brackets, near the end, “Unfortunately, the right to vote was withheld from indigenous women, as well as those of Asian and African descent, for years longer.”

Nowhere in the press release was there any mention of how anti-black many suffragettes were; how much of these women’s activism was about gaining the vote for white women only; and how championing eugenics for racialized women was also part of their politics. Heck, there wasn’t even a mention of when indigenous, Asian and African women got the vote in Canada.

And this is the problem with feminism as it exists today. Black women and other women of colour are continuously rendered invisible beneath the “women” banner. The default definition for women is white women – those with the most systemic power – and the issues of the most privileged of us take precedence over the trials and tribulations of the least privileged of us.

We saw this clearly during the Academy Awards. While white women used the hashtag #AskHerMore to bring awareness to and combat sexist reporting on the red carpet, women of colour were bringing attention to #OscarsSoWhite, created by movie critic April Reign, to protest the lack of racial diversity in Oscar nominees.

We saw this with the celebration of Justin Trudeau’s recent cabinet – that boasted gender parity “because it’s 2015” but not racial parity. We see this with continuing discussions about the gender pay gap – but there’s a greater disparity between race than gender.

While white women experience the repercussions of sexism, racism isn’t one of the barriers that they have to come up against. It’s actually one that benefits them. The unique issues that black women have to deal with are far too often overshadowed by the issues that white women deal with, leaving those of us with less institutional power to wait and hope for a trickle-down equity that history has shown us will never come.

Black women exist at the intersection of blackness and womanhood and, therefore, our feminism isn’t a single issue struggle. Our battle for equity and inclusion is with both misogyny and systemic anti-blackness, from within and without feminist circles. Feminism, as it is popularly practised, whitewashes the experience of racialized women and does not acknowledge the intersectionalities within womanhood. It does not acknowledge the distinctive ways different women experience sexism.

Through this myopic definition of womanhood, mainstream feminism is embroiled in elevating the women closest to the top rather than those struggling and suffering on the margins.

In Canada, black women and other women of colour find themselves missing not only from movements for gender diversity, but also from seats of power. Bank boards, newsrooms, hospital boards and executive positions are all spaces where white women see themselves better represented.

And this is our next big frontier. Blasting the concrete ceiling that keeps us out of positions of power in various industries, as well as addressing the way misogynoir – a word coined by queer, black feminist scholar Moya Bailey, and meaning the combination of anti-blackness and misogyny – manifests in various systems. Income inequality, overrepresentation of black youth in foster care and group homes, high dropout and push-out rates in secondary schools, low enrolment in postsecondary institutions and inadequate access to health care are just some of the issues black women in Canada are facing.

But this is a battle that black women cannot fight alone. We did not create the problem and so we need those in positions of power to do their part to eradicate systemic misogynoir, and to step back so others can step up. We need white people to listen, learn, create and enact action plans to smash systemic misogynoir. Black women have done their part by stubbornly, bravely sharing their stories. It’s time for everyone else to step up.

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