When “-isms” Collide

Race Feminism Intersectionality

I’ve been noticing lately how few of the black women I know ever bring up sexism.  Have we experienced it?  Probably.  But how were we to tell which of our anchors was at play when we were passed over, underestimated, underutilized and unfairly treated? 

The Presidential Primary Season, aka The Silly Season, has taken off in ways no one could have predicted.  One thing is clear, though.  This is the “-ism” Election.

Sexism, racism, nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, corporatism, cronyism, narcissism, socialism, ideologism, hyperbolism, prevaricationism.  Yes, some of these are new words, made up by me, but I think you will get the meaning.

The “ism” I left out of the list above is the one I feel the need to think out loud about because, frankly, it has been causing me some angst recently.  Feminism.

the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.
the women’s movement, the feminist movement, women’s liberation, female emancipation, women’s rights;
informal: women’s lib
“a longtime advocate of feminism”

If measured by this definition of feminism, I have been a feminist since I was a little girl.  I sensed the inequality of the genders on the school playgrounds. I grew tired of hearing my mother and grandmother admonish me for my tomboy ways, while urging me instead to be “a lady.”  I apparently emerged from the womb with a fierce competitive spirit because I never thought it was fair to have different rules for the two genders.  I wanted to be able to play softball in the middle of the street with the guys.  I wanted to leave my pretty dresses in the closet, only to be removed for church or birthday parties.  Since showing my underpants was considered a grave transgression by my handlers, it was much easier to avoid that sin while wearing garments with legs in them.

As I grew up I railed against all manner of inequities, from the different rules for women’s basketball, like keeping one foot planted on the floor when handling the ball, to the fact that the boys could earn full-ride scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities by excelling in sports, while my only hope was through excellence in academics. 

The workplace?  Don’t get me started.  The pay was different.  The rules were different.  The exceptions were different.  The upward mobility was extremely different.  I fought them all and won a few times.

However, at the same time I was trying to navigate the sexism waters of life, I also had to sail while wearing an additional anchor.  Despite the confusion sometimes caused by my complexion, I was informed at the age of 5 that I was “colored.”  It didn’t matter how fair my skin actually was, to “society” it was black.

I am nobody’s victim.  Neither of the weights I was born carrying was going to keep me from achieving whatever I decided to achieve.  I’m not given to thinking about “if only I were a man”– I like being a woman –- although I am aware of the likelihood of having even more success if I had been a man.  I was far more likely to think about “if only I were white, where might I have gone?”

I’ve been noticing lately how few of the black women I know ever bring up sexism.  Have we experienced it?  Probably.  But how were we to tell which of our anchors was at play when we were passed over, underestimated, underutilized and unfairly treated?   As a black woman, I had to struggle and fight at least twice as hard as my white counterparts.  And the truth is, the few times I was competing against a black man, I had the clear advantage, because black men, it seemed to me, are the very last to get ahead in white America.

So, now it’s time again to start sizing each other up according to our choice for the presidential nomination of our parties.  I was caught completely off guard when I discovered that my support of Bernie Sanders was often being interpreted as a slap across the face of Hillary Clinton.  There seems to be an assumption that I have dumbly succumbed to the “Hate Hillary” messages allegedly fostered by mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, that I am a gender turncoat for unseemly reasons having little to do with independent thought.  That is insulting and I resent it.

I have spent the past few days trying to understand why I don’t share the fervor others have for “getting a woman in the White House.”  I do believe Hillary Clinton is by far the most qualified to carry out the duties of President.  That is a no-brainer.  Where my brain kicks in, though, is when I make my list of issues I consider most important to the country and to me as an individual.  At the moment, Bernie Sanders is saying and doing the things I’m looking for, the things I believe need to change immediately if we are to remain a strong and prosperous nation. His positions don’t change for political expediency.  The more often he is given a platform to define his positions; the more often he publicly demonstrates his Everyman persona; and the more often he eschews the trappings of the moneyed candidates — private jets for middle seats on airliners, for example – the more chance there is for individual voters to understand the ways in which Hillary Clinton is not as differentiated from her Republican rivals as she needs to be.  She needs to be challenged on those points.

Then the E-word comes flying out.  If they can’t shame me for my gender disloyalty, they appeal to my reason.  “Bernie Sanders is not electable.”  “Says who?” I ask.   In 2006, the exact words were said about Barack Obama. Nothing good ever happens until people have the courage of their convictions.  Electability is about as predictable as the next stupid remark tweeted by The Donald.  Nothing about this primary process is following the pundit prophets’ book of rules.  No one can explain to me the appeal of a brain surgeon who presents like a somnambulist on Xanax.  I have my theories about the motives of the GOP for anointing him their so-called answer to the racist undercurrents among their membership, but they are just a theories.   I am not someone who gives up my principles in order to win a prize that will be of no use to me after I’ve won it.

If the meaning of feminism has evolved to mean all women must fall into line to support the female candidate without regard for her policies and allegiances, then I am not a feminist.  I am an independent thinker who doesn’t take kindly to being told how to think.

In anticipation of being accused of voting for (and electing) Barack Obama instead of Hillary solely because he is black, in addition to denying the truth of that accusation, I will say this:  there is a huge difference between the concerns of black women and the concerns of white women, even though there is a broad intersection of issues among them all.  When presented together, racism trumps sexism for us.  Perhaps when we achieve true equality on the racial level, black women will be more in tune with issues sexism presents.  But for today, I am far more concerned about breaking the stranglehold corporations have on the political process, addressing the systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and returning the middle class to its former vibrancy by addressing the badly skewed income distribution for all Americans.

I absolutely could and will energetically support Hillary Clinton for President if she is the nominee.  The fact that she is a woman will be the bonus on top of the substance, not the other way around.  But I will do it when and how I want to do it, and I don’t expect to lose my feminist membership card because of it.

Lezlie Bishop is a mixed-race woman in her early 70s who has fought racism her entire life.  After retiring from her corporate public relations position in 2000, Lezlie blogged on the now-defunct Open Salon and is a regular contributor to The Broad Side.  She is a co-author of the book Talking to the Wall and a contributor to a new book Love Her Love Her Not, The Hillary Paradox, due out in mid-November 2015.

To read more of Lezlie’s blog posts, go to her personal blog, Senior Moments of Clarity.

Image via Brooklyn Museum of Art.


  • Innisfail

    I think in your shoes I would agree. Racism affects twice as many people as anti-feminism (not of course that feminism is strictly a woman’s issue!)

  • Dominique Agri

    This is an excellent article and I appreciate your writing it. I think it accurately breaks down the trap of associating a concrete name to an intangible theory. I am a feminist and while I’d appreciate a female president, I don’t want it to be Hillary. I don’t feel my opinion discredits my commitment to feminism. Once any ism becomes static and binding, it loses its power to educate people. All ideas can change and must change to reflect the moment.

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