It’s a common misconception that racism and patriarchy are two separate entities. That one exists completely and wholly without the other. But this isn’t and has never been the case.
Feminist theorist bell hooks writes in her 1982 book, Ain’t I a Woman, that black men were inevitably subject to the American system of capitalist ideals of class, race, and sex when they saw subjugating women as a unifying factor with white men. This reared its head in domestic and sexual violence, without thought for the division it sowed among black people, not allowing them the mental emancipation that comes from unity.
Black men, in their aspirations toward whiteness, left much of what we know as ‘Ubuntu’ behind and proceeded to further enslave black women into cyclic lives of servitude and abuse – because to have power was to control someone; as was shown by the horrors of slavery itself. The controlled person – in many of these cases if not most – was a black woman.
When feminism first came into being, it was white women leading the charge. Since then, feminism has been seen as this swear-word and feminists depicted as raging bulls wanting to take over the world and subjugate men like they have been subjugated. Although this is part of the plan, so to speak, of disempowering the movement and discrediting the people involved, the truth is there is no coherent definition, nor is there a unified sense of belonging within the movement. It is scattered and disorganised, causing confusion and disdain for the simple belief in this mythical thing we know as equality.
While this may seem like the most pertinent issue, the fact that women of colour and white women are divided along many lines – class being the biggest barrier – is a hurdle we haven’t been able to clear. It’s more than just a hurdle. It’s an elephant in a room in which black women are seen as the tea ladies and their voices are silenced.
The issue has been twofold; that of white feminism taking precedence over the struggles of black women, and black men wanting to compete with white men on a scale that goes beyond the domestic. The thing is, the persecution of black women as a whole started with slavery and the overarching concept of a human being owning another human being.
As a result, black men and black women are divided in their struggle for common equality in a society that still sees darker skin as inferiority. There is constant friction in an already fragile bond strung together by weak strands of shared history; a history that whiteness and patriarchy seek to erase as if the rape of black women by white men never even happened.
It is this fragility that needs to be challenged – not just by black women but men too – in order to unify the continuing struggle for equality. We may be over the legal parts of slavery and apartheid, but both live on in our institutions, our jobs, our police, our distribution of wealth, and our friendly neighbours. It’s telling when police can fire rubber bullets into crowds of students begging for education so they can lift themselves from poverty, while their white counterparts get escorted in and out of protest areas as if they won’t reap the benefits of it later.
But we cannot have true equal rights in our own spaces unless both men and women are equal. Until that happens, black man, you’re fighting a losing battle. You will not be free until black women are free, too.