By Anna Lee
In For Lesbians Only, edited by Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Julia Penelope, Onlywomen Press, 1988
I often read the words `feminist,’ ‘womon,’ etc. used to designate white only. In this paper, I’ve used the terms to specify all wimmin. I use the term ‘sister’ to address black wimmin.
While I am an active feminist, I cannot afford economically to discuss lesbian separatism in print under my own name. As a black womon, I am in ‘double jeopardy.’ 1 I live on the edge of working or welfare. To publicly embrace my lesbianism would force me onto the welfare rolls.
I became a separatist gradually. Over a period of twelve years, I changed from being celibate in a heterosexual environment to being gay, but accepting heterosexual norms as givens. For example, I spent my money on movies, eating out and entertaining males in my home. I believed and acted on society’s dictum that I was the same as straight people, but simply loved wimmin. When I moved from the Midwest, I learned many things and realized how much self-hatred I had internalized. The Midwest did not have a wimmin’s community or feminist activities that might have challenged my assumptions. I’m glad that various groups have formed since I left. For me, leaving the Midwest provided access to a variety of opportunities. There were and are sisters talking about feminism and introducing a perspective into white feminism that supported my commitment to a wimmin’s movement that included all wimmin.
The diversity of goals and projects was exciting in my new community. Here, at last, was a chance to be challenged by wimmin who had been thinking about theory and acting on their knowledge. I began to re-evaluate some of my assumptions about our possibilities. I began to perceive my lesbianism to include not only what I did in bed and with whom, but also as an analysis of the world.
Presently, I claim and affirm under tremendous pressure all of who I am – black lesbian separatist. To do so puts me in conflict with each of the groups from which I could reasonably expect support, nurturance and sustenance. It’s a juggling act to maintain my sanity and to remember who my real enemy is. Remembering who my real enemy is forces me to consider carefully some very critical choices. It is not easy or simple to delineate which acts I commit move us as wimmin forward and which ones do not. It would be simpler to ignore this issue. It would be easier to avoid considering the ramifications of my individual acts. To do so, however, would condemn me and us to failure. To act ethically is difficult, but to grapple with the question may mean that in the struggle I and, perhaps, we will at least learn more than if no struggle had occurred.
For example, the existence of rape brings my often conflicting selves to the forefront, not so much as to the perpetrator of rape, but in terms of my and, really, our response to rape. In part, the questions are, how have white feminists (even separatists) analyzed, discussed and reacted to the occurrence of rape, and what would an ethical response include?
The issue of rape requires wimmin to define our enemy clearly and consider the ramifications of our analysis. The complexity of rape demands our full attention. I support a womon’s right to be free of the fear of rape which is used by the fathers to keep all of us in line even if, and sometimes especially if, we do not consort with them.
There are realities that are conveniently omitted from feminist analysis. One is the acknowledgement that all males are potential rapists but some males are consistently selected to bear the punishment for the crime. In psychological studies, the profile of the rapist does not differ from the profile of a ‘healthy’ white heterosexual male. I hear white feminists express their fears about the black male on the street more often than any indication that their boyfriend, husband or white neighbor might rape them. While it would be easier to say that all males are potential rapists, white feminists conveniently ignore that it is black males that are singled out for punishment.2 This must be kept in mind if there is a serious commitment by white wimmin to confront our enemy. To do otherwise is to support the same status quo that devalues our worth as wimmin.
White feminists conveniently forget that black males are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at a higher rate than white males. The Scottsboro trial is part of my indelible memory, but does not seem to be part of theirs. The black males involved in that trial were convicted even though historically more white males have raped wimmin. Today the statistics have not changed. Black males receive stiffer penalties and are recommended for execution in disproportionate numbers. A feminist response to the issue of rape cannot stop with the knowledge that black males are seen as the archetypical rapist.
The fact is black wimmin also bear the burden of rape. Whether we are discussing the rape of black wimmin during slavery or sisters being raped on a Saturday night, the percentage of sisters being raped is disproportionate to our absolute numbers. The convergence of sex and race insures that we face a much greater chance of being raped in our lifetimes than white wimmin.
So far both these factors have been excluded in white feminist analysis. Surely, white wimmin directly benefit from these omissions. The ignorance of racial implications can allow white feminists to pretend that a white analysis of rape transcends the question of black and white. That ignoring also encourages white feminists to deny that rape is anything other than a simple belief that all males are potential rapists. I have no qualms about the statement. My objection is concerned with the refusal to examine the complexity of the issue. That refusal leads ultimately to some harmful effects which I will discuss later in this paper.
As separatists, we are not free of the fear of rape. Any analysis of that issue should have our input. I believe that using the analytical tools we have garnered as separatists will lead us to develop and respond to the issue of rape in a manner that will move us forward as wimmin. Given that the justice system is both class and race conscious while denying both, black males are assured of receiving the harsher punishment. In demanding wider use of that justice system, white feminists encourage by default the penalizing of both black females and males. For a sister raped, the white boys’ system will not find her attacker or convict the culprit. For black males, the justice system will convict him even if he is innocent. The outcome for each is different but equally demeaning and oppressive.
While wimmin do not rape, this fact does not eliminate our responsibility and particularly white wimmin’s responsibility to discuss and analyze the dimensions of rape in an ethical manner. To do otherwise often leads us to the mistaken belief that more police officers or more female police officers would begin to alleviate the horrors wimmin face in being raped. The single-minded focus of all males as potential rapists encourages rape crisis centers to invite the police to actively participate in their programs and to cooperate in police programs. Eventually, rape crisis centers become subsumed by police goals, no longer challenge the anti-womon philosophy of this society and become so non-threatening that city governments can safely fund them. Of course, this is not the sole reason that crisis centers cease to serve wimmin’s interest. Economic crisis forces centers to seek out LEAA grants.3 I wonder, if white feminists had a clearer understanding of who was hurt and who was helped by their demands, would the money seem as attractive or acceptable?
The accepted analysis of rape has divided black and white wimmin. In doing so, white feminists have chosen to align themselves with white males at the expense of forming coalitions with sisters. It is not just rape crisis centers that have chosen this ‘solution.’ Later I will discuss this choice in another context. The point is simply that to date white feminist analysis of rape successfully ignores the complexity of the issue, insuring that the choices made exclude sisters while putting white males in the forefront. The analysis precludes ethical choices that would include all wimmin and allow us to move forward.
It seems to me to create our own rape squads to deal with our rapists is a better stop-gap measure than the call for more police protection. In the long run, stopping the rapist mentality is even more important. (I will return to this question.) Any analysis of rape must confront the white males instead of bonding with them to kill black males.
To state all this is to begin to raise necessary considerations concerning ethical stances. For example, I still feel alienated from the black male nationalist community because I am a lesbian, and yet I understand that our struggles are intimately intertwined. At the same time, I often feel alienated by the white feminist community which has the privilege to ignore and to minimize racism. White feminists can demand my support, presence and energy without seeing what it is they are asking of me. They can refuse to acknowledge the price I pay: the losing of my protection as limited and limiting as it is. My blackness is visible and the first line of attack on me. I am also a womon and choose to continue my struggle within the wimmin’s community. I have stopped struggling with my brothers around their homophobia and sexism.
As I have indicated, merging my seemingly separate identities is not easy, but all of them exist within me. It is very important to me to recognize that racism hurts both my brothers and me. While it may manifest itself differently for each of us, it is the blackness that defines the conditions we live under. I am very clear that my brothers hold the power of the penis. They are not confronted with being women in this world and I am. It is true that any male regardless of class, income, or race holds power in the world. For sure, some males have more control in the world than others. Each has if nothing else a womon or womon-substitute as his slave – wife, mother, girlfriend, etc. This is not true for me. I do know white wimmin who are active in anti-racist struggles and willing to address this issue. Unfortunately, I know of no males of color who are or have been willing to deal with their own sexism or homophobia. My analysis of power, who has power, and who gets what resources allows me to make the distinction between power and revokable privilege. White wimmin have revokable privilege. During slavery white wimmin tortured black wimmin slaves and today act as if privilege is, in fact, power. The reality is that revokable privilege is just that. If the group exercising the privilege decides to use their ‘powers’ in a way objectionable to those who actually hold power, their privilege is immediately revoked. Too few white feminists realized their privilege was given by white males and can as easily be taken back if not exercised in the interest of white males. Or, perhaps, they do realize this; and making the connection, white wimmin wish to delude sisters regarding this reality. No matter. The result is that the hegemony of white males remains unchallenged by white wimmin who are not willing to acknowledge or to address the ways privilege is used to divide black and white wimmin.
Separatism gave me the analytical tools and, yes, the guts to say out loud that males are the enemy. Do you think I will be struck down by god (good ole white boy that he is)? Not only will I say it out loud but I will also operate as much as possible from a womon-identified context. Becoming a separatist encouraged me to realize that the world can be interpreted through my lesbian eyes. My sexuality gives me fire and peace. It is a way of living that is the basis for reaching out, understanding, and bonding with other wimmin.
Separatism is not withdrawing from the world or denying that what happens in the world affects me. I cannot simply ignore the heterosexist, racist, misogyny of the world. White male hatred of me controls my economic reality. I cannot operate out of wimmin-only space and pretend that I am living independently of boys. I hope wimmin who function or claim to do so at that level are doing so without pretense, and therefore responsibly. I do think it is important that wimmin own and live on land, but the claim that they are totally separate from boys evades the interdependency of the world. For example, electricity can be given up, but the payment of taxes cannot be. Beyond that, what I have heard and read about wimmin claiming to be independent of boys is so incredibly class unconscious that I am furious. For the privilege necessary to maintain the pretense is very transparent and NOT AVAILABLE TO SISTERS. Each time I hear how it is being done, I also see the womon’s ability to re-join patriarchal, capitalist society, even if she denies her ability to do so. Do white wimmin expect us to be so dumb as to accept what they say as the final truth? Any sister who survives has taken a crash course on white lies and learned to perceive the reality, not what whites would have us believe to be true. White wimmin’s privilege is not mine! I have no white father, no connection who will grease my re-entry. I have already, in fact, been chosen to provide the back on which capitalism can build and prosper.
By focusing on white privilege often manifested in the interest of living in the country, I do not wish to denigrate wimmin-only space. That space is crucial to me and I consistently fight to preserve it. It is a place that we as wimmin, killed and hunted by boys, can go to renew our energy, to remember why we have chosen such a difficult struggle. Some day – even right now we are learning in bits and pieces how to live with and love each other in a very different way – we can make reality finally conform to our own vision.
Separatism is the transition from a bisexual population (female-male) to exclusively female. One in which differences are just that: neither good or bad. I want to be very clear. My vision of the future does not include males. There are those who worry about what is to become of them. I do not share their concern. To me stopping the rape mentality presumes the necessity of eliminating the cause – boys. I will not focus on them or give up my precious energy once again to attend to male needs or well-being. For, I no longer believe that it is possible to re-educate males to give up power. Wimmin delude themselves with the belief that males do not really want to dominate them. If they knew any other way to behave, then the ‘poor’ boys would willingly choose the alternative and remove their feet from wimmin’s necks. That delusion is based on the assumption that domination is the other side of submission. If wimmin continue to hold onto that belief, we perpetuate the conspiracy that no one rapes or batters us. It is the system, not some boy who bloodied our mouths. In fact, it is in the interest of boys to encourage us not to see the perpetuator of our oppression. There is a war going on and most wimmin refuse to acknowledge we are even fighting. A commitment to individual liberalism – different strokes for different folks – precludes them from perceiving each womon raped, battered, killed, or locked up in prison or mental institution as a war casualty. We continue to want to believe that no one, certainly not our brother, father, faggot friend, could possibly hate us that much. Our casualties are, in fact, part and parcel of every male’s outlook on the world. It is the submissive and nurturing female that distinguishes his maleness. Each time I hear some boy is nice or gentle I remember Ntozake Shange’s poem warning us about seemingly nice boys. She exhorts us to realize that some womon could have been hurt by this gentle boy. Some womon we do not know, may never meet, but one is too many. For I am really clear, the next time it could be me or you.
As male-identified western society leaps to the right (which is somewhat of an inaccurate characterization since it implies it had at one time been progressive), womon-identified wimmin cannot afford to become more conservative. We cannot afford to buckle down, dig in our heels, and lower our heads hoping this reactionary wave will pass leaving us untouched, unmarked by its passing. Now is the time to intensify our struggles, not to retreat!
We need to identify our own goals. Ms Magazine, that bastion of acceptability (to males and male-identified women), can feel free to proclaim some boy as a feminist, on its front cover no less. Ms ceases to deserve our support. Talking about male feminists should be done in the same breath as discussing white negroes. While Norman Mailer wrote about the white negro, he was also busy stabbing his wife. This is precisely the danger of including those who purport to be supportive of our goals as one of us when who knows what damage or pain he is causing some womon. Even if we do not know the damage, support is not the same as identity. Including boys as feminists only serves to confuse the issue of who our enemy is thereby blurring the distinctions so much so that the strength of the ideology is reduced to the consistency of pablum.
It is becoming apparent many white feminists and some separatists are giving into the politics of the moral majority, accepting these fascists’ definition of what are the important issues to be discussed. In short, allowing the right to dictate the lesbian agenda for white wimmin. This is particularly dangerous given the domination of the feminist media and ideology by white wimmin. White wimmin’s agenda is, then, put forth as the one for all wimmin. In fact, white feminists are more willing to change their ideology to include white males in their books, concerts, and other projects than to change their ideology to include sisters. A feminist space wants to encourage males to meet there to discuss how they can be supportive to wimmin and at the same time denies access to an Afro-American wimmin’s group. Or wimmin scream bloody murder because the SF Women’s Building refuses space for a female police officers group to meet there.4 The males sought are white; the absence of sisters is not noticed. This trend recognizes white males hold power in this society. To get their support, the boys must be catered to and appeased. In holding power, white boys can give or withhold all kinds of goodies, including free rent or ad space or publication of a book. The list is endless.
Underneath the power white boys hold is the unacknowledged bond between white females and males. A bond based on racial similarity. A bond denied when challenged. I recognize the bond exists when I note the results of white wimmin’s outreach. This purported outreach is directed to sisters, nevertheless the numbers of white males increase while the numbers of sisters do not in the same projects. Am I really supposed to believe that white wimmin are serious in their claim to desire more participation of sisters? I no longer care if the bond between white females and males is conscious; in fact, it is irrelevant when the same results occur time and time again.
Some white feminists to correct their past error will use black males to avoid the charge they are bonding with white males. Big Mama Rag will go to greath lengths to demonstrate their concern about racism in this country but continue to ignore the concerns of sisters as articulated by us.5 Their discussion becomes an underhanded way to form coalitions with white males claiming the larger issue of racism as their cover. It is not only Big Mama Rag; the deception pervades white feminists’ projects.
Separatism is a difficult issue. While I believe that white separatists are no more racist than other white feminists, I also know that being a separatist does not automatically exclude the possibility of being a racist. I challenge all separatists particularly white ones to actively participate in the anti-racist struggle in our community and to some extent in the larger society. We must not lose our own goals in this process nor can white separatists forego sisters’ input in this struggle.
The non-struggle around racism by white wimmin has created the situation which exists today. Few black lesbian feminists are visible or active in the white wimmin’s communities. When separatism is an additional dimension, our numbers are drastically reduced. Given the prevalence of racism in white feminist communities, it becomes easy for them to set up sisters to be at each others’ throats. White wimmin too often uphold one sister’s opinion as superior to another. I reject this tendency by affirming the right of each of us to participate in the struggle as we deem necessary. I specifically support sisters to do so. With all our emerging and merging identities, sisters have a right to be able to receive support for the choices we make in fighting white patriarchy.
Finally, to all my sisters who perceive separatism as a white ideology, I reject that notion. We have been defined by those who have power over us. We have not been able to define for ourselves or to develop our own ideology. Separatism and blackness are not necessarily contradictory. To bring them together requires acknowledgement of and commitment to addressing concerns for all wimmin and holding onto our particular vision. It is hard for me to integrate the two, yet I believe the reason for the difficulty is not inherent in the theory or analysis but is due to the unhelpful baggage we bring to each other. While boys may not be in our homes, they still reside in our minds. To rid ourselves of them and their agenda requires constant attention. If we are not always aware, we endanger ourselves and our movement for we will continue to fight their battles for them.
This paper is a beginning of a discussion I hope will continue. The issues raised are crucial to our very survival and the quality of that survival. Will those wimmin with more privilege than others bond with white males to maintain white middle-class hegemony as they did during the suffrage movement? Or will wimmin bond with each other finally? Will we recognize that we as a group have a right to our own integrity and ideals? Can we as wimmin afford to, as Naomi Littlebear reminds us, leave any sister behind?
I want to thank bell hooks for devoting a whole book, Ain’t I a Woman, to the issue of sisters being excluded from both the black male and white wimmin’s movement. bell, unfortunately, does not recognize the existence of black lesbians. That analysis had to wait for This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua.
Many wimmin have been instrumental in clarifying my thoughts and assisting me in considering new possibilities including Sarah Hoagland who asked for a longer version of this article which this is. Karlyne Nelson who consistently has given me critical support and reviewed this article as a non-separatist sister providing valuable input. I want to thank Denslow Brown who introduced me to the concept of separatism as an analytical tool which has been so helpful to me. I also want to thank Tara Ayres for pushing and prodding me to write this because she felt it was necessary for all wimmin to know and accept that black separatists do exist.
This paper is a revised version of one that appeared in the Racism issue of Innerviews.
- Frances M. Beal, “Double Jeopardy: To be Black and Female,”Sisterhood is Powerful, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), pp. 340-53.
- Deb Friedman, “Rape, Racism and Reality”,’ Quest 5, 1 (Summer 1979), pp. 40-51.
- Law Enforcement Administration Assistance was promulgated by Richard Nixon. LEAA provided anti-riot gear to local police forces.
- Sharon F. Hiller, Letter, “Policing the Bars”, Plexus (September 1981), p. 2. >
- Elaine Henrichs, “A Call to Resist”, Big Mama Rag (May 1982), p. 8. Note the absence of wimmin in her discussion of forming coalitions with national liberation struggles. While the intent to form coalitions is laudable, the effect may very well be the same as the US agriculture policy has been. Throughout Africa and other developing areas, the US has consistently supported males as the authorities in all spheres of the culture. By doing so, the US government has undermined the independence or significant contribution wimmin have had traditionally. In the same issue, the newspaper collective included an insert encouraging wimmin to participate in the conference referred to by Elaine.