DIFO Note: This is a historic piece calling out 1970s feminism for its racism and outlining a broader social justice agenda.
The Combahee River Collective Statement
We are a collective of Black feminists who have been meeting together since 1974.  During that time we have been involved in the process of defining and clarifying our politics, while at the same time doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements. The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face. We will discuss four major topics in the paper that follows: (1) the genesis of contemporary Black feminism; (2) what we believe, i.e., the specific province of our politics; (3) the problems in organizing Black feminists, including a brief herstory of our collective; and (4) Black feminist issues and practice.
1. The genesis of Contemporary Black Feminism
Before looking at the recent development of Black feminism we would like to affirm that we find our origins in the historical reality of Afro-American women’s continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and liberation. Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes. As Angela Davis points out in “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” Black women have always embodied, if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and their communities in both dramatic and subtle ways. There have always been Black women activists—some known, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, and thousands upon thousands unknown—who have had a shared awareness of how their sexual identity combined with their racial identity to make their whole life situation and the focus of their political struggles unique. Contemporary Black feminism is the outgrowth of countless generations of personal sacrifice, militancy, and work by our mothers and sisters.
A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women’s movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation. In 1973, Black feminists, primarily located in New York, felt the necessity of forming a separate Black feminist group. This became the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO).
Black feminist politics also have an obvious connection to movements for Black liberation, particularly those of the 1960s and I970s. Many of us were active in those movements (Civil Rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives Were greatly affected and changed by their ideologies, their goals, and the tactics used to achieve their goals. It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.
There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual Black women’s lives. Black feminists and many more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence. As children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated differently. For example, we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being “ladylike” and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men. However, we had no way of conceptualizing what was so apparent to us, what we knew was really happening.
Black feminists often talk about their feelings of craziness before becoming conscious of the concepts of sexual politics, patriarchal rule, and most importantly, feminism, the political analysis and practice that we women use to struggle against our oppression. The fact that racial politics and indeed racism are pervasive factors in our lives did not allow us, and still does not allow most Black women, to look more deeply into our own experiences and, from that sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression. Our development must also be tied to the contemporary economic and political position of Black people. The post World War II generation of Black youth was the first to be able to minimally partake of certain educational and employment options, previously closed completely to Black people. Although our economic position is still at the very bottom of the American capitalistic economy, a handful of us have been able to gain certain tools as a result of tokenism in education and employment which potentially enable us to more effectively fight our oppression.
A combined anti-racist and anti-sexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to heterosexism and economic oppression under capItalism.
2. What We Believe
Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s may because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever consIdered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, Indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere. We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.
We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously. We know that there is such a thing as racial-sexual oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual, e.g., the history of rape of Black women by white men as a weapon of political repression.
Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation. We have arrived at the necessity for developing an understanding of class relationships that takes into account the specific class position of Black women who are generally marginal in the labor force, while at this particular time some of us are temporarily viewed as doubly desirable tokens at white-collar and professional levels. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.
A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political. In our consciousness-raising sessions, for example, we have in many ways gone beyond white women’s revelations because we are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex. Even our Black women’s style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we have experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political. We have spent a great deal of energy delving into the cultural and experiential nature of our oppression out of necessity because none of these matters has ever been looked at before. No one before has ever examined the multilayered texture of Black women’s lives. An example of this kind of revelation/conceptualization occurred at a meeting as we discussed the ways in which our early intellectual interests had been attacked by our peers, particularly Black males. We discovered that all of us, because we were “smart” had also been considered “ugly,” i.e., “smart-ugly.” “Smart-ugly” crystallized the way in which most of us had been forced to develop our intellects at great cost to our “social” lives. The sanctions In the Black and white communities against Black women thinkers is comparatively much higher than for white women, particularly ones from the educated middle and upper classes.
As we have already stated, we reject the stance of Lesbian separatism because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us. It leaves out far too much and far too many people, particularly Black men, women, and children. We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how they act, and how they oppress. But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness, per se—i.e., their biological maleness—that makes them what they are. As BIack women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic. We must also question whether Lesbian separatism is an adequate and progressive political analysis and strategy, even for those who practice it, since it so completely denies any but the sexual sources of women’s oppression, negating the facts of class and race.
3. Problems in Organizing Black Feminists
During our years together as a Black feminist collective we have experienced success and defeat, joy and pain, victory and failure. We have found that it is very difficult to organize around Black feminist issues, difficult even to announce in certain contexts that we are Black feminists. We have tried to think about the reasons for our difficulties, particularly since the white women’s movement continues to be strong and to grow in many directions. In this section we will discuss some of the general reasons for the organizing problems we face and also talk specifically about the stages in organizing our own collective.
The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have.
The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon Black women’s psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist. As an early group member once said, “We are all damaged people merely by virtue of being Black women.” We are dispossessed psychologically and on every other level, and yet we feel the necessity to struggle to change the condition of all Black women. In “A Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood,” Michele Wallace arrives at this conclusion: “We exists as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.” 
Wallace is pessimistic but realistic in her assessment of Black feminists’ position, particularly in her allusion to the nearly classic isolation most of us face. We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
Feminism is, nevertheless, very threatening to the majority of Black people because it calls into question some of the most basic assumptions about our existence, i.e., that sex should be a determinant of power relationships. Here is the way male and female roles were defined in a Black nationalist pamphlet from the early 1970s:
We understand that it is and has been traditional that the man is the head of the house. He is the leader of the house/nation because his knowledge of the world is broader, his awareness is greater, his understanding is fuller and his application of this information is wiser… After all, it is only reasonable that the man be the head of the house because he is able to defend and protect the development of his home… Women cannot do the same things as men—they are made by nature to function differently. Equality of men and women is something that cannot happen even in the abstract world. Men are not equal to other men, i.e. ability, experience or even understanding. The value of men and women can be seen as in the value of gold and silver—they are not equal but both have great value. We must realize that men and women are a complement to each other because there is no house/family without a man and his wife. Both are essential to the development of any life. 
The material conditions of most Black women would hardly lead them to upset both economic and sexual arrangements that seem to represent some stability in their lives. Many Black women have a good understanding of both sexism and racism, but because of the everyday constrictions of their lives, cannot risk struggling against them both.
The reaction of Black men to feminism has been notoriously negative. They are, of course, even more threatened than Black women by the possibility that Black feminists might organize around our own needs. They realize that they might not only lose valuable and hardworking allies in their struggles but that they might also be forced to change their habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing Black women. Accusations that Black feminism divides the Black struggle are powerful deterrents to the growth of an autonomous Black women’s movement.
Still, hundreds of women have been active at different times during the three-year existence of our group. And every Black woman who came, came out of a strongly-felt need for some level of possibility that did not previously exist in her life.
When we first started meeting early in 1974 after the NBFO first eastern regional conference, we did not have a strategy for organizing, or even a focus. We just wanted to see what we had. After a period of months of not meeting, we began to meet again late in the year and started doing an intense variety of consciousness-raising. The overwhelming feeling that we had is that after years and years we had finally found each other. Although we were not doing political work as a group, individuals continued their involvement in Lesbian politics, sterilization abuse and abortion rights work, Third World Women’s International Women’s Day activities, and support activity for the trials of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, Joan Little, and Inéz García. During our first summer when membership had dropped off considerably, those of us remaining devoted serious discussion to the possibility of opening a refuge for battered women in a Black community. (There was no refuge in Boston at that time.) We also decided around that time to become an independent collective since we had serious disagreements with NBFO’s bourgeois-feminist stance and their lack of a clear politIcal focus.
We also were contacted at that time by socialist feminists, with whom we had worked on abortion rights activities, who wanted to encourage us to attend the National Socialist Feminist Conference in Yellow Springs. One of our members did attend and despite the narrowness of the ideology that was promoted at that particular conference, we became more aware of the need for us to understand our own economic situation and to make our own economic analysis.
In the fall, when some members returned, we experienced several months of comparative inactivity and internal disagreements which were first conceptualized as a Lesbian-straight split but which were also the result of class and political differences. During the summer those of us who were still meeting had determined the need to do political work and to move beyond consciousness-raising and serving exclusively as an emotional support group. At the beginning of 1976, when some of the women who had not wanted to do political work and who also had voiced disagreements stopped attending of their own accord, we again looked for a focus. We decided at that time, with the addition of new members, to become a study group. We had always shared our reading with each other, and some of us had written papers on Black feminism for group discussion a few months before this decision was made. We began functioning as a study group and also began discussing the possibility of starting a Black feminist publication. We had a retreat in the late spring which provided a time for both political discussion and working out interpersonal issues. Currently we are planning to gather together a collection of Black feminist writing. We feel that it is absolutely essential to demonstrate the reality of our politics to other Black women and believe that we can do this through writing and distributing our work. The fact that individual Black feminists are living in isolation all over the country, that our own numbers are small, and that we have some skills in writing, printing, and publishing makes us want to carry out these kinds of projects as a means of organizing Black feminists as we continue to do political work in coalition with other groups.
4. Black Feminist Issues and Projects
During our time together we have identified and worked on many issues of particular relevance to Black women. The inclusiveness of our politics makes us concerned with any situation that impinges upon the lives of women, Third World and working people. We are of course particularly committed to working on those struggles in which race, sex, and class are simultaneous factors in oppression. We might, for example, become involved in workplace organizing at a factory that employs Third World women or picket a hospital that is cutting back on already inadequate heath care to a Third World community, or set up a rape crisis center in a Black neighborhood. Organizing around welfare and daycare concerns might also be a focus. The work to be done and the countless issues that this work represents merely reflect the pervasiveness of our oppression.
Issues and projects that collective members have actually worked on are sterilization abuse, abortion rights, battered women, rape and health care. We have also done many workshops and educationals on Black feminism on college campuses, at women’s conferences, and most recently for high school women.
One issue that is of major concern to us and that we have begun to publicly address is racism in the white women’s movement. As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.
In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice. In her introduction to Sisterhood is Powerful Robin Morgan writes:
I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.
As Black feminists and Lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.
 This statement is dated April 1977.
 Wallace, Michele. “A Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood,” The Village Voice, 28 July 1975, pp. 6-7.
 Mumininas of Committee for Unified Newark, Mwanamke Mwananchi (The Nationalist Woman), Newark, N.J., ©1971, pp. 4-5.
THE COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE: “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” copyright © 1978 by Zillah Eisenstein. Also published in Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, ©1983, published by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Inc., New York, New York.
DIFO Note: Here is another classic. One of the first truly accessible essays about what white privilege is, and how it affects us all. This led the way for looking at heterosexual privilege and male privilege, and more recently, thin privilege.
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”
Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.
Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of while privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women’s studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”
After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are just seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.
My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.”
Daily effects of white privilege
I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
Elusive and fugitive
I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
In unpacking this invisible knapsack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted. Nor did I think of any of these perquisites as bad for the holder. I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive.
I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.
For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.
Earned strength, unearned power
I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.
We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies. For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power that I originally say as attendant on being a human being in the United States consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.
I have met very few men who truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see “whiteness” as a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need similarly to examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.
Difficulties and angers surrounding the task of finding parallels are many. Since racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not the same, the advantages associated with them should not be seen as the same. In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage that rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex, and ethnic identity that on other factors. Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking, as the members of the Combahee River Collective pointed out in their “Black Feminist Statement” of 1977.
One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant groups one is taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.
Disapproving of the system won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.
To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subject taboo. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.
It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.
Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.
Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $10.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges.
This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.
DIFO Note: This very short essay examines the phrase “the personal is political.” It was a critical tool for early feminists to identify sexism.
The Personal is Political
“The personal is political” was a frequently heard feminist rallying cry, especially during the late 1960s and 1970s. The exact origin of the phrase is unknown and sometimes debated. Many second-wave feminists used the phrase “the personal is political” or its underlying meaning in their writing, speeches, consciousness-raising, and other activities.
The Carol Hanisch Essay
Feminist and writer Carol Hanisch’s essay titled “The Personal is Political” appeared in the anthology Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970. She is therefore often credited with creating the phrase. However, she wrote in an introduction to the 2006 republication of the essay that she did not come up with the title. She believed “The Personal Is Political” was selected by the editors of the anthology, Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt, who were both feminists involved with the group New York Radical Feminists.
Some feminist scholars have noted that by the time the anthology was published in 1970, “the personal is political” had already become a widely used part of the women’s movement and was not a quote attributable to any one person.
The Political Meaning
Carol Hanisch’s essay explains the idea behind the phrase “the personal is political.” A common debate between “personal” and “political” questioned whether women’s consciousness-raising groups were a useful part of the political women’s movement. According to Hanisch, calling the groups “therapy” was a misnomer, as the groups were not intended to solve any women’s personal problems. Instead, consciousness-raising was a form of political action to elicit discussion about such topics as women’s relationships, their roles in marriage, and their feelings about childbearing.
Her essay “The Personal Is Political” said that coming to a personal realization of how “grim” the situation was for women was as important as doing political “action” such as protests. Hanisch noted that “political” refers to any power relationships, not just those of government or elected officials.
DIFO Note: Lesbian feminism emerged out of both women’s movements and gay rights movements. This essay traces the history. It highlights a concern we continue to hear today from women who come to DIFO events: we still want a place (as older lesbian/bisexual women) to dance, meet others, and build community!
Origins of Radicalesbians: Sexism in GLF and the First All Women’s Dance
From the beginning, the Gay Liberation Front dedicated itself to combating sexism. Many GLFers believed that sex roles were at the root of their oppression, and a number of men worked hard to develop nonsexist ways of thinking and acting. (Some, such as The Effeminists, eventually dedicated themselves wholly to breaking down “the patriarchy.”) But others continued to act in ways that diminished women’s standing in the group—calling them “girls,” expecting them to make coffee, dominating conversations, and demeaning those who disagreed with them—or questioned how much time and resources should be devoted to so-called “women’s issues.”
Tensions between men and women came to a head in the spring of 1970, when women proposed hosting their own dances. GLF dances were “overwhelmingly attended by males,” and women had grown weary of “the ‘pack-’em-in’ attitude” of the dance organizers. They longed to create “an ambience that encouraged group dancing and space for conversation.”
While some men supported the women’s efforts to host their own dances, a number of others were opposed to the idea. The group had worked hard to come together across gender lines, and a separate dance seemed not only “‘divisive’ and ‘insulting,’” but also like “‘a step backward.’” What’s more, they argued, women should not be able to use money from the GLF treasury to organize events that barred men.
Despite this resistance, the women prevailed. Their first separate dance–held on April 3, 1970–was “a huge success,” drawing hundreds of women to the space they’d secured at Alternate University. One woman remembered: “We danced fast, we danced slow, we danced Greek-style, we danced in circles and pairs, we rapped, we were stoned on joy. We were all women, all in love with each other, and we had a tremendous sense of power in our self-sufficiency.” The women began preparations for more dances immediately.
The dances not only allowed GLF women to forge a sense of community with other lesbians, but also gave them the opportunity to meet and work separately from men—an experience they found exhilarating.
Later, women in the Aquarius Cell took money from GLF’s community center fund to finance independent dances. Their move infuriated many men in GLF, including Jerry Hoose and Michael Lavery, who left the group as a result of their action:
Other Origins: Homophobia in the Women’s Liberation Movement
As GLF women struggled against sexism in the group, lesbians in the women’s liberation movement were battling the anti-gay attitudes of many of their straight sisters. Feminist activism had been empowering for many lesbians, but they also felt alienated by a movement that frequently ignored them or diminished their concerns.
Mainstream groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) “were openly hostile to lesbians.” NOW president Betty Friedan, for example, was so concerned that lesbians would tarnish the reputation of the women’s movement that she labeled them a “lavender menace.”
Radical women’s liberation groups were more welcoming—and some, such as The Feminists, praised lesbians for their women-centered lives. But too often these groups also wrote off lesbians’ concerns as unimportant or argued that they were dividing the movement.
By early 1970, lesbians from women’s liberation were just as tired as GLF women of “feeling ignored” by the movement they had worked so hard for—and both groups of women welcomed the opportunity to join together in separate Consciousness-Raising groups in the spring.
The Lavender Menace Action
Shortly after they began meeting in C-R groups, lesbian feminists found their opportunity to challenge homophobia in the women’s movement. The NOW-sponsored Second Congress to Unite Women had blatantly ignored lesbianism: “not a single speaker, workshop, or plenary involved an open lesbian.” The newly-united lesbian feminists formed a group to plan an action that would challenge women’s liberationists to recognize and embrace their lesbian sisters. They called themselves the Lavender Menace in reference to Freidan’s disparaging comment.
In preparation for the conference, the group wrote the first lesbian feminist manifesto, “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Beginning with the famous assertion that “a lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion,” the document argued that lesbians defied the “limitations and oppression laid on” them by “the female role.” The manifesto challenged women’s liberationists to deal with “this issue,” not only because the movement was inhibited by its anxiety about lesbianism, but also because lesbians’ total commitment to other women put them at the vanguard of the movement.
On May 1, 1970, about 40 Lavender Menaces infiltrated the Second Congress to Unite Women. At the beginning of a panel discussion that had drawn hundreds of women to the auditorium, the group turned the lights off. When the lights came back on, women wearing Lavender Menace t-shirts had taken over the stage and posters with slogans like TAKE A LESBIAN TO LUNCH, SUPERDYKE LOVES YOU, and THE WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT IS A LESBIAN PLOT dotted the walls.
One Menace explained to the audience: “We have come to tell you that we lesbians are being oppressed outside the movement and inside the movement by a sexist attitude. We want to discuss the lesbian issue with you.”
After passing out copies of “The Woman-Identified Woman,” the Menaces began talking about their experiences as lesbians; some of the women in attendance joined them on the stage to do the same. Although a few women walked out, most were receptive to the action.
By the end of the conference, the congress voted to adopt the resolutions laid out by the Lavender Menaces:
Be it resolved that Women’s Liberation is a lesbian plot.
Resolved that whenever the label lesbian is used against the movement collectively or against women individually, it is to be affirmed, not denied.
In all discussions of birth control, homosexuality must be included as a legitimate method of contraception.
All sex education curricula must include lesbianism as a valid, legitimate form of sexual expression and love.
In the weeks that followed, the Lavender Menaces organized new Consciousness-Raising groups with women from the congress. Soon enough, they decided it was time to form an autonomous organization—and Radicalesbians was born.
As Radical Lesbians set out to create their own movement, they worked hard to avoid the problems they had experienced in other groups. They wanted to develop an organization that would nurture each member, encourage equal participation, and discourage patriarchal “leadership hierarchies” that would allow individual women to exert undue influence on the group.
They instituted the lot system so that members took part in all aspects of the organization—from mundane tasks like writing meeting minutes to more challenging jobs like public speaking. With the exception of a general Wednesday night meeting, members met in small groups that encouraged strong bonds and gave all women the opportunity to be heard.
The group aimed to create a supportive community of women, to give lesbians a voice in the gay and women’s liberation movements, and to take action against their oppression. They picketed lesbian bars in an effort to reach out to less political women, contributed to feminist publications like Rat, spoke about lesbianism at colleges and on radio shows, and participated in activities like self-defense classes at an All Women’s Night at Alternate U.
Although Radicalesbians worked hard to bring together a wide range of women, the group nonetheless began to splinter. Women who achieved conventional success were chided for elitism, and less radical members felt alienated by the pressure to conform to radical ways of thinking and acting. In the fall of 1970, Barbara Love left the group to bring back the GLF Women’s Caucus, which she promised would welcome women of all backgrounds and political outlooks.
Members also struggled to create a sense of togetherness in the group. Despite their best efforts to discourage individual members from taking leadership roles, women who were better versed in lesbian feminist theory, were more confident and outgoing, or who had more political experience and organizational expertise nonetheless became unofficial leaders. Less outgoing, less experienced, and newer members often felt diminished or left out.
By 1971, many of the original members had become disenchanted with all forms of organizational activity, leaving the group to focus on transforming their own lives. While RL collapsed within the next year, it helped to spark an explosion of lesbian cultural and political activity that went far beyond the group itself.
DIFO Note: An important, but overlooked problem in lesbian and bisexual women’s community organizing today is ableism. This essay scratches the surface of the issues that we all need to address, as many of us are only temporarily able-bodied and could learn so much from our sisters who are already coping with disability. Our communities would be so enriched by including all our diverse members.
Homophobia and Disability
By Cory Silverberg, About.com Guide
Updated November 30, 2011
About.com Health’s Disease and Condition content is reviewed by the Medical Review Board
People who are disabled, particularly those who are visibly disabled, are usually treated as if they are not sexual. This happens on an individual level, but just as important, this happens on a social level, systemically. Disability, in all the ways it gets formally and informally defined, is not seen to encompass sexuality. Disabled bodies are not seen as powerful, desirable or sexual.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Things can change. And in the work of disability activists, scholars, artists and other disabled people one can see shifts in some communities and some parts of society. At one time disability was excluded all together from conversations about sexuality, now it sometimes gets a sidebar.
In some ways, this shift mirrors the shift to greater inclusion of people who identify as gay and lesbian in mainstream discussions of sexuality. And there are certainly links between homophobia – the multiple ways that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are marginalized and excluded – and ableism, which in part describes how people with disabilities are marginalized and excluded.
So what happens if you’re disabled and gay? Or you live with a disability and feel yourself to be lesbian or queer, or you don’t have a word for it but you know that the people you desire to have sex with are not the people whom others think you should have sex with?
This experience is difficult in large part because of the way homophobia impacts people who have lived experience of disability. Here are some of the common things people experience:
Growing up gay and disabled. Many kids with disabilities who think they might be gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer grow up being treated by their families as if they aren’t sexual. They don’t get “the sex talk,” there’s no talk of long-term relationships or marriage, and even the rules that are used to curtail their siblings’ sexual explorations (like curfews or not having people in their room without a parent present) aren’t imposed on them because they aren’t considered necessary. There is a general denial of any sexual potential or identity, and this makes any sexual exploration, never mind one that may be seen as transgressive or wrong even in a so-called normal person, that much harder.
In families where there may be some acknowledgment that a person with a disability can be sexual, it is almost always tied to being heterosexual. In fact, heterosexuality may be held out as a hope that a person with a disability may not be so “abnormal” after all. Well-meaning friends and family may say things like “maybe you’ll get married” or “maybe you’ll be able to have a child.” But these statements also express something else: “There’s no way that you are going to grow up to be queer or into BDSM or a swinger.”
To add to this external oppression, many kids with disabilities grow up feeling as if their need for support is a burden on their family. And they will often stay in the closet because they get subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, messages that they shouldn’t add to that burden by being “even more different” by being gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. They may respond to these messages by hiding or denying a crucial part of who they are.
This experience is not unlike other people who live with multiple marginalized identities and are made to feel they should be grateful for the privilege of being sexual at all, and shouldn’t “rock the boat” by expressing sexual desires or beliefs that run counter to the mainstream.
Finding community and community access. Most gay, lesbian and bisexual communities are inaccessible to folks with disabilities. There is just as much “ableism” in these communities as any other. Social events will be held in spaces that are physically inaccessible. Accommodations (like ASL interpreters for people who are deaf and hard of hearing) are rarely offered or even considered. And some gay communities, for example, can hold even more rigid standards for beauty and desirability, to the point where you may feel if you can’t have a body that’s muscular, chiseled and capable of having sex six times a night, you can’t be “properly gay.”
These experiences of being left out are incredibly painful, and they can be even more difficult when the people doing the exclusion are themselves part of a smaller marginalized group where you feel you belong. Some people describe it as not just a denial of what I can do, but a denial of who I am. The result is that people may hide who they are or who they desire, or they may even come to deny it to themselves.
The effects on individuals and relationships of all this discrimination is terrible. There’s a social effect as well. All of the above experiences which contribute to people staying in the closet means that out in public we tend to see fewer folks who both identify proudly as disabled AND as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. This leads a lot of people to think that this means that disabled queer people simply don’t exist, ignoring the ways that all of us contribute to the problem.
But the bottom line is that that both homophobia and ableism create barriers to sexual expression for many people with disabilities. It’s these barriers, more than biology or bodies, that keep people invisible and silent.
DIFO Note: Ageism is another social justice issue affecting most of us in the DIFO community. We were taught to be ageist by our culture. Here is a brief quiz to see if you harbor any ageist ideas about lesbians.
From Older Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC):
ARE YOU AGEIST?
Do you consider “young” a compliment and “old” a derogatory synonym for ugly, decrepit, out-of-date (“You don’t look your age.”)?
Do you speak/do for an Old Lesbian instead of letting her speak/do for herself and assume she needs help?
Do you view an Old Lesbian either as a burden or an icon, rather than as an equal with whom a reciprocal relationship is desirable?
Do you patronize a courageous Old Lesbian by trivializing her anger as “feistiness?” (Would you call Superman “feisty”?)
Do you categorize an outspoken Old Lesbian as “complaining,” “difficult,” or “crotchety?”
Do you assume that an Old Lesbian is asexual?
Are you unsupportive of an Old Lesbian looking for a partner, or disrespectful of an Old Lesbian’s choice to be single?
Do you refrain from confronting ageist remarks because they are “not really meant that way?”