“I am a bad feminist,” Roxane Gay tells us at the end of her essay collection Bad Feminist. “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” People, I am so glad she’s a feminist, because she’s one of the ones we need with us. It would be awful to have her against us.
I’ve been reading Roxane’s blog for some time now, which prepared me to handle this essay collection. You’ll want to be somewhat prepared, because her writing is so smooth and so beautiful, so magnificently real, that you can be taken by complete surprise when she addresses a terrible subject. That’s the problem with really good writers. They suck you in and have you looking through their eyes with little feeling of distance, and that can be harrowing when subjects like rape and murder come up.
The book covers enormous ground. She reviews some books (fans of this post will love her take on 50 Shades of Suckage). I’ve decided I’ll have to read The Hunger Games because of her, and will have to give the movies a second look, because she may very well have changed my opinion of them. She takes us to the movies, and now I’m glad I didn’t give Django Unchained much of my time aside from watching a few scenes with B’s brothers whilst waiting for him to get ready, because it has worse problems than I’d expected. I will have to see Fruitvale Station, though I know it will break my heart, now that she’s introduced me to it. These are some of the ways she changed my life when I read the book. Some of those ways aren’t as small as they may seem.
There are essays on atrocities like Trayvon Martin’s murder and the massacre in Norway, and there are essays on politics and reproductive choice, and what it means to be a woman in a world where men think they know best. There’s Scrabble, and teaching, and academia. There are some powerful pieces on women in publishing that are incredibly powerful, which we’ll explore sometime soon.
And there are so many things a white feminist like me needed to hear.
“Women of color, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project,” Roxane says. “Women from these groups have been shamefully abandoned by Capital-F Feminism, time and again. This is a hard, painful truth.” How many more women like her are avoiding feminism because, to paraphrase Roxane, they decide it’s not for them as black women?
There’s no blueprint for white feminists that will show us exactly how to include the women we often unthinkingly marginalize, but we can listen, and Roxane’s voice is one of those we should listen to. This essay is an excellent crash course in what it means to be a black woman in America. We can get a sense of where we fall short. We can also see all the ways in which we intersect. We can see where we can do better.
I learned a few things about supporting women of color. I learned, again, how very important it is to speak up. Roxane tells the story of being in graduate school, and walking by a classmate’s office just as the woman told other students that Roxane “was the affirmative-action student.” She talks about how those words could crush her, feed into her fears, despite the fact she works extremely hard, despite all her success. She talks about having no one she could speak to who could understand what had just happened.”Those peers, by the way, did not defend me,” she writes. “They did not disagree. That hurt too.”
Don’t stay silent when you hear people say these things. Whether there’s a Roxane in the room or the hall doesn’t matter, although they could be there, and having one person speak out against that bullshit may make some difference to them. Speak out regardless. This shit ain’t right.
And listen to women like Roxane. Listen when they tell you want they need from feminism:
Audre Lorde once stated, I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womanness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.” As a woman of color, I find that some feminists don’t seem terribly concerned with the issues unique to women of color – the ongoing effects of racism and postcolonialism, the status of women in the Third World, the fight against the trenchant archetypes black women are forced into (angry black woman, mammy, Hottentot, and the like).
We can do so much better as this intersectional stuff. We need to do better. We can start by including many more women of color in our reading and viewing and conferences.
You may be worried about that title, Bad Feminist. You may be concerned about someone calling themselves a bad feminist, afraid you’ll be too radically different to agree, but relax. Roxane’s a bad feminist the way that we SJW-type feminists are: bad in the eyes of people like Christina Hoff Sommers, bad according to other feminists who want to define feminism in ways that reduce us down to man-hating, hairy-legged, humorless machines. She’s a feminist I don’t always agree with, of course – I doubt there’s a single feminist in the world I’d agree with on every point minute and huge. Our opinions diverge on things, like her not seeing state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds for women who want abortions as a form of rape, and me seeing them as so close to rape as makes no difference. It’s a reasonable disagreement, and in every instance where we disagree, she puts her point so clearly that I can see why she would diverge. The world needs all sorts of us, and there’s plenty of room for differences. She’s rock-solid where it truly counts: equality, and social justice, and reproductive rights, and women needing to achieve far more that what we’ve managed to pry out of the patriarchy so far. The best thing is knowing we can be bad, imperfect feminists, and still be awesome feminists after all. Roxane’s final two essays allow you to take a breath and take the plunge without worrying about being a completely perfect feminist. There’s absolutely nothing bad about that.
Roxane Gay is definitely a bad feminist, in the sense we meant bad when I was a kid: awesome, beyond cool, totally good. And she’s shown me how to be a better feminist than when I started reading her. I can’t recommend her book and her blog enough.