Coming to Terms: The Use of Gender in Spiritual & Esoteric Communities

When we say male/female or man/woman there are ideas and behaviours that we associate with those words, and those ideas don’t disappear in spiritual, religious or esoteric communities. The framework of woman-man is meaningful in our culture and I make no pretence about doing away with those concepts; but rather I seek to deepen our understanding of how we shape our lives by making some important contrasts: most pertinent to this conversation, and what informs my existential philosophy, is that to say feminine and masculine is not the same as to say man or woman.

I first started thinking seriously about gender when I was introduced to Black feminist thought in my late teens. Prolific intellectuals and theorists bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins inspired me to pay attention to the things I had assumed were an ordinary part of being a Black girl becoming a woman. Things I had unconsciously associated with my sense of place and value in the world; namely, to give as much of myself as possible in service of others. There is some virtue in that belief, but Black feminism showed me how fragile and undeveloped my sense of self was. As well as the deep debt of love I was accumulating in a culture that had nothing to say about how Black girls could care for themselves. (more…)

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“Light Skin Guys Be Like” – On the Boundaries of Blackness (A Response)

The Big Bad Black Community

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I loved the Lion King metaphor in Bilal’s blog post “Light Skin Guys Be Like”. So I thought I’d start with a Simba reference of my own in the form of a meme, (which I found online, don’t start with me).

Bilal asks questions about what it means to be a mixed race or light skinned man relating with Black communities. Particularly experiences of rejection, or not feeling Black enough. As a member of the implicated community, and being aware of my position as a light skinned Black woman, I want to suggest some ways we could be thinking about these experiences*.

*Mixed race is a complex social category, in this context I’m writing about Black African descent and white parentage. I’m also silently thinking about how this applies, or does not, to Black African descent and Asian parentage.  

It’s important to complicate the dominant picture of a Black community that spurns mixed race/light skinned Blacks, and to think about the politics of belonging.

In her interviews with mixed race adults, Karis Campion explains that rejection was felt more deeply when it was caused by an interaction with a Black person, rather than a white one. This could be one of the reasons stories of Black rejection are more prevalent. But it also produces an interesting contrast, in that the construction of whiteness as pure means mixed race Britons can never be white.

This raises questions for me about how mixed race associations with Blackness develop. Whether as determined as non-white and therefore Black; through ethnic identities built on shared ancestry and cultural practices, e.g. food, language, religion etc.; or through the global appeal of “Black cool” as a model for popularity and acceptance.

Broadening this discussion, the single story of Black rejection conflicts with the ways colourism functions in the Black British community. Bilal was called ‘light skin boi’ in the Jamaican food shop, which was potentially an estrangement. But how does our reading of that event change when we think about the British Jamaican community as hyper-vigilant of colour. A community who affectionately call light skinned Black women and girls like me “browning”; a validation of their/our beauty based solely on skin tone. How often do Black parents watch their newborns for signs of lighter skin or ‘good hair’, both of which mixed race Blacks are venerated for? How often have Black women and men loved and nurtured mixed race children – through birth, adoption, fostering, and church relationships – within the boundaries of a Black community. Can I get an amen?

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Disrespectability, Black Feminism, and a Race to the Bottom  

I do not endorse respectability politics in so far as it is an ineffectual strategy for countering white supremacy, or any other structural subordination (say rape culture), through sheer will and demonstration of moral uprightness, in accordance with the values of a dominant group in society. It does not work.

I do however understand its roots in ‘progressive-era activism’. Evelyn Higgingbotham has written at length on the promotion of temperance, polite manners and sexual purity in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1800-1920. Here she describes respectability politics as ‘reform of individual behaviour as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform.’ (Higgingbotham, 1993, p187). Paisley Jane Harris also writes a critical review of respectability politics in Black feminism through an engagement of three different sets of research on the lives of African-American women. Harris cites respectability as ‘standards of temperance, sexual restraint, and neat appearance in their attire and living space in order to ensure access to jobs, housing, and, eventually, equal rights.’ (Harris, 2003, p214)

Respectability politics has been a community wide rhetoric, but the particular burden of that performance has fallen especially on the shoulders of Black/African-American women. It therefore makes sense that critiques of respectability are a necessary defence of Black women who struggle to live in ways that feel individually liberating; more so when these choices do not conform to social convention.

But, I want to suggest that some of our intraracial conversations about the lives of Black women are not about respectability politics, even though this may be the language we are using, we are actually engaging in politics of disrespectability.

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