When I call up writer Tamara Winfrey Harris, I imagine us curling up on a sofa together, perhaps with some junk food and a bottle of wine, talking about our favorite TV shows and Spotify playlists. That’s how Tamara Winfrey Harris and I are—a couple of smart women who like to kick it with popular culture, but in a brainy and kinda nerdy way. One day we just might do the sofa and wine thing. But our lives have yet to make that possible. Instead, we became friends over the Internet, each following the other’s work, then editing each other. Now, despite not having the chance to meet in real life, we’re close friends. Social media may have its pitfalls, but our friendship is a true highlight and every single day, we check in on each other.
What brought us together, and what keeps us together, is a friendship rooted in feminism and social justice on the daily. Our friendship is one strong enough to handle and accept differences in opinion and still value each other’s input. As Tami was working on her new book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, I joined legions of people who cheered her on her because I knew she had something valuable to say. The book hit shelves this month and I know it’s going to be a title everyone is talking about—or soon will be! Why? Because Tami breaks out of the normative and minimizing narrative that confines Black women’s lives and pushes all of us to explore how we all contribute to the noise around Black women’s sexuality, health, and livelihoods without ever listening to Black women. Hers is a wake up call, a call not only to the “sisters” who are “alright” but also to white women who seek ways to be allies and advocates for antiracism but just don’t really know how to do that.
Tami and I started off talking about the binary view of Black and white women.
STEPHANIE GILMORE: Tami, thank you for writing this book! I'm struck first of all how our dominant narrative about women sets white women against Black women, a narrative you seek to unpack. What in your book calls that narrative into question?
TAMI WINFREY HARRIS: I compare the experiences of white and Black women quite a lot in Sisters. I want to be clear that this is not because I am dismissive of white women’s experiences with sexism. I am also not forgetting the existence of other women of color. But America’s unique racial history has placed white and Black women in binary positions where white women are idealized as the pinnacle of beauty and femininity—and there is a ton of sexism to unpack in that idealization—and Black women are their polar opposites. Everyone else jockeys for a space between.
It’s so true. For white women, trying to adhere to a beauty standard is a real thing, too. But white women have the option of opting out and not being any less white. Maybe less feminine, but certainly not less white. Your book suggests, however, how Black women are often on the game about beauty because of and in spite of beauty norms and femininity.
Yeah. The point I tried to make in the book is that as ludicrous as Western beauty standards are for ALL women, the fact that the chief standard is whiteness makes it doubly hard for Black women. Black women are judged against mainstream standards, but also the standards of our own communities. And Black communities DO have standards. One thing I didn’t get a chance to talk about in the book is how people think, because women of double-digit size can be pretty and sexy in SOME Black communities, that Black people as a whole have no standards by which we judge beauty. We do. They are just different in some ways and they are as unforgiving to women as mainstream ones.
Having to be a light-brown-skinned woman with European features and long (preferably straight but never fake) hair, small waist, and a big ass isn’t particularly easy. The natural hair revolution that I talk about in the book is in many ways a middle finger to the pressure on Black women to be anything other than what they are.
You write near the beginning of the book, “The diminishing mainstream portrait of Black womanhood cannot contain its multitudes.” How do we see white women contributing to that diminishing portrait?
One pop culture example would be the ways some white entertainers, such as Iggy Azalea, have decided to perform Black womanhood or exploit Black womanhood. In the case of Miley Cyrus’ twerking obsession, that seems blessedly to have waned. We can also point to the way Patricia Arquette disappeared African Americans from womanhood in her Oscar remarks.
But, really, we don’t have to look at celebrities for examples. White women, even well-meaning liberal feminist ones through their racial privilege, are necessarily part of a system that oppresses all women of color. The first solution to lessening tension within feminism is to acknowledge that.
Well-meaning white women… yes. I see this happening a lot in feminist spaces where women of color are allowed the space to speak about racism. But when it comes to sexism, that is still often white women’s territory. Just as trans women are given space to speak about trans issues, but never about, say, beauty norms or health. I think many of us have to acknowledge these kinds of behaviors, but also to push ourselves beyond them. To step up about racism and step back about so many other lived experiences.
Patricia Arquette demonstrated this with her Oscar speech. All the women are white. Women’s issues are the issues of white women. I always say that sexism visits all women, but it does NOT visit us in the same ways. Intersection is important. I think third wave feminists understand that intellectually, but aren’t always good at understanding what that means in practice. It means if we talk about wage equality, then we need to talk about how—though we’re both making less than white men—your race allows you to make more. And if we talk about mothering and valuing stay-at-home moms, then we need to talk about how Black and brown mothers are often looked upon as deviant. And we have to talk about how white women have historically used Black and brown women to mother their children.
Feminism is complicated and some people want to make it easy by just focusing on THEIR experiences. That is not feminism.
It certainly isn’t feminism when we omit the varied experiences of women. That’s why we need feminismS, not just a singular feminism. It’s shocking, but not surprising, that so many white women still devalue Black women’s contributions to our larger conversations. On page 119 of the book you write, “Black women are not seeking special treatment—just to be treated as human beings of worth.”
That’s the thing. The HUGE thing. I don’t think people realize how much Black women are presented as less than human. It happens in small, seemingly unimportant ways, like how Hollywood rarely uses Black women as romantic leads or heroines. And it happens in big, dangerous ways. One example I give in the book is how missing and murdered Black women don’t get the sympathy and attention that missing white women and murdered Black men do. Those big and small things add up to Black women seeming valueless to our society.
That’s been a huge issue. When Black women are murdered, no one pays attention, like Black women are expendable. Your book shows such tremendous value that Black women bring to themselves and to any of us who are listening and reading. This is something we have been battling in women’s studies courses and curricula, which are by definition plural (women’s) but are always rendered as white women and others. Yet the history of Black women’s writing, and so many women of color writing, has been to step out of the shadows, pave their own path, determine for themselves what matters and what doesn’t.
Writing this book was so inspiring for me. I am better for it. The women I spoke to are amazing. Like, I tear up when I think about their strength and beauty and creativity. The fact that by virtue of their race, other people may not see their brilliance, makes me fucking angry. But the many ways they love themselves in spite of everything makes me happy. I think this is something that all women can relate to: Having to decide that you are alright and are going to celebrate your alrightness and surround yourself with people who affirm you and try to block out the negative propaganda you are bombarded with. I wish for every person to be able to do that.
Yes!!! We have seen this call before, this call to listen and really hear Black women speak about their own lives, histories, struggles, and successes. Or failures. Because we are all human, after all. Your book reminds me of others we’ve both read—for example, But Some of Us Are Brave really made an indelible mark on me in my own studies about women’s diverse, divergent, and different lives—really sealed the plural women in women’s studies. Your book follows in these footsteps, along with This Bridge Called Our Backs and We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible, because it allows for generous understanding of Black women, flaws and all.
I am so happy to hear that you felt this way. Generosity—that is something that Black women seldom get when it comes to the way people see us. I hope this book will firstly allow us to be more generous with ourselves and also to demand that other people are more generous with us. And, if other folks who are not Black women learn that we are complex beings from this book? That is a bonus.
I am also happy to hear more people talking about “feminisms” vs. “feminism.” The former acknowledges the diversity of women, including how our race and ethnicity influences how sexism plays out in our lives.
It’s so true. And yet we still need to think about and educate white antiracist allies in our collective work. Just this past month has been incredibly hard for all of us, between Rachel Dolezal’s claim to Blackness and the terroristic murder of the Charleston Nine at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Then of course, Bree Newsome did her thing by taking down the Confederate flag. Black women don’t have to be superheroes like Bree Newsome. They don’t have to be anything but themselves, which is a powerful feminist lesson.
This is true. But damn, Bree Newsome is awesome, though.
Ain’t she, though?! Still, this is something white women haven’t really been talking about as necessary. I’m so proud that Bree did what she did, but I wonder why we haven’t seen more hard work on building alliances across racial divides. And I think it is hard because allies are so invested in calling themselves such but don’t know how to step back long enough to know when to step up.
Allies listen. Allies privilege the voices of oppressed groups. Allies educate themselves. Allies actively address the role of people like them in oppression. Allies don’t call themselves allies, but simply do the work. That is what I—a Black feminist—want from white feminists.
I think often Black women are not given the benefit of the doubt as feminists in the same way that white women are. We are held to a higher standard of being down with cause of equality. I have heard folks reject Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj’s feminism because of their blatant sexuality, all the while explaining away racist fuckery that affects Black women from Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham.
All this right here! So many people will split hairs about whether or not Beyoncé mixing in Chimimanda Adiche’s definition of feminism is feminist. Um, what is feminism if it isn’t the social, political, and economic equality of women and a call to stop shrinking and minimizing girls? Beyoncé’s and Nicki’s embrace of their own sexuality is so positive and affirming, but it makes people so uncomfortable. I just don’t get it, except it is a way that white women invoke tropes and stereotypes of Black women too. For me, feminism is even better when I can dance to it! But yeah, where are the calls to arms from white feminists when funny white girls like Schumer and Dunham are racist as can be? Instead, they are heralded as the current iteration of feminism, one that is built again on the backs and fronts of Black women. Surely we can do better, and one good place to start is your book’s call to hear Black women talk about their own lives instead of measuring them by some cultural yardstick that renders them invisible.
The power of your book in this moment is that it isn’t about people sticking with the broken narrative. It’s about confronting that narrative through a focus on the people most directly affected by it: Black women. And saying, you know what, we’re just fine, in all of our complexities and messiness. Thinking about what white women can learn from this book is first, listen to people tell their own stories. We see Black women doing incredible—and ordinary—things but rarely consider Black women as “women,” as part of the plurality of “us.” This makes me think about how Black women’s survival is resistance in this narrative.
I wrote this book as a love letter to Black women. I wrote it for women like me—firstly. But if it helps other people understand us better, that is a bonus. And if having other people acknowledge our complexity, including the ways we are like them and different from them, makes Black women’s lives easier, makes us alright in eyes that aren’t our own? Well, that is more than I could ever hope for.
So Tami and I will save the wine-time on the sofa for another day. And that’s alright—we check in with each other every day. But we also celebrate each other, and today, we can also celebrate The Sisters are Alright. Because they are. And if we’re going to advance a feminist agenda, whatever that means, we must include all women and build alliances because of and in spite of our differences. Do yourself a favor and have your own conversation with Tami and the dozens of women she features in her book.