To compare the female experience of oppression to the black experience of oppression is to ignore that there is still a population of people who experience both simultaneously.
By Maryline Dossou
In 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono release a song titled, “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” The tune, Lennon unapologetically explained, was inspired by Irish revolutionary James Connelly’s statement that “the female worker is the slave of the slave.” It was also meant as an apology to women, acknowledging Lennon’s past as an abuser and perpetrator of female oppression.
The song, although inciting its fair share of controversy, was defended by many then and even as recently as 2016, in an op-ed for the Huffington Post by MAD Magazine senior editor Joe Raiola. Even worse was that, despite Lennon’s insistence that it was inspired by the Irish struggles, it was hard to hide that it sounded strikingly familiar to a line in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in which Janie’s grandmother says, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world.”
But perhaps worst of all, is how positively white feminists worldwide have received the song, even now. In 1972, the National Organization for Women awarded Ono and Lennon with the “Positive Image of Women” award for what they described as a “strong pro-feminist statement.” In 2011, a woman at the NYC SlutWalk marched with a sign held up that quoted the song’s title. And in 2017, actress Rose McGowan, hot on the heels of being lauded a feminist hero for her outspokenness regarding sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, fired off a since-deleted tweet in response to James Corden that echoed the painfully familiar message.
“THIS IS RICH FAMOUS HOLLYWOOD WHITE MALE PRIVILEGE IN ACTION,” the post read. “REPLACE THE WORD ‘WOMEN’ w/ the ‘N’ word. How does it feel?”
McGowan has been one of the most vocal about the abuse in Hollywood suffered by women, most notably at the hands of disgraced Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein. With the number of accusers against Weinstein totaling more than 40 and growing, the recent revelations have inspired the hashtag #metoo.
The #metoo movement, in which women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault share their stories of harassment and abuse to illuminate the pervasiveness of the issue, was widely credited to actress Alyssa Milano, who signaled the call to women via Twitter this past Sunday. The only problem? It was uncovered soon thereafter by Ebony Magazine that the #metoo campaign was created a decade ago by African-American activist and sexual violence survivor Tarana Burke (Milano has also since acknowledged this).
That Ono and Lennon’s song title drew from Hurston’s proclamation about black women’s role in the world, is more salt in the proverbial wound of black women who have been erased from the national discourse and historical narrative of feminism. They took a statement about black women and whitewashed it. That statement, as well as Connelly’s before them, was also echoed by middle and upper class homemakers in the 1830s who likened the conditions of being married to slavery, and poorer working women who compared their situation of economic inequality to slavery as well.
In a positive light, this correlation engendered white women to become prominent figures in the abolitionist movement, believing they should stand up for oppression everywhere. But further down the line, these same white women would abandon the abolitionist movement, dismayed that black men’s rights were advancing quicker than their own. This frustration even led to feminist hero Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s infamous testimony that “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.”
The problem with addressing declarations like McGowan’s is that there is no proper way to do so without engaging in the “Oppression Olympics” that those sort of statements foment. Black rights and women’s rights are two completely different struggles. They converge only in one way: through black women. Black women are the nigger of the black people and the nigger of women.
When Alice Walker introduced the term “womanism,” into the feminist lexicon in 1983, she described it as being “to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Womanism seeks to express the black woman’s status as a member of two communities that suffer oppression. In the Civil Rights Movement, the tension between black women and white women arose from the disparity of suffering under gender oppression versus suffering under racial and gender discrimination simultaneously. Put in the position of having to choose which side to stand with and identify with the most, “womanism” situated black women at the center of both communities; the only one who understood what it was like to not benefit from either white or male supremacy.
In journalist/activist Claudia Jones’s prolific 1949 essay, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” Jones put the onus on white women to improve their relationships with black women in order to advance feminism to its maximum potential. “Chauvinism on the part of progressive white women,” she wrote, “is often expressed in their failure to have close ties of friendship with Negro women and to realize that this fight for equality of Negro women is in their own self-interest, inasmuch as the superexploitation and oppression of Negro women tends to depress the standards of all women.”
Statements like McGowan’s are problematic, not only because they pit one group’s oppression against another’s, something that white women have historically done in their quest for white male equality, but also because they neglect to acknowledge the unique atrocities POC have faced under white hegemony and the complexities of the intersections of gender and race.
To compare the female experience of oppression to the black experience of oppression is to ignore that there is still a population of people who experience both simultaneously. To suggest that women are the niggers of the world is in no way pro-feminism. And if it is pro-feminism, then feminism proves once again that it is no place for women of color.
Author Bio: Maryline Dossou is an NYC-based writer, editor and activist who earned her BA in journalism from Temple University and her MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NYU’s Graduate Center for Experimental Humanities. Her work focuses largely on race, gender, oppression and social justice. You can find her at her blog, Twitter and Instagram: melanin_monreaux_