Rant + Ramble
The Hood Is Home: Feminism’s Blindspot
In 2020, after local police officers violently murdered Minneapolis resident, cherished father, and respected community member George Perry Floyd Jr., I saw several books littered across timelines of long-time activists and others in an attempt to educate the [white] community on racial and class issues that impact underrepresented groups. Among the book list was Mikki Kendall’s book, Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women that a Movement Forgot. Immediately, my heart swelled at the thought that someone might venture to affirm the experiences of black girls who proudly represent the communities typically labeled ‘at-risk,’ ‘dangerous,’ and ‘ghetto.’ But I didn’t read the book. I was still recovering from my encounter with toxic scholars some supposed feminists (and womanists) in academia. I was skeptical about the scope of the message.
Over the last two decades, countless people have been selective when choosing which identities they embrace and advocate for. Whether it’s toeing the line on ethnic labels like Zoë Saldana or an elaborate creation of a group, such as Rachel Dolezal’s choice to be transracial, which Kendall mentions in the book. When people selectively claim identities that grant social capital within specific groups, leveraging identities becomes messy. But what happens when an identity can’t be leveraged in a person’s favor? Few people will jump to the front line to receive a physical or metaphorical lashing that ends in shame because they don’t ‘belong’ in a space they attempt to occupy. Anti-racism activist Jane Elliot’s work shows how few people consider their privilege and passive role in structural inequality a problem worth correcting. When proponents of feminism claim to support women’s right to freedom and overlook groups of women often missing from the larger narrative, they contribute to the gross neglect and violence done to girls and women.
No woman is excused from biases. I spent years in communities that sidelined my right to express myself freely and foolishly attempted to follow and implement the rules of respectability only to return to the better parts of myself and the outcasted women whom I love with remorse.
I remember the first time I was embarrassed about living in a public housing complex (often referred to as Section 8). In middle school, a teacher instructed students to complete a group assignment that required working on it outside class. I couldn't work on the assignment during school hours because I attended two middle schools — an arts and science academy and a general public school. My group decided it was best to meet at a classmate’s house on a Saturday and scheduled a meeting time. As the youngest of five, weekends were typically packed with additional activities like cleaning, attending church, or visiting my grandparents. Although assignments like this were largely inconvenient for busy parents, my mother’s commitment to her daughter’s education was unwavering. Still, she couldn’t be in two places at once. She dropped me off to maintain our household schedule and planned to return when the assignment was completed.
I can’t remember everything, but I recall walking into my classmate’s house on the other side of the city, unprepared for the social encounter. I felt like I was Jurnee Smollett’s character on an episode of Full House. Although Denise Frazer’s role was initially written for a white character, Smollett gave the pint-sized girl every characteristic that makes black girls magical. Still, her outspoken presence on the show showed how black girls fight to express themselves freely and find joy while maneuvering in the shadows and prioritizing others' experiences. Although Smollett was only four years old and featured in fourteen episodes of the show, it’s still mentioned in interviews as her most famous feature by mainstream media rather than recent works showcasing her artistic prowess, like Eve’s Bayou, Underground, or Lovecraft Country. She even recalls the Full House producers being impressed mainly by her reading ability.
Smollett isn’t the only person to be included in the franchise and slighted. The rock and roll legend Little Richard played Smollett’s uncle in an episode where he was presumed to be a talentless alcoholic by another musical cast member, Uncle Jessie, played by John Stamos. In the episode, Little Richard is asked to perform for free to support Joey’s political campaign. Although the writers likely thought little of the creative spin in the story, the request echoes the exploitation the artist lived as a black queer musician. Little Richard was painfully forced to manage his career and navigate “racism in the 1950s American music industry.” The slights he experienced as an inexperienced artist are appalling and “kept the singer from cashing in on some of his biggest hits.” It’s no secret Little Richard earned half a cent on each record sold for his hit song “Tutti Fruity.” His earnings peaked at $25,000 for a record that sold 500,000 copies. When asked about the abuse he suffered at the hands of the music industry, Little Richard said, “I was a dumb black kid and my mama had 12 kids and my daddy was dead,” Little Richard reportedly said of the deal, adding, “I wanted to help them, so I took whatever was offered.”
While Smollett is expected to remain graceful in interviews that assume her talent peaked at four years old, few people will critique why no television shows at the time followed the lifestyle of a character like Denise Frazer. Likewise, music industry moguls will never risk their ROI to implement equitable earning terms for first-time artists. Smollett’s and Little Richard’s experiences are two of many stories where people from underrepresented groups exist within restricted archetypes or redacted histories written by forces designed to exploit and oppress.
Being in my classmate's home reminded me of my first ‘best friend,’ a white girl who attended the same Lutheran preschool. She was anxious about being away from home all day, and according to my mother and former teacher, I attempted to bring her comfort. We would sit together in class and eat together at lunch. The companionship extended into shared birthday parties and overnight visits at her house. Her mother always invited my family over and pushed for her daughter and me to remain friends even after I left the school. Honestly, I don’t have a single memory of being her friend. Like Denise, I was a guest in her home and a supportive peer at school. I recall my sisters dreading visiting her home because of the apparent cultural differences in food choices and recreational activities. Recently, I asked my mother what made our visits stop in late elementary school. She told me the relationship fizzled out.
Although I was older, this felt the same. I was a guest. A guest at a school that made students complete entrance exams to attend and receive the title ‘gifted.’ A guest in her three-bedroom house. A guest in a suburb working diligently to clarify who could own a home by raising the property value. A guest in a home life scene written for white middle-class families. When planning our assignment was done, I called my mother to pick me up, but she didn’t answer. After three tries, my classmate’s mother insisted she could take me home. I knew our house was out of the way, but she refused to wait for my mother’s response.
As we neared my house, I focused on my newfound responsibilities, like giving turn-by-turn instructions and the right words to say when we reached the gate. The increase in gang violence between the Southside, Townhouse, Bloomfield, and other sets led to an unarmed security guard being placed at the entrance of the complex. As the youngest, I’d never been responsible for these details. When we pulled into the parking spot in front of my door, I rushed to thank her mother for the ride and get out of the car, but before I could do so, her mother unbuckled her seatbelt and pleaded to walk me to the door. I knew people were watching because the only white people who lived in the complex lived around back. I also knew everyone knew them by name. I hesitated but agreed to her request, and she instructed her daughter to stay in the backseat. I regretted my decision as soon as we reached the sidewalk.
Neighborhood kids, often riding bicycles, felt entitled to answers and asked, “Sierra, who is that lady?” I was used to them being nosy. Once, when my mom needed a rental car, they asked matter-of-factly if she owned it. They were the epitome of bold. It wasn’t until I glared at them for their tone, which was socially typical but disrespectful to use in front of an adult, that I realized how visibly uncomfortable my classmate’s mother was. Suddenly, something clicked. She wasn’t walking me to the door because I was a child in her care. She thought the fourteen steps between her car and my front door would endanger me. Perhaps the men sitting in and on the cars were dangerous. Or the kids on their bikes and hanging out on porches were hooligans. This was likely her first time checking the validity of the narrative surrounding people living in ‘these neighborhoods’: our home is dangerous.
When I knocked on our door, hoping to end the unwritten scene for a ‘Girls in the Hood’ spinoff, my mother answered in surprise. She’d been on the landline, and since our phone didn’t have a flash button that allowed us to accept incoming calls, she’d missed my call. I thanked my classmate’s mother, closed the door, and fussed internally at my mother for being unavailable. Secretly, I wondered if I would become the subject of whispers before class detailing her visit to a dangerous neighborhood on the Southside.
Where do the Cardi B’s go to claim their right to freedom?
I have returned to this memory several times with several demands and complaints. Initially, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t more embarrassed. When I fussed internally, I wondered why everyone in the neighborhood seemed outside when I arrived. I wanted my mom to get a new telephone with a flash button. I wanted to move to a different neighborhood. I wanted to unenroll from SASA. I wanted not to be a girl from the Southside who lived in Townhouse. With time, I reflected on this experience as a symptom indicating the actual diseases polluting society (e.g., racism, classism, patriarchy). Yes, girls need to be protected. No, we don’t need to be protected from the places that don’t meet the expectations of people outside our communities, the places we tenderly call home.
That day, the men sitting in and on cars were the same ones who told boys to stop once roughhousing became too aggressive. The boys with sagging pants and backward-fitted caps were the boys who talked me out of a panic attack when I was stranded and taught me how to ride the city bus. The girls were as mouthy as I was but didn’t buy into children having an invisible place for hiding in front of adults. Those people. That neighborhood, my community, taught me the value of knowing you can depend on someone to have your back in a crisis simply because they know you. You didn’t have to earn it. It was freely yours because we are different and the same.
Early in her career, Cardi B was often asked to share details about her life before becoming a reality star and rapper. She unapologetically shared her successful career as a stripper. To most people, it seemed taboo. People expected her to be ashamed, but she wasn’t. She was proud that she found an avenue that enabled her to escape an abusive relationship, provide for herself, and take control of her career. She also used her experiences as a tool to encourage women to discover their desires, find creative ways to support themselves, and create safe spaces for themselves and their children. Her decision to become a stripper was strategic and professional. This employment opportunity allowed her to earn enough money to pursue her political science and history interests. Her creative projects and advocacy work focus on women's empowerment, education, health care, financial literacy, and freedom. Without a doubt, Cardi B practices feminism.
What is most shocking is how heavily she is criticized and ridiculed by feminists. So, what is the real problem with women like Cardi B being the face of feminism?
The issue with Cardi B is the same issue I had with the girls on the sidewalk. The same issue police officers had with Sandra Annette Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman who was arrested during a traffic stop. Later, she was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas. It’s the same issue an instructor in my graduate program had with me when attempting to insult me by asking if I was from New York City while claiming my work lacked sophistication. Structural inequality makes quick work of the need to compare and assign value to people based on their ability to imitate respectability (in beliefs and actions), while failure to perform what is designated as the appropriate behavior can end in exile or death.
I don’t think my classmate or her mother intentionally thought critically of my community. I don’t believe she intended to act as if to save me from a foreign danger that would entrap me before I reached my doorstep. Honestly, I don’t think she could have saved me from anything that day. At best, in a crisis, she would have added our neighborhood to her church’s outreach list. Nonetheless, her genuine moment of courteousness was salted by the limiting belief of what freedom should look like or what Black people who live freely in their communities should look like. She acted based on her perception that the people in my community didn’t act in ways similar to hers, so it was unsafe. My memory of this experience is a reminder that the best intentions for equity, being pro-women rights, wanting to protect young girls, and even being a ‘good Christian’ can minimize or displace the experiences of people from underrepresented groups. Unless we work to foster sensitivity and listen before acting, we will do more harm to causes than good. As a rule, I try to ask, “Am I listening, helping, neglecting, or hurting someone?”
I have loved hip-hop since my sister played “Tha Crossroads” and “1st of the Month” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on her first stereo system displayed in our basement. If “Party Up” by DMX or “Who’s That Girl” by Eve plays, you will see me shapeshift into the happiest version of myself as I perform. I find power in the lyrics, comfort in their expression of deep emotions, safety in the familiar messages, and the memories evoked when I listen to these songs. Suppose feminism is to increase privilege by stripping people of what some deem dangerous without their permission. In that case, we risk continuing colonial violence and re-imprisoning the people we sought to free. Much like Mikki Kendall and Cardi B, I don’t see myself as someone who survived despite where I come from. I have survived because where I come from saved me from believing I had to be someone other than myself to be accepted and refused to be defined as dangerous — to us, it was home.
But for girls raised in areas of concentrated poverty, amid oppression aided and abetted by a police culture that prioritizes racial profiling and violent constraint over protection, their focus has to be survival. They are fighting to save not only themselves but also their communities, to preserve the parts of their cultures that they hold dear without being drowned in the flawed fundamentalism that is the narrow range of femininity available to them. They already know that respectability cannot save them because it can’t save anyone, and now they are figuring out how to cope with the trauma internally and with a world that treats them with such disrespect and disdain (Kendall, 80).
I am thankful I took my time getting to this text. I appreciate Mikki Kendall’s profound argument for the feminist agenda to expand its interpretation and scope — or instead, return to its true origin rooted in freedom for all— and include the needs of underrepresented groups while considering racial and class differences that desperately need our attention. Her launch into the discussion begins with her experience as a young woman navigating violence in her neighborhood and choosing to embrace her identity as a member of her community, not someone seeking asylum. Feminism’s shortsighted construction of freedom is problematic due to its inability to consider intersections of gender, race, and class, as well as education, economics, and other areas affected by racial disparities.
This book is a valuable segment in the feminist canon that seeks to orient us to serve all women better. But to serve doesn’t mean to extract individuals from their environment. According to Kendall, if we want to serve women and achieve freedom, our aim should be to create an equitable environment for people to flourish — to make room. From leading a charge for feminism to be concerned about gun violence, food insecurity, and education to critiquing feminism’s neglect of misogynoir and violence against trans women, Kendall is direct and unapologetic in her critique of structural inequality and the patriarchy.
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Read Sierra McKissick's review of Hood Feminism
5/5: I appreciate Mikki Kendall's profound argument for the feminist agenda to expand its interpretation and scope--or…
Most importantly, Kendall addresses the dangers of systemic oppression and the violence done at the hands of patriarchy head-on while cautioning black women who are tempted to “craft an image of innocence” of the damaging politics of respectability. She plainly states, “They already know respectability can’t save them because it can’t save anyone.”
Feminism’s exclusion of women and girls outside of the dominant perception and narrative of today’s feminists is the reason why so many women feel forgotten or unable to claim the title. The people from my neighborhood embraced a level of understanding of the complex nature of humanity in ways that tenured scholars may never reach. Our push for freedom must accept and practice an ideology that honors that we are different and the same while allowing us to define how we live and express ourselves freely. To do so, feminism must check for blindspots and listen to the other passengers who attempt to alert them before entering oncoming traffic and killing us all. Make no mistake. The choices of a few will and are killing us. Whether it's supporting the overturn of Roe v. Wade, accepting misogynoir because it doesn’t affect white women, diet culture, or intellectual violence committed in academic spaces, we are killing us. I hope that with advocates like Mikki Kendall, Jessica N. Pabón-Colón, and many other women from underrepresented groups, we can finally make room for us to call the spaces we create our home.
Kendall, M. (2020). Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot. United Kingdom: Penguin Publishing Group.