The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom
Rutgers University Press. 1998. 218 Pages.
“While the Right is united by their racism, sexism, and homophobia in their goal to dominate all of us, we are divided by our own racism, sexism, and homophobia” – Suzanna Pharr
“It is not our difference which separate women, but our reluctance to recognize those differences and to deal effectively with the distortions which have resulted from the ignoring and misnaming of those differences.” – Audre Lorde
Barbara Smith has been an activist, organizer and writer for the past three decades, and with the recent publication of, The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom, we finally have a book length collection of her groundbreaking ideas, politics and analysis. Throughout her writings on Women’s Studies, the contemporary queer movement, police brutality, Black lesbian and gay history, Smith relentless pursues the question of how can we build organizations and a progressive movement that includes the majority of society that feels the heel of oppression on their neck. How do we build strong coalitions working for radical social change that are multiracial, multigenerational, feminist, pro-queer and class conscious? But Smith isn’t just writing about why we need to all come together. This collection presents crucial writings that address the complex and painful factors that have kept us apart and how inequality is reproduced in our movements. How can we organize against oppression without recreating oppression in the process of our organizing? How can we have critical dialogues about race, class, gender and sexuality and the ways that they shape our organizing and our politics, while we are working to challenge the larger structures of power and privilege in society? These are questions that she examines and begins to answer.
As a Black feminist lesbian socialist, who has consistently challenged racism and classism in the feminist movement, sexism and homophobia in the Black community, sexism and racism in the queer movement, these issues have never lived in the realm of theory alone. Barbara Smith has been a leading figure in the struggle to “build analysis, practice, and movements that accurately address the specific ways that racism, capitalism, and all the major systems of oppression interconnect in the United States.” She has helped develop the politics of intersectionality, that looks at the ways that race interacts with gender and sexuality connects with class and how these structures of oppression and privilege have shaped and influenced people’s lives. From this understanding, a politics that seriously addresses multiple issues, multiple struggles and brings people together in broad based coalitions can be built. For example, doing organizing against poverty should included an understanding of how racism has structured the class system and why so many people of color are poor. This organizing should also have an analysis of the ways that sexism impacts women and why so many women raising children without the father around are in poverty. The politics of intersectionality play out when one begins to look at the how different factors impact white men, Latino’s, Black men and white women, Asian American women and Black women – how race and gender impact Latina mothers and her children living in poverty. The challenge then is how to build coalitions and common agendas and organize to improve the situation for everyone.
Barbara Smith became active politically during the Civil Rights movement. She became active in the Women’s Liberation Movement and was one of the first to articulate a self-defined Black feminist politics. She was a member of the Combahee River Collective, formed in 1973, which was the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization. As a member of the Collective, Smith helped write, “The Black Feminist Statement” which has been widely circulated and deeply influential in the feminist movement and beyond. The statement declared that their Black feminist collective came together in response to the sexism of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements and the racism of the predominately white feminist movement. The statement also declared that as Black women, they are situated in a unique position to understand the way multiple systems of power operated as race, class and gender connected in their very lives. Smith co-edited (with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia B. Scott) the first Black women’s studies anthology, All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, the Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History (with Wilma Mankiller, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro and Gloria Steinem) and Conditions: Five, The Black Women’s Issue (with Lorraine Bethal). She edited, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology and co-authored Yours In Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (with Elly Bulkin and Minnie Bruce Pratt). Her writings have appeared in numerous publications such as Sojourner: the Women’s Forum, Ms., Gay Community News, The Black Scholar and the Nation.
In 1977, she wrote “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” which argued for a Black women’s literary criticism that made a “primary commitment to exploring how both sexual and racial politics and Black and female identity are inextricable elements in Black women’s writing” and that “she [the critic] would also work from the assumption that Black women writers constitute an identifiable literary tradition”. Written at a point in time when many doubted that such a Black women’s literary tradition even existed, Smith’s essay was a catalyst that sparked interest and challenged people’s thinking.
In 1974, Barbara Smith became the first woman of color to be appointed to the Modern Language Association’s Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession, which was instrumental in developing the new field of Women’s Studies in the US. She used her position to bring a focus on women of color into Women’s Studies and to challenge the racism of the white dominated field. She and other women of color struggled to bring a discussion of race and racism, as well as class, into Women’s Studies. At the closing session of the first annual National Women’s Studies Association conference in 1979, she delivered her speech, “Racism and Women’s Studies”, which is included in “The Truth That Never Hurts”. She announced to the conference: “For those of you who are tired of hearing about racism, imagine how much more tired we are of constantly experiencing it, second by literal second, how much more exhausted we are to see it constantly in your eyes. The degree to which it is hard or uncomfortable for you to have the issue raised is the degree to which you know inside of yourself that you aren’t dealing with the issue, the degree to which you are hiding from the oppression that undermines Third World women’s lives… Let me make quite clear… White women don’t work on racism to do a favor for someone else, solely to benefit Third World women. You have to comprehend how racism distorts and lessons your own lives as white women… Until you understand this, no fundamental change will come about”.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s women of color feminists worked to define a feminism that was explicitly anti-racist and radical. In anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, women of color articulated a politics growing from their daily experience of race, class and gender inequality and oppression. Smith writes, “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women – as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual white women. Anything less then this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”
In another essay in the book, originally written in the 1990’s for the lesbian journal, Sinister Wisdom, Smith writes, “Racism is not primarily a set of negative attitudes or behaviors on the part of individual whites. These negative attitudes and behaviors are grievous and sometimes fatal, but they are in fact symptoms of a system whose purpose is not merely to make people of color feel badly, but to maintain white power and control”. Throughout much of her writings, Smith demands that progressive and radical whites face racism and take action. In another essay in the book, “The NEA is the Least Of It”, she writes: “racism within these movements [the feminist, gay and lesbian, and other social change movements] is an indication of how thoroughly institutionalized racism is in this country’s power structure, and that it inevitably manifests itself in every sector of US life. When whites in these movements demonstrate a consistent commitment to speaking out and organizing offensives against racist violence, police brutality, homelessness, economic exploitation and unequal access to quality education and health care, people of color can begin to take their antiracist actions seriously.”
Barbara Smith has contributed substantially to making Black lesbianism visible in the Black community, the predominately white feminist and queer movements and the left generally. Her essay, “Homophobia, Why Bring It Up” written in 1983 for the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin argued for the inclusion of lesbians and gays in school curricula and the need for homophobia to be taken seriously. In her essay, “Where’s the Revolution” written in 1993, she writes: “…supposedly progressive heterosexuals of all races do so little to support lesbian and gay freedom. Although homophobia may be mentioned when heterosexual leftists make lists of oppression, they do virtually no risk-taking work to connect with our movement or to challenge attacks against lesbians and gays who live in their midst. Many straight activists whose politics are otherwise righteous simply refuse to acknowledge how dangerous heterosexism is, and that they have a responsibility to end it.” Smith argues that “With so many heterosexuals studiously avoiding opportunities to become enlightened about lesbian and gay culture and struggle, it’s not surprising that nearly twenty-five years after Stonewall so few heterosexuals get it.”
When confronting sexism, racism and homophobia in progressive groups and communities, the usual response is denial: “but I’m not a sexist”, “I’m not racist”. This denial prevents discussion about what we are going to do, how can we acknowledge our positions and work pro-actively. The politics of race, class and gender demonstrate the complexity of power and privilege, that one can be simultaneously oppressed and privileged. With this understanding, it is not about attaching blame and guilt, but rather coming to terms with who and what we are and acting responsibly to work for our collective liberation. Without coming to terms with these issues, we will continue to reproduce inequality, be unable to form broad coalitions, and ultimately fail to achieve our goals of radical social change. Until our movements move beyond the notion of “these are my issues” and “those are your issues” and recognize the larger connections and need to work on “our issues” we will undermine the potential of our efforts. Smith writes, “Real political power, however, lies in the hands of the majority of people in this country who do not benefit from this system: people of color, women, lesbians, gays, workers, elders and the differently abled. Often inspired by the multi-issued leadership of radical women of color, oppressed groups are increasingly banding together in grassroots coalitions to fight the system and to bring about fundamental political change. Feminists of color who consistently make the links between issues are building a movement whose politics have the revolutionary potential to free us all.”
I went and heard Smith speak at the Metropolitan Community Church in October. She was in San Francisco receiving an award from Women Against Rape who were celebrating their 25th anniversary. She spoke, as she writes, with a profound understanding of inequality and injustice and a passion for ‘working for liberation and having a damn good time’. As a white male, who grew up middle-class in the suburbs by Orange County, a bastion of white racism and homophobic conservatism, and as an anarchist organizer for social justice, Smith’s words are both profoundly challenging and incredibly inspiring. Over the years, a Black feminist analysis has challenged my anarchist politics, which far too often place the state at the center of oppressive power, as many in the marxist tradition place class. Black feminism challenges this kind of hierarchy and forces the debate open to race, gender and sexuality. When one begins to look at power inequality in general, it becomes possible to understand how and why an anti-statist activist would campaign to defeat anti-immigrant propositions at the ballot box, or why anarchists have organized to pass living-wage ordinances through their local city governments. Smith’s writings are a challenge to the idea that gender balance in meetings is just about equal numbers of men to women or that to have a multiracial group means having a couple of Asian Americans and a Black person in a predominately white group. Smith’s writings help us understand that to be anti-racist, feminist, and pro-queer, it to build the organization, campaign and/or agenda around principles and reflect this. It’s not about guilt, it’s about responsibility and responsible organizing that furthers the possibility for collective liberation rather than individual advancement on the boot straps of white supremacy, patriarchy and class privilege. It’s not about divisiveness or infighting, it’s about doing work that matters – work that is truly revolutionary in its vision, integrity and commitment. This is also truly hard and difficult work and that is why it is so important to have writers like Barbara Smith who inspire us and encourage us. Her writings and ideas should be read and heard by everyone who works and longs for a better world – a better world for all of us.
Chris Crass is an organizer with San Francisco Food Not Bombs and a student at SFSU majoring in Race, Class, Gender and Power Studies