Who Gets to Be the Face of Black Women in Politics?
A recent debate generated on Twitter has many Black women assessing the role of colorism in Black feminism, particularly regarding the “faces” of the movement. From Beyoncé to bell hooks and even young Amandla Stenberg, the gravitation towards lighter faces prompts concern over the exclusion of the nuanced experiences of darker-hued women. But as prevalent as color-struck praxis may be in our feminism, to what extent is it an issue in our political representation?
For as long as the U.S. has upheld democratic elections, Black women have been severely underrepresented in them. At the federal level, Black women legislators constitute only 14 percent of the total number of women legislators—a dismal figure in and of itself. But to assume color politics plays no part in the few Black women who serve in elected positions would be to ignore what history has told us about the plight of dark women.
In her 1972 presidential campaign, Shirley Chisholm (who by 1968 had already become the first Black woman elected to Congress) describes herself as being “double-handicapped” in the political process—she was both Black and a woman, and faced considerable pushback from both Black men and White men and women in the Democratic Party. But for some, the richness of her darkness and “Negro” features served as the point of focus. One journalist went so far as to publish the words “she is not beautiful” in their description of her, and Chisholm herself went on record to say that she hoped she had paved the way for the next “darker-skinned person who wants to be President”.
And while Chisholm’s legacy in Black politics is undisputed, one need only to look at the recent Maryland Senate primary to see that a similar fate that befell her in the 1970s has placed itself on another dark-skinned politician: Congresswoman Donna Edwards.
Edwards, who ran for the Senate seat vacated by Barbara Mikulski, was soundly defeated by longtime congressman and Democratic-favored Chris Van Hollen, who is white. Though some Maryland insiders chalk this up to a matter of experience, it is very clear to see that Edwards was a victim of the double-handicap. She won a dismal 19 percent of white voters and an equally disappointing 57 percent of Black voters. Her strong calls for racial and gender diversity within the Democratic party, along with her rejection of the “wait your turn” and “behind-smooching” approach to elected office got her EMILY’s List endorsements, but also pissed off the white and Black male elites. Only 4 of the 46 members of the Congressional Black Caucus came out in support of Edwards.
But, however, Edwards’ refusal to play Washington games rubbed the CBC the wrong way, why were they willing to tolerate that same approach from Democratic Senate candidate Kamala Harris?
Both Harris and Edwards are remarkably similar in their ideological leanings and fiery approach to politics. Harris previously made history as California’s first Black and first Asian attorney general, but unlike Edwards, has little experience on the Hill.
The comparison between the two is not meant to pit them against each other; it is truly exciting to see Black women confront the odds and dive head first into the shark tank that is running for office. However, we must make it a point to confront the political forces that chomp at the bits to throw support behind one no-holds-bar Black woman while chastising another for possessing that same quality, just because our society is still colorstruck. You shouldn’t have to pass the paper bag test just to get on the Hill.
And while we, as Black women, come in all different shades, color privilege is still color privilege no matter what other forces of institutionalized oppression may be working against us. Calling it out is our duty.
Image via Thomas J. O’Halloran