If you consider yourself a feminist, you must read this book. In a straight-talking tone that doesn’t mince words, Mikki Kendall, author of Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, makes her argument clear: whether it’s about leaning in to become CEO, or clamouring for a seat in the boardroom, white-centric mainstream feminism has too often focused on increasing the privilege of the few instead of addressing the serious problems that most women in America face.

Power for some women does not mean things are better for all women, and surely the latter is what we should be aiming for. This is where “hood feminism” comes in. “I would argue that feminism in the hood is more about survival and less about becoming CEO and more about becoming, you know, a person who can afford to keep your house, stay home for two weeks during coronavirus, and generally feed your kids through that process,” Kendall said on The Daily Show. In the book, she writes: “You can’t ‘lean in’ when you can’t earn a legal living wage and you still need to feed yourself and those who depend on you.”

In chapters titled ‘Hunger’, ‘Missing and Murdered’ and ‘Black Girls Don’t Have Eating Disorders’, Kendall draws our attention to issues such as food security, healthcare, education, affordable housing and gun violence, arguing that these are fundamentally feminist issues that mainstream feminism has ignored.

Growing up in Chicago’s South Side, Kendall faced many of these problems as a child and then later in her life. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she struggled to make ends meet for herself and her son, but she had help: she was on food stamps, had access to state-funded medical care and lived in public housing. Kendall calls out the stereotypes that would see her as a ‘Strong Black Woman’ without understanding that it was those critical state-sponsored safety nets that allowed her to leave her abusive husband and raise her son in relative comfort and security — safety nets that have now been greatly reduced.

In ‘Hunger’ — which is one of the most powerful chapters in the book — Kendall is critical of how Americans think of poverty as a feminist issue for other countries, but not their own, even though a 2016 report by the Feeding America network of food banks found that 42 million Americans are struggling with hunger and over 70 percent of the country’s poor are women and children.

An important book takes on the issues of class, race and gender that mainstream white feminism has often ignored

Alleviating poverty should be a feminist issue, she says, but, instead of seeing it as a social problem, society often treats it as a moral failing, as if the women experiencing it “are making bad choices for themselves and their children on purpose.” Moreover, mainstream feminism often lacks the compassion and awareness to recognise the impact of hunger, especially, and how it affects those facing only bad choices. The choice between starvation and crime, for example, isn’t always a choice.

Many other issues stem from poverty and the consequences are dire for marginalised women. In the United States, the affordable housing crisis, for example, affects women disproportionately. Students being pushed out of school because of gun violence are disproportionately students of colour, and increasingly female. Girls in unsafe, violent neighbourhoods may suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Another important thread that runs through the book is the racism and classism in American society, which mainstream feminism is not immune to. What makes it worse is that feminism devoid of an examination of how gender intersects with race, class and sexual identity can itself be marginalising and oppressive to the people it overlooks. We have seen this happen historically (for example, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a white suffragette and the first woman to serve in the US Senate, supported lynching) and even today (JK Rowling faces accusations of being insensitive to transgender issues). We see it when black girls suffering from mental health issues don’t get the help they deserve, or when a white-centred beauty aesthetic denies black and brown women access to jobs and, by extension, to “respectability”.

Kendall writes at length about ‘respectability politics’, which she describes as “rules for marginalised people to follow in order to be respected in mainstream culture.” Anything that strays from white-centric norms — whether it is skin colour, hair texture or clothing — is judged “less valuable and less intelligent.” Respectability dynamics can even affect how the state responds to reports that someone is missing; indigenous women, for instance, are rarely given the same access to resources that are devoted to missing white women.

Power for some women does not mean things are better for all women. Kendall’s arguments boil down to one very important point: mainstream feminism tends to celebrate individual success stories.

Within feminism itself, respectability politics impacts what issues the movement champions, which women are shown solidarity and whose voice is heard. Anything from a “blaccent” to a woman speaking Spanish or wearing a hijab can “lower the agency, autonomy and respect women are given in feminist spaces.” Marginalised women are often the object of conversations, but rarely full participants; they are “problems to be solved, not people in [their] own right.”

So what can feminists do? According to Kendall, the most important step white women can take is to pass the mic, rather than jump in and speak on behalf of all women. “The hood doesn’t lack answers,” she writes. “It lacks resources.”

“Despite white feminist narratives to the contrary, there is no absence of feminism inside Islam, the Black church, or any other community. The women inside those communities are doing the hard and necessary work; they don’t need white saviours, and they don’t need to structure their feminism to look like anyone else’s.”

For example, black feminism — and, I would say, feminism in brown countries around the world — has been fighting against colourism for decades with “campaigns against skin bleaching and pushing for better media representation of darker-skinned girls and women.” But problems that black and brown women face should not just be considered Black or Brown feminist issues. Kendall argues that mainstream feminism needs to start addressing these in the broader culture instead of leaving them to feminists of colour to solve.

Kendall’s arguments boil down to one very important point: mainstream feminism tends to celebrate individual success stories, stories of “empowered women” who rise above their unfortunate circumstances through sheer grit and tenacity. The woman who left her abusive husband is brave; the single mother working multiple jobs to provide for her children is heroic. They certainly are, but this approach ignores the economic, social and racial realities that women face. These structural barriers are what feminism should be fighting against to shift the focus of feminism from the advancement of individuals to the betterment of the group.

When we see Sheryl Sandberg “leaning into Facebook’s pandering to alt-right conspiracy theories”, when we see white feminists claim to “adore fierceness” and “celebrate ideals [such as] speaking truth to power” only until it hurts their own “personal fragility” (as we witnessed when Chelsea Clinton targeted Ilhan Omar on Twitter, for example), mainstream feminism must confront the idea that the power to do harm rests in women too, and we cannot shroud that power under the banner of feminist triumph.

Though Kendall writes primarily about women in America, her arguments can easily be extended beyond those borders. Feminism all over the world is easily co-opted by the privileged, simply because our voices carry more weight. That is not to say that those of us who have our basic needs met don’t need feminism anymore, or that our problems don’t matter. But when the problems of the privileged take up all the space in the discourse at the expense of those who suffer most, then something must change.

Hood Feminism is a necessary step in the right direction.

The reviewer is the founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @thewritingroom.co

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot
By Mikki Kendall
Viking, US
ISBN: 978-0525560548
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 22nd, 2020