On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow…

On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow…

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 4, Summer 2021

Author(s): Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones

Gwendolyn D. Pough is a Dean’s Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Syracuse University. She is currently the 2020-2022 William P. Tolley Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities. She is a child of the 1970s who came of age in the 1980s and became a grown-ass black woman in the 1990s. She is a hip-hop generation, Black feminist writer and thinker who writes in any genre she feels like.  She has published a book monograph on women and hip-hop, academic articles, creative nonfiction essays and poems. She has also co-edited an anthology and three special journal issues. And she has published twelve romance novels and a novella under the pen name Gwyneth Bolton. She is a past Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).

Stephanie Jones is a Doctoral Candidate in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program at Syracuse University. She has a certificate of advanced study in Women and Gender Studies. She has served as the Assistant Director of TA Education for the Syracuse University Writing Program. She is currently a Syracuse University Humanities Dissertation Fellow. She was awarded the 2021 Geneva Smitherman Award for Research in Black Language, Literacies, Cultures, and Rhetorics from NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus and the 2021 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award for Writing Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Her latest publication, “#BlackStudy the Past to Find Hope in the Future,” is a reflection on the use of hashtags as intersectional praxis and is published with Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal. Her research interests include Afrofuturist Feminisms, Black Feminist Rhetorical Studies, Anti-Racist and Radical Race Literacies.

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The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have any feminism worth thinking about or writing about without the work of feminists of color. They have pushed feminism to be better and do better since the beginning. However, these feminists often are not afforded the credit they deserve for creating feminist spaces or demanding change within feminist spaces. During the Suffrage Movement it was Sojourner Truth’s speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, that demanded we recognize the voices and perspectives of all women. The work that Black women, lesbians and working class women did to push the mainstream white middle class feminism of the 1970s to speak across race, class, and sexuality made feminism stronger. Feminists of color in the 1970s writing in anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back, Home Girls, and But Some of Us Are Brave started building a third wave of feminism before the 1990s gave us yet another wave. It was a young Black and Jewish woman named Rebecca Walker who strongly proclaimed “we are the third wave” and sparked a new generation of feminists. And we won’t even get into the fact that many of the third wave white feminists of the 1990s who rejected their white mothers’ second wave feminism did so using the intellectual and activist work of second wave feminists of color…

It has always been the voices of feminists of color, most specifically, the voices of Black feminists, and even more specifically, the voices of Black lesbian feminists, that pushed feminist movements to realize the radical notion that all womxn are people. When we put out the call for this special issue “On Race, Feminism and Rhetoric,” we were looking for scholarly complications to the discourse around white feminism that critically engaged the idea: Feminism has never really been white. We maintain that people say feminism is white because it is easier than calling out white supremacy. Like Iyanla Vanzant, we and the contributors in this special issue demand that everyone call a thing a thing, beloveds. Like good rhetoricians, we know that words actually mean things. So you are not really doing feminism if your feminism is only concerned with white women. You are practicing white supremacy. PeriodT. If you are a person of color and you want to call out limited agendas masquerading as “feminist” that seem to only take white women’s issues into consideration, don’t call that “white feminism.” Call it racism, because that is not how feminism works.

We hope this special issue pushes the field to recognize that we need more nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric. We need to be able to point out inequities in communities of color and make sure our responses to those inequities do not further marginalize other communities. We need to champion causes that support anti-racist initiatives, but we can not perpetuate discourse around those initiatives that weaponizes dehumanizing rhetoric and action against people of color. We need to hold space for tension and nuance in our discussions of race, feminism and rhetoric. For example, if we take into consideration the most recent incarnation of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, we can illustrate the multiple needs for more nuanced conversations. We need rhetorical approaches that are coalitional and anti-racist. We need rhetorical approaches that can help us deal with the role that the white/racist/capitalist/patriarchal nation state played in stirring up anti-Asian hate in its citizens, because that same hate was coming from the mouth and Tweets of the President of the United States. We need rhetorical approaches that help us grapple with the fact that the same white/racist/capitalist/patriarchal nation state will use those hate crimes against Asian communities, that the discordant nation state provoked, in order to police Black and Brown bodies. Our rhetoric needs to recognize and call a thing a thing. All hate crimes are hate crimes. And we can no longer excuse, substantiate, or gloss over the cishet white males citizens who commit hate crimes. Because if it is a Black or Brown teenager assaulting an Asian elder in the street we will rightfully call it a hate crime. But when it is a cishet white guy on a killing spree who walks into massage parlors with his recently and easily purchased guns and murders the Asian women working to support themselves and their families during a global pandemic, then our political rhetoric makes room for excuses like adolescence, white fragility, or he was just “having a really bad day.” We can’t make this shit up, but we can demand that the double standards get called what they are and cultivate rhetorical approaches that help us to call it what it is. We need rhetorical approaches and rhetorical analysis that can hold in tension how quickly the Anti Asian Hate Crime Bill passed and was signed by the President of the United States when we still can’t get any version of an Anti-Lynching Bill passed in this country since the 1900s. We need rhetoric that is not afraid to complicate things and push past niceties and civilities to ask hard questions.

We need to start asking hard questions instead of being scared of answers. The work Ibram X. Kendi is doing around anti-racist education tells us the word “racist” is not a personal characteristic, like having blue or brown eyes, but a word that defines ideas that weaponize marginalization, inequity, and other systems of oppression onto people of color. In February 1837, John C. Calhoun stood on the United States Senate floor and argued that slavery in this country was a “positive good” not because it literally was, but because racism has to be intellectualized. Racism, your racism, is a habit of mind and you can not break those habits by being too scared to face the history they represent. Rhetoricians can not be so afraid of being called a racist that they aren’t recognizing that the linguistic construction of the word doesn’t support their fears–it outlines historic power imbalances that they have the responsibility to change. You want to know how to call a thing a thing? Start by asking better questions. Instead of: who, me? ask what just happened here? Because you will not find the traces of your racism in your fear or in your feelings, you will only find them in your history.

This contemporary moment, perhaps more than any other, has shown us the relevance and importance of race, feminism and rhetoric. The current global pandemic has put a spotlight on institutionalized inequities around race, class and gender. The ongoing protests and unrest around police brutality and murders have forced us to come to terms with the meaning of solidarity and coalition in the struggle. Extreme nationalism has ripped children from the arms of their parents and placed them in cages, going against every fiber of the founding lies of the United States. The recent election and the fact that yet again over 50% of the white women who voted cast their vote for Donald Trump has made clear that assumed alliances around gender are not to be taken for granted when we add race to the mix. Now more than ever we need to be in nuanced and critical conversations on race, feminism, and rhetoric. This special issue of Peitho is an opening to some of the conversations we might have.

From Fair Fight Now to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Black women have been the driving force behind the change we need in America today. In the wake of the 2020 US elections, we need to have more conversations about how feminists of color combat the normalization of the refusal to transfer power, concede losses, and acknowledge the truth. Like we saw with the Women’s March controversy, we can not continue to tolerate feminists of color being pushed to the margins in the spaces we created. This bridge can no longer be our backs. As ‘The Squad’ on Capitol Hill grows to include even more womxn of color voices, we need to make space for complex conversations around what diversity and equality really means while continuing to hold our leadership accountable to the progress we have made. Now is not the time for half-measures, talking points for views, and conservative approaches. We need to center the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our futures.

In their response to the January 6, 2021 violent attempted insurrection on the Nation’s Capital the Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors wrote: “Rhetoric has long associated its birth as a discipline with the emergent political practice of democracy; however, the historic foundations of both have a disturbing affinity with racism. This embedded and systemic relation has allowed injustices to continue for centuries and cultivated power structures that normalize and justify violences, as grotesquely witnessed currently in the United States, where the mobbing thugs proudly displayed Nazi, anti-Semitic, and white power apparel, where citizens and political leaders led and endorsed a wide range of acts of voter suppression, but most recently in the Georgia elections in DeKalb and Fulton counties where insufficient polling places, proposed roll purges, and accusations of fraud threatened to limit the rights of Black voters.” (Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors’ Statement Condemning Insurrectional Rhetoric and Resulting Violence 1/6/21) In other words, rhetoric is racist and has been used for ill and we need to own that and fix that. Stat. In order to answer the call that the future demands of us as rhetoricians, we have to take stock of what is really real. That “affinity with racism” that rhetoric has been entangled with since its inception cannot be ignored away. If rhetoric is going to ever be its best self then, just like feminists of color have been pushing feminism to do better since the Suffrage Movement, we need to use these conversations on race, feminism and rhetoric to push rhetoric to be all it needs to be in these times. We hope that the essays in this special issue will help shed light on all the important and nuanced ways that race, feminism and rhetoric intersect across time, in this moment, and around the world.

And because rhetoricians can’t seem to talk about race and rhetoric without an obligatory MLK quote, preferably from the historic “I Have a Dream” speech, we thought we would add one here. On that day in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said more than that he had a dream. He also said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take in the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlight path of racial justice. Now is the time.” In the few months since we put out the call for this special issue, things have continued to happen that make the “fierce urgency of now” even more pronounced and pressing. Now more than ever we need to engage these conversations on race, feminism and rhetoric and enact a feminist of color discourse that is more than just lip service.

The senseless killing of Ma’Khia Bryant, the continued freedom and the lack of charges pressed against the cops that murdered Breonna Taylor, Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open to protect her mental health, Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure at University of North Carolina, the ignorant and baseless attacks on Critical Race Theory, the failed attempts to censure Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the subjection and liberation of Meghan Markle, the troubling increase in anti-Semitism, the hate crimes against Asian American/Pacific Islanders, the ongoing uprising and displacement of the people of Palestine, and the countless unseen acts of violence against womxn around the globe, all drive home the point of the fierce urgency of this contemporary moment. Now, perhaps more than any other moment, has shown us not just the relevance and importance, but also the urgent need for scholarly complications to the discourse around race, feminism and rhetoric. We better learn to really talk about these issues in ways that move us toward action before it is indeed too late.

In the first season of the HBO comedy sketch show, A Black Lady Sketch Show, there is an ongoing sketch throughout all the episodes that takes place at the end of the world. The end of the world came and the only people left were four Black women because one of them built a fortified house and invited her girlfriends over for an end of the world party. Black women be knowing… In the second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show there is a very similar ongoing sketch with the now five Black women leads in a fortified warehouse at the end of the world. And again they are the only ones left. We find the idea that a group of Black women would be the only ones left at the end of the world compelling because as the world goes to shit all around us, it often feels like Black women are the only ones consistently trying to save us as we fight them every step of the way. We are reminded of Temptaous McKoy’s powerful Watson Conference keynote address: “‘…Had Y’all Simply Listened to Black Women’: A Call for Intentional Listening and Impactful Anti-Racist Action.” McKoy (like many Black women have been telling us in these internet streets #ListenToBlackWomen) made a powerful case for why we need to just listen to Black women before everything goes wrong. In the cover art image of this special issue,“Selfie at the End of the World,” Geneva Bowers brings the point home. The Black woman chucking the deuces and taking a selfie as the world is being destroyed behind her probably tried to tell everyone what was coming… But they didn’t listen. Shrug.

The articles in this special issue recognize the intersectional nature of feminist work around race, politics and rhetoric as a demand that feminist of color voices are the roots that sustain feminism. By sharing these scholars’ work we ensure our desires for change are heard in order to protect our collective futures. We were not surprised by the fact that the majority of our submissions to the special issue came from Black women across the Diaspora. As we have shown, Black women have always been important voices to these conversations and they will no doubt continue to be important voices. But those voices are not monolithic and the articles presented here highlight the variety in those voices and are joined by other feminists of color and white feminists’ voices. Their work is not the end of a conversation, but the beginning of many more conversations that need to be had in our field.

Efe Plange’s article, “The Pepper Manual: Towards Situated Non-Western Feminist Rhetorical Practices,” pushes us to a transnational Black feminist conversation that engages African Feminism and rhetoric that we have not seen in our field before. Her article traces the digital activism technique of creating hashtags and demonstrates an important counter-narrative to the male centered coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health crises in Ghana during March of 2020. Her article aims to start conversations that illuminate gender-based disparities in Ghanaian society through the digital activism of groups like Pepper Dem Ministries. Ronisha Browdy’s “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s): A Conversation Starter for Naming and Claiming a Field of Study” is an effort to demand the field recognize the naming of the work done by Black women towards making space for Black women’s unique ways of being and knowing as an intersectional, interdisciplinary, and rhetorically distinct sub-field called “Black Women’s Rhetoric(s).” Browdy’s overall goal for her work is to further cultivate power for Black women within the field by naming their shared rhetorical efforts as a distinct rhetorical genre and sub-field of rhetorical studies.

In “‘We Want to Be Intersectional’: Asian American College Students’ Extracurricular Rhetorical Education,” Allison Ann Dziuba makes critical interventions into conversations about Asian American identity, intersectionality, coalition, and group dynamics. Through her ethnographic research Dziuba explores the differences between intersectionality as synonym for diversity and intersectionality, as Kimberlé Crenshaw defines it. She expands on the meaning and use of intersectionality by exploring how it works in the Asian American students she studies, as a key part of the metacognitive meaning-making process in both international and Asian American identifying undergraduate student groups. Kim Fain’s “Black Feminist Rhetoric in Beyoncé’s Homecoming” argues that the global reach of Homecoming through its distribution on Netflix calls for formal recognition of Beyonce as a skilled rhetor. Fain analyzes the rhetorical power of Beyoncé’s work and attests that Homecoming is an important rhetorical artifact of Black feminist discourse. Stephanie Jones’ article, “I Heard That: The Sociolinguist Reality of the Black Feminist Afrofuture” traces the interconnectness of science fiction to Black feminist praxis. By exploring popular science fiction and fantasy stories Jones’ work argues that the term Afrofuturism would not exist if it were not for Black feminist discourse. Jones’ article is the winner of the 2021 Geneva Smitherman Award for Research in Black Language, Literacies, Cultures, and Rhetorics.

“Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism” by Tracee L. Howell is a much needed disruption to the cis-male patriarchy coded into white feminist rhetoric. Howell suggests that the feminism she was taught in college in the 1980’s duped her and other white women who identified as feminist into thinking there was a universal experience of gender equality. Reflecting on the ways in which she has ignored the intersections between race and gender throughout her life, Howell provides a narrative history that interrogates mainstream white feminism. “On Testimony, Bridges, and Rhetoric” is a webtext created by La-Toya Scott, Kimberly Williams, Andrea Baldwin, and Laura Gonzales. Together, they have crafted a series of letters that unpack their fears and hopes for the field. Through a mix of prose, poetry, video, testimony, and storytelling their webtext calls for a coalition of love in feminist rhetorical studies. Disrupting the notion that white coded feminism is the origin of this discourse community is a heavy task and illuminating histories of oppression within the field is an even heavier task. The articles in this special issue are up for the task and they provide us with a new understanding of the rhetorical tools that sustain diverse histories across time and space.

Works Cited

  • Anzaldua, Gloria, and Cherrie Moraga, Eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color. New York, Kitchen Table Press, 1983.     -return to text
  • Hull, Akasha, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith, Eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men; But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. New York, Feminist Press, 1993.     -return to text
  • Kendi, Ibram X. “A House Still Divided.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Sept. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/a-house-still-divided/568348/.     -return to text
  • Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.     -return to text
  • King, Martin Luther. “ ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety.” NPR, 18 January 2010, https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety. Accessed June 6, 2021.     -return to text
  • McKoy, Temptaous. “…Had Y’all Simply Listened to Black Women’: A Call to Intentional Listening and Impactful Anti-Racist Action.” Watson Conference, 22 April 2021, Online, Keynote Address.     -return to text
  • Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors, “Statement Condemning Insurrectional Rhetoric and Resulting Violence 1/6./21.” Rhetoric Society of America, https://www.rhetoricsociety.org/aws/RSA/pt/sd/news_article/346430/_PARENT/layout_details/false. Accessed June 6, 2021.     -return to text
  • Smith, Barbara, Ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983.     -return to text
  • Thede, Robin, creator. A Black Lady Sketch Show. Issa Rae Productions and 3 Arts Entertainment and Jax Media. 2019-2021.     -return to text
  • Truth, Sojourner, “Woman’s Rights 1851,” Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York, The New Press, 1995, pp. 36.     -return to text
  • Walker, Rebecca, “Becoming the Third Wave,” Women: Images and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology, edited by Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair and Nancy Schniedewind. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1999, pp. 532-33.     -return to text


We would like to thank Jen Wingard for giving us the opportunity to co-edit this special issue of Peitho. It means so much to us to be a part of the amazing work the journal is doing. Thank you to the phenomenal feminists who reviewed the work published in this special issue. We were heartened by the level of care and thoughtfulness that went into each review. We cannot name the names of these brilliant feminist reviewers because of the double-blind review process. But we just want to say thank you and to let you know we plan to pay the love and labor that forward in the future so that this feminist ethic of care and commitment carries on. Academia would be a better place if all reviewers were like the people who carefully read and offered feedback to the scholars published in this special issue. And finally, we want to thank the artist Geneva Bowers for allowing us to use her “Selfie at the End of the World” as our cover art for the special issue. Her work is breathtakingly powerful and we encourage everyone to go check out more of it on her website: http://www.genevab.com