Book Talks

Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism and ‘Fast Girls’: A Review

I read Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism a few weeks ago, just as something to do. But I must say I was very impressed, particularly as it helped me to contextualise some of the issues in the current social media climate regarding female sexuality and social media algorithms.

But first a little about the book itself. My first impression was that I was not a massive fan of the title. Though it does what it is supposed to do; tells us that the book is about black feminism- my initial thought was that it was playing up to a stereotype that is harmful to black women and black people in general. But as you read on, the choice of title becomes more apparent. The book is split into eighteen chapters covering topics of: solidarity between white women only; gun violence; hunger and poverty; FastTailed Girls, patriarchy, how to write about black women; beauty standards; eating disorders; the fetishisation of the ‘fierce black woman’; the smart black girl; missing persons cases and murders; politics; education; housing; reproductive justice and maternal mortality; parenting, and white allies.

But the most important one for me, and for the context of this article, is chapter four, the discussion of the idea of Fast Tailed Girls, what it means to be a Fast Tailed Girl and how relevant this idea still is in today’s dialogue around black women and black women’s bodies, even when the word ‘fast’ isn’t used.

The concept of ‘fastness’ is centred around the idea that a girl is too sexually active, provocative, grown, or ‘up for it’, particularly at a young age. Over sexualisation, in an off itself, is specifically applied to black women as I have known white women who have also been unfairly subjected to this misconception. Generally, sexualising girls for things that they cannot control is a harmful by-product of living in a western patriarchal society, and we have all known someone, or been known to, have had these experiences, regardless of race.

But when it comes to black women and girls, skin colour is also an aspect, out of their control, that is sexualised. And this is where the concept of ‘fastness’ differs from general inappropriate sexualisation. If that makes no sense to you, think of all the images that come up on Instagram of little black girls dressed up like their mothers in a way that would be deemed cute, precocious, or adorable on a white child, but on a black child, it is overly sexualised and becomes, tasteless, too grown, or ‘disgusting.’

This idea continues into the broader social arena with black girls still generally being seen by the world as more promiscuous and more ‘up for it ‘than girls of most other races. Of course, this, like most other aspects of interracial dealings, comes out of a history of slavery. It began with the regular and systematic abuse of black women by white men with no repercussions, because black women had no right to the claim of innocence which white women were inherently entitled too, and therefore black women were always fair game, which over the centuries morphed into the idea that they always ‘wanted it’ or ‘deserved it’.

And this practice created the generally widespread belief in the overly sexual, insatiability of black bodies. We see it with black men as well, but when it comes to them, at least now, it tends to be in a way that is more fetishised, whereas with black women, it still comes with the added desire to tear them down.

And this is so much more pertinent than we realise. Telling little black girls that certain styles are ‘too grown’ is playing into the same narrative of ‘fastness’ that Kendall describes. It means that black women can end up growing up with a lowered sense of self-esteem because they are never encouraged to explore expressionism through clothes and style for fear of losing what little ‘respectability’ that society has allowed them to have. It is essentially telling them never to be confident because the world will never credit them with the privilege of being innocent until proven guilty that it provides to white women. Kendall artfully points out the differences in reactions when people see Beyoncé dancing provocatively as opposed to people like Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga, who might do precisely the same thing and be praised, where Beyoncé is ridiculed. If a white woman poses naked or provocatively, it is art; it is expression; its empowerment. But if a black woman does it, it becomes trashy, vulgar, or obscene, and again all of this stems from the idea of fastness and the hyper-sexualization of black bodies.

This is not new knowledge. We all know that western feminism is exclusively for white middle-class women, but these few weeks alone, this fact has been so much more in your face with the release of Cardi B’s and Megan The Stallion’s music video WAP. I am not a fan of the video nor of the artists who created it, but I am feminist enough to respect their decisions to express themselves in any way they see fit. I do not think that this behaviour necessarily empowers women, but I do recognise that for a woman to simply have the right or the option to decide that fact for themselves is empowering in itself.

But like always, white feminism has reared its ugly head to try and take away the voices and opinions of other women and decide what is best for them. Comments about the video range from people calling it disgusting to people tweeting that the women’s sexuality has caused men to either cheat on them or harm them in the past which is misogyny and racism at its finest. But then to add insult to injury, former Republican congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine, blamed Cardi and Meghan for setting the whole feminist movement back. But the sad truth is we can’t set back a movement that we’ve never been a part of. White feminism has never sought to include or liberate anyone, other than white middle-class women, even white working-class or lower-class women have been excluded from mainstream feminism.

And this is why black women can never be as ‘sexually liberated ‘ as a white woman and why black girls can’t escape adultification or be as free or innocent as white girls – because there is no space in white feminism for black bodies to be as worthy of liberation, freedom, and the normative human-rights safeguarding, that white bodies are entitled to.

It is also for this reason that Instagram shadow bands black bodies- black female bodies in particular, because they’re hyper-sexualised. Normal pictures may no longer show up on your followers feeds, not necessarily because you’re doing anything out of the ordinary or illegal, but because the Instagram algorithm, coming out of 500 years of prejudice against black bodies, recognises them as obscene in any context. And it’s why Cardi and Meg can’t create a song that they’re proud of whether you like it or not, without people attacking their life, their family, their situations, and their characters.

Feminism isn’t about agreeing with what every woman chooses to do, it’s about respecting her right to make that choice. And in this case, it’s about respecting the rights of black women and girls to be themselves in the same way the white women and girls are allowed to be themselves and still be as innocent and ‘respectable’ as their white counterparts.

There are a lot of facets that make up Hood Feminism, all of them essential, but for me, this chapter and the way it ties into today’s events is what made it crystal clear why this book has the title that it does. Terms like ‘hood’ have been used to paint black people in a bad light for years and thus excludes them from ‘respectable’ mainstream avenues, and continues to exclude black women from ‘respectable’ feminism. But all women should be able to partake in feminism, and being ‘hood’, being from the ‘hood’ or being black and therefore automatically deemed as ‘hood’, should not mean that they are exempt from the rights of women, and they should not have to exist in a world where words like ‘hood’ can devalue their rights. So in effect, ‘hood feminism’, should just be an all-encompassing feminism. Which is the point I think Kendall is making. And she does so beautifully, covering beauty ideals misogyny, and the trials of trying to function adequately and healthily in a world that is designed to see you perish, at the same time, coming away from the narrative that  white women have created to benefit themselves and themselves alone.

When Judy Chicago created her art installation, The Dinner Party in 1979, which currently sits in the Brooklyn Museum, she claimed to have included all the influential women in history. But within that plethora of influential, ground-breaking women, she includes only two black women, one of whom isn’t a real human at all but an ancient Egyptian goddess.  So you see, there are no black women – no real black women- in the white middle-class narrative of female emancipation and greatness- and that is where we need to begin; by restructuring that narrative and engaging with all forms of feminism, hood feminism, Arab feminism, Asian feminism, which should all be one and the same.

None of what I’m saying is necessarily new. There are other books that call out white feminism, but most of them fall short of explaining what other marginalised groups of women need from the movement and what kind of support they need from each other.  But Kendall takes her in-depth research on the subject and gives it a fresher perspective, one which I hope you will get the chance to look at and share. It’s an excellent articulation of what all of us know but do not have the skill, time, or understanding, to be able to convey to others, but Mikki Kendall does.

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