How We Use a Shared Racial History to Prepare Women of Color for the Fight Ahead

by Leslie Maria Aguilar | Marketing Fellow

In 1977 the Combahee River Collective, an organization of radical Black Feminists, released a statement detailing their mission to fight against systemic racism and sexism in American society. In 2015, BlackFem, Inc. began as a wealth and financial literacy nonprofit aimed at educating women of color in building and sustaining wealth. While separated by time, both organizations focus on the systemic, maleficent oppression that occurs at the intersection of race and gender. Although the Combahee River Collective’s goal wasn’t as simplistic as wanting to bring about a more egalitarian society, it isn’t a bad place to start in order to understand the extent to which BlackFem’s modern plight against oppression is linked to the same oppression the Combahee River Collective struggled against close to four decades ago.

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Women of color have always known that, to paraphrase the Combahee Statement, the only people who care enough about women of color to save them are themselves. As such, both the Combahee River Collective and BlackFem are unapologetic Black feminist and feminist organizations, respectively. Therefore, as the Combahee River Collective Statement suggests, it is simultaneously united with and separated from both the white feminist movement as well as the more general black civil rights struggle. Similarly, a necessary separation occurs with regard to BlackFem. While there are hundreds of financial literacy organizations aimed at building riches for all people, BlackFem, Inc. has a much more specific audience and goal. To be sure, BlackFem doesn’t exclude whites, rather, much like the Combahee River Collective, it understands that women of color face oppression men and whites don’t systemically face, and therefore, are especially in need of wealth and financial literacy targeted at and developed for them. Furthermore, unlike other financial literacy organizations BlackFem is headed by women of color because it understands that the girls and women they aim to help need to see what they are capable of doing. In other words, BlackFem believes that when women of color see what people who look like them are capable of accomplishing, they begin to believe in what they themselves can achieve.

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Like the Combahee River Collective outlined in their Statement, BlackFem recognizes that the current American sociopolitical system is structured to systematically oppress women of color. At the core of their mission, the Collective understood that women of color need to be taught to cultivate the tools necessary to break the cycle of oppression that faces them. Concurring, BlackFem, Inc. has developed programs aimed at teaching women of color the ins and outs of financial and wealth literacy. The programs, servicing women of color from pre-kindergarten to beyond college, teach students everything from how banks operate to how to open investment accounts and how to trade. However, the true power in BlackFem lies with its focus on building wealth to empower women of color. For BlackFem Inc, the point of financial literacy isn’t to make women rich, rather to give them the access more privileged sectors of society have in order to attain the self-built financial stability necessary to gain independence and enact change within their own communities.

As January 20th looms closer and we settle into our new normal thereafter, it is of paramount importance for women of color to believe in the strength that, given the right tools, their gender and color can provide them. However, the task women of color must push through, of navigating the intersection that dictates the parameters of their lives, is not easy. If it were, the aims of the Combahee River Collective wouldn’t still be the aims of BlackFem. Regardless of political ideology, whether you voted for Trump or Hillary, there is no denying the peril women face in Trump’s America. It’s clear that a man who cannot see past a woman’s sexual appeal, whether discussing a renowned former Fox reporter, a pageant queen, or his own daughter, a man who has nominated only two women to serve in his fifteen member presidential cabinet, is a man whom women, at the very least, cannot rely on.

Given the results of the 2016 election, core issues within communities of women of color, such that they have zero to negative wealth, must be reevaluated. Consider the situation of a nameless women who grew up, as most women of color do, without the dinner-time conversations or lessons via observations that teach most white, especially white men, how to become financially responsible — lessons that include the simple act of opening banks accounts or the importance of saving. That women, instead of these lessons, learned that she could always rely on her husband for financial assistance. Now, consider how humiliating it is for that same woman to have to ask her husband for grocery or gas money. This is the intersection of race and sex that women of color live in. Therefore, in focusing on this specific point of the more general oppressive system women of color face, on financial and wealth education, BlackFem allows women of color to gain independence. At its core, the oppressive system women of color face is a mechanism of control over women of color, but with the right financial and wealth knowledge, women of color can be independent people with opportunities as plentiful as any white male.

As a Hispanic woman of color, I have had first hand experience living with the hypothetical woman I described above. She remains nameless because she manifests herself in countless women — my mother, my childhood friends, even myself. Looking at the history behind BlackFem, stretching back to the Combahee River Collective and further, has allowed me to appreciate the enormity of the accomplishments of the women around me precisely because they have managed to carve themselves independence in one form or another — be it in defying odds and going to college, having self sustaining jobs, or being primary bread winners. However, because of the systemic racism and sexism meant to control them, independence is not something that is easily discovered by women of color — at least not without some guidance.

Ultimately, BlackFem is that guide when it comes to financial and wealth literacy. In balancing the strength of women of color with the endurance of the system women of color stand against BlackFem gives women of color the tools necessary to successfully fight that system. It understands that when a girl is taught, from the youngest of ages, that she needs to take care of her financial self, she gains more than just economic responsibility, she gains the independence and confidence to take on the world, to be a superhero in even the darkest of times against the most oppressive villains, which might be exactly what we need heading into these next four years.