"As a womanist, I reject the way feminism is whitewashed": Stephanie Kimou (Cote d'Ivoire/USA) - 4/4

Stephanie Kimou, founder of Population Works Africa. 📷: Stephanie Kimou

Stephanie Kimou, founder of Population Works Africa. 📷: Stephanie Kimou

My conversation with Ivorian-American activist Stephanie Kimou is coming to a close. It’s been a rich exploration of her life mission to elevate Black women (part 1), the lessons from her early career (part 2), and her hybrid identities (part 3). Now, I want to find out what feminism means to her.

I can’t let you go without asking you about feminism. You used to write a blog, called “the Angry African: An African feminist Manifesto”. It’s no longer active, but I’m still intrigued by the title! We’ve spoken at length about the African part, let’s explore the rest. Can you start by telling me what you mean when you call yourself a feminist?

I should start by saying that I don’t consider myself a feminist. I’m a womanist. Feminism is rooted in a White American view of the world, you know? It was created by White women who were fighting for the right to not stay at home and bake cakes, while Black women were still fighting for the right to exist – literally, the right to not be killed because of the color of their skin.

What being a womanist means to me is that my analysis of gender and power dynamics takes in to account the historical context: slavery, colonization, apartheid… All the trauma that Black and African people have gone through. For example, when I think about the struggle for equal pay in the U.S., I do so in a way that includes issues around Black women’s access to healthcare, to voting rights, to the right to have protection from the police rather than persecution by them. Does that make sense?

It makes sense to me!

As a womanist, I reject the way feminism is whitewashed. I don't want anybody to be color blind. I want people to look at Black women and see their power but also understand the trauma that comes with being a Black woman in this day and age.

“As a womanist, I reject the way feminism is whitewashed.”

Being a womanist also means that I want my fight for women’s rights to take into account our history – the way Black people in the U.S. in African countries were set up for failure through slavery and colonialism – and how that still impacts us today.

And how do you embody your womanist values in your everyday life?

I try to be disruptive. I use my hybrid of identities to shake up the spaces I’m in and orient the conversations towards inclusion of Black women. I question some of the problematic statements they’re making, I point out the problematic dynamics that their work is perpetuating. I do that when I’m talking with White men and women, but also when I’m in a meeting with ten men in a Ministry of Health in any African country I’m working in. I’m always asking: why aren’t there any Black women in this room?

“I’m always asking: why aren’t there any Black women in this room?”

How did you become a womanist? Was there an “aha” moment?

I didn't even think about womanism or feminism at all before 2005. Before then, of course I would see the injustices and double standards and I didn’t like it, but that was pretty much it. Then in 2005 I took a “feminism 101” course.

For a long while I was frustrated by that class: we were studying lots of White authors, like Simone de Beauvoir, who had defined feminism and womanhood with their own white lens. I felt uncomfortable with that because, you know, I’m Black before I’m a woman. That’s for sure. So those feminist ideas did not speak to my realities at all.

And then finally, towards the end of the class, the teacher introduced us to Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought. I read that book and I was like, this is it! This is the lens I can use. The book presented Audre Lorde, it spoke about colonization, and how slavery broke up the Black family in the United States. She was making all these linkages to identities that I felt so strongly about. I realized that feminism mattered to me as a structure, but that womanism was what really spoke to me. That’s how it all took root.  

The book that changed Stephanie’s life: Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins. 📷:  Buzzfeed  (click to read a great list of 13 books about Black Feminism)

The book that changed Stephanie’s life: Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins. 📷: Buzzfeed (click to read a great list of 13 books about Black Feminism)

Looking at Black feminism in the U.S. today, there’s a lot of talk about “Black girl magic”. In a way, you embody that hashtag with the strong and unapologetic way you move around this world. But I have to ask: do you actually feel the magic? And are you comfortable with this narrative? I’m asking because I’ve had times when it felt like a trap to me: when you’re burning out and someone doesn’t recognize it because you’re supposedly too magical to be in pain, you can end up resenting the whole approach.

I have to say that Black girl magic doesn’t resonate with it, I feel like I’m too old for it – maybe it’s the “girl” part that’s bothering me. (She laughs) To your point, I agree that the idea of Black girl magic associates Black women with an unrealistic and unsustainable idea that we are always strong, always being on top of everything. It perpetuates the idea that Black women are invincible or superhuman. That Black don’t crack.

“Black girl magic associates Black women with an unrealistic and unsustainable idea that we are always strong”

It’s definitely a trap. We're not able to be vulnerable, to ask for a break when we’re hurting. I’m learning to take self-care seriously. I used to think self-care was fake news, but I’ve learned a lot from you, actually, because you’re always telling me to be realistic about my commitments. I’m trying!

I’m glad to hear that! So what do you do to take care of yourself?

I’m now spending a lot more time in Los Angeles, where my husband works. I spend lots of time at home and that’s it. It’s a huge change from D.C. life, where I always have so many meetings. So my 2019 self-care regimen has been that: being in L.A. and doing normal people stuff with my man.

Moving on to the last part of your African feminist manifesto: anger. What makes you angry?

You know, as an African, I see some patterns in our community that make me thing, oh my God, we’re the worst. Like, how do we have to always show up so late even in professional meetings? But mostly, it’s the politics: why is this president still around after 30 years? I guess at the time when I was writing on this blog, I was frustrated about the politics, the economy, the elections, all of that.

Does your anger play any role in your activism today? How do you handle it?

I'm trying to shift my anger into communicating unapologetically about things that are disturbing to me. Whether it's some pollical development or a foundation that’s sending all-White team to work in Nigeria, I try to channel my anger into a conversation: I flag what’s problematic and work with them to shake things up. Well, that’s what happens in my professional life. In my personal life, when I’m angry, I just rant for a long time! (She laughs)

Okay, one last question. What is your feminist, well, womanist life motto?

“Ask for forgiveness, not permission”. I think that's what most womanists should do: pushing forward, taking up space until people react, then we handle the reaction.

It’s a wrap! Thank you Stephanie for this honest and insightful conversation. Friends, I cannot wait to hear your thoughts. Write a comment below, or let’s chat on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram @EyalaBlog.

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Want to connect with Stephanie?

Find her on Twitter and Instagram @PopWorksAfrica. To find out more about Stephanie’s work, visit her firm’s website.