When the white, middle-class idea of women's rights just ain't seasoned enough.
Except for our last names, Dree Cooper and I have little in common. Our life experiences have been widely divergent. I have lived with middle-class privilege and have had access to education, housing, recreation, transportation, health care, a savings account and employment most of my life. Dree? Not so much.
Now in her 40s, Dree is living with overlapping disabilities including lupus, epilepsy and chronic migraines. She’s had several strokes and is a cancer survivor. The married mom of four is also an animal lover who says that over the years, she’s rescued at least 300 dogs.
She has lived without access to water when a landlord didn’t pay the water bill and she couldn’t afford to move. She now lives near John R and Six Mile in Detroit, an area some call “Prostitute Row.” She calls it her neighborhood.
In the normal course of business, it’s not likely that Dree and I would have ever met, but one thing brought us together – our commitment to feminism. Or, as she calls her particular brand of activism, “hood feminism.”
Let’s be clear: I don’t go around calling people “hood.” I think of that term as a way to belittle or marginalize something or someone because they don’t match a white, middle-class aesthetic.
To me, “hood” is not only rough around the edges, but also a bit shady or illicit, as in “hoodlum.” When Dree described herself as a hood feminist, I had to go to the Urban Dictionary just to make sure I had it right.
There it was in black and white: “Hood is a gangster slang word derived from neighborhood, usually talking about the ghetto or where all the gangsters and thugs live.”
“We have taken a derogatory term and owned it,” says Dree. “A hood feminist cares about people who are of color, nonbinary, ghetto, rachet, homeless, disabled, mentally ill, trans, the people who do hair out of their homes, cook fish on Fridays for sale, sex workers – especially those who are black and trans – and those fixing cars in their garage. We accept all of these people.”
We’ve had the bra-burning feminists of my day, the second- and third-wave feminists, the black feminists, the intersectionalists and the hood feminists. All of them at their core believed in the primacy of women. But which women? That’s been a simmering question since women of color were sidelined by the original women’s movement.
Most feminists believe in reproductive freedom (i.e., the freedom to decide what to do with our own bodies), but what about reproductive justice (i.e., the freedom not to die in delivery rooms because you’re black, or the freedom to have as many children as you want, or the freedom to raise your children in a safe environment)?
Is the poisoned water in Flint a feminist issue? Hood feminists believe it is because it affects our children and our communities. We believe in pay equity, but when will it be equal? When white women earn as much as white men, or when Latinas reach that goal? How does pay equity address the fact that women of color or women with physical challenges can’t get hired in the first place?
Dree said that hood feminists don’t necessarily disagree with the agenda of the traditional feminist movement, but they are demanding that white feminists learn how to be allies of women who do not have privilege, just as we have been allies for them.
Icon of the women’s movement Gloria Steinem once said, “The problem is that women of color in general – and especially black women – have always been more likely to be feminists than white women.”
Dree says, “Allyship is more than wearing a shirt at a convention. We’re dying out here. We’re being pulled over by profiling police, our sons are being killed, we can’t get mortgages. How are you using your white, feminist privilege to speak out on issues that don’t directly affect you?”
The more I talked to Dree, the more I realized that hood feminism may be a throwback to a very old concept in the black community. There once was a time when women not only raised their families, they nourished entire ecosystems of neighbors and kin. From that standpoint, “hood” simply means neighborhood, and a hood feminist is about the business of changing the world, one community at a time.