Decolonizing the Wave: Black Feminism & The 3rd Wave

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” ~Audre Lorde~

*Note: “women” in this piece refers to anyone who identifies as feminine of center.

Third Wave Feminism is a white supremacist concept used to track the evolution of feminism over the generations. At it's core, it quite literally sweeps over the ocean of experience and resistance which is true feminism. For centuries First Nations and Black women have been battling the forces of white supremacy, sexism, and cultural genocide. When Christopher Columbus first landed on Turtle Island he brought with him a reign of terror which would decimate populations and leave their survivors vulnerable and systemically subjugated. White men raped the women and nations of Turtle Island in order to dominate and control the land and population. They went on to use the same tactics to uphold and perpetuate the inhumane treatment of enslaved Africans. Within these chasms of destruction, women resisted. 

In The Cycles of Violence Against Native Women: An Analysis of Colonialism, Historical Legislation and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, Genevieve Le May discusses a journal entry from a friend of Columbus who encountered a “Carib woman” he sought to take ownership of:

"I conceived desire to take my pleasure. I wanted to put my desire to execution, but she was unwilling for me to do so and treated me with her nails in such a wise that I would prefer never to have begun. But seeing this…I took a rope-end and thrashed her well, following which she produced such screaming and wailing as would cause you not to believe your ears. Finally, we reached an agreement such that, I can tell you, she seemed to have been raised in a veritable school of harlots."

This white man’s mentality was by no means rare and it has never been dismantled and so is still pervasive today. Black women battled with the white man’s mentality and the horrors which arise from enduring plantations, sharing contraceptives, keeping their babies, and warding off sexual assault when able (both from white slavers and Black men). Black men internalized the white slavers view of Black women due to the systematic abuse of black women and themselves. This morphed into a deep hatred which poisoned Black communities. In her essay “Heart of Darkness” Barbara Omolade states:

"To the slave master, the Black woman “was a fragmented commodity whose feelings and choices were rarely considered: her head and her heart were separated from her back and her hands were divided from her womb and vagina. … Her vagina … was the gateway to the womb, which was his place of capital investment -- the capital investment being the sex act, and the resulting child, the accumulated surplus, worth money on the slave market." (Words of Fire 366)

White feminism would have us believe that feminism found its beginning during the women’s suffrage movement when white women fought for the right to vote. After gaining inspiration from egalitarian indigenous community structures, and sailing on the backs of black abolitionists, white women began their battle for equality. 

Choosing the moment in history when white women decided to stand up for themselves, further upholds the principles of white supremacy. The wave analogy holds that the 60's/70's defined the 2nd Wave and that the Third Wave occurred from the 80's to early 2000s. 

During the period of white feminism’s Third Wave, Black feminism was doing serious work to create understanding around the issues which harass the Black feminine experience - namely the consistent erasure of the Black woman through policy, policing, sexual violence, racist movements and sexist movements.  Black women have been consistently degraded, then discarded. 

In a 1989 paper, Professor Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” as a method to explain the relentless oppression black women experience. Crenshaw went on to assist Anita Hill’s case in 1991 when Hill pushed back on the gender violence, which has plagued Black women for centuries, by accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. 

Though the 1970s gave birth to terms like “Black is Beautiful”, Black women were still under the thumb of sexist slave behaviors from Black men and white men both in and outside of movement work. One month before his assassination in 1965 Malcolm X wrote to his cousin-in-law, Hakim Jamal:

“I taught brothers not only to deal unintelligently with the devil or the white woman, but I also taught many brothers to spit acid at the sisters.  They were kept in their places - you probably didn’t notice this in action, but it is a fact. I taught the brothers that the sisters were standing in their way…I did these things brother. I must undo them." (530)  

​Malcolm X speaks to the way Black women were treated inside the Black Panther Party, the civil rights movement, and the culture as a whole. This energy of awakening helped set the stage from Black feminism’s pushback during the “Third Wave”. Audre Lorde gave us wisdom that the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” which Black feminism took to heart. Not only did it create a new language and publicly push back on sexual oppression, but Black feminism gave life to a resurgence of energy and art. This inspired Black women to push back on slave mentality and declare not only their self-worth, but their resistance to being denigrated and misused. 

The Black “Third Wave” gave Black women gifts like U.N.I.T.Y by Queen Latifah in which she declares, “Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho/Trying to make a sister feel low/You know all of that gots to go”. TLC informed us they know their worth and they don't want No Scrubs. They also told Black men to stop "chasing waterfalls" which lead to early graves. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill asked us "how we gon’ win when we ain't right within?", and India Arie declared her perfection in video. 

Black women have endured savage treatment over the ages. And within movements for equality they are forced to fight to be seen, valued, and counted. Black “Third Wave” feminism has created a means to question feminism,  push back on racist sexist systems and ideologies and envision a future free of limiting terms which, at their core, disregard the torture and genocide of countless millions. A genocide and torture which still persists today in Black and Indigenous communities. These feminists are swimming together on the current of intersectionality and are making long strides in a deep ocean of experience toward a future that is representative of all bodies who inhabit it.  ​

Sources Cited

ARIE, India. “Video.” Acoustic Soul.

Cleage, Pearl. Mad at Miles: a Black Woman's Guide to Truth. Cleage Group Publication, 1990.

Hill, Lauryn. “Doo Wop (That Thing).”

Latifah, Queen. “U.N.I.T.Y.”

Le May, Genevieve M. “The Cycles of Violence Against Native Women: An Analysis of Colonialism, Historical Legislation and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.” 2018, pp. 5–6.

Omolade, Barbara. “Hearts of Darkness.” Words of Fire: an Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, The New Press, 1996, p. 366.

Ransby, Barbara, and Tracye Matthews. “Words of Fire: an Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought.” Words of Fire: an Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, The New Press, 1996, pp. 530.

Elizabeth Hobson Rebutting "Decolonizing the Wave: Black Feminism"​

Elizabeth Hobson (Libertarianism)


 LaLa Drew (Progressivism)​

Over a period of ten days in March 2013, Joanna Dennehy stabbed three men to death and knifed two more who survived her assaults. Her first and third victims (Lukasz Slaboszewski and Kevin Lee) were lured to their deaths with the promise of sex. John Chapman, victim number two, was her housemate. After killing Kevin Lee, she called an accomplice and sang Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again”. During the hunt for her final two victims, the estranged mother of two told another accomplice that “I’ve killed three people; Gary’s helped me dispose of them and I want to do some more. I want my fun”. She later told a psychiatrist that she "killed to see how I would feel, to see if I was as cold as I thought I was. Then it got more-ish.”

I assert that this woman’s mentality was by no means rare and that it is appropriate to hold up her actions as emblematic of female nature. Female aggression has never been dismantled – in fact, in searching for heinous stories about crimes committed by women, I struggled to find any critical analysis of why women may aggress (outside of Patricia Pearson’s When She was Bad). Instead, I found a consistent propensity within our culture to deny women’s agency, ignore the innate psychology of individual women or any evidence that violence can be an inherent trait in women, and to insist on a quaint contention that ultimately all female aggression has a male source. So, I shall assert – again without evidence or even argument – that women’s deep well of violent malevolence is still pervasive today.

Comfortable? I certainly hope not. What I have hoped to show above is how absurd and invalid it is to generalise about an entire sex based on the vile actions of a single individual. I find that human beings are all too ready to believe the worst about men and will ignore intellectual explanations that discredit their arguments and reinforce the idea of masculine moral deficiency. A more effective method of highlighting the weakness of such arguments is to apply equivalent logic to any other group. Of course Dennehy is an aberration, as I believe was the ‘friend of Columbus’ who acted so cruelly.

I concede that the first two waves of feminism were predominantly white (with the first wave in the U.S. very much characterised by racist exclusion) – but the idea that tracing the history of the movement back to “when white women decided to stand up for themselves” is a white supremacist act is a paranoid delusion. The name can be traced back to revolutionary France and the movement, at the very least as associated with the name, is identified with roots in majority white countries. Furthermore, if it’s true that the movement started, as asserted, “after gaining inspiration from egalitarian Indigenous community structures” – surely it follows that feminism (as a resistance movement against sexism) would have a white history?

I agree with the observation that the Third Wave Feminism is distinct for its’ inclusion of people of colour and their experiences and that that’s a positive development. It’s a shame, however, that Third Wave feminists can’t examine the susceptibility of their movement of being blind to, minimising, or even showing hostility towards the sexism that affects certain demographics. Realise that this is exactly what feminists have always, and continue, to display, with regards to men, male disadvantage, and experience.