On January 21st, 2017, women across the country flocked to Washington D.C. to participate in the Women’s March. Although my friends know me as a strong supporter of social justice, some were surprised to hear that I had no plans to attend. One friend in particular inquired about my travel plans to D.C. and was surprised to hear that I had none. Her surprise took me by surprise, and I was forced to evaluate just why she assumed I would be there and why I assumed she knew I would not.
With the advent of the #MeToo movement and the countless men in positions of power forced to surrender that power as a result of sexual aggression waged against women over the course of their careers, one might conclude that there has never been a better time to be a feminist. While there are still many gains to be made in society as it relates to the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, the #MeToo movement is, without question, a major development in the fight for gender equality.
However powerful the #MeToo movement is, its conflation with white feminism also highlights the rationale for why some women of color embrace social justice, but not feminism. As Anthea Butler wrote in 2013,
“Women of color have never had the luxury of just focusing on women’s issues.”
As a woman of color living in a society that favors whiteness and maleness, the places where highly privileged people congregate are more of a “bad neighborhood” to me than what most people typically envision when hearing that term. This is largely because basic democratic freedoms of non-privileged individuals get superseded by exercised privilege. Privilege itself is inherently unjust, so its assertion is an obvious threat to social justice, equality, and the values of a democratic society.
The spaces where privileged people congregate can quickly become spaces where other individuals can be targeted without recourse, criticized without consideration, and harmed. Simply put, I am not safe in spaces where people who are heavily invested in or oblivious to white privilege congregate, including so-called progressive spaces.
This might sound foreign to some, who might be tempted to retreat to visions of a klansman burning a cross on my lawn to single out an appropriate culprit. However, what has proven more disruptive to my own feminist sensibilities and sense of security has not been the man dressed in bedsheets, but the white feminist. Her subscription to white privilege and oppression is one marked by both a sense of awareness and obliviousness. She is aware of her own struggle for equality based on gender, but fights vehemently to deny or ignore other forms of oppression that stretch beyond gender.
“The war on women does not resonate with communities of color because we’ve never stopped being under attack.”
In a recent interview with Quartz, feminist icon Gloria Steinem expertly pointed out both the misconceptions of mainstream feminism, and offered a deeper definition of what it means to be feminist.
“The problem, and what [many feminists today] are not saying is that women of color in general—and especially black women—have always been more likely to be feminist than white women,” Steinem said. “And the problem I have with the idea that the women’s movement or the feminist movement is somehow a white thing is that it renders invisible the people who have always been there.”
Popular depictions of feminism in American society typically entail images of all-white or mostly white women posing fiercely (like the Los Angeles Times’ recent actress-themed edition of The Envelope), as well as stories that relay the experiences and opinions of white women as the foundation and totality of the word feminism itself. This version of feminism (white feminism/false feminism) has proven highly problematic to democracy and social justice because it reinforces white patriarchy and declares invisible the very people on the front lines of social injustice.
“The fact that our bodies belong to us, that is the beginning of democracy in my view…Patriarchy wants to control,” Steinem told Quartz. “Our right to govern our own bodies and use our own voices is fundamental to democracy.”
According to Steinem, the fundamental factor that many people miss regarding sexual aggression (and feminism as its response) is that sexual harassment is not rooted in sex, but in power. In the same fashion, patriarchy is also rooted in power and the need to dominate the bodies and voices of women. Based on this, not only is white feminism false feminism, but it is also an extension of racism and patriarchy because it embraces and perpetuates the compulsion to control (or render invisible) the bodies and voices of non-white women.
In the same way the trickle-down theory has been exposed as a farce when it comes to economics, presumptions about justice following the same pattern are also a conjuring of privileged individuals who seek their own prosperity and emancipation while denying that of others.
Trickle-down feminism is when privileged, white women firmly believe that their prosperity must come first and that the prosperity of other women can only come after white women succeed. This represents a grossly arrogant and perverted perspective on justice in which you get yours and then hand the scraps to those whose interests and lives are deemed secondary to one’s own. It is, in fact, the perpetuation of injustice and oppression and is described by Steinem as a product of racism and misogyny.
“We’re socialized to believe we are ranked, when in fact we are linked.”
Cancer is a disease marked by uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in the body. This disease can strike any part of the body and is not isolated to one area or specific set of cells. It would be unheard of for a doctor, patient, or anyone to acknowledge the cancer that can occur in one part of the body, but deny or ignore the existence of cancer that can occur in other parts of the body.
This describes the fundamental exclusionist behavior that has plagued feminism since the Suffrage Movement and that reduces mainstream feminism to that of a mere sorority for white women.
When women of color articulate forms of oppression and privilege that are not based on gender alone, we are often attacked and shunned by many white cisgender feminists who advance the reality of privilege and discrimination when it is based on gender, but deny its existence when the foundations are race, sexuality, or class. This can lead to the practice of behaving as though the only oppression that exists or that is worth acknowledgment is the kind that begins and ends with a white woman’s vagina.
As blogger Samiyah describes in her essay, “Feminist Current or White Feminist Past?…,”
“What we’re talking about here is power – the power that white capitalism gives white cisgender women to define womanhood and then to use harmful language in defense of this definition…defending the reactionary ideology that promotes white cisgender womanhood as the default for all womanhood within the capitalist system.”
This describes the hostile reaction many white cisgender feminists display when their perceived power in a white patriarchal society is challenged by those they consider to be of lower rank. This tendency represents internalized racism and patriarchy on the part of white cisgender feminists who, ironically, resort to bullying and aggression in order to affirm their own dominance over other women. The fact that their version of feminism (white feminism/false feminism) can only be defended and reinforced through aggression and the denial of others’ dignity is further proof that white feminism is a perpetuation of racism and patriarchy.
Blogger FoxyJazzabelle described this phenomenon following Beyonce’s Grammys performance last year, Serena Wlliams’ bikini photo shoot, and the prudish reactions of the white female commentariat to both events:
“Whenever Black women celebrate and affirm ourselves in any way, the Bitter Becky writers of White Feminism deem our acts ‘bad’, crawl out from their White Supremacist caves and pen their Anti-Black Woman vitriol op-eds disguised as ‘thinkpieces,'” wrote FoxyJazzabelle. “White Feminism writers are no different from the slavemistress who was jealous of her slavemaster husband’s proclivity for seeking sexual gratification with—re: RAPING—the inferior and supposedly ugly Negress slave wench. Just by existing, the Negress posed a threat to the slavemistress, and so she took her jealousy and anger at her husband’s betrayal out on the Negress, and White Feminism continually does this to Black women…”
As Steinem pointed out in her interview with Quartz, black women voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential election, while a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump. She attributes this to the fact that married white women vote in the interests of their husbands’ income identity, because that’s what they are dependent on. Women of color, on the other hand, are “necessarily aware of systemic biases in their everyday lives and are far more likely to oppose oppression.”
Although Steinem attributes this kinship to economic dependency, this fails to explain why white feminists without an economic dependency on white males still display a greater sense of kinship with white maleness than they do with non-white women. A contributing factor could be the sordid history of our relationships to each other as women in a white patriarchal society, a history we do not speak of but that speaks through us in the ways we have come to challenge white patriarchy.
Consistent with the plantation mentality described by FoxyJazzabelle, white feminism’s dysfunction is that it believes in the plantation, but simply wants to assert itself as headmistress. In the same way, the crusader of white feminism is guilty of embracing oppression so long as she is not at the receiving end of its whip. She is fundamentally and immovably complicit.
In a 2015 essay for the Washington Post, Howard University professor Nyasha Junior highlighted this, using the example of actress Patricia Arquette actively excluding women of color in the fight for women’s equality during her Oscars acceptance speech:
Arquette mentions four groups: “women,” “all the men that love women,” “gay people,” and “people of color.” It’s clear that Arquette’s notion of “women” refers to straight white women. By segmenting the last two groups in these comments, Arquette excludes queer white women, women of color, and queer women of color. Furthermore, Arquette claims “we” [white women] have fought for these people, and she insists that now these people must fight for “us” [white women].
Could it be that the reason white women voted for accused serial assaulter Donald Trump more than they did for Clinton, the reason white women in Alabama voted for accused child molester Roy Moore more than they did for Doug Jones, is because deep down white women feel a greater kinship with white misogynistic men than they do with non-white women? Could it be that for the crusaders of white feminism, race trumps gender? Are crusaders of white feminism unable to unite with non-white women and compelled to feel a greater affinity and kinship for misogynistic white men?
This is not a far-fetched notion given the fact that in a white patriarchal society race is what affords them privilege, not gender, and they are as addicted to that privilege as any addict to a substance that makes them feel powerful. White feminism enables white women to simultaneously rage against and benefit from a white patriarchal society, to disguise racism as feminism, and reduce feminism to a mere sorority of racist white women.
The Inclusion Delusion
Imagine throwing a party and inviting all of your family, friends, and neighbors to join you. Now also imagine one of your neighbors showing up at 11pm instead of 8pm, thanking everyone for coming and then asking if you are enjoying HER party.
Although the struggle for social justice can hardly be likened to a party, showing up late and then taking credit for the party is an accurate description of white feminism’s attempt to own and stratify the feminist fight. In a haphazard effort to disassociate from the racism that plagues white feminism, some white feminists have been calling on each other to “include” women of color in their efforts.
However, this is also another misguided attempt on the part of many white feminists, who struggle to envision a feminist movement that does not revolve around their person, experience, and authority. In a 2015 article on her website BlackGirlDangerous, writer Mia McKenzie called for white feminists to re-evaluate their role in the feminist movement. Instead of asking how they can include women of color, McKenzie argues white feminists should ask themselves how they can be worthy contributors to a movement that has long since been led by women of color.
“Asking how white women can include women of color in feminism suggests that feminism is the domain of white women, and that they are the ones who get to decide who’s included. This is the narrative of mainstream feminism, and it’s wrong,” McKenzie wrote, citing legendary female activists of color like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Yuri Kochiyama, Cherríe Moraga, and Shirley Chisholm. “The fact is that women of color have been creating feminist movements (under whatever names we’ve called them), both formally and informally, since before ‘feminism’ was even a word.”
“Throughout history, women of color have fought for their rights, in ways both large and small, both documented and undocumented, and their fighting has impacted not only their lives and the lives of the women in their communities, but every feminist issue that has come after them,” she continued. “Women of color have always been here doing this work.”
But I Can’t Be Racist…
I once worked for a company that required taking a specific set of back roads to the office each day in order to avoid a lengthy and painful commute. I was with the company for approximately two years before accepting a better position elsewhere. Despite only being in the job for two years, it took some time for me to shake the habit of driving the old route each morning when I set out for work at my new job. Some days I found myself halfway through my old commute before it set in that I was following patterns of behavior that did not fit the current reality.
If a detailed commute can be hard to shed after only two years, what does that say about patterns of behavior learned over the course of a person’s lifetime in a society that favors whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and wealth?
Human tendency can lead us to organize reality into “good guys vs. bad guys” with the rubric for goodness defined by and reinforced by our own reflections. The problem we face is that most everyone considers themselves the good guys, having nothing in common with what they seek to control, regulate, subjugate, eliminate, or actively ignore.
This is the inherent problem with many white feminist women. While acutely aware of the ways in which gender affords privilege to men, they can and often simultaneously remain acutely unaware or unwilling to acknowledge how other factors such as race, sexuality, age, and socio-economic status are also used to assign privilege in society.
When unacknowledged, this privilege perverts efforts to unite around shared struggles and ultimately reduces the effectiveness of feminism. Rather than discerning this reality and developing strategies to unite across intersections of privilege, many white feminists attack women of color for pointing out these issues in the name of so-called unity.
Silence Is Golden
Unity is not physical, philosophical, or ideological homogeny. It’s not the forced acceptance of sameness or a version of reality that acknowledges the experiences of some while denying that of others. Unity entails an acceptance of difference, but resolution in purpose. Unity means to be many in body, background, experiences, and perspectives, but one in mind or intent to use the strength of that variance to establish a dignity and prosperity that encompasses all.
The use of the term “unity” as a weapon by white feminists to force those whose experiences highlight or threaten exercised privilege is the source of division that many white feminists cry foul over. They do not realize the irony of being the source of the very accusation they so freely hurl at women of color. Actress Rose McGowan’s hastily deleted October 2017 tweet attempting to unify women by likening misogyny to racism is a good example:
The fundamental truth about this problem is that the source and solution are one in the same. You cannot truly unite with others if you are not allowed to be honest with them about how their actions harm you. The very people being shouted at to display “unity” are the ones most harmed by a feminist movement that is silent about its own privilege, racism, and sexism. Those who speak up, contrary to the narrative, do not do so out of a desire to sow seeds of division. We do so out of a sincere wish to build true unity and reject false unity, whose gimmick is routinely exposed effortlessly at the first sign of opposition.
When women of color cannot be regulated by white feminists, we are ignored in a last-ditch effort to diminish our voices and thus exclude us from democracy. This type of plantation mentality is exercised by many white feminists towards women of color.
Many white feminist women find it difficult if not impossible to interact with women of color without presuming a position of authority over them. They do not know how to relate to women of color unless they are in charge of them, ordering them around, and treating them as subordinates. This is a product of internalized patriarchy, which promotes dominance and power in support of a stratified society.
It also explains the compulsion some white feminists feel to correct the experiences of women of color or to regulate our voices, appearance, and behavior. Women of color are not objects to be regulated or rendered invisible based on the inclinations of white women. That objectification is the exact behavior feminism seeks to root out in toxic masculinity, but that is on display far too often with mainstream feminism.
The Masquerade of White Feminism
Tanya Parker summed up the toxicity of white feminism well in her November 2017 essay calling on women to stop racism from masquerading as feminism.
“We need to either get these women woke or stop them from being the voice of feminism because, as Steinem said, it’s not feminism if it’s white,” Parker wrote.
True feminism is an expression of social justice and celebrates women of color for asserting control over and celebrating our own bodies and voices. True feminism rejects the values of a white patriarchal society, which seeks to rank women. True feminism is a unifying force with which all women can associate and belong. True feminists are social justice advocates and do not seek to exclude any woman from the struggle for gender equality.
There is no designer version of oppression to be claimed by an elite group of women. To define all forms of oppression women endure through the white woman experience is to subvert efforts to combat oppression by lacing these efforts with privilege. The best things white women can do to prevent or shed the hypocrisy and falsehood of white feminism from their own efforts are to:
1. Relinquish their attachment to false beliefs – the belief that they are the center of the feminist movement and womanhood.
2. Remember that we are not ranked. We are linked.
3. Recognize that white women do not have the authority to include or exclude other women from feminism.
4. To focus on what Gloria Steinem refers to as the practical steps we take in the world, like how we spend our money, who we reward and who we don’t, and who we vote for.
-Ground your activism in intersectionality and democracy. If you’re posing for a photo about feminism and everyone else in the photo is a white woman, choose to not be in the photo and instead speak up about how that perpetuates false feminism.
-If you have more power, remember to listen as much as you talk. If you have less power, remember to talk as much as you listen.
-Talk to people. Don’t get isolated.
Lastly, it is critically important to remember that this is very difficult terrain to negotiate and that we must be honest with ourselves and each other. There will be many moments of discomfort, but we must stay engaged in the process. As Ma’ikwe Ludwig, author of Together Resilient points out:
“We have a long way to go following the lead of people of color, and for us white folks, stepping up to the plate as allies and partners in dismantling a system that we continue to benefit from.”
Shara Smith is publisher of Grit Post. She writes about politics, economics, and social justice issues. Her background is in communications and management. She founded Grit Post after a long career in academia and the nonprofit sector. Follow her on Twitter @writershara or email her at info AT gritpost DOT com.