“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” – Sojourner Truth
No one can deny that WOC (women of colour) live a different existence from white women. Though all women face oppression, make no mistake, WOC deal with it on a level never experienced by white women.
In the 19th century, when women fought for their emancipation and their right to vote, women from all walks of life marched in solidarity to challenge the prevailing paradigm. When fighting for equal political and legal rights in the mid 1900’s, women continued to fight with the same agenda in unity. But today, as we work to transform societal norms and eliminate the value/power disparity between genders, we strive to achieve a less specific, less concrete goal. And as we are fighting, are we fighting together? Are we fighting for all women?
Is feminism today racist?
In theory, no. In practice, yes. And theory doesn’t help anyone live through oppression.
We have silenced women of colour. We have ignored their unique struggle. We have white washed feminism.
Failings of Feminism
Writer and feminist Roqayah Chamseddine explains, “White feminism is extremely introverted, refusing to acknowledge systematic hurdles facing WOC who are not visible. Our voices need amplifying because white feminism tokenizes us and usurps our voices.”
In 2013, the Hood Feminism blogger Mikki Kendall created the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen to initiate a dialogue about the exclusion of ethnic minorities from mainstream feminism. Kendall noted, “There is a pretense that women of color are on equal footing with white women - but it's only insofar as it benefits white women.” The online conversation brought attention to a legacy in which white feminists dismiss the distinctive obstacles WOC face, and promote a ‘brand of solidarity’ that encloses itself within the safety and comfort of white women.
Since its inception, mainstream (white) feminism has unfailingly argued that gender trumps race, and the racism that WOC experience ‘is not a feminist issue’. This stance negates the experiences of WOC and creates a paradox where people are alienated from a movement that claims to include and support all people.
As a white middle-class woman who identifies as a feminist, I would like to deny these statements. I would like to address each sentiment and make sound rebuttals. I would like to, but I cannot.
Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” music video might just be the perfect encapsulation of white feminism. The song renounces all things sexist, including fat shaming, unequal pay, and male superiority. The video, on the other hand, creates an interesting (and by interesting I mean horrific) juxtaposition. Allen sings, “Don't need to shake my ass for you 'cause I've got a brain”, just seconds before the first WOC appears on screen shaking her ass. In the words of journalist Ayesha A. Siddiqi, “so much for sisterly solidarity.”
In 2013, the performer and active feminist Ani DiFranco planned a “Righteous Retreat” for artists at Nottaway Plantation in New Orleans. I hope the irony of this is not lost on anyone. When she did finally cancel the event, her public statement was dubbed “a remarkably unapologetic apology”. In her statement she said, “The history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country…the setting would become a participant in the event.”
As white feminists rushed to support and defend DiFranco for her desire to ‘empower women’ on a plantation, the world continued to debate whether or not Beyoncé was an adequate feminist. The fact that she published an essay entitled “Gender Equality is a Myth”, featured Nigerian author Adichie on her album and danced in front of millions of people with a backdrop that read FEMINIST, still left mainstream feminists questioning her credibility.
For a movement that claims to support all women, we white feminists seem to be awfully exclusive.
More recently, Rachel Dolezal, the leader of NAACP in Spokane, was exposed for pretending to be black. One woman (amongst many who shared her sentiments) on Twitter wrote, “Her life is at least a little bit ruined now. Something distasteful about prioritizing the feelings of the mob”. The ‘mob’ being people of colour becoming upset for someone stealing their identity for her own gain. A wonderful example of the relevancy of #solidarityisforwhitewomen.
Today’s feminism fights for gender equality for all men and women…. in theory. But the disconnect between the movement’s theory and practice seems only to grow every year.
Black Feminism & Simultaneous Oppression
The failure of mainstream feminism to recognize the varied oppression against women has propelled WOC to turn to black feminism. Critically, black feminism promotes a greater understanding of the workings of oppression and privilege. The movement teaches that at an individual level, one can occupy a position of privilege while still facing oppression. For example, an affluent black woman can have socio-economic privilege while still enduring racial and gender oppression.
Black feminist and scholar Barbara Smith believes, “The concept of the simultaneity of oppression is still the crux of a Black feminist understanding of political reality and…one of the most significant ideological contributions of Black feminist thought.”
This notion explains how people are often discriminated against in multiple ways, and these streams of oppression intersect. Feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw argues that discrimination against WOC does not fit neatly into the legal categories of ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’, but rather as a combination. This is a specific issue for WOC, as the North American legal system defines sexism as based upon an unspoken reference to the injustices confronted by all (including white) women, while defining racism to refer to those faced by all (including male) people of color. Crenshaw argues that this framework often leaves WOC legally “invisible” and without legal recourse.
As noted in Sojourner’s speech “Ain’t I A Woman”, since the times of slavery black women have faced the multiple oppressions of race, class, and gender. This concept has been coined, “interlocking oppressions,” “simultaneous oppressions,” “double jeopardy,” or “triple jeopardy”.
Interlocking oppression, as analogized by Crenshaw, can be looked at as a four-way street intersection. Discrimination, just like traffic, can travel through an intersection from multiple directions. These flows can happen at any time, often simultaneously. If two or more cars collide at an intersection it causes an accident. Similarly, if a WOC is harmed because she stands at an intersection, the pain could be from various forms of discrimination. This issue, and where the legal part comes into play, is the reconstruction of the accident. In the words of Crenshaw, “sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm”.
Sexism in a Deeply Racist World
North America has a historical context of slavery and segregation. As a society, we can’t just sweep this under the rug to pretend it never happened and ignore its societal ramifications.
If feminism today is to grow as a united women’s movement, it has to recognize the assorted implications of this enduring racial divide. Yes, all women are oppressed, but not all women face the same forms or severity of oppression. As a movement, feminism cannot claim to fight for all women unless it advocates for all the issues that women face. The movement cannot ignore the consequences of racism, which disproportionately places WOC in the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Mainstream feminism needs to place race and class at the center of the movement for it to truly support those who are most adversely affected by the system.
By failing to challenge racism, the movement is inevitably propelling society’s racist status quo.
White feminists are being hypocrites. No ifs, ands, or buts. We admonish men for failing to accept responsibility for sexism, yet we are failing to take responsibility and challenge racism. We denounce men for saying “not all men” as a defense mechanism, yet we echo “not all white people” rebuttal when racism is discussed.
In its practice, third wave feminism is arguably equitable with the theory of ‘egalitarianism’. As feminism fails to acknowledge and fight against the oppression that some women face, (racism, ableism, trans phobia, etc.) it mirrors the idea of egalitarianism, which in theory would fail to acknowledge and protest the specific and targeted oppression of the feminized genders in today’s society. Both ignore and devalue the oppression faced by specific groups. Egalitarianism, as some people plead feminism to adopt, would precipitate that all genders in society are given equal respect and opportunities. Similarly, feminism today is choosing to assume that all women are on equal footing, thereby failing any woman who endures other prejudices.
Just as feminism needs men, racism needs white people. In order to overrule any oppressive paradigm, those who benefit from it must be at the center of the revolution for meaningful change to occur. White people created the social construct of race to subjugate people of color, so it can only be white people to truly transform it.
White women need to be better allies to women of colour.
Feminism is For Everybody
In order for feminism to actually practice what it preaches, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, white women need to become true allies. We need to teach others who share our privilege about oppression. As of now, the feminist movement is doing a disservice to women of colour. We claim to stand in solidarity with them, yet when WOC face these daily injustices, we excuse ourselves from the arduous task of discussing racism with fellow white people.
Feminism is not merely a movement about the issues facing middle-class, cisgender white women. Feminism is about queer women, women of colour, transgender women, and women of all abilities. Feminism is about bettering the world for all women and men.
Feminists are finally coming to the table and having a frank discussion about the future of feminism. Like any sincerely honest conversation that challenges dissimilarities, it can be (and has been) quite antagonistic. We can only hope that as these conversations continue, perspectives will broaden, mindsets will change, and progress will be made.
Time will tell if mainstream feminism can face the music, accept responsibility, and buckle down to fix the divide it has created.