Last week, I wrote that I believe sexism and racism are interlinked and that as a White woman I can speak about racism through using my experience of sexism. Since then I have received some thoughtful and interesting feedback, including some people calling me out and challenging me on what I had said. I am grateful for that, and it’s forced me to really consider my motives behind writing what I did last week. Firstly, I still do firmly believe that racism and sexism are interlinked and are different manifestations of the same kind of oppression. I do not believe that that absolves me from playing a part in racism. I do not believe that my experience as a White woman equals the experience of a Black person and especially a Black woman, but rather runs parallel (and intersects over the Black and ethnic female experience). I do believe, however, that I can use my experience as a woman to examine my own complicity in racism and to speak out more effectively.
Being White means that I do not experience the full brunt of sexism and misogyny that other women of colour experience. As I said in a comment to my last article, White Privilege transcends even sexism. But this is precisely why I believe that it is even more imperative for White women to speak out against racism and sexism. How we can do this effectively is a difficult field to navigate, but one that I think is important to explore. By no means do I know all the answers to how White people can be allies, but I want to add my own input through a feminist lens.
White feminists are especially complicit in racist structures precisely because we are feminists. Historically, feminism has been centred on White women’s rights rather than Black or other minority groups. The early feminist movement in America ostracised Black women through their utterly ridiculous inability to accept that Black men were not rapists of White women.
Even today, many feminists (myself included) unconsciously equate feminism with White women and completely ignore the fact that sexism and racism converge in the experience of Black and ethnic minority women. By pretending to speak for “all women,” mainstream feminism ignores the reality: that whether you are a White woman or a Black woman will determine how and the extent to which you experience sexism. (I’m not going to continue proving this. If you still honestly disbelieve this, I noted a few statistics in my last article and a simple google search will enlighten you to the shocking disparity between Black and White women.) By refusing to recognise these different experiences, mainstream feminism ignores Black women and ethnic minorities and by default “all women” actually becomes “all White women.”
The recent scandals surrounding the nude leaked photos exemplify the back seat that Black and ethnic minorities have been forced to take in mainstream feminism. Women rallied around Jennifer Lawrence when her photos were leaked, but there was very little outrage surrounding the Black women like Jill Scott or Gabrielle Union whose pictures were also leaked. Before the devastating case of Sandra Bland (who, aside from whether or not her death was a suicide or a brutal murder, should not have been in that fucking cell in the first fucking place) there was very little attention on the violence that Black women suffer at the hands of police in America and there is still not enough recognition of this.
One only needs to look at the ambivalence with which White feminists feel about Black women such as Nikki Minaj to understand how mainstream feminism is racist. Nikki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video is an unashamed celebration of Black female sexuality that smashes the idea of women’s bodies being only instruments of pleasure for men. As this article demonstrates, Minaj has done a lot of work to reclaim female sexuality for our own purposes. The women in Minaj’s videos are active sexual agents rather than passive, sexualised objects; women that are not merely there to be looked at by men but control their own sexual desires and appetites. This is just a part of feminism as the “No More Page Three Campaign” was, but many mainstream feminists actively deny that Minaj is a feminist.
Similarly, we can see how mainstream feminism has failed through the fact that many Black and ethnic minority women do not even want to identify as feminists. Alice Walker recognised this when she defined herself as a womanist, and many women of colour feel more comfortable with this label because it is truly reflective of their experiences. The reaction of White feminists to womanism perfectly demonstrates our inability to understand. While some White feminists have attacked womanists for creating divides between women, others have rushed to identify themselves as womanists too or intersectional feminists. This is no doubt done with the best intentions, but it perfectly, and rather ironically, demonstrates how White Privilege operates within mainstream feminism. Firstly, by denying that there are divisions between women denies the experience of Black and ethnic minority women and completely ignores the fact that it was White women that first created the divides between us. Secondly, by rushing to identify with women of colour, we actually take over space that is created specifically by women of colour for women of colour, as womanists like Trudy from Gradient Lair have pointed out.
How can White feminists fight against sexism and racism in a way that is inclusive of all and reflective of the reality of gender struggles? Rather than invading their space, why not recreate our own to be more inclusive? Why not redefine what it means to be a feminist by centring the debate on how racism and sexism intersect over the experience of women of colour? Why can’t we redefine what it means to be feminist?
White feminists need to recognise that mainstream feminism is actually “White feminism” and start challenging that. We need to start calling each other out by ensuring that, when we speak about feminism, when we write about feminism, we include other women’s experiences. We must recognise that the dynamics of race create a completely different experience of sexism for women of colour and that the so-called solidarity of “womanhood” is impeded by racism.
Secondly, we need to listen – to Black women, Asian women, Native American women, Romani women. We need to listen to their experiences of feminism and take on board what they are saying, without immediately becoming offended or self-defensive. The thing about “structural” is that there is no “I” in it. Just because you yourself do not believe you are actively racist or sexist, does not exclude you from being a part of overarching social structures that make you an unwitting accomplice. Listening is the simplest solution, but the hardest thing to do effectively. It is hard to accept honest feedback; to hear that what you thought was helpful or necessary is, in fact, not at all.
Finally, we must also act on what we hear. When considering how to be an effective ally, many people suggest that to “shut up and listen” is the best thing White people can do. I do not agree with this; I think it should be, “Shut up, Listen, then speak.” Shutting up entirely only perpetuates the racial and sexist structures of the societies we live in. After self-reflection and listening, I do believe that White people can speak out and must speak out. We must do it with care, and with awareness of the uncomfortable position we are in, but we should still do it.
Similarly, while White women should not be the leaders of feminism that does not mean we should be silent. Rather we should speak more, and more effectively. We should speak about how unacceptable it is that mainstream feminism has become synonymous with “White”; we should speak about how, as White people, we too are angry that we live in a society that oppresses others just on the basis of their skin; how angry we are that we play an unwilling, often unconscious role in this oppression; we too should start exposing the racist and sexist structures that underlie every element of our societies.
The fact that we are part of the problem makes it all the more necessary for us to add our voices in support of others. I do not know how exactly to continue from here. My next steps will be to continue calling out myself, and to continue listening and speaking out at the injustices that. And I hope that others, especially White feminists, will do the same to create a better and more effective discourse on feminism.