“Feminism” is actually “Whitewomanism”: Why White Feminists do have a part to play in overcoming racism.

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.

I, racist, sexist. A letter to a Black man in America from a White woman in Rwanda.

This article was written in agreement and expansion to the brilliant article in The Huffington Post by John Metta.  If you have not already, please read it

Dear Mr. Metta,

I, racist, am a White woman living in Rwanda.  I read your article yesterday morning and have been unable to think of anything else since.  It has been a long time since I have been a tacit contributor to the racist structures that exist in my homeland the UK, many of which I believe parallel your own country and large parts of the world.  No one has benefited more from White Privilege than me.  I was able to attend one of the better (Whiter) schools that you talk of, and I lived in an affluent (Whiter) area in the UK as well.  Growing up, I did not take much notice that the people I saw on my television screen, in my novels, and in the news were mainly White and those that were Black were often ridiculous stereotypes.   Moving to Rwanda has opened my eyes to assumptions, privileges and attitudes that I did not even realise I had.

Here in Rwanda I work with vulnerable and orphaned youth and it is through them I have realised the extent to which White Privilege has been translated across the world. The experience of being a White person abroad testifies to this.  When we go outside of our home countries we are given easy access to the best jobs, our visa process is simple, we are treated with respect and as honoured guests in countries that, not too long ago, we plundered and controlled.   Even as foreigners, we are still in a position of power.  White Privilege is not just inherent within American social systems; it has been twisted into various manifestations everywhere.

I have been a silent, albeit uncomfortable, observer of racism because I was unsure as to how I could assist.  As you so rightly said, being a White person excludes me from ever understanding the experience of racism.  At the end of your article you asked White people to use their position of power to speak against the injustices many Black people suffer.   I have often wondered how I can speak with authority on a subject I know nothing of.   I believe this is a dilemma that many White people feel, unsure of what place we can take in the Black struggle.  But reading your article today, I was struck with a solution.  Yes, I am White and I know nothing of racism.  But I am also a woman, and I know all too well what it is like to live under a system that is inherently and structurally oppressive.

I am a woman and I want to tell you that the social systems in place across the world dictate our lives as they do Black lives.  They restrict our movement, the spaces that we feel safe to occupy; they shape the things that we feel comfortable or are allowed to say; they decide the amount we are paid for the work that we do and the type of  jobs that we can have; and they necessitate the measures we take to protect ourselves.   I want you to know, as a woman, I too am living with institutionalised prejudice that I cannot speak out against.  When we do speak, like you, we are called “over-sensitive”.   You become the “Angry Black Person”; I become the “Hysterical Crazy Woman.”  Like you, those who are brave enough to speak out face derision and death threats in social media and even in person.

First, let me be clear.  I do not want to tell you this as a means of taking away from anything that you have said; I am not interested in making comparisons to determine who has suffered the most.   What I am interested in is the clear similarities between the Black experience and the female one, and how I can use this as a tool to speak out against racism.  You asked whether White people will be brave enough to use their position of power to speak against the system that gave it to them. I am here to answer that today I do feel brave enough to speak out, because I recognise the inherent similarities between the female and Black struggle.

So much of what you said resonated with me as a woman.  We too have only recently gained “equal” rights in humanity’s history.  In the UK women’s property, and by extension the woman, belonged to the husband until 1882, not long after slavery was abolished for Black people in America.  It was not until the 1960s and 70s, while Black people were fighting for their basic civil rights, that many women both in the UK and the US got the right to make fundamental decisions about their bodies.  We experience slavery too; 98% of trafficked people are women and are forced into the sex industry.  Like you, we are often told to be grateful for how many steps we have taken since then and, like you, we wonder why those steps ever had to be taken in the first place.  We see today that while our countries may have righted some of those wrongs (although there are many more that have not been) there are other women and Black people whose lives and bodies are controlled in the most damaging ways imaginable across the world.

In America, as you said, Black people are prey to a violence that is allowed to exist by the very systems which are meant to protect you.  So are we. When I hear of a rape or a murder of a woman, I know that its location is not random, that it could have been me or any other female anywhere in the world.  I do not see it as a one-off incident because it is not, just as the tragedy in Ferguson was not. It is a manifestation of the structural violence that is directed at women and Black people across the globe, albeit in different forms and different outlets.  In her book “Men Explain Things to Me”, Rebecca Sotlin said that every 6.2 minutes there is a reported rape in your country and 83% of girls aged 12-16 have experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Across the globe around one in ten women will experience forced intercourse in their lives.  Similarly, in America, Black people are 4 times more likely to be murdered than the national average.

Patriarchy, like racism, manifests itself in more nuanced ways.  Women are taught from the earliest ages that it is more important that we are wanted than to want anything ourselves.  We are told to measure our self-worth by how many men see fit to pursue us, how quickly we can secure one of those men, and how long we can hold onto him for.  Masculinity is the “norm” in the worlds of business, sport, and sex.  Laurie Penny in her book “Unspeakable Things” speaks of the desperate balancing act many women in the business world play; the thin line between dressing and acting feminine enough that we are not threatening, but not so much that we are taken as stupid.  When you see your television screens dominated by White people, we see ours dominated by men -with women rigidly typecast as the mothers, the wives, the girlfriends, the lovers, the objects that are there for men to chase.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the struggles we are facing are the same as in the Black female experience.  It is here that the parallel structures intersect and become one.  In America, Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate that is 35% higher than White females.  Other ethnic minorities suffer the same; Rebecca Sotlin reported that one in three Native American women will be raped, and 88% of those are committed by non-native men.   133 million women and girls have suffered from female genital mutilation across the world predominantly in Africa and Asia. Here in Rwanda, a country where gender empowerment is celebrated and the cabinet has one of the highest female proportions in the world, 31% of women have reported domestic violence. I watch females  struggle against the patriarchy that holds them down every day.  I listen to my students say to the girl who plays basketball, “But you will have to stop that once you get married.”  I hear men tell my women that females are biologically not as clever as them but, not to worry, we can give birth and raise children.  And Rwanda is a success story.  I do not even need to tell you that elsewhere Black and other women of colour do not even hold basic rights like the ability to drive a car, or vote, or make choices about their sexual health.

Just as discourse on racism is framed to cater for White people’s feelings, discussions on women’s rights protect men’s egos.  We focus on what women can do to avoid rape (don’t go out at night, don’t wear tight clothes, don’t drink too much) rather than saying the truth, the simple truth, that rape would not happen if men did not commit it.  We as women are also to blame for the continuing existence of sexism in our countries, for our fears of speaking to men about our experiences.  We have been raised to please men, and this hinders our ability to speak out against sexism.  We buy into ideals of what women should be; should wear; should say; how many calories we must eat, how – despite everything else we may do – we are still a failure if we cannot get a man.  Sexism exists because of our inability to externalise our experiences to men, just as you cannot externalise yours to White people.

But, as you said to me about racism, sexism also exists because men perpetuate it just as White people perpetuate racism.  I say to you, as you said so truly to me: that men, every single one of them, are complicit in this sexism because they benefit directly from it.

I am not saying this to separate us; I am saying it to bind us. I am writing this to you because I want you to know that, as of today, I no longer feel that I am unable to speak out against racism.  In the early beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, women and Black people worked together.   We drifted apart because we were unable to see that it is the same fight that we are engaged in, although it manifests itself in different ways.  It is the fight of groups that have long been oppressed through nuanced structures in our society that deny our ability to self-realisation.  It is the fight for equality and the essential nature of what it means to be human.  Your article helped me to realise this today. You started your address by quoting the wonderful Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I would like to end by quote her talk “We Should All be Feminists”:

  “Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry.  Anger has a long history of bringing positive change.  In addition to anger, I am hopeful, because I believe in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.”

Racism is a grave injustice as well. I am not afraid of being angry any more. I am not afraid of whether it is my place to speak out for Black people.  I, racist, and you, sexist, stand at opposite ends of the world fighting separately for something that should be fought together.  Together, we have an avenue to speak to and for each other – you as Black men and women, and us as White and Black women.  Together, we have the ability to remake this world, and ourselves, for the better.

Thank you.