Written by Sabriyya and Jennifer
Feminism, in its most rudimentary form, is an ideal of equality for all genders. This ideal is highly contentious—what does equality look like in terms of language, biology, and politics? Informed by their myriad backgrounds and perspectives, individuals use different mechanisms to pursue equality in various ways. Simply put, there are certain types of feminism that miss baseline standards of others, a disparity most often exacerbated by a privileged ignorance of intersectional identities.
Specifically, we are referring to white feminism. Before we begin, we must clarify that white feminism, and its advocates who we will refer to as ‘white feminists,’ is not a term applicable to all white-classified individuals who believe in any feminist ideal. Rather, it refers to a recently popularized movement that is centralized on the struggles of white-classified women, which neglects the uplift of women of color. The irony of such feminism is that while some women protest and lavishly advocate for the right to bear skin and make greater capital gains, other women—primarily women of color—deal with gender equality as it relates to more fundamental concerns of safety, health, housing, and stability.
These criticisms of white feminism do not seek to disqualify its concerns. However, ignorance is not bliss nor should it be treated as such; many white feminists are simply unaware of their privilege. At the end of the day, white feminists who speak out on issues of censorship and ‘white’ glass ceilings can often still afford to return to their homes and enjoy a relatively prosperous quality of life.
In South Africa, equality for a vast majority of female-identifying individuals (re: black-classified women) is about elementary principles of ‘fundamental human rights’ that international organizations—and Western nations in particular—espouse on a regular basis. A community-based researcher at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union explained to us that workers in the textile industry—who are overwhelmingly black women—must travel for hours to and from work by means of overcrowded vans (used as taxi-buses), trains, and manual walking. On these long journeys to work to support themselves and their families, sexual assault is extremely common especially now during the winter when daylight is brief. Peers on this trip were shocked to hear that the domestic worker of an attorney here in Cape Town was late to work one day because she had been raped. Sabriyya has personally heard a first-hand experience of a black woman who detailed her experience with daily harassment on the train to work.
We despise tokenizing the experiences of these women, but this is a point on choice and opportunity. Choice is a privilege that some women cannot afford: the privilege to choose a lucrative career path, to choose to live in a ‘favorable’ neighborhood (re: gentrification), and to choose to be vocal about an issue and expect their voices to be heard. White feminists laud women who make the right choices, but what is the ‘right’ choice when some women simply do not have those options? Whatever ‘success’ may mean in society, some women cannot access the choices necessary to attain it, while the choices of the more privileged define what ‘success’ means.
The exclusive privilege of choice breeds frustration that manifests in historical inaccuracies such as false statements implying all American women won the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, although only white-classified women were able to actualize this ‘right,’ and pretending that women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar—the classic statistic straight from the white feminist’s arsenal. That conglomerate 79 ignores the black women who make 64 cents to a white man’s dollar and Latinx women who make 54 cents. One only needs to look around in either Cape Town or in Durham to notice there is an underlying difference based on those who work service jobs and those who sit in offices.
It is frustrating as well that on issues of female health and safety, there are only some bodies the white feminist movement, mainstream media, and the law are willing to protect. The American media loved granting headlines to a Stanford University swimmer who had fallen from grace. While the focus was grossly disproportionate on Brock Turner’s accolades instead of on the victim and rape culture at large, any amount of attention at all is not afforded to most women. Why is there neither legal protection nor access to the media for the lower-socioeconomic single mothers of color, who are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual assault? It is a complex issue by nature: there are various reasons these cases are not reported, the lack of reporting nuances the data and research on sexual assault, the assaulter usually has some relation to the victim, and there are consequences the women may face in their communities. However, superficial proponents of women’s rights can no longer ignore the reality. The exclusion of some women from the conversation not only indicates that some lives do not matter, but also hinders progress to mitigate the ubiquity of sexual assault.
White feminism comes at the expense of women of color, but it also fails to recognize that some people who are not female-bodied face constant threats to their lives. In the wake of recent tragedies in the U.S., white feminism has been particularly painful to reflect on from our outsider positions in South Africa. So easily does white feminism ignore black lives that in 2011 a white-classified woman held a sign at Slutwalk NYC that quoted “Woman is the N* of the world.” Here in Cape Town as well are urgent issues beyond boy against girl. A lawyer with Lawyers for Human Rights explained to us that while Oscar Pistorius was given an abnormally quick ruling, (that would give him six years in prison for murdering his girlfriend and allow him to compete in the 2020 Olympics) the same case was going on across the street, but the victim and the shooter were both classified as black. That case had started before Oscar Pistorius was put on trial and yet is still going on. One can expect the ruling to be much less lenient for the black-classified man. From this, two facts are painfully clear: 1) fame and wealth allow for special access to legal protection 2) race determines one’s identity under the law.
Furthermore, recent moments in popular culture have been demoralizing to people of color as well as the non-white feminist:
- White feminism is Taylor Swift creating a song and music video (re: Wildest Dreams) that depicts a romanticized vision of ‘Africa’ as a monolithic barren desert land without a single black person; it is portraying a colonialist fantasy that was founded on a disregard of blacks from the perspective of the colonizer, and still being lauded as an advocate for empowerment.
- White feminism is the reason why Lena Dunham can criticize Kanye West for showing a bare breast in a mode of artistic expression (to make a subversive point about the woes of fame), while she continues to strip nude for photo-shoots and for her TV show (which despite being set in NYC, neglects to include a single black female cast member).
- Again with Swift, white feminism is her accusing a black-classified female artist for pitting women against each other when she is told about the perils of the entertainment industry’s obsession with thin and white-passing women. Her concept of feminism gets away with ignoring race issues while advocating for a sort of feminism that is based on ‘sticking together.’ It is her “girl squad” of wealthy, tall, thin blondes (along with an average of two women of color) whom she ‘sticks together’ with through thick and thin.
- It is her delivering a speech about “feminism” after receiving the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2016 while standing on a stage surrounded by male collaborators for the album. Her award represents two sources from which she has profited: the millions of album sales those men helped her achieve as well as her twisted platform of “feminism.”
To quote Dianca London, “When whiteness, affluence, and mainstream standards of desirability coexist in a systemically loaded space like the Grammy Awards, it is paramount that we examine the allotment of agency that is given to women like Swift. Although West’s comments about Swift are inherently sexist, his misogynistic behavior does not give her a pass for failing to check her own privilege as a white woman. Her recent win and the words with which she chose to commemorate it are only empowering for a certain demographic. Her accomplishments, regardless of how deserving they may be, are a glaring reminder of the societal and economic benefit of whiteness and white femininity. Her triumphs are celebrated while her contradictory behavior remains overlooked. If Swift continues to ignore the intersectional implications of the allotment of agency awarded to her identity in contrast to the identities of those around her, she is surely doomed to keep second-wave feminists’ failures alive and thriving.”
It is time for popular culture icons to consider at times giving up their white feminist platforms, which benefit few others than those who profit from the appropriated issues at stake. This is no longer a petty celebrity feud between Taylor Swift and Kimye. Celebrities who hop on the trendy white feminist train make capital gains at the expense of women who face threats to their ‘fundamental human rights’ every day. Feminism can no longer be a capitalist venture so long as there are minority communities who cannot access the same feminist dialogues and the same basic rights as the few white feminists for whom capitalism has been favorable. There needs to be a collaborative intersectional feminist dialogue, which cannot happen in the prevalence of white feminists who ignore intersectional issues and whose privileged voices are unfortunately heard the loudest.
The tragedy of social movements is the misunderstanding of intersectional identities that exacerbates division by pushing some people up at the expense of others. While we must criticize popular culture and force it to rethink its stance, we must also brainstorm individual action in our own lives to remove white feminism from the forefront of feminist and womanist movements. Our DukeEngage group in particular has recently been discussing what this means, though it is not enough to recognize one’s privilege: one must actually ‘give up’ some of it. While some may have struggled to look beyond reaching realizations and concluding that understanding privilege is ‘good enough,’ we have been thinking about actionable tasks to actualize intersectionality:
- Do not save conversations about social difference for the classroom. If a facet of your identity is a source of privilege, make it your issue too. All the time.
- Avoid rhetoric of “not seeing race” and endorse racial solidarity that may be rooted in racialist language. However, refuse to endorse racialist divisions when it does not create solidarity.
- Avoid rhetoric of “oppression olympics.” Be active and eager to enter conversations despite your privilege. You do not need to be the ‘most oppressed’ person in order to be involved. Just know that it is not always your turn to speak.
- Do not expect anyone to educate others on ‘the story of their people.’ Do not generalize or tokenize the experiences and lives of others.
- Acknowledge your flaws and seek better understanding. Do not allow hubris to get in the way of conversation and progress.
- Stop cultural appropriation.
- Don’t expect that revolutionary change is a one-day affair. Keep learning, engaging, and listening. Continue to hold the hands of your sisters.
- Recognize the scope of intersectionality; it is more than a matter of skin colors. We ourselves write from a mainly Western feminist perspective, and while that limits our understandings, that does not mean we can disrespect that which we do not know. Feminism should be about being inclusive and not speaking for others, but not dismissing their legitimate but unique plights either. Working from an understanding of the different cultural contexts of womanhood legitimizes a true affirmation to the underlying feminist ideal of equality.
Frankly, we, feminists, do not need this division between white and black feminism. The advancement of all women should be a multifaceted approach, concerned about the prevalence of sexual assault in less economically developed environments and the double standard against women versus men when it comes to censorship in the media. However, dear white feminists, to pretend as though your concerns are what feminism stands for, is disingenuous. To exploit the theories of women of color and project them onto your own experiences, is disingenuous. You can neither forget intersectional frameworks nor disregard the plights of your sisters fighting against a culture that appropriates their bodies in a society you subscribe to or ignorantly live in when it comes to standards of beauty and their larger wage gap.
After all, how can we fight for equality from unequal grounds? None of us can ever truly be equal until we all are. Regardless of identity, all proponents of social equity must join in the struggle towards the uplift of all peoples. All women of color—queer, religious, financially disadvantaged, able-bodied or not—deserve the right to agency over their own bodies and experiences.