Unlearning white feminism: 7 articles by BIPOC to start with
I am a white Australian woman, writing this blog on Walyalup country, home to the traditional owners of this land, the Whadjuk Noongar people. As a narrative therapist and writer, I regularly talk and blog about topics of privilege, but never have I specifically written about race. Usually, I write about themes of love, loneliness, heartbreak, failure and finding purpose: things we might describe as *universal* human experiences.
I’m in the process of learning how to write (how to share useful information that advocates and drives positive social change) without centring the story on me, my experiences and my opinions as a white person. So, today, this blog post is not going to be a ‘review’ of the BIPOC authors’ works I’ve read, but a series of direct citations. Why?
Colonisation doesn’t have to do with just land. Entering the space of a culture other than our own and making an assessment of that community and their ideas is also an act of colonisation. Elevating white voices over black voices is white supremacy at play.
The little things count. Language is one, although it’s not exactly ‘little’
Language says so much more than what it says. There are encoded assumptions implanted within language. We use words to send messages, but behind those words are stories, histories and ideologies.
Take ‘queer’ for example. It means one thing, but its history means another. It used to be defamatory but then, as an act of resistance and pride, the LGBT community reclaimed the word and made it their own. Another example is the gendering of terms in the English language. Poet Lemn Sissay in an interview on ABC Radio National explains:
“Look how language has been manipulated to uphold the patriarchy. It’s written into our language. ‘Chairman’, for example. Chair-man. That’s just one, but there’s a billion examples. If you look at the effect that’s had on the state of where women are in society it’s precisely the same parallel experience in race. In fact if you ever want to see what racism is like, flip the script of sexism. I’m not saying they’re the same. I’m not saying they’ve got the same root.”
Of course, like any extract pulled out of its original context, this quote does not convey the message as richly and completely as it does when listening to the entire interview. Racism and sexism ARE NOT the same thing — which is one of the mistaken views that leads to white feminism.
Why the word ‘universal’ is problematic
Earlier, I used the world ‘universal’, which is riddled with complexities. Undoubtedly, in each of our lifetimes, we all encounter obstacles in romance, work, our health, and so on— we all have bodies and we all have relationships. However, in order to stand up against things like white supremacy, we need to acknowledge that every human experience is observed through the lens of our gender, race, sexuality, class and many other factors we often feel too uncomfortable to talk about and irresponsibly put in the ‘too hard’ basket. That complacency, that ‘neutrality’, is racism. In order to be anti-racist we need to step up. We can’t be silent.
We need to step back and look AT the lens for what it is rather than ignorantly continuing to look THROUGH that lens. We can no longer live in this ‘unconscious’, ‘innocence is ignorance’ space — we need to own up to our not-so-subtle participation in white supremacy.
Self-educating in anti-racism: where to start?
This is a huge topic, but as a white cis-gendered queer woman and writer, I feel like a good place to start is feminism. Believing in equal rights for women isn’t just a matter of gender. It intersects with race, and so much more. I’ve been really reflecting on and researching how I might have been participating in white feminism — something we cannot tolerate any longer.
These are the articles I read on that journey. They provided me with ideas on how to check my own privilege and how to move forward with the life-long commitment to become a better ally and proactive anti-racist.
Just as language carries many layers of meaning, so does editing and formatting. The structure and ordering of information sends a certain message. What we leave out speaks as loudly as what we choose to include.
Therefore, if you happen to be BIPOC reading this, or an ally whose been advocating for anti-racism far longer than I have, please — I welcome your feedback.
I’ve written this piece as a STARTER in our research as white folk into unlearning white feminism. I recommend reading the entire articles rather than the excerpts I’ve put.
From herein, the following words are not my own but the authors cited.
What is white feminism?
Monnica T. Williams, excerpt from ‘How White Feminists Oppress Black Women: When Feminism Functions as White Supremacy’
White Feminism exists to promote the comfort and safety of middle-class and affluent White women. At its core, it is a racist ideology that claims to speak for all women while ignoring the needs of women of color and suppressing our voices when our agendas and priorities don’t align. It recognizes the voice of women of color only to further its own aims and appear inclusive. Its organizational representations fail to properly address racial and economic intersectionality in experiences of sexism. It rejects the idea that women can oppress others who are disempowered and, in doing so, replicates the harmful unacknowledged social dynamic of the primacy of well-educated White voices.
[…] I have complied some examples of White Feminism and how it misses the needs of Black women and other disempowered women.
- Maternal mortality for Black women is four times the rate of White women, and these rates remain high even for middle- and upper-class Black Women
- It fails to fight for paid maternity leave, since perhaps White women can afford to stay at home with their babies without a paycheck
- It appropriated #metoo, while failing to acknowledge how White women have historically (and currently) used their sexuality to oppress men of color
- It thinks it’s ok to take paternalistic control over Black women and girls’ sexual choices
- It regards Black women’s children as disposable
- It has no clue how punishing and patronizing health care can be for women of color
- It opposes regulation to make abortion safer
- It ignores the problem of forced and coerced sterilization because disempowered Black, Brown, and indigenous women and inmates are targeted in this eugenicist manner, not “good White women”
- It ignores oppression inflicted by the criminal justice system
- It doesn’t care that indigenous women are disappearing and no one is looking for them
- It is extremely fragile around issues of race
A white feminist calls on the patriarchy in times of need, using whiteness to their advantage at the expense of BIPOC lives
Tamela J. Gordon, excerpt from ‘Breaking up with intersectional feminism’
Women, Race, & Class uses history and factual resources to spell out what white women have yet to comprehend; their ignorance and apathy towards the struggle of Black women have been to the detriment of any could-be collective feminist movement. While white women were exercising their freedom, Black women were fighting to stay alive on the plantation field. When Black Americans pleaded with white feminists to support their efforts to gain the right for Black men to vote, Susan B. Anthony spoke against it. She, along with Elizabeth Stanton and a slew of other white feminists demanded that women be granted the right to vote before Blacks, despite the mass lynchings, race riots, and the KKK, which destroyed Black communities simply because they had the voting power to do so. White feminists chose self-interest over the lives of Black people. This fundamental decision was the beginning of what is now known as white feminism.
[…] Intersectional feminism doesn’t mean anything if white women still struggle to support and advocate for those who’s identities cross intersections that are foreign to theirs.
The colonisation of minds with white ideas of ‘beauty’ and a woman’s worth
Celeste Liddle, excerpt from: ‘Intersectionality and Indigenous Feminism: An Aboriginal Woman’s Perspective’
Beauty, as a concept, may be harmful to women as it often centralises the appearance of a woman as being her most important attribute. We actually come from a culture that values age and wisdom, assigning great value to our older women. When it comes to beauty however, older women are almost completely excluded. Additionally, our women have been achieving highly in a number of fields for a long time; we have been obtaining tertiary education qualifications at a rate nearly double that of Aboriginal men. So why do we consider it important to celebrate the “beauty” of Aboriginal women whilst barely mentioning these wonderful achievements?
[…] We tend to be subjected to the same issues of body shame and arbitrary and commercialised notions of beauty, but we are also judged on our skin tone and whether or not we possess certain features deemed to be tellingly “Aboriginal” (eg: a wide nose, deep-set eyes, etc). We can also experience fetishisation on the basis of our skin tones despite being mainly socially excluded because of them. In short, our experiences can add layers to feminist understandings and there are many ways in which a notion of a universalised women’s experience can exclude us or only tell part of the tale.
As women, our looks are already up for grabs with people, from the time we’re born, thinking that they have the right to comment on them. Chuck in the “Aboriginal factor”, and this imposition becomes significantly heightened with comments also on our “fairness”, our “exoticness” or our attractiveness in comparison with other Aboriginal women. There also seems to be some shame attached to “looking Aboriginal” suggested with this imposition. I know that I have been told that I look Mediterranean/Maori/Native American/Spanish/etc like so many other Aboriginal women, and the inference often seems to be “anything other than Aboriginal” is good. In fact, I think that despite me being a hairy-legged, hard-core feminist, I still seem to be rather sensitive when it comes to unwelcome comments on my appearance because I have had to deflect them from all these angles for so many years, and I am sure others can relate. So I am therefore not particularly surprised that some may want to celebrate Indigenous women’s youth and beauty as a way of building self-esteem, and hammering these stupid stereotypes when it comes to our looks.
Which leads me to this Miss NAIDOC business […] I know I am a great big spoil-sport etc and so forth, but there are so many things about this don’t sit well with me, particularly if we are trying to raise self-esteem in our young women. Firstly, why does it seem that we are raising this esteem on such “colonial” terms? Why are we reiterating the importance of “poise”, deportment, and the ability to be photogenic to our young women when these very things not only refer to extremely superficial attributes of women, but they also have a definite basis in colonial class structures that should not be a desirable aspiration for our community? I understand the need to celebrate our youth particularly considering that they represent the majority of our community, but…
Why would we reinforce the notion that attractiveness has an expiry date by setting the upper limit at 30? Is that really, as a community who celebrates its elders and consists of so many proud, strong and beautiful women beyond that age bracket, a notion we wish to adhere to? Aren’t there other ways that we could celebrate our dynamic young women that don’t revolve around how they walk and look in a frock?
White feminism does not acknowledge that a woman of colour will experience far more forms of oppression in her lifetime than a white woman
Adultification is an example
P.R Lockhart, excerpt from ‘A new report shows how racism and bias deny black girls their childhoods’
It’s long been suspected that black girls are perceived as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls in school and other environments and a new report offers further confirmation that this is the case.
Researchers with the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality spoke directly to black girls and women across the country about how they are forced to deal with harmful perceptions — like that black girls are more mature and less in need of protection than other students — from a young age.
Committing to anti-racism
Understanding intersectional feminism
Arica L. Coleman, excerpt from ‘What’s Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History’
During the 1970s, black feminist scholar-activists, a number of whom were also LGBTQ, developed theoretical frameworks to serve as a model for other women of color, to broaden feminism’s definition and scope. Throughout the final decades of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st centuries, women of color published many groundbreaking works that highlighted these dynamics. In doing so, they exposed the interlocking systems that define women’s lives.
The theory of those systems became known as intersectionality, a term popularized by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. In her 1991 article “Mapping the Margins,” she explained how people who are “both women and people of color” are marginalized by “discourses that are shaped to respond to one [identity] or the other,” rather than both.
[…] Think of an LGBT African-American woman and a heterosexual white woman who are both working class. They “do not experience the same levels of discrimination, even when they are working within the same structures that may locate them as poor,” Carty and Mohanty explained, because one can experience homophobia and racism at the same time. While the other may experience gender or class discrimination, “her whiteness will always protect and insulate her from racism.”
Being an intersectional, anti-racist feminist
Transparently acknowledging one’s privilege and using it as a tool for change, not a weapon to serve self-interest
Layla F. Saad, excerpt from ‘I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy (Part One)’
In the spiritual business world, I’ve seen FLEB (Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand — someone who is complicit in upholding white patriarchal supremacy) perpetuated by white women entrepreneurs who devote themselves to doing deep spiritual work for themselves and their clients, and yet remain absolutely silent on anything to do with politics and justice.
I’ve seen it perpetuated by white women who believe that the best thing they can do is just focus on being a good and loving person, and serving their (largely white) audience and sending love and light instead of actually speaking up.
It absolutely boggles my mind that there are spiritual entrepreneurs who do not see the clear link between the work they do as healers, mentors and teachers for their paying clients, and the work that’s needed in the world for our collective healing and liberation.
And this is not to say that your whole business has to become about activism. That isn’t what I’m saying at all. I’m also not saying don’t do the work that you have been doing or don’t serve the audience you have been serving. What I’m saying is, open up your eyes and take a more expanded view of what your role is here.
[…] If you truly live your life guided by the Goddess, and you are not doing your part to dismantle white supremacy, then you’ve got work to do.
The Goddess isn’t just here for the liberation of white women.
She’s here for the liberation of us all.