White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege

Update (12/02/17): the ongoing popularity of this essay is a pleasant surprise. My first blog post has been accessed around the world, translated into Portuguese and German, and republished by a variety of feminist resources.


If you are involved in feminist discourse online, the chances are that you will have noticed a particular phrase becoming increasingly common: White Feminism. Sometimes, a trademark logo will even be added for emphasis. The term White Feminism has become shorthand for certain failings within the feminist movement; of women with a particular degree of privilege failing to listen to their more marginalised sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege speaking over those sisters; of women with a particular degree of privilege centering the movement around issues falling within their own range of experience. Originally, the term White Feminism was used by Women of Colour to address racism within the feminist movement – a necessary and valid critique.

Although white women are at a personal and political disadvantage due to the existing social order being built upon misogyny, they are also the beneficiaries of institutional racism – whether or not they want to be. Even white women with firmly anti-racist politics cannot opt out of benefiting from white privilege, from white women receiving greater (albeit lacking) media visibility than their BME sisters, to a wider wage gap for Women of Colour, to a significantly increased likelihood of police violence shaping the lived reality of Black women. That is how white privilege works. We live in a culture steeped in racism, with a great deal of our country’s wealth stemming from the slave trade. Much like misogyny, it takes much time and conscious thought to unlearn racism. It’s a learning process from which we never fully graduate. Women of Colour challenging racism from within the feminism movement give us all an opportunity to consciously disengage with behaviour rewarded by the white supremacist patriarchy.

However, the phrase White Feminism is no longer being used exclusively by Women of Colour to challenge the racism that we face. Recently, it has become de rigueur for white feminists to dismiss other white feminists with whom they disagree as embodying White Feminism. White people have started calling out other white people for… whiteness. I shit you not. In a recent piece for Vice magazine, somewhat ironically, Paris Lees laments that “White Feminists have the biggest media platforms…”. Artist Molly Crabapple, with both media platform and sizeable income (unless bigging up Samsung was an act of charity), tweeted to dismiss the views of “fancy white ladies” on the grounds of privilege. But, from where I’m sitting, both Paris and Molly look pretty comfortable.

Instead of amplifying the voices of Women of Colour, or using their platform to highlight the intersection between race and gender, a number of liberal white feminists have hijacked a critique of racism in order to bolster their own image as progressives – as the right sort of feminist, not a White Feminist. But co-opting Women of Colour’s analysis of racism within the feminist movement is exactly the kind of behaviour the phrase “White Feminism” was created to prevent. White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege. Prioritising their own image above the anti-racist struggle led by Women of Colour is at best narcissistic, at worst racist. These actions support the notion that the racism faced by Women of Colour is a side-issue, not a main concern, within the feminist movement.

White women using “White Feminism” as a stick with which to beat each other, and not a prompt to consider their own racism, is peak whiteness in action. In the rush to “launder privilege“, white feminists become the dreaded White Feminist by misappropriating the words of their marginalised sisters for personal gain.

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Say Hello to Sister Outrider

Whether you know of me through Twitter, Tumblr, or even (gasp!) in real life, one thing will have become clear as you listen to my increasingly radical perspective: I am a feminist. Why create this blog? you ask. You’re already on social media. You’re already an activist. Well, Twitter has a character limit, which makes it difficult to discuss the finer points of feminist discourse. Treating the personal as political is essential in challenging any system of oppression*. It can also lead to discomfort when conversation gets close to the bone – that discomfort is necessary, and should be handled sensitively, which isn’t always possible with the economy of language required for Twitter.

As for Tumblr… Have you ever actually used Tumblr? I’m in my twenties. It’s high time for me to get a grown-up blog. And real life? Much as I’d love to spend an hour or two discussing how best to dismantle the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy**, it doesn’t go down too well at dinner parties (unless the guests are all feminists, in which case I applaud the company you keep). Which brings us to blogging.

In recent years, since the rise of third wave feminism, radical beliefs have fallen out of fashion. At best, radical feminism is presented as being outdated – at worst, full of bigotry and extremism. Radical feminists are attacked by social conservatives and liberal feminists alike and, not so long ago, I bought it. I didn’t want to be lumped in with the prudes of yesteryear by either side, so I parroted narratives of agency and empowerment. And then I looked behind the curtain. I started to wonder about the context in which the all-important choice is made, whether more choices are open to some women than others and on what basis. I began to wonder why so many self-proclaimed intersectional feminists – in this instance, white women – are so eager to assume that marginalised women have the same range of opportunities in deciding which choice to make.

And – holy internalised misogyny, Batman! – it occurred to me that the premise of women losing relevance as we gain in years is fundamentally sexist, that in believing it I was doing the patriarchy’s work for it. I realised that I had fallen for the oldest trick in the book and dismissed the wisdom of older women. (More on this subject to follow.) Liberal feminism raised more questions than it answered. I wondered where my own feminism fit on the spectrum, if not within the third wave.

According to Wikipedia, that trusty source of information:

Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, rather than through a purely political process. This includes challenging traditional gender roles, opposing the sexual objectification of women, and raising public awareness about rape and violence against women.

Nothing objectionable there. In fact, this definition stretched to include the key tenets of my own feminism. But, as popular belief would have it, radical feminism is for privileged white women. One text often used to illustrate the exclusionary nature of second wave feminism is Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Certainly, “the problem that has no name”*** was predominantly faced by white, college-educated women with a degree of material privilege – not, for example, poor women and/or Women of Colour without the perceived luxury of being able to stay home rather than work. That didn’t make the “problem” any less of a problem for the women trapped by domesticity. Equally, Friedan’s assumption that white and middle class is the normative standard for women is grossly simplistic. This is where positionality comes in handy. And yes, Friedan’s comments about the “lavender menace” were very much lesbophobic. (In this respect, she shares common ground with contemporary feminist thought – again, more to follow.)

I don’t deny that Betty Friedan was problematic, to use the popular phrase. However, she was but one author in an entire socio-political movement. Radical feminism, like any other sphere of activism, consists of many voices. And, contrary to stereotyping, those voices stem from a broad range of identities and perspectives. Angela Davis, central to the Black Power movement, is radically feminist****. Adrienne Rich, lesbian poet, is radically feminist*****. Shulamith Firestone, a Jewish-Canadian revolutionary, was radically feminist******. bell hooks, beloved by feminists of all stripes, is radically feminist*******. Audre Lorde, Black lesbian poet and essayist, was radically feminist********. And there are many more such women.

Radical feminist voices are not heard in spite of differences of race, sexuality, or class. If anything, radical feminist voices are heard because of these differences – because they are acknowledged. Liberal feminism skims the surface of the problem. Radical feminism goes to the root and addresses it at a structural level. It critiques the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in which we live, around which dominant social hierarchies have been built. Radical feminism examines the different ways in which we are touched by oppression, how identities including and in addition to gender shape our experiences of it.

Only through finding these radical feminist texts – the writings of women who are as much outsiders as me – did I begin to feel a sense of true belonging in the feminist movement. It was through engaging with other radical feminists, talking to these women as sisters, that I began to feel heard. And now it’s time for me to use my voice.


*Carol Hanisch, (1969). The Personal is Political. Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation

**bell hooks, (2004). The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Washington Square Press

***Betty Friedan, (1963). The Feminine Mystique. Penguin

****Angela Davis, (1983). Women, Race and Class. Vintage

*****Adrienne Rich, (1975). Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. W. W. Norton & Company

******Shulamith Firestone, (1970). The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. Verso

*******bell hooks, (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press

********Audre Lorde, (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ten Speed Press