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.