5 Books for White Women to Read About Race and Feminism
A brief foreword: I hope this list helps women, in ways big and small. And while I hope it contributes to the education of white women and assists the unlearning of racism, it’s important to point out that my main motivation in writing this list was to help create a feminist movement that is not hostile – but instead nurturing – towards women of colour. My decision to undertake this labour was driven by the politics of necessity rather than political principle. Here’s the thing: we should be beyond lists like this. It’s not a comfortable truth, but there it is. That being said, should often requires us to divorce theory from practice and has limited use in movement building.
All the same, it’s necessary to observe that I can only afford to undertake educational projects geared towards white women from a place of well-being, when I have the mental and emotional energy to spare – which isn’t always the case. Don’t read these words and feel bad: that’s not productive in either direction. Instead, think about what it costs women of colour to reach out to and try building trust with white women; do your best to minimise that cost, and work out ways to carry it yourself. Happy reading, and may these books take your mind to interesting places.
White women often approach me in feminist spaces or get in touch to say that my writing was the first time they considered that race politics and feminist politics were related. What this makes me feel is complicated and, at points, conflicted. On one level there is an appreciation that these women have accepted my invitation to begin practicing radical honesty about race and the feminist movement. It’s affirming to see that they’ve started doing the work of unpicking their own racism, figuring out exactly how it manifests (including within feminist contexts), and trying to improve. I also find it moving that this work stays with them, and has changed their way of being. Yet there is also an acute pinch of something between pain and frustration as I am made to look directly at the extent to which racism is the norm within feminist spaces, so unexceptional that it’s invisible. It’s a bit like being set on fire and then being told by the woman holding a can of gasoline and a smoking match that she hadn’t noticed the flames.
Still, it’s impossible – or at least I find it impossible – to be cynical in response to someone making a wholehearted effort to change and do better. From birth, we breathe in the values that define the society around us; internalising the logic of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy is all but inevitable. And so we all fail at points. Failure is inevitable, even and especially when it comes to practicing feminist values. The only question is whether or not a woman is prepared to get back up, dust herself off, and try again.
So I curated this list of book recommendations for white women who want to learn more about race politics, how they integrate with feminist politics, and the requirements for interracial solidarity between women. It’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not a definitive list. But these are all texts which articulated certain truths that ought to be brought from the margin to the centre of the feminist movement.
I have quite deliberately chosen books by writers living in Britain, because conversations about race politics tend to become Americentric unless we consciously resist it – which enables that old excuse of racism being an American problem, not something we need to worry about in the UK. Writers of colour are doing revolutionary things in Britain, and deserve more recognition for work that deals with ongoing socio-political problems.
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)
This book is the place to start. It explores Black British history, connects that history with the present, and provides highly relevant insights about what it’s like to be a Black woman in contemporary British society. A substantial portion of Why I’m is devoted to the thorny issue of feminism and race politics. In a chapter called The Feminism Question, Eddo-Lodge writes candidly about her love for the feminist movement and the sense of alienation created by white women’s racism.
If you don’t understand why the hierarchy of race creates tension between women of colour and white women, this is an excellent introduction to the surrounding politics. It’s written in straightforward language, expressing difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to engage with. If I had pots of money, I’d buy enough copies of this book to hand out to almost every white woman that I know.
If feminism can understand the patriarchy, it’s important to question why so many feminists struggle to understand whiteness as a political structure in the very same way.
Why I’m is so important because it contains a wealth of truths that are often repressed. The book holds the kind of truths that are apparent to most people of colour as a result of our lived realities, and there comes a certain relief in hearing them acknowledged when whiteness is so invested in covering them up. The truths found here are also what many white people consider to be a revelation – never having thought about how people of colour experience certain aspects of life, and not having encountered enough of our perspectives for them to seem like a standard part of human experience, white readers might encounter ideas totally new to them. And that’s ultimately a positive thing.
- The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (2016)
The Good Immigrant is an extraordinary collection of essays written by people of colour about their experiences of British life. The combined insight of the writers will blow your mind. More than half of the contributors are women, though I would encourage you to be open to the essays that are not. Think about it this way. Within the canon of books and ideas we are taught to think of as being central to feminist thought, white women’s experiences are often treated like the normative standard of female experience. There is an underlying assumption that what holds true for white women will have universal relevance for all women. And while all women do experience oppression through the hierarchy of gender, gender is inextricably linked with race in women of colour’s lived experiences. It’s not a case of deciding which one is worse or trying to separate the two: that luxury isn’t available to us, although it’s something white women seem happy enough to speculate about when trying to convince women of colour to pick ‘a side’ in the false binary of feminism or anti-racism.
What makes The Good Immigrant such a powerful book is that is doesn’t try and separate forms of oppression into their own distinct boxes, but instead acknowledges they have a common root: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. None of the writers try to split themselves into one camp or another for the sake of one-dimensional political analysis. It’s honest, relevant, and – at times – really funny.
There’s something white women can be quite resistant to hearing, from me or anyone else: women of colour have just as much in common with men of colour as we do white women. The similarities and differences we share with each group effectively balance out. Sometimes, one set of commonalities looks like a negative image of the other. So if you don’t immediately see the value of reading every essay in The Good Immigrant to better understand women of colour’s experiences, remember that we share an experience of race with men of colour to the same extent we share an experience of gender with white women.
- Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection, ed. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (2018)
Often we turn to the words of lesbian women for valuable feminist insights, which makes a lot of sense. Who better to learn about loving, centring, and prioritising women from than lesbians? But white is often treated as the default standard of womanhood – including lesbian womanhood. So I’d like to direct your attention towards Sista!, a mind-blowing collection of writing from lesbian and bi Black women.
I can already feel some women bristling at the phrase “same gender loving” in the title, and do think there is a critique to be made somewhere down the line. However, and far more pressingly, there is an unfortunate pattern of white women seeing the differences between their ways of practicing feminism and Black women’s ways of practicing feminism as proof that Black women are somehow insufficiently radical. White women can be very quick to act as feminist gatekeepers on the assumption that those differences exist because women of colour are less informed, and with a bit of educating we’ll catch up. And so I invite you to read Sista! before criticising.
This book is a kaleidoscope of amazing perspectives about women’s art, women’s community organising, women’s dating practices outside of heterosexuality, women’s bodies, women’s politics, and women’s inner-lives. It contains a wealth of truth on what it’s like to be a Black woman in Britain, and some of the writers – like Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the Director of UK Black Pride – share a lot of valuable information about lesbian feminist organising that doesn’t centre whiteness. Sista! absolutely deserves to be recognised as a significant work of British feminist writing.
- Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch
Aside from the genius title, you should read Brit(ish) because Afua Hirsh manages to express a lot of topical truths about what it’s like to be constantly in the position of outsider because of your race. She makes deft connections between the personal and the political by unpacking Britain’s complicated and – more often than not – ugly history with race and linking it with the realities of being a person of colour in modern day Britain. It’s a striking blend of memoir and cultural criticism, which works well because of the extent to which Black people have been erased from British history. If l’ecriture féminine is your thing, if you enjoy books where women find ways to articulate their own experiences in ways that don’t fit into the masculine logic of genres, this is definitely one for you to read.
Brit(ish) shines a light on a kind of female experience that isn’t always acknowledged as relevant to British culture or the feminist movement. Hirsch addresses issues like colourism and class privilege in a really straightforward way, showing how they manifest in everyday life – that they’re not abstract, and have very real material consequences.
What else makes this book shine is the way Hirsch demonstrates that you can be privileged on one count and marginalised on another at the same time. Drawing from her own life for examples, she conveys how it’s possible for someone to benefit from the hierarchy of class while simultaneously being oppressed as Black and female. (Full disclosure: I’m also a Bougie Black girl.) If you’re uncertain about how intersectionality works, this book does a great job of illustrating how power can flow in multiple and – at points – opposite directions.
- Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, ed. Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis, Pratibha Parmar (1988)
Some truly extraordinary feminist writing emerged in Britain during the 1980s – though overshadowed by the seventies, it was a decade when a number of pivotal feminist perspectives were first published. And while I don’t dispute the lasting importance of any woman’s writing, and the worth of continuing to cite our foremothers, there is a problem with how they are remembered. As is so often the case, white women’s contributions to the feminist movement are enshrined as part of the canon and the words spoken or written by women of colour are treated as having limited relevance or forgotten altogether.
Charting the Journey is one of the boldest and most urgent books British feminism has ever produced. And yet it’s out of print, largely unrecognised. This book challenges misogyny, imperialism, racism, classism, heterosexism – just about every ‘ism’ going – and was pioneering in its criticism of how dominant structures of power acted against women.
A mixture of essays, poems, and interviews from women of colour, reading this book now is useful not only because it uplifts the spirit, but also because it fills in some of the gaps about women of colour’s political organising that exist as a consequence of the selective feminist memory. If you think it’s at all important to know about the feminism that unfolded before the present day, the women’s work that paved the way for what we have now, Charting the Journey is an essential read. There are some dazzling moments. Maud Sulter, a trailblazing artist and Black Scottish feminist, interviews Alice Walker. Women overlooked and underappreciated shine, and they do so unapologetically.
This book also takes an international perspective on the feminism, so if you’re uncertain about how the movement functions globally or want to learn more about how the lives of women are connected around the world, Charting the Journey is a worthwhile starting point.