But Some of Us are Brave – Questions on Race and Feminism

Since starting Sister Outrider, I have received questions about race and feminism on a regular basis. Now I’m going to take those questions and answer them publicly – all queries will be dealt with anonymously, so you have nothing to lose by asking. Anything asked in good faith will be answered in kind, so email your questions to me at SisterOutrider@outlook.com. This first Q&A was a delight to conduct – with the thought and the honesty women put into their questions, how could it be anything else? So please don’t be shy.


 

Question: What are the main differences in UK and US feminism based on race?

First off, it’s important to state that my life, and subsequently my activism, has all been lived and carried out in the context of the UK – I’m Scottish. I’m also Black and, as a result, will restrict my observations to that because it is both my lane and my area of expertise. Although the majority of Black feminist theory and activism influencing my own work was and continues to be North American, that’s not the same as having the experience of activism in an American setting. In fact, I’d be fascinated to hear what Black women across the pond would make of this same question… But here is my answer:

Although discussion about race in the feminist movement is far from perfect in the USA, in many ways it strikes me as being more open. Maybe that has something to do with British repressiveness. Irrespective of whether white women engage with what their Black sisters have to say in the States, historical racism is more difficult to sweep under the carpet because slavery took place on American soil. It’s much harder to deny. On numerous occasions, white feminist women have informed me – without a trace of irony – that racism is “all over there”, in the American feminist movement. They speak as though women of all races are listened to and prioritised equally within our branch of the movement, and feign a sort of colour-blindness on the understanding that we’re all sisters together. This approach is in keeping with how Britain as a whole treats racism, completely overlooking Britain’s own colonial legacy; how much wealth was generated from slavery; the racial hierarchy used to justify imperialist expansionism; how that wealth and that world view shape today’s political landscape, even within the feminist movement. As a result, white women can be quite disingenuous when talking about race.

In other ways, I think it’s very similar. The problems that African-American feminists talk about relating to race and feminism are almost entirely the problems that Black feminists face in Britain, too. On a daily basis, I see Black women from the UK and the US dealing with the same racism from white women. That shared experience is, in part, why Black feminist texts originating in the States are influential to Black feminist praxis in the UK.

Question: How can non-Black feminists begin to understand the experiences of Black women?

For white women: By listening to us, engaging with what we are telling you, and reflecting on it. By looking at the dynamic of race with the same critical eyes you turn towards examining the dynamic of gender. By accepting that Black womanhood is an entirely plural thing, meaning that our experiences vary due to factors such as class, sexuality, disability, and where we are situated by geopolitics. By ceasing to conceptualise Blackness as something distinct to, separate from, womanhood. By understanding that – no matter how well intentioned – claiming our experiences mirror those of white women is ultimately deeply unhelpful, as it erases a significant part of our reality.

For non-Black women of colour: Though our experiences are not the same, the road to solidarity between us is a smoother. Acknowledging those differences and amplifying one another’s voices is the way to continue paving it, to develop mutual understanding.

Question: Beyond listening to our sisters of colour, are there any practical and direct actions that white women can take with race and feminism? Or any recommendations on books/articles/movies etc. that you feel have covered this subject in an honest and useful way?

Listening is only the first part of a process. Be open to learning, honestly exploring what we say, and even changing your perspective. Think critically about which voices you listen to and value within the feminist movement, which feminist writers you read, which feminist thinkers influence your praxis – what is prioritised and what is not. Since whiteness is treated like a neutral standard, even within the feminist movement, it can be very easy to fall into a pattern of engaging with only white women’s words and ideas. I know I was once guilty of this. You can break that cycle by actively seek out writing by women of colour. After a time, it will become second nature. In addition to challenging racist assumptions, reading our work also makes it more difficult for white women to dismiss us as a subgroup of womanhood, to categorise us as Other and, subsequently, less relevant to the feminist movement.

When interacting with women of colour, remain mindful of the dynamic of race – the difference in structural power, how that manifests. A key problem is that when women of colour voice our experiences, articulate how race intersects with sex, white women speak over us. For example: “That doesn’t happen/I’ve never noticed that.” White women position their own experiences as objective, accepted as standard within feminist dialogue, yet treat what women of colour have to say about race as subjective – based more in our skewed perception than in the material reality of structural inequalities. So often, white women would rather contradict us rather than confront the possibility of their own racism. By applying the same critical thinking to racism as misogyny, actively exploring the resultant ideas even when it becomes uncomfortable, white women can support women of colour.

The first piece of writing I recommend is the conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. It can be found in Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays, reflections, and speeches. This is described as an interview but, in truth, it’s more of a dialogue – a mutual process. Lorde and Rich were both radically lesbian women, sharing not only a great deal of common ground, but a mutual affinity: they explored each other’s ideas fully, shared an honesty that made their negotiation of race authentic. To put it plainly, they got each other. That relationship demonstrates the best of possibilities for relationships between Black and white feminist women. That Lorde spoke so openly on the subject of race, about how her Blackness shaped her experiences, to Rich – a white woman – indicates a rare ease between them. Throughout that exchange, it is also clear that Rich is conscious of where her whiteness positions her in relation to Lorde.

To a large extent I think it was enabled by their adherence to lesbian ethics. Although lesbian feminism is frequently treated with derision, lesbophobic stereotyping used as a foil to reassure young women that fighting for equality will not, in fact, result in them becoming ugly, angry man-haters, I think it has a lot to offer the contemporary feminist movement. Particularly with regard to race and interracial solidarity between women, a lesbian approach is so far ahead of most other forms of feminist praxis – queer feminism included. With this answer, it would be impossible (and somewhat dishonest) to ignore that my meaningful connections with white women are predominantly between me and white lesbians. That’s out of step with fashionable thinking, of course, but it is the deepest truth I have to offer.

I would also recommend the work of bell hooks, starting with Feminism is for Everybody. She writes in a way that is both direct and accessible about interracial dynamics in feminism, discomfort, and how to achieve sustainable solidarity. Another important work to consider is Angela Davis’ autobiography – in her struggle against all forms of structural oppression, Davis worked alongside people of both sexes, people of all colours and creeds. That she was receptive to this is attributed to the influence of her mother, Sallye Davis, who taught a young Angela the importance of marginalised groups being able to unite. In terms of fiction, the writings of Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Jackie Kay all offer a great deal of insight into how race works in practical and social terms.

Question: What is your view on political Blackness?

The idea has been a part of British activism since the 1970s at least, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why this has only just become a controversy. Initially, political Blackness was used in much the same sense that people of colour is used now – an umbrella term to denote solidarity based on shared experience resulting from where we are positioned by race.

I first encountered the term with my research into Black British feminist activism that took place during the early 1980s. When I met with my supervisor to discuss my placement, she asked – as a number of Black groups I encountered were in fact women of colour – if the scope of my research included political Blackness. I explained that I wanted to focus specifically on Black women’s work. To her credit, she (a white woman) did not try to persuade me otherwise and simply reminded me to outline the parameters of my research, including a justification of how and why I shaped them. That was that. Although bemused by the term on occasion, sometimes concerned by its implications, I was mainly impressed by what women of colour achieved together. Wrongly, I assumed it had faded from the activist lexicon over time and so did not give its subsequent use a great deal of thought. I had imagined it was like when an old person says coloured instead of Black – disquieting, but not representative of how things are typically described: an unfortunate throwback.

Although I fully support interracial solidarity between people of colour, the term political Blackness glosses over nuances that need to be fully explored for that solidarity to exist. It conceals anti-Black racism. It erases the cultures and identities of non-Black people of colour. The idea of political Blackness also makes me uncomfortable, because Blackness isn’t something I can opt in and out of – it’s an inherent part of me that shapes every aspect of my life, overtly political or not. If we flipped it and had Black people describing ourselves as politically Asian, that would be both ludicrous and deeply inappropriate. Black people have no right to claim the experiences or identities of Asian people as our own, for any purpose. The end doesn’t justify the means, especially not when we can use unifying terms like people of colour to describe ourselves collectively.

As is the case with colourism, this is one of those subjects that white journalists are going to write poorly informed think-pieces about that only serve to muddy the water. This is a discussion that needs to take place between people of colour – a conversation that is vital, but cannot be used by whites to undermine our solidarity or collective political action.

Question: Should we [women of colour] take a global approach? Join forces? How do you see feminism creating that bridge?

Absolutely! A global feminist movement is essential to driving any meaningful cultural shift away from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Feminism is capable of creating that bridge, of connecting all women, but to do so it must cease prioritising white, middle-class, and corporate women above their less privileged sisters – actively challenge all forms of oppression beyond gender. Quite a lot of Black feminist theory provides a blueprint for this. I would recommend starting with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, We Should All be Feminists, which has also been adapted into a short book. It’s very accessible, but deals with complex themes – structural inequality, feminism in a global context, how different prejudices can overlap. The work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty is also essential when considering visions of global feminism.

Question: How do I talk to white people about intersectionality? How do I make them understand that teaching on women’s leadership entirely through the white lens doesn’t deal with people of colour’s experiences? That there are people coming from a different social environment?

That’s an excellent question, and one that I’m still grappling with. If a white person has never before been expected to consider their own privilege in relation to a person of colour, to explore the idea that their reality is cushioned by a layer or privilege that comes at the expense of another, it can be a very difficult conversation. Rather than engage with what you are saying, quite a lot of white people will reframe the discussion as personal attack, making their hurt feelings the centre of that conversation. Initiating this dialogue has the unfortunate side-effect of providing you with a masterclass on white fragility – by the time it’s through, you’ll be an expert in how that works. Yet, despite how tiring gets explaining that those hurt feelings are a luxury compared to life under structural, systematic racism, it is vital that we speak out. I respect you for taking a stand, sister.

If there is a perfect method, I am yet to find it, but this is how I talk to white people about intersectionality. Initially, I avoid using words like ‘privilege’ or ‘oppression’ in order to keep them from going on the defensive – that all comes into play once you establish a dialogue with them. Find some mutual ground and work with them from there. With white women, I talk with them about our experiences of misogyny until we have an understanding of sorts and then link in how racism overlaps with that in relation to sexual harassment (white men’s assumption that Black women are hypersexual savages), gendered perceptions of my emotions (being written off as an Angry Black Woman), etc. Mostly that works. With men of colour, I reverse that process and transition from our shared experience of racism to my co-existing experiences of racism and sexism. With white men, it can be more difficult because there is less common understanding of oppression. In queer spaces, it varies. Some gay white men are open to that discussion, capable of applying the logic of their own situation to yours. Other white gay men are utterly convinced that nobody has ever been more oppressed than they are, and nothing you can say will change that level of irrational belief. It’s difficult.

Being personal will help with conversations on power and privilege. It demonstrates the practical application of intersectionality, and makes it seem more relevant – an approachable concept rather than abstract feminist jargon. It also makes the whole thing seem more human.

Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the third in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement, in which I explore the pitfalls of feminist theory treating white womanhood as the normative standard. Part 1 can be accessed here, part 2 here.


 

Throughout the rich and varied body of feminist theory, within every facet of feminist activism, the rights of women are a central concern – and that is all to the good.  Whether the issue relates to women’s bodily autonomy, socio-economic standing, or political representation, challenging the secondary position women occupy in society is fundamental to feminist theory and practice alike. Yet the question of which women are prioritised within feminism and why cannot be easily dismissed – hierarchies are established and maintained, even under the politics of liberation. Given the feminist movement’s flawed relationship with race, it is a question that requires thorough consideration before it can be answered honestly.

In 1851, an emancipated slave by the name of Sojourner Truth addressed the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention and posed the following question: ain’t I a woman?  That Truth’s speech was distorted by the white gaze in the process of transcription, her dialect roughened and reshaped to fit the popular image of Negro then held by the public imagination – a Southern slave – does not detract from the power of her words. Truth provided one of the earliest and most meaningful deconstructions of womanhood found within feminist theory, unpicking the racism and misogyny defining the cult of true womanhood. Truth was a staunch advocate for the human rights of all women, irrespective of race, and Black men. Her critique of the normative standard of woman remains relevant to this very day.

Feminism has an ongoing problem with race. The movement did not form inside a social vacuum, separate and distinct from white supremacy – indeed, many among its earliest American campaigners became staunch supporters of white superiority when it appeared that Black men would receive the right to vote before white women.

“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” – Carrie Chapman Catt, 1859-1947 (Founder of the League of Women Voters)

White women made use of racism, exploited racist assumptions, for their own benefit (Davis, 1981). That is an unavoidable truth. White racism is an undeniable part of feminist history, has continually influenced the development of feminist theory, and can be traced directly from early to contemporary feminist discourse.

Mary Wollstonecraft drew numerous unfortunate comparisons between the plight of white women, often with a degree of material and class privilege, and that of their enslaved Black sisters. Wollstonecraft was an abolitionist, a pioneering feminist thinker, yet her otherwise rigorous challenge to the dominant social order was undermined by the polemic slavery analogy (Ferguson, 1992). The argument is of course made that Wollstonecraft was a product of her time, that within her context she was a revolutionary. Except that with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft unwittingly set a pattern of behaviour that continues to manifest in feminist praxis: a failure to acknowledge how women are positioned by race.

The Feminine Mystique, a book frequently credited with catalysing the second wave of feminism, relied on both racist and classist assumptions. In her study of “the problem that has no name”, Betty Friedan completely overlooked that women of colour and working class women worked outside of the home out of sheer necessity, treating the white, middle-class and college educated woman’s experience as standard (hooks, 1982). In Against Our Will, a book that revolutionised the understanding of rape, Susan Brownmiller exploited racist assumptions of a bestial Black masculinity, the flip-side of which is a hypersexual Black femininity (Davis, 1981) – small wonder that women of colour were alienated by popular feminist thought. Although a great deal of radical feminist thought operated on what would now be considered an intersectional basis, writing from the second wave often treated white womanhood as normative, and women of colour were routinely marginalised within feminist activism (Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981. Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982).

Little changed with the third wave of feminism – if anything, emphasis on the individual circumvented any meaningful analysis of structural racism. Even as intersectionality has come to shape recent developments in the feminist movement, white women routinely use it as a means of virtue signalling. Intersectionality is often treated as a way of paying lip service to women of colour without meaningfully exploring any factor shaping our realities beyond the hierarchy of gender. Numerous feminist books published within the last five years have a token chapter (if we’re lucky…) devoted to the intersection of race and sex. To give an example, in a chapter of Everyday Sexism (2014) Laura Bates explored “double discrimination”, her phrase for co-existence of multiple forms of oppression. Though she acknowledged the ways in which women of colour are fetishised as a sexual Other, our experiences were framed as niche, irregular.

White feminists also have an unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two entirely separate forms of discrimination, which do not meet in a common site and are therefore not worthy of joint consideration. Emer O’Toole’s otherwise stellar analysis of gender roles in Girls Will Be Girls (2013) is undermined by the casual erasure of women of colour resulting from the following phrase: “people of colour or women.” This is, of course, a false dichotomy that positions white womanhood as standard.

Treating white womanhood as normative not only serves to marginalise women of colour within the feminist movement, but positions our needs as secondary to those of white women, propagating the hierarchy of race within feminism. Considering white womanhood as normative defines who is valued as a source of knowledge relating to women’s experiences, and who is not. It shapes the criteria for who is heard within the feminist movement, and who is overlooked by default. If the concerns of white women become simply the concerns of women, then race – conveniently – ceases to be a feminist issue. Women of colour critiquing racism can therefore be dismissed as threats to feminist unity, accused of “trashing” white women when we critique their racism. The racialised depiction of passion, particularly common in the Angry Black Woman trope (Harris-Perry, 2011), automatically invalidates any attempt women of colour to address racism. This is why women of colour are so frequently subject to tone policing in feminist discourse. Silencing criticisms of their own racism enables white feminists to avoid the challenge of uncomfortable self-reflection – they justify doing so by claiming that they act in the name of sisterhood.

However, as Mohanty says, “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.” White women disregarding and speaking over women of colour are not enacting sisterhood, but rather undermining it through exploiting the hierarchy of race. Contrary to the derailments used to silence women of colour in feminism, it is white racism that stands between the feminist movement and interracial solidarity. In addressing that racism, women of colour seek to overcome the ultimate barrier between women.

I will conclude by encouraging white feminists to apply the same tools of analysis they use in critiquing misogyny to their own racism, to the racism of other white women – to speak out when they see it. When discussing race with women of colour, I advise white women to consider their expectations of men when discussing misogyny – to draw the parallel of oppressor class and oppressed class, and apply those principles to their own conduct. Whether or not white women are aware of it, they are positioned at an advantage over women of colour – the only way they will learn more about it is by listening to our voices, acknowledging our perspectives, and reflecting on what we have to say.

I would also add that there is no shame in making a genuine attempt to improve and getting it wrong. Responding with white defensiveness and attempting to silence a woman of colour is, however, reprehensible. In my relationships with white feminist women, there is a clear distinction: those who are prepared to learn when it comes to race, and those who are not. The former group I trust and value as my sisters. The latter group I’m too wary of for true solidarity to be a possibility. I do not ask for perfection – who does? – but simply that you try.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Ferguson, Moira. (1992). Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery. IN: Feminist Review, No. 42.

Harris-Perry, Melissa. (2011). Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

hooks, bell. (1982). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

eds. Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia Bell, & Smith, Barbara. (1982). But Some of Us are Brave.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

eds. Moraga, Cherríe & Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back.

Smith, Barbara. (1998). The Truth that Never Hurts.

The Outsider Within: Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: this essay is the second in a series on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is a work of personal reflection. No individuals, organisations, or events are/will be named or directly identified. My objective is neither to call out nor to heap praise on any woman, but rather to highlight some realities of interracial dynamics between women in feminism.


 

The personal is political. So goes the rallying cry of second wave feminism, a perspective which has characterised a significant body of feminist theory. It is for this reason that I have decided to share a reflection upon my experience as a Black woman within the movement. There is a theory within Black feminism that being an outsider on the grounds of both race and sex positions Black women as watchers, gives us particular insight into dominant power structures and the means by which they manifest (Hill Collins, 2000). With this in mind, I aim to live up to the standards set by my foremothers and improve this movement for the women of colour who will follow after me.

Feminism is for everybody – so says bell hooks. (Note: hooks is not arguing that the movement should prioritise men, or any other dominant class, but rather be fully inclusive on grounds of race, class, and sexuality.) This text was critical in my development of a Black radical feminism, the moment when black became Black. Feminism is for Everybody outlined the importance of acknowledging race and class alongside sex if white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to be dismantled, and provided a blueprint for true interracial solidarity between women. Here, hooks posited that sisterhood can exist between women of colour and white women provided that race is acknowledged as a hierarchy, racism as a system of power, from which white women benefit. If white women continue to deny the privilege of whiteness, disregarding countless testimonies delivered by women of colour, we have no reason to trust them as political allies – this is hooks’ perspective, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Interracial solidarity between women is possible. I know. I have experienced it. But I have also learned that it is so rare, the alternative so uncomfortable, that I will never condemn another woman of colour for claiming otherwise. This solidarity is by no means guaranteed – in my opinion, it is safer never to expect it – but it is powerful when it goes right.

The first place I experienced true interracial solidarity within the movement is the women’s organisation where I volunteer. The values and praxis of this organisation are intersectional in the purest sense – it is a place for women of colour, working class women, lesbian and bi women, women with disabilities. Women negotiating marginalised identities are not treated like tokens, or a box to be ticked off for funding purposes: we are at the heart of the organisation. The longer I am there, the more I appreciate this. The longer I am there, the more uncommon I realise this situation actually is. It is a place where I can sit around a table working with white women and know that they do not view my Blackness as an easy method of virtue-signalling, something to be displayed when convenient and disregarded when it is not. Difference isn’t fetishised or ignored, but acknowledged and treated accordingly – exactly the criteria outlined by hooks. These are women who live their feminist principles, and I am proud to work alongside them.

It is worth observing that the majority of white women with whom I share solidarity are significantly older than me, and/or lesbian, and/or working class. As to why these women tend to be older, feminism was significantly more radical when they started down the path of activism, which undoubtedly shaped their perspective on structural oppression. Radically feminist politics added depth to their structural analysis, to the extent that bypassing race became both extremely difficult to justify and intellectually dishonest.

It is easy to answer the lesbian part of this dynamic – in her novel The Night Watch, Sarah Waters postulated that lesbians tend to show one another “gallantry” on the grounds that nobody else will and, broadly speaking, I think that she is right. In some cases these are women who fought Section 28 – it’s reasonable to imagine they now watch the babydykes flourish and consider it an achievement. Having experienced considerable marginalisation themselves, these women are more likely to be conscious of the marginalisation experienced by others – how intersectionality is supposed to, but does not always, work.

Why I find easier kinship with white working class women is also clear. They are consciously unlearning racism as I (a Black middle class woman) am consciously unlearning classism. As multiple works of feminist scholarship have argued, race and class are inextricably linked by dominant structures of power. Neither Black nor working class features in the rosy picture of life in the UK as painted by the Little Britain mentality. We both belong to the parts of society rendered other, over there, not quite People Like the hegemonic ‘Us’. White working class women have engaged with my activism and shown me extraordinary kindness in a way that, to my thinking, exemplifies sisterhood.

These women have shown me every personal and professional consideration. They have encouraged my work, amplified my voice, and listened closely to what I have to say. They are my sisters. They have my trust. And they are the exception to the rule of white racism.

Participating in feminist movement as a Black woman is, frankly, difficult. That’s not because of the MRAs and right-wing racists who are routinely overwhelmed by the urge to call me nigger, suggest that I “go back to Africa” (FYI: impossible – to my regret, I’ve never actually visited that continent, and they are never willing to follow through by funding my plane tickets…), make some allusion to slavery or the Ku Klux Klan in the hope of causing me discomfort, etc. These people are irrelevant. Over time, I have grown desensitised to such attacks. No, what makes my participation in feminism difficult is witnessing and experiencing the racism of white women I had previously considered allies – women who understand misogyny on a structural level, yet turn a blind eye to racism. They have been responsible for every one of the numerous points at which I have wanted to leave the movement, to distance myself from what I know to be a vital cause.

Whenever I discuss race, the result is the same. White, self-proclaimed feminist women have sworn at me, spoken over me, questioned my feminist credentials, mocked me, made thinly-veiled racist jokes, and – most bizarrely – policed my race. So quickly, white defensiveness evolves into white cruelty. I will not give examples. I will not include screencaps, or name and shame the culprits. What I will say is that it happens regularly enough that I am automatically on guard with white feminist women, just waiting for the microaggressions to begin. And they do.

Some white feminists even feel compelled to set little tests, which I can pass only by demonising Black men and prioritising sex over race in my analysis. I can’t even indulge in that petty internet pastime of commenting on Kanye West’s antics without some white woman showing up in my mentions, expecting me to a) monster Black masculinity b) stop listening to his music c) distance myself from Black culture in the name of sisterhood. If I critique the misogynoir directed towards Black women in the music industry, such as Nicki Minaj, the response is similarly predictable. White women gloss over the way Nicki repeatedly encourages her female fans to focus on their education and never depend upon a man, they ignore the message behind her music and the way it uplifts Black womanhood – they only want to critique the sexuality of her image. Bonus points if Taylor Swift is held up in contrast as a good role model for girls.

And then there are the white women who view associating with me as a fast-track to cookies. “I can’t be racist: I have a Black friend!” On multiple occasions, white feminists have tagged me in their Twitter arguments with racists, often exposing me to graphic images and racist language in the process. They do this with less thought towards me than Ash Ketchum ever showed a Pokémon he sent into battle. They do it in the belief that I will fight on their behalf, use my voice to provide them with the moral high ground. I will not. Images of white violence against Black people are deeply unsettling. That entitlement towards my intellectual labour is an act of contempt. It is dehumanising, accompanied by a real disregard for my wellbeing.

It is impossible to feel solidarity with women who expect me to downplay and ignore my Blackness and its political implications for their comfort.I cannot feel sisterhood with women who expect me to stay silent because it’s “just race”, dismissing a system of oppression that continues to shape my life as “a distraction”. There is no room for trust on my side when I am constantly deflecting racism. When I talk about race and feminism with other women of colour, they know. They instinctively get it. There is no need to explain, and that is a wonderful thing in a world where garden variety bigots and white feminists alike are directing racism our way.

Yet, I cannot bring myself to give up on the vision of a united feminist movement. The white women with whom I share solidarity have all worked to achieve that level of consciousness. They show that racism does not have to be a barrier between women if we are all committed to challenging white supremacy. In Angela Davis’ autobiography, there is a particularly touching passage in which she reveals her mother’s commitment to interracial solidarity in the struggle against all forms of oppression. Sallye Davis’ generosity of spirit, the strength she showed in having kept such hope alive, are inspirational.

If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. It’s not here today, but it can be. When white women are ready to put in the work, I will be prepared to call them sister.


Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1974). An Autobiography.

hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

Hill Collins, (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

Smith, Barbara. (1998).  The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom.

Waters, Sarah. (2006). The Night Watch.

Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Racism in the Feminist Movement

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of blog posts on race and racism in the feminist movement. It is not a feel-good piece. Equally, it is not a reprimand. It is a wake-up call – one which I hope will be answered.


 

Solidarity between women is vital for liberation. If the feminist movement is to succeed, feminist principles must be applied in deed as well as in word. Although intersectionality is used as a buzzword in contemporary activism, in many ways we have deviated from Crenshaw’s intended purpose: bringing marginalised voices from the periphery to the centre of the feminist movement by highlighting the coexistence of oppressions. White women with liberal politics routinely describe themselves as being intersectional feminists before proceeding to speak over and disregard those women negotiating marginalised identities of race, class, and sexuality in addition to sex. Intersectionality as virtue-signalling is diametrically opposed to intersectional praxis. The theory did not emerge in order to aid white women in their search for cookies – it was developed predominantly by Black feminists with a view to giving women of colour voice.

White feminists of all stripes are falling down at the intersection of race. Liberal feminists frequently fail to consider racism in terms of structural power. Radical feminists are often unwilling to apply the same principles of structural analysis to oppression rooted in race as in sex.

White women who are self-proclaimed feminists have a habit of expecting women of colour to choose between identities of race and sex, to prioritise challenging misogyny over opposing racism, in the name of sisterhood. Classic Black feminist texts dating from the early 1970s onwards detail this phenomenon, and precious little about interracial dynamics between women have changed since their publication. What white women often fail to consider is that, for women of colour, race and sex are inextricably linked in how we experience the world, how we are situated within structures of power. Yet discussion of race is often treated like a derailment from the Real Feminist Issues (i.e. those relating directly to white women), the implication being that women of colour are at most a sub-group within the movement.


Regardless of how their feminist politics manifest, the question of race is one that is not so easily answered, or even acknowledged, by many white women. Through both feminist theory and activism, women develop a structural understanding of the patriarchal hierarchy and where we are positioned within that system. Techniques such as consciousness raising and collective organisation have enabled women to connect the personal with the political – and it is deeply personal. Within feminism, women become fully aware of how we are marginalised by patriarchy. White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed class in terms of sex. Being aware of the implications carried by belonging to the dominant class, white women are therefore discomfited by the notion of being the oppressing party in the hierarchy of race (hooks, 2000). This brings us to our first fallacy:

‘Making it about race divides women.’


Time and time again, this line is used by white women to circumnavigate any meaningful discussion of race, to avoid the discomfiting possibility of having to confront the spectre of their own racism. This argument suggests that the effort of feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression at the exclusion of all other manifestations of prejudice. In adopting such a narrow approach to activism, such women preclude the possibility of tacking misogyny’s root cause: white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984). Sole focus on misogyny is, ultimately, ineffective. Selective structural analysis will only take us so far. Racism and classism, like misogyny, are pillars of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, upholding and perpetuating dominant power structures. Patriarchy cannot be dismantled whilst the other vectors in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins) remain in place. Such laissez-faire politics and activism lack the depth, rigour, and ethical consistency required to drive a cultural shift towards liberation. They also beg the question: what sort of feminism looks on, indifferent, when injustice thrives?

No, talking about race does not divide women. It is racism that does that – specifically, the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, makes mutual trust impossible.

‘But white women don’t benefit from white supremacy.’

To argue that misogyny is the primary agent in all women’s oppression is to assume that the category of ‘woman’ overlaps entirely with ‘white’ and ‘middle class’, which plainly isn’t the case. The hierarchy of race has as much bearing on the lived experiences of women of colour as the hierarchy of gender. When roughly 70% of British people in jobs paying the national minimum wage are women, it is evident that class plays a pivotal role in the lives of working class women.

Frequently white women complain about brocialism – the tendency of leftist men to remain mysteriously incapable of noticing how the hierarchy of social class is mirrored by that of gender. This is a valid critique, a necessary critique. It is also a critique that is entirely applicable to white, self-proclaimed feminist women unwilling to engage with anti-racist politics. Even as they experience classism and/or lesbophobia, white women continue to benefit from their whiteness.

According to the Fawcett Society, the gender pay gap for full-time employees sits at 13.9%. BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people with GCSEs are paid 11% less than our white counterparts, a deficit that rises to 23% among graduates. In addition, BAME graduates are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white graduates. Women of colour face a double jeopardy of sorts, our labour undervalued both on grounds of race and sex. Zora Neale Hurston once described Black women as the “mule uh de world”, an observation that is spot on when applied to the wage gap. BAME women are also more likely to be asked about our plans relating to marriage and pregnancy by prospective employers than white women. White women are objectified by men, the result of misogyny. Women of colour are objectified, Othered, fetishised, and treated like hypersexual savages by men, the result of misogyny and racism. BAME and migrant women also “experience a disproportionate rate of domestic homicide.”

Even if you are not prepared to listen to what women of colour have to say about racism, the facts and figures bear out.

‘Women are stronger when we all stand together.’

Yes. Sisterhood is a powerful, sustaining force. But expecting women of colour to remain silent on the subject of race for the sake of white comfort is not sisterhood – quite the opposite. Sisterhood cannot exist so long as white women continue to ignore the hierarchy of race whilst simultaneously expecting women of colour to devote our energies solely to helping them gain equality with white men.This paradigm is exploitative, a toxic manifestation of white entitlement within the feminist movement.

For sisterhood to exist between women of colour and white women, we must have an honest conversation about race within the feminist movement. White privilege must be acknowledged and opposed by white women. Whiteness must cease to be treated as the normative standard of womanhood within feminist politics. The same logic that is applied to critiquing misogyny must be applied to unlearning racism. Issues facing women of colour must be considered a priority, not a distraction to be dealt with after the revolution. Women of colour must cease to be treated like a box-ticking exercise and instead acknowledged for what we are, what we have always been: essential to the feminist movement.

All this is imperative if we are to achieve true solidarity – and that is possible. As things stand, the onus is on white women to reach out and repair any rift that occurs on the basis of race. Ultimately, it will bring us all closer to liberation.


 

Bibliography

Davis, Angela. (1981). Women, Race & Class.

Grewal, Shabnam, ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women. 

Hill Collins, Patricia. (2000). Black Feminist Thought.

hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.

Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister Outsider.

Wallace, Michele. (1978). Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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