Please Explain: White Feminism
Grace Joseph explains how certain types of feminism can do more harm than good, and why we should all work towards intersectionality.
CONTENT WARNING: RACISM
Each year, on International Women's Day, a whole lot of predictable fights break out on the internet and in real life. They generally involve men wailing about not having an International Men's Day (you do, fellas - it's November 19th), radio hosts asking why we even need feminism anymore (an actual quote from 2GB Radio: 'the movement's efforts to erase gender difference is problematic'), and now, apparently, prime ministers saying that women should seek equality without men having to change anything (ScoMo's speech was so terrible, it made it on to American news).
But a debate that is gathering more and more momentum is between two factions of feminism itself. Specifically, International Women's Day amplifies clashes between intersectional feminists and their non-intersectional counterparts, known as white feminists.
What is White Feminism?
There's a lot to unpack about white feminism and, consequently, about intersectionality. Essentially, white feminism is centring white women (and by extension, middle-class, able-bodied and cis-gendered women) in the feminist movement, at the expense of women of colour. Literally everything I know about this toxic brand of feminism I learned by following accounts run by incredible black women like Rachel Cargle, Munroe Bergdorf, and Layla F. Saad, to name but a few. If you do one thing after reading this, it should be following these women on Instagram. They taught me more than a whole semester of sociology did!
Historically, white feminism has dominated the movement. If you need proof, look no further than Australia's suffragette movement, where women were supposedly given the right to vote in 1902. At this point, Aboriginal women and men were not even included in the population count. It was years later, in 1962, that Aboriginal women were enfranchised, finally achieving what many regard as the basic foundation of gender equality. A similar thing happened in the United States, where the leader of the suffragette movement was outwardly racist.
Although it would be easy to distance ourselves from instances like this and assert that we white women have learned from our mistakes, the reality is that this supremacist version of feminism still dominates today. That's because white feminism is inextricably linked to white privilege, which has persisted in Australia since the arrival of European invaders.
What is White Privilege?
White privilege is a complex topic that many people spend their lives studying, teaching and being affected by. Basically, it's the privilege of not being tangibly disadvantaged by your white skin colour, and it is related to whiteness as 'the norm', as people of colour are therefore inevitably marginalised as the minority. Essentially, if you're not regularly followed by a security guard in fancy shops or repeatedly stopped for 'random' drug and bomb tests at airports, you probably have white privilege. Side note – I had immense trouble thinking of these examples, which is an example of my white privilege in itself. There's a lot of important material out there, so for a more in-depth exploration of white supremacy, read this, this, and this.
Therefore, a symptom of white privilege is that women of colour have drastically different obstacles to overcome in comparison to white women. While white women are attending talks about women in parliament, Aboriginal women are being incarcerated for not paying fines. While white women are complaining about being referred to by the wrong title, black women are being harassed for asking Instagram influencers to post about Nia Wilson, a black women who was murdered by a white man last year. While white women are earning 80c for every dollar a white man earns, Black, Native American and Hispanic women are earning 70c or less – and these statistics are just from the United States. Moreover, these circumstances don't even include other intersecting identities, such as trans women, queer women, poor women, disabled women, or gender non-binary people.
What is Intersectional Feminism?
Evidently, white feminism is a huge issue, therefore many people have rejected mainstream feminism in favour of intersectionality. This concept was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, and refers to the double disadvantage that women of colour face – namely, the effects of both racism and sexism on their lives. It has been expanded to include other marginalised identities, like the ones listed above, and, when applied to feminist thinking, is the polar opposite to white feminism. True intersectional feminists consider the diverse experience of women and include their voices in everything they do.
If you're a person of colour, you probably practice intersectional feminism without even thinking about it. However, if you're white, it might take a little bit of work and a lot of self-critique.
Am I a White Feminist?
White feminism is perpetuated on an everyday basis, not just through the extreme examples listed above. While you're not necessarily a white feminist if you are white, the unfortunate truth is that most white women are. And if you're not actively aware of and working at your white privilege, then you probably fall into this category.
In her article When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels, Rachel Cargle identifies the four main characteristics of white feminists. These are:
- tone policing: the act of undermining women of colour by telling them they should '"say things a little nicer"'.
- spiritual bypassing: saying that we should focus on unity and not division with the 'sisterhood', even though the differences that cause such division literally result in women of colour dying.
- white saviour complex: pulling out what you've done 'for' people of colour instead of listening to what they want you to do right now.
- centring: putting yourself, as a white person, in the middle by complaining that race is hard for you to talk about, or what you think would solve an issue.
If you're feeling defensive about anything you're reading, stop. Obviously, it's uncomfortable to realise that you are contributing to an ingrained societal issue – but don't you think it would be more uncomfortable to be the victim of racism and prejudice? I definitely felt attacked when I was learning about white feminism, and I definitely still have to work to replace guilt with responsibility and actions.
What do I do now?
The first steps towards erasing white feminism is to listen to women of colour. If this is the first time you have reflected upon white feminism, that's an ironic and unfortunately-common occurrence – women of colour were talking about this for decades before this white girl decided to write about it. Follow their Instagram accounts, listen to and deeply consider what they say, do the work they tell you to do, pay them for their emotional labour.
Do your own research. White women can't rely on women of colour to be their educators – this perpetuates the existing power difference and is needlessly lazy. Read all the articles I've linked too, as well as this one and this one.
Question yourself. Actively try to locate how your whiteness benefits you in daily life and see how you can use this to elevate those who don't have that privilege. Talk to other white people about white feminism and call those who practice it out.
Tackling white feminism and supremacy will take a lot of unlearning and relearning. But in today's toxic climate, it is absolutely necessary, and absolutely worth it.
Grace is a second-year Communications/International Studies student, who majors in Creative Writing because she wants to be a barista for the rest of her life. She's probably the only uni student alive who'd rather wake up at 5:30 am than still be awake at 10:30 pm - an early bedtime each day keeps the doctor away (maybe).