On White Feminism

Anna Lee ’24

Chief Opinions Editor

What women come to mind when you think of feminism? 1920’s women clad in white and their best Sunday hats, marching down Washington D.C. with posters in hand? Rosie the Riveter pumping her bicep with “We Can Do It” in bold font? Perhaps you think of 2016, when thousands flooded the streets following the election of former President Donald Trump. Whatever the image is, it exudes power and strength, the ability to turn over systems that have debased all sexes (especially women and queer people) for centuries, and hope for a more equal future. But look closer: in the picture you’ve imagined, who is on the front lines? Take time to consider her background, her family, and what she looks like. Look closely at her hair, the clothes she wears, and the expression on her face. Then look at the people around her: how would you describe them? 

Chances are, the people you thought of are all or mostly white. And to be fair, you aren’t wrong—of all the scenarios I’ve laid out, white women and allies dominate pictures in textbooks, history lessons, and modern retellings of those events. But those who aren’t pictured are the women pushed to the side. Black women, Latinx women, Indigenous women, Asian women, (some) queer people, and other marginalized groups are behind the frame, shoved to the back of the marching group, and given the microphone last. As they watch laws for “all” women change, they realize they are not part of the group that reaps the benefits. As the income gap between white women and white men shrinks, the income gap between white women and women of color grows (St.Julien and Hallgreen). As generations of little girls of color grow up, they are barred from opportunities that white girls can access with relative ease. 

These effects are largely due to the phenomenon of white feminism: the self-prioritization of white women (especially cisgender, middle-class to upper-class white women) over women of color, to whom the goal “is not to alter the systems that oppress women – patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism – but to succeed within them” (Solis, “Koa Beck on Dismantling the Persistence of White Feminism”). 

But who partakes in white feminism? In her novel “Against White Feminism,” author Rafia Zakaria describes the culpable white feminist as someone “who refuse[s] to consider the role that whiteness and the racial privilege attached to it have played and continue to play in universalizing white feminist concerns. . . as being those of all feminism and all feminists” (Zakaria, Against White Feminism, NPR). In other words, not every feminist-who-is-white or their white allies endorse white feminism (though they still indirectly benefit from it), nor is every woman of color against white feminism. To understand the exceptions in either group not only paints a more realistic picture of the issue, but it acknowledges (though it’s careful not to praise) the women who could use their white privilege to the detriment of women of color, and choose not to. Instead, it brings attention to the perspective of white feminism: not always well-intentioned, but also not always well-informed. 

Throughout historical examples in America, the centering of whiteness around models of feminism always sets the precedent for change. As early as the first major convention for women’s rights at Seneca Falls in 1848, suffragists made it clear that the fight for women’s voting rights was specifically for white women’s voting rights. Professor Tammy L. Brown, Professor of Black World Studies at Miami University, points out that “the participants [at the convention] were middle and upper-class white women” including “one African-American male – Frederick Douglass.” A staunch abolitionist, Douglass partnered with “white woman suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. No Black women attended the convention. None were invited” (Brown). Thus, the issues of white feminism call attention not just to the exclusion of women of color from feminist discussions, but oftentimes how men of color are also complicit in white feminism. And because these same issues of sexism and race still apply to communities today, representation in feminist discussions becomes all the more important. 

So what’s a solution to the white feminist problem? Though not a perfect fix, a far more inclusive and proactive kind of feminism is intersectional feminism. 30 years ago, Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, coined the term ‘intersectionality,” and with it, intersectional feminism. In an interview with TIME Magazine, Crenshaw describes intersectionality as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other,” and not one that should be distorted into making white men “pariahs” (Steinmetz). Intersectional feminism is then not just allowing all women to march together, but giving silenced women the platform to speak. Clearly, white feminism has not worked for most non-white women or even made circumstances worse. Intersectional feminism offers an equitable path forward that helps all women. 

But like any mode of resistance, intersectional feminism is far from perfect. For one, intersectional feminism has the potential to become a performative gesture: an inclusive facade that is still internally led by white women. As 18 year old activist Kara Jackson puts it, “the practice of intersectionality, however, must remain careful, so it does not become a case of empty inclusion to appease feminists of color” (Oxnevad). Intersectional feminists must also be careful to remain respectful and inclusive of queer women. I’ve talked mostly about the intersections of race, but queer women, especially trans women, are left out of mainstream discussions. With intersectional feminism comes inevitable connections to gender identity, queerness, and most of all, race, which many mainstream feminists are not ready to discuss. And perhaps most importantly, the worst outcome would be another internal hierarchy of women based on race prioritization or a struggle for power. As an Asian American woman, I’m well aware that my own community sometimes takes advantage of the power they’ve been given to wrench attention from other women of color. To avoid this, everyone must be given an equal opportunity to speak. 

In short, the issues afflicting white women are horrible, yes, and they deserve recognition. But American listeners have tuned into the conditions of white feminists since 1848 and in movements before then. The unique experiences of anti-feminism in non-white communities or queer communities, on the other hand, are omitted from discussions. Their experiences often encompass all the issues that afflict white women and then some. This call to representation does not mean a white woman should speak on behalf of a black or indigenous woman and call it intersectionality. Instead, give her the microphone and let her speak her narrative, relay her truth, and support her without interrupting. 

Graphic by Anna Lee

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