Oh, White Feminism

Oh, to be a white feminist.

To be a white feminist who, contrary to what one might think, is not necessarily white nor a woman.

To be a white feminist who upholds the abhorrent truth that mainstream feminism is cognizant of white women first and white women only.

To be a white feminist who walks the same campus as me, who walks in the Women’s March next to me, and who walks the fight against injustice alongside me.

Yet our paths diverge.

Our paths diverge because yours is one of selectivity. Your feminism, even if you refuse to acknowledge it, is rooted in hierarchy that does not support universal gender equality. Rather, your hierarchy places white people, white women, at the forefront of a movement that is meant to be undivided.

Your (white) feminism is incomplete.

I was once asked if I would rather a person be a white feminist than not a feminist at all. My answer, nearly immediately, was not one at all.

Nearly all of our struggles over gender equality have been white. When one recalls women’s suffrage, we do so without much thought about which women gained the right to vote in 1920. We place little thought on the monolithic race of those women.

Today is not much different.

We speak of a gendered pay gap without racial distinction. We can actively recall “77 cents to a man’s dollar” because if we are going to speak about how much women earn in comparison to men, we will speak about how much white women earn in comparison to men.

Feminism without acknowledgment of the variation in treatment or outcome among women does a disservice to the majority of women. If fact, I would argue that any kind of feminism that places the disparities of some women over others actively destroys any semblance of hope for gender equality.

To speak of womanhood, to even dare call yourself a feminist, without sustained discussion of race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and many more intersectional identities, is to speak incomplete feminism. It is to support a select group of women, which works against the need for feminism in the first place.

We women have a difficult time supporting one another. For so long our opinions of ourselves have been embedded in men’s opinions of us. Our opinions of one another often reflect our own insecurities or the ways that we fear another woman may better live up to society’s arbitrary standards.

For this reason, we need feminism.

We need the unconditional and factual belief that people of all genders are equal and are deserving of treatment that reflects that equality. We desperately need women who believe that other women are worthy of better treatment. We deserve women who understand that all women warrant rights, language, and action that is no longer stifling or limiting.

Yet your white feminism, or should I say your selective feminism, is perhaps just as much of a detriment to our society as the patriarchy.

It is often difficult for me to describe where I see white feminism or white feminists. There isn’t normally a badge worn or a flashing neon sign that points out who among us places white women above the rest. Often it is just an absence of intersectional conversation.

Yet this absence is felt like a crushing weight on my body.

I can see it in classrooms when womanhood is spoken of like a uniform experience. I can see it on retreats where white women have little to say about race but everything to say about gender. I can see it in social groups that claim to support women but do not reflect the diversity of women surrounding them.

White feminism is detrimental because to support few women is not to support women.

You don’t know, nor do you seem to care. Your vision is so tunneled, so white, that all you see in front of you is justice for the women who you see around you. Whether those women are those you see at parties or in the media, they all have whiteness to them. The oppression of their womanhood lacks many other dimensions of oppression.

This, however, is not to say that white women do not face oppression. It is only to say that their oppression does not have as many points of attack.

I just recently read about the successes that women had in film this past year with Blockbusters like Wonderwoman and Star Wars. Yet what was most poignant about the piece was that it acknowledged that we admire the triumphs of white women but do little to discuss the obstacles for the rest.

While we should admire the successes of these women, because that indeed is what feminism is, we should also examine why praising these particular women might come easy to us. We should stop ourselves from believing too quickly that the success of a few white women is telling of the ability to succeed for all women. We should remember that recognizing that it is a white woman who has triumphed does not take away from her success, nor it does not make her less of a role model.

It does, however, acknowledge the ease of those accomplishments relative to others, while also being mindful that the presence of a more diverse array of triumphant woman can provide role models for many rather than just a few.

While I ardently believe that your white feminism is overtly and irrefutably wrong, it is crucial to understand that white feminism is not stagnant.

As I said before, just because you are a white woman who believes herself to be a feminist doesn’t mean you’re a white feminist. That’s not what white feminism is. Rather, it is a symptom of our society’s racism coupled with sexism and anyone can fall victim to it.

Our society chooses white feminism because racism is at the core of our social and political institutions. If one is forced to choose between people of color and women, whiteness always seems to win.

Yet the longer we allow this to happen, the longer we allow men to hold the power, rights, and justice that should be distributed amongst us all.

The longer we allow the person next to us in class to gloss over the historical exclusion of women with other marginalized identities, the longer we sustain the power divide. The longer we allow the white woman marching next to us to speak about sexism on a college campus as if the opportunities for college are the same for all women, the longer we prevent equitable change. The longer we see ourselves as true feminists without critical analysis of our inclusionary efforts, the longer our feminism does minimal work.

At a time on our campus when women are joining organizations to celebrate womanhood and personhood, we must remember that female empowerment depends on intersectionality. Without it, your claims of feminism do not stand.

Be honest and critical of your own feminism. Perhaps the reality right now is that you’re not an intersectional feminist, but everyone has the ability to be.

Remember, your white feminism is not feminism.

It is a misconception that feminism can be exclusive, or can be anything other than inclusive. That is not a feminism I believe, nor is one I want to be a part of.

Oh, to be a white feminist. To not be a real feminist at all.

Kristina Smith