Gemma Styles: Things I've Learned About White Feminism
"Listen to people who have different backgrounds and experiences than yours."
Our columnist Gemma Styles talks through what's she's learning.
If feminism wasn’t already ‘having a moment’ then it certainly is now. Since the Women’s March on Washington, and its accompanying sister marches around the world, there has been a lot of discussion about the “brand” of feminism that it stood for with a lot of people, especially women of colour and trans women, voicing concerns about not feeling welcome at the events and experiencing problems with ‘White Feminists’. What the march, and feminism in general, is aiming for is intersectionality. But what does that really mean?
Quick disclaimer: this is a very brief overview of a complex thing.
Intersectional feminism acknowledges and supports the different women who face different levels of issues; as well as sexism, women struggle with discrimination based on race, sexuality, disability and many other factors, which might make life more difficult than it would be for a white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied woman. Feminism that tends to focus only on issues affecting this type of woman, and dismiss/downplay/ignore the additional struggle of women who fall outside of this demographic is known as White Feminism.
First of all, when I use the term ‘White Feminism’ I will capitalise it. Not everyone does this, but personally I find it helpful in distinguishing when someone is talking about White Feminists versus white feminists (as in, feminists who are white). When discussing White Feminism, it’s important to make this distinction; talking about White Feminism is not instantly making a judgment on all white women who consider themselves feminists.
Let’s take a look at this popular diagram by blogger Cate Young (aka BattyMamzelle); you can see here that anyone can be a White Feminist, not just white women. Men, women of colour, anyone - White Feminism is a thought pattern almost as much as it is to do with your actual skin colour. While the thinking might be more common among white people in society, it’s not exclusive to white women, and not all white women fall into the category.
White Feminism is essentially feminism that focuses on issues affecting certain women, otherwise known as ‘mainstream’ feminism, often centred on issues that would affect those women such as wearing make up, shaving your armpits or getting married and taking a man’s last name. Nobody is saying that these aren't valid things to talk about within feminism, but they certainly aren't all that feminism should be about. To give an example, a White Feminist might be a woman who thinks that we have equality because she always splits the bill on Tinder dates, and she doesn't feel undervalued in her workplace. In other words, she might feel equal, but she doesn’t consider the cultural or social position of other women in that equality discussion. I would encourage you to read the rest of BattyMamzelle's blog post on this, where I got the diagram, because she explains in more detail and also gives some great examples of White Feminism that you will recognise.
So, now we’ve had a brief look at what White Feminism is, how do we deal with it? One of the most important things I’ve learned in discussions around the topic is that you have to learn to control your defensive reactions. Hearing people say “white women” and “White Feminists” might make you feel like you’re being accused of something, especially if you’re a white woman, but consider this in other examples.
When women talk about issues such as sexual assault and discuss things that ‘men’ do, there is often a big outpouring from men, like the #notallmen hashtag. This is frustrating for women, because it’s a real problem that we’re talking about and real experiences; just because it isn’t ALL men doing these things, doesn’t mean it isn’t a thing that a lot of men do. You can think of White Feminism in a similar way; when people discuss things that white women do, just because you may not do those things doesn't mean you need to shout about it and undermine their argument. It's not a personal attack. Expecting all women to band together and support each other means listening to other women's issues and opinions too, not just expecting support for things that affect your life. Likewise, when a celebrity is accused of WF, take the time to listen to why people are saying that rather than jumping to their defence because you like their TV show.
Getting back to the women's marches. There has been a lot of discussion about White Feminism and non-inclusive feminism; if you were involved in the events, as I was, it's easy to jump to that defensive place. For most of us, it felt like a very special, aware and inclusive event. But other people didn't have that same experience. A key example, the pink 'pussy hats' worn by a lot of protesters, for some turned into an exclusionary symbol. I understand where this came from, from Trump's own language, and it made a lot of sense as a gesture of togetherness among women. But there were trans women who were very hurt by a lot of the discussion and placards around this theme.
Holding up signs like "No Uterus, No Opinion" might make sense to you. Hey you, men in Washington, stop encroaching on my rights. I get it. But for trans women marching, you've essentially told them that they have no right to be included in the event, or to have an opinion on contentious points over Planned Parenthood, for example.
This is the most important thing I've learned about White Feminism: you can avoid becoming a White Feminist with just a bit of thought for other people. Change that placard to "My Uterus, My Opinion". You're still sticking up for yourself, for women, but you're less likely to be hurting and silencing a load of other women in the process. Likewise, if you read or hear something from a woman of colour who might be criticising an event or explaining her experience, think about how they felt in that situation before you think about indignation you might feel about the term White Feminist. If you're listening and learning and not butting in with how you didn't-do-that, then you're not being one anyway.
This can be an intense topic and this is just one white girl's limited learning. Understand the term. Control your defensive instinct. And listen to people who have different backgrounds and experiences than yours. This is a time for positive action in the world and we'll do a whole lot better at being feminists if we can truly, intersectionally, stand up for each other.
Now how about watching a video of guys and girls trying to guess what weird sex toys are for? Ok then...