A Round Table on ‘White Feminism’

This round-table piece was inspired by a meeting of Oriel and Corpus Christi colleges’ gender issues discussion group Corporiel on 4th February 2014, at which the group considered the concept of ‘white feminism’. Three contributors agreed to write up their thoughts after the discussion, addressing the need for self-questioning within feminist communities, Western feminism’s relationship with Islam, and the dubiousness of the label ‘white feminist’.

 

Kate Bradley – Taking Offence at ‘White Feminism’

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a first-wave feminist in the U.S.A., best remembered for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, which has been lauded since its publication in 1892. However, she was also a racist: she believed in the inherent biological inferiority of non-white peoples and criticised America’s relatively liberal border policies at the time for admitting “swarming immigrants” into the country.[1] In today’s world, where different liberation movements are seen to be ‘on the same side’, each in some way fighting for equality, the blatant racism of early feminists like Perkins Gilman is often viewed as absurd and contradictory. Yet Perkins Gilman proves that feminism doesn’t always go hand in hand with anti-racism, and so it is a mistake to assume that where feminism achieves things for women, racial equality will follow.

Over the last few months, the notion of ‘white feminism’ has become a topic of conversation across various media. Intersectionality has been a concept for decades, and so has ‘womanism’, a form of feminism which “accounts for the ways in which black women support and empower black men, and serves as a tool for understanding the Black woman’s relationship to men as different from the white woman’s”.[2] However, recently, specific issues with exclusive, racially-unaware feminism have inspired writers to criticise the way many well-known mainstream feminists like Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham depict universal womanhood: they either ignore the specific struggles of people of colour, or, like the controversial group Femen, intervene unhelpfully on non-white, non-Western issues.[3]

As a feminist who also happens to be white, I have found myself amongst those who initially felt defensive about criticisms of my feminism. But over time, and with research, I started to see the ways in which my own feminist beliefs were racially exclusive – not overtly, but through the issues that did not affect me and that I did not really address in my criticisms of society. I always saw myself as anti-racist, but I considered my feminist and my anti-racist sympathies as distinct and separable. When I started to think about my feminism, I realised that it was, in some ways, ‘white feminism’, and now, my beliefs continue to be enriched by noticing all the ways in which the struggles of disempowered groups’ intersect, and by making myself consciously challenge any patronising or ‘othering’ feelings towards cultures in which I was not raised.

The blog BattyMamzelle recently published a very useful discussion of ‘white feminism’ which can help white feminists to start questioning their beliefs, and which rejects the racially essentialist connotations that the term seems to suggest. The author argues that, whilst most ‘white feminism’ is conducted by white, privileged women, it is actually a label for a “specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional, superficial feminist practices”, and it is possible for feminists of all colours to practise a better, more inclusive feminism.[4] Yet, to achieve this, we have to acknowledge the problems within mainstream feminism today – or as Sarah Milstein puts it, “woman up, rethink our role, and help reshape feminism”.[5]

 

Zizzy Lugg-Williams – What’s in a label?

2013 was the year that brought us the Twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, and within hours eyes had been opened to the glaring hypocrisies of a movement that claimed to fight for the equality of all human beings. One of those pairs of eyes was my own, and yet this is where I begin to find problems with the subsequent interest in ‘Black/white feminism’ and ‘white privilege’. As a British citizen born and raised in the U.K., with three out of my four grandparents being ethnically white, race has never truly factored into my understanding of myself, and when I have been confronted with it, it has been at most a point of confusion. And so as the debate progresses over how to reconcile ‘white feminism’ with ‘Black feminism’, I wonder how many other women are feeling as confused as I am by suddenly being outwardly designated as a ‘Woman of Colour’.

As intersectionality leaves behind its buzzword status and becomes a given goal, it is now, before the bases of the goal become solidified to a point beyond discussion, that we must really look at the significance behind the problems identified. The acceptance that there are different female experiences that need to be valued and that there are different forms of oppression is obviously helpful to the feminist cause, and there is no worse privilege than an un-checked, un-examined one. There is something commendable about the feminist movement in its self-examining nature; however, it is in the naming of the problem that I see difficulty. The previous marginalisation was not a ‘white’ problem, but rather one of specific Western socio-economic privilege, and the white/Black dichotomy does not do anything to explain differences, and nor does it rectify the mistakes of the past. In calling these mistakes the mistakes of ‘white’ feminism, a rift is caused that suggests that sides should be taken, or at least that there is a distinction between two different demographic groups. This ignores the complex, non-linear nature of race, and ignores the struggles of many other marginalised groups, ironically running the risk of alienating by trying to understand.

 

H.A. – Western feminism, Islam and Objectification

A common theme in Western discourse about the Hijab (or headscarf) is that of oppression. It is often assumed that women who choose to wear the covering are forced to by their husbands, fathers or a male figure in their life. Even when a woman claims to have chosen completely of her own accord to wear it, this is often met with claims of subconscious societal pressures. Many Western feminists will act as though they must free the Muslim woman from this cloth of oppression, as if they are somehow in a position to do this.

In reducing Muslim women down to what they are wearing, we are taking away the very agency that feminism is supposed to give women. Our obsession within feminism with the way that Muslim women look (and I would argue that it is an obsession) propagates the exact objectification that we are supposed to be fighting. Furthermore, by seeing only what is on the outside, we homogenise an incredibly diverse group of women. The Hijab represents different things to those who choose to wear it. For some it is an outward representation of their faith, a form of identity marker, and for others it is a reflection of their commitment to their religion. Very few women who choose to wear the headscarf have chosen to do so lightly – in an increasingly hostile and secular society, it is a difficult choice to make. By focusing so much on the outer garments and clothing of these women, we fail to appreciate their opinions, choices, individual agency and, often, courage.

Of course women should not to be forced to dress in any particular way, and there are definitely some rare instances where the Hijab or Burka is forced on women, but we should not presume it is something that is always forced just because it is alien to us. An important point to consider is how much freedom we have as Western women living in a supposedly liberal and free society. We are just as influenced by societal pressures in the way that we look and dress. Why is it then that we still see ourselves as free, or freer, than Muslim women in the East? Does this tie into a larger question about a Western imposition of values onto other cultures? It can certainly be argued that people in the West are often guilty of holding the rest of the world to Western ideals, and if these are not realised, then we presume that the other culture must be backward because we are more progressive and forward-thinking. This could certainly explain why some Western women and feminists see themselves as having to ‘liberate’ Muslim women, implying that they are not capable of liberating themselves due to their backwardness or the backwardness of their societies.

I completely acknowledge that there is serious oppression and mistreatment of women in some Muslim countries. However, this is the case all over the world, including in the U.K.. The banning of the Burka or Hijab would be just as oppressive as forcing women to wear it. This is not really an issue about culture, but rather an issue about patriarchy as a whole: in our homogenisation of Muslim women and our implication that they are weak and need liberating, we both underestimate the meaning of the Hijab, but more importantly, the choices of the woman wearing it. We reduce her down to a mere item of clothing that we judge from the outside. This is exactly the kind of objectification that we should be opposing. Instead of using feminism to empower women, therefore, we are ironically taking away their power and agency.

 

Kate Bradley is a second-year English student at Oriel College, and is also on the editorial board for the Oxford Left Review. Zizzy Lugg-Williams is a second-year History and French student at Oriel, and  is currently PR Director for the Oxford Documentary Society. H.A. wishes to remain anonymous.

 

Footnotes

[1] Denise D. Knight, ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Shadow of Racism’, American Literary Realism 32:2 (2000)

[2] ‘womanism’, A Feminist Theory Dictionary, 17th Jul 2007

[3] Laurie Penny, ‘Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran and the Problem of Unexamined Privilege’, New Statesman, 9th October 2012

[4] Anonymous, “This is what I mean when I say ‘white feminism'”, BattyMamzelle, 10th Jan 2014

[5] Sarah Milstein, “5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism”, Huffington Post, 24th Sep 2014

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