When it comes to identifying the facets through which we experience life, race and gender are not isolated entities; they concurrently impact and amplify one another. In this sense, the discrimination we experience is also multifaceted— gender, race, sexuality, disability, religion, and more. Equality therefore, should be intersectional, and account for varying levels of privilege one might experience in one sector, to translate into our activism work in another, to amplify the voices of the marginalized and help break down all forms of oppression. When approaching feminism, a crucial practice should be to examine the ways our individual selves sustain and uphold a hierarchy of white supremacy and actively work to dismantle it, to diminish the magnitude of oppression that women of color go through.
However, more often than not, the narrative that is pushed through in Western countries is one where the issues of gender inequality are centered through the lens of white women only, and as a consequence, the experiences and voices of women of color are rarely given the spotlight. A term to represent this practice is “white feminism,” the mainstream feminism we all know and recognize, that focuses on white women breaking through the glass ceiling when it comes to the issue of career advancement in the system of patriarchy. Without taking anything from the importance of this issue, white feminism simply doesn’t acknowledge—or even ignores—the fact that in order for women of color to break through the glass ceiling, racism as well as sexism need to be dismantled. It is the act of showing up only when it is convenient, comfortable, and self-rewarding to middle-to-upper-class white women and their ideals of women empowerment, enmeshed in denying the privileges they have, tone policing, and defensiveness when called out for their exclusion of women of color.
The manifestation of white feminism can be seen in our history books. In the U.S., the achievement of women’s vote in 1920 has been normalized to be seen as a landmark for all women, when in fact it was only white women who obtained the means to vote. Black women experienced significant voter suppression via methods such as literacy tests until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. White feminists in the suffragette movement, such as Anna Howard Shaw, argued that the political rights of women were vastly more important than those of Black people, by expressing contempt at how ‘never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!’, excluding Black women out of the picture entirely.
Given the exclusion of Black women in the context of women’s history, it is no wonder that it also seeps into the current issues that mainstream white feminism cares about. Black women in the U.S. die at four times the rate of their white counterparts during childbirth, and the rate of mortality for certain illnesses such as breast cancer is 40% higher, highlighting the pervasive systemic racism against Black women in healthcare. Of the 80% of women in jail that are single mothers, two-thirds of them are women of color, and the rate of incarceration for Black women is four times more than it is for white women. The feminists who claim they fight for the liberation of all women should be extremely concerned about these statistics, but these are not the pressing issues that make it onto the agenda of mainstream feminism at all.
White feminism maintains the idea that it speaks for all women, but when another group of women’s priorities don’t align with their set agendas, those voices are not welcomed. An example of this would be the relationship between white feminism and Muslim women. Simultaneous to the assertion that feminism includes fighting for the freedom of expression with one’s body, the rhetoric also somehow only applies to those in line with westernized ideals of self- and religious expression, with Belgium banning the headscarf in universities, and France banning the Niqab face covering in all types of social contexts. The way that the definition of empowerment is whitewashed and imposed on other women through white feminism ironically is a form of oppression in itself, by disregarding their perspectives and overlooking how empowerment is heterogenous, and is shaped by intersectional identities. Furthermore, it perpetuates blatant Islamophobia by giving Muslim women’s voices a platform only when it reinforces the stereotype that they are victims of their religion and need Western feminists’ assistance to destroy their plight. This implicitly conforms to a white supremacist, colonial rhetoric that the West is the epitome of social progression, when in fact many regressive norms were imported to the Global South via colonialism that replaced cultural acceptance of forward-thinking identities akin to queerness, such as in India.
A one size fits all approach like white feminism assumes we all have the same shackles and goals and disregards overlapping forms of oppression. It ignores authentic perspectives of those that are the most vilified and in turn, is complicit to the continuation of their oppression by refusing to address the issues that are specific to them. For feminism to become more impactful and inclusive, we must account for how other forms of oppression interact with gender-oppression, to look at how women’s rights can be utilized and heightened to the greatest extent for everyone. All women lose out from not approaching feminism in an intersectional way; discrimination is interconnected through different facets, and making strides in the rights of one area translates into less oppression for groups that are the most marginalized. Feminism should not be a stand-alone endeavour; racial justice must be included in the fight for gender equality.
- Jiaying Zhang