I’ve been a teaching assistant for about a year and a half now, and a mentor through the women’s studies major a year prior to that. I have interacted with several students ranging from different backgrounds, cultures, experiences and opinions. But none have been quite as special as my white female feminist students.
By now, I’ve gotten accustomed to handling conversations with white female feminist students. And when I use this specific term, “white female feminist” I’m not talking about all white women who fall under that label, but rather those that have the narrow conception of what feminism is, and use terms like “equality” too liberally in their vernacular. These type of students are the most unique that I’ve ever encountered in the sense that they have all, in their own ways, claimed feminism without actually using the word itself.
My most recent encounter with this group of feminists was through an all-freshmen race and social justice course. Being that most students were at the very beginning of forming consciousness around social justice, oppression, racism and the like, I came to the class with an open mind. Unfortunately, most students coming from public education (myself included in that population) don’t receive education around these topics before entering college. Therefore my capacity to be compassionate with these particular students versus the students I work with in upper division courses, is more accommodating.
A watered-down version of feminism has been sold to mainstream audiences for a long time. From the Spice Girls’ manufactured, consumer-driven concoction of girl power to Sheryl Sandberg’s recent success with Lean In, a book that prides itself on similar girl power sentiments but within the context of the workplace, feminism has manifested in many shapes and forms for a while now. Feminism has even entered the political realm citing the fierce chants of Mama Grizzlies lead by none other than former Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin.
So of course, when these depictions of feminism are mass-produced and plastered all over the mainstream arena, it’s very easy for one to claim being a feminist. Kind of. Gender equality for all? Of course! Freedom for women to make choices over their career paths? You bet! But feminism is much more complex than simply choosing what careers to pursue, or isolating gender issues; likewise, female empowerment is more than just wearing a girl power shirt, or singing “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.” Feminism is not just about gender equality. Feminism is also about inclusivity of ALL oppressions. The most accurate and I think, well-written definition of feminism is from scholar bell hooks. She states that feminism is, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” The oppression part is where, I think, most people forget about being a feminist. Being a feminist means that you’re an advocate for combatting against all types of oppression, and that you’re aware of how oppressions intersect. For example, if you are a gender rights activist, this means you’re also a racial justice activist — just like we ourselves cannot take apart our social location (in terms of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, nationality, etc., etc.) we also cannot take apart our oppressions.
In response to the handful of white female feminist students in the class that claimed feminist ideals but were hesitant to claim the label, I can understand their reluctance. They’re in a RACE and social justice course, so the lens of feminism will be through the POC perspective. For these students it’s one thing to fight for gender equality, but it’s another thing to understand who or what you’re actually fighting for — that actually takes a lot more critical thinking.
So here are my recommendations for you, white female feminists, to be a better ally to us women of color feminists and to understand a more complex version of feminism:
1. Recognize and own your own privileges. We can’t even begin to have a conversation on equality and oppression when you are unable to see your own privileges for being a white person in this society. I encountered one student in the class that refused to believe that she wasn’t a victim of racism, because of the fact that she had previously lived in a predominantly POC neighborhood and was constantly called “white trash.” As a reminder, racism has everything to do with power — therefore, even though this experience is a very valid one, it doesn’t invoke the same elements of racism than if the roles had been reversed. I believe her experience is more related to discrimination because it is an act that everyone can participate in, whether you’re a POC or white. Though this student was discriminated for being white in her former POC neighborhood, it doesn’t change the fact that once she steps out of the neighborhood, she is met with the normalcy of being white everywhere else.
2. Listen to people of color. It’s quite easy for white people to stay within their comfort zone and stick to listening to white people talk about racism. It’s what you know, I get that. But though those white activists are helpful and are allies to the movement against racism, in order to have a complete and full analysis of racism, you still have to read or listen to POC race activists. One student was very adamant about learning from white scholars that studied race and racism, and in fact, preferred that we brought up articles written by those scholars, to showcase a more diverse array of voices. In her opinion, how could a teaching team of POCs teach white students what it means to be an ally? When you listen to stories of oppression directly from POCs or read their scholarly work, you gain a more nuanced idea of the complexity of racism.
3. Interrupt oppression. Being an ally is a multi-dimensional task. Along with the stated recommendations above, being an effective ally is also about taking a stand against racism. When we as feminists see gender discrimination at play, we say something about it, right? Let’s do the same thing when we see racism. When you hear a racist joke, ask the person their reasoning behind telling the joke. When someone makes a racist comment, say something. If women of color need the space to speak, your show of solidarity is to remain quiet. One thing is for sure, women of color do not need white women to speak on their behalf or to make the interpretations of their experiences without the consultation of a woman of color. On the other hand, I also see the influence that can come from a white woman talking about women of color issues, especially to other white people.
There’s been a few times that I have witnessed white women take a stand against racism and each time I gained hope for the change that we can instill in all people. I was moved by their passion and their courage to interrupt oppression as it was taking place. We need more of that.
I know that developmentally, the white female students in the race and social justice course are still forming the critical consciousness around race and oppression. I have to be compassionate and cognizant of that. But I do hope that this brief list can be used as a foundation for what white feminists can begin to integrate into their anti-oppression work. We, as women of color, are counting on your allyship.