This Is What I Mean When I Say “White Feminism”

Well this is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

Every single time women of colour talk about “white feminism” or “white feminists” within the context of discussions about the way that the mainstream feminist movement privileges whiteness, we deal with an onslaught of defensive white women insisting that they personally are not like that, and would you please say “some white women” and not make generalizations?

What those women fail to realize is that by making that request, they are exemplifying Mikki Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen battle cry by once again insisting that a conversation created to facilitate discussion about the issues of WoC be centered around the feelings of white women.

Now, I understand the impulse to get defensive. It can be very off-putting to feel attacked for a transgression that you know yourself not to be guilty of. But in the context of social justice and movement building, if you’re feeling attacked, it probably means you’re having your privilege challenged, not that you are a bad person. As I always say, “If it doesn’t apply to you, then it’s not about you. If it’s not about you, then don’t take it personally.” Being a good ally means recognizing that sometimes your input is not needed or wanted, and that it’s incredibly inappropriate to demand that a marginalized group (in this case, WoC within the feminist movement) restructure a conversation that is happening to serve their needs in a way that is more “comfortable” for the very people they are mobilizing against. That is the very definition of flexing one’s privilege.

To that end, let’s talk about the term “white feminism.” I even had a fun little diagram* made to help explain myself. (H/T to PSF) But before I continue, I want to be very clear that everything in the next few paragraphs is my personal interpretation of this term and is an explanation of the way that I personally use it. I cannot and do not speak for other women of colour on this issue.

A venn diagram outlining how white women, women of color, and men intersect with the descriptions White Feminists, Feminism 101, and those against or neutral towards feminism as defined in the article.
Diagram created by Paranoid Shiska Feminista

“White feminism” does not mean every white woman, everywhere, who happens to identify as feminist. It also doesn’t mean that every “white feminist” identifies as white. I see “white feminism” as a specific set of single-issue, non-intersectional, superficial feminist practices. It is the feminism we understand as mainstream; the feminism obsessed with body hair, high heels, makeup, and changing your married name. It is the feminism you probably first learned. “White feminism” is the feminism that doesn’t understand western privilege or cultural context. It is the feminism that doesn’t consider race as a factor in the struggle for equality.

White feminism is a set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of colour. It is “one size-fits all” feminism, where middle class white women are the mould that others must fit. It is a method of practicing feminism, not an indictment of every individual white feminist, everywhere, always.

When I talk about “white feminism,” I’m talking about the feminism that misappropriates womanist thinkers like Audre Lorde to declare that keeping white women’s racism in check is “bashing.” I’m talking about the feminism that cheekily denounces “twitter feminism” as useless, without considering that twitter is the main medium through which less economically privileged women (usually women of colour) can put their feminism into practice and gain access to and engage with like-minded women. I’m talking about the feminism that publishes an article advocating for forced sterilization, completely disregarding the way in which forced sterilization was used as a tool of genocide against black and native women. I’m talking about the feminism that thought holding a writer’s retreat at a former slave plantation was a swell idea. I’m talking about the feminism that throws women of colour under the bus in the quest for body diversity and acceptance. I’m talking about the feminism that thinks barging into a Maasai community and “breaking barriers” is feminist, disregarding the work that actual Maasai women are doing to help achieve equality on their own terms, and obliviously parading its class privilege along the way. I’m talking about the feminism that insists that “Muslim women need saving” and refuses to acknowledge that cultural differences mean different, culturally specific approaches to feminism and equality. I’m talking about the feminism that thinks not “leaning in” is the only thing standing between women and economic success. I’m talking about the feminism that defends The Onion when it calls a little black girl a “cunt.” I’m talking about the feminism that celebrates Tina Fey, Lily Allen, and Lena Dunham, but tears down Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Rihanna. I’m talking about the feminism that pats itself on the back, but doesn’t apologize after supporting a known abuser of WoC feminists who confesses to his transgressions. I’m talking about the feminism that did all these things in the space of one year.

I’m talking about the feminism that disregards the fact that whiteness is a privilege that is not afforded to all women.

As Thought Catalog’s Chelsea Fagan succinctly puts it:

I know that some of the feminists on this website have build their whole identity/self-worth/value around being The Biggest Victim, but get a fucking grip and recognize how good we have it in this world. Sometimes you are going to be slighted because you are a woman, but it will never be because you are a WHITE woman, and we just have to accept the fact that this is a slice of the Blame It On The Man Pie we do not get to take. UGH.

When I talk about “white feminists,” I’m talking about the people who fall into the darkest portions of the venn diagram above, and only those people. If you know that as a feminist your beliefs fall into the middle portion of those little coloured circles, then keep it to yourself. By insisting we explicitly redeem you personally whenever we talk about a system that disadvantages us, you place yourself firmly into white feminist territory. Every rule has exceptions, but we’d never get anywhere if we had to list every single one whenever the rule was brought up in conversation.

Think you’re the exception? Show, don’t tell. You don’t get a cookie for declaring yourself an ally. Yes, “white feminist” is a pejorative term, and I will continue to use it as such. But it’s also a term that means a specific thing, and derailing the community building efforts of WoC in order to declare yourself “one of the good ones” in fact makes you exactly the kind of person we’re pushing against.

*I am more than aware that this diagram does not accurately reflect every single theoretical possibility, and of its mathematically limitations. It is simply meant to be an easily understandable visual representation of my assertion that not every white woman is a “white feminist” and not every “white feminist” identifies as white. It’s purpose is as a reference, not statistical fact.

Originally published on BattyMamzelle

9 thoughts on “This Is What I Mean When I Say “White Feminism””

  1. This is all of the awesome. I’d add that it’s important for white feminists to understand that the logic behind the impulse to say Not All White Feminists is similar to Not All Men. I think we need add the Not All [insert privilege identity] to our list of phrases that indicate that a person needs to think through some oppression/privilege (like “I’m not a _____ist/ic, but . . .”).

  2. It’s really important and awesome that you note that white liberal feminism isn’t just white women practicing feminism, but it’s a way of engaging in so-called feminism that erases women living at intersections or outright oppresses them. Great piece.

  3. This is wonderful. Sharing everywhere because it’s something that should be boosted all the places.

    Unfortunately too many parts of Disabled Feminism fail on the race axis and sometimes on the class axis as well. But the reality is, we can’t say we are fighting sexism and/or ableism if we aren’t inclusive of the issues of race and class (and other axis ovbs) and how they interact with them. Basically, TL;DR the disabled feminist community needs to read this too, and not just to appropriate it.

    A couple* of your points are ones Disabled feminists have as problems with abled feminism (sterilization, emphasis on freedom to NOT be pregnant rather than being inclusive of the struggles of those whose access to the ability to parent must be fought for, denigration of alternative/digital forms of activism which have made activism accessible for example) as well. And yeah, there are feminists with disabilities who are Abled Feminists… While it’s good to know we are working on similar things, it’s depressing to see the scope of how exclusive “mainstream” white/abled feminism is.

    * not all, clearly, because different axis and oppression aren’t interchangeable, and even the expressions of the shared ones are different.

  4. Thank you for this article. I started out as a white feminist because that philosophy was my first, limited, exposure to feminism. Thanks to the power of the internet and WoC who are gracious enough to share their experiences and try to educate us, I’m learning that when something makes you squirm (like being labeled a white feminist), you should do some thinking and figure out why. It’s hard to know that sometimes the best way to help is to sit still and listen, but man is it so much harder to have that “oh, no, I’m kind of an asshole sometimes” moment.

  5. Thank you. I totally understand the defensive knee-jerk reaction to protest that we aren’t all shitty, and this is a great explanation of why that’s shitty too. I want to embroider “If it doesn’t apply to you, then it’s not about you. If it’s not about you, then don’t take it personally.” on a pillow or something.

    Also, I feel like an Old because I had to google TERF. I usually just call them radfem scum followed by a string of curses. I hate those fuckers.

  6. Being a good ally means recognizing that sometimes your input is not needed or wanted, and that it’s incredibly inappropriate to demand that a marginalized group (in this case, WoC within the feminist movement) restructure a conversation that is happening to serve their needs in a way that is more “comfortable” for the very people they are mobilizing against.

    Yes, this.

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