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Racism Within White Feminist Spaces

Editor’s note: Racism within white feminist spaces, by Mia, originally appeared on Black Feminists Manchester, who’ve given us permission to repost it.  

When we talk about “white feminist spaces,” what we mean is the default mainstream feminism of the UK, Europe and USA. A feminism that considers itself superior to women’s movements throughout the world, using its white privilege to cherry-pick which women (of colour) and oppressions are worthy of attention or rescue, viewed through a myopic authoritative white lens.

White feminism must evolve and integrate with multi cultural societies if it is genuinely concerned with the liberation of all women. Bar a few switched-on individuals, many white feminists (WFs) I have encountered in the UK, view “woman hate” as the only form of oppression requiring eradication for women to be free. I wish that was true.

What many WFs still forget or fail to notice is that women of colour make up the global majority of the women’s population, and they face and challenge multiple oppressions; i.e. racism, classism and sexism, via organised structures supporting capitalism such as colonialism, neo-liberalism and patriarchy amongst others.

What disturbs me more than these systems of corruption destroying women’s lives worldwide are the WFs who profess to be fighting and overthrowing the patriarchy, when in fact they are capitulating with the patriarchy by choosing to ignore, silence and even deny racism.

Yes, that’s right — there are WFs out there who believe racism no longer exists!

Racism towards people of colour is not even close to extinction. To deny or silence racism is racist.

In 2012, I was asked by two WFs what feminist women of colour “want us to do to make feminist spaces more inclusive of women of colour?” It prompted me to review my observations and experiences of WFs in feminist spaces in 2012.

For a WF to deny a woman of colour’s experience of racism by stating her experience of oppression “…was likely to be sexism based and not racism based..” and “…how would she really know the difference?” is racist.

For a WF to roll her eyes and display defensive body language when a woman of colour brings up racism as part of feminist discourse is racist.

To invite women of colour to feminist events to teach majority WF audiences about global women’s struggles and not invite them to discuss job cuts, abortions, body image, rape, sexuality etc., is racist.

To involve women of colour as entertainment or a free catering service at feminist events whilst failing to involve women of colour in visible lead speaker or panel roles is racist.

Labelling a woman of colour “aggressive” and “angry” when she challenges a white woman’s viewpoint in a non-aggressive way is racist.

Bursting into tears and or running away when a woman of colour challenges your racist attitude and behaviour is racist.

Ganging up with other WFs and psychologically bullying a woman of colour because she called out your feminist sisters’ racism is racist.

Ignoring the view point of a woman of colour, then collectively celebrating the same view point copycatted by a WF moments later, is racist.

WFs minimising their activism or suddenly becoming inert when asked to support campaigns and movements predominantly aimed at women of colour is racist.

WFs saying:  “We have plenty of problems of our own in this country, like abortion rights, to deal with!” when asked to support campaigns for women of colour is racist.

WFs dismissing racism by suggesting “racist remarks delivered as flippant comments are not really racist”… is racist.

Demanding to enter black women-only safe spaces because you “want to watch” only to sulk and attempt to justify your rights to enter a black women-only space by stating, “How else are we supposed to understand if you won’t let us watch?!” When the purpose of a black women’s space is explained to you, is racist.

Telling women of colour they are only othering themselves by self organising as black women’s groups is racist.

Playing the white privilege card to justify unintentional displays of racism is transparently racist.

Simply throwing around terms such as “intersectionality,” “white privilege,” and book titles written by black feminists does not eradicate racism or prove your feminism will be intersectional. 

A racist cannot be a true feminist. Racists who claim to be feminists are nothing more than handmaidens of the Patriarchy.

Addressing ALL oppressions faced by women of colour solely within a “global women’s struggles” framework, is the othering of women of colour.

Firstly it seems to have escaped some WF’s attention that all women live “on the globe” including WFs. Secondly, such framing is symptomatic of colonial mindsets. Framing women of colour as one entity outside of whiteness creates invisible boundaries between us. It objectifies women of colour. “Global women’s struggles” tend to focus on Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East and are usually viewed through a white lens. The focus then shifts to a default, dominant, white, feminist perspective of women’s issues in the UK, omitting and dismissing the experiences of women of colour in the UK, Europe and USA.

Although the attempt at inclusion and diversity is recognised, we must remember, the practise of ticking “diversity” boxes only perpetuates othering mentalities, it is a neo-liberal method designed to reinforce racism and other -isms.

Woman hate does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of and influenced by connected oppressions. To challenge woman hate whilst ignoring or supporting racism and other oppressions of equal importance is foolish.

Understanding the purpose of black women spaces and realistic representations of women of colour in feminist spaces is key.

Creating mainstream feminist spaces and campaigns organised and led jointly by women of colour and white women, whilst supporting feminist campaigns of all races is essential.

Racism amongst WFs has been rife for decades. It is prevalent amongst all classes. This piece is not the first to address racist WFs, and until such women actively listen to women of colour and choose to support the women’s movement, rather than corrupt it, this won’t be the last.

Audre Lourde stated:  “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”

Women of colour will never accept racism, especially from WFs.

There will never be liberation of white women without the liberation of women of colour; actively listening to feminist women of colour is a must for WFs. It will create a sisterhood that works more effectively for collective/collaborative radical change.

Women of colour who understand multiple oppressions firsthand are organised and challenging oppressive systems head on, every day. The only feminist option for our white sisters is to stand side by side with black feminist sisters in solidarity and activism, not contempt.

11 replies on “Racism Within White Feminist Spaces”

I’m actually in the process of writing an article about Canada’s history of marginalizing Aboriginal populations after I worked this summer in a province that has a larger number of reserves than where I live. I think this somewhat resonates with this post because part of the key to oppressing any sort of identity or designating someone as an “other” requires ignoring and minimalizing any experiences of racism, sexism, etc. and Canada has attempted to suppress many Aboriginal voices and histories over a number of years, especially those of Aboriginal women.

I really agree and believe that in order to consider yourself a true feminist and indeed activist of any sort, you need to really open your eyes to not only the social privilege you may carry, but ACTIVELY care and attempt to understand someone else’s experiences with oppression, and that means enabling everyone the chance to speak and be heard.

I think a large part of the problem stems from the fact that we are not allowing women of color the opportunity to speak for themselves and it becomes a problem over time. Women of color grow up feeling as if their voices are not respected or valuable and this needs to change.

“WFs saying: ”We have plenty of problems of our own in this country, like abortion rights, to deal with!” when asked to support campaigns for women of colour is racist.”

Its crazy how a similar argument used to justify ending feminism can be turned around and used by and against the people it was meant to hurt in the first place.

I have had a difficult time explaining to many white feminists over the course of my life that in order to confront and resist oppression of women that women of color and our issues and understandings MUST be centered because, as you noted, WoC comprise the vast majority of the world’s women. Feminism that excludes and/or marginalizes WoC (and other women living at intersections such as trans* WoC, disabled women, etc.) I believe really exists for equal opportunity and power to oppress rather than resist oppression.

“There will never be liberation of white women without the liberation of women of colour; actively listening to feminist women of colour is a must for WFs. ” It is tragic that this has to be pointed out.

I do have one thing that I didn’t quite get, which is that “bursting into tears and running away when a woman of colour challenges your racist attitude and behaviour is racist.” If the author says it’s racist, I am not questioning that it is, but I don’t understand why exactly this is racist. Is it because the author believes that people who use this behavior are using it as a tactic rather than a legitimate response? Or is it because the person whose behavior is being challenged wouldn’t respond by shutting down discussion in a conversation that wasn’t related to race? Or is it more broadly that the discussion has been ended unilaterally and the woman of color has been, effectively, silenced (and possibly demonized)?

I can’t speak for the author, but I would definitely suggest googling “white woman tears” or “white women’s tears” as a lot has been written about it.

Speaking personally, the reason I believe this to be racist in the context the author mentioned is because it’s a derailing tactic, intentional or unintentional, that 1) moves the conversation from challenging the problematic, racist behavior/comments of the white woman in question and how those harm WoC to the hurt feelings and “harm” done to the perpetrator of racism and 2) as you said silences women of color while simultaneously villainizing us.

I cannot count how many times I have challenged white women on their racist actions and/or words and, as soon as they turned on the waterworks, suddenly I was the bad guy even if the person I challenged was saying or doing some really harmful, violent, oppressive things.

I feel like it’s similar to an incident I remember from first grade.
I was kneeling and clearing out my desk, and a classmate was walking to her desk and tripped over my feet. She ended up with scratched up knees and hands. And…*I* started crying. Because it hurt *me* and made *me* upset.

The White Women’s Tears thing makes me think of that incident. Except, instead of a six-year-old who hasn’t quite figured out empathy, adult women* are making someone else’s experiences and struggles about their feelings.

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