This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2015

The trouble with (white) feminism

Hana Shafi

Illustration by Alisha Davidson

Illustration by Alisha Davidson

Mainstream white feminism preaches a privileged, exclusive, saviour-based model. And it’s time for it to go

MY FIRST INTRODUCTION TO FEMINISM was through Tumblr. At 17, I opened an account, and began the search for feminist blogs. As I tumbled through, I landed on the same images and topics: body hair growth, sexual liberation, pastel-coloured hair, flowers photoshopped onto women’s bodies—they all seemed to be at the forefront of feminism. Topless protests were the ultimate key to freedom. I was drawn in by the fierce vibrance of it. Yet, as I absorbed it all, I began to realize many of these women weren’t just interested in leg hair and periods. They were interested in saving a certain kind of woman: me.

It made me feel increasingly self-conscious: I wondered whether I did, indeed, need saving. Did I need to rely on white women for “real” freedom, as all those Tumblr posts seemed to suggest? After all, according to mainstream white feminism, I have all the hallmarks of an oppressed brown woman who needs saving. I’m a Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslim woman of colour who can, apparently, only find liberation through the West. I am part of a misunderstood, over-exotified culture, part of the mystical backwards Orient where women are subservient and trapped.

These ideas are both true and untrue. I am a woman facing oppression, from my own culture and from Western culture. But what saved me and liberated me wasn’t the topless protests of FEMEN, or white feminists in flower crowns, but rather other women of colour, who showed, despite all the ideas put forth by white feminism, that they did not need saving from the West. They had saved themselves.

This isn’t, on the whole, an idea that white feminism likes. Through social media sites, in particular Twitter, women of colour have pushed criticisms of white feminism to the forefront of public discourse. With stars such as Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and Lena Dunham acting as the new faces of feminism, feminists of colour have become more and more aware that the mainstream form of feminism just doesn’t represent them—or any other marginalized groups for that matter. And white feminists have largely not taken this criticism well. Today, there is an obvious divide in feminism, and constant tensions within the movement of which feminism is “real” or “fake.”

The question, of course, is: What exactly is white feminism? Is it feminism practiced by exclusively white women? No. While many white women do subscribe to white feminism, they are not the only ones who do. White feminism, essentially, fails to acknowledge the intersections of race and gender. For example: it’s commonly lamented that women—as in all women—make about 77–82 cents for every dollar that a man makes. But that’s only white women. Black and Hispanic women make even less, 69 cents and 60 cents, respectively, for every dollar that a white man makes. While patriarchy is toxic to women, women of colour face the double burden of patriarchy and white supremacy, which have intrinsically throughout history gone hand-in-hand though processes of colonization. And, too often, that fact is ignored.

“White feminism works on the assumption that all women are equally oppressed,” says 23-year-old Kenyan-Canadian Truphena Matunda who is currently studying journalism at Sheridan. “The power structure within white feminism puts the concerns of Western white women before any other group,” Matunda adds, “often leaving issues concerning women of colour out of the conversation completely.”

Black women were the first to identify the idea of intersectional feminism, the term initially coined by academic Kimberlé Crenshaw. “Contemporary feminist and antiracist discourses have failed to consider intersectional identities such as women of colour,” says Crenshaw in her 1989 essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Colour.” Intersectional feminism is a type of feminism that focuses on the multiple oppressions people face: gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, disability, and so on. While the mainstream feminism holds high the heroic actions of North American suffragists, for instance, many black feminists have accurately stressed suffragists were only fighting for the right for white women to vote.

“White feminism dehumanizes racialized women by ignoring and erasing the voice of women of colour,” says Matunda. “It passively reaffirms ideas that whiteness and white opinions are the only ideas that really matter.”

This makes me think not only of my ignored experiences, but also of the women in my family and their erased voices—one of my aunts in particular. She wears hijab and abaya. Conventionally-speaking, herimage could be used as that of the oppressed Muslim women, doomed to a life of subservience to men. But my aunt has been skydiving and has scaled Mount Kilimanjaro; she is an educated woman with a great job, who hiked for days through the English countryside alone. Does she sound oppressed to you?

I think also of my mother. She moved to Canada with no connections and two young children to raise. She was able to make the transition from full-time housewife to full-time managerial work without the network a first- or second- generation Canadian white woman would have. In an unfamiliar country and culture, my mother thrived—not from having a white saviour, but from her own relentless hard work. (And let’s just say that whenever I went to my father asking if I could go to a friend’s house, his first words were always “go ask your mother.”)

And the truth is, in white feminism’s attempt to save women of colour, they have done the opposite. Their pursuit to save women of colour oppresses us further; it erases our lived experiences of racist and sexist discrimination. By insinuating that women of colour need saving, white feminism has undermined our capability to liberate ourselves through our own means. Whenever I see white feminists looking to the Middle East, I wonder why they are forgetting to look at the sexism within communities here. Women here struggle with domestic violence, with rape culture, with discrimination in the job market, with daily microaggressions. Why are we looking across oceans to fight oppression, when oppression is alive and well in Canada?

As someone who comes from both worlds, I often feel torn in two. I have seen and experienced the repressive attitudes of the Middle East, but most of my life has been spent in here, in Canada, nestled within assumed superiority of the West. The sexism I experience on a day-to-day basis is here. I’m not the woman on the cover of your average Orientalist novel, shrouded in the black veil, silhouetted by the orange glow of the desert’s setting sun.

“Before becoming an intersectional feminist I was a white feminist despite my ethnicity,” says Tina Cody, a 22-year-old economics grad student at University of Toronto. Cody is Iranian, Irish, and French- Canadian. “It takes a lot more subtlety and nuance,” she adds, “to recognize the other intersections that impact one’s daily life, like race, sexuality, and ability.” Identifying those other intersections is in the subtleties; it requires looking beyond simplistic ideas of man versus woman.

Like Cody, I also once identified with white feminism. When I first entered the world of feminism, I did believe I was escaping the dangers of the Eastern world, into the more accepting, more vibrant realm of the West. It was like a fairytale; shedding Islamic verses to enter this North American utopia of full women’s equality, mini-skirts, and proud pink banners. The aesthetic itself makes it appealing, a feminism that seems lovely and uncomplicated: men are pushing us down, women must unite and rise up.

But this polarized Western feminist narrative is doomed by its own simplicity. Everywhere, women who face layered oppressions like racism and sexism, for example, realize that women’s equality is a highly complicated matter: one that must look internally within women themselves and ask difficult questions. Do some women have advantages in life that others don’t have? Are some women benefiting from the system that they outwardly seem to be against?

For 16-year-old New York high school student Tasmi Imlak, expressing criticism of white feminism has even resulted in backlash. “As a Twitter user, when voicing my opinions about intersectional feminism, I am often attacked by white feminists,” says Imlak. I know what she means: As much as Twitter has started conversations, it can also shut them down. These online spaces are conflicted with both external harassment from feminists who are not intersectional, as well as internal, personal conflicts.

I have been deeply let down by feminists that I once idolized, only to discover that they have contributed to the erasure of experiences of women of colour. White feminists donning Om earrings and bindis follow me, failing to realize that such cultural appropriation is offensive and utterly toxic to a woman of colour like myself. And when Imlak criticized Emma Watson’s speech on feminism, feeling that it was too male-orientated, she received backlash online from white feminists.

She says she feels her opinions are often undermined because she identifies as a Muslim and a feminist, an idea that many white feminists believe is not valid. “Women of colour have to make their own spaces,” Imlak says, “because we are not valued within white feminism.” When these spaces are formed, they can work well. Angry Women of Color United, a Tumblr blog, is one woman of colour centred space that has succeeded. As the name suggests, it’s meant to be entirely focused on the voices, questions, and concerns of women of colour. White users are welcome to follow the blog, but are asked to not engage in any tone-policing, or send repetitive questions seeking to be educated by the moderators of the blog.

Spaces with other women of colour have helped me progress my ideas of feminism. Intersectional feminists have helped me come to terms with my own conflicted identity, and opened my eyes to the struggles of women who do not have some of the privileges that I do. And, despite the backlash women of colour often face there, social media networks have become valuable. On Twitter, for example, intersectional feminists also form bonds with each other, creating a special cyber space where they can talk about their unique experiences. It shattered my initial unwavering trust in the movement to realize that feminism is a divided and complicated ideology. Internal strife within feminism is rampant, as white heterosexual, cisgender, ablebodied women remain the default of the movement, while women with marginalized identities find their efforts and voices driven to the back.

Yet in some ways, white feminism has its benefits. Like Cody and myself, Matunda also was introduced to feminist ideas through white feminism—an easy and non-threatening way to start immersing oneself in feminism ideology. “Although there is a lot of things I find wrong with white feminism, I do think it is a gateway to feminism,” says Matunda. “I will admit that I did prescribe to white feminism when I started my journey.” Matunda says she landed on her intersectional beliefs after she began to feel frustration with white feminism, and began the search for something better. “I did this because I’m black and I felt ignored.”

The catch is that you have to face the reality of white feminism’s downfalls, and the subsequent disappointment, in order to start branching out into a more intersectional ideology. Intersectional feminists have helped me relieve the inner conflict I faced when I first entered the world of white feminism. They have helped me understand that I don’t have to shed my entire identity to be a perfect feminist, or go against my own culture to be pro-women’s rights. I realize now that my liberation is not necessarily the same as a white woman’s liberation, and that I do not have to be a woman seeking a white saviour, but one who can find freedom for myself and other women of colour.

This is an immensely freeing idea. It is one that shatters default ideas of feminism, and allows me the freedom to practice a feminism that takes into consideration the intricacies of my identity and the particular oppressions I face. Feminism is not a one size fits all concept. White feminism robs women of the choice to tailor their feminism to their needs and lived struggles. Intersectional feminism gives us the opportunity to tweak our feminism to have a personal understanding of our stories. And that is the definition of true liberation and equality.

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