White Self-Proclaimed Feminists: Listen Up

by Joslynn Sanchez and Miranda Gershoni

In 2018, nothing could be more trendy than being ~woke~, especially among many upper-middle class circles of white girls who revere their friends’ wokeness as a kind of Bohemian edge, a character trait similar to that gained when one’s friend spends her summer “saving the children” in Africa. While this newfound talkpiece is fun and hip for some, it’s origins and goals are all too real and inescapable for those being marginalized. As a white woman, I felt it was crucial to explore the issue of how whiteness clouds one of the most important movements in the history of the United States, that for gender equity. So, I teamed up with one of my closest friends and “partners in the revolution” as Joslynn says, who gives her perspective on white feminism from a Mexican American point of view. Together, we dive into how feminism was coopted by the institutionally racist system that’s been controlling our country since it was founded and turned into a movement championing the goals of a still very privileged group while ignoring those most in need.

Let’s start with a clear definition. “White feminism” places white women at the forefront of the feminist movement and disregards the struggles and opinions of women of color. Like all forms of racism in America, this issue is as deep-rooted as it is unnecessary.

Since the beginning of feminism in the United States, women of color have been marginalized by a movement that’s so-called mission is to achieve equality. In fact, in the early 1900s, the very leader of the American suffragist movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, expressed frustration over the 15th amendment based on the fact that white women weren’t given the vote, but “degraded black men” were. Carrie Chapman Catt, the feminist whose efforts were most crucial to the establishment of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, did little to help black women. At a 1913 suffragist parade in Washington D.C., black women were told to walk at the back. Blatant disregard for marginalized women culminated to the point that many refused to associate with the feminist movement because they didn’t believe it stood for true equality. This further alienated women of color and sent the message that, even in reform movements that claimed to champion equal rights, white women were the priority.

It can be difficult for some to recognize the subtle characteristics of white feminism, because, even though institutional racism infiltrates all parts of our society and culture, white people don’t even realize it most of the time, mostly because they reap the benefits. We read about the days of racism and inequality like they ended hundreds of years ago far far away. But what many white Americans fail to recognize is their own privilege. The word “privilege” in this sense doesn’t equate to being wealthy and coming from a caring, attentive family. A lower-income white American still has privilege, even if their socioeconomic status “matches” that of a person of color. Because of the systems put into place by those who founded this country (by committing mass genocide to nonwhite people), people of color are still discriminated against, even if not as overtly as before, and many white people are still denying our role in it. Deep-rooted racism doesn’t stop with feminism.

Nowadays, more people are aware of unjust race relations than ever before, and many are open to create change. Most sensible people would agree that modern feminism should be all-inclusive and represent diverse opinion. This was shown in the Women’s March by the unmistakable unity demonstrated across the world. However, even something seemingly so concrete in its solidarity had its traces of white feminism. Many white protesters attempted to silence indigenous women singing tribal songs because they believed that the women’s march was not the right time or place for prayer. Many signs even predicated being a woman based on having a vagina or other body parts exclusive to the female sex, which completely excluded trans protesters who were also women and deserved to be represented in this march. Many people wondered, whose march was this?

As a 12- year-old feminist I, Joslynn, was hurt to learn that many suffragettes were people who were avid supporters of racism — something that affects me more than sexism ever could. Authors like Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzaldua began to show me that mainstream feminism was white and it was not for me. I continued to read into Xicana feminism and realized that it was what white feminism never could be: intersectional. In her book, The Color of Privilege, Aida Hurtado reveals the key differences between the struggles of white women and women of color. Her studies of initial feminist movements reveal that struggles were initially divided; white women focused on suffrage for themselves, and men of color dominated the fight against racism in order for their status to even be recognized. Both movements completely ignored women of color, which only worsened the struggle on all ends. Xicana feminism is intersectional feminism that specifically uses a Mexican-American identity that is very unique. Many Mexican Americans feel lost in a sort of middle path- not white enough to be American, yet not Mexican enough to be Mexican. This identity differs from that of white feminism due to its inclusiveness of all struggles. Many other intersectional feminist movements have seen much more growth and support, seeing as white feminist movements merely perpetuate the same aggressions they were fighting against.

The blinders of privilege leave many well-meaning white women unaware. On a fundamental level, white women can’t understand many of the struggles women of color face. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women. While white women can expect to earn 78% of what white men earn for the same sort of work, black women can expect to earn 64%. From the time they enter school, girls of color are criminalized. For example, in New York City, black girls made up 28% of the student body population during the 2011–2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up 35% of Boston’s public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled. Black women are disproportionately represented in the rates of murder faced by transgender women. Black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress, but are denied many small business loans and federal contracts.

By definition, feminism focuses on social, political and economic equality for all women and men. That includes black women. The concept of intersectionality strives to make all-inclusiveness a priority, and advocates that social injustices be addressed together, without placing precedence on one group or issue without considering others. To name a few, some of these issues include racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, xenophobia, and classism.

However, an ideology is much different than an active practice. To truly understand intersectional feminism and how you can contribute to it, you must actively participate. You can do this by first recognizing your own privilege as a white person. Yes, even if you’re a woman, you are still privileged. Next, don’t make everything about yourself. Look outside of your comfortable bubble and recognize that there are a world of issues outside of yourself. This is not to minimize the issues many women struggle with today, white or not. But it is important to look outside of the poster image of feminism and look at issues that women of color face that aren’t popularized in mainstream media.

So, before quoting Beyonce’s iconic “Formation” and putting “feminist” in your Instagram bio with a cutesy emoji beside it to convey your “wokeness”, take a step back. Put an end to the racist legacy of white feminism: recognize your own privilege and welcome women of color into your fight for equality. Educate yourself on issues that marginalized women face and fight for their rights too. Recognize the history of the movement and pay your respects to all of the women of color who weren’t celebrated alongside their white counterparts. Don’t limit your advocacy to white women; expand to women of color, indigenous women, trans women, Muslim women, all women. If you’re truly a feminist, in the most fundamental definition of the word, be intersectional.