Dear straight white girls: acknowledge your privileges before you hashtag #feminist on your Instagram
What equality for all women, not just the white straight and cisgendered type, should look like
“It is the nature of privilege to find ever deeper places to hide.”
- Elizabeth Spelman
Dear straight, cisgender, white girls;
I saw you marching in your thousands on January 21st 2017, in cities all over the world, and it really was quite something. I was amongst you, in Paris, shouting and yelling and marching for the rights of women. I sang about solidarité, I angrily sprawled Fuck You Trump in red lipstick across my face, I took a photo and put it onto Instagram to show the world that I publicly reject Trump and his sexism, his continued hatred and disrespect of women, his proud and loud misogyny. And I know you did too. I know the good intentions were there, we care about women and that’s true, but honestly but I have to say, it really is not good enough.
I write this not to belittle your efforts in fighting against the patriarchal oppression, nor am I suggesting that every single white straight cisgender woman who considers herself a feminist has not thought about the way in which sexual inequality, beyond her own understanding, affects women of colour and LGBT women; nor am I saying that she did not march and cry for her gay, trans, black, asian or hispanic sisters. But crying and thinking and considering is not the same as acting, listening and acknowledging. There is a catastrophic difference between feminism and white, heterosexual feminism: mainstream feminism simply does not consider nor account for and listen to the voices of so many. Sexual equality for all women of all skin colours, bodies, races and religions and sexual preferences cannot be achieved if we, the women encompassing the biggest advantages, do not take responsibility, if we do not listen, if we do not see the fact that the reality of oppression we face is nothing compared to that of others. We must acknowledge the privileges that we have and understand that feminism is, and always has been, historically overwhelmingly heterosexual, cisgendered and white-oritentated. If feminism continues to cater uniquely for only one specific group of women; if the women who want to consider themselves as representatives of equality live solipsistically with their eyes shut to the oppression that billions of women suffer and don’t even acknowledge it, this selective feminism that we are taught will define us, and we will continue to exist as part of the problem, not the solution.
Intersectionality, introduced by law scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, is at the bedrock of this thinking and should be embraced by all women who celebrate female equality and emancipation.
The Problem With White girls: Ignoring Women of Colour and Cultural Appropriation
White girls can be scarily remarkable at abandoning the acknowledgement of their own privileges and replacing them with the appropriation of other cultures, and this is nothing new. Braiding your straight caucasian hair without understanding the cultural and historical context as to why historically black women braid and white women do not and should not, owing as a staple of black hair care and cultural esteem, is white ignorance and cruel dismissal of black struggle. Blackness is not an outfit served to white women to consume and discard as they please. The same natural beauty found on the bodies and faces of black women is greedily snatched by the ignorant and disrespectful, never generating the same kind of celebration or social acceptation that is widely offered to white women.
It is true that not every single white woman who lives on planet earth is racially ignorant enough to appropriate culture.
Let’s think about the fact that Kylie Jenner has made almost $9 million from profiting from her cosmetically enlarged lips whilst living in a world where the natural features of black women are mocked. No I don’t have the exact statistics as to whom exactly buys her products, however when she describes her nude lipstick as ‘beige’, diversity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
Or the fact that a staggering 53% of white women voted for Trump, a man who identifies vocally as pro-racist, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-trans, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women, as opposed to just 4% of black women.
Or the fact that Blake Lively, a white princess praised in white magazines as the The Prettiest Most Biggest Girl Crush Ever OMG actually got married on a former slave plantation, and the media dismissed it as one of her life’s ‘controversial moments.’ She quite literally made her marital vows standing on the bones of black women who were raped, oppressed and killed, and no-one uttered a single word.
What does this tell us? It tells us that white women are ignorant. And it’s about time we open our eyes and ears to the women who have been crushed by the racist and sexist pillars of our gloriously white society if we ourselves are going to start crying about oppression.
Oppression That White Women Will Never Understand
White women benefit from a society that has been constructed to celebrate bleached European whiteness.
One of the parts of this discussion is not just the fact that white women are found guilty of exacerbating the oppression of non-white women (see chapter above), but also the fact that they objectively fail to even acknowledge that they’re doing anything wrong. What’s dangerous about this is that we don’t open our eyes wide enough to acknowledge this privilege, yet we will storm blindly into the streets, our fists clenched, shouting about the rights of women and the equality of the sexes, yet the vaginas that are painted so beautifully on the banners we hold high in the sky are all white.
In case you’re still of the perspective that ‘all women are in the same boat’, think about this:
- 88% of books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors, leaving just 12% of books by non-white authors. I’ll leave you to decide out of that percentage how many are women of colour.
- In the US, white women make 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes. Black women make 64 cents, and Latina woman just 53.
- White women who go missing receive 27 times more media coverage than non-white women.
- In Hollywood, 76% of all female characters were white, 13% were black, 4% were Latina, 3% were Asian.
- In the UK, one in eight Pakistani women are asked about marriage and family aspirations in job interviews as opposed to one in thirty white women.
These statistics serve as a miniscule glimpse into the hundreds of thousands of ways in which non-white women are oppressed and then some more. And some more. And some more.
“While White women are members of an oppressed group based on gender, they still experience privilege based on race. This dual oppressor / oppressed identity often becomes a root of tension when White women are challenged to consider their White privilege by Women of Colour.” — Mamta Motwani Accapadi
So, we have an issue with coming to terms with this tension between our own sexual oppression and gender in equality and our social (read social, not sexual) liberation and acceptation. What is it that white women just don’t see? In short, everything. We are blinded by our own advantages.
We are born into a society that nods at our straight hair, our white skin, our thin facial features, and celebrates it respectively. We live in a society that compliments our pale complexions, and if and when we want to buy make-up, the colours span shamefully from paper white to honey beige, with a few shades at the end to satisfy the billions of women who do not qualify as white. We live in a society where nude exists as somewhere between cream and pink, which is funny because I thought nude meant naked, and naked means skin, and skin does not mean just white. The clothing we choose to wear does not serve as proof to others as a symbol of oppression, as it does for women wearing the hijab who are forcibly dictated to by a society that demands the nakedness of their bodies but not the acceptance of their religious autonomous decisions. We live in a society where we didn’t grow up chemically straightening or weaving our natural hair because all of the magazines feature women with long, glossy, European locks, told us that our natural hair is not beautiful, because for us, it hangs limply over our shoulders. Because that is our eurocentric standard of beauty: it is for the thin, the straight and the white. And because of this narrow standard of European beauty, the boundaries between sexuality, gender inequality and race blend respectively.
But it’s not just beauty standards. It’s every standard. Every single piece of journalism we read and digest has fundamentally been produced and verified by a white person. When white women protest against inequality, they are praised and clapped for being ‘open-minded’. Yet often if a black woman does the same, she is ‘radical’. White women live in a society that allows them to express themselves, to speak and to communicate, a privilege which is not enjoyed by women of colour. We earn more, are published more, abused less, attacked less, silenced less, our voices echo louder. Yet, we cry in confrontation to our own advantages and attack non-white women for simply informing us of the privileged reality of our own existences.
It’s no surprise then, given that our standards and expectations are so white, that our education on feminism follows trend. In schools, we teach children about Emmeline Pankhurst, but not about Amy Jacques Garvey. We read Angela Carter, but not Audre Lorde. History remembers and praises the efforts of white, middle-class women, but ignores to the way in which they forced black women to march at the back of the protest. We don’t learn about the fact that due to the absence of the suffragette movement in the southern states of America in the 19th and early 20th century, women in the north used racial slurs to further their ‘cause’ by encouraging the women of the south to protest in order “to balance the vote against black men.”
Race and gender is fundamentally intertwined. In order for white women to embody the role of the feminist, they must look beyond their own whiteness and fight for women of colour.
Femininity seen through the eyes of the straight and the cisgendered
For centuries, sex and gender norms, stereotypes and expectations have been used to oppress women, and still do to this day. Both ‘genders’ have been historically assigned sexual preferences and roles that are socially appropriate, notably for men the heterosexual, successful bread-winner, embodying the active actor, alongside his passive, female counterpart, she must be heterosexual, occupying the home and the children.
How we accept and consider female sexuality is one of the biggest indicators of gender inequality, an issue which affects women of LGBT communities in uniquely oppressive ways that heterosexual women do not appreciate or understand.
Breaking news: lots and lots of women don’t have sex with penises and do not want to
Given that our society that is built by men, for men, and the women under which live as objects constructed for them, the fact that a woman might not be aroused by men whatsover and may find their genitals a bit horrible is just so painfully insulting to the male ego, for these men (read: society) who expect to profit from women and their sexual beings, LGB women are stripped of their right to their sexual needs and sexual expressions, simply because it doesn’t include men. What’s more is that this oppression then continues. LGB women are fetishised as objects beyond that of the objectification of non-LGB women: “If she doesn’t want me, I’ll abuse her right to freedom even more by fetishising her and gazing at her sexuality as something I can benefit from, because the fact that this woman does not exist sexually to please me is unacceptable.”
Violence committed against LGB women is an issue that is overlooked. The UN finds that 23% of non-heterosexual women in the EU have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a non-partner, compared to 5% of heterosexual women. The difference is staggering yet pushed to the bottom of the pile.
“But the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women.” — Audre Lorde
We exist within the bounds of a society that allow more rights, freedoms and power to heterosexual people. LGB women are instantly assigned labels, identities and constructions that heterosexual women simply are not. As a heterosexual woman, your sexuality is not going to affect your job, your safety, your social and close relationships, or the way in which you conduct yourself with someone you love in public. Straight women exist in a world that caters for the heterosexual, and despite some progress being made in representing and accepting gay communities in popular culture, media and society, LGB women simply do not enjoy the same privileges that come with heterosexual liberation.
Protecting Trans Women and Trans Women of Colour
Within the LGBT community, trans women are forced to overcome intense hurdles, their identites as women removed and ignored by both society as an oppressive force but equally by women who do not acknowledge them and their rights to their gender.
Violence against trans women is accelerated, concentrated, intensified, amplified, and worst of all committed in a world that pardons such acts, in comparison to the violence committed against cisgender women. For trans women of colour, they are vulnerable in a society that does not accept their sexual and racial identities, denying their rights to womanhood and exposing them to the most violent forms of misogyny and hatred, forcing them to live through and accept “violence disproportionately to the rest of the community.”
Lexi Adsit, a trans Latina woman, writes:
“Violence is specifically targeted against black and brown women, gender non-conforming folks, and especially trans women of color. Living at the intersection of blackness and browness and transcendence of gender normativity leaves us particularly visible and vulnerable to a lot of violence.”
- 80% of trans students feel unsafe at school because of their gender expression.
- 50% of trans people have been raped or assaulted.
- 41% of trans people have attempted suicide.
- Trans women have a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered, or a 1 in 8 chance for a trans woman of colour.
- Transgender people are 27% more likely to experience hate violence than cisgender people.
Although some progress has been made through the more visual acceptance and acknowledgement of trans communities through popular culture, for example through the roles and activism embodied by individuals such as Chaz Bono on Dancing With The Stars, Laverne Cox’s stunning performance on hit TV show Orange Is The New Black and more recently, the emergence and activism of Caitlyn Jenner. After unveiling her identity to the world on the cover of Vanity Fair, Jenner was hailed as an inspiration to the trans world and was credited for using her personal story as an example as an educator on transsexuality. Whilst she has certainly brought the issue to the attention of mainstream media, her transition is a perfect example of the way in which she herself is ignorant to the privilege of her identity as a wealthy white woman, and is therefore out of touch with the oppression of trans female communities that do not have the same access to services, acceptances, money and privileges that she herself enjoys.
For trans women, access to the most basic of rights is a daily struggle, owing to the gaping absence of social facilities. From healthcare, to jobs, to homes, to simple basic social acceptance, Janet Mock describes trans struggle as a “fight for basic resources”.
Sexuality and gender are fluid terms, and it is not for society to dictate how a woman enjoys, expresses or feels her own womanhood. As oppressed as women are, trans women are tirelessly let down, marginalised and rejected by cisgendered feminists, as seen by Germaine Greer, the ‘feminist’ writer, who referred to trans women as “ghastly parodies” in the grip of a “delusion”.
This violence and abuse from the lungs of women who operate in protective spaces, speaking on behalf of the emancipation of women, is unacceptable. There are no words to describe it. Intolerance and hatred of this level goes against every inch of what feminism really means: inclusion, acceptance, freedom.
Acknowledging privilege, moving away from mainstream feminism and towards intersectionality and supporting all women
I don’t need to repeat the obvious: white straight cisgendered women embody privilege that billions of other non-white, LGBT women do not.
What can we do about it? Step away from white-only, heterosexual-only, cisgender-only feminism and embody intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the notion created by renownded law scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in her paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.”
As written on everydayfeminism, “Intersectionality is not only about confronting more obvious problems like violence and economic inequality. It’s also about allowing people to live more fully in their being and to have a voice in our movements!”
But that’s not all.
In confronting one’s own privilege, we as woman can stand for those whose voices are oppressed, restricted, challenged, silenced. In order to do that, we must acknowledge the access we have that others do not, we must move away from white, straight sensitivity to reality, and use our passion for women to encompass all women.
“Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.” — Audre Lorde
Move away from White Feminism. Read books written by the pioneers of feminism: women of colour. Listen to those whose voices are silenced. Talk to people. If you protest, protest for the rights of all women. Go to Black Lives Matter. Go to Gay Pride. Shout about the rights of others. Because if you don’t, who are you really serving?
This kind of activism is not representative of what feminism truly stands for: feminism is the fundamental equality of all women, not just the white ones.
You cannot fight for equality if you stay neutral in structures that exist to oppress other people.
Your love for women should extend to protect all women and not just the ones who look or act like you.