On Race and Feminism

3 Mar

In the online fallout of The Onion’s vile tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, one fact has become abundantly, dismayingly clear:

White feminists have a hard time talking about race.

And we have a hard time talking about the fact that we have a hard time talking about race.

Jessica Luther has a fantastic post up over on Shakesville about the lack of white feminists decrying what happened to Quvenzhané. And while I think that what she wrote is perfect and spot on and everyone should go read it right now, what I find truly fascinating is the weird backlash that she’s received from other white feminists.

It was the same backlash I saw on Twitter the other day when @graceishuman called out white feminists for not defending Quvenzhané.

That backlash? A whole bunch of white feminists explaining why they, personally, chose not to write about it. And I’m sure that they had some spectacularly good reasons (I’m not even being sarcastic), but that’s not what this about. Not by a long shot.

I have actually never seen so many people miss the point of something all at the same time.

What this is about is the lack of intersectionality in feminism. Specifically, it’s about the fact the women of colour do not feel that they are represented or heard within the feminist movement. As Kirsten West Savali wrote for Clutch, it can feel like the feminist movement encourages women of colour to,

” … shrug off our Blackness for the greater feminist good; the end result being a contemporary plantation tableau defined by Ole Miss and Mammie slaying the patriarchal dragon while the issues of racism and classism are hidden behind the veil of  “progress.”  And while this scenario is about as feel-good as The Help, expanding white privilege — feminist or otherwise — is not equality.”

So how the fuck did it ever get to this?

Is it because we (white feminists) feel that racism is an entirely separate issue from feminism? 

Most white feminists that I know would answer that no, of course it’s not, in the same way that homophobia, fatphobia and transphobia are not separate issues either. They would readily admit that women of colour experience misogyny in ways that white women do not. They would say that of course they care about racism.

But these same women, in their own writing, mainly stick to topics that specifically affect them or women like them. They very rarely address issues that are faced only (or mostly) by women of colour. They almost never talk about racism within the feminist movement. Which is funny, considering the racist history of our movement; shouldn’t this be something that we still talk about, all the time?

Is it because we worry that we’ll be co-opting women of colour when we speak out against something like what happened to Quvenzhané? Is it because we’re worried about making a misstep, about somehow accidentally being racist in our fight against racism? 

I would wager that the answer to this is yes, yes and yes. I’ve heard this same argument from several women as explanation of why they didn’t speak out against The Onion, or why they primarily focussed on the misogynist aspect of The Onion’s tweet and not the racist aspect. White feminists mentioned again and a again that they felt that women of colour should take the lead in this discussion, the rationalization being that white women speaking for others’ experiences was, in itself, a racist act.

And yeah, I guess if you’re a white feminist speaking for women of colour, that’s racist, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t call out racism when you see it. Like, fuck, I don’t want men speaking for me, but I sure as hell do want them to stand up against sexism. We complain so often about having to educate men with regards to feminism, and yet we (white feminists) do so little to educate ourselves when it comes to racial issues.

We make comments like, Well, I don’t even know what to call them, like do you say black or Black or women of colour or Women of Colour or minority or non-white or what? I don’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing.

We make comments like, They can write about the issues they face, and I can write about the issues I face. What’s wrong with that?

We make comments like, I thought we were all in this together.

For a group of people who are so hell-bent on (rightfully) pointing out male privilege, we sure as hell don’t like to be reminded of our white privilege, do we?

Which brings me to my next point …

Is it because we don’t want to admit that, as white women, while we do face a lot of overt and insidiously subtle misogyny in our day-to-day life, we face less barriers than women of colour do?

Privilege is comfortable. Privilege is easy. Privilege is invisible and difficult to quantify, facts that make us comfortable ignoring the fact that we benefit from it.

Privilege lead to write a post the other day that I felt was clever and insightful but, as others pointed out, was in several ways flawed and problematic.

I have a lot of privilege, white privilege, cis-privilege, thin-privilege, but it’s easier for me to talk about the privilege that I don’t have. I suspect that the same is true for many other women.

Being reminded of privilege makes people defensive – especially when those same people are complaining about the oppression that they face as women. There’s a tendency within feminism to want to gloss over racial issues and say, Well, first let’s fight against the problems that ALL women face, and THEN we can talk about racism, and I think that feels okay to a lot of us because in a fucked up way it feels like equality. In reality, though, it’s not equality at all – it’s asking women of colour to do work that will especially benefit white women, and then having those white women turn around and refuse to address the additional challenges faced by non-white women.

I think that another issue at play is that it can be hard to view yourself as both the oppressed and the oppressor. But the fact is that we do participate in the oppression of others, and our reluctance to examine that is pretty fucked up. Like, white feminists are perfectly articulate about how privilege works when they’re talking about male privilege, but they seem to plead ignorance pretty quickly when they’re reminded of the privilege that’s associated with their skin tone.

So what do we do about all of this?

Well, first of all, we fucking sit up and pay attention when women of colour tell us that they feel that we dropped the ball on this one. Because you know what?

A) They know what they’re talking about, and

B) They’re right

And then, after we admit that we fucked up, we talk about it. We talk about race until we’re blue in the face. Because pretending that this isn’t happening isn’t doing anyone any favours, and continuing to ignore the racial issues within the feminist movement is only going to serve to further divide us.

Finally, we need to change how things are structured in order to see real equality. We need to give more platforms to women of colour. We need to be more willing to listen to what they have to say. We need to be willing to be called out on our racism. Most of all, though, we need to let women of colour lead the way and let THEM tell us what they want and need in order to do that.

Because reaching down and giving a boost to someone who has less privilege than you do is what real fucking equality looks like.

And to those of you who aren’t interested in doing that, I would ask that you please stop using the word equality. You’re not interested in equality; you’re only interested in benefitting yourself.

I don’t want to just benefit myself. I want my actions to benefit everyone. And right now, I especially want my actions to benefit this kid:


26 Responses to “On Race and Feminism”

  1. Torontonanny March 3, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    Amazing. And I have seen a lot of myself in this – that what I think is me wanting not to co-opt WOC is really me sort of ignoring the issues they face. I need to stop doing that and talk about issues ALL women face – including WOC. Thank you for this.

    • bellejarblog March 4, 2013 at 2:18 am #

      I think it’s tricky, because there’s this sense that, oh, once we defeat the patriarchy (or however you want to phrase it), racism will end too! So the idea that’s put forth is, “Let’s only talk/do things/whatever that will benefit ALL women, and maybe LATER we can address the additional issues faced by women of colour, IF those issues still exist.”

      Privilege is fucked up.

  2. Britni March 3, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    I have been trying to challenge myself to be a better ally to women of color and to really examine the intersectionality of my feminism lately. I was one of those people that shied away from talking about race, not because I didn’t think it was my problem, but I didn’t want to speak for women of color or end up being super ignorant without realizing it. My solution has been to start listening to the arguments women of color make, read more about the kind of misogyny experienced by black women, and basically to do my fucking homework. If I can read about white feminism, I sure as hell can read about black feminism. It’s like the learning curve of when I first started identifying a feminist– I read stuff by people that knew more than I did and I learned the language. I’m still working on it.

    • Balancing Jane March 3, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

      I’m trying to do this work, too, and you are doing such a great job of identifying the importance of it and some of the difficulties of it.

      • bellejarblog March 4, 2013 at 2:24 am #

        I’m not sure if you’re responding to Britni or myself, but I’m going to go ahead and say thank you anyway. And then I’m going to say that Britni is awesome, because she is.

      • Balancing Jane March 4, 2013 at 2:53 am #

        I was trying to respond to you (bellejarblog), but once I realized I’d put it in the wrong place, I decided Britni’s comment was also encompassing that hard work and the difficulties. So, both of you, great comments!

    • bellejarblog March 4, 2013 at 2:23 am #

      I’ve also shied away from it. I think I felt (still feel) like I’m not educated enough about the issues, and I’m going to screw it up. And sometimes I do screw up! But I keep telling myself that that’s okay, it’s bound to happen.

      I would rather be like a dude who speaks out against misogyny and does a bad job of it but learns from that experience, than a dude who says nothing, you know?

      I need to start doing my homework too. Do you have anything awesome you recommend?

      • Balancing Jane March 4, 2013 at 2:57 am #

        I am by no means an expert on this topic, but the websites where I find myself getting a lot of perspective on racial issues are Racialicious (http://www.racialicious.com), Clutch (http://www.clutchmagazine.com), and My Brown Baby (http://mybrownbaby.com).

      • Britni March 4, 2013 at 4:02 am #

        I second all of the recommendations from Balancing Jane. I’ll add that following @graceishuman on Twitter has been super helpful and eye-opening. Melissa Harris-Perry does some great commentary on her show at times, too. Even though they’re dudes, following Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) has been great, and also Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith). Jay Smooth does great commentary on stuff, too (@jsmooth995, http://www.illdoctrine.com/)

      • Britni March 4, 2013 at 4:06 am #

        Oh, and I also read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and am currently reading Arn’t I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White to get some background on slavery in America. I’d also like to read some bell hooks.

      • Britni March 4, 2013 at 4:09 am #

        Sorry, last one I swear! @KimberlyNFoster is a good follow, too.

  3. Laura March 4, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    “I don’t want to just benefit myself. I want my actions to benefit everyone.”

    I have to admit, I LOL’d.

    You keep up the brave fight defending movie stars from the oppressive satirical news industry. Is this a spec article for the Onion? I honestly can’t tell.

    • Britni March 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

      What’s the point in being a dick? If you don’t like what Anne’s writing, don’t read it.

      • bellejarblog March 4, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

        Oh don’t mind her. She’s just my troll. I think she lives under a bridge nearby? It’s kind of nice to have one consistent troll. I always know she’ll come out with laughably ridiculous stuff. One time she told me that I hate rape victims!

      • Laura March 4, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

        You were attacking a rape victim. Seemed logical that you might have some hatred there. Of course ‘Anne’ doesn’t worry about criticism. You can’t be a self-righteous, man-hating unemployed, undereducated, quasi-literate victim of perpetual outrage and absorb feedback at the same time. It just wouldn’t work.

        There’s a mission to be accomplished people! Just keep whining about how unfair the world is until it gets better. No insight required.

      • bellejarblog March 5, 2013 at 12:56 am #

        I’m unemployed? Huh, that’s news to me. And quasi-literate? I kinda like that. I’m going to put it on my business card.

        For anyone wondering, this is the post where I’m “attacking” a rape victim. I’ll let you decide on your own whether or not that’s what I’m doing: https://bellejarblog.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/id-rather-risk-rape-than-quit-partying-rape-culture-and-the-good-men-project/

    • Jesse McDonald March 6, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

      “movie stars” are effigies by which the oppressive satirical news industry, like the oppressive ANY sort of media industry, can have an impact on a far broader segment of the population than just the specific people upon which it comments directly.

      obviously. sheesh.

      • Jesse McDonald March 6, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

        I like the use of scare quotes around ‘Anne.’ Oh of course so-called ‘Anne’ doesn’t worry about ‘criticism.’

  4. Kari March 4, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Anne – Thanks for this. I was wondering if there was a parsing that comes with this particular c-word where it’s seen more as an insult to women not blacks. But then I realized most of the feminist outrage over the Oscars was about other stuff and even not this particular incident, which is about a *little girl* for crissake. Despicable.

  5. Krissy March 4, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    There was a great interview with the lesbian Jamaican writer Staceyann Chin on Huffington Post the other day that opened my eyes to “Intersectionality” the other day. Basically she addressed the role that economics plays in race and LGBT relations in Jamaica. I spend my whole life puzzling over this and she lays it out in such a clear way. If the feminist monolith wants to be real about what women face in the world and see misogyny for what it is, they need to bring out the poor, minorities, women with disabilities, queers. The less privilege you have the more violent and overt misogyny is.

  6. Joella at Fine and Fair March 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    I remember a similar conversation coming up on a blog (written by a WOC) about Beyonce breastfeeding, that drew attention to Beyonce’s blackness and how her NIP was not just a win for nursing mothers, it was, more importantly, a win for black nursing women. (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the racial disparity in rates of breast feeding.) Anyway, a bunch of white women were whining that if they would have brought up her race, they would have been seen as racist, and they just can win, jeez.

    I commented to the effect that as white women, it was our job to shut up and listen and learn when WOC come right out and tell us what’s up. That we have to be brave and try to talk about these issues, even though they can be challenging, and uncomfortable, and we are likely to misstep. Then we have to be willing to accept, and even INVITE criticism, so that we can, you know, learn, and do better next time.

    TL;DR: WORD!

  7. Quinn March 6, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    What? I don’t understand. What should i call a “person of color?”? Aren’t we all Of Color?

    Why don’t we just call them people? Why do we feel that if someone isn’t like us, we have to figure out what words to attach to them? When “human being” does quite nicely. Of course some races are more privileged than others. You’d have to have been living under a rock to not see that. But what does that have to do with me? People are just people to me. I stand up for someone if they’re being treated unfairly and i don’t care if they’re black, white or purple.

    Being forced to feel guilty for something you don’t understand, didn’t do and didn’t even have a hand in is a great way to foster serious resentment and perpetuate the problem, not solve it.

    I applaud the efforts of people to stand up against injustice, whether that injustice affects you directly or not. But WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT CHILD WAS NOT RACISM. It was mean and nasty. But nobody said that to her because she was black. Some people mistakenly think that. Because she is black. I’m not saying you fall into this category and you’re clearly not a racist or hateful person. But… I’m curious as to why you immediately made this a racial issue?

    You say a very important thing and i’ll paraphrase because i don’t feel like scrolling. “I don’t want to wind up being racist in trying to fight racism”. It’s tricky.. there is no such thing, in my experience, as racists and non-racists. We all have our racist moments. Some of us more than others and many of us when we’re just trying to bridge the gap that racism has caused. Like this blog entry.

    Look.. I’m happy that you’re willing to stand up for women “Of Color” – seriously appreciate that. But hand someone a hammer and all they see is nails.. or hand someone a black child who has been insulted and immediately they see racism. Where there was clearly no racism at work.

    Unless i missed a whole huge chunk of this story..

  8. Ldyvet March 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    Response to Quinn, I do think you may have missed the point. White feminist lack of outrage ,defense or support for the child is the problem. That is what is seen as racist. Compare this to the reaction to the “slut” comment from Limbaugh.

  9. Susan from Aus May 24, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    Perhaps……. We should be getting on the ‘equality’ bandwagon and standing up for that, rather than such focus on the not un-wonderful ideologies for women’s rights, coloured persons rights, religious rights etc etc which are kind of ( even if they don’t mean to be) exclusive of some other persons rights. When we truly ALL begin to see all people as having the individual right to live and breathe and enjoy and prosper in their time on this planet, then maybe we will make some inroads into living peacefully together. The truth is: in our antiquated patriarchal-rules derived society, women are victims ( prey ), but not the only victims, children are victims, but not the only victims, coloured people are victims, but not the only victims …… This list goes on. Unthinking ‘people’ do unspeakable things to other people every day. Perhaps if we all focused on feeling compassion and a degree of understanding for every person we encounter every day, to try and see thru the stereotypes and treat each and every person we encounter as an individual worth consideration and respect, then maybe we will enable everyone to rise to a level of equality, equal opportunity, the opportunity to live their own lives and to do so without fear of traditional and ridiculous prejudice. maybe then the minority who habitually commit rape, oppression, murder and other atrocities against those unable to defend themselves, and those who cover it up will be dealt with more appropriately and cast down and out from their positions of privilege, power and other protection within our society. I live the dream!


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